Uncovering Women’s Stories at Upton House
Thursday 8 March 2018 marks International Women’s Day celebrating the movement for women’s equal rights. This year Upton House and Gardens will be telling the stories of some of the women whose creative lives touched the property, its owners and staff.
The women’s stories contribute to the National Trust’s Women and Power Programme for 2018 commemorating 100 years of female suffrage. Their histories testify to the new social and cultural opportunities opening up after 1918 – interior decoration, fashion, gardening, sport, art and society entertaining – that offered women new creative ways of expressing themselves in the modern world.
Below, in her own words, we introduce Dorothea Samuel, Viscountess Bearsted, mistress of Upton from 1927 whose benevolence and style former staff remembered with respect and affection. Her story has in the past been overshadowed by the memory and legacy of her husband, Lord Bearsted, who bequeathed Upton House and his collection to the National Trust in 1948.
Dorothea Montefiore Samuel, Viscountess Bearsted, (1882-1949) was married to Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted and Shell Chairman. When Walter bought Upton House in 1927 it was Dorothea who oversaw the extensive remodelling work. The couple were building a growing property portfolio with residences in London, Warwickshire, Phones, in Scotland, and the French Riviera.
Across all these sites, Dorothea’s devotion and attention to her family – as wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister and sister-in-law – prevailed, as we can see from this glimpse at her 1922 diary:
Saturday 29 July: Spent weekend with Ida (sister-in-law)
Tuesday 1 August: Boys came home from school and all went to Scotland by night train.
Saturday 23 September: Left Phones with the boys.
Sunday 1 October: Full day in London. Went to synagogue in morning. Supped with Uncle Sam (Lord Bearsted’s uncle Sam Samuel)
Tuesday 10 October: Went to see Dickie [Marcus Richard Samuel, eldest son] at Eton.
Alongside the roles of society wife, hostess, and mother to three young adult boys, in the 1920s and 1930s Dorothea expressed a sense of herself as a fashionable modern woman. Whilst her husband’s oil and banking interests saw him busy in the city during the week, Dorothea too was on the move. Her diaries are a record of travel across family homes, salons and dining rooms, theatres, village halls and charity hospitals as well as across towns and countries.
In the late 1920s we see her absorbed by the task of decorating and furnishing the family’s new residences. It was at the Bearsted’s Cap Ferrat villa where Dorothea seemed to exercise the greatest decorating influence and from which she derived the greatest pleasure:
Saturday 16 July 1927
‘Mons Seusal fetched me about 12 and we spent the morning at the villa deciding doors, windows etc. He lunched with us. Another 2 hours in the villa after which we all motored out to a small place where they make pottery … Bought some nice old jugs. Very cheap. Lovely day.’
Society journals also told a story of Dorothea, Lady Bearsted as a mature yet fashionable modern woman:
In August 1934 Tatler praised her youthful style with a picture of Lady Bearsted sporting tennis shorts outside the Bearsted’s Cap Ferrat villa:
‘In her dark blue shorts, Lady Bearsted looks very youthful to be the mother of a grown-up family. Her beautiful villa on Cap Ferrat is a Riviera show-place’.
Like many British women, the outbreak of war in September 1939 opened up new opportunities for Dorothea; she wasted no time and immediately volunteered to support the war effort where she saw it was most needed, in London.
She was tireless in her efforts for both the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) and the WRVS (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service). This included personal donations, such as the mobile canteen she made to the YMCA. But Dorothea also showed that she was not afraid to roll up her sleeves and contribute cheer, food and drink to the victims of bombings at home and Allied soldiers, sailors and airman at home and abroad. We do not have any diary records for her during these years. How might her experiences of war work have altered her sense of who she was in this world at war?