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“Fine English Country House in rural Oxfordshire” 4 of 5 bubbles
Review of Upton House

Upton House
Ranked #1 of 32 things to do in Banbury
Certificate of Excellence
Attraction details
London, United Kingdom
Level Contributor
51 reviews
15 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 134 helpful votes
“Fine English Country House in rural Oxfordshire”
4 of 5 bubbles Reviewed 2 January 2008

The National Trust which was founded in 1895 by Octavia Hill and today is probably the world’s leading conservation body with hundreds of houses under its steward ship as well as 700 miles of coastline and many acres of important landscape in England & Wales. The houses and attractions open to the public are not tourist attractions but are buildings, lands and monuments which are conserved or restored in various degrees and are owned in trust by 3.4 M members. As such they provide some wonderful venues for visitors which give a real insight into the life of England away from the well trod tourist traps.

One such place is Upton House the house of Walter Samuel, Viscount Bearstead, the Chairman of Shell Oil and son of its founder. In the 1930's he was one of the richest men in the world and this was his weekend house bought to entertain and go hunting and remodeled to house the art collection begun by his father. It is on the edge of the Cotswold’s, between Banbury and Stratford-upon-Avon. If going by car go from either junction 11 or junction 12 on the M40 and you will pick up the distinctive brown direction signs with the Nation Trusts oak leaf symbol. This is a delightful corner of Oxfordshire with picture postcard villages with hugely attractive thatched cottages with the thatch contrasting with the reddish / brown local Hornton stone.

The approach to Upton House is unassuming with little hint of what is beyond other than the rather austere North Front in the same reddish local stone. One of the National Trust's most important art collections can be found in this house, built in 1695 of mellow local stone, purchased and remodeled in 1927–29 by Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted, who was Chairman of Shell, 1921–46, and son of the company's founder. Upton contains his outstanding collection of English and continental Old Master paintings over three floors, including works by Hogarth, Stubbs, Romney, Canaletto, Brueghel and El Greco; Brussels tapestries; French Sèvres porcelain; Chelsea and Derby figures and 18th-century furniture. The second viscount donated it to the National Trust in 1948 with the collection and an endowment and the proviso that it is displayed as a family house, not as a museum. Indeed, the family lived here until 1988 and still owns the extensive grounds where they live in a modern house. The house was remodeled in the late 1920’s and the combined Library, double height Picture Room, Art Gallery and Billiards’ Room combines both a sense of grandeur and an English gentleman’s club atmosphere. The other “Gosford Park” style feature is the separate luggage lobby where visitor’s belongings would be taken up the backstairs to their bedrooms whilst they were no doubt welcomed with agreeable cocktails!

Upstairs there are a number of suites decorated in the Art Deco style including Lady Bearsted's restored bedroom and Art Deco bathroom which is covered in aluminum leaf. Also upstairs there is an exhibition of paintings and publicity posters commissioned by Shell during Viscount Bearsted's chairmanship; In the 20’s to 50’s Shell under Jack Boddington and London Transport under Frank Pick commissioned some of the most memorable advertising seen in Britain. As well as posters and billboards with slogans such “You’re going wee, you’re going Shell”. As well as the posters the company produced post cards, maps and the Shell Guide’s which are now valuable collectors’ items. They form a testament to the great creativity in graphic design and art in the 20s and 30s as well as documenting a simpler age when the car was seen as a form of liberation!

Standing on the terrace on the South Front there of the glories beyond looking at what appears to be a ha-ha framed on one side with majestic Cedars of Lebanon planted in 1700 on the right and ancient yews framing an Alpine garden on the left. As you approach the bank the ground falls away and there below you is the unusual centre piece – a wonderful Kitchen garden framed by 2 remaining out of 4 “stew lakes” which provided fresh fish for the house. The garden is very fine, with lawns, terraces, orchard, herbaceous borders, kitchen garden, ornamental pools and an interesting 1930s water garden, together with the National Collection of Asters. The kitchen gardens provide a wonderful range of produce with, for instance, 6 types of apple tree. This and the other variety of plants, fruits and flowers were not designed to impress but rather to ensure fresh produce was available for as long as possible. The apples would have different ripening and storage times to ensure as long a season as possible.

There is a fine cafeteria in one of the pavilions which serves a simple range of good fresh food and a visitor shop which serves a good range of gifts, local foods and garden plants grown in the grounds and greenhouses. All in all this has much to offer as a visitor destination with a fine English as it would have appeared in the 20s and 30s, a wonderful collection of art and artifacts and attractive historic gardens to enjoy with an array of colours and interest throughout the seasons.

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