I was born in 1864 at Sans Souci villa about four miles out of Naples in Posilipo. The villa belonged to my mother’s father who had forsaken England in disgust at having to leave Newton near Rillington on his father’s death, he being a younger son. [Hugh’s mother was Rosalie St. Quentin only daughter of Charles Strickland] He bought the land at Posilipo very nearly on the summit of the promontory that divides the Bay of Pozzuoli and Baguoli from that of Naples and there built himself a lovely little villa with a long drive up to it through what was, when I knew it, the podersi.
I first went there when I was at Oxford in 1888 and I believe that apart from improvements made to the farm offices and the development of the vineyard etc., the house and drive were very much like what they were when my mother lived there as a girl. The house was white outside and built facing the sea, which could be seen from the drawing room windows some two or three hundred feet below, with Capri in the distance. The land fell away so rapidly beyond the lawn that it looked as if the sea came close to the foot of it, though in reality it was quite a quarter of a mile off. The plan of the house was, as far as I recollect, something like that on the next page. You entered through a gateway into a paved court or quadrangle from the drive up, and the door of the house was opposite the entrance, stables etc being around the court or quadrangle from the drive up, and the door of the house was opposite the entrance, stables etc. being around the court. The drawing room and the ground floor rooms had big French windows opening on to the lawn which was well shaded in the umbrella pines and other trees. The stairs were of white marble slabs and so were the bedroom floors and passages. The roofs flat. It was a perfect paradise and the grounds were large and on a hillside which made them seem larger. The drive was shaded by Ilex trees etc. and there was a lodge at the entrance.
In this place my mother was brought up in fairly Bohemian fashion, driving her little goat handcart about the grounds. I think she went to Paris to school when about twelve for three years and at fifteen, I think it must have been, that she became a Catholic, with her mother. She had read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by then, I believe, and she told me her father was a “sceptic”. He seems to have been a somewhat eccentric, clever and well read man, like most of that family of Stricklands. When he went to Naples he invented a livery for himself according to his fancy, of white and blue, which were the colours of the king of Naples reversed. My mother has told me that when he drove in to Naples all the sentries presented arms, thinks it was the Royal carriage, and he had to alter the livery. Those were the days of King “Bombalino”.
Of other stories my mother told me one was that she remembered her mother hiding her away and forbidding her to look out of the window once, when the Duca di Syracusa called at the house, she being a very beautiful girl and the Duca being such a bad man that any woman seen talking to him would lose her reputation. Later on in life when I visited Sorrento with my mother she pointed out a beautiful Tarantella dancer who was descended from the Duca di Syracusa by one of his famous mistresses.
My mother told me that in those days all the Neapolitan Court talked Neapolitan. The mode of travelling short distances was commonly on donkeys, and when the King went to Castellammare, to the Villa Quisisana, the noble ladies used to ride to the Court balls on donkeys dressed in muslins.
My mother learnt to play the piano and played brilliantly. She knew Talberg and I remember seeing some music of hers with his writing or name upon it.
(Talberg’s villa was between Naples and Sans Souci and Madam Talberg was very much au fait with uncle Walter. When she was in a bad humour Talberg used to go to Sans Souci and get Uncle Walter to visit her! The relations of the the three were peculiar and probably not quite proper.)
My mother’s portrait was painted when she was twelve years old by an Italian. I have a copy of it hung in the Hall and she has the original now at her house in London where it was sent after her brother’s death. Her brother, my Uncle Walter, was more like a Neapolitan in his ways than an Englishman. He was very much addicted to women when young, but steadied down more or less after his marriage late in life. He sang Neapolitan songs of the Lazzaroni like a native and could talk Neapolitan better than English. He was very big and handsome, but he spent all his later life in his vineyard and lived in a somewhat slovenly and most eccentric fashion. He used to get up about midday and went to bed about three or four in the morning. Towards the end of his life he used to be so unpunctual that it was impossible for visitors to stay in the house without the most serious discomfort; for dinner or lunch were often delayed an hour or even two hours.
My father hated him and my mother does not seem to have very pleasant recollections of him. At the same time he had some pleasant ways and a great deal of talent. He made a wonderful place of Sans Souci of which there is an interesting description in a bluebook of Consular reports, by Neville Rolfe, the English Consul at Naples. I think this was made about the years 1894 to 1900.
My father was in the Navy at the time of my birth. He was the fourth son and his brother Hugh, who was a banker in Rome, was my godfather. I was brought to England while a baby via Marseilles, the journey from Naples to Marseilles being done by sea, I think. My father got an appointment in the coastguard and being ordered to Kilrush in Ireland, I was left with my aunt at Brandsby. My aunt was a widow and her son, my cousin Francis, was then a boy at school.