Half Moon House

Designation:
All on Devon Gazetteer
Type:
  • Gardens
Parish:
Manaton
Description:

Overview
Half Moon House at Manaton is a unique aesthetic and cultural ensemble: the home from
1954 of the artist Jeanne du Maurier (1911-1997) and her life partner, the poet Noel Welch
(1920-2017), it comprises the house which the ladies developed to meet their specific needs
and lifestyle; the contents they collected including important examples of their respective
work as well as other significant artefacts; and the designed landscape on whose creation
they collaborated, and which, in many ways, is an expression of their devotion to each other,
and to their respective arts.
The ladies left their estate at Manaton to the National Trust, which is now in the process of
planning for its future. It is therefore an opportune moment for the DGT Conservation
Committee to visit, in order better to understand the background to this remarkable place.
Half Moon does not have a “garden”; or at least, it has a remarkable garden, but that garden
is part of a much larger aesthetic achievement: a designed landscape extending throughout
the estate, and which shows a profound level of thought and aesthetic awareness.
The designed landscape makes use, in a way which appears to be unique in the second half
of the twentieth century, of complex theological concepts to create a subtle and never over-
bearing symbolic foundation. Jeanne du Maurier converted to the Roman Catholic Church in1948,
and the garden areas especially reflect aspects of her faith, with an emphasis upon
the redemption of mankind through Christ and the Cross, and the pattern of selfless service
exemplified by the Virgin Mary. These messages are, however, to an extent hidden: there to
be seen and understood if the visitor wishes, but otherwise not intruding upon the enjoyment
of a beautiful garden in an unlikely spot. Noel Welch is often described as being an atheist: a
reading of her poetry tells a more nuanced story, and it seems that her beliefs were less
specific, intuited from the landscape which surrounded her in the manner of Wordsworth and
the English Romantic poets of the late eighteenth century. At the same time, she seems to
have been perfectly happy to enter fully into the creation of the garden, the wider designed
landscape and the various structures associated with it with their underlying symbolism: it is
clear from her repeated quotation of John Donne’s poetry, and especially The Cross, that
she felt an affinity with his words. Garden and designed landscape were thus very much the
joint, combined creation of both artist and poet.
The elements of the designed landscape draw upon a confident understanding of the history
of garden and landscape making in England: from Francis Bacon’s idealised early
seventeenth century garden; to the early eighteenth century deference to the Genius loci;
and the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century aesthetic of the Picturesque and
Sublime. This designed landscape draws from them all, to create something most unusual
and probably unique in the history of twentieth century landscape.
The formal elements of the garden have a conscious mediaevalism, and are a particularly
good and complete example of the taste for “old fashioned” gardens and plants (including, of
course herbs, which had their own garden at Half Moon) which was popular before and after
the War. There are hints of inspiration derived from other contemporary gardens such as
Sissinghurst Castle, Lullingstone Castle, or the Dartmoor gardens at Wood and Castle
Drogo: but the ladies who created Half Moon were never slavish imitators, instead taking
inspiration and developing it into something distinctively their own. The design and planting
of the garden elements of the landscape design are a particularly good encapsulation of the
tastes and interests of a garden developed from the mid-twentieth century.
The more naturalistic areas of the designed landscape demonstrate a sensitivity to, and
willingness to work with, the natural landscape they inherited: granite boulders are
incorporated, rather than removed, and topiary shapes (even to the extent of topiarising
gorse in the rough pasture) are introduced for balance and contrast. Elements of the
vernacular agricultural landscape, including Devon hedges and a massive, mid-nineteenth
century granite wall, are incorporated into the landscape design, and become part of its
underlying symbolism. While not strictly ornamental, even buildings such as the new stables
are incorporated into the overall aesthetic scheme in the manner of an eighteenth century
ferme ornee; and other utilitarian buildings within the landscape such as the Pump House
and the Goat Houses are provided with a Picturesque guise, appropriate to their situations
within the landscape design, but also resonant of earlier aesthetic and landscape design
traditions.
Throughout the designed landscape there is evidence of the thoroughness and
perfectionism both ladies brought to any task they undertook; and their keen attention to the
minutest detail: the uniformly blue-painted lids of the feed bins in their stables are every bit
as considered and necessary to the overall ensemble as is the statue of the Blessed Virgin
presiding from her niche over the Herb Garden and the Marian Garden – blue being, of
course, a colour specifically associated with the Virgin Mary.
The ladies had strong links to the group of artists working in St Ives and West Cornwall in
the post-War period. They both lived in St Ives before moving to Manaton, and both knew
significant figures in that world. Some of these artists also made gardens, and it is
appropriate to consider Half Moon in that context. Of those artist-garden makers, the one
who seems to have influenced Jeanne and Noel most closely is their close friend, the painter
Dod (Doris) Procter (1890-1972) and her garden at North Corner, Newlyn. And like Dod,
Jeanne and Noel both drew material and inspiration from the garden they created at Half
Moon.
Despite neglect in recent years, the designed landscape at Half Moon survives very
substantially intact, with no loss of structural fabric. While some planting has become
degraded, an extensive collection of photographs records the garden in its prime and affords
good reference material upon which its sensitive conservation can be based. Contact with
those who knew and worked with the ladies has been very helpful in providing insights to
their horticultural approach and the range of plants they collected and grew.
It must be emphasised that while the designed landscape has intrinsic significance, its
significance is vastly increased through being an essential element of the complex
inter-related aesthetic, historic and cultural ensemble that makes up Half Moon.
Jeanne du Maurier and Noel Welch seem to have relished the intellectual and aesthetic
stimulation which their garden and wider designed landscape afforded them. As an
expression, albeit a subtle and not at all heavy-handed expression of faith and existential
thought, it also provided opportunities for formal and informal reflection and prayer. It still
provides all these opportunities today: their vision fully merits sustaining into the future.
As a result of recent survey and research, it has been advised that the designed landscape
associated with Half Moon is of “exceptional” or national significance, and would merit
inclusion on the Historic England Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.

Brief description of the designed landscape

1: The House
Jeanne and Noel believed that Half Moon had its origins in a twelfth century Devon
longhouse. This idea, regardless of its accuracy, clearly excited and stimulated their
respective imaginations. Recent research by Keystone indicates, however, that the existing
fabric does not date from before the late seventeenth century, although one section of wall
may survive from an earlier structure on the site.
The house was built as two cottages, and is recorded as such on the Courtenay Estate
Survey of 1790. Each cottage had an area of walled garden to the north which, taken
together, correspond to the walled garden area immediately behind the present house.
During the nineteenth century the eastern (right-hand) cottage became the Half Moon Inn. It
continued in use as a public house until 1918 when its license was revoked due to its
insanitary condition and lack of stabling; in any case its licensee had by that time built the
Kestor Inn, more conveniently located in the village and close to the tourist attraction at the
Becky Falls, and was presumably content to move his business. The western (right-hand)
cottage was successively a private house, a grocer’s shop before finally becoming the
village post office in the late 1890s. It remained in that use until 1944, the freehold of both
properties having been purchased by the Postmistress, Mrs Frost, in 1929. In 1944 both
cottages were sold to Mrs Helen Duckworth Hunt, who began to acquire additional land to
the north and west of the cottages to augment the small walled gardens. Mrs Hunt’s
executors sold the property to Jeanne du Maurier in July 1954; the following year a deed
was executed transferring half the property to Noel Welch in recognition of the fact that she
had provided half the purchase price.
Jeanne and Noel had met in South Africa in 1948 when Jeanne was visiting that country with
her friend, the painter Dod Procter. At the time Jeanne was living in St Ives, having left the
du Maurier family home at Bodinnick, Fowey soon after the end of the War. After their return
from South Africa, Noel rented an adjoining studio in St Ives, and later the couple moved to
Teigncombe Manor near Chagford, and then to Manor Farm, Wootton Courtenay, Somerset,
each of which was rented for about a year, before they acquired Half Moon in 1954.


2: The Gardens and wider designed landscape
Half Moon House is set into a south-facing slope, with the garden areas lying at a higher
level to the north of the house. The ladies created new links between the house and the
garden, including the late 1950s conservatory which features in some of Jeanne’s paintings.
Previously, the house had a primary visual relationship with the Green to the south: the
ladies required privacy and planted a screen of flowering cherries, later replaced by the
present Medlars to the south of the front garden. A small garden area was created to the
south-west of the house: a flowering cherry (later also replaced by a Medlar) overhanging a
granite cider press is a restrained, almost Oriental composition.
A flight of carefully designed and executed stone steps leads round the west end of the
house from the small front garden to reach terraced lawns on the north side of the house.
These correspond to the garden area which existed prior to the ladies’ arrival in 1954, and
are enclosed to the north and west by granite walls. A cobbled path set between borders of
Nepetia leads north from the conservatory to a gate set in this wall; to the west of this walk
the terraces created by the ladies were planted with roses in a scheme of yellow, apricot and
bronze shades. Herbaceous borders extend along the south side of the enclosing wall, and a
parallel grass walk creates the first of several “cross” patterns found in the garden where it
intersects with the axis of the Nepetia walk.
This arrangement is repeated to the north of the wall. This northern grass walk is terminated
to the east by a niche containing a statue of the Virgin and Child (sculptor unknown), and to
the west by the “Trinity Window”, a tri-partite opening cut through the western garden wall.
The “window” is surmounted by a cross, serving as a reminder of the Christ-child’s ultimate
destiny; and from the “window” there is an aligned view of the ladies’ stables, serving as a
reminder of the Nativity. A further visual alignment exists between the statue of the Virgin
and Child and a Quince tree (now collapsed) in the paddock to the north-west. Noel
explained in her short account of the garden that some believe that the “apple” in the Garden
of Eden was a Quince: Christ, the Second Adam, therefore looks upon the tree which
occasioned the fall of the first Adam, and whose fault He is come to redeem.
Beyond, to the north of the east-west walk, lies the area described by the ladies as the
“Marian Garden” or “Hortus Conclusus”. This comprises three areas of consciously
mediaeval inspiration: the earliest, the Herb Garden, partly replanted under Noel’s direction
after 2000 but apparently originally inspired by the work of Eleanour Sinclair Rohde (1881-
1950) and Margaret Brownlow (1916-1968); the Marian Garden itself, created c1990 and
taking inspiration from one of the “carpet” pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels with a central
cruciform motif; and the Orchard of traditional and local apples underplanted with Narcissi
and Fritillaria meleagris (snake’s head fritillary – an allusion, perhaps, to the Genesis
account of the Fall).
A circular stone tower stands to the north-west of these garden areas. This is the Oratory,
begun in 1991 and the last major feature to be added to the garden by the ladies; and one
which caused them considerable trouble, not least with the planners at Dartmoor National
Park. The tower may draw its inspiration from Irish and Scottish Celtic church towers; but it
has to be acknowledged that it is also very similar in design to the Freelands Tower, an early
twentieth century astronomical observatory on a hill-top to the south-east. Noel comments
that on plan the Oratory, the tower of St Winifred’s church, and the Freelands Tower form a
triangle embracing Half Moon – presumably a reference to the Trinity, rather in the spirit of
Sir Thomas Tresham’s late sixteenth and early seventeenth century recusant designs at
Rushton and Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire. The interior of the Oratory is austere,
but it has a geometrical marble floor which strongly recalls the Cosmatesque floors being
constructed at Buckfast Abbey at just the moment the Oratory was being built. The ladies
enjoyed close links with the Community at Buckfast.
North of the Hortus Conclusus are areas of lawn separated by naturally occurring granite
boulders, and ornamental planting. To the east, the “Monk’s Seat” overlooks one lawn; while
to the north a pond, constructed c1980, forms the focal point of another. The pond is backed
by an “exedra” formed from massive granite boulders surmounted by a clipped box hedge
which separates the more formal garden areas from naturalistic areas beyond. A recent
visitor described the lawns as a “sanctuary”, both in the sense that they are secluded, but
also because their form has an ecclesiastical resonance; while the up-swept wall behind the
pond recalled a diadem crowning Mary, Queen of Heaven.
Beyond the formal garden areas, the landscape design becomes more naturalistic. The
meadow garden is enclosed to the west by a bank of mature Rhododendrons (mostly hardy
hybrids), which may have been obtained from Menabilly, Cornwall, the home of Jeanne’s
sister Daphne, and noted for its historic Rhododendron collection. Mown paths led through
the grass and naturalised bulbs and herbaceous plants, while to the south-east a timber-
framed greenhouse forms the focal point of more ornamental planting, including one of
several crescent moon-shaped borders found in the design. Was this shape simply a
reference to “Half Moon”; or is it an allusion to the crescent moon so often found in paintings
of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin? The proximity of a rose bed designed
in the form of a serpent (now overgrown and lacking all but one of its roses) perhaps lends
weight to the latter interpretation: in historic paintings such as Tiepolo’s Immaculate
Conception (1767), Mary is shown crushing a serpent (symbolic of man’s fall) under her foot.
This painting, now in the Prado, was known to the ladies who were regular visitors to Spain
in the 1950s and 1960s.
The meadow garden is separated from the woodland garden to the north by a pre-existing
hedge bank. The woodland garden climbs to the lower reaches of Manaton Rocks, with
ornamental specimen trees and shrubs grouped among mature, pre-existing oak and beech.
From this area a walk, now rather overgrown, crosses the public footpath ascending to
Manaton Rocks and enters a further area of light woodland underplanted with specimen
Rhododendrons. Massive natural rock formations tower above the walk, with fissures and
caves creating the play of light and shade particularly appreciated by Jeanne and Noel.
These rocks apparently inspired the ladies to weave romantic stories of hidden treasure and
outlaws: what could be more natural for a du Maurier brought up with Peter Pan? Or a poet
so well-versed in Wordsworth and the English Romantic tradition?
The walk passes a small, curved stone wall below a massive oak which was known as the
“Theatre” and may have been the location for poetry recitals for special guests. Two huge
specimens of large-leafed Rhododendron species flourish, rather unexpectedly, among the
rocks prompting thoughts of the Himalayas; and eventually the walk ascends to a small
plateau from which, for the first time, a view opens to the north, across the Moor towards
Chagford and Castle Drogo. This walk is an accomplished essay in Picturesque style, with
strong elements of the Sublime, which it would be all too easy to mistakenly dismiss as “natural landscape”.
There is clear evidence of intervention in, and enhancement of, the pre-existing
vernacular landscape with the introduction of ornamental planting and the training of
Lonicera on young trees in eighteenth century style in order to stimulate the intellect and emotions.

Descending from the Picturesque Rock Walk, mown paths led into two enclosures of rough
pasture which were characterised, in the ladies’ day, by topiarised gorse. The bushes in the
western field were generally clipped as cubes; those in the eastern field, surrounding the
ladies’ grave, were apparently domes and pyramids. Some of the gorse closest to the grave
continues to be cut to shape. The inspiration for this unusual treatment of the gorse is
unclear: it has been suggested that Noel was inspired by the example of an (unknown) friend
in Scotland; alternatively, the ladies may have noticed stock-browsed bushes on the Moor
which encouraged them to shape their own gorse. The topiarised gorse recalls the box
topiary in the garden areas: these topiary shapes were introduced, according to Noel, to
balance the random placing of the naturally occurring granite boulders. It is perhaps relevant
to note that Noel was a close friend of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and
greatly appreciated her work: the sculptural quality of the topiary perhaps resonated with
Hepworth’s work in Noel’s mind.
The ladies’ grave is marked by a simple granite boulder. A smaller stone at its foot marks the
grave of Tiffany, the last of their Papillon dogs. This seems to be another example of
conscious mediaevalism, recalling the iconography of mediaeval funerary monuments. It is
interesting that the ladies chose their resting place to be outside the garden, on the edge of
the Moor. A direct visual axis extends from the grave to the window above the altar in the
Oratory on the edge of the garden; and at the same time there is a strong visual link to the
Moor and tors to the south. The tower of St Winifred’s church (about which the ladies were
ambivalent, feeling it to be lowering and oppressive) is carefully screened from view from the
grave site.
Returning towards the garden areas closer to the house, mown grass paths led past two
rustic timber goat houses constructed in a Picturesque Swiss style appropriate to their
location below the Rocks. In the adjacent Paddock, the former Pump House was given a
similarly Picturesque timber cladding, and a crescent moon-shaped Iris bed (Iris being one of
the Virgin’s flowers) was created nearby. Between the Pump House and the small vegetable
garden a mixture of fruit and ornamental trees and flowering shrubs are planted among the
rocky outcrops. The vegetable garden was apparently planted as much for ornamental
effect, as for its produce: rhubarb in each corner, a clump of globe artichokes at the centre
and colourful vegetables such as ruby chard arranged in groups. This vegetable garden was
created c1990 to replace one which had previously existed on the site of the Marian Garden.
Photographs show that the original vegetable garden was laid out on the same ornamental
pattern and very much in the spirit of a potager, but apparently pre-dating the fashion for
ornamental vegetable gardening popularised by Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House,
Gloucestershire in the early 1980s. It is possible that the ladies were inspired by the Chateau
de Villandry in the Loir, which they may have visited while in the area with Daphne in the
mid-1950s.
Below the vegetable garden a lean-to tool shed is given a picturesque timber covering. Noel
inscribed lines from Wordsworth’s Lines Written above Tintern Abbey on the wall of this
building.


“...Hedgerows,
Little lines
Of sportive wood run wild”


Stables and a large chicken house and run are situated at the south-west corner of the
Paddock, with further ornamental planting and a small pond to the south and south-east.
Animals, particularly dogs and horses, were central to the ladies’ lives at Half Moon, and
their presence provided “animation” in the landscape in precisely the way advocates of the
Picturesque advised in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The animals also
play a role in the symbolic foundation of the landscape: the stables, barn and even the goat
houses are all ornamented with crosses, emphasising, as Noel explained, that the animals
are integral to Creation and therefore to the designed landscape and the idealised world
created by the ladies at Half Moon.
Jeanne and Noel were keen horsewomen and for many years kept what was in effect a
small stud at Half Moon. The fields to the west of the Paddock, beyond the public footpath
and a massive, mid-nineteenth century granite wall, retain post and rail fencing from those
days. There is also evidence of the vernacular agricultural history of the land in the form of
hedge banks and granite gate posts, as well as ornamental tree planting introduced by the
ladies. The intersection of field boundaries to the north-west forms a cruciform pattern on
plan, something which was noted by Noel and felt to be a significant, almost talismanic
feature by both ladies. The massive granite wall which is the most dominant feature of the
fields associated with Half Moon is popularly held to have been built by Napoleonic
prisoners-of-war: however, it does not appear on the Tithe map of 1842, and is first
delineated on the 1886 OS. It appears to have been constructed from granite boulders
removed from the field enclosures to the west, which are notably devoid of protruding
stones. This work seems to have formed part of a programme of mid-nineteenth century
agricultural improvements undertaken by the Nosworthy family, major farmers in the parish,
and tenants of the land for much of the period.
Half Moon is a remarkable ensemble. Arguably, the designed landscape with its strongly
individual underlying programme, profound thinking and understanding of preceding styles of
landscape design, is its most significant element. However, it can only be properly
understood as a unique work of art when seen alongside the house and collection: the
product of two committed artists’ lives: a testament to their mutual commitment.