Mells Manor: Introduction

Essay by Caroline Dakers

Inscription by Laurence Whistler engraved in a window, Mells Manor House

Figure 1.
Inscription by Laurence Whistler engraved in a window, Mells Manor House, Photograph. Mells Manor.

Digital image courtesy of Caroline True. (All rights reserved)

Mells has been in the possession of the same family, the Horners and (by marriage) the Asquiths, from 1543 to the present day. The estate belonged to Glastonbury Abbey until the dissolution of the monasteries and was then acquired by a Crown agent who sold it to Thomas Horner on behalf of his nephew John. The nephew had been employed as a bailiff at the Abbey but with ownership of the Mells estate and the dowry of his wealthy wife (daughter of Henry VIII’s tailor), he was able to build a power base in Somerset, was knighted and became high sheriff of the county.1 The current owner of Mells, Raymond Asquith, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith, is his descendant.

Although one family has held Mells for nearly five hundred years, their living arrangements and the display of their collection is a complicated narrative. The Manor House, ‘a faire large howse of stone, very strong, in forme of a H’,2 was completed by 1644 and continued as a family house, subordinate to Cloford Manor, until the mid-eighteenth century. It was then abandoned and eventually part-demolished when a new mansion, Mells Park House, was built in its own park at a distance from the village. At the beginning of the twentieth century, financial constraints forced the family to move from Mells Park back to the surviving wing of the Manor House. They never returned, as Mells Park House was burnt down in 1917 and the Park estate was sold.

The collection was added to over the years, moving back and forth from the Manor House to Mells Park House and townhouses in London, surviving the fire, though reduced in part in the twentieth century through legacies and sales. It is supported by a fine archive which is in the process of being professionally catalogued. There are numerous family portraits but also some unusual additions: a collection of paintings and relics from Sir John Coxe Hippisley who was close to the last of the royal Stuarts; in the nineteenth century, a number of early Italian Renaissance paintings and works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones; in the twentieth century, paintings by contemporary British artists who became friends of the family; also some contemporary twentieth-century Russian and Ukranian artists.

Life in the Manor House from the 1540s to the mid-eighteenth century focused on the estate, with income from farms and the mining of coal under the land: the Mendip coal industry was booming in the early seventeenth century (see Mells Manor, Catalogue MM34 in this project). The house itself was enlarged at the same time as nearby properties, including Longleat and Montacute, while the collection comprised portraits presenting the Horners as settled landed gentry, Tory MPs and sheriffs of Somerset.

Sir John Horner (1580–1658/9) enclosed land to the west of Mells village to form a deer park. In 1713 his great-grandson, Thomas Strangways Horner (1688–1741), married Susanna, daughter of Thomas Strangways of Melbury Sampford and a wealthy heiress. With her fortune, Horner was able to commission from the architect Nathaniel Ireson a new mansion built in the park at a distance from the now ‘old-fashioned’ Manor House.3 Ireson had been the principal mason at Stourhead shortly before and his success at Mells led to several commissions from Horner’s son-in-law, Lord Ilchester.

The Horners moved into the new mansion, taking their paintings, furniture and furnishings with them. Their two sons died at birth, so the estate passed to a brother and then a nephew Thomas (1737–1804), who devoted himself to ‘Park improvements’, consulting Humphry Repton and sketching ideas for Gothic lodges, hot-houses, grottoes and temples, bridges and follies, some of which were realised.4 He built walls, acquired seeds from Antigua and planted trees, including American oaks, Chinese nettle trees and Sclavonian juniper, a significant collection in their own right.5 Meanwhile, the Manor House was gradually reduced from an H-plan to a single southern wing. The Bristol architect Daniel Hague used some of the stone in 1763 to add east and west wings to Mells Park House.6 Richard Paget, visiting Mells in 1794, wrote ‘half of the old house is now mouldering in ruins, the rest is occupied by a farmer.’7

Colonel Thomas Strangways Horner (1762–1844) inherited the Mells estate in 1804 from his father and immediately planned alterations to Mells Park House. He first commissioned James Spiller, a surveyor and close friend of the architect John Soane.8 The introduction to Soane was made by Sir John Coxe Hippisley (1746–1825), who was, confusingly, both Horner’s father-in-law and his brother-in-law, through Hippisley’s second marriage.

Coxe Hippisley’s friendship with the Horners impacted on Mells in other ways. Although not himself a Roman Catholic, he was close to the Stuart court in Rome and persuaded George III to provide Henry, Cardinal York, last of the royal Stuarts, with a pension. His personal collection of paintings and other relics passed to the Horners, including portraits of the Stuarts and the veil worn by Mary Queen of Scots at her execution.

Colonel Horner’s son, the Reverend John Stuart Hippisley Horner (1810–1874), inherited Mells in 1844. He was a prebendary of Wells Cathedral and the rector of St Andrew’s Mells and added his collection of religious books to the library. Otherwise, the contents of the house reflected the typical taste and interests of country gentry. Frances Horner, arriving as the new chatelaine in 1883, found ‘stuffed bird and stuffed animals on all the tables and shelves; collections of seaweed, birds’ eggs and dried fish filled every corner.’9 The Reverend Horner found some use for the Manor House, establishing St Andrew’s Anglican College for a few years in the mid-nineteenth century. Training was provided to local men in church restoration work. The Horwood brothers worked on stained glass in St Andrew’s church and the Clark brothers carved the pew ends.

The marriage of the Reverend Horner’s son, John Francis Fortescue Horner (1842–1927), to Frances Graham (1854–1940) in 1883 brought a completely new focus to Mells. Frances was the daughter of the Glaswegian merchant and Liberal MP William Graham, patron of Rossetti and Burne-Jones and collector of Early Italian Renaissance paintings. Frances herself was a close friend of Burne-Jones and member of the ‘Souls’, the aristocratic and upper-class men and women who patronised Burne-Jones, read Henry James and made A. J. Balfour their ‘leader’. Wyndhams, Tennants, Lyttletons and Balfours became regular visitors to Mells and the atmosphere shifted away from traditional rural pursuits to something much more sophisticated and cosmopolitan.

Frances brought to Mells Park House wedding gifts from her father of early Italian paintings plus her own gifts from Burne-Jones, including illuminated books, drawings and the extraordinary ‘Orpheus’ piano, commissioned by her father. These objects joined the Horner and Hippisley portraits. After Graham’s death, the Horners acquired more of his collection, of which some two dozen paintings remain at Mells.

The Mells estate was heavily mortgaged when John Horner inherited in 1847 and there is much evidence of serious financial constraints. In 1865 his father had taken out a mortgage of £55,000 – a large sum – to make provision for his children. However, in 1896, Horner was appointed Commissioner for Woods and Forests with a salary of £1200 a year and bought a lease in London for 2 Buckingham Gate (later renumbered 9), a large stuccoed house opposite Buckingham Palace.

Part of the collection was hung in the London house, including pictures from the Graham collection and some of Frances’s gifts from Burne-Jones. Edwin Lutyens was commissioned to carry out internal alterations.10 The connection with Lutyens was close: Frances’s sister Agnes had married Colonel Herbert Jekyll, brother of Gertrude Jekyll, Lutyens’s life-long collaborator.

William Graham’s widow lived with the Horners in Mells Park and their London house but after her death in 1900 the decision was taken to ‘downsize’ and move into the Manor House. Mells Park House was let furnished.11 The collection was then split between the two country houses and London. Lutyens was commissioned to make additions to the Manor House, including a music room, though his more ambitious proposals were rejected, and Owen Little completed a new kitchen range. On his retirement in 1907, Horner was made Sir John Horner KCVO but his final years were marked by continuing financial worries and great personal loss. His sons Mark and Edward died in 1908 and 1917 and his son-in-law, Raymond Asquith, was killed in 1916. To compound the tragedy, in 1917 Mells Park House burnt down.

Frances Horner recalled that most of the paintings were saved from the fire and brought to the Manor House: ‘Granpapa and Grandmama Horner survived, smelling horribly – nothing will ever destroy them.’12 But with no money to rebuild, the property was sold to Reginald McKenna, the chairman of the Midland Bank and married to Frances’s niece Pamela Jekyll. Lutyens, who became the architect for the Midland Bank in 1924 and 1935–7, designed a new house (1922–5). McKenna’s father-in-law, Colonel Herbert Jekyll, was closely involved in the interior decorations.13

The post-war period at Mells was dominated by economy, retrenchment, commemoration of the dead and religious conversion. Some paintings from the Graham collection were sold in 1919, the London house was sold and, in 1923, two thirds of the estate was sold, the profits used to pay off the mortgage of 1865. At the same time the collection was enlarged with works by a new generation of artists welcomed to the Manor House, while commemorative memorials were commissioned for the church and the village. The most dramatic was the sculpture by Alfred Munnings of Edward Horner on a horse, placed on a plinth by Lutyens and positioned inside the Horner Chapel in the parish church.

Sir John Horner died in 1927, leaving the estate upon trust to his wife, their eldest daughter (Katharine Asquith) and then her son Julian, who became the 2nd Earl of Oxford and Asquith in 1928.14 The artist William Nicholson was a regular visitor to Mells from the early 1920s and Frances commissioned him to design a stained-glass window in St Andrew’s in memory of her husband. Frances died in 1940 and there was another sale of pictures from the Graham collection in 1949. Kenneth Clark (until 1945 the director of the National Gallery), was asked for his view by Katharine in 1947: ‘I remember your mother’s pictures well, and am very sorry to think that the Collection has to be broken up; it suited the house so perfectly.’15 His fears were only partly justified: many Graham pieces remain in the house that suited them ‘so perfectly.’

Katharine Asquith became a Roman Catholic in 1923 and many of the artists and writers staying in the Manor House were sympathetic to her conversion, including Eric Gill, David Jones, Henry Lamb, Evelyn Waugh and Siegfried Sassoon; their works too joined the collection. Sassoon first visited in 1933 long before he became a Catholic. His biographer Max Egremont commented on his new faith: ‘Sassoon’s Catholicism . . . had beauty and history, even glamour, exemplified by what he saw and loved at Mells.’16 During the Second World War, the Manor House provided respite for David Jones, a survivor of the previous war but still suffering badly from neurasthenia. Two of his works joined the collection.

The Roman Catholic painter Daphne Pollen also found a haven in the village during the war. Pollen had painted the Stations of the Cross for her uncle the Honourable Maurice Baring, and he presented them to the chapel dedicated to St Dominic which was created in the grounds of the Manor House. Pollen’s granddaughter, Clare, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, now lives at the Manor House. At Mells, family, friendship and more recently religious faith bind the collection together.


  • Dr Caroline Dakers is Professor Emerita of Cultural History at Central Saint Martins (University of Arts London). Her publications include Fonthill Recovered (UCLPress, 2018); A Genius for Money, Business, Art and the Morrisons (YUP, 2011); The Holland Park Circle (YUP, 1999); Clouds, the biography of a country house (YUP, 1993). She has curated exhibitions at Leighton House Museum on the architect George Aitchison and the Holland Park Circle; and written essays, including for The Victorian Periodicals Review, British Art Journal, Apollo, Architectural History. She is currently writing a book for Princeton University Press provisionally titled 'Bohemian or Gentleman? the public image of the artist in British society 1850-1950.


  1. F. W. Cleverdon, A History of Mells, Frome: Frome Society for Local Study, 1974, p. 43; Alice Blows, ‘A History of Mells Manor and Mells Park to 1925’, MA thesis, University of Cambridge, July 2020.

  2. Charles Edward Long, ed., Diary of the Royal Marches during the Great Civil War; kept by Richard Symonds, London: Camden Society, 1859, p. 31.

  3. Agreement between Thomas Strangways Horner and Nathaniel Ireson, 1724, Mells Manor Archive, D/07/0553.

  4. Thomas Horner, architectural scrapbook, ibid., G/04/0950.

  5. Thomas Horner, accounts of the creation and management of the park, ibid., D/07/0589, 0590, 0591.

  6. See Historic England, Listing for Mells Park: Park and Garden, Grade II. Listing entry Number: 1001150, 1 June 1984, (accessed 6 April 2020).

  7. Richard Paget, ‘Collinson’s Somersetshire; Topographical description of Mells, in Somersetshire’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 64, Part 2, 1794, p. 702.

  8. James Spillar, designs for Mells Park House, Mells Manor Archive, D/07/0564.

  9. Frances Horner, Time Remembered, London: William Heinemann, 1933, p. 165.

  10. Inventory of 2 Buckingham Gate, 1898–9, Mells Manor Archive, K/01/1130; Edwin Lutyens, alterations to 2 Buckingham Gate, ibid., K/01/1129.

  11. The Mells Park House Inventory of 1903 has little detail relating to pictures: ibid., D/01/0581.

  12. Horner, 1933, p. 255.

  13. David McKenna correspondence with Caroline Dakers, 1985; see Caroline Dakers, Forever England: The Countryside at War 1914–1918, London: I. B. Tauris, 2015, p. 191.

  14. Will of Sir John Horner (d. 1927), Mells Manor Archive, K/01/1137.

  15. Kenneth Clark to Katharine Asquith, 24 November 1947, ibid., M/01/1357.

  16. Max Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon: A Biography, London: Picador, 2006, p. 489.



by Caroline Dakers
20 November 2020
House Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Caroline Dakers, "Mells Manor: Introduction", Art and the Country House,