October 2009 | Photography by Nic Barlow | Tucked in the lee of a wooded scarp, looking down on a valley and beyond, to Wales, Bradley Court stands in its beautiful garden in Gloucestershire, a story of historical harmony and form. Originally a manor house belonging to the Berkeleys of nearby Berkeley Castle, the house was apparently built in l559, the year Elizabeth I was crowned queen of England, if the inscription on the gabled front entrance is to be believed. However, its present owners, the furniture designer Thomas Messel and his wife the artist Pepe Messel, suspect the house may be of an earlier date and that the 1559 inscription relates only to the later addition of the front entrance.
The front is pure sixteenth century with two projecting stair towers. Bradley Court was originally a long, simple, hall house only one room deep. The front door would have originally led into a screen passage with the hall to the west and the pantry and kitchens to the east; this layout is broadly the same today. The two stair turrets lead up to suites of rooms on the upper floor; given the date of the original building, one was probably used as a solar or withdrawing room away from the hubbub of the hall, and the other, at the western end, was devoted to guest accommodations, as it still is.
In the 1780s or 1790s, however, a two-story classical wing was added to the north, consisting of one grand high-ceilinged formal drawing room with a bedroom above. This addition has been attributed to the Gloucestershire architect Anthony Keck, who is also associated with Highgrove, now owned by Prince Charles, and with the reconstruction and addition to Flaxley Abbey in about 1777.
One thing is certain: the way in which the Messels have furnished the house has given it interiors that would be familiar to much earlier owners. For it is primarily furnished with wonderful examples of seventeenth-century oak furniture, that were part of a collection assembled in the 1920s, when there was a resurgence of academic and collecting interest in early English furniture, led by Percy Macquoid (1852-1925) and Margaret Jourdain (c. 1876-1951).
Part of this important collection descended to Thomas Messel. He is the great-grandson of the German-born Ludwig Messel (1847-1915), a wealthy London stockbroker and passionate gardener and collector of exotic plants, who bought Nymans, a modest Regency house and estate in the Sussex Weald, in 1890. Some of the fine Regency furniture from that house is now in the drawing room at Bradley Court.
Ludwig’s son Leonard (1873-1953), whose extraordinary collection of fans is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, married Maude, the artistic daughter of the famous Punch cartoonist and Victorian illustrator Linley Sambourne (1844-1910). Husband and wife both admired the romance of the medieval world and in the 1920s turned Nymans into an approximation of a West Country manor house. They furnished it with carefully assembled oak furniture, tapestries, a collection of arms and armor, and important and beautiful paintings, including one by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). The library contained a world famous collection of botanical books and prints dating back to Roman times.
Leonard and Maude had three children: Linley (1899-1971), the father of Thomas Messel; Anne, Countess of Rosse, a much-photographed society beauty, a famous gardener, and the mother of Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the Earl of Snowdon; and Oliver Messel, the great twentieth-century theater and architectural designer, and a leading exponent of the 1930s taste for the baroque. All these influences are now to be seen at Bradley Court.
“I think my appreciation for beautiful things comes from always being aware of, and living with, lovely possessions,” Thomas Messel says. “Do they rule our lives? To a large extent, yes, we are curators for a time. So we look after them, and one day they will be our son Hal’s responsibility.”
Messel also finds his furniture a great source of inspiration in his work, which is to execute one-of-a-kind furniture using the finest traditional craftsmanship for clients all over the world. “I can look at a piece of furniture and I can be inspired by the shape of it, its period, or the type of wood, but it is also extremely useful to have it in front of you for measurements and for the finish, which is,” he explains, “often quite difficult to visualize without actually seeing a piece.”
In 1947 Nymans burned down and many wonderful things were lost. Linley Messel was left one-third of its remaining contents, the rest going to his brother and sister. The contents of Bradley Court, now essentially represents one-quarter of one-third of what was left, since Linley’s portion was shared out between Thomas and his three siblings. His share still amounted to a great deal of important and interesting furniture and objects.
“You wouldn’t have arranged a house like this sixty or seventy years ago,” says Pepe Messel. She is right. In those days there would have been far more furniture in the rooms, with nests of little objects on every surface rather than one handsome faïence or Chinese blue-and-white porcelain jar. At Bradley Court each object can be seen properly, but the rooms are not minimalist. The house looks much as it might have in the time of Elizabeth I.
“It is just serendipity that we inherited all this oak furniture that goes very well with the house, which really doesn’t need much furniture,” Thomas Messel says. Pepe Messel has added to this rich accretion of antiques; she found the brass baroque chandelier in the hall, for instance, in London. But she notes that paintings “are more my sort of thing because I am an artist. I love the Dutch still life in the drawing room as it is decorative, beautiful, and has great warmth [see Fig. 5].”
She is also very fond of the picture of the young girl with the rabbit that hangs in the hall (see Fig. 6). “It is of one of my great-great-great-grandmothers,” she says. Who painted it? “My cousin who left it to me felt it might be by Peter Lely, but an artist friend had a good look at it and felt the face had been cut out because it seemed to have a line round it. It is beautifully painted but the rabbit is really primitive.” Another explanation might be that the face and shoulders could have been a study, around which, at a later date, the background, the dress, and the rabbit could have been painted by a different artist.
Pepe’s father taught her how to use her eyes. “He was a very observant man,” she says. “He also liked to restore furniture and was particularly fond of mahogany, not so much of oak. He was keen on Gillows and there is a Gillows architect’s desk in the drawing room.”
Everywhere at Bradley Court there are fascinating conjunctions of time, personality, and taste. Looking from what the Messels call the armory, with Japanese, Persian, and European helmets ranged on a fifteenth-century oak trestle (see Fig. 12), through an open door to the Georgian hall reveals a very large Nymphenburg wine cooler given to Anne, Countess of Rosse, by the aesthete Harold Acton (1904-1994). Above it hangs Harry Jonas’s portrait of her.
What do both Messels really love? “The Dutch East Indies cabinet in which Thomas’s grandmother kept all her spices,” Pepe answers (see Fig. 7). “I too love the Dutch East Indies cabinet,” Thomas says, “but I am also very fond of weapons. The weapons here,” he explains, walking into the armory, “mostly came from Nymans, but Hal and I have gone off and bought things at auction. Pepe has been extremely long-suffering about seeing piles of hideous rust arriving.”
And what do the Messels think of the theory that the taste for brown furniture has died? Not a great deal. “Minimalism is so ephemeral,” Thomas says. “I think there will be a full turn.” “Furniture like this,” he says, looking round at the polished pieces arranged in quiet harmony, “has been made for centuries. I only hope these skills will survive because if the minimalist view of things prevails, these important and valuable skills will be gone forever.”
And so will the way of life at Bradley Court, where the best from generations of taste makes a Tudor manor house a beautiful and appropriate contemporary dwelling.
MEREDITH ETHERINGTON-SMITH is a London-based writer who specializes in the fine and decorative arts.