Wiltshire magazine meets Lord Bath: an explosion of colour and vivacity at Longleat House, Wiltshire

PUBLISHED: 13:34 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:46 20 February 2013

Day Nursery Mural

Day Nursery Mural

Longleat House was the first Stately Home to open to the public and the present incumbent, Lord Bath, is a colourful character.

Wiltshire magazine meets Lord Bath: an explosion of colour and vivacity at Longleat House, Wiltshire

On a perfect cold and frosty Wiltshire morning, I enter the Longleat Estate and drive through the forest. No kids in the back, no looking out for white rhinos and giraffes or scratching around for my passport entry tickets. Just me in the car and the blue sky... it is so beautiful.

Imagine, I thought as I meander down the drive towards the Elizabethan Longleat that we all know so well, imagine what it must have been like in the olden days, in a horse and carriage. "Ah, well, we didn't have that entrance then," said Lord Bath, "you would have had to have been on foot or horseback."

I'm here to interview Lord Bath about Longleat's much coveted and greatly achieved Superbrand status: it has recently been voted one of the top 500 UK Superbrands for 2008/09, selected by a panel of independent industry experts. It is the only stately home and safari park to have been included, but, strangely, we never really seem to get round to the subject; there's so much more to talk about, and it is just another first for this unique tourist attraction amongst a list of many.

Ruth, Lord Bath's Head Guide, greets me at the Estate Office, makes me a cup of coffee, and explains her job with hilarious anecdotes, such as the well-to-do recently widowed lady who commented on leaving the Karma Sutra room, 'My dear, I've been robbed!' Or the boat keeper who was left stranded on the monkey island in the '60s after the monkeys 'escaped' on his rowing boat!

The atmosphere is warm and relaxed. Ruth shows me some of Lord Bath's private apartments that have become so famous for the murals that he designed and painted himself. I am quite overwhelmed. I've seen them many times before on television and in photographs, but I had never quite picked up on their magnitude and vibrancy.

The colours are psychedelic and energetic, daring. I love them, they make you feel alive.

We see the nursery rooms designed for his children with the theme depicting, as it says in the brochure: 'Daytime, Night-time. Underground and Underwater, all being drawn from a fantasy world where all mankind rubs together along with the animal kingdom, in a spirit of co-operation'. Lord Bath's nephew, another Alexander, designed the mosaic ceilings.

We walk down the stairs towards Lord Bath's office. There on the side of the walls are the famous 'wifelets'. Again, I hadn't imagined how colourful and appealing they were, or how much I would want to reach out and touch them. I resist asking who is who...

Ruth knocks and a pretty white Labrador roars out barking, carrying her 'chew'. "Hello, Boudi," she says opening the door. There in front of me, sitting on a divan with Boudicca now snuggled up beside him, is the magical Lord Bath. I'm not disappointed. Dressed in purple velour trousers with an orange shirt (which I later discover comes from Thailand), a leopard-skin-coloured beret and a peacock-coloured waistcoat. He greets me with a warm handshake. "You are just as I imagined," I exclaim. "You and the murals, all the colours match!"

"I'm a chameleon," he says. "Visitors can walk by and not even know that I am there! When we first moved here," he explains, "after my grandfather died, the guides used to have these rooms. I managed to persuade my father to let me have them." Again, I am quite bowled over by the magnitude of the murals. "When did you start decorating them?" I ask. "Well, they were a canvas all ready to be painted on. They had been prepared for Boucher but the commission had never been realised."

The nine individual framed wooden panels represent all the different stages of life from conception, through to pre-nativity, innocence, adolescence, disillusionment, maturity, toil, success and decay. They are painted using a combination of sawdust and oils ("very messy - like mud pies") in the style of neo-Expressionism.

I can't resist asking how he first had the courage to start the painting. "Was it a bit like being a naughty schoolboy scribbling on the walls of your bedroom?" I say. "I wasn't really on speaking terms with my father at that time. I started on canvas to begin with, which covered the panels. I knew that at some stage he would find out more about them."

"Did you ever paint over anything that you didn't like?" I ask. "No. I have painted over some ancient Chinese wallpaper, but the wallpaper was covered and I painted over it, so it is protected underneath there!"

Longleat House was built by Sir John Thynne from 1568 and Alexander Thynn is the 7th Marquess of Bath to have lived there. Alongside the fascinating and unique murals there are many other treasures. There is the fine collection of paintings ranging from English portraits dating from the 16th century to the present day, to Dutch landscapes and Italian Old Masters.

"My father, to his credit, first opened the doors to the public in 1949," the Marquess said. It was the first ancestral home to do so, and in 1966 the safari park was opened. It was the first outside of Africa and began a revolution in zoological collections that has since spread around the globe. For the first time animals were able to move freely across hundreds of acres of land and to interact with each other.

Today it is difficult to understand the furore aroused when Longleat's plans for an initial 100-acre lion reserve were made public. There were dire warnings of big cats running amok in Wiltshire, local clergymen were up in arms and there were even questions asked in the Houses of Parliament!

In 2000, Longleat filmed the first series with BBC's Animal Park. The hugely popular behind-the-scenes TV series captured the hearts of millions and offered a fascinating glimpse into everyday life at Longleat.

The safari park is closed from November through to February half-term, but Longleat House is still busy. A new special VIP package has been launched exclusively for groups. Visitors have a behind-the-scenes tour of the House; an opportunity to view rooms not usually open to the public and featuring some of the furniture and items shown on the BBC Animal Park programme. The whole experience is finished off by a two-course lunch in the Cellar Caf and some discounted shopping in Lady Bath's shop. A talk from a key member of staff featured in the programme offers audiences an insight into what it is like to work with the BBC Animal Park team and the impact it has had on Longleat

I could have stayed there all day chatting to Lord Bath and, when I leave we're onto the subject of a suitable "suitor" for Boudicca. "There's a rather charming labradoodle I have in mind."

For further information and booking details call (01985 844400) or visit www.longleat.co.uk.

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