Virginia, Marchioness of Bath

Bright Young Thing who became châtelaine of Longleat

Friday 04 October 2013 02:40

Virginia Penelope Parsons: born 9 April 1917; married 1938 The Hon David Tennant (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1953), 1953 The Marquess of Bath (died 1992; one daughter); died Crockerton, Wiltshire 18 September 2003.

When Virginia Parsons was being courted by David Tennant in 1936, her fellow students at the Académie pour Jeunes Filles in Auteuil were impressed. This darkly handsome Englishman, 15 years their senior, would fly across the Channel in his Gypsy Moth to take Virginia out for the weekend: "On peut dire c'est un vrai Lord Byron," they gasped. But then, with her wide-boned face, glittering eyes and sweep of curly hair, Virginia's was the kind of timeless beauty which would bewitch more than one aristocrat.

Tennant, then in his thirties, was the third son of Lord Glenconner: a former BBC announcer, leader of the Bright Young Things, and founder of the socially radical Gargoyle Club in Meard Street, Soho, with its mirrored walls and a dance floor on which cavorted everyone from Dylan Thomas to Augustus John. Parsons, not yet out of her teens, was the daughter of the actress Viola Tree - wife of Alan Parsons, drama critic of the Daily Mail - and granddaughter of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the great Edwardian actor-manager. Her own family were hardly conventional.

Virginia had grown up in Fitzroy Square, deep in London's Fitzrovia, where her uncle, Curtis Moffat, ran a kind of exotic bazaar from which Nancy Cunard acquired her "barbaric" jewellery. Moffat's wife and Virginia's aunt, Iris Tree, was, with Cunard and Diana Cooper, a leader of the First World War, proto-flapper "Corrupt Coterie". Later, the Moffats would throw hashish parties in their Hampstead flat, while Virginia's mother, Viola, was "completely crazy", recalls Pauline, Lady Rumbold: "She drove her car through Marble Arch." As if in reaction to such remarkable relatives, Virginia was "a very secret, private person", says Lady Rumbold, who became her stepdaughter:

Virginia had in her nature all these things . . . Yet . . . she was so shy that she'd

jump out of the car to blow her nose because she didn't want anyone to see her.

Virginia was a student at the Slade School of Art when she and her cousin Ivan Moffat met Tennant at Fryern Court, Augustus John's gypsyish house near Fordingbridge in Hampshire. Tennant, then undergoing one of his periodical bouts of depression, was all too responsive to the young girl: "When I first saw your face, I thought of it as a charm / A charm given me - gratis - the right to love again . . ." At that time, Tennant was still married to Pauline's mother, the actress Hermione Baddeley, and at the 1936 New Year party at the Gargoyle, as Hermione performed a cabaret, Tennant danced with Virginia - much to his wife's displeasure.

The couple had begun an affair - its secrecy all the more piquant for the 15-year age gap between them, and played out in such Bohemian haunts as the Eiffel Tower restaurant in Fitzrovia; or Tennant's Wiltshire house, the grey Gothic pile of Teffont Magna, where they rode on his motorbike: "He drove at 95mph, with me on the pillion," Virginia told Michael Luke, author of the 1991 book David Tennant and the Gargoyle Years, "too vain to sit astride, as being ungainly, so I sat dangerously side-saddle."

There followed a cruise to Madeira and a drive along the Italian coast - with separate bedrooms - "a passionate idyll just skirting complete possession". Tennant's open marriage to Hermione was fractured, and they divorced in 1937; Hermione was banned from the Gargoyle "as it upset Virginia to see her there" - although she went anyway. But her daughter Pauline and Virginia would become lifelong friends: "I loved her because she loved my father."

Tennant married Virginia Parsons in 1938 - an event celebrated by more of his somewhat surreal verse: "A jungle-striped pride issued from your loins / To meet a cosmic woman in your breast" - and they honeymooned in New York, Nassau, Cuba and Mexico, only to be recalled by Lord Glenconner to sort out problems at the Gargoyle (where, as Anthony Powell complained, on Saturday nights the place was filled with "the 200 nastiest people in Chiswick").

The rooftop club continued to mix all classes of people, borne up in its rickety lift for the nightly bacchanalia. One evening Brian Howard, David's wayward friend (and model for Evelyn Waugh's Anthony Blanche), annoyed Virginia so much that, with one finger, she gently pushed him off his stool and watched him fall backwards in slow motion. Later, she would propose Donald Maclean for membership.

During the Second World War, David Tennant served in an artillery regiment, before being invalided out in December 1941 as "temperamentally unfit", while Virginia stayed in the country at Teffont Magna with their newly born daughter Georgia - their house guests including Dylan Thomas, during whose visits Virginia would remove all her precious ornaments from the mantelpiece.

Tennant had begun to drink heavily, even as Virginia was pregnant with their second daughter, Sabrina, and in the post-war years his alcoholism and his infidelities increased. In 1952, after a last trip to Spain together, they returned separately. Virginia was now in love with the Marquess of Bath, châtelain of Longleat in Wiltshire, and had been since meeting him at the Chelsea Arts Ball four years previously. "It was so sad, really, a time of emotional agony for me," she said. "Because I still loved David. But there you are."

Marriage to the equally dashing Lord Bath, himself recently divorced, in 1953, was hardly less colourful - not least because of the decision to run Longleat (which had opened to the public in 1949) as a safari park. The lions of Longleat first went on show in 1966, courtesy of Jimmy Chipperfield; it was a ground-breaking move, one which would lead the way for what were in effect aristocratic theme-parks. By that time, Henry Bath had retired to Job's Mill, an elegant stone house in the grounds of Longleat, leaving the big house in the hands of his equally eccentric son Viscount Weymouth, and allowing Virginia to concentrate on her painting. She was a talented painter of floral miniatures, which she occasionally exhibited.

Virginia Bath maintained her links with the Tennants - most whimsically, in her friendship with David's flamboyant but now reclusive brother, Stephen, the artist and poet manqué and former lover of Siegfried Sassoon. In the mid-1970s Stephen would send her exquisitely illustrated and hilarious letters from his aesthetic reclusion at Wilsford, near Amesbury. He was very taken with Virginia's looks, and those of her young daughter Silvy. "I like young people to enjoy themselves," Stephen declared, recommending Chipperfield's

sublime Circus - Christchurch this week - Southampton next - Pure atavistic, Pantheistic Rapture & Ecstasy. Will you come for Afternoon tea?

The Baths duly called at Wilsford, and Stephen pronounced their visit a

rare, exquisite pleasure . . . Henry so amused me by saying, "You don't sleep in that bed?" . . . You are pure fairy-tale: Legendary loveliness. You remind me of Elsa von Brabant in Lohengrin.

He even sought Virginia and Silvy's assistance in finding himself a partner (he was then in his seventies): "A wife-hunting Safari would be fun . . . but it would be a 'Mariage Blanc' ", he hastened to add.

It was in search of stories of Stephen Tennant that I went to Job's Mill in the late 1980s, collected from the station by the Baths' rustic chauffeur (who entertained me en route with stories of wild parties on the Longleat estate). Lady Bath was on the doorstep as I arrived. "God, you're young!" she cried; and proceeded to deliver an empathetic account of her friendship with Stephen; and, over lunch, sat me next to her husband (famed for his collection of Nazi memorabilia and for calling Hitler "one helluva guy"), then rather deaf, but still full of anecdotes of the Bright Young Things - describing how, on one of their fantastical parties, they'd danced across the counters of Selfridges.

Such was the vivacity of this handsome, elderly, eccentric pair that I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd repeated the feat there and then.

Philip Hoare

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