Being an occasional series in which one of our under-employed staff members visits one of the region’s stately homes. Today our Museums and Galleries Correspondent - Wortha Vizzit - reports on her experience at the recently re-opened Portfield House.
Dorset Country Houses #112 Portfield House
Family seat of the d’Avoine family [later Anglicised by the families of by-blows to Oats]. Portfield House is a magnificent example of Georgian High Neo-Classicism set in over 4,700 acres of parkland and landscaped garden. It is the fifth house to have stood in the grounds, earlier incarnations falling victim to fashion, battle, fire and neglect in that order.
The first house, built by Sir Robert d’Avoine, was constructed in about 1218 on land given to him by Henry III as a reward for his work as army victualler during the King’s many campaigns. Well regarded at court as a master of wit and repartée, his humour is forever encapsulated in his comment that the much-hated Simon de Montfort was “a foul-mouthed turd with an arse where his mouth should have been”. Little wonder he enjoyed the King’s favour; though the Queen’s “not so much”. Over the centuries the d’Avoines prospered and a second house was constructed [1598-1604] on a much grader scale. Unhappily, however, an injudicious remark from a less witty descendent of Sir Richard's [Sir Robin “the Knob”] to the effect that Cromwell was a “well-known player of the pink oboe” saw the house seized and destroyed by a unit of the New Model Army in 1643. Restored to favour by Charles II, Sir Robin’s son Randolf [1st Earl Portfield] began reconstruction of a new house to an even grander design.
It is unfortunate that he chose to construct it [for economy’s sake] of wood, plaster and Rizla cigarette papers, for, during extensive renovations in 1673, a stray spark - either from an incautiously discarded Rothman’s Kingsize or a malfunctioning blowlamp - caught an adjacent drape and grew into a raging fire. Even more unhappily, the local fire brigade was on a three-month pandemic-related furlough and by the time the crew from Powerstock arrived, little or nothing was salvageable, save the Countess Nutella’s all-leather strap-on which she was found clutching at the time. The workman responsible was arrested, tried and executed before being burned to a cinder by his own blowtorch. [A plausible candidate for the same blowtorch can be seen in the East Room Museum and replicas are available for sale in the gift shop both as a key-fob and as a door stopper.]
The fourth house completed in 1698 stood for nearly 75 years before falling into neglect during the occupancy of the 4th Earl [1732-97] [see below]. It was in 1773 that Sir Mountebank d’Avoine [later the 5th Earl Portfield] began construction of the present house on a site nearly one mile distant from that then occupied by the 4th Earl. Unhappy with - some say appalled by - his father’s behaviour towards himself, his wife, his mistress and his over-active mastiff, Sir Mountebank determined to have nothing to do with his father and instead set up an independent household in 1768 in a number of converted labourers cottages. After consulting with the leading architects of the day, he, together with John Adam and later Humphrey Repton as well as Capability Brown demolished the cottages and fashioned both a model house and a model garden - the results of which stand magnificently before us today.
Though the family tended to follow - generation after generation - the usual aristocratic pattern of siring sons on the “heir and a spare” basis - with the elder inheriting both title and estate whilst the younger joined either the army, the church or both [several Bishops, whilst broadly latitudinarian, achieved enviable reputations for Roman Catholic bashing particularly as Bishop Colonels-in-Chief in Ireland] - one, Sir Algernon [or Algie the Queer] 1732-97, was very different. Given to appearing at balls as Amelie d’Ladybois and dressed only in a gold taffeta basque, his ambiguous sexuality, huge “appetite for life” and legendary bedroom stamina led him to sire a large number of children to myriad acquaintances as well, it is rumoured, as Eclipse [1 April 1764 – 26 February 1789] the much-lauded and undefeated 18th-century British thoroughbred racehorse who won 18 races, including 11 King's Plates*. Sir Algie died penniless in a brothel near Nimes. The family declined to repatriate his remains.
* It was rumoured at the time that a jockey had only to whisper "Algie's coming" and the horse gained an extra furlong on the opposition.
Whilst Portfield House remains very much in the family's possession, increasing overheads and fees still outstanding from several of Sir Algie's legal settlements, mean that it has become necessary to open up both the house and gardens to paying visitors. As the present Earl - Sebastian d'Avoine - said in a recent interview with Dorset Country Life, "my forebears would, I think, have been both delighted and appalled. Delighted that we have, through some ingenuity, managed to retain possession of our inheritance, but appalled that we have had to treat with the oiks in order to do so. I doubt my great grandmother - the Countess d'Isdane - would ever have forgiven us".
Portfield House is open to visitors during the Spring and Summer [Gardens, 3rd March - 12th October, House 8th April to 24th September]. Daily visiting times vary: generally 11am-4pm [House] and 10am-5pm [Gardens]. Visits must be pre-booked and cost £38 per adult [combined] and 18 for concessions [children discouraged unless on a leash]. Dogs welcome.
For further details contact: The Booking Clerk's Principle Private Attaché, Portfield House, Dorset. Handwritten applications accelerated.