IN 1977 Martin Gibbs decided that money must be found to support Sheldon Manor, his beautiful house near Chippenham, in Wiltshire, one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the West of England, parts of which, including the entrance porch, date from the late 13th century. And so the place was opened to the public. The result was an amazing mix of interesting architecture, beautiful furniture, rare paintings, books and objets d'art, a garden of particular interest to the plantsman, and top-class home-made food of originality. Visitors went away better informed and with the warm feeling that they had been the guests of Major and Mrs Gibbs rather than a source of revenue.
Sheldon had been bought in 1917 by Henry Martin Gibbs, Martin's grandfather, for William Otter Gibbs, Martin's father. The Gibbs family made money in the 19th century from merchant interests, most famously in guano, and were known for their piety and as patrons of the Gothic Revival. Henry Martin Gibbs's father, William, built Tyntesfield, a great Gothic mansion near Bristol, and paid for the building of William Butterfield's chapel at Keble College, Oxford, while Henry Martin and his brother Anthony gave the college its hall and library. One of Mrs William Gibbs's benefactions was St Michael's, a hospital for sufferers from TB, at Axbridge, in Somerset. When, in 1968, the building needed a new use, Martin Gibbs, her great-grandson, made an arrangement with Leonard Cheshire whereby it became a Cheshire Home for the sick.
Sheldon contains many of the contents of Henry Martin Gibbs's house, Barrow Court, in Somerset; among them a portrait of William Otter Gibbs, painted by John Calcott Horsley in 1886, which was shown in the 'Treasure Houses of Britain' exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington DC, in 1985-86.
Martin Gibbs was born in 1916 and educated at Eton, before attending Sandhurst. He was a regular officer before the Second World War of the Coldstream Guards, with all the excellence, discipline, smartness and pride in the regiment that that entails. He saw active service in North Africa with his battalion and with the Long Range Desert Group, was captured in Tobruk in 1942, escaped and was recaptured twice. After post-war service at home, in Malaya and elsewhere, he retreated to Sheldon, which he inherited from his father in 1960, and became involved in county and charitable duties. He took an interest in all country pursuits, though he steadily gave up chasing, shooting and catching things in favour of growing them - hence the wonderfully interesting garden at Sheldon, where he planted sorbus, shrub roses and rare trees in variety including a particularly fine robinia viscosa. He was a man of erudition and good taste. All these things might suggest that Martin Gibbs was a standard product of a privileged society. But this was not so.
Perhaps it was his time as a prisoner of war and then a guest of Italian peasants that influenced his outlook. Certainly He learnt that the two most important things in life above subsistence are love and freedom. His great love for Elsie, his wife and best friend for 47 years, and his devotion to his six children and 20 grandchildren were matched by their love for him. He never joined his wife in the Roman Catholic Church, for which he had great respect, and he was not a regular churchgoer, but he had in full measure four of the tenets of a Christian - honour, honesty, family responsibility and charity.
You would be hard put to conjure up the immaculate ensign from his later exterior when at home - though, driven by necessity rather than vanity, he did tidy himself up and thin himself down when doing his tour as High Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1974. But London was an exception. If anyone was lucky enough to persuade 'Maggie' (as he was known to some) and Elsie to eat grouse with them in some restaurant he would turn up smart as paint, and probably startle the head waiter by leaving with a bag containing four carcasses destined for the Sheldon stockpot.
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