When the house was originally built this corner of the capital would have been even more peaceful and pastoral, surrounded by 170 acres of parkland, much of which remains. This undoubtedly attracted its first owner, the artist Frederick Goodall who was known among his peers as the ‘artist gardener’ and frequently spent early mornings outside painting. The building’s design belongs to noted Scottish architect Norman Shaw who – under Goodall’s instruction – gave pride of place to the gardens. And Shaw didn’t disappoint. The house welcomes the outside in at every opportunity with views from rooms specifically angled to catch the best of the gardens as the day progresses.
Yet despite the glorious greenery, and Goodall’s large open studio to overlook them, the artist never quite settled here, selling Grim’s Dyke in 1890 to its most famous owner: W. S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Gilbert was already a wealthy celebrity for works such as H.M.S Pinafore, illustrated overleaf, and he set about adding lavish touches throughout. Goodall’s studio became a music room, adorned with a Cornish alabaster fireplace of his own design – said to have come to him in a vision whilst traveling in India. And it’s a sight to behold: a full bestiary of carved mythical creatures dancing in elaborate relief from floor to ceiling.
Gilbert, it seems, was not a man for subtlety. He embraced the exoticism of the age and spent much of his time strolling the halls with a pet lemur named Paul on his shoulder. But he was a prolific worker too. In his luxuriously appointed study – now the hotel bar – he wrote his last ten works. The gardens were also a passion for Gilbert and his wife; indeed, many of Lady Gilbert’s plantings are still in evidence – from rhododendrons to towering redwoods. Her pride and joy was a superbly scented rose garden, still blooming today with many varieties that are the legacy of her collection.
Her work lives on wonderfully today through current head gardener, Helenka Jurgieleewicz, who joins me on my walk.