All round the country there are many ‘Follies’, buildings constructed for decoration or on the whim of the owner. English gardens might feature a Roman temple or a Chinese temple, a castle tower very often extensively decorated. Close to us there are several at Painshill with a range of The Ruined Abbey, Turkish Tent, Gothic Temple and Tower and Crystal Grotto. All these follies gave amusement to the owner and perhaps over the years have convinced some of their historical value.
Mrs Greville was an amazing character with a humble childhood yet achieving a unique place in Edwardian society. What is also unique is that with all the wealth she acquired she still always seemed to have the ability to understand society and its actual values, she had a unique insight into the real upper classes.
At Polesden Lacey so often visitors are startled by the fact that the house is really only around 100 years old. They visit it is as one of the ancient grandiose mansions of the eighteenth century. It is in my memory (2001–5) that introductory talks were given by a member of staff from the stairway saying that the house was built by Cubitt in 1822. In fact the house was almost totally rebuilt in 1904 with a just few older features retained (the columns). At that time it was very plain inside and undecorated.
The house as we know it is almost entirely due to Mrs Greville. She might well have wanted a palace to entertain her guests but Polesden Lacey was not like that. What should Mrs Greville do? She decided to make it look like a palace with a few extra features thrown in. Using the designers of the Ritz she set out to suit her purpose.
One aging feature is to fit oak panelling on all the walls to take away the modern painted walls. The entrance hall needs the same oaken face and there is an old London church with a Wren reredos that could be used. The ceilings are all square so these need fitting with extensive plasterwork all nicely curved. The square dining room in the front needs work to make its ends look curved. There are no money concerns so every possible work of art can be acquired in terms of pictures, urns, objet d’art and so on.
For the ultimate addition – how about an all gold room which would make a maharajah feel comfortable? A magnificent candelabra to hang at the centre. The walls are covered with plasterwork bought from an Italian palace.
So is Polesden Lacey really nothing more that Mrs Greville’s Folly? As a building it has no historical value. It was constructed to give pleasure to Mrs Greville. However it did play its part in history in being one of the great houses for social entertainment in the 1900-1930 period. Also because of the sheer quality of her possessions its contents form a museum.
f it was Mrs Greville’s Folly should we be concerned? She deserves a sneaking admiration for setting it all up. It is all imitation but why should that stop us getting pleasure from it. I like to think of her planning to ‘get one over’ on all those pompous upper classes by setting up her own grand country mansion.