Venus and Adonis by Titian. This Renaissance painting is now at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles but it once graced the Hall of Duncombe Park in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. I know this because of a precious little volume from 1829 I found on archive.org, A Description of Duncombe Park, Rivalx Abbey and Helmsley Castle.
As it happens, my father’s paternal ancestors are from Helmsley, today a picturesque market and tourist town on the River Pye in the Ryedale District.
Duncombe Park was once an imposing structure in the Doric style built in 1718 overlooking Helmsley Castle not far from Thirsk where the vet who inspired All Creatures Great and Small worked. It was the seat of the Earls of Feversham.
My grandfather, Robert Nixon (1890-1967), was born to Robert Nixon Sr. and Mary-Ellen Richardson.
This stretch of very unimposing row houses is where the Nixons lived in 1911, according to the UK Census.
Mary-Ellen was from nearby Rievaulx, a village famous for its cathedral ruins. She was born in this quaint cottage, Abbot’s Well. Her dad was a tailor.
According to this census, Robert Nixon Sr. was a delver in a quarry in Rievaulx in 1911.
The same census page says my grandfather, Robert Jr. 21, was a footman, likely at Duncombe Park. Robert was a strapping 6 foot 4 inches tall. The gentry liked their footmen to be fine physical specimens, but this was not always a good thing if Nixon family lore can be counted upon.
According to an English ‘auntie’ of my father’s, the daughter of ‘the local earl’ went ga-ga for young Robert back in the day, so the love-struck girl’s powerful father sent him away, far away to Malaya.
I have no picture of Robert, but I recall seeing one decades ago and he looked like my dad, Peter. So here’s a picture of Peter in 1958 holding our new puppy, Spotty, a coonhound. My father was also 6 foot four inches tall.
This myth might be true, as employment in Malaya was only offered to young men from well-off families, not delver’s sons.
I see that the sitting Earl of Feversham had four daughters, but they were much too old for Robert. Maybe it was Feversham’s granddaughter who fell in love with my strapping grandfather. I hope so, because I like this family myth. This is a Vanity Fair pic of the Earl from Wikipedia.
According to travel records, my grandfather, Robert took a boat to Malaya (willingly or unwillingly) in 1912 to work at Batu Caves Estate in Selangor, just outside of Kuala Lumpur.
He returned to England after WWI to marry my grandmother, Dorothy Forster, from County Durham, whose father was an itinerant Primitive Methodist preacher posted in Helmsley between 1912 and 1914.
Dorothy followed him to Malaya in December, 1921 and my dad was born ten months later on October 24. Robert later became Manager of the estate. Both my grandfather and grandmother were interned at Changi Prison during WWII.
According to the 1829 book, Duncombe Park was home to a treasure trove of classical paintings, among them the Titian shown at top, but also a Da Vinci, a Reubens, a Rembrandt as well as Discobulus, described as ‘the finest statue in England.’
My grandfather never did get to see these great works of art in person because most were burned in a fire in 1879. Back then, some of these paintings were worth five thousand pounds.
The Discobulus and the DaVinci work were lost in the fire but Titian’s Venus and Adonis was saved to eventually find its way to California and the Getty Museum.
Duncombe was rebuilt in the Baroque Italianate style and used as a backdrop to the 2012 British mini-series Parade’s End, with Benedict Cumberbatch. I love that mini-series, so it is all very appropriate.