Major Munthe's Garden at Southside House, Wimbledon Common
The London Gardener or The Gardener's Intelligencer (Vol. IV) 1998-1999
For a rich density of imagination, style and faded whimsical charm, the interior of Southside House stands in an inspiring league of its own. In London only the Soane Museum can surpass it in magic and inventiveness. The pleasure of visiting Southside House is soon to be intensified by access to its hidden garden.
It was Major Munthe's dream to return the garden to the splendour of its pre-war form. This had been lovingly nurtured by his English mother, Hilda Pennington-Mellor and his celebrated father, the writer and healer, Axel Munthe. They worked within the parameters of a mature English garden, gradually weaving references to their various other properties. In the unlikely setting of a house overlooking a corner of Wimbledon Common can be found echoes of Capri, Sweden, Biarritz, Rome and the ancient manor of Hellen's in Herefordshire. This intriguing collage was to be all but destroyed by bombs, allotments and bomb-shelters. After the war Major Munthe laboured quietly but determinedly to restore this lost vision from his childhood. He was hampered by lack of funds, but made up for it with a beguiling charm that allowed him to recruit many an unsuspecting friend or relative as a day-labourer.
Visitors enter the precincts of Southside House through one of a pair of black gates into a paved and tree-shaded forecourt. A pair of carriage houses, connected to the house by arcades and yew hedges, define this formal space. Against the external street-wall a trickling fountain disturbs the pool built to catch a reflection of the long, reclining statue of Peter Munthe. Though he was Major Munthe's older brother, he disinherited himself from his tangled obligations in order to concentrate on his painting. He lived alone in a North London garret, amid cats and capes, but is here represented as writing verse. Opposite him, set on plinths right against the house, stand the firm muscular forms of Peace and Plenty, said to be carved for the house in the late 17th century by a Dutch sculptor.
The imposing front door of the house is barred. Entrance is effected over the hard flint cobbles under the west arcade, where a narrow passage skirts the side of the house. A double stable, complete with the name plates of the last residents, fills the ground floor of the corner of the house. It has been unoccupied since the blitz, when Mrs Axel Munthe took her horses up to the safety of Much Markle in Herefordshire. Neither horses nor carriage cared to make the return journey, though the latter is in occasionally pressed into use for Much Markle weddings. There are schemes afoot to reintroduce horses to Southside, which will allow the rather drafty bedroom above to recover its natural form of heating.
A small but perfectly formed grotto gurgles at the far corner of the passage. It is the third to have stood on this site, but we have the Major's word for it that the present rich profusion of shells which emerge, cascade and flirt from every curve of the recess is the most artful of all. It was constructed by a beautiful young art student, Belinda Eade, from her personal hoard of shells. She has since risen to become an ubiquitous name in garden design.
Beside it a pair of rickety garden sheds, just a breath away from permanent collapse, provide sole testimony to the old wartime allotments. They hang off the oldest portion of the house whose roof is crowned by a gothic stone gable unearthed in excavations which attempted to locate a medieval priory.
The border-framed lawn of the Privy Garden frames the grand back entrance to the house. It is the only area of the garden were flowers are permitted. The old carriageway drive that swept guests up here is recalled by two resurrected gateways immersed in the Privy fencing. It is difficult to map out the old policies of the house which are now occupied by the sports fields of Kings School. For over a hundred years the quiet reverie of the garden has been punctuated by sharp cries of pleasure from cricket and tennis players.
An old wrought iron gate, wrapped in padlocks and chains guards access from the Privy Garden to Priory Pond. Beloved by toads and filled up from an unknown source it surrounds an island upon which stands an indifferent urn. This unworthy monument is the final resting place of the last of the Whartons, that dynasty which crams the interior of Southside House with generation after generation of family portraits. The last Lord Wharton led a carefree life but was greatly concerned that he might be buried alive. He was also haunted by the idea of joining his ancestors in the family mausoleum in Somerset. It was left to Major Munthe to take care of his cousin's very specific post mortem wishes. Once he was assured that Lord Wharton was well and truly dead, he took the body off to be burned. The ashes and bits of bone were then wrapped in a handkerchief and buried in an old oak in the Common that they were both fond of. Later in the year the woods were searched by police on the trail of yet another murder on Wimbledon Common. The police dogs quickly sniffed out the remains of Lord Wharton and the police were hopeful that the name-tape on the associated handkerchief might provide a vital clue in their murder inquiries. Major Munthe was questioned at length but eventually found innocent of foul play though he did solemnly agree to dispose of the ashes within the grounds of Southside House.
The melancholic ivy clad Servitors Cemetery stands nearby, filled with broken columns, head-stones and hand modelled tributes to the various animals that have lived and died here. The imposing sarcophagus, filled with snow drops in spring, houses the remains of a vast wolf hound, the tomb to Loki recalls a more than normally prescient black cat (aptly named after the Norse trickster deity) while an owl perched on a column is a tribute to Romulo. This pampered Roman owl, born in the barn-like roof of the castle of Lunghezza, travelled across Europe in a specially adapted Gladstone bag. In each of the Munthe houses, whole attics were devoted to his comfort. The trilingual Munthe family, never a model of normality, were made more suspicious by their ceaseless requests to the neighbours for live rats.
Ascending a short run of steps under the shadow of the roof-top chapel you find yourself on the Music room terrace. This is the most classically elegant feature of the garden with a lawn stretching out from the ballustraded yorkstone. The balcony is impressively loaded with four marble statues of the seasons which once dotted the clipped parterre's at Biarritz. Wisteria snakes across the elegant 18th-century brick facade and drapes tendrils over the slender flight of stairs upto the French window. Below, pots of brushes and geraniums lean against the windows of the subterranean flat occupied by the resident scholarship artist.
The lawn promises to be elegant one day but for the moment it is dominated, as it always has been, by dogs and their massive marble drinking bowls. Apart from the odd weakness for wolf-hounds, the Munthe's have forsworn pedigree strains and generation after generation have sought new friends from those in the condemned cells at Battersea Dogs Home. The old mulberry tree on the edge of the lawn is a clipping from the garden of St Barnabas in Greek Street as described by Dickens in the Tale of the Two Cities. This in itself was the last lineal descendant of the mulberry groves of Soho planted by Hugenout silk weavers escaping from Louis XIV's terror.
To the right of the lawn entrance can be made through the screen of laurel to a leafy bower. Here stone benches sit beside a tank fed by a lion head fountain and ornamented with fragments of antique stone. This dark corner, cocooned by leaves, was the favourite retreat of Axel Munthe. Here, on his infrequent visits, the near blind but celebrated writer would be read to by his two sons. One would read aloud from the publishers proofs, while the other marked up, to his father's dictation, the corrections in red ink on a fresh copy.
This fountain feeds the ornamental stream which snakes down through trees to fill an irregular pond. Screened by a long line of clipped yew the Major never quite finished his restoration of this water feature. He was determined to rebuild a drawbridge to the islet, whence a flight of steep stairs would lead up to a secluded balcony hanging from the garden wall. Here, he reasoned, would be the perfect place to escape his duties and settle down to write.
The centre of the garden is dominated by a long, holly hedge avenue. This wide and formal walk leads past a clipped box hedge spelling out the name of his brother, past a trail of urns, and side arches to reach the Doric temple of Tysche. This structure, supremely elegant when viewed from the music room terrace is on closer inspection, more quirky. The columns are an "economy' made from old drain-pipes. The capricious goddess of fortune is not a free-standing statue but painted by an artist from the Royal Opera House. The wooded area to the left of the avenue is set aside for butterflies, insects and toads. It contains in its heart a neat patch of turf, seeded with primroses and commanded by a neat box-clipped bench that was planted by the Major for his beloved daughter Katriona.
On the other side of the avenue a path of ease twists through the orchard, recently re-planted by Adam Munthe with rare apple varieties brought down from Hellen's Much Markle. Hidden amongst the bay trees is a crude copy of Tiberius's double throne made from marble floor fragments saved from Capri. Further in the shrubbery lurks the temple to St George. Four marble columns (recovered from a bombed-out bank) fight with a pair of benches, a red and white floor and a splendid icon of St George for your attention. Only the stone lintel over the icon survives from the original structure. The present temple is an oddity largely constructed by an out-of-work travel-writer, paid for his labour by a series of theatre treats organised by the Major.
In good weather a visit with the Major would terminate at a wooden table, draped with a carpet. Here, under the shade of a holm oak, it was customary to take cup after cup of china tea, to feed ginger biscuits to the dogs and gather together reminescences of the garden as it once was.
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