Sir Robert and Lady Mary Witt

A close up of an armchair and gramaphone

New for 2017 at Alfriston Clergy House is the revamped reading room on the ground floor. This room has been dressed as a 1920s sitting room to reflect how it may have looked when the Witt family lived here.

Robert and Mary Witt were the Trust’s longest tenants of Alfriston Clergy House, from the early 1900s until 1940.  Sir Robert Witt was a lawyer and in 1903 he co-founded the National Art-Collections Fund (now the Art Fund), becoming its first honorary secretary and then chairman.  He began creating a library of photographs and prints of paintings early in his career.  Robert married Mary Helene Marten, a fellow Oxford student, who also collected photographs and reproductions of works of art. Their joint collection of over 600,000 images was housed in their home, which they referred to as the Witt library.  He was also a trustee of the National, Tate and Watts galleries.  In 1932 he co-founded the Courtauld Institute of Art, and bequeathed their colossal collection of photographs and prints of paintings.

Settle down with a copy of the Law Times
Spectacles on a 1924 copy of the law times newspaper

Robert had long admired the house when a student and had taken a tenancy by the early years of the 20th century, using the house as a weekend retreat from London until 1940.  Until the 1930s the tenancy was shared with art administrator Charles Aitken.  Robert and Charles may have met at New College, Oxford, but they would have worked together even before Aitken’s appointment as Director of the Tate Gallery.  Robert, Mary, and their son, John, can be seen posing on the terrace in old photographs.

The west end gable of Alfriston Clergy House with clay amphora as laid out by early tenant Sir Robert Witt
The west end gable of Alfriston Clergy House with clay amphora as laid out by early tenant Sir Robert Witt

Robert and Mary are largely responsible for the design of the garden that can be seen today. In the 1920s they terraced what had been rather a daunting slope down to a drainage channel and segmented the garden into small, individual ‘rooms’.  Their intention was to create a typical Edwardian summer retreat, but they gave it their own personal touch with the inclusion of the large amphora (clay pots) that they picked up on their travels in Crete and Morocco.  The bricked paths and borders of the rose terrace, herb and box tree ‘rooms’ are all part of the original works commissioned by Robert and Mary.