Travel UK: At home with Gilbert and Sullivan

The D'Oyly Carte family owned the Savoy Operas, and their jazz- age Devon home has musical connections too.
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The Independent Culture
Devon is becoming a good destination for enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s. A few years ago, High Cross House at Dartington, near Totnes, opened as a house-museum and, nestled at the head of a combe on the South Devon coast near Kingswear, a 1920s time-capsule has recently been gently restored by the National Trust. Opened to the public as a fully- furnished house for the first time last week, Coleton Fishacre is a surprise for visitors who have been touring its beautiful semi-tropical gardens since the Trust bought the property in 1982 - and a new mecca for music enthusiasts.

Imagine the sounds of splashing water and laughter mingling with the cries of seagulls, and perhaps somewhere further away, the throaty purr of a rather good 1920s car. Overlay these sounds with an early Noel Coward song or two, add the gentle clinking of cocktail glasses, open your eyes and find yourself at Coleton Fishacre.

The house was built in 1925 for Rupert D'Oyly Carte, the second generation of the family which for 100 years managed the production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts will find a bedroom displaying memorabilia, programmes and posters, mostly from the inter- war years of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Rupert D'Oyly Carte had also inherited Claridge's and the Savoy Hotel - which his father had founded in the 1880s - and, in design terms, Coleton Fishacre has just the kind of ease and naturalness that distinguishes a well-run hotel. A pictorial map over the fireplace in the study shows the grey stone house with its Y-plan snugly inserted in the landscape, sheltered from winter gales. The views of the sea are now cut off by the trees which the D'Oyly Cartes planted when they arrived, but one can walk down through the gardens and arrive at the miniature Pudcombe Cove, where the D'Oyly Cartes moored their yacht on the day that they found the site and later built themselves a tidal swimming pool.

The architect was Oswald Milne, a former assistant of Sir Edwin Lutyens whose magnificent folly of Dartmoor granite, Castle Drogo, sits nearby. But while Lutyens was an architectural show-off, Milne behaved more like an architectural butler, an expert orchestrator of social occasions, perfectly suited to the good taste cultivated in both the Savoy Operas and the Savoy Hotel.

Nineteen twenty-five was the beginning of the "jazz age" in interior decoration, and small details like the beautiful etched-glass uplighters in the dining-room and the zany bathroom tiles by the young Edward Bawden (later a Royal Academician) show the taste of the period against a background of calm tweediness.

Rupert D'Oyly Carte certainly knew how to create a sense of occasion and, around 1930, he commissioned some abstract geometric rugs for the saloon from the American designer Marlon Dorn.

These rare in-situ examples of her work survived during the one private ownership between the D'Oyly Cartes and the Trust but, apart from the outrageous faux-lapis-lazuli dining-room suite, not much original furniture could be traced. For this reason the Trust let the house to tenants until recently and only opened the garden. Finding appropriate items of furniture to meet the Trust's exacting standards was the difficult task undertaken by Ceri Johnson, the Assistant Historic Buildings Representative for the Devon Region.

An ensemble of carefully chosen pieces recreates the effect of a living house. The Cornish historian A L Rowse left his belongings to the National Trust and several period paintings from his collection now hang at Coleton. Sadly, the prize of the D'Oyly Carte collection, a moody view of St Mark's, Venice, by Walter Sickert - presented by Dame Bridget to the British Council and now hanging in their offices in Rome - was not available for loan.

Coleton Fishacre is near Kingswear, Devon (01803 752466). The house is open daily except Mondays and Tuesdays (but including Bank Holiday Mondays), from 11am-4pm, until 31 October. Admission to the house and gardens costs pounds 4.60 for adults, pounds 2.30 for children; National Trust members free