The Lioness of Longleat: Viscountess Weymouth on climbing the social ladder, a feuding family and her terrifying pregnancy
It has all the ingredients of a fantastical fairy tale: hedonistic aristocrats, a family at war and a collection of curiosities including a watercolour by Hitler, all set within a sprawling Elizabethan estate where lions roam the grounds. But for EMMA THYNN, the future Marchioness of Bath, this is real life
Emma wears JUMPSUIT, By Sun. BRACELET, Mawi. SHOES, JF London. SUNGLASSES, Cutler and Gross
Emma Thynn, Viscountess Weymouth, lives in Longleat House in the old nursery suite with her husband Ceawlin and their son John.
The seventh Marquess of Bath – her father-in-law and, aged 83, the most eccentric aristocrat in Britain – lives upstairs in a separate suite, tended to by a housekeeper because most of his ‘wifelets’, as he notoriously referred to his harem of lovers, are long gone, although police were called to an argument between two of them as recently as 2011.
His actual wife, the Marchioness, Anna, lives in a cottage in the grounds.
And surrounding them all is the Safari Park, which was established 50 years ago – the first outside Africa.
I am visiting Emma to discuss the park’s 50th anniversary and the birth of her cookery brand Emma’s Kitchen.
I am met at the station by a Land Rover. We drive through the park – from a distance, the house looks a stone fairy-cake – and up to the ground-floor entrance. Longleat was once a sumptuous palace staffed by hundreds, but this part now feels tatty.
Emma (pictured with her 18-month-old son John) wears COAT, Christian Dior, from William Vintage. SHOES, Paul Andrew. SUNGLASSES, Cutler and Gross
The corridors are dark and shabby, with a bank of leaflets giving charitable information about guide dogs for the blind, and an enormous, creaking lift.
Emma appears – very beautiful and young (she is 30) – with 18-month-old John in her arms.
John seems the most ordinary name possible for a man called Ceawlin (named for a long-dead king of Wessex) to have given his son; it suggests a desire to be normal. But the first John Thynn built Longleat, in the Elizabethan age.
Emma was three when she first came to the estate. She was a bridesmaid when her half-brother Iain ‘married Silvy, who is Ceawlin’s half-aunt [and the Marquess’s half-sister].
'I always thought it was an incredible, magical place,’ she says, ‘and I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would live here.’
Her romance with Ceawlin began five years ago when they bumped into each other at Soho House in London; they hadn’t seen each other for ages.
‘It felt appropriate. It was proper. He rang me,’ she laughs, ‘which was good.’
Emma and John next to the lion sculpture that was specially commissioned to commemorate Longleat Safari Park’s 50th anniversary
Her father-in-law, who has dressed like a wizard for most of his life, did not attend their wedding nearly three years ago, apparently because Ceawlin destroyed a series of Lord Bath’s murals when redecorating (he has painted lurid murals, including portraits of his ‘wifelets’, in various parts of Longleat).
That he should rage about the destruction of one of his paintings says much about Lord Bath’s insecurities; but then, what was his own father like? A candid BBC One documentary All Change at Longleat aired last year.
My favourite scene has Ceawlin showing the camera a watercolour that his grandfather, the sixth marquess, had acquired. It was by Adolf Hitler. Ceawlin doesn’t know what to do about it, he tells the camera sadly. Perhaps he should donate it to a Holocaust museum.
Lady Bath, meanwhile, allegedly fretted that her son’s marriage to Emma, who is half-Nigerian, would disrupt the family bloodline. (To which I say: if you consider the eccentricities of Lord Bath, perhaps disruption was due.)
This came out before the wedding, when Emma and Ceawlin gave a joint interview announcing that the marchioness was barred from the ceremony and from having contact with John.
SKIRT, Zeynep Kartal. JACKET, Christian Dior, from William Vintage. BRALET, Tara Jarmon. HAT, Philip Treacy. SHOES, Chiara Ferragni
I wonder whether perhaps her husband’s infidelities and the humiliation they must have inflicted on her make it impossible for her to be happy for anyone else, even for her only son? Now, the family seems to have settled into cold war.
Emma leads me up to their flat murmuring courtesies – how was my journey? She has all the charm of the loved child. Her mother Suzanna McQuiston brought her up in a beautiful house in Chelsea. Emma is the result of Suzanna’s affair with the Nigerian oil tycoon Ladi Jadesimi. She has an elder half-sister.
The flat is off a long corridor on the first floor. There is a door beside it, which I fantasise is Lord Bath’s private entrance because of a ropey painting of him beside it, which depicts him in an unusual hat, with the family crest bearing the motto: J’ai bonne cause (‘I have good reason’). Apt words for a family at war.
Inside, the apartment is bright and high-ceilinged, but there is something odd about it; it feels crowded, impermanent. The hall is stacked with baby goods – John’s Silver Cross pram, a moses basket (from her mother, Emma says) – and hung with paintings by local artists. The kitchen has a bizarre crescent-shaped counter.
HAT, Philip Treacy. JACKET, TOP, TROUSERS and EARRINGS, all Emporio Armani. SHOES, Hugo Boss
The sitting room has full-length portraits of William III and his wife Mary on the wall and an ottoman covered with glossy magazines. There is no mobile phone reception, but you can hear the sealions in the park and, on a clear day, see the gorilla on his island.
Emma has cooked me lunch, or has at least begun to. Now that I’m here, a couple of staff, who address Emma and Ceawlin by their christian names, finish it off, while Emma races in and out of the sitting room, overseeing the preparations.
The Longleat PR sits by the window, and Emma’s dog – Monkey, a miniature labradoodle – barks occasionally.
‘Monkey is obsessed with John,’ says Emma. But she does not disapprove: ‘I feel it gives her purpose.’
John tries to grab the Dictaphone.
‘Emma,’ he says, ‘Emm-um. Emu.’
‘No,’ she says.
‘No,’ he replies obligingly.
He is a tiny future marquess who doesn’t know he will be a marquess and I love him for that.
SKIRT and TOP, Fleamadonna. NECKLACE, Mawi
Emma is reluctant to speak about her parents-in-law; she will not be rude, but she will not be polite either.
When I ask a question she doesn’t like – such as, ‘Which parts of the reports saying your mother-in-law is a racist are true?’ – she looks sad and embarrassed, and whispers, ‘I can’t talk about that,’ with downcast eyes (she trained as an actress). Then John, who is clearly in league with her, makes a grab for the Dictaphone.
Emma’s Kitchen is a safer subject. Her mother, she says, taught her to cook during a childhood in which she was ‘always smiling’. I don’t know if this is true – Emma seems to have an intense desire to create warmth and ease in this creaking mansion.
She has turned the old kitchen downstairs from a gift shop into a demonstration kitchen and food shop, which sells a range of products inspired by 400 years of cookery at Longleat.
She tests all the recipes herself and hopes to restore the old kitchen garden and expand into pasta sauces; eventually she would like Waitrose or Selfridges to stock her products.
She sold shortbread and scones over the counter at the Emma’s Kitchen shop at Christmas, and she is recognised at Waitrose in Warminster: ‘They always ask how John is.’
What is it like, marrying into the Thynn family?
‘When you fall in love and get married you’re excited just to be in love and getting married,’ she says.
Her Tatler cover story – ‘At last! Britain’s First Black Marchioness’ (when her father-in-law dies, that is) – is framed in the corridor. Does she feel she has experienced racism within the British aristocracy?
She told Tatler: ‘There’s class and then there’s the racial thing. It’s a jungle and I’m going through it and discovering things as I grow up.
'I’m not super-easily offended, but it’s a problem when someone’s making you feel different or separate because of your race.’
‘I didn’t really say that,’ she says. ‘It was talked about a lot after I married Ceawlin but the fact that [the marriage] was received positively made me very happy.’
He is a very ‘hands-on dad,’ she adds. He is ‘gentle’ and ‘funny’.
They laugh ‘at the same things’.
What things? I ask, and she tells me about a TV show I haven’t seen; apparently it’s ‘King Lear set in a record company’. But the dynamic is obvious: she spoils and soothes him and creates a happy home.
Is Lord Bath an involved grandfather?
‘We see him from time to time, yah,’ she says, lapsing into Chelsea vocals (she still has a lot of friends there).
Lord Bath and his wife Anna with their daughter Lenka and baby Ceawlin in 1974. The Safari Park at Longleat House, which was established 50 years ago, is the first outside Africa
Anything else about Lord Bath?
‘Not really,’ she says in a tiny voice.
Has John seen Lady Bath?
‘I probably don’t want to talk about that,’ she says in a tinier voice, ‘if you don’t mind.’
Later I send her an email with supplementary questions. One is a request for more information about Lord Bath – for instance an anecdote that might show him in a ‘charming’ light. She leaves it defiantly blank.
The obvious question is why do they live here, considering the rifts within the family?
‘We want to live here,’ she says. ‘Ceawlin grew up here. He has to be here; the office is here.’
Ceawlin works very hard – he has to. Without constant repairs, Longleat would collapse into the Wiltshire soil. This drives them both on.
When I ask if there has ever been a mauling at Longleat, Emma screams, ‘Don’t even say it!’
Lions near a toddler would terrify me, but apparently John is more freaked out by ‘normal’ animals – say, rabbits – than by lions.
There will be more to amaze than rabbits during the 50th anniversary celebrations – Elton John will be performing.
Lord Bath and Anna at Longleat House in 1986. The first John Thynn built Longleat in the Elizabethan age
There has been one shadow on her marriage. She developed a disorder of the pituitary gland when she was pregnant, and John was delivered by caesarean section (in the Lindo Wing in Paddington, where the Duchess of Cambridge’s children were born).
‘It was very frightening,’ she says. ‘We would like one more baby but I do still feel apprehensive about pregnancy.’
Lunch arrives: a chicken and a complicated salad. No carbs – it is food you can eat a lot of and still be slim.
Next, she brings her brownies and raspberry meringues, which she is testing for the Emma’s Kitchen shop, a cookery book and a possible TV show, either here or in the U.S. They are delicious. I tell her I would pay to eat them and she jumps into the air and claps.
‘I’m so happy,’ she says. ‘You have made me so happy.’
Then she tastes one herself and says, ‘It’s a bit chewy.’
She does get anxious and worry about ‘irrational things’. Emma is, as she rejoices over the success of the brownies, adorable; the sort of woman who can create happiness through the application of beauty, food and fun.
I remember being amazed during the documentary when she made Ceawlin breakfast and garnished it with cherry tomatoes. Breakfast, yes – but garnish? I wouldn’t do it, but then I didn’t marry a viscount.
Now that she is relaxed – because I liked the brownie – she lets me look at one of her father-in-law’s murals. I persuade her to do this by telling her I won’t ask her what she thinks of it. She has an art history degree.
All Thynns speak art: sometimes they speak nothing but art. In the case of Ceawlin and his father, they fight through art. It is in a bathroom by the front door: green mermaids embrace and chase things – it’s very lurid, but more Disney than Hieronymus Bosch.
My opinion of Lord Bath as a crazed hedonist shifts slightly. There is a faint innocence to his painting; it looks, to me, like a scream for freedom.
The main house is closed today, but I ask to see it. This involves a telephone call to find a key, and then we set off along corridors and through doors – Emma, John, Monkey, the PR and I.
‘I hope there are no alarms,’ Emma frets, fashioning a lead for Monkey from a velvet rope – the kind that keeps visitors off the carpets.
‘Beep, beep!’ shouts John.
‘John!’ screams Emma, as he tries to climb down the great staircase. She shows me a painting of herself on her wedding day. It shows a ghostly Emma floating on the wall, as if Longleat has already sucked her in for ever.
Lord Bath with his wife Anna in 2013
Here is the salon with the Titian, an insanely sumptuous room.
‘There’s the Titian,’ she says and points at a small, shockingly coloured painting: Rest on the Flight into Egypt. It was stolen once, and returned in a laundry bag.
The PR and I thoughtlessly vault over the guard ropes and charge towards it – we must look ridiculous.
‘You’re behind the rope,’ says Emma mildly.
Later, in her bedroom, Emma shows me her wedding dress.
The room looks like a hotel room or, rather, hotel rooms look like the nursery suite at Longleat. I suppose that is why I am here – the unending British obsession with class.
Emma puts the immense skirt on and dances around the room.
I am not surprised Ceawlin Thynn married her; if the Baths were my parents, and this cold stone house my nursery, I would have clung to her leg like a toddler.
For more details about Emma’s Kitchen and Longleat Safari Park’s 50th anniversary, visit longleat.co.uk
DREAM DINNER PARTY GUESTS?
Lionel Richie, John Legend and Elton John – they could serenade us after dinner.
MOST TREASURED POSSESSION?
My wedding dress.
PERFECT SUNDAY MORNING?
Playing with John with a cookery programme on in the background.
Staying in a house on stilts over crystal blue sea, somewhere like the Maldives.
A fashion collaboration with a major brand.
Treat others as you want to be treated – it’s important to always be kind.
DESERT ISLAND DISC?
‘Love on Top’ by Beyoncé, which was our wedding dance song.
Half of Beyoncé’s Ivy Park collection for Topshop – I love 90s sports luxe.
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