Ralph Douglas-Scott-Montagu on life as the 4th Baron Montagu of Beaulieu
- Credit: Archant
When the Hon Ralph Montagu inherited the country’s most famous family estate and motor museum two years ago, he already felt right at home. Viv Micklefield meets the man destined to be the driving force behind Beaulieu’s future
Walking into the first floor drawing room, wearing a cream linen jacket, Ralph Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 4th Baron Montagu of Beaulieu to give him his full title, extends a welcome handshake. Whilst I wasn’t expecting this peer of the realm to be swaddled in ermine it’s a relaxed entrance into his family’s private quarters, to match the muted oil paintings and antique furnishings arranged against the pale blue palette, of our surroundings.
Yet appearances can be deceptive. Who’d have imagined, for instance, that the piano standing in this very room was once played by both Liberace and Michael Jackson during visits to Palace House? And, accepting an invitation to sit on what Lord Montagu, as he prefers to be called, suggests is the more comfortable of the two squashy-looking sofas, there’s the sense that he too might be a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Born to inherit the 7,000-acre Beaulieu Estate from his late father Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, who passed away aged 88 following a short illness in August 2015, he’s been running day-to-day affairs here for some time, alongside holding down the job of Radio Times’ head of heritage. Whereas the late Lord Montagu was renowned for living life in the fast lane, fuelled by a love of motor cars and celebrity house guests, his eldest son is, by his own admission, “a bit of an archivist”. Yet he is already showing a spirited individualism in the changes he’s bringing to the ancestral home.
“With the processing of my father’s estate still continuing, there’s lots I want to do but it will take time to do it,” says the 56-year-old, adding: “It’s not that I’m doing anything dramatically different now but it does feel different, because before I was maintaining the status quo and doing as he’d want things done.
“In addition to the motor museum, which is wonderful in its own way, we have the heritage of Beaulieu itself. And I’m keen to shout a bit more about what the house and the garden and the abbey has to offer.
“My approach to the house is to build on what my father started. We know it’s not the biggest or the grandest of stately homes but we can bring it to life through its people, which is what visitors enjoy. And that’s where I’m putting my creative energy.”
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Although Lord Montagu’s childhood spent at Palace House is best described as unconventional compared with that of his classmates at Walhampton School – until he was almost 11 the estate’s entire office staff worked from the house, much like an extended family – it nonetheless holds many fond memories.
“What you have to remember is that wherever you grow up and whatever you grow up with, that is your normality; it’s only when you see other people’s homes and other people’s lives that you start to realise that they may not be the same as yours.
“Having the motor museum here I had the use of a lot of Edwardian children’s pedal cars and when I was a bit older my sister Mary and I also had a go-kart. So, it was great fun.”
“Of course my father would host lots of events whenever he was here. He would usually come back on a Thursday night until Monday afternoon and then he’d go off back to London. My mother was here more so but it was my nanny who was the mainstay during my early years.”
Little surprise then that the nursery is singled out as his all-time favourite room. And treated to a peek inside, usually reserved for bespoke tours, he points out a much-loved rocking horse, and the fireplace.
“I remember sitting beside here and nanny reading me a goodnight story, and then saying my prayers before going to bed. After my younger brother Jonathon grew up it was returned to a bedroom, but it still has a special atmosphere.”
Watching members of the public queuing-up to visit Beaulieu, which they’ve done since 1952, was also commonplace; his predecessor having had the vision to generate much-needed money to secure the family seat held since Tudor time, for future generations. The presence today of scaffolding is, he says, nothing more than regular maintenance to external stone, lead, and paintwork.
Despite Lord Montagu’s deep-rooted affection for Palace House he’s not lived here for over 20 years, preferring instead to remain with his wife Ailsa (they married in 2005), in the more private village house and former home of his grandmother.
“I’m away much less, and am in the house much more, than my father ever was. My office is here, it’s where I entertain and sometime have guests staying here. It’s still, in many ways, lived in.”
And keen to showcase its former residents, he’s explored Beaulieu’s archives and applied his graphic design experience, in the private apartment’s newly open wing. Here, the parallel lives of The Lady and the Rebel, two remarkable 20th century Beaulieu women: Pearl Pleydell-Bouverie, who married Lord Montagu’s grandfather John in 1920, and the actress and intelligence officer Elizabeth Montagu, are told through family possessions and newly published diaries.
Off the same corridor, exhibited works from the Art Russe collection provide more reason to venture upstairs. As he points out: “In the past, many stately home owners, including my ancestors, collected art from around the world and so it is entirely appropriate I should be continuing that tradition by hosting this collection at Beaulieu.”
And, whilst remaining tight-lipped on plans to recreate up to five bedrooms in period decor, already on show is the former Lord Montagu’s library.
“As well as a room full of books, it was my father’s cosy sitting room and where he spent much of his later years. His desk was in here and a big old armchair in the corner. As children we would spend time with him and my mother at teatime, when there would have been a big television in here too.”
A familial sense of humour is bound-up in the false bookshelf door; both father and son having had fun with wordplay on the mock titles. Indeed, the desire to celebrate a lineage that includes Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Francis Drake and the Earl of Southampton continues, from Royal Coronation robes to old pots and pans. The reconstructed Victorian Kitchen, Lord Montagu’s latest addition, typifying how he wants to share Beaulieu’s multi-layered history.
“When the cook is in there you can walk into the house and actually smell the bread baking, which is great. We now sell jam and shortbread in the shop that is made here in the house. It’s genuinely our own estate produce and is only available here.
“This Christmas we’ll be serving-up mulled punch and we’ll have the dining room table laid up for lunch which you’ll be able to watch the cook preparing,” he says, looking ahead to the festive season. “Every room in the house will have a Christmas tree, there will be carol singing and a ‘Christmas Day panto’ with actors playing the roles of family members. The aim is to give people a sense that they are coming into a Victorian house party.”
Beaulieu has certainly seen a few parties in its time. The million dollar question though, is: what does Lord Montagu think his late father might make of his ideas?
“I’m certainly not doing anything he said I shouldn’t do. So I think he would approve.”
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