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Polesden Lacey: Mrs Greville's history
Mrs Greville by Carolus-Duran
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National Trust treasure, Polesden Lacey, was once owned by the Edwardian hostess, Mrs Greville. Anthony Greenstreet pieces together her past
With its collection of art and wonderful gardens, Polesden Lacey is a favourite destination for all ages. Besides the obvious attractions, there is a special pleasure to be had by gaining acquaintance with Mrs Greville, its owner from 1906. She was an ambitious Edwardian hostess who chose Polesden Lacey as the ideal place for entertaining and relaxing with friends.
Mrs Greville was born Margaret McEwan in 1863 - the illegitimate daughter of William McEwan MP, Privy Councillor and brewery magnate. Harold Nicolson (the splendid diarist) told James Lees-Milne (another such) that Lady Crewe had told him Margaret McEwan’s mother ‘was the wife of the day-porter at Mr McEwan’s brewery. McEwan “for convenience” put him on night duty’.
From the safe spring-board of her marriage to ‘the reputable, dull Captain Ronnie Greville’ Margaret launched herself as society’s most ambitious and successful hostess for some forty years until her death in 1942.
That this house was a machine for entertaining we can see from the ranks of photographs of esteemed guests scattered about the rooms. Here are house party groups – ambassadors, lords, maharajas, royalty (often Edward VII with his mistress, Mrs Keppel, attending) sitting on a terrace according to a subtle understanding of their rank and importance. In the back row is Mr McEwan, ethereally thin, and looking bemused at the extraordinary triumph of his illegitimate daughter. And in the front row sitting on the right of the principal guest is Mrs Greville – broad and menacing, beneath a large hat and with a lugubrious dog in her ample lap.
There are portraits of Mrs Greville in the house showing a tall, confident woman. One, painted in the year of her marriage, with a happy smile just starting on her face suggests how she married so well. But it is not easy to relate these portraits to the broader, more formidable person in the photographs. What was she really like? Lady Leslie told James Lees-Milne she would rather have an open sewer in her drawing- room than Maggie Greville; and Harold Nicolson asserted ‘she proceeds to dip her little fountain pen filler into pots of oily venom and to squirt this oily mixture at her friends… she is nothing more than a fat slug filled with venom’.
By contrast the writer Osbert Sitwell affirmed, ‘The potency of her character enabled her to infuse her splendid entertainments with a sense of fun that rendered them more memorable even than did their magnificence or the beauty of their setting. …she retained a natural simplicity that inspired her with a certain contempt for the fashionable life in which she nevertheless spent much of her time… As for myself, she was a never-failing friend’.
And there is more to be said for Mrs Greville. She turned her house into a convalescent home for soldiers in the First World War, and bought a Spitfire for Britain in the Second. She was loyal to her servants and tolerant of their failings. James Lees-Milne records that her long-serving house-steward ‘was constantly intoxicated during her grand dinner parties. Once she scribbled him a note from a silver pad “You are drunk. Leave the room immediately”. He swayed down the table and handed the note to Sir John Simon’. She paid the dental bills of the Queen of Spain’s daughter, and left £20,000 to Princess Margaret.
She also let her house to the Princess’s future parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, for their honeymoon and was sorry when they became King and Queen: ‘I was so happy in the days when they used to run in and out of my house as if they were my own children’. But Mrs Greville had no children, and left Polesden Lacey to the National Trust – so now we, too, can run in and out of her house, admire her art collection, and wonder what she was really like.