The White Stuff
In conversation with Arthur Edward Rory Guinness, the 4th Earl of Iveagh, the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the original Arthur Guinness of the 1759 Black Stuff fame, and his wife, the 4th Countess of Iveagh. Or Ned and Clare as they are informally known. Over the last number of years Lord Iveagh has turned round the 22,486 acre estate in Suffolk he inherited aged 21 into the largest working farm in Britain. Over 10,000 acres are given over to producing great quantities of grain, onions and potatoes. Around 4,000 acres are forest – conservation is taken seriously. The Elveden Estate as it’s called is a world of its own, complete with a smart inn and even smarter farm shop. They might be billionaires, but even the Iveagh family have found the 30 bay 70 bedroom Grade II* balustraded, niched, columned, rusticated, quoined and pilastered Elveden Hall a little on the large side. After his father sold the contents in 1984, this palatial barracks of a place was barely lived in again. But plans, they are afoot.
“In fact,” starts Ned, “Elveden Hall has been only used as a permanent Guinness family base for 10 years out of all the time we’ve been here. It was a shooting box. A large shooting box! Apart from films – Eyes Wide Shut and Vanity Fair were shot here – and some special occasions, it sits quietly here.” But it is the graveyard of the 900 year old estate church of St Andrew and St Patrick that best neatly tells the history. Cheek by jowl with the Guinness family plot are the gravestones of the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire and his wife Princess Bamba. What? Here in rural mid Suffolk? Indeed. The first country house was built here in the 1760s by Admiral Keppel whose descendants Alice Keppel and Camilla Parker-Bowles would famously become royal mistresses. The East India Company forced the Punjabi Maharajah to relinquish his territory and the Koh-i-noor diamond after the end of the 2nd Anglo-Sikh War. He bought Elveden in 1863 with the compensation he received. His architect John Norton engulfed the Keppels’ house into a larger 13 bay building which is now the west wing of Elveden Hall.
“Sikhs from around the world visit the graves,” Ned comments. “It was in my great great grandfather’s day that it became two churches. The Maharajah’s successors were disinherited so us Guinnesses, we bought Elveden.” A simple plaque reads: “This church was restored and the north aisle and chancel added by Edward Cecil, 1st Earl of Iveagh, in the years 1904-6. He died on October 7th 1927 aged 80 years and is buried in the north east corner of the churchyard.” Ned explains, “The 1916 bell tower and colonnade were added in memory of Adelaide, his wife, the 1st Countess. It’s a beautiful working church and school. Between 1895 and 1910 my great great grandparents built the estate model village using red brick from our brickworks.”
“Two houses with something special in the middle,” is how Ned succinctly describes Elveden Hall. The Guinnesses spruced up the exterior of the Maharajah’s house and duplicated it on the other side of a porte cochère behind which lies that something special: the Marble Hall. “The decoration of the Indian style room at Queen Victoria’s Osborne House is actually made of plaster. Ours is Carrera marble. The handiwork of 700 craftspeople working on site. We were immune at that stage to financial restrictions,” he smiles. “Although my great great grandfather was still very careful with money too. He recorded what he spent on newspapers.” This architectural aggrandisement isn’t entirely unlike the transformation of Straffan House into the K Club, only several notches up again. “Clare and I were married in the Marble Hall. It makes for a great party! It’s got a sprung dance floor but is a terrible room for echo!” The spectacular galleried domed space, all four storeys of it, is cathedral meets mosque. “It expresses my great great grandparents’ desire for exoticism and plays tribute to Elveden’s history.”
The design of the Marble Hall was inspired by the rooms of the Maharajah’s house. “He wanted to be reminded of the Court of Lahore. The walls and ceilings are ornately decorated between mirrors. His Drawing Room is divided by slender Indian style columns into conversation areas. The cantilevered staircase cost £30,000. The Maharajah was furious as this took up a large portion of his annual allowance. We whitewashed everything, us Guinnesses,” observes Ned, “it does get dark in winter in Suffolk!” Upstairs an enfilade overlooks the driveway: the King’s Bedroom, the Queen’s Bedroom, the Ladies-in-Waiting’s Bedroom. They retain remnants of Edwardian plasterwork and stencilled paint effects. “George V, George VI and Edward VII were frequent guests,” he explains. Mrs Keppel came too. The Royal Family last visited here for a shooting party in 1931.
On the other side of the Marble Hall, the rooms in the west wing reflect “the neoclassicism of my great great grandparents” confirms Ned. “The Boudoir opposite the Dining Room is where ladies congregated while men retired to the Smoking Room. It once held a collection of ecclesiastical themed tapestries. They must have faded as it’s south facing. More recently the Boudoir was the setting of my 30th birthday complete with oyster bar!” The Guinnesses’ architect was William Young. He’d proved his capability by designing the ballroom of Iveagh House, their Dublin City townhouse on St Stephen’s Green, and making alterations to Farmleigh, their County Dublin country house in The Phoenix Park. Practical design at Elveden includes double glazing on the north facing entrance front: sashes placed behind external casements. The 1st Earl asked Caspar Purdon Clarke, director of the V&A and an expert in Indian decoration, to design the Marble Hall to link the new and the old.
“I’ve managed the estate for 23 years. It pays for itself now.” The current Earl and Countess live with their young sons Arthur and Rupert in a rectory on The Elveden Estate. “But Elveden Hall is an enormous work in progress, an unfinished canvas. Our policy is to use the estate team for all restoration work where possible. I love the house but it’s a big challenge. You can’t see the fruits of our work so far. I’m very proud though we’ve reroofed the whole building, quite an engineering feat. The roof is now tilted to allow rainwater to run off. We’ve secured the shell of the building and it’s watertight now. What’s next? I want to use the house, to safeguard its future. Tens of millions of pounds of restoration you’re talking about. One step at a time. That’s my plan. I’ve furniture in storage too,” ends Lord Iveagh. Over to Lady Iveagh, “I’m not moving in until there is at least heating and hot water!”