Obelisks might not seem as exciting as some of the quirkier landscape ornaments, but this one began a particularly interesting life in around 1732. Two hundred years later it was one of a group of monuments from Wrest Park in Bedfordshire that was sold to the wealthy socialite and politician Sir Philip Sassoon, and taken to his seat at Trent Park in Middlesex. There each was carefully placed in the park, and the largest, this substantial obelisk, was re-erected to terminate a new vista cut through the trees.
To begin at the beginning, the obelisk was first erected at Wrest in the 1730s. According to the notes in an album of Views of Wrest dated 1831, the inscription on the obelisk read ‘To the Memory of the birth of George Earl of Harold, son of the Duke of Kent by his second wife Sophia’. George was born in 1732 but died in infancy, leaving the Duke of Kent without an heir.
This suggests the obelisk was constructed soon after his early death, for it was extant by the time the 1735 1st edition of John Roque’s plan of Wrest was published, and it appears on William Gordon’s 1736 map of the county of Bedfordshire.
A family letter written in 1745 gives the height of the obelisk as 80 feet. It stood on higher ground close to the Bedford Road (now the A6) which borders the estate, and could be ‘seen at a distance of several miles round’. In 1797 the obelisk’s lofty position was exploited by the team working on the major trigonometrical survey of England and Wales, and in March 1830 the monument found temporary fame as the finishing post of a horse race. Riders galloped between Harlington Church and the Obelisk with the winner covering the 4 miles in around 17 minutes: the event was hailed in the press as ‘the greatest Steeple Chase ever known’ (and then promptly forgotten).
After this excitement the obelisk then stood quietly in its solitary situation until a chance to travel came its way in the 1930s. Wrest’s then owner, John G. Murray (1864-1954), spent little time at Wrest, and clearly attached no sentimental or cultural value to the memorials. When his attempts to market the estate in 1932 met with little interest, he began to sell the contents, timber and selected monuments to raise cash. Sir Philip Sassoon (1888-1939) bought three monuments and removed them to Trent Park: a pyramidal monument dedicated to Henry Duke of Kent, a pineapple-topped column in memory of Jemima Duchess of Kent, and the obelisk. The first two monuments were placed in prominent positions at either end of the great Lime Avenue and the obelisk was re-erected on high ground, at the end of a newly-cut vista, to be seen from the garden front of the house.
The setting of Trent Park was sketched in sales particulars in 1787 as ‘happily placed on rising Ground, and commanding rich and elegant views’ and the estate was considered ‘an enviable Possession for a Man of Fortune and refined Taste’. This was an apt description of Sir Phillip Sasson who took on Trent Park after his father’s death in 1912 (the estate was originally leased but Sir Philip purchased it in 1922).
Sassoon’s expenditure was remembered as ‘lavish and unchecked’, and he completely remodelled the house using mellow red bricks salvaged from the demolition of Devonshire House in London. With these materials, and a rumoured £150,000, he turned an early Victorian pile into a ‘genuine William and Mary house’ and he filled it with the finest furniture, paintings and decorative arts. Sassoon also acquired statues and ornaments from other country houses to decorate his garden.
Trent quickly became famed for the house parties where Sassoon entertained everyone who was anyone in the worlds of high society, politics and entertainment.
In October 1934 George, son of King George V and Queen Mary, was created Duke of Kent in anticipation of his marriage to Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark a month later. As was then common, the new Duke and Duchess were offered the use of country houses in which to spend their honeymoon. Their first stop was Himley Hall in Staffordshire, and on December 12 they moved on to Trent Park. The difference between the two seats did not go unnoticed, with the press describing Himley Hall as ‘a homely house in the old country tradition’ whereas Trent Park was a ‘show place, breathing magnificence, and with practically every item of furnishing a museum piece’.
The story is widely told that Sassoon bought the monuments from Wrest Park and re-erected them at Trent Park to make the Duke and Duchess of Kent feel welcome: the monuments to the 18th century Duke and Duchess are placed to be seen on the approach to the house. This might be true of the two smaller monuments, but the obelisk was not there when the Kents arrived in 1934. Work to take it down did not start until August 1935, and first came the laborious process of erecting scaffolding and carefully numbering each stone so that ‘the monument may be reconstructed exactly in its present form’. It was not until October 1935 that the Times noted that the Obelisk had been ‘recently removed’.
As seen today the inscription differs slightly from that recorded in Views of Wrest in 1831, suggesting that the letters were recut when the obelisk was moved, which would also account for the incorrect date of 1702 instead of 1732.
Trent Park was requisitioned by the Government at the outbreak of the Second World War and became home to the ‘Secret Listeners’, a British intelligence operation (see the link below for the whole fascinating history). After the war the grounds became a public park and the house was used as a teacher training centre and then as a university. The house stood empty for some years before being bought by property developers Berkeley Homes. After some vigorous campaigning the company agreed that the lower floors of the house could be turned into a museum telling the story of Sassoon and the important role of the house in wartime. Work continues to make that plan a reality.
In 1973, with work ongoing to restore the gardens at Wrest, the owners of Trent Park were approached to see if they would ‘relinquish the Duke’s Pyramid and the Duchess’s column’. The obelisk was excluded as ‘too large and difficult to move’ and not as important to the layout of Wrest Gardens. There were complications of ownership between the Greater London Council and the London Borough of Enfield, and locally a campaign was started to formally object to the removal. The negotiations carried on for a decade before appearing to fizzle out, and the monuments stayed put.
In 1976 the Enfield planning office wrote to the parks department of the G.L.C. to report ‘defacement’ of the obelisk – there had been an attempt to alter the date in the inscription. Was this mindless vandalism or a pedantic folly fanatic attempting to update the incorrect date? The planning officer suggested erecting a fence around the column, but the park manager felt hooligans would just climb any such obstacle and, as he sensibly concluded, ‘wouldn’t it look terrible’.
Today replicas of the two smaller monuments can be seen in the gardens at Wrest, and the obelisk is remembered in a street name in the adjoining village of Silsoe.
Read more about the history and future of Trent Park here https://www.trentparkhouse.org.uk
And for Wrest Park see https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wrest-park/
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