I met Ursula Brooke at lovely Shulbrede Priory, the family house of her late husband Thomas Ponsonby,now home to her sister-in-law Kate and her husband Ian Russell. Some time after they had generously allowed me to write about Shulbrede here, they suggested that I should go and see where Ursula and John lived, at Brewery House near Bath.
John and Ursula Brooke moved here from London in 1984.
Brewery House, just seen.
‘This was two old cottages in the 1700s, then in 1830 the whole site was sold and the guy who bought it put on the castellations and built a brewery next door to it,with all its equipment, oast house, well and steam engine, South Stoke Brewery. It was a small country brewery, demolished just after the first world war. The customers were thirsty fellows, working on the canal, in the mines and on local farms. The advertisement shows the brewery trying to expand its business and sell to the new wave of wealthy families moving into Bath.’
The tunnels below the house – now garaging and storage, were once used to store the beer and the drays in which it was transported.
By about 1820 or 30 Brewery House had been rebuilt as this Gothick villa. Because of the tunnels beneath, the soil in front of the house is only about 20cm deep, making gardening more challenging here.
Off the kitchen is a sort of pantry cum cloakroom.
‘Yellow and pink, this is my colour scheme, but when the light goes on it goes cold, it’s not quite the right …’
‘We’re terrible collectors.’
‘We met through a mutual friend, Anne Rowe.’
‘Penny, John’s older daughter, made that, it was going to say, Hallo Dad.’
‘We haven’t changed it much. This room was navy blue when we bought the house. The owner had just done a foundation art course. She was into colours. We put that old Aga in. And John opened up the hatch, and we brought that drainer, John picked it up on the street in Notting Hill Gate.
‘I was a dab hand at plumbing. And Ursula made that, it was all bricked up you see, this was an old fireplace, we opened it up. We poured concrete into a metal forma, it’s all arches, so we sort of continued it.’
‘You did all that, I finished off the arch and made the mouldings with two jam jar lids and the date, 1984.’
‘This cookery book is by Julia and that pot is Julia’s,’ (says Ursula, describing one of her daughters. ‘She one of those who does everything totally perfectly. She heads up the cooking 2 kitchens at Schumacher College [teaching ecology, sustainability and Gaia theory] on the Dartington Hall estate down in Devon.’ Julia’s cookbook Gaia’s Kitchen (Green Books, 2000) won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for best vegetarian cookbook in 2001.
In the warmest corner of the kitchen is what might be a Howard and Sons armchair.
‘John’s grandfather made this oak side table.’
‘I made this pottery, I spent a year doing a foundation course in art therapy, I just let rip. I think painting can be prophetic. This was John and me, meeting up together for the first time.’
Pot plants on the window seat.
The main drawing room has gothick panelled window shutters and embrasures and this gothick front door.
‘This green colour was here when we came, and this carpet was here when we came. The removal men were going to pull it up. These curtains are for warmth, otherwise its draughty. The curtains I’d had from scratch and they fit perfectly here. And they left their telly. So we just moved in and switched it on.’
‘Julia made these 2 cushions. Me and my first husband went back to Africa for five days in 1971 and these were the views from the plane that I painted.’ The pictures show dawn rising over the Sahara desert.
‘Gill Chambers, a potter, made the [life-sized] dog. I call it Duffy because I had a dog called Duffy.’
The upstairs landing. Painting by Anthony Rossiter, lynx model made for the Skinners’ Livery Company in the City of London.
Corner shelf on the upstairs landing
A tiny Surrealist painting by Ursula. ‘A memory of me and my sister playing in the South African sandstone mountains during boarding school holidays.’
‘Show Ruth your bathroom.’ ‘This wallpaper was here when we came,’ says Ursula. ‘It was coming off over the bath so I painted this whole wall black, and then I decided to paint a mural, the night sky. I made that pot, it’s made out of that clay you don’t fire, so it will fall to bits.’
‘This our bedroom.It used to have a few pictures hanging in it but when we painted it we didn’t put them back.’
‘That mirror was too big, so John thought of putting it there.’ At the back of the room a wooden high chair doubles as a pot plant stand.
‘This is my art room, built on in 1830 when the house was ‘grandified.’ I put up the yellow. I bought the easel off somebody in the Kings’ Road Chelsea, and then I had to get it into my car and take it to Notting Hill and it fell out of the boot in the Fulham Road in the rush hour. We used to sit up here and light a fire, it’s a lovely room.’
‘I went to Chelsea Art School. It was fun and groovy but I didn’t join in on it. I came to Britain from Central Africa when I was 12. My father was in the civil service , we were stranded out there when the war started, mother looked after us in Cape Town and my dad re-joined the navy so we didn’t see him for 4 or 5 years. Coming here, there were no lights, no fruit, no vegetables. I went to boarding school in Godalming, Surrey. At 18 I had a summer job selling school uniforms in Peter Jones and I loved it!’ Ursula’s maiden name was Ursula Mary Fox-Pitt, her father was Cdr Thomas Stanley Lane Fox-Pitt of Devon.
‘The oil painting of flowers in a jug is by Cathleen Mann, a portrait painter who studies under Matthew Smith and is the mother of potter David Queensbury.’
NB the enviable high-class vintage electric fire.
Ursula’s work on the chimmneypiece
‘That’s my little baby Charlotte who died, that’s when they wake up.’
The corridor is a picture gallery in miniature.
‘They’re just Stubbs prints.’
The other even more spectacular, Pop art bathroom
‘Dear little rooms aren’t they? See how all the doors have got beautiful latches.’
‘That’s Raymond Coxon, he was a teacher of mine at Chelsea Art School and he gave me that when I got married.’
‘This oil painting is of the New Swimming Pool in Brighton by Douglas Fox Pitt who was an ancestor of mine. He used to go and paint with Sickert in Dieppe and belonged to the Camden Town and London Groups .’
‘Have a look up there. The nicest room in the house!’
The nicest room in this very very nice house.
A court cupboard takes up almost all of the landing.
Bedroom view out over the garden and country beyond.
Ursula’s portrait of her first husband Thomas Ponsonby, 3rd Baron Ponsonby of Shulbrede (1930-1990), hanging in a bedroom; their four children appear at the back of the picture. Thomas Ponsonby was a Labour Party chief whip, governor of the London School of Economics and for a time the general secretary of the Fabian Society. ‘This was his undoing. When I was painting he was not only on the phone, he was also correcting proofs for the Fabian Society. Fred, Julia and Cha were page and bridesmaids at Rose Ponsonby’s wedding, but Rachel was too young to be there. I painted her in a bridesmaid’s dress, adding also their four cats and Fred’s bike.’
Children’s books in the little bedroom
The garden is on two levels, the front lawn and an upper garden reached by steps rising up behind the house, making three quarters of an acre in total.Densely planted borders prevent weeds from flourishing.
Thick clipped hedges like battlements where the garden drops away, with wide views beyond.
Garden produce and kit
Getting plants ready for a charity plant sale.
The upper level, behind the main house.
There are mature mulberry and plum trees and then the exotic and rarer species that John has added.
The house came with a swimming pool that John and Ursula did not want, so they have turned it into the very lushest of garden ponds, with golden fish swimming in its greenish depths. John created a floating island in the pond with a car roof rack buoyed with polystyrene blocks, and tethered, so that it can be pulled to the side for weeding. There is bamboo, Gunnera manicata and yuccas.
John and Ursula.
The garage doors double as village notice board. Many many thanks to John and Ursula Brooke.
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