The house, it seems, was built on an immense fortune made from guano (dried bird droppings). Not the most appealing or fashionable of commodities, but an excellent fertiliser, of great use in revolutionising large- and small-scale Victorian agriculture. The Gibbs family built their fortunes on overseas trade, but the business expanded dramatically after 1842, when they begun to import guano from Peru, so much so that in the mid-1800s William Gibbs became the richest commoner in England. He bought the Tyntesfield estate, enlarged it with the purchase of several adjacent ones, and in 1863 commissioned Bristol architect John Norton to remodel and enlarge the Georgian mansion that came with the estate and turn it into a country house which, according to Mark Girouard, most richly represented the Victorian age.
A committed Christian, William Gibbs did not merely work to enhance his fortune and improve the family home, but also funded churches and charitable works. After his death, his wife Blanche continued to fund many scholarships and community buildings, whilst his eldest son built the Home farm, managed the estate and, when he inherited the house after his mother’s death, he altered and modernised it, using the latest technology, including electricity. Each on the following generations left their mark on Tyntesfield, but the changes were sensitively made, by adding to the work of the predecessors, rather than undoing it. Thus, when the house came to the National Trust in 2002, most of the contents of the house, Chapel, servants’ quarters had survived largely intact, as did the gardens, home farm, woods and farmland, thus giving an exciting glimpse into the workings of the Victorian and Edwardian country house, as well as its decline.
The last Gibbs to live at Tyntesfield – Richard, 2nd Lord Wraxall – never married. He lived alone, in fewer and fewer rooms, until his sudden death in 2001.
His approach, however, was very different to that of the last owners of Calke Abbey in Derbyshire – the ultimate embodiment of the declining country house. At Calke, the owners (dedicated collectors for many generations) filled unused rooms to capacity with the items they had collected over the years, then closed the doors and proceeded to fill another room, so that the National Trust found a veritable Aladdin’s cave when Calke Abbey was entrusted to their care. By contrast, Lord Wraxall ensured the upkeep of the gardens, kitchen garden and the immediately surrounding land and, although the reception rooms were mostly shuttered and closed up, they were kept well-ordered.
I could only learn as much from the guide-book – I have yet to step over Tyntesfield’s threshold myself. But it sounds like a fascinating treasure trove, worthy of further exploration. Hopefully I might be able to explore it in the spring, and also see the gardens in full glory. There’s a Rose Garden, a Rock Garden, the Jubilee Garden, Lady Wraxall’s Garden, and a kitchen garden and walled garden too. The place was a delight even in the dead of winter. In full bloom it must be pure heaven and, although I am a Georgian at heart rather than a Victorian, I can’t wait to go back again!