Sutton Place. Tudor estate offers potpourri of art, music, history, and horticulture

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

SIR Richard Weston, a ``loyal and influential courtier'' to Henry VIII, would be amazed if he could revisit his house today. He built Sutton Place, a lovely brick mansion, between 1521 and 1533, on an extensive estate near Guildford in the county of Surrey. Much of the exterior is still intact. It is considered an impressive example of Tudor domestic architecture, and it is one of the earliest houses of its kind to be unfortified. This fact, together with its amiable scale and wealth of terra-cotta decorations and details, makes the house look approachable and human rather than grandiose.

For a start Sir Richard would no doubt be shocked to see that his fine gatehouse has vanished, so that his courtyard is now surrounded by the house on only three sides instead of four. It was destroyed in a fire during Elizabeth I's reign -- just after she had paid his son and heir a visit.

Next he would be more than surprised, I imagine, to notice carefully guided groups of tourists inspecting parts of his house and grounds.

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But more than this, he would be astonished, even flabbergasted, by the new interior decoration; by the works of art from a wide variety of cultures and centuries -- including the 20th -- displayed everywhere; and by the recently set out, strangely fanciful gardens.

Many of today's visitors, however, enjoy the rather unconventional potpourri of styles brought to bear on this ``stately home of England.'' At least the house is not fossilized. There are vases of fresh flowers on every side. There are no ``do not touch'' signs, no labels, and no barriers. The fact is that the interior does not insist on museumlike preservation. Instead, it invites imaginative treatment as a lived-in home, just as it has been for successive generations of the Weston family. Various owners have lived here since the early 1900s -- the newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe and the Duke of Sutherland; and, beginning in 1959, it was the English home of the oil magnate J. Paul Getty. Each of these men saw the potential of Sutton Place as a setting for his art collections. After Getty's passing, his oil company continued to use the house as offices and a reception center for executives. But then, in 1980, its latest phase began with its purchase by an American property investment company and lease as a home to Stanley J. Seeger.

This American is clearly at the forefront of the ``new'' Sutton Place's role, preservation, and development, although, presumably because of taxes, he ``lives permanently'' outside Britain, and trust has been set up to care for and run the property.

Mr. Seeger remains a remote figure to the public coming here to see ``his'' house, but the enthusiastic and efficient staff don't fail to mention his continued involvement.

It is his art collection -- or selected, and sometimes changing, parts of it -- that adorns the interior, from life-size 17th-century Indian carvings of Vishnu and his wife, Lakshmi, to a Francis Bacon triptych of 1979 called ``Studies of the Human Body'' (this is a prime shocker for those expecting to see rows of varnish-tarnished family portraits); from Persian vases and Japanese horses and pre-Columbian masks and Italian crouching lions to a rather generous scattering of Picassos. One wonders what Sir Richard Weston would have had to say about Picasso's still life hanging in his Great Hall.

But what, for that matter, would he say about the Great Hall itself? It really isn't known what it was like in his day, but Seeger has removed dark paneling and unblocked archways and taken away a ceiling so that now it is two stories high, open to the top, and filled with light and air.

Sutton Place, though no longer a real home, is presented and looked after by the Heritage Trust as though it were. A significant aim is for it to be, among other things, a center for the arts. Since October 1983, for instance, the members of the youthful Brodzsky String Quartet have been the first ``artists in residence'' here. The idea is to encourage young artists in particular (though no unknowns) by offering them accommodation and performance opportunities. An almost continuous series of concerts -- formal and informal (priced accordingly) -- is under way. The formal ones (50, or $62.25, a ticket) include dinner, a look at whatever special exhibition is staged in ``The Small Gallery,'' and, weather permitting, strolls in the garden. Black-tie occasions, they are certainly a mellifluous way of spending an evening. A recital by three internationally known musicians, Peter Frankl, Gyorgy Pauk, and Ralph Kirshbaum (piano, violin, cello), was my choice. They played Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert. Nobody seemed disappointed.

The exhibition in ``The Small Gallery'' was an intriguing conservatorial mix of foliage, water, objets, and paintings: ideal for a soiree-type wander. And here was an aptly positioned Monet. The Seeger Collection, according to the classy brochure, is notable for its Impressionists. The first special exhibition, back in 1982, included a C'ezanne and a Van Gogh. Neither, however, was now in evidence, at least to the eyes of ordinary visitors.

The gardens at Sutton Place are unusual in Britain today because they are, for the most part, newly designed and planted -- over the past four years. They are ambitious. ``The greatest garden scheme since Chatsworth'' is the boast: Chatsworth, the 17th-century home of the Duke of Devonshire, in Derbyshire, has a magnificent park and gardens.

Again Seeger has been the genie with the lamp -- and the money. The gardens at Sutton Place are his wish come true. They are also the opportunity of a lifetime for Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, ``grand old man'' of British landscape design. He is a man of overflowing imagination, dedicated and whimsical by turns, modern and nostalgic, culturally diffuse.

It will be a number of years before everything in them looks fully established, but it is extraordinary how much they already cohere and belong. Parts of the plan are not even begun; but from the house visitors are led, on stepping ``stones,'' across a rectilinear ``moat'' -- a long pool afloat with water lilies sufficient to please Monet -- and into ``The Paradise Garden.''

Susan Jellicoe, Sir Geoffrey's wife, is responsible for the planting scheme, which she has made a rich textural foil to the layout. Associations of color, foliage contrasts, an opulence of over-and-under planting that results in a sea of varying levels -- her contribution is integral, possibly even dominant.

Ms. Jellicoe's various gardens at Sutton Place characteristically involve surprises. Five gigantic Roman vases are lined up alongside a path, with deliberately exaggerated perspective, which leads to a wall with a square hole cut out of it like a picture. This is ``The Surreal Garden.''

To reach ``The Nicholson Garden'' you follow a small winding path through crowding shrubbery, suddenly stepping out onto a widely spreading lawn. To the left stands a fine old cedar and to the right, some distance away, is a cool-white marble wall, a heroic relief of tranquil circles and rectangles, the spare, strong work of English abstract artist Ben Nicholson.

By far the strangest and most unforgettable garden in the scheme is ``The Moss or Secret Garden.'' To describe it in detail would spoil its essential impact when first experienced. Enough to say, perhaps, that it is a suitable habitat for children's storybook fairies and elfin characters and magical toads; that it consists only of wildflowers and plants -- foxgloves, bluebells, nettles, thistles, and moss; and that I am not at all sure that I would like to be locked inside its very high walls on some deep and mysterious midsummer's night. It is entirely the stuff dreams are made of. . . .

Emerging again into the less weird, comparatively prosaic landscape outside, you catch sight of a meadow that is also to be part of Sutton Place's new role. Marian Thompson is ecological consultant to the 1,000-acre estate in which the house sits. This meadow is one of her special interests, the idea being to encourage the growth of all the traditional wildflowers that modern farming has almost eradicated.

And there is a new lake -- it would definitely surprise Sir Richard Weston -- shaped like a giant fish, spreading across the landscape directly ahead of the house's main entrance. This, Marian Thompson told me, is still to be planted with reeds and rushes and surrounding woodland. ``It has small bays along its edges,'' she said, ``to act as brooding compartments for wild birds.'' The depth of the water varies to cater to different kinds of fish.

Sutton Place is well worth a visit. It is a fairly rich combination of horticulture, history, architecture, art, music, and nature -- and all in a peaceful setting of considerable privacy. Visits are restricted to no more than 20 in a group and must be arranged in advance.

Guided tours of the house, small gallery, and gardens, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, May to September, cost 4 ($4.98). On Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays it costs 2 ($2.49) to be shown the gardens and small gallery only, May to September. From October to December, guided tours are on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Address: Sutton Place Heritage Trust, Sutton Place, near Guildford, Surrey GU4 7QV, United Kingdom.

Telephone: 0483 504455.

Telex: 859147.

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