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Above the fireplace in the National Trust property Gunby Hall hangs a piece of faded handwriting that includes the well known line ‘…a haunt of ancient peace’. Composed by poet Alfred Tennyson to describe the grounds at Gunby, it is a fitting description of the estate, established in the fifteenth century by the Massingberd family on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. Besides Tennyson, other associations to Gunby Hall include Bonnie Prince Charlie, Dr Johnson, Charles Darwin, The Wedgwoods, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Lear, Virginia Woolf and Ralph Vaughan Williams to name but a few. Despite links with the English intellectual elite, what truly sets Gunby’s colourful history apart is its painting collection. The portraits of the Massingbird-Langton-Montgomery family tree tell stories fraught with love, honour, scandal, bankruptcy, and even murder. 

There are two outstanding portraits by Joshua Reynolds depicting early inhabitants Bennet Langton (1737–1801) and Mary Lloyd (d.1820), Countess of Rothes, Later Mrs Bennet Langton. Another portrait shows Algernon Massingberd, a brazen young chap who nearly spelled the end of Gunby Hall. Inheriting the property at 16 he swiftly gambled away his inheritance, ran away from his creditors and tragically died aged 26 on the River Amazon. His portrait in the dining room is now referred to as 'Naughty Algernon'! 

Algernon’s uncle, Charles Langton Massingberd restored Gunby back from depredation. Later, his daughter Emily Caroline Langton Massingberd (1847–1897) would become a women’s rights and temperance campaigner. In 1892 she founded the Pioneer Club as a home for women of advanced views. Gunby holds two distinctive portraits of her; one painted in 1871 by John Collingham Moore with Emily in a bustled blue dress and another by Theodore Blake Wirgman painted in 1878 where she appears dressed, unusually for the time, in male attire. Despite being a militant feminist, Emily married her second cousin and went on to have four children, one of whom married Charles Darwin’s son Leonard.

Another delightful portrait is the 1903 Arthur Hughes study of Emily’s daughter-in-law Margaret Lushington (Mrs Stephen Langton Massingberd). She is shown in the stunning gardens at Gunby with white doves circling her head. Sadly she died 3 years later of peritonitis at the age of 37, shortly before her husband returned from war duties.

A more recent portrait is of the last notable resident owner, Diana Langton (1873–1963), Lady Montgomery-Massingberd painted in 1943 by the Jewish artist Richard Ziegler, who at that time was in exile from Nazi Germany and living in London.

The collection shows strong military ties in the family – Major Stephen Massingberd, Major-General Hugh Montgomery and Diana’s husband Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, who was Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1933–1936. A fictional character in the comedy series ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ called 'Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Massingbird-Massingbird VC, DFC and bar’ is believed to be based on Sir Archibald.

Given to the Trust in 1944, Gunby Hall may be less grandiose than some of its National Trust counterparts, but remains a goldmine of curiously unique history and a fine example of what can be learned from stories behind the paintings.

Angharad Jones, Former Art UK Paintings Project Coordinator