Art and football

MY MOTHER OFTEN TOLD ME that if one did not buy Premium Bonds, there was no chance of winning any prizes. Likewise, if one did not play the Football Pools, promisingly large financial prizes could not be won. The Football Pools is a form of gambling based on trying to predict the results of football (soccer) matches. My mother knew nothing at all about football. So, she paid a monthly fee to let someone else fill in the Pools forms on her behalf. Once, she won about £13 (or was it £30?), thus proving to me and the rest of the family that by participating it was possible to win occasionally. What she did not mention was that she was spending far more on submitting Football Pool forms than she ever recouped in winnings. Her argument was that if she gave up on the Pools, she would miss winning one of the enormous prizes that other folks sometimes collected. One of the biggest Football Pool companies was Littlewoods, which also owned a retail chain. This was once owned by the family of Sir Peter Moores (1932-2016). Some tiny proportion of the money that my mother spent on Littlewoods Pools would have helped Sir Peter to create a fine collection of art. Although my mother did not live long enough to have known that, she would have been pleased because she was a painter and a sculptor during her short adult life.

Sir Peter bought Compton Verney House and its extensive grounds in Warwickshire in 1993. I will relate his role in the history of this estate later. Compton (meaning ‘manor’ or ‘large farm’) Verney was granted to Robert Murdak in 1150. Until 1582, when the manor was taken over by Richard Verney, who died in 1490, it was known as ‘Compton Murdak’. Richard’s grandson, Richard Verney (1465-1527) renamed the estate (and the long-since vanished village near it) ‘Compton Verney’.

The Verneys built a large manor house at Compton Verney in Tudor style in about 1442. In about 1711, George, Baron Willoughby de Broke (1659-1728), a Verney, rebuilt the manor house at Compton Verney. Its designers were the master stone-masons John Townesend (1648-1728), briefly a Mayor of Oxford, and his son William (1676-1739), who worked on several major buildings for the University of Oxford. The baroque edifice they created is what we see today.

My namesake, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), made major alterations to the recently built ‘new’ Compton Verney House. Visitors to the house enter via the magnificent ground floor hall he designed, Splendid as it is, it is easily rivalled by the work he did at Kenwood House in North London. This might be because during the 1950s, the house in Warwickshire was allowed to deteriorate.

The well-maintained grounds of Compton Verney are spectacularly beautiful. They were artfully designed by Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown (1716-1783). Not only did he plant fine trees but he also invented a machine for transporting mature trees in order to transplant them in positions chosen for artistic effect. To achieve the effect that Brown and his patron desired, the new gardens eliminated all traces of an earlier formal garden and a mediaeval chapel that had existed until he began work on the garden in 1768. An obelisk and a few partially submerged gravestones stand on the site of the old chapel.

After WW1, in 1921, The Verney family sold their estate to the soap manufacturer Joseph Watson (1873-1922). After his death, Watson’s son sold Compton Verney to Samuel (a cotton magnate) and Gita (a German opera singer and a Nazi sympathiser) Lamb in 1929. During WW2, the estate was used by the military as a centre for experimenting with smoke-screen camouflage.

After the end of WW2, the estate fell into disrepair. In 1958, Harry Ellard, an industrialist from Wolverhampton, bought Compton Verney but never lived there. The place continued to decay seriously. In 1983, the property developer Christopher Buxton bought the estate, planning to redevelop it as a centre for performing opera. His plans did not materialize. The future of Compton Verney was beginning to look exceedingly bleak. This changed in 1993. For it was in that year that some infinitesimally minute fraction of what my mother spent on Littlewood’s Football Pools helped to save Compton Verney.

In 1964, Sir Peter Moores set up the Peter Moores Foundation, whose aim it was to assist opera, the visual arts, and education. In 1993, the Foundation acquired Compton Verney. A year later, conservation experts began restoring the old house to enable it to become a modern gallery. They also designed a modern annex to serve as an exhibition space as well as to house a collection of British Folk Art and the Marx-Lambert Collections. The gallery was opened to the public in 2004 and the grounds were finally restored in 2016.

The collection of British Folk Art consists of artefacts collected by the art dealer, founder of the Crane-Kalman Gallery, Andras Kalman (1918-2007) and was bought by the Moores Foundation in 1993. The Marx-Lambert Collections, derive their name from Margaret Lambert (1906-1995) and Enid Marx (1902-1998). Unwittingly, most Londoners will be familiar with some of the work created by the designer Enid Marx. She was commissioned to design some of the fabrics that used to cover the seats on the London Underground trains. Lambert was a historian. Lambert and Marx were good friends, who shared an interest in British folk art, which they both collected. It is their collection that can be viewed at Compton Verney.

It was Peter Moore’s love of travelling and collecting artworks that resulted in the fine collection of paintings, sculptures and other artefacts within Compton Verney House and its attached modern gallery annex. His acquisitions fall into four main groups: Northern European (mainly German) paintings and sculpture from the renaissance and earlier periods; British portraits; art from mainly 18th century Naples; and Chinese art. Each group includes works of the highest artistic quality, making a visit to see them at Compton Verney very worthwhile.

Compton Verney also hosts temporary exhibitions. At present (September 2020) until very early January 2021, there is a fine selection of works by Luther’s friend and contemporary, Lucas Cranach the Elder. I have written a little about this elsewhere. In addition to viewing the indoor artworks, the gardens of Compton Verney are a joy to explore. My late mother would have liked seeing Compton Verney, maybe thinking to herself that her involvement with Football Pools had helped to create what the visitor can enjoy today.

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