The story is extraordinary. Like dozens of houses after the Second World War, Wotton House in Buckinghamshire was being demolished for its materials. No one even considered living in such places then. She arrived in 1957, chauffeured by an antique dealer friend in search of "spare" columns to go by her swimming pool. It must have been a grim sight. The copper roof stripped for salvage, the fireplaces all removed, a pond of water on the drawing-room floor. The bulldozers were standing by to clear the lot in a fortnight. The situation was intolerable.
She arranged for Wotton to be bought for pounds 6,000, to be paid in six annual instalments to the Buckinghamshire County Council. She telephoned her husband, Wing Commander Patrick Brunner, and apparently told him: "Darling, I have bought a house, and I just know you are going to love it."
Elaine Howlett was born in London in 1907. Her father, Richard Howlett, was King George V's valet from 1901 until his death (his outdoor duties including cocking the King's gun); as Superintendent of the King's Wardrobe, with Mr Tubb the Sergeant Footman, he preceded the bearer party in the King's funeral procession in 1936. Her mother was a Swiss dressmaker. Elaine's parents must have passed on a lifelong fascination with dressing up and practical application. She grew up in the aristocratic surroundings of St James's Palace: it can have been no surprise that the child wanted to be a ballet dancer. Although she danced for Pavlova, this was not the area where Elaine would make her greatest contribution.
She married Patrick Brunner in 1933. A grandson of Sir John Brunner Bt, co-founder of Brunner Mond, one of the four companies that came together to form ICI in 1926, he was a film producer who served in the RAF during the war, apparently assisting in the drafting of Churchill's speeches. As for Elaine, her war was spent in the Oxford Police and Observer Corps, reportedly spotting enemy aircraft from an open-topped MG.
After the war, Patrick Brunner stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate for Beaconsfield, and it was from Seer Green, outside that comfortable and somewhat conventional town, that the Brunners left for Wotton - with reluctance on the part of her husband, who never quite shared her enthusiasm for what he was apt to describe as a "barracks". After his death in 1966, Wotton took centre-stage for the rest of her life.
An early Georgian house, it was originally constructed for the Grenville family, who subsequently became the Dukes of Buckingham and inherited the vast and wealthy estate at nearby Stowe. But they never lost their affection for Wotton, and the family continued to be buried there. Tragedy struck in 1820 when the house was gutted by fire. Not for the last time, all seemed lost. But, without a day's delay, the great architect Sir John Soane was summoned.
Soane, at the height of his powers and maturity, was free to transform the interior of the house as he pleased, and nothing could contain his spacial exuberance. Stone staircases cantilever up and around, dramatic views emerge through all three storeys, structural masonry is manipulated like paper. There is no other house like it.
But its breathtaking interiors fell out of fashion, and were encrusted in the Twenties with heavy fake panelling, which typically concealed rampant dry rot. Elaine Brunner had it all stripped out, often tearing it away herself, and rejoicing in the discovery of Soane's minimal detailing beneath. The house was discreetly divided into flats, an innovative act at that time, securing rental income from a variety of cosmopolitan (and literary) tenants that would subsidise later work. She loved the house, and had little time for those that did not understand it or "feel" it. It became the perfect setting for extravagant fancy-dress parties and an exotic collection of antique dolls. Unfortunately she failed to buy the next- door south pavilion when it came up for sale, and it remained in private hands, Sir Arthur Bryant giving way to Sir John Gielgud.
Having completed the house she turned to the estate. An expert had said "probably" Capability Brown. "Probably" was not the sort of word tolerated at Wotton, especially as the great mid-18th-century landscape gardener had been employed here by the Grenvilles before being sent to Stowe in 1740. Painstakingly, the little-known park, including a vast ornamental lake, was bought back from the surrounding farmers. If she could not persuade them to sell the land, she simply sought their permission to reinstate long-lost avenues of trees across it.
A 17-year-old apprentice recommended by a neighbour found himself being told to help reconstruct the ha-ha and then, when he had proved himself, to restore the five-arch bridge, then the "Turkey" Temple, the Rotunda, the Octagon, the Palladian Bridge, the Grotto, and the China Island Bridge. With the help of a local carpenter Michael Harrison, who stayed for 14 years and is still there, erected a portico made out of 1920s panelling removed from the house. The climax of the work was the reinstatement of Brown's Crescent Bridge, which was constructed of laminated timber from Finland, shipped over to Southampton, and driven with a police escort at slow speed to Wotton.
By now 90, Elaine Brunner was failing in energy, the restoration of the park nearly complete. She saw the Crescent Bridge only twice, carried there in a buggy. She had to content herself with what she could see in her mind, but was driven with glee that so much could be done without the endless National Trust committees and officials involved in the restoration of the landscape at Stowe.
Every day champagne, smoked salmon and neat little trouser suits - she was stylish to the end, intolerant of fools and determined that the work, on which every estate penny was spent, should continue. The opening up of views in the park and restoration of Soane's great entrance dome are still to be done. She died peacefully at Wotton, and will be buried in the churchyard where her Grenville predecessors lie, and to whose works she has done proud. Wotton will pass to her daughter, April, and her husband David Gladstone.
Mary Elaine Howlett, conservationist: born London 5 December 1907; married 1933 Patrick Brunner (died 1966; one daughter); died Wotton Underwood, Buckinghamshire 5 April 1998.Reuse content