Why Garsington Manor was Britain's most scandalous wartime retreat
After Ottoline and Philip Morrell moved to the Oxfordshire manor house in 1915, it became a sensational refuge for conscientious objectors
Fri 25 Jul 2014 19.00 BST First published on Fri 25 Jul 2014 19.00 BST
It has been described variously as "the house of the Ottoline's", a "cesspool of slime", "the setting for a Mozart opera", "Shandygaff Hall", "a Boccaccio court", "a refuge from the storm". One thing is sure: Garsington Manor never lacked either attention or comment during the 14 crowded years it was the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell and her husband, Philip. Rumours proliferated: that Ottoline had dispatched her live-in lover, Bertrand Russell, to a house called Conscience Cottage; that Philip had fathered two illegitimate children in a single summer; that DH Lawrence, one of Garsington's most faithful visitors, had used his latest novel (Women in Love) to mock his aristocratic hostess for treating her guests "like prisoners marshalled for exercise". And had Ottoline (in fact dressed in a perfectly respectable bathing costume) really invited a young man, Duncan Grant, to dive and see that she was quite naked in the dark waters of Garsington fishpond?
The stories thickened, tangling the old Oxfordshire manor house and its hospitable owners within a web of scandal and mockery. One visitor reported that a diseased peacock (in truth, a less than fresh turkey) was imposed upon the guests at a Garsington dinner party. Another (Siegfried Sassoon) paid ungallant homage to Ottoline as an eccentric aristocrat – her height, beaky nose and titian hair would always draw attention – in a satiric account of his hostess wobbling her way down a ladder to greet him in a pair of billowing pink silk bloomers. Mark Gertler, her protege, acquainted Ottoline with the brutal truth about the chattering friends who filled her home. "I am known as a dangerous and designing woman, immoral and unclean," she wrote in January 1918. "Nobody likes me ... "
What was fantasy; what was truth? What were Garsington's inhabitants (some lingered for months, and even years, at Ottoline's expense) ever to make of a woman who talked in deep, drawling tones about the Soul, while enjoying love affairs with Augustus John, Russell, Henry Lamb – and even a handsome young stonemason who worked in her garden? How could Lawrence forgive a hostess whose poorly concealed opinion of his boisterous German wife was that Frieda should be put into a sack and drowned? How could Siegfried Sassoon not laugh when Ottoline presented a handwritten manifesto that solemnly urged him to join them and "to live the noble life: to live freely, recklessly, with clear reason released from convention?"
War, to which both of the Morrells were unanimously opposed from the start, provided Ottoline (pictured) with a cause. Garsington – the beautiful ruined manor house into which the couple moved during the summer of 1915 – provided her with a means of response to that moral issue. In January 1916, following the Military Service Act by which all males between 19 and 41 were required to defend their country, Ottoline and Philip took action. Philip, drawing on his legal training, successfully represented friends such as Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and David Garnett at their tribunals. Ottoline offered Garsington as a farm that would provide employment for the conscientious objectors (farmwork was deemed to be of national importance), pleasantly combined with free hospitality and sympathetic companionship. In wartime England, there would be no refuge to compare with Garsington.
The Morrells worked hard to transform their home into a haven worthy of their friends. Ottoline created a formal garden as dense with colour as a Persian carpet; Philip excavated an oblong fishpond which the couple enclosed with high walls of clipped yew. Inside the house, the entrance hall was painted in grey streaked with pink, like a winter sunset, while the sitting-room's deep red walls were inspired by a recent visit to Bolsover, a ruined castle that was still owned by Ottoline's half-brother, the Duke of Portland. Bathrooms were in short supply. One visitor, David Cecil, wrote that – invited to choose between a bathroom and a statue – Ottoline would always opt for the statue. Beauty, invariably, came before practicality.
Much was expected of a hostess whose wealth – quite inaccurately – was assumed to be prodigious. Lawrence imagined Garsington as "being like the Boccaccio place where they told all the Decamerone", with Ottoline as its gracious president and provider. All he asked was for a converted cottage with a handsome workroom and adjoining bathroom, to be furnished and heated to the standard that his wife, a German baroness, would naturally require. Informed that the Morrells could not afford to gratify his request, an incredulous Lawrence was forced to settle for being a mere guest of the manor.
Lawrence, despite the cruelty of his portrait of Ottoline as Lady Hermione, fell hopelessly in love with Garsington. "My God it breaks my soul," he wrote to Cynthia Asquith from Garsington one soft November day: "this England, these shafted windows, the elm trees, the blue distance ... " Clive Bell, discontentedly settling into the cottage that the Lawrences had rejected (and bitterly resenting the demotion of a Bloomsbury intellectual to the status of a farm worker),, however, had no kind words to say. Ottoline's decor reminded him of a parrot house. Her love affairs, from the viewpoint of one of Bloomsbury's most promiscuous spouses, were pathetic and outrageous.
Strachey, one of the chief purveyors of malicious gossip about life at Garsington, had a more complex attitude. Ottoline's descriptions of the paradise that awaited him were intoxicating. "I imagine wonders," he told her on 8 June 1915: "ponds, statues, yew hedges, gold paint … you needn't be afraid of my critical eye." Arriving for the first of many lengthy stays, Strachey changed his tune. To Ottoline, he trilled that "only the tongues of angels" could convey his gratitude and joy; to friends – writing from the comfortable first-floor bedroom which was reserved solely for his personal use – he grumbled about detestable guests, abysmal food, hateful parlour games and brainless hosts. ("They're so stupid, so painfully stupid ... ")
Why, then, did he visit Garsington so frequently, and for so long, inquired a sincerely puzzled Virginia Woolf. Unable to answer, he redoubled his malice. The honest answer, as with so many of Ottoline's guests from the Bloomsbury circle, was that Strachey felt embarrassed by his indebtedness to a woman for whom he felt, deep down, a genuine affection. Alas, how his intellectual friends would laugh at him! How much easier to allow them to laugh at Morrell. Sassoon's case was different. Invalided home from the front in August 1916, and brought to Garsington by Robbie Ross, he was quick to recognise its charm. "Here I sat, in this perfect bedroom with its old mullioned windows looking across the green forecourt ... Garsington was just about the pleasantest house I had ever stayed in – so pleasant that it wouldn't be safe to think about it when I was back at the front."
Hoping to win Russell's support the following year for his own courageous stand against warfare, Sassoon appealed to Morrell. "It is tremendously fine of you," she encouraged him, before warning him what to expect: "People are sure to say all sorts of foolish things. They always do – nothing of that sort can really tarnish or dim the value and splendour of such a true act."
Morrell's own act of splendour was her heroic creation of Garsington as a haven from the war: Sassoon was there again, walking through the water meadows on 11 November 1918, when the church bells clamoured out the news of peace. She would tell Russell of her confused response: "I feel as if it came and found us all like ghosts looking out from a hill on those devastated fields ... "
The armistice brought an end to Garsington's use as a refuge for objectors. Inadequately supervised by Philip, the farm – it had always struggled to support the house – fell into debt. To live life on the grand scale without money proved, as Ottoline conceded, "damnably difficult". Garsington was sold in 1928. Ottoline seldom mentioned it again. Recalling the house in her memoirs, she described it as "a theatre, where week after week a travelling company would arrive and play their parts ... How much they felt and saw of the beauty of the setting I never knew."
Poor Ottoline. One wishes she could have read the memoirs in which her friends, long after her death in 1938, extolled the benevolent influence of Garsington: a house that combined the unearthly beauty of an opera set with an ease that seemed to belong neither to time nor space. "Soon the party drifted out to the lawn," wrote Juliette Huxley of a summer night that lived on in her memory: there was a full moon, stars in a great still sky and the dark ilex tree brooding like an ancient god. The music floated, powerful and alluring, through the open windows, its rhythm pulsating: one after the other, the guests obeyed the compulsion ... shawls became wings, smoking jackets and ties abandoned to a strange frenzy of leaps and dances by the light of the moon. The goddess of that moon was Ottoline.
• Miranda Seymour is the author of Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale and Noble Endeavours: The Shared Life of Two Countries, England and Germany.
Garsington Manor, in the village of Garsington, near Oxford, England, is a Tudor building, best known as the former home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, the Bloomsbury Group socialite. The house is currently owned by the family of Leonard Ingrams and from 1989 to 2010 was the setting for an annual summer opera season, the Garsington Opera, which relocated to Wormsley Park, the home of Mark Getty near Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire, in 2011.
The manor house was built on land once owned by the son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and at one time had the name "Chaucers". Lady Ottoline and her husband, Philip Morrell, bought the manor house in 1914, at which time it was in a state of disrepair, having been in use as a farmhouse.
They completely restored the house in the 1920s, working with the architect Philip Tilden, and creating landscaped Italian-style gardens. The parterre has 24 square beds with Irish yews at the corners; the Italian garden has a large ornamental pool enclosed by yew hedges and set about with statues; beyond, is a wild garden, with lime-tree avenues, shrubs, a stream and pond.
Garsington became a haven for the Morrells’ friends, including D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, Lytton Strachey, Aldous Huxley, Mark Gertler, and Bertrand Russell. In 1916, they invited conscientious objectors, including Clive Bell and other "Bloomsberries", to come and work on the home farm for the duration of World War I, as civilian Work of National Importance recognised as an alternative to military service . Aldous Huxley spent some time here before he wrote Crome Yellow, a book which contains a ridiculous character obviously intended as a caricature of Lady Ottoline Morrell; she never forgave him. In Confidence a short story by Katherine Mansfield portrays the "wits of Garsington" some four years in advance of "Crome Yellow", and wittier than Huxley according to Mansfield's biographer Antony Alpers. Published in The New Age of 24 May 1917, it was not reprinted until 1984 in Alper's collection of her short stories. Five young gentlemen are having a drawing-room argument, observed by Isobel and Marigold: Aren't men extraordinary says Marigold.
The Morrells moved out in 1928. The house was then owned by Sir John Wheeler-Bennett until it was sold in 1981 to Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams and their family.