Return to former glories: Coleton Fishacre at Kingswear

A view of the house across the garden with purple flowers in the foreground

A view of the house across the garden with purple flowers in the foreground - Credit: ©National Trust Images/Carole Dr

Coleton Fishacre at Kingswear was once the weekend retreat of theatre impresario Rupert D’Oyly Carte. Now the National Trust is restoring it to its original 1930s glory, as Nicola Lisle discovers

View of the dining room table looking through to the loggia

View of the dining room table looking through to the loggia - Credit: ©National Trust Images/Carole Dr

As soon as you catch sight of Coleton Fishacre and glimpse the sea peering between the hills beyond, you can understand why the D’Oyly Cartes were captivated by this coastal haven.

Rupert D’Oyly Carte – son of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte – spotted this quiet stretch of coastline while out sailing with his wife, Lady Dorothy, during the 1920s, and was inspired to create a peaceful retreat where he could escape the noise and stress of London life.

Designed in 1925 by Oswald Milne and built of local stone, the house reflects the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement and is remarkable for the way it blends into the landscape. This effect is enhanced by the garden, which was created by the D’Oyly Cartes and cascades dramatically down to the sea at Pudcombe Cove.

The interior, meanwhile, provides a dramatic contrast to the rustic exterior by evoking the Art Deco craze of the 1920s and ’30s.

“It’s very emotive in the sense that people come in and feel that they could still live here,” says Elaine Ward, the House and Collections Manager. “It’s not the grandiose mansion that you normally get with grand, moneyed people. This was the D’Oyly Cartes’ country home. They could get away from The Savoy and just come and relax and enjoy the outdoor pursuits.”

The National Trust acquired the property in 1982 as part of Project Neptune and the garden was opened to the public soon after. The house was leased to private tenants until 1998, and opened to visitors the following year.

Bridge over the stream in the lower part of the garden

Bridge over the stream in the lower part of the garden - Credit: ©National Trust Images/Carole Dr

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Since then, the Trust has been slowly restoring the house to the way it was in the D’Oyly Cartes’ day and bringing their story back to life. With few of the original furnishings left, and with only sparse documentary evidence, this has involved the staff in a considerable amount of detective work. Their clues have come mainly from a Country Life article from 1930, a photograph album of Rupert D’Oyly Carte’s and Oswald Milne’s original plans.

“What we’re telling the public is that this whole house is a recreation of what we think it was like, based on the evidence that we have,” explains Elaine. “We can’t be absolutely sure.

“We’ve had to bring a lot of the furniture in, so it’s of the time but it’s not original to the house.”

A recent project called Opening Closed Doors saw the servants’ quarters being opened up and restored as close to their original state as possible, including bringing paintwork back to its original colour and replacing floor tiles to resemble the original design. This attention to detail has continued throughout the house.

One of the few rooms in the house to have retained its original features is the dining room, which more than any other captures the essence of the D’Oyly Cartes. The blue scagliola table top was chosen because it evoked the sea, while the table and chairs in the adjoining loggia, with its stunning view of the sea, tells of their love of al fresco dining and entertaining. Musical friends from London were made welcome at Coleton Fishacre, and it is easy to imagine them gathering in this idyllic spot.

The sitting room

The sitting room - Credit: ©National Trust Images/Carole Dr

The house also tells a tragic tale. In 1932, the D’Oyly Cartes’ lives were shattered when their only son, Michael, was killed in a road accident in Switzerland, aged just 21. Their marriage collapsed under the strain and they separated in 1936, by which time they were sleeping in different parts of the house.

One thing that hasn’t changed from the D’Oyly Cartes’ day is that sense of getting away from it all, and the Trust is keen to preserve and build on this.

“A lot of people come here because they want to leave the rat race behind,” says Belinda Smith, the Visitor Experience and Marketing Manager. “It was a place the D’Oyly Cartes came to relax and entertain, and we’ve been able to share that love of celebration is by hosting events like our cocktail and jazz evenings. We take cocktails from The Savoy Cocktail Book and let people experience a bit of what the D’Oyly Cartes had.”

Meanwhile, the detective work continues, but there are undoubtedly some stories that this house is keeping to itself. And that secretiveness, that sense of mystery, is all part of Coleton Fishacre’s charm.

A Theatrical Dynasty

Rupert D’Oyly Carte (1876-1948) was the younger son of Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), the impresario who masterminded the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership and established a hotel empire, including The Savoy and Claridge’s.

The family business passed to Rupert in 1913 and he set about modernising the company, commissioning new sets and costumes – notably the colourful Charles Rickett designs for The Mikado – and refurbishing the family hotels with Art Deco interiors.

After his marriage collapsed, Rupert continued to use Coleton Fishacre as a weekend retreat until his death in 1948. His daughter, Bridget, sold the house soon afterwards, and took over the management of the opera company until its demise in 1982. Her death in 1985 brought this famous theatrical family line to an end.

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