THE MARQUESS of Bath was, with his rivals the Duke of Bedford and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, one of the forerunners of the stately home business.
Bedford created a funfair, Montagu a collection of handsome vintage cars, and Bath frequently spoke of their 'gimmicks'. He himself will be remembered for the first safari park and most notably for 'the Lions of Longleat', but as early as 1953, before such things were the norm, the marquess adorned Longleat with a tea-room for trippers, a tennis-court and putting green, and floated pedalos on the lake. He was not averse to being photographed in his Coronation robes and a popular postcard showed the marquess in tweeds, seated on the sofa with a lion cub. He spent thousands of pounds on estate roads and fighting the deathwatch beetle. But he himself lived modestly with one butler, a cook and a part-time cleaner.
In earlier times stately homes were occasionally opened free of charge as a local treat, Lady Diana Cooper recalling the 'look of pleasure and welcome' on the 'delicate old face' of her grandfather, the seventh Duke of Rutland, as the populace poured into Belvoir Castle. This tradition continued into the present century, but the advent of death duties and the rising cost of repairs and maintenance forced owners such as Lord Bath to bite the bullet and become unquestioningly commercial.
When Henry Bath succeeded to Longleat in 1946, that great square Elizabethan house set low in the Wiltshire countryside near Warminster was in a state of terrible disrepair, not improved by its wartime occupation by the Royal School for Officers' Daughters. He was faced with a death-duties bill of pounds 700,000. He and his wife Daphne decided to restore the place and run it as a commercial business. This cost a fortune but at length the house was ready for its opening to the public, at half-a- crown a head, in 1949. The marchioness produced a charming guidebook in three weeks and followed this with a discursive account of past days of Longleat elegance, Before the Sunset Fades, in 1951, adorned with sketches by their Wiltshire friend and neighbour Cecil Beaton. The entire enterprise required drive, imagination and courage. It proved the precursor to many similar openings and now over 600 houses are open to the public, attracting 50 million visitors a year.
In 1966 arrived the famous lions, amid an outburst of retrospectively enjoyable publicity. The idea was to enclose the visitors and have the lions and other animals roaming free, loosely contained by a 12ft fence, 3,200 yards long. Opposition came from local bodies but Bath allayed their fears with his comments: 'I understand lions are the laziest animals in the world. If you feed a lion he will be OK.' They were fed half a bullock's head a day, except on Sundays: 'I suppose that's a throwback to when they ate Christians once a week,' said the marquess.
For some years cars sported stickers in their windows announcing, 'We have seen the Lions of Longleat', and there were amusing incidents of monkeys playing havoc with the windscreen-wipers of hapless trippers. The annual intake of visitors leapt from 135,000 in 1964 to 328,000 in 1966. Even so, by the time the annual repairs on the old house had been completed (about pounds 300,000 in 1978), the marquess faced an annual deficit - pounds 20,000 in 1975, pounds 86,000 in 1978. (He was forced to sell a valuable collection of books, breaking a long-held vow that he would never part with any of Longleat's contents.)
Meanwhile, Bath was inspired to leave his personal mark on the house, and on the top floor he amassed an impressive collection of Churchilliana (from the portrait of Doris Castlerosse to a half-smoked cigar), and items relating to King Edward VIII and Hitler. He caused a stir at Sotheby's in 1960 when he purchased two water-colours by Hitler for pounds 600. A client of the auction house jumped up and shouted: 'I'll give you pounds 50 for the two and tear them up.'
He became heir to the marquessate - and Viscount Weymouth - shortly after his 11th birthday when his elder brother, John, was killed in action in the First World War, serving on the Western Front. On hearing of his brother's death, he looked up at the great facade of Longleat and, the story goes, said to himself: 'How can I look after you? I'll never be able to do it.'
Bath acquired a broken nose playing rugby at school. A shy boy, his best friend was the 70-year-old gamekeeper, who took him touring the countryside by motorbicycle. He attended Harrow and Oxford, distinguishing himself at neither. But he belonged to that eccentric Oxford group which included Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton and Brian Howard, and later was one of the 'Bright Young People'. His contribution was to invite them to Longleat, where they secretly mixed absurd cocktails in an upper room. In 1926 his coming of age was celebrated with a lunch party for 1,000 guests and a firework display.
He met Daphne Vivian at Harrow, got to know her at Oxford and they fell in love. She quoted a friend on him: 'A silent knight he goes and unafraid . . .' There was considerable parental opposition to the match, his father deeming him too young, and saying he needed 'a steady wife', Lord Vivian responding that he deemed the boy unsuitable for his daughter. The then Lord Weymouth entered a secret marriage ceremony at St Paul's, Knightsbridge, with Daphne, before being sent off to work on a cattle ranch in Texas and then sailing through the Panama Canal.
On his return, the last vestiges of parental disapproval were overcome, and the young couple went through a second ceremony at St Martin-in-the-Fields. This double marriage rebounded on them when the 1927 marriage (though not the earlier one) was dissolved in May 1953. It took a further case lasting five days before three judges could untangle them in 1955. There was considerable attendant publicity and Osbert Lancaster depicted Maudie Littlehampton saying: 'Darling, do you remember betting me a fiver that it was going to prove a lot easier to unite the Germans than separate the Baths?'
Old Lord Bath handed over the running of Longleat to his son in 1928, and it was in the decade that followed that he learnt all the problems facing landowners of considerable property. He reduced the staff and expanded the forestry programme. He also attacked the gardens, clearing away the undergrowth of rhododendrons and planting shrubs and trees in their place. In 1929 he went into politics and two years later he was elected to Parliament as Conservative member for Frome. He disliked his years in the House, making but one speech there, to an unreceptive audience, on the subject of tea.
During the Second World War, he rejoined his regiment, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, and served at Alamein, where he was wounded. After his convalescence he served as British Liaison Officer to the American 19th Corps, who called him 'Hank the Yank'.
In 1953 there was a fuss when the Baths announced their intention to ride to the Coronation in the family coach - the Duke of Windsor was amused by this, reflecting that there had been an equal fuss when one peer wished to arrive at the abbey by motor in 1911.
Following his divorce from Daphne, the marquess married Virginia Tennant, daughter of Alan Parsons and Viola Tree, and formerly married to David Tennant, founder of the Gargoyle Club. She was a tall and elegant beauty, possessed of the famous Tree smile. They met at the Chelsea Arts Ball in 1948, and fell in love. After their marriage, they had another daughter, Silvy.
In 1958, Bath handed Longleat to his cosily eccentric son, Viscount Weymouth, who adorned some of the private rooms with his heavily coloured oil murals. A particular favourite with the old age pensioners, loving to be shocked, was his Kama Sutra bedroom, bedecked with many copulating couples, placed there by the viscount to spur his house-guests to imaginative nocturnal activity. There were many parties, fetes, teddy-bear picnics and rallies at Longleat and occasionally a glorious family celebration. But there was tragedy too, when his son Lord Valentine Thynne was found dead, hanging from a bedspread attached to an oak beam in the lounge bar of the Bath Arms, following a gala evening at Longleat, attended by Princess Margaret.
The Baths lived on, happy in each other's company, enjoying a gracious old age - two sprightly, dapper figures, untouched by the years. In 1976 the marquess, who often sported velvet smoking- jackets of a deep hue, was selected by the doyenne of New York publicity, Eleanor Lambert, as 'the world's best-dressed man'. He retained his lean figure and handsome mien until the end.
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