New beginnings: The story of the National Trust at Mompesson House

Mompesson House in 1980

In 1975 the National Trust inherited an empty house following the death of the last resident Denis Martineau. Over the next two years the National Trust refashioned the house as it might have been in its Georgian heyday; choosing appropriate colours to paint the walls and acquiring furniture, paintings and objects to fill the empty rooms.

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Denis Martineau

Denis Martineau
Denis Martineau
Denis Martineau

Denis Martineau was born at Boxmoor in Hertfordshire on 6 November 1907. He studied art and architecture at Trinity College, Cambridge, then went on to study at the Architectural Association of Architecture at Bedford Square in London. He qualified as an architect in July 1931 and practised in London. On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force and became a Flight Lieutenant, serving until the end of the war. On demobilisation he moved to the fashionable Montpelier Square in London and he kept this house for the rest of his life. Eventually he decided he would like to purchase a cottage in Wiltshire to use as a weekend retreat.

Mompesson House was drawn to his attention when it appeared as an advertisement in Country Life magazine in 1952. After considerable negotiation, Denis arranged to buy the house from the Church Commissioners. A condition of the sale was that Denis agreed to give the property to the National Trust on his death.

An official document, the Memorandum of Wishes, set out the agreement between Denis and the National Trust on the terms of his occupancy. Denis would be responsible for the upkeep of the house, so long as he lived there. The property was conveyed to the National Trust on 1 July 1952.

Looking after the house

Denis continued to live and work as an architect in London, but came to Mompesson most weekends. It soon became apparent that major repairs to the house were necessary and as an architect Denis was at pains to see that the restoration was carried out to a high standard.

Outside he renewed the stonework of the main house where it had decayed. Inside he carried out important structural repairs and installed new plumbing and central heating. In the main rooms he ensured the preservation of the panelling and ornamental ceilings, however he replaced the Victorian fireplaces in the library and dining room with eighteenth century ones. He also set about a complete redecoration in bright vivid colours and amassed pictures, furniture and objets d’art from all periods.

Interior decoration in 1976
Interior decoration in 1976
Interior decoration in 1976

Costly repairs

In 1975 the National Trust received an Architects Report which recommended repairs to the iron railings, treatment for dry rot in the small drawing room and renewing the electrical wiring throughout the house. Denis readily agreed to the work, although he was obviously concerned by the predicted costs of about £15,000. During the summer he sold many choice objects from the house – his collection of Wedgewood Jasparware, satinwood furniture from the large drawing room, as well as some paintings. At the same time, the entire contents of the house were removed to store, including the fitted carpets and curtains to facilitate the rewiring.

Denis furnished the studio in the courtyard as a bedsitting room for his weekend visits (now the shop) and he used the summerhouse (now the tea-room) as his office. In July 1975 work began on rewiring the house and by the end of the year it only remained to make good the damage to the plasterwork in the small drawing room; but then the unexpected happened.

Denis died from coronary thrombosis at the age of 68 on 4 December 1975 at his home in London. He had no immediate family and contrary to expectations, he did not leave the contents of the house to the National Trust. However, he did bequeath it the curtains, carpets, light fittings and garden ornaments, including the ocelot print curtains that Denis had hanging in his bathroom. Everything else was to be sold on behalf of the beneficiaries in his main will. Suddenly the National Trust had to decide the future of the empty house.

New possibilities

From the outset, there were several possibilities for the house, however the National Trust Regional Committee for Wessex agreed that it would be a great shame to deny the public access to the ‘perfect proportions of the rooms, exquisite architecture and the delicious garden’.

In April 1976, the National Trust decided that the principle rooms of the house were to be redecorated, furnished and opened to visitors with National Trust staff in place in 1977. The survival of so much eighteenth century plasterwork and panelling was unusual therefore it was agreed that rooms should be decorated in the light of historical evidence, wherever possible. Paint scrapes were taken in the main rooms to try and discover evidence of previous colour schemes. It was decided to choose colours that would enhance the decorative plasterwork and that would have been used in the 18th-century.

Furnishing the house

It was Dudley Dodd, Historic Buildings Representative at the time who took on the challenge of redecorating and furnishing Mompesson. In his words: 

" There was a sense of excitement as the furniture and pictures arrived… and a sense of achievement when so many of the objects could be displayed to advantage. Inevitably a picture or chest of drawers did not seem to quite “go” and we had to plan again but, happy to say, there were very few snakes and many ladders in our race to open the house in the spring of 1977."
- Dudley Dodd

The race involved negotiating object loans from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London who offered a considerable amount of eighteenth century furniture, Bristol Museum and Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum and arranging for collections of objects donated to the National Trust over the years to find a new home in Salisbury.

One example is the Olympic gold-medal winning tennis player Captain Turnbull’s collection of English 18th-century drinking glasses, which he collected in the 1920s. The Turnbull collection is the largest and finest of its kind in the National Trust and comprises over 370 individual pieces. The glasses range from heavy bottomed firing glasses for charging a toast to delicate air twist stems which rose in fashion after the introduction of a tax on the weight of glass.

Glasses in the Turnbull collection
Glasses in the Turnbull collection
Glasses in the Turnbull collection

Dudley Dodd also tried to collect items that had an association with the house. In this he was assisted by the younger members of the Townsend family. Barbara Townsend’s great-niece Mrs Jane Walford wrote to Dudley in November 1976, in response to an advertisement for furniture in the National Trust Newsletter. She was generous both in her advice and possessions. She kindly allowed the copying of family photographs which are on display at Mompesson and she gave the National Trust a watercolour of the large drawing room by Barbara Townsend and the silver tea service which you can see in the large drawing room today.  

Mompesson House officially opened to visitors on the 1 May 1977. Furnishing the house was a gradual process and it took many years to establish the collection you see today.