The Spencer Roberts Room at the Port Lympne Hotel contains a spectacular mural that can teach us all something about having our interiors exactly as we want them.
It never ceases to amaze us how often the stories of Britain’s country houses — and other landmarks — seem to turn on a quirk of fate. We recently featured Avington Park, a 50-bedroom house bought by someone who was after a five-bedroom home. Then there’s the hilarious tale of Stonehenge: Cecil Chubb had been sent by his wife to an auction to buy some chairs, and ended up buying the world’s most famous stone circle instead.
Such it is with the country house that is today the centrepiece of the Port Lympne Hotel. Wildlife park owner, conservationist and gambling impresario John Aspinall only bought the place in 1973 since he lived next door, and needed the land to expand his growing collection of wild animals.
Having bought the mansion, however, he and his wife fell in love with the place and spent a decade restoring it to its former glory. There are grand rooms, fine gardens and a breathtakingly charming Moroccan courtyard on the first floor. But, perhaps best of all, there is a mural by the artist Arthur Spencer Roberts: an entire room whose walls and ceiling are covered in a wonderful mural of hundreds of animals, birds and insects against jungle and savannah backgrounds. It’s like a mini-Sistine Chapel of exotic wildlife painting.
Photographing the room isn’t easy. One day in the future we’ll probably have some sort of miniaturised Google Street View style camera with which to show off a painting which surrounds and envelops the entire space. Until then, we’ll have to make do a mix of focusing in on some of the best sections, and using wider-angle shots which simply can’t capture the feeling.
No doubt art critics might argue that it is deficient in some way or another, since that’s what they tend to do. And indeed Roberts himself pre-empted such criticism: ‘Of course we are not great artists in competition with the Braques and the Picassos,’ he said. ‘We are illustrators and part of a long British tradition.’
That underplays the achievement, but then again Roberts was always — by all accounts — extremely modest about his work. Apart from anything else, the artist spent three years working on his murals at Port Lympne, demonstrating perfectionism and tenacity that any of the greats would be proud of.
Roberts isn’t wrong about it being a great tradition, however, and indeed his aren’t the only murals at the house. The ‘Tent Room’, painted by Rex Whistler before the Second World War, is also noteworthy, if less dramatic.
In any case, the lesson to be learned from the Spencer Roberts Room at Port Lympne isn’t about art or expression. Instead, the message is this: if you have a passion for something, and wish to do something rather extraordinary or unconventional in your home, then go for it.
Dive in with both feet. Double down on your bet. That way, you will love it — and no matter what anybody else might think, the passion that inspired it will shine through.
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