The remarkable marquis

WE WERE FORTUNATE that we met a lady who unlocked (specially for us) the parish church of Saint John the Baptist with Our Lady and Saint Laurence in Thaxted, Essex. It was during our recent visit to the town in April 2021, when many churches tended to be kept closed most of the time. We were even luckier because this kind lady spent time with us, showing us the many interesting features within the building. Amongst these she pointed out: a cupboard colourfully painted with an Italian baroque design; an unusual lectern, also richly coloured; a decorative corona suspended from the ceiling of a southern aisle, and another above a figure next to the high altar. She told us that all these objects were made by the Marquis d’Oisy (1880-1959), who used to live in a cottage near Thaxted, an interesting man. My curiosity about the Marquis was aroused and after returning home, I looked for something about him on the Internet and found an informative article about the fellow, written by Julian Litten and published in “Saffron Walden Historical Journal”, issue number 24, Autumn 2012. Mr Litten has also recently published a book about the Marquis, which I have not yet seen.

A painted corona by the Marquis d’Oisy in Thaxted Church

The 37-year-old Marquis arrived in Essex in the summer of 1917. He settled in Plegdon Green, which is close to the present Stansted Airport and just over 4 miles south west of Thaxted. He lived out the rest of his life in Plegdon. He called himself ‘Amand Edouard Ambroise Marie Lowis Etienne Phillipe d’Sant Andre Tournay, Marquis d’Oisy’, and claimed to have been born in Rio de Janeiro. However, the so-called Marquis was neither an aristocrat nor born in South America.

It is most likely that the Marquis was born in Bath (England). Julian Litten’s research suggests that most likely the Marquis was born ‘Ambrose E Merchant’ the son of Ambrose C Merchant, a gasfitter, and his wife Alice Merchant (née Thomas) in Bath. When he grew up, the Marquis often used the name ‘Ambrose Thomas’.  

By 1901, Ambrose Thomas (aka the Marquis) was living at Caldey Priory (near Tenby in Wales) where he was a Benedictine Monk. In 1902, he left the Order and most probably worked as a navvy, digging the Northern Line tunnels for the Underground Electric Railways Company of London. He did not keep this job for long.  Until 1915, when he was working for a church furnishers’ company, Louis Grossé, as a vestment maker at St Saviours Church in London’s Hoxton, his life remains a mystery. It is not impossible that he spent some of the time learning the artistic skills that he was employ later in life.

The cottage that the Marquis moved into in 1917 was part of the estate at Plegdon owned by the silent-film screen actress Irene Rook, whom he could possibly have met if, as Litten suggested, he might have had some employment designing or manufacturing theatrical sets for films. By then, the Marquis was producing decorative wares such as the things he made, which we admired in the church in Thaxted. Litten suggested that Ambrose Thomas might have adopted the seemingly posh name Marquis d’Oisy whilst working at Louis Grossé but cannot be certain of this.

During WW1, there was a shortage of work for the Grossé company. This was probably the reason that the Marquis left in 1917 and came to live rent-free in Irene Rook’s cottage. It is likely that Irene Rook had bought things made by the Marquis and felt sorry for him when he faced unemployment in 1917. On arrival in Plegdon, Litten noted:

“At first, the locals were afeared of him, some even taking him to be a spy, attributing his exotic apparel of long cloak and floppy-brimmed hat as being more French than English. With money being in very short supply, he kept a cow tethered on the green for the sake of its milk, as well as a goat, and he grew edible flowers, fruits and herbs to keep the cost of his groceries down. He also kept two elegant greyhounds, and always slept in the open, whatever the weather, on the first-floor balcony of his cottage. Now that in itself points towards the probability of him having TB.”

Few of those who knew him well after he moved to Essex found it easy to believe that Ambrose was truly aristocratic. The film director Basil Dean (1888-1978), who lived near him, wrote of the Marquis:

“Lady Warwick used to say he came not from any foreign land but from the East End of London. He was a strange creature altogether, very tall and thin, emaciated almost, with a squeaky voice and a chin beard; and obvious homosexual … artist-antiquarian, vegetarian, and decorator – extraordinary of cottage replacements of period furniture to Lady Warwick. We owed to him much of our knowledge of Little Easton Manor’s history, all of our discovery of its foundations, and enthusiastic guidance along the path of its restoration. A passionate student of peasant ways – a folk-artist, you might say …”

The Marquis worked with Conrad Noel (1869-1942), the left-wing vicar of Thaxted (between 1910 and his death), known as the ‘Red Vicar’, about whom I will write in the near future. In 1923, he began making some of the objects that we saw in the church, beginning with the vestment cupboard he decorated with the Italianate motifs. Noel helped the Marquis by commissioning him to paint and/or create the following items as listed by Litten:

“…the lectern, the niche and statue of St Lawrence, the decorative carving on the reredos in the Becket Chapel, and commissioning two painted pewter coronas for the Lady Chapel and one for the statue of Our Lady as well as a band of identical cresting for the High Altar …”

We were shown some of these items by the lady who kindly let us enter the spacious, light-filled Perpendicular-style church, which was mostly built between the 14th and 16th centuries.

As well as his work at Thaxted church, the Marquis did extensive restoration work at Basil Dean’s Little Easton Manor and organised many folkloric pageants both in Essex and in London. Notable amongst the pageants was one organised near Thaxted in 1926 to raise money for the English Folk Dance Society who were trying to build their London headquarters in what was to become Cecil Sharp House (in London’s Regents Park Road). Music for this occasion was provided by the wife of the composer Gustav Holst, herself a composer, Imogen Holst (1907-1984). Gustav had strong associations with Thaxted and Conrad Noel, about which I plan to write. The largest event, arranged by the Marquis, was held at Hatfield House in 1936. With a cast of 600 and lasting 3 hours, the Marquis designed the costumes. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was amongst the audience. In addition to these activities, the Marquis created painted furniture for Heals in London and Sayles in Cambridge.

Irene Rook died in 1958 and left the cottage at Plegdon to the Marquis, who was by then a very far from wealthy man. Desperately short of money, he sold the cottage for a pittance in January 1959. Suffering from prostate cancer, he was put up by his former man servant Bernard Keel in his cottage at Takely, just south of the present Stansted Airport. He died in December 1959.

I have attempted to summarise what is known about the Marquis but omitted many of the fascinating details about this remarkable man’s life, which has been well-researched by Julian Litten, whose book “The Mystery of Marquis D’oisy” was published in late 2015. Had it not been for the superb tour given us by the kind lady who admitted us to the church in Thaxted, we would have most probably remained completely ignorant of the marvellous Marquis.

At home with Adam

IN CASE YOU ARE WONDERING, this piece is not all about me, Adam Robert Yamey. My father, a well-known economist, was all for calling me ‘Adam Smith Yamey’, in honour of the famous Scottish economist and author of “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith (1723-1790), but my mother was against this. My ‘Robert’ might have been chosen because my mother had a brother called Robert, but maybe they chose the name because they knew about a more celebrated Robert, the Scottish  architect and Adam Smith’s contemporary, Robert Adam (1728-1792). Lately, we have visited two buildings whose appearances owe much to Adam the architect. One is Osterley House, west of London, and the other Kenwood House in north London.

Ceiling of Etruscan Room at Osterley

According to a mine of information, “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne (published in 1876), the manor of ‘Osterlee’ belonged to John de Osterlee in the reign of Edward I (lived 1239-1307). Through the years it moved through the hands of men such as John Somerseth (died 1454), Henry Marquis of Exeter (1498-1538), Edward Seymour (Protector Somerset 1500-1552), Augustin Thaier, and then Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579).

Gresham was, according to Thorne, was “… the prince of merchants”. An able financier, he worked on behalf of King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I, and was also the founder of the Royal Exchange in London. In 1857, the economist Henry Dunning Macleod, used Thomas’s surname to name a law of economics, namely ‘bad money drives out good’.  By 1577, Gresham enclosed Osterley Park and constructed a magnificent mansion. Although there are no surviving images of this building, its architectural style can be imagined by looking at the Tudor stable block (c1560) that stands next to the present Osterley House.

After Gresham’s death, the building began to decline even while his widow, Anne (née Ferneley), continued to dwell in it. After her death in 1596 at the age of 75, Osterley House and its grounds were owned by a series of people until about 1713, when the banker Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) bought the property.

Sir Francis left the place to his sons Robert (1674-1721), Francis (1684-1740), and Samuel (1693- 1752). It was the latter’s son, the third Francis Child (1735-1763), who engaged the fashionable architect Robert Adam to make improvements to Osterley House. His was employed in the 1760s to modernise Gresham’s house. The most obvious of Adam’s works can be seen before you enter the house, the neo-classical portico supported by two rows of six Ionic columns that evokes memories of the Propylaeum of the Parthenon in Athens, which Adam might well have known about after his Grand Tour of Europe undertaken between 1755 and 1757, which, incidentally, included a visit to the ruins at Split (now in Croatia). The portico joins two wings of the building that Child inherited.

In addition to the magnificent portico that contrasts with the Tudor brickwork of the rest of the building,  Adam redesigned the entire interior of the building, creating a series of beautifully decorated rooms, most of which have eye-catching ornate ceilings. One room, which does not have a decorated ceiling is the Long Gallery which was used to house some of the large collection of paintings that used to hang in the Child’s London home, which they sold in 1767. Most of these artworks were removed from the house when Lord Jersey gifted the house to the National Trust in 1949, and then lost in a fire. They have been replaced by other fine paintings. Many of the chairs and sofas and other furnishings in the Long Gallery (and other rooms) were designed by Robert Adam, who took great interest in every detail of what he created. The absence of ceiling decorations, it was explained to us, was intentional; the ceiling was left unadorned so that viewers of the paintings were not distracted by decorative features above them. In the other rooms, the ceilings rival other aspects for the viewer’s attention.  From the grand entrance hall onwards, the visitor is faced with a series of rooms that compete for his or her admiration. Amongst these marvels of interior decoration, I was particularly impressed by the Drawing Room that drew inspiration from the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra (destroyed by ISIS in 2009), the Tapestry Room, and the delicately decorated Etruscan Dressing Room. I have singled out these rooms, but the others are also magnificent. Adam’s creations make a visit to Osterley Park a breath-takingly exciting visual experience.

As the crow flies, Kenwood House is ten miles northeast of Osterley House, or about 15 miles by road. Osterley House was completely remodelled by Robert Adam. Beneath his modifications, its structure is basically the Tudor mansion that the Child family purchased. The situation is different at Kenwood.

In 1755, the lawyer and politician William Murray (1705-1793), who was to become First Earl of Mansfield, bought Kenwood House. In 1764, he commissioned Robert Adam to remodel the house, giving him freedom to do it however he wished. Adam did the following (as quoted in www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenwood/history-stories-kenwood/history/):

“… addition of a new entrance on the north front in 1764, which created the existing full-height giant pedimented portico … modernised the existing interiors, notably the entrance hall (1773), Great Stairs and antechamber, and built a new ‘Great Room’ or library (1767–9) for entertaining. The ground-floor rooms on the south front all received Adam’s new decorative schemes. These social spaces for the family included a drawing room, parlour and ‘My Lord’s Dressing Room’ … designed the south front elevation in 1764, but changed it in 1768 in order to insert attic-storey bedrooms.”

So, he added to the existing building rather than working within its original ‘footprint’. The ‘pièce de résistance’ of Adam’s work at Kenwood is without doubt the Library. It must be seen to be believed. Reluctantly, because I was really impressed by his creations at Osterley, this library exceeds the splendour of all the rooms at Osterley.  The South façade of Kenwood is also a successful modification of the building, more effective aesthetically than the portico added to the north side of the house.

Seeing Adam’s Library at Kenwood House is just one of the good reasons to visit the place. The other attractions include the wonderful gardens and the collection of masterpieces of British and European painters that are on display. Including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bols, Turner, Guardi, Reynolds, and many more celebrated artists, the paintings are part of the collection of the Irish businessman and philanthropist, Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927), which he left to the nation following his death.

Those enamoured by the works of Robert Adam must visit the two houses already described, which are open to the public. There is another place in London, Home House in Portman Square, once the home of Sir Anthony Blunt and the Courtauld Institute and now a private members’ club (Home House Club), whose Adam interiors, which I have seen, are also spectacular examples of his creative powers. If you are not fortunate enough to know a member of this club, you will have to satisfy yourself by visiting Kenwood and Osterley Houses, but you will not be disappointed.

The lost city

IN DECEMBER 2005, we spent a Saturday night at a bed and breakfast in a remote spot near Winchelsea in East Sussex. In those days we still had our own car and could stop where we wanted on or even off the route.One of our stopping places was Redhill in Surrey. We wanted to visit its contemporary Roman Catholic church of St Joseph and St Paul’s, but not for religious reasons. The architects, who had designed it, knew that my late uncle WS Rindl, an accomplished structural engineer, was a keen amateur sculptor. They asked him to make some decorative features and a crucifix to adorn the exterior of the church. In addition to the concrete crucifix, my uncle designed and constructed concrete gargoyles to run off rainwater from the roof. Each of these gargoyles is decorated in bas-relief with castings of the tools used by builders and engineers. On one of these drainage spouts there is a representation of what looks as if it were an early rather bulky model of a pocket calculator. The church, completed in 1984, is a lovely example of imaginative 20th century architecture, well worth a detour to see.The rurally located bed and breakfast was housed in a building that was at least 300 years old if not older. The accommodation was comfortable but the breakfast was disappointing. The fried eggs served seemed as if they had been made long before breakfast and kept warm; they were not as fresh as the frost that had coated the surrounding countryside overnight. We made a brief visit to Winchelsea, a place that has always fascinated me. Founded as ‘New Winchelsea’ by King Edward the First in the 13th century, the town was a coastal port, complete with city walls. By the 1520s, what had been a thriving centre of trade declined rapidly because of shifting of the coastline resulting from silting up of its harbour. Apart from some of the town’s mediaeval gateways and the large church of St Thomas the Martyr, it is difficult to imagine that Winchelsea was once a bustling metropolis. The decline of Winchelsea is one of many examples all over the world of how environmental changes can affect the ability of civilisations to thrive. In January 2020, we visited Lakhpat in Kutch, a part of Gujarat in western India. This huge walled city, far greater in size than Winchelsea, was a thriving seaport until the early 19th century when an earthquake caused the sea inlet on which it stood to become transformed into a salty desert. Today, the seven kilometres of intact city walls contain not a city but only a few widely separated dwellings and a Sikh Gurdwara. The church, which dates back to the 13th century, looks large. However, what can be seen today is all that is left of what had once been a far larger cathedral-like building.On the Sunday morning when we entered the church, a service was being held. There was the priest and his congregation of less than eight people, looking a little lost in the huge church. Seeing the three of us entering, he welcomed us, and said in a pleading voice:
“Do stay. Come and join us. You will help swell our numbers.”
This ancient church, although beautiful, was sadly unused in comparison to the modern one we had seen at Redhill.We could not stay for long because we had a prior arrangement to meet our friend Tony at the art deco De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill on Sea. He had invited us to view an exhibition of 20th century furniture being held there. I was amazed to find that many examples of the kind of furniture my parents had bought in the 1950s and 1960s were now regarded as classics of design and commanded high prices at the sale. I remember that some of that furniture was comfortable and some it looked good but was uncomfortable. We revisited Bexhill on Sea recently to see an exhibition of works by the op-art artist Bridget Riley. We stayed in a lovely Airbnb near the pavilion. On this visit, we had time to wander around the town, a paradise for lovers of charity shops that raise money for good causes. Bexhill is also a popular town for retired people to live out the rest of their lives.Our Airbnb was next to one of Bexhill’s numerous charity shops. This particular store, which lay between our accommodation and the Pavilion, specialised in secondhand wheelchairs, walkers, bedpans, and Zimmer frames. I guess that there is a high turnover of such items in the town.