Luton Hoo Mansion

Photo:Circular staircase, Luton Hoo Mansion

Circular staircase, Luton Hoo Mansion

Gavin Ross, 29 March 2014

Photo:Reproduction of tapestry in the Wernher collection

Reproduction of tapestry in the Wernher collection

Gavin Ross, 29 March 2014

Photo:Former chapel, now a dining room

Former chapel, now a dining room

Gavin Ross, 29 March 2014

Society visits in March 2014

By Geoff Woodward

Following Zena Dickinson's talk on Luton Hoo Mansion and Hotel in June 2011, the Society arranged a visit to the refurbished building in March 2014. A group of about 20 arrived on a cold sunny morning and were glad to assemble in the former Blue Hall (present entrance hall). Zena introduced herself and gave a short history of her association with Luton Hoo over the last 26 years, from her job in the farm office to Administrator for the Wernher Collection and latterly as an employee of Elite Hotels.

In 1903 the Luton Hoo estate was purchased by Julius Wernher, who spent vast sums of money on the house and grounds. After his death in 1912 his wife Alice carried on the estate. Having been requisitioned during WWII, and handed back in poor condition with little compensation paid, her son Harold took over and made the decision to open the Mansion and Wernher Collection to the public.

Although supported by a steady clientele, a decision was ultimately taken to close the Collection and put the estate on the market in 1997. When no buyer could be found the estate was divided up and that part made up of the Mansion, with its formal gardens, lake and grounds, was purchased by Elite Hotels, who had to endure a long struggle with the planners and conservationists (and anyone else with something to say!) before finally being permitted to convert the Mansion and other areas into a hotel, and after six years it finally opened in 2008.

The Wernher collection of mediaeval and Renaissance paintings, porcelain, ivories, tapestries, furniture and sculpture is currently in the care of English Heritage at Rangers House, Greenwich Park -

During the transition, Zena had been caretaking and negotiating for the Mansion and grounds to be used as a film location. Nearly 60 major films were part-shot there, along with several advertisements and photo shoots. Zena's present work with Elite is in Guest Relations, part of which involves giving the hotel tours. She had conducted 7 in the week prior to our visit!

To start our tour she led us through to the main hall and grand stairs (designed in the early 1900s by Mewes and Davis) still with its original stair rods, and all in the style of the Ritz Hotel in London. Having been given more details of the building, we were taken to the former chapel, now used for hospitality. Having climbed the curved staircase, we were privileged to visit the room sometimes used by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh when they stayed as guests of the Wernhers, and now one of the hotel's premier bedroom suites. The view from the window of the gardens designed by Capability Brown has changed little over the years, although the room has.

On the landing we viewed a tapestry (a reproduction of one of the Wernher pieces), commissioned as part of the £60 million (so it is said) refurbishment.

We then descended to the former Library for breakfast and, seated round a large table, with a Robert Adam portrait gazing down on us, our group enjoyed a good chat and reflected on what we had seen and heard during Zena's informative tour.

Following refreshment, some of the group took a bracing wander in the gardens.

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 15/04/2014.
Comments about this page

There's a long tradition of visiting stately homes. Elizabeth Read visited Luton Hoo on 7 October 1821,on foot from Blakesley’s (Harpenden Hall).

“Almost immediately after breakfast we set out to the Marquis of Bute’s on foot. The collection of paintings at Luton House is said to be the largest private collection in the kingdom. There are an amazing number of pictures – too many to be seen in one morning – some very fine. Raphael, Rubens, Claude Lorraine, Guido, Fuseli, Poupin, Vandyke and multitudes of others had some of their performances here. We might have spent the whole time we were in the house in looking at Raphael’s Holy Family. The countenances of the mother and indeed the whole of her was beauty – but the sleeping infant was still more attractive – oh! I never saw so lovely a face – it was indeed innocence, holiness and beauty. £9,000 have been offered for it. As we could only spend two or three hours amongst these pictures we had scarcely time to give a glance at each – indeed, I did not attempt it, but spent my time on those that struck me most.

“Amongst so many beauties there are some ugly things – in “The Ascent of the Virgin” she is represented amongst the clouds with a whole swarm of angels hanging about her. The artist must have taken the idea from the bees swarming about the queen bee. It looks at first sight like a large chandelier.

“The library is extensive, contained in several rooms opening into each other by arches. There is no statuary – and indeed there seems no room for it.

“The external appearance of the house is not pleasing: it is a mixture of all sorts of building – some ancient – some modern – another like a respectable merchant’s house and another resembles a cotton-factory – just at the front, of bright red brick, is an old stone gateway covered with ivy. The park is pretty and there are some fine trees in different parts of it. The Marquis has a seat in the Isle of Bute, and another elsewhere, and is here very seldom.”

The Read family lived at Wincobank Hall near Sheffield. From A Visit to Harpenden: extracts from Elizabeth Read’s Journal (LHS archives BF 20.8(b). 

By Rosemary Ross
On 27/05/2014

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