On our last day in Lisbon we took the advice of Miguel, the helpful receptionist at our hotel, and visited Sintra, where Lisboetas used to build their summer residences. From there we took the bus to Monserrate, the house in expansive, hilly grounds that records the eccentric tastes of its former occupants.
Now owned by the state, it is undergoing extensive restoration and has a thorough exhibition about its history, “Monserrate Revisited: The Cook Collection in Portugal”, open until 31 May.
Monserrate has been Anglo-Portuguese for over two hundred years. The first English intervention was William Beckford’s (whose only remains are the Romantic waterfall and cromlech) immortalised by Byron as “Cintra’s glorious Eden” in Childe Harold.
In 1856 Francis Cook, a hugely rich textile magnate, took over the estate for his summer residence, reconstructed the house as a Moorish-Gothic fantasy and filled it with an eclectic collection of Italian art, English furniture, Oriental ceramics and a Bechstein grand, including Pugin chairs and a reproduction of the Alhambra Gazelle Vase. The gardens, also eclectic, benefiting from the warm but not harsh climate, and designed by a Kew head gardener, have an Indian arch acquired (perhaps one might say looted) after the Sepoy Mutiny, exotic succulents, an English rose garden, ponds and ferny woods. Cook’s collection demonstrates mid-nineteenth century taste and Orientalism extraordinarily well, as only the collection of a very rich man can.
Monserrate stayed in the Cook family for ninety years. At the end they could no longer afford it and rarely visited. In the 1930s they hired Walter Kingsbury as estate manager, despite his lack of experience or knowledge of Portuguese. Kingsbury lived there with his family until after the war, when the estate was sold and the precious collection broken up.
I found the period of Kingsbury’s stewardship to be the most fascinating part of the Monserrate story. It is narrated in a memoir by Walter’s son Richard, who lived there as a boy.
During the war, Portugal was a crossroads for spies, including Ian Fleming and Malcolm Muggeridge. “It is reported that on one occasion,” says Richard Kingsbury, “a dinner party was given, attended by an agent who travelled specially from England for the purpose of being seated next to a Portuguese lady (a certain Mrs Espirito Santo) who was known to have pro-German sympathies, in order to feed her false information which, it was believed, would be conveyed to the Germans in Lisbon.”
In a filmed interview, Richard Kingsbury appears as a tall, handsome old man, fluent in Portuguese but with a self-deprecating English manner. Montserrate was a peculiar and fortunate place for a boy to grow up in. He remembers his childhood there as perpetually sunny, taking his impractical, Gothic-Oriental home for granted and riding his bicycle round the rooms. It’s actually an uncomfortable house, cold inside when we visited and presumably impossible in winter, but it was Kingsbury’s idyll, magical and eerie, and he often returned to Sintra in adult life.
He worked as an interpreter until his death at the age of 83. His colleague Felix Ordeig recalls meeting him, at first doubtful of the abilities of someone so old, but quickly coming to appreciate his professionalism and competence. Kingsbury translated into English and Portugese, had a good knowledge of Spanish and a passing acquaintance with several other languages. He had a passion for travel, and as a young man went overland from London to Cairo via Istanbul and the Middle East, “on foot, hitch-hiking and by whatever other means of transport became available” says Ordeig, “a trip that would be very difficult if not impossible today. ” He taught English in Argentina and travelled in Latin America, visiting indigenous peoples before the continent was opened to tourism.
Ordeig says, “I got the impression that he lived his life to the full right to the end, with an adventurous spirit, but also a very practical approach to life, as well as with an enquiring mind. In the short time I was with him I took a liking to the man; he was good company and I enjoyed his sense of humour, his unfeigned modesty, and total lack of snobbishness, his intellectual curiosity about both his surroundings and the people he came across, his friendliness and good manners. But I also suspect that he was a very decent human being.”