This oil painting of a country house used to hang in our much humbler family home, from the time Mum inherited it from Auntie in 1971, until her own death 30 years later. Prior to that it had hung on the walls of Derwen, Auntie’s house in Churt, so I have known the painting all my life. As with so many things, however, the painting was just “there”: literally part of the furniture, not something I ever thought to ask Mum about. This blog was partly born of all those unasked and unanswered questions: the ones that you never think to ask until after the only people who could answer them have gone. I wanted to document what I know of our family history before I too have taken these scraps of knowledge and memories to the grave.
As my brothers and I sorted out the contents of our childhood home when it was sold, many such questions arose amongst the boxes and newspaper. This painting, for instance: where was the house, why had the painting been treasured enough to keep? After some discussion we concluded it must be Bentworth Hall in Hampshire, stately home of Auntie’s relatives the Horman-Fisher family. None of us had ever seen it so it seemed a safe assumption; we were not aware of any other stately homes in the family apart from squire Stephen Lane’s Worton Hall in Isleworth, which we knew from Mum’s description to have a grand sweeping staircase at the entrance, which this house didn’t seem to have (More of Squire Lane and Worton Hall here). Another reason for our assumption was that in retirement Mum had written to the then owners of Bentworth to see if they wanted to buy various paintings that had come from there, including a small painting of the Hall itself. This must be it, we concluded.
So, when I arranged to visit the current occupants of Bentworth Hall when I happened to be in the area a few years ago, I took along this painting to show them, along with other bits and pieces of Horman-Fisher history. As soon as we approached the house up the long drive it was clear how wrong we had been: this square brick pile with its stumpy chimneys bore no resemblance to the grand building before us, with its imposing 19th century elegance and tall chimneystacks. This was slightly embarrassing but my hosts seemed to enjoy the other items I had brought.
It was a few more years after this, when I began sorting through the family archives in earnest to write this blog, that I came across the actual painting of Bentworth Hall. It is a simple watercolour on a scrap of torn card, not even framed, but instantly recognisable as the house I had seen in Hampshire:
So that solved one mystery, but left another unanswered. What was the house in the oil painting? For a few more years the picture remained wrapped up and stored somewhere and forgotten about, ending up eventually with me. Even then it stayed in its wrapping as I had no room for another painting on my wall and it meant little to me, although, hoarder that I am, I was still loathe to part with it.
Then 2 weeks ago, Brother 1 and his wife came to visit me for his 60th birthday. We spent a pleasant day trawling through old family photographs and ephemera. Looking at some of the oldest photographs of Auntie’s Fry family cousins, my brother suddenly recognised the house in these photos:
A colour tinted version confirmed it:
The unsigned painting may have been the work of Elsie’s mother Margaret (nee Horman-Fisher), as she was, like many ladies of her time and class, an accomplished artist; you can see more of her work on display here in the Usmeum.
I am grateful to a reader for contacting me when I wrote about about the Frys and Llwyn Derw House in another post. Carol Powell, editor of the History of Mumbles website, knew the house well, having lived nearby for many years. Sadly it has now been demolished to make way for modern housing, but she kindly sent me this photograph of the house as she knew it in the 1980s:
I gather that Elsie and her 3 sisters enjoyed a very happy childhood there, so I imagine that the house her father later built for her mother (in which I spent so many happy childhood holidays) was named “Derwen” in tribute to the family seat. Ms Powell tells me that the word “Llwyn” in Welsh means grove and ‘Derw’ means oak – so Llwyn Derw = Oak Grove, whilst “Derwen” means oak tree. A fitting symbol of endurance for a family history blog.
I am glad we finally cleared up the mystery of the house in the painting (which is now going up on my wall), and that we hadn’t gone too far wrong in our original guess. Only about 164 miles, and one generation.