A stitch in time

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER, the author, should not be confused with Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-1875), the American born inventor of a successful version of the sewing machine. By 1862, he had fathered 18 children with several different women. In 1862, Isaac and his second wife, Isabella Eugénie (née Boyer), shifted from the USA to Europe because of his scandalous reputation in the States. They lived in Paris until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Then, they moved to England with their six children. For reasons connected with its mild climate, the family moved to the Torbay area in early 1872. By then, he had already purchased the Fernham Estate in Paignton, next to Torquay.

Oldway Mansion, (Paignton) Torquay

Singer and his family squeezed into Little Oldway, a villa on the estate, which had been built in about 1850. Next, he commissioned the architect George Soudon Bridgman (1839-1925) to help him design his ‘dream house’, the basis for the present grandiose Oldway Mansion, and the neighbouring circular building, the Rotunda. The latter was designed for stabling and as an exercise pavilion. The house was completed by the end of 1875.

What we see today is not what Isaac would have seen when the edifice was completed. Between 1904 and 1907, Paris Singer (1867-1932), one of Isaac and Isabella’s sons, who had bought the mansion from the Singer Trustees in 1893, made major changes to its appearance. He engaged two French men, the garden designer Achille Duchêne (1866 — 1947) and his father Henri, to design his new home, the present Oldway Mansion. His aim was to create an edifice inspired by the Palace of Versailles. The reconstructed (remodelled) mansion is a magnificent imitation of a French palace in the style of that which can be seen at Versailles. It incorporates decorative features copied from notable buildings in France. Its interior, which I was unable to see, is grandiose and includes fine paintings and a reproduction of the Hall of Mirrors.

In 1917, after having had an affair with the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) in 1917, Paris moved to the USA for tax reasons. After having been used for various purposes, Paignton Urban District Council bought the property from the Singer family. Currently, the building is mostly disused apart from a small, but pleasant café. Its formal gardens are well-maintained, but the mansion and the Rotunda are in need of maintenance. Oldway Mansion looks rather like an  abandoned  Russian aristocrat’s palace many years after the Revolution.

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