PUBLISHED: 09:00 19 March 2014
Photograph by Emily Whitfield-Wicks St.meva 9 Beacon road Bodmin Cornwall PL31 1AR Mob.07841 293030
Manhattanite to socialite: Gillian Molesworth St-Aubyn (of Pencarrow) is better know to her friends as Gilly; the New York-born writer continues her journey through the vicissitudes of life in one of Cornwall’s oldest families
"Sir William was not only a political radical but an atheist, a position that did not sit well with his fellow Cornish landowners or indeed, London society"
Pencarrow, opening its doors at the end of this month, is celebrating the return of love: a marble statue of Venus. A visitor may pause only a moment to admire Venus’ marble curves before ambling on. He would stay longer if he knew her story, which is not only of love but of ambition, woe, and disaster, including a very low moment in a van man’s career.
Venus is a larger-than-life size marble statue set high on a plinth. She is stepping from the sea, a dolphin at her feet, and her hands are modestly (if ineffectively) shielding her womanly bits from admirers.She is probably Italian, and bought in the 1840s by Sir William Molesworth, the eighth baronet of Pencarrow. Sir William was not only a political radical but an atheist, a position that did not sit well with his fellow Cornish landowners or indeed, London society. More than one father forbade him to marry their daughters, such as Juliana Carew of Anthony near Torpoint.
At 34 he was still unmarried. Would Cupid ever notch his bow for Sir William?He did, a real coup de foudre. In a London drawing room William met Andalusia Temple-West, nee Carstairs. If there ever was a woman who knew what she wanted out of life, it was she. She had left her stage career to marry an elderly man of fortune, who left her enough money for a fashionable life. Now, here was an aristocrat, a little infirm perhaps, but certainly an attractive prospect...their eyes met across a crowded drawing room.Sir William thought she was magnificent. When they were engaged in 1844, he
launched into a lengthy and expensive redecoration of Pencarrow, including a new music room for his nightingale wife. We think he gave her Venus as a gift, a symbol of his undying love.
Sadly, his flesh was more transient. The couple had just 11 years together, showering each other with gifts and pursuing a lively social calendar in between Sir William’s political obligations. He died of ‘bilious attacks’ just after he was made a Cabinet Minister, childless, at the age of 45.
I wonder what Andalusia felt looking at Venus, or indeed at the rest of Pencarrow, so lavishly fitted for the couple’s future happiness. She did continue to entertain there, but only once a year – she was mostly in London, or Paris. Over the course of her long life, many things at Pencarrow drifted into disrepair.
This included Venus: her feet and legs began to crack. She lost fingers, and the rest began to discolour. Sadly she watched the decades go past.
Last winter, an expert told the family that Venus risked falling apart completely. The Friends of Pencarrow agreed to fund her restoration.
An antique specialist came out to quote for the work. With delicacy he would dowel her sections together, and fill and smooth her surfaces. We surrendered Venus into his hands, and she journeyed to his studio for months of TLC.
Last spring she headed for home, braced by webbing and bars which fixed eitherside to brackets.
She was only two miles from home when the van mounted a steep slope outside of Bodmin known as Dunmere Hill. Disaster struck: one whole set of brackets in the van gave way, and seven feet of beautifully restored marble Venus toppled over with a ringing crash.
Readers, I invite you to put yourself in the place of the driver, pulled over in a layby. He had heard the crash. Can you imagine what it must have been like to screw up the courage to open the doors and see what carnage lay inside – namely, Venus’ head rolling around on the floor, and her body in more pieces than before?
It was a great blow for us all. Poor Venus. Luckily the insurers took over in a stressful time. Venus went straight back to the restorer, and spent lots more time with him. Her second journey was more auspicious.
This year, we celebrated Venus’ triumphal return to Pencarrow. We felt surely Sir William and Andalusia were looking on. Love had been dismayed, neglected and even shattered, but with time and care, it has been put back on its pedestal.
Now if that isn’t a good message to start the season, I don’t know what is.