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.