My first job as a curator

After my last post about getting a first job in museums or historic houses, my thoughts have been wandering back to my own experience…

Here’s a magazine article I wrote at the time about my own early years of work (including, in the bottom left, there a very old photo!) Please excuse the jejeune enthusiasm, I was only twenty-three.

Day in the Life, Milton Manor, Oxfordshire

By Lucy Worsley

Article in ‘SPAB News’ Vol. 18., no. 2, 1997

One dark Friday in November, I catch the early train from Paddington and then take the bus from Didcot station to Milton, a village in Oxfordshire.  I am on my way to my weekly day at Milton Manor, as the factotum of the owner, Mr Anthony Mockler Barrett.

Some members may remember his late mother, Marjorie, giving an SPAB Country House Lecture on Milton and her collection of 200 tea-pots at the Royal Over-Seas League many years ago.  Anthony inherited the manor in 1990, and lives there with his consort Gwendoline.  Running the estate, though, has left him with little time for his writing.  He is a military historian, biographer and writer of children’s books, although in his time he has been a foreign correspondent, a barrister, and the owner of a very early package holiday company.

The Milton bus is most unpredictable, as we are in deepest rural Oxfordshire, and I have spent many unhappy hours at Didcot station waiting for it.  It spews me forth at the edge of the industrial estate, a damp, anodyne encampment of huts, formerly the farmland of the manor.  I do the last leg on foot, past the Admiral Benbow pub, past the church, along a very short avenue, through a field known, obscurely, as the Visto, then I am at the gates.  The house snuggles up to the village, but it is all fields and trees behind down to our beloved A34.  The house is red brick and the windows wink at me across the small lake (a pond, really, but based in shape on the Serpentine) as I heave the heavy iron gates open.  It will be very cold inside. Peter the Great of Russia is reputed to have visited the house in search of naval secrets while Admiral Benbow was living in the Dower House with his Calton wife, spent the night, and it supposed to have said that it was ‘the coldest house he had ever visited’.  Jonathan Garlick, SPAB Scholar last year who spent two weeks there, agrees.

The central block dates from 1663 when it was built (architect as yet unknown) for the Calton family.  The wings were added in the few years after 1764, the year in which the manor was bought by one Bryant Barrett, lacemaker to George III and Anthony Mockler Barrett’s great-great-great grandfather.  Bryant Barrett was a colourful character.  You can see him strutting elegantly through the Highmoor which now hangs in the library, all thought of the little shop in the Strand where he started out far behind him.  He added the two wings, and his fascinating diary shows how many bricks he calculated that he needed to do it.  His other alterations included re-glazing and the building of the range containing the brewhouse.  He seems to have enjoyed himself in the latter: one diary entry reads ‘Tasted my wine today.  Very bad.  Added more brandy’.  But the southern wing of the house is the most striking because he decorated his ground floor library and his chapel above in a very pretty Gothick style, perhaps as encouraged by his friend Horace Walpole.  Despite his court position, he was a Catholic, and his chapel had to be built upstairs so that the local populace would not be able to see in and supposedly be corrupted.  His descendants have remained Catholic, and one Sunday a month in the summer sees a small and outlandish collection of people arriving for 6 o’clock mass, which they all pronounce with a long ‘a’.  This was my first experience of mass, and I was delighted that the priest on the occasion took as his text ‘We are the sacred nation, the chosen people of the Lord’, a good rabble-rousing Recusant rant.

On this Friday morning, the gates are closed to keep in the various animals .  The menagerie has been a development of Anthony’s time.  There are many ponies, a shire horse, a retired hurdler, an Arab, two cows, many pigs (whose piglets are always having to be, picturequesly, ‘taken to Gloucester’), the pygmy goats, eight black sheep and two llamas.  The llamas have settled down, but when I arrived in June 1995, Cleopatra was always in disgrace for running out of the gates, down the road, in the Executives’ Housing Estate and into the gardens, where she would eat the flowers off the rose bushes.  There was also a problem with escaping peacocks last summer.  The three new peacocks could leap amazingly high in the air, and they were frequently breaking grounds.  Telephone calls are often received from around the village – ‘Mr Mockler, I’ve got one of them peacocks here’ – and someone leaps into a car, taking a blanket to confuse the bird, but it always too late.  Other losses include Whitey the giant and vicious white rabbit, who escaped one night and was never seen again, and Sooty, the adorable black lamb, was eaten alive by the frisky Alsatian belonging to the garage man.

When I arrive in the Nursery, the first floor room where the papers are kept, Anthony is sitting at the table, going through school league tables with a highlighter pen.  I ask him if he is trying to prove that Catholic schools get better exam results.  But no, he is picking out all the schools named after Bishop Challoner or Thomas More, because these two figures have close connections with the house, and they seemed good targets for mailings suggesting a group visit.  Groups are jam, because there is no need to keep someone on the gate and someone in the tea room for visitors who often fail to materialize.  Many of the respondents to a visitor survey over the last year said that what they liked was the peace and quiet, the slapdash approach (you are given a playing card as a ticket), the absence of a shop (although you can have a cup of tea and a piece of cake made by Steventon Women’s Institute) and the atmosphere.  The rooms are all lived in and the tour guides find they have to position themselves strategically in front of empty wine glasses from time to time.  But these things would be the first go if Milton did attract more visitors.  And so long may it continue to limp along.

Firstly, we discuss the inheritance tax problem, which has been dragging on for five years, and the next job, now the house is closed, is to establish the visitor figures and profits for the last season.  I do some work on the house opening account, but it seems that we’ve lost the 1996 visitors’ book.  On paper and by slightly juggling the figures, by the end of the day I have managed to prove that opening the house was exactly twice as profitable as it was in 1995, partly due to a wildly successful Easter Egg Hunt.  But so much depends on the family’s backbreaking hours of preparation that aren’t counted.  The visitors’ book turns up some time later, in the sitting room, which has been searched many times.  I now have hundreds more figures to add up.  My hands are too cold to write by now.  Anthony does not own a calculator on principle, nor a computer, and cannot refrain from making scathing remarks about the inability of the younger generation to add up in their heads.

Next, we find and read the rebuttal of the Vale of the White Horse District Council of our proposed Utopian village.  Armed only with Gillian Darley’s ‘Villages of Vision’, we laid out plans for an extension to Milton Heights, a wartime housing estate with no amenities on its own in the rather grim countryside by the A34 interchange.  After much pacing about in the mud and arguing, we drew up plans to be submitted as part of the Milton Manor Estate’s objection to the forthcoming Local Plan.  Amongst other things, we argued that this site should be set aside for our Utopian housing scheme.  This is for the good of Milton Manor, admittedly, but also for the good of the inhabitants of Milton Heights, and for the good of the future inhabitants who would flock to live here as it’s only a walk or bicycle ride away from Milton Park, the country’s fastest-growing industrial estate.  And what a Utopia it is.  It has a village street.  (Milton Heights doesn’t even have a shop at the moment, and is very difficult to get out of) with subsidized shops, a garage, allotments, bicycle paths, a village green and a pond which can be frozen in winter to become a skating rink.

Next, we cut an article out of The Independent about a new lottery fund called ‘Arts for Everyone’, which is designed, marvelously, to give money to grass-roots amateur dramatics.  This is a subject close to our hearts because of the success of the Inigo Jones Masque that we held in June. It seems an appropriate form of entertainment for a house with Inigo Jones pretensions and the classical stables formed a very elegant backdrop.  Milton Manor has a tradition of bizarre entertainments: the Author’s Book Fair, Cluedo parties, and a VE Day celebration which ended with a naval battle on the lake.  No one has yet managed to rescue the partially submerged wreck of the Nazi boat.

But this year’s Masque was written by A. Mockler and L. Worsley, with help with W. Shakespeare and B. Jonson.  The set was inspired by Inigo Jones’s own designs and there was even a flabbergasting Floating Cloud which lowered various terrified goddesses to the ground from the dovecote of the stables. The theme was very topical – the goddess Diana’s search for a mate – and Anthony was a sprightly James Hewitt as a polo-stick wielding Centaur on his Arab. There was a terribly resplendent Britannia who made her entrance on a ship (the hay wain) decorated in red, white and blue, accompanied by her beautiful nymphs.  The hay wain was to have been pulled by Jet, the shire horse, but during rehearsal Jet disgraced herself by bolting and crashing the hay wain into the stable wall, and had to be cut.  The boat was pulled instead by Monsters wearing paper mache heads.  They also had a dance of their own with Hades, one of the villains, as was the raffish Bacchus, who in more sober hours is an Oxford don.

There was a very civilized lecture about masques in the walled garden beforehand, and a most enjoyable Revel afterwards.  A great many people gave amounts of their time for nothing, including professional singers and actors.  The house was packed with thespians for two weekends, but in the best tradition of amateur dramatics it came off fairly successfully despite having been practically unrehearsed.  A little elater, I was horrified to see the 1996 US film ‘Emma’ at the cinema, and to see our Zeus, Denys Hawthorne, as Mr Woodhouse – there he was on the silver screen with a star-studded cast and only the week before we had been ordering him around and making him climb in stepladders in a short tunic.  How well he bore it!

Just before lunch, we get a telephone call from the chairman of the Parish Council of the neighbouring village.  ‘Is it true that Anthony is planning to build a Canary Wharf on the field at Milton Heights?’.  Village gossip! Anthony next spends a long time looking for his black address book.  Gwenda, who has a genius for finding things, finds it on his desk, and roundly calls him a ‘daft nitto’.  Anthony defends himself by trying to take the credit: he had gone into the chapel and prayed for the book’s return to St Christopher, patron saint of both himself and lost things.

Anthony is expecting a visit from Oxfordshire Fire Service this afternoon.  The fire escape from the attic floor is a wonderful contraption, a tube which shoots out right down through three storeys to the ground at an angle, and you slide along it to safely in the most hair-raising fashion.  A party from the American  National Trust visited in the summer.  As they’d come such a long way, they had the super deluxe guided tour: including sherry and, as a grand finale, a descent in the fire escape for those who felt equal to it.  The firemen on their previous visits have been invited to try it, but have refused, reluctantly, murmuring excuses about insurance.

In the late afternoon, I have nearly finished the house opening account and am ready to go in search of the breakfast room fire.  Suddenly, five enormous firemen sprint through the nursery.  Seconds later, I hear them driving off in their engine, sirens wailing.  Apparently they were called to a fire while they were up in the attic with Anthony.  Such a quick exit makes my think that he must have been trying to persuade them to whizz down his escape tube again.

Surely there can be no more excitement today.  London seems a long way away.   The house settles down for another quiet, damp, decaying winter evening.  ‘Like all the best things in England’, John Betjeman wrote about Milton, ‘this is hidden’.

2 thoughts on “My first job as a curator

  1. Stephen L


  2. I am mystified by the notion that the CAPtcha code is self-explanatory and satisfactory. Be that as it may, today is my birthday and I intend to treat myself to a return to this eccentric pile. Betjeman was right. Long may it molder.


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