Tredegar House is an imposing Restoration-era mansion on the western edge of Newport, Wales. Built around an even earlier house, it is today environed by council housing, business estates, a caravan park and the M4 motorway. For over five centuries this site was associated with the Morgan family, whose judicious, early championing of the Tudors earnt them steep social ascent. The lineage includes the pirate Captain Morgan (of rum fame), but we’re here in search of one of the family’s more recent black sheep.
The last of his line to make use of the house was Evan Morgan (1893-1949), 2nd Viscount Tredegar, poet, painter, (one-time) novelist, (would-be) politician, (occasional) diplomat, art collector and papal chamberlain (Kathleen Mann’s fantastically camp portrait of Morgan in full Vatican drag watches over his bathroom). He was also a deeply ineffectual espionage agent whose incompetence – specifically, divulging state secrets to some passing Girl Guides – landed him in the Tower of London, to become one of the last prisoners held there (the last official inmate was Rudolf Hess, whom Morgan had met previously in mysterious circumstances). If all of this is new to you, read up here, or study Morgan’s manifold connections here.
Tredegar was the site of Morgan’s legendary house parties, his menagerie, his experimentation with the occult. As with Montague Summers, adoptive Catholicism proved no impediment to invocation of gamier deities; the two had a mutual friend in Aleister Crowley, a visitor to Tredegar and witness to Morgan’s rites. An alcove in his bedroom served as the focus of both conventional and demonic worship, its crucifix erect or inverted as circumstances required.
Noted as a client of Denham Fouts, Morgan enjoyed his most enduring relationship with novelist Ronald Firbank, and Tredegar House has a veiled role in Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot as “Intriguer House” (with its seigneur “Eddie Monteith”). For the sake of appearances there were two successive marriages of convenience, each without issue. Both of Morgan’s wives were noted beauties – photos of his second wife Olga Dolgorouky, a Russian princess, reveal a Hollywood-esque sophisticate. She lived until 1998 and offered restorers first-hand testimony of the house in its social apogee.
A back stairway records some of Tredegar’s illustrious interwar guests in caricature – Aldous Huxley, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Augustus John. Elsewhere there’s a John portrait of Evan’s mother Katherine, who was said to have constructed nests large enough for her to sit in. A friendly National Trust volunteer explains that this was probably a form of craft therapy for her arthritic fingers, but avian references are inescapable in the Morgan story. Evan was often described in bird-like terms, and as the Partner and self came to the courtyard – where a chimera guards the oldest part of the house – a jackdaw glared down from its perch atop a high chimney. Loudly and persistently vocal, it might well have been Evan reincarnated, declaiming its indignation at our presence.
Evan Morgan died in 1949 and, with no interest in maintaining the estate, his cousin John sold Tredegar House to the Catholic church in 1951 (“they always get the best real estate” as my father routinely reminded my lapsed Catholic mother). In the second half of the 20th century Tredegar House served as a school and was turned over to Newport Council in 1974. Even now that it is in the care of the National Trust, the process of de-institutionalisation is far from complete. The self-explanatory Gilt Room, for instance, has been magnificently restored, while Morgan’s sitting room is a work in progress, a cheerless space with bare plaster walls where a monitor presents a slideshow of Evan and his associates, both human and animal.
I find my attention waning at the point in any grand house tour when the copper pots and plastic boars’ heads come into view. Not that I imagine that my rightful place is with the squires above, nor do I think that the below-stairs experience isn’t worth recording (and in the Downton era is probably of wider interest than ever), it’s just that, really, one manor kitchen looks much like another.