Even on a dull spring morning the gardens are a blaze of colour sloping down to the sea. And the house is an eclectic mix of 1920s architecture, a gateway to the Jazz Age. This is Coleton Fishacre, on the south Devon coast, one time residence of the famous D’Oyly Carte family.
The D’Oyly Carte Musical Legacy
The D’Oyly Carte musical dynasty began with Richard D’Oyly Carte, a composer and impresario who brought the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan to the London stage. He later opened the Savoy Hotel and acquired a number of other hotels in London. His son Rupert inherited the hotels and the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and continued as their manager. In 1925 Rupert and his wife Dorothy built Coleton Fishacre as a country retreat.
The house was built in the Arts and Crafts fashion, a simple style inspired by medieval buildings, which aimed to use local materials where possible. The latter part was taken literally: the stone for the house was quarried from the garden, with a railway track to carry the stone up the hill. The interior was mostly furnished according to Art Deco principles, although it also incorporated some Art Nouveau features. In keeping with the minimalism of Art Deco, the rooms were decorated in plain colours and were remarkably uncluttered by comparison with other English country houses. Although the house passed out of the D’Oyly Carte family after Rupert died, the contents and décor have now been restored to the original style.
A Vanished Way of Life
Walking around the house is like stepping into a past era, a time when the Jazz Age was in full swing. As we entered the elegant saloon 1920s music was playing on the old fashioned gramophone. An original D’Oyly Carte recording of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury lay casually on a table in the sitting room. I stood by the drinks cabinet and visualised myself sipping a cocktail mixed to a recipe from the Savoy Hotel cocktail book. (Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy Hotel was credited with introducing American cocktails to a British audience, and the cocktail book is apparently still in print.)
The family frequently invited guests to Coleton Fishacre. You can imagine being a visitor here, indulging in the typical country pursuits of the time, including tennis, fishing and bathing in a nearby tidal pool. Or just enjoying the house and the gardens, with al fresco drinks and dining whenever the weather permitted.
The Gardens of Coleton Fishacre
Rupert and Dorothy were actively involved in the landscaping of the 30 acre garden. Although it has changed over the years it is now gradually being restored to its original design. Particular features are the stream running downhill with small waterfalls along the way, and the lookout points giving views across to the sea. The sea and the stream make the garden unusually humid, and this allows a wide range of exotic plants to flourish.
We walked down the hill, enjoying the abundance of spring flowers and the magnolias in full bloom. The scent of wild garlic was everywhere. At the bottom of the garden we stopped at the lookout and looked down to the wild cliffs and jagged rocks below. A stark contrast to the house above and the civilised world of the D’Oyly Cartes.