Mottisfont Abbey

Harpsichords at Mottisfont Abbey

THE HOUSE

Mottisfont Abbey (National Trust) is a country estate set in the Test Valley in Hampshire.  The historic property at its centre was founded as an Augustinian priory in 1200 but has sustained a great deal of remodelling in its long life. It was following the dissolution of the monasteries, when Henry VIII gave the abbey to William, 1st Lord Sandys, that the property became a country home and, although the property’s history is long, it has not passed through many hands within that time.  This project concentrates on the house’s final major restructure, beginning in 1934, when the Russell family moved in.

Maud and Gilbert Russell and their two sons, Martin and Raymond, were the last family to treat Mottisfont as home.  Maud gifted the estate to the National Trust in 1957, finally moving out herself in 1972.  As far as possible, it is through their eyes, most particularly Maud’s, that the National Trust visitor views the property today.  Maud was a well-known patron and lover of the arts, and through her vision and drive Mottisfont became the home of a fashionable and influential artistic circle. Artists, musicians and writers came for long weekend parties and were inspired by Mottisfont’s past to make works for its future.  Maud’s friend Derek Hill later left a significant collection of early 20th-century art to Mottisfont, including works by Degas, Seurat, Bonnard, Sutherland and Nicholson. 
 

THE RUSSELL FAMILY AND MUSIC

Maud's children grew up with a firm sense of the value and importance of the arts, and it is from the activities of her youngest son Raymond that our project emerges.

Raymond Russell at a Pleyel Harpsichord

Raymond Russell (1922-1964) - a talented musician - was an avid collector and, despite his tragically short life, managed to amass one of the world’s most important and influential collections of historic keyboard instruments.  Although it is not clear which of those instruments he ever kept at Mottisfont, Maud’s evident passion for collecting, her meticulous organisation and eye for detail and own interest in music pervade the house.  One of the famous trompe l’oeil panels in the Whistler room consists of an ornate group of historic musical instruments – including two types of keyboard.  Rex Whistler undertook this work at the time Raymond was being home tutored.  As a budding historical keyboard instrument enthusiast, Raymond may have had some influence on what was being painted.  After Raymond’s death, at the age of only 41, Maud donated his keyboard instrument collection to the University of Edinburgh (in continuation of a process that Raymond had initiated).  She retained two of Raymond’s most prized harpsichords for some time, perhaps as a poignant memento of Raymond’s life.  At least one of these instruments was housed at Mottisfont for several years, attracting the interest of some of the country's most notable keyboard instrument makers and restorers.  Alongside his collecting, Raymond’s activities as an advocate for the harpsichord had far reaching effects on the 20th-century history of the instrument.

Whistler Room Trompe L'oeil

 

RESEARCH - THE MAKING OF THE MODERN HARPSICHORD

Althought Mottisfont has a fine art collection and a gallery that regularly hosts important visiting exhibitions, the musical history of the property had been little investigated before 2013 and was largely obscured in interpretation of the house.  This gap in knowledge was identified during the house's project for reinterpretation of the site, Storyscape, a two-year consultation with volunteers and local communities that built on the property's narrative masterplan.  The National Trust then initiated a collaboration to be steered by Professors Jeanice Brooks and Laurie Stras (University of Southampton), James Rothwell (Senior Curator, National Trust) and Louise Govier (General Manager at Mottisfont).  The Making of the Modern Harpsichord project aims to document the development of the harpsichord in the 20th century, a period when it saw a great transformation both in popularity and building technique, with a particular focus on Raymond Russell’s role in its revival.

At the beginning of 2014, with a Collaborative Doctoral Award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), two PhD students, Kate Hawnt and Christopher D. Lewis, joined the team to begin research, with Christopher focussing mainly on 20th-century repertoire for the harpsichord and Kate on Raymond Russell. 

Their research has so far appeared in:

Berkeley, Lennox, ‘Suite for Harpsichord’, edited Christopher Lewis, 2016, Chester Music (Catalogue Number: CH84810)

Lewis, Christopher, ‘Mr Berkeley’s Toye’, Lennox Berkeley Society Journal, 2016, pp. 14 – 17

Lewis, Christopher, ‘British Music for Harpsichord’, 2016, Naxos Records (Catalogue Number: Naxos 8.573668)

An event at the 2015 Cheltenham Music Festival, where the project team presented their work with talks, live performance and videos to the general public.

A talk at The Old Operating Theatre Museum, London, where Kate gave a talk about the life and collecting habits of Raymond Russell to the general public.

Details of theses and other publications will be added to this page as they are completed.

 

INTERPRETATION

One of the key objectives of the project has been to keep staff, volunteers and the public at Mottisfont abreast of our research and effectively distribute information.  First and foremost was to inform staff and volunteers of new details discovered about Raymond and the rest of his family.  This has so far been achieved by giving regular talks as part of Mottisfont’s Knowledge Exchange programme, which programmes events to inform staff and volunteers of the latest developments in research, conservation and interpretation related to the property, as well as some training.

Goble Harpsichord at Mottisfont

In the Boy’s Room at Mottisfont, we have installed a small single manual twentieth-century harpsichord (built by Goble & Sons) which is on long-term loan from the University of Southampton.  Christopher has run several workshops to train volunteers on how to maintain the instrument (an ever-continuing issue with instruments in heritage properties) and how best to demonstrate it to visitors.  He has made a short instructional video and paper guide for future staff and volunteers to consult.  The video also explains how this harpsichord differs from an historic instrument.  We are now gathering objects and writing information to accompany the instrument to explain its relevance to the property.  Once a suitable volunteer has been recruited, Christopher will give them lessons on how to tune and maintain the harpsichord to ensure that it can be looked after beyond the scope of the project.  Staff and volunteers alike have told us that there is a great deal of interest from the visiting public in both the instrument and the history of the harpsichord at Mottisfont.

In October Christopher will give a harpsichord recital at Mottisfont of modern British harpsichord music.  The main focus of his performance will be the première of the British composer Lennox Berkeley’s Suite For The Harpsichord (1930). This piece was rediscovered, edited and published by Christopher as part of his thesis research.  Kate has unearthed evidence of Lennox Berkeley visiting Mottisfont on more than one occasion; he and Raymond shared a mutual friend in Vere Pilkington, dedicatee of the Suite for Harpsichord, which links the piece nicely to the history of Mottisfont.  The evening is co-sponsored by the Lennox Berkeley Society, and the event will also include a lecture from Kate about the life of Raymond Russell and the musical links to Mottisfont.

 

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