Behind every door lies a story. And Brighton and Hove, a seaside resort loved by princes, politicians and public figures past and present, has more than its fair share.
Some of those tales – the Regent’s excesses in his beloved Pavilion, Dr Brighton’s sea water cure – are well known. But other stories of family fortunes and private lives are tucked away behind the closed doors.
A Victorian Town House
Number 33 Palmeira Mansions is one of the city’s hidden gems – an elegant town-house dating back to the 1880s. Rushing for the bus you might catch a glimpse through the huge windows of an extraordinary green-and-gold ceiling and stop to wonder why an English language school should have such an oddity.
Take a leisurely stroll round the side of the huge, brilliant-white corner house and you’ll see ornate stained glass windows and may well wonder what lies behind the glorious façade.
The simple answer is that most of the time it’s where students from all over the world learn English. But on the first Sunday of the month under the expert guidance of local historian Jackie Marsh-Hobbs the house is quiet and still and her private tour slowly reveals the extraordinary and eclectic home of a Victorian gentleman.
Whilst most of the neighbouring houses have been refurbished, divided into flats or modernised for business use, No 33 retains many of its original features, reflecting the tastes of the man who lived there for 51 years, leaving his unmistakable stamp on the property.
Arthur Mason, gentleman of leisure
Arthur William Mason was undoubtedly one of the nouveau riche. His father was an entrepreneur, making the latest chemical-based inks for the giant presses of Fleet Street and manufacturing varnish to feed the almost insatiable appetite the Victorians had for lacquering everything.
Jackie has spent years researching the house and peppers her tour with art history, photos of the family and some tantalising snippets of rumour and conjecture – all of which bring the house alive.
In 1889 Arthur and two of his brothers floated the company on the stock market and made a killing. Interestingly, the other Mason brother had been cut out of the family fortune, the reason is a mystery but the terms of Mason Senior’s will are very clear.
With happy memories of family holidays by the sea in Brighton, Arthur, now rich enough to be a gentleman of leisure, bought No 33 and set about making it distinctly his own.
The heavy front door leads to a vestibule with a dragon shaped lamp and stained glass windows with the coat of arms commissioned by Arthur with his new motto Facta non Verba – Deeds not Words.
The hallway is dominated by a marble staircase sweeping up to the conservatory on the first floor, again with a beautiful stained glass window.
To the right is the old dining room, now a student common room, which retains the original wooden parquet flooring, alabaster walls, marble and onyx door surrounds, a huge fireplace and that green-and-gold wooden ceiling, unusual in a private home although you can see the identical design at the Foreign Office.
Here, where the tour begins, Jackie starts to unveil Arthur Mason’s character.
“He clearly wanted everything of the best but it’s also pretty obvious he didn’t employ an interior designer and everything in the house was chosen by him to his own specific tastes. In those days it was common to “theme” rooms but Mason seems to have simply bought and installed anything that took his fancy.”
Arthur loved art, but that too was on an epic scale. In the hall, above the sweep of the marble staircase, there are hooks where Leighton’s “Dante in Exile” hung. The picture, worth hundreds of thousands these days, is now in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s private collection.
Sadly the contents of the rooms are no longer here, they were auctioned off when he died in 1940, but the fireplaces, each individual, and the decorated ceilings and doors can still be seen.
“We know there was a burgundy Axminster carpet in this room then, the walls were painted with burgundy distemper and there were curtains and blinds. It would be too dark and gloomy for our tastes, but that’s how the Victorians liked it and there are parts of this house now perfectly preserved like a time capsule from the 1890s. Mason loved Havana cigars. When the house was bought by the English Language Centre in the sixties you could still smell the smoke.”
The house is run as a business now, and of course there have been modifications for fire safety as well as meeting the needs of students, but where possible things have been done sensitively and in keeping with its Grade II listed status.
Moving through the house, room after room reveals different delights; the drawing room with its fireplace with inlaid mother of pearl; the boudoir, all light and glorious glass made by Osler (who produced the famous glass fountain at the Great Exhibition of 1851) and the brilliant billiard room with its reinforced floor and specially heightened ceiling.
It’s from here that Jackie points out the view the Masons would have had at that time – all the way down to the seafront, whilst still being in easy reach of their stables, later home to the Daimler and Rolls Royce which were always on hand to swoop them away for a day trip to London.
The old fireproof safe is still in existence but sadly the plumbing is all modern, no Victorian water-closet treasures still exist, but it’s certain the bathrooms would have been sumptuous, as was the Masons’ lifestyle.
“A few days after their frequent trips to London a Harrods van would draw up discreetly and unload all their luxurious purchases.”
But even the life of a Victorian gentleman of leisure had its sorrows and no amount of riches made up for the harsh fact that Mason buried two wives before marrying his third, Florence, who outlived him for little more than a year.
And, despite being a resident of 51 years and very well known in the area, there is no plaque or memorial to mark his passing. Just the inside of a language school where his wealth and unusual taste have outlived his memory.
More information about Palmeira Mansions
Jackie Marsh-Hobbs runs private behind-the-scenes tours of this Victorian masterpiece on the first Sunday of every month. There’s no need to book, just turn up and pay the fee (£8 or £6 concession in 2017).
For more details of this and other tours visit Jackie’s website.