Obituary: George Seymour
Tuesday 31 May 1994
GEORGE SEYMOUR was nothing if not imperious. 'Do you not tell people about your house?' he asked his son. 'Do you not tell them it is wonderful?'
The house was Thrumpton Hall, one of the last of the large country houses outside Nottingham still in private hands. I had written an effusive thank-you letter after an extraordinarily cold, damp New Year weekend. The house was, in many ways, wonderful. Even Pevsner, a man who hesitated to waste himself on value- judgements, exclaimed in the second volume of the 'Buildings of England' series that the ensemble was 'of a picturesque interest exceeding its strictly architectural value'. Picturesque it is, a handsome, soft-red brick mansion tucked in its own landscape beside the River Trent. The main building is Jacobean, with a grand and highly carved cantilevered staircase added circa 1660 (attributed to Inigo Jones's pupil John Webb), and some comfortable early 19th- century additions including a spacious, sunny library which looks south across a terrace to satisfyingly old-fashioned parkland. The view also takes in the enormous chimney of the local power station, circa 1970. George Seymour affected not to see this. Anyone so foolish as to comment on it (I always thought it had a certain industrial dash) was treated as a dangerous lunatic.
There have been other significant Georges in the gloriously various annals of 20th-century English country-house life: notably George Sitwell, the bizarre baronet father of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell whom Osbert immortalised as 'Ginger' in his autobiography Left Hand Right Hand] (1945-50), and George Lees-Milne, the monocular, book-burning father of James Lees-Milne, immaculate autobiographer of Another Self (1970). Since neither of George Seymour's children has yet put their lives to paper, the knowledge of his doings remains generally concealed; but among his friends and relations, the friends of his relations and their friends' friends, he enjoyed, like the other Georges, an almost mythical reputation.
Seymour gave himself over wholeheartedly, from the age of 26, to the preservation of his house. There was a missionary zeal about him in relation to Thrumpton, a glint in his eye when he spoke of it; he would brook no opposition on its account. He struggled and suffered for it, as though it were his parent or child; he could hardly bear to be away from it; and when once it was burgled he circulated all the east London fences in person until he got its contents back.
He was no ordinary country- house inheritor. Thrumpton Hall had made a zig-zag progress down a family tree so complex that only Seymour could explain it. In the last 300 years there have been only six owners, none of them in direct line. George Seymour had been the chosen heir of a childless uncle by marriage, Lord Byron, whose predecessor the poet (a first cousin twice removed) had lived just the other side of Nottingham, at Newstead. But in the event of his uncle's death in 1949, and heavy death-duties, Seymour was compelled to buy the house he had expected to inherit and, in a ruthless country auction, as many of its contents as he could afford. He borrowed pounds 50,000 to do so, a substantial sum then, and, by selling the majority of the estate, paid it back within the year. He never forgot the emotional cost of this; and he never ceased regretting the items he had perforce let go.
Seymour was sent to live at Thrumpton when he was one, in 1924. His father, a diplomat, had been posted to La Paz in Bolivia; George's mother went too. Her brother-in-law the 10th Lord Byron was 63 and a 'squarson' - a clergyman and the incumbent of his own living; the house was maintained as it had been in the day of his doughty aunt Lucy, Lady Byron, Thrumpton's chatelaine from 1844 to 1912, and servants were selected for their ability to sing in the church choir. The infant George was thus plunged into the 19th century; and there was an extent, perhaps, to which he never emerged. Although his parents returned after only 18 months abroad and removed him to a more conventional life in London, 'home' remained Thrumpton. Here he spent his holidays, here he dreamt of emulating his Grafton and Hertford ancestors. At the age of 13, he was writing school essays about life as a squire - or a squarson. And when in 1946, after Winchester and war service with the 60th Rifles, he married Rosemary, daughter of the eighth Lord Howard de Walden, it was to Thrumpton they moved.
Seymour was a rare apostle for the pre-war country-house life in the late 20th century. Time, it seemed, had stopped still at Thrumpton Hall. There were fresh railway timetables in every bedroom, everybody took tea at 4 and changed for dinner at 8; woe betide the guest from London who was late for dinner on Friday night or the man who failed to stay at table for port. Seymour regarded any departure from this stern routine as wilfully eccentric or, worse, downright insulting. When, as usual, there were no staff at all, he and his lion-hearted wife Rosemary beavered behind the scenes to make it look as though there were; in secret moments they drew curtains and turned down beds, and, having dispatched their guests upstairs, they washed up long into the night.
There was something heroic about George Seymour; and, as with many heroes, something maddening too. His tenacity was remarkable, but sometimes infuriating. He was a kind man who could be cruel. He could be fierce and autocratic, then vulnerable and disarming. His fund of anecdotes, particularly about the squirearchy, was vast and often hilarious. But his adherence to the old ways was absolute: he applied himself to restoration in the house and the church (of which he owned the chancel), and to clearing and replanting his grounds; he accepted no government grants, he opened the house to the public by appointment or to film-makers by arrangement, and he was proud of paying his own way.
He applied himself vigorously, too, to local public service: to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, to the Nottinghamshire Police Authority. A magistrate for over 30 years, he had been the longest-serving member on the Council of the Magistrates Association and between 1975 and 1978 he served as chairman of the association's Juvenile Courts Committee. He took his civic duties very seriously: for him they were intrinsic to the squire's role.
Seymour's appearance, whether in Thrumpton, or London, or the United States (his grandmother was American; and when his son married a publisher from Massachusetts Seymour packed an American family tree for the wedding), was as carefully presented as his character was strongly defined. But in the same way as he had been known to exchange his dapper suits for biking leathers (he had a passion for motor-bikes, especially his Ducati), one suspected there lurked a tease in him: he recognised the convenience of self- parody.
His relations with his son Thomas, a barrister, and his daughter Miranda, a writer, both of whom he loved, could be tempestuous. Miranda, the biographer of Henry James and Ottoline Morrell, wrote a novel published in 1984, Carrying On, about 'how a house can come to possess a man'. The house, 'Gracedew', is in Nottinghamshire. I asked George Seymour what he thought of the book. He snorted. 'I won't have it in the house,' he said. 'It's pornography.'
I hope Miranda Seymour writes her autobiography soon.
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