IT’S hard to imagine quite how dramatic the state of disrepair at Basildon House was after the war.
Exploring the Grade I listed building today, or sauntering round its 400 acres of parkland, you are greeted with a lovingly restored Georgian country house maintained by the National Trust.
But that’s largely down to the vision and hard work of one extraordinary woman, Renée Lady Iliffe, who first saw the building in 1952 after it had suffered years of military occupation.
“To say it was derelict is hardly good enough,” Lady Iliffe wrote later. “No window was left intact, and most were repaired with cardboard or plywood.”
Walls were covered with signatures and grafitti from various wartime occupants and there was no sign of modernisation other than an army washroom catering for six people at a time.
Nonetheless, despite the cold and damp, the empty rooms and broken windows, she had fallen in love with the place and would spend the next 25 years carefully restoring it to its former glory.
“There was still an atmosphere of former elegance, and a feeling of great solidity. Carr’s house was still there, damaged but basically unchanged,” she wrote.
Lady Iliffe was born on the island of Mauritius and the family home was a remote and beautiful 5,000-acre plantation. With the collapse of the sugar industry, the family were increasingly strapped for cash and Renée, the eldest of four children, grew up to be sturdily independent.
But her life changed dramatically through the intervention of her aunt Edith, who insisted that the family decamp to England and paved the way for the family’s assimilation into the English aristocracy.
Cultivated and exotic, with film-star looks, Renée was introduced to Langton Iliffe, and the couple fell in love and married in December 1938 – an event captured for posterity by Pathe News.
Renée Iliffe soon set about the task of transforming their new home, honing a talent for interior decoration she had first show during the war, and establishing herself as a skilled and generous hostess – so much so that the couple’s lifestyle at Basildon Park would feature in the July 1966 edition of Vogue.
That photoshoot, along with the famous weekend parties in the 1950s and 60s where Lord and Lady Iliffe entertained guests such as Princess Grace of Monaco and artist Graham Sutherland, inspired a special display of select pieces of designer couture from the Fashion and Textile museum which runs until November 18.
From Chanel and Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior, 18 dresses and gowns are on display, including items owned and worn by Lady Iliffe herself.
She was a skilled and generous hostess whose genius was said to be her ability to create an atmosphere in which comfort was mixed with elegance, and to inject it with a sense of fun.
Sebastian Conway, the Trust’s house and collections manager – and whose pictures feature above and below – said: “The vivid life and colour that filled this house at weekends has for a long time been missing. It’s about time we celebrated Lord and Lady Iliffe’s socialite side, as they brought prestige and recognition to Basildon Park with their dazzling dinners and glamorous parties for their celebrity guests.”
She and Lord Iliffe lived happily at Basildon for many years and, after presenting it in 1978 to the National Trust along with a handsome endowment, remained there as tenants. He had succeeded to his father’s peerage in 1960 and died in 1996, while Lady Iliffe died in 2007 at the age of 90.
The Palladian house itself was built by John Carr of York for Francis Sykes, who made a fortune in service with the East India Company, while the interiors were completed for the Liberal MP James Morrison, who bought Basildon in 1838.
But the house stood empty and neglected throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Nowadays the interior boasts a richly decorated neo-classical hall, a spectacular staircase hall, an octagonal drawing room with heavy Italianate ceilings and a slightly overwhelming upstairs shell room created by Lady Iliffe.
It has to be said that the floral pinks and ornate fifties feel of some of the upstairs rooms are not to every taste, but for those unmoved by fashion and youngsters wanting to let off steam, the 400 acres of parkland provide plenty of space to escape from the house into the sunlight.
Although substantially damaged by wartime tank training, the long-term restoration of the grounds continues today and the parkland walks provide the opportunity to escape from the crowds, even on busy weekends.
For full details about Basildon Park and its history, along with prices and admission times, visit the National Trust’s main website.