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."