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Wood Norton Hall, former home of French royalty that helped to win the war against Hitler

Henri (left) with his brother 
Antoine and his mother
Queen Marie Amélie.

In his Shell Guide to Worcestershire of 1964 the peerless James Lee-Milne is rather hard on Wood Norton Hall, near Evesham:

‘Now the BBC Engineering Training Department, tarmac-ed and pig wired. Built 1897 for the Duke of Orleans, who lived here in exile and secluded splendour. The house of red brick and half- timber is sprinkled with crowns and fleur-de-lis; interesting on account of its period ugliness ‘.

What he doesn’t mention is that just twenty years earlier the Hall was the HQ of the BBC Listening Station, where eminent writers, journalists and linguists worked together in specially built huts to listen into communications from Europe. The great critic and poet Geoffrey Grigson and eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich, not to mention the TV star Gilbert Harding out of ‘What’s My Line’, were a few of the celebs who did their bit for the war effort here by intercepting messages, mainly from the Germans—vital work that has received far less attention than that done at Bletchley Park. The full story is told in Assigned to Listen while the less than enjoyable experiences of Grigson can be read in his autobiography Crest on the Silver (1950).

What we have here though is a letter from ‘H. d’Orleans’ dated 8th March 1862 to an agent --- thirty years before the present building was erected. Here is my translation:

Sir,
I have been to Mr Philip’s on Tuesday and I discussed with him how he would make me a replica of a picture that he had begun for another person and indicated to him the dimensions that I wanted.

These dimensions will be: 
( Canvas) 5 feet 7 inches 3 rows wide on 2 feet 5 inches 6 rows high , with the action  to the left of the spectator.
(Canvas) 5 feet 7 inches, 6 rows wide on 1 foot 11 inches 5 rows high with the action  to the right of the spectator .
Mr Philip can choose these dimensions and the light that he prefers. I indicated the light ... because the picture must be placed in such a way so it cannot be inclined.

I would also like to know what would be the price of the picture. If it wasn’t too high and Mr Philip would arrange to sketch any picture which can suit the location that he hasn’t chosen and would serve in place of the latter, I will be happy to commission him.

If he feels that any of the dimensions mentioned are unsuitable to the subjects that I have seen and chosen at his home, I beg him to tell me frankly. We can make another choice. 
I return to Orleans House next Wednesday 14th.
Believe me, Sir,
Your affectionate 
H d’Orleans.

The writer was Henri, d’Orleans, Duke of Aumale (1822 – 1897), the leader of the Orleanists, who at the age of eight inherited the equivalent of £200m today, together with huge estates in France, including the Chateau of Chantilly. Louis Philippe, who was the Orleanist pretender to the throne of France, was living at Wood Norton in 1862 and was later responsible for the remodelled house that we see today. So one can only surmise that Henri was paying a visit to his kinsman at Wood Hall, and afterwards planned to return to stay with another relation at Orleans House, near Twickenham, which according to some sources, was occupied from 1850 by various descendants of King Louis Philippe.

The artist commissioned by Henri was probably John Phillip (1817 - 67), popularly known as ‘Spanish Phillip’ for his fascination with Spanish subjects. It would seem that Henri wanted this artist to adapt the composition of one of his paintings to suit his own tastes. Perhaps he saw himself as one of the figures Phillip had painted. Who knows?

Incidentally, the former home of Louis Phillipe and the BBC is now a rather plush hotel. [R.M.Healey]

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