Obituary: The Earl of Jersey

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The Independent Culture
FOR THE ninth Earl of Jersey, Osterley Park was never truly home. However, this did not extinguish his interest in and fondness for the family house which he inherited as a boy - an interest which continued throughout his life.

His foreword to the present guide book, entitled "Memories of Osterley", dwells lightly on the part he himself played in Osterley's history. He was only 13 when his father died, but on coming of age he seems rapidly to have assessed his inheritance and planned a way forward.

This was most swiftly realised in 1935, when he commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to build a new house at Middleton Park, Oxfordshire, a family property, where he had pulled down the existing house which Christopher Hussey had described as "without architectural merit besides being difficult to run and maintain".

Osterley presented a different problem. While on the one hand finding it like a museum because as a child he was never allowed to touch anything, Lord Jersey also knew it as the place much beloved of his grandmother. It was she, the wife of the seventh Earl, who in 1884 took the house back in hand after the death of its tenant. Initially she and her husband had planned to give one garden party before reletting, but instead they were "fascinated with the place", and for the Countess it became "the joy of my life".

Osterley Park was built in the 16th century by Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange. Refashioned and largely furnished in the 1760s and 1770s by Robert Adam for the bankers Francis and Robert Child, it became what Horace Walpole described as "the palace of palaces". The Principal Floor with its State Rooms and Long Gallery was and is the chief glory. It was Robert Child's granddaughter Sarah Sophia who in 1804 married the first Earl of Jersey.

George Francis Child Villiers was born in 1910 and succeeded his father as Earl in 1923. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. In 1932 he went to work at Glyn Mills, which had absorbed Child's, the family bank, in the 1920s.

Lord Jersey received a steady stream of requests to see inside the house at Osterley, and responded by opening it to the public in 1939. Asked why he had chosen this course, he told the Times that he felt it was "sufficient answer that he did not live in it and that many others wished to see it". His letter to the newspaper a month after opening conveys great pleasure that so many people - 12,000 in that month alone - had visited and enjoyed themselves.

This concern for the visitor was something that never left him. He often had ideas for how a visit could be made more interesting and pleasurable, and he wanted to know what we at the National Trust were doing to make this so. His own solution in 1939 had been to organise in some of the top-floor rooms a series of changing exhibitions of work by living artists and sculptors, something which be felt provided an interesting and stimulating contrast to the 18th-century rooms below.

In the park Lord Jersey inherited the enthusiastic planting of his grandfather. The seventh Earl had travelled extensively as well as having been Governor of New South Wales, and he added many exotic species. The cumulative effect was too much for his grandson, who opened up vistas while retaining the rarer trees. Indeed in 1939 he himself conceived a scheme to create an arboretum at Osterley - something which was never realised.

The Second World War cut across all these plans and ideas and at its end Lord Jersey (who had served during the war in the Royal Artillery) renewed his attempts to find a permanent solution to the future of Osterley. He went back to Middlesex County Council who had previously shown interest in buying the place, but in the end gave the house and immediately surrounding park to the National Trust and sold the furniture to the nation - defined in this case as the Victoria & Albert Museum.

By this time Lord Jersey had moved to the island of Jersey - he and his third wife, Bianca Mottironi, whom he had married in 1946, had been much taken with it on a visit in 1949, and he became the first Earl of Jersey to live there. It was in Jersey too that many of the things he had taken with him from Osterley, including a large proportion of the pictures, such as Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I on horse- back, were tragically destroyed in a fire at the depot where they were stored.

However, even from a distance Lord Jersey was always in touch with what was going on at Osterley. Through the years when it was maintained by the Ministry of Works and managed by the V & A he particularly helped the curators in their researches on the house's history. Through these the museum undertook its ground-breaking work to show the rooms as they would have been in the late 18th century - formal and uncluttered. He and his family also enthusiastically participated in parties there, echoing the truly magnificent ball which the Georgian Group held at Osterley in 1939 under his auspices.

In 1991 the National Trust took back the various strands of management. Lord Jersey responded with pleasure to the fact that Osterley was once more run by "one hand". Over the last seven years he made magnificent gifts back to Osterley of silver, porcelain, furniture and miniatures. Images of his family, who first acquired Osterley in 1713, can once more be seen there. Portraits of Lord Jersey and his wife by Howard Morgan, commissioned by the trust in 1994, hang upstairs. His interest, support and encouragement were a crucial factor in all that has been recently achieved at Osterley.

George Francis Child Villiers, landowner: born 15 February 1910; succeeded 1923 as ninth Earl of Jersey; married 1932 Patricia Richards (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1937), 1937 Virginia Leach (nee Cherrill; marriage dissolved 1946), 1947 Bianca Mottironi (one daughter and two sons deceased); died St Helier, Jersey 9 August 1998.