The Aga Khan stayed at Polesden Lacey. George VI and Queen Elisabeth spent some of their honeymoon here. Charlie Chaplin also signed the visitors’ book. Winston Churchill is remembered, iconic after dinner cigar in hand, holding forth in the sumptuous dining room.

There has been a house here since the 14th century, and possibly since Roman times, given its relative proximity to Londinium and Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) and elevated position on the road linking the two ports. The present structure was built around 1823 by Thomas Cubitt, a London builder who boasted Eton Square and parts of Buckingham Palace in his portfolio. The glorious time of Polesden Lacey began when William McEwan, Scottish brewer and later an MP, bought the house for his daughter Margaret Greville nee Anderson.

The Hostess with the mostest

Margaret Helen Anderson was born out of wedlock to Helen Anderson, a domestic servant and (probably) William McEwan. Was Margaret affected by the fact that her father did not marry her mother until she, Margaret, was 22 years old, preferring instead to send her and her mother away with an employee at the brewery (who fortunately, and maybe not serendipitously, had the same surname)? Is it the chip on Margaret’s shoulder that turned her into an ambitious, shrewd snob?

Backed by her father’s wealth, Margaret climbed her way into the company of High society by holding lavish parties at her (father’s) home in Mayfair. It was clear to see that she was no great beauty, so her McEwan made it known that she was to inherit a fortune. Eventually she found a suitable husband in the person of the Honourable Ronnie Greville, son of the 2nd baron Greville, and only a few years her junior. Margaret’s ambition was to have a title, and Grenville was looking for a wealthy bride: a union made in heaven.

The marriage gave Margaret (Mrs Ronnie to her friends) a leg up the social ladder; she was presented to court by Ronnie’s grandmother, the Duchess of Montrose and the circumstances of her birth, which would have excluded her from respectable society, all but forgotten. Edward VII, who was a friend of Greville, appreciated Margaret’s discretion in his affair with Alice Keppel. Being a super-hostess was a competitive activity and Margaret’s opponents were strong: there was Maud Cunard, who had a taste for arts and entertained musicians and writers; and her rival, Sybil Lady Colefax, who became a professional interior decorator. Margaret had neither the aristocratic connection nor the artistic flair to help her stand out. But she was ambitious and had the determination to count more royals (including minor and ex-royals) in her collection. She was also very shrewd in choosing and cultivating friendships. Edward VII, George VI, Queen Mary were friends and guests of the Grevilles.

A country cottage fit for a Maharajah

This level of celebrity entertaining required a home in the country and Polesden Lacey was acquired by the Grevilles in 1906. A country mansion existed on the site since the 17th century, over the years owned by distinguished characters such as Admiral Francis Geary and the playwright Richard Sheridan. The core of the house purchased by the Grevilles is the one built by Cubitt and extended by Amrose Poynter. At a first glimpse, this is an elegant Regency villa, with roughcast and yellow-washed walls; on the South side, a charming Italianate portico with breathtaking views over the North Downs. The interior was transformed by architects Mewes & Davis (who designed the Ritz hotels in Paris and London) into a neoclassical magnificent guest house.

Mrs Greville also employed the services of interior decorators White, Alom & Co to morph the pretty but plain cottage into an opulent exhibition of Edwardian (new) riches. It is fair assumption that the word “minimalist” did not feature in the brief. However, modern comfort was important, and the house was the first in Surrey to have electricity, telephones, central heating and en-suite accommodation.

Stepping into the Central Hall, we felt like Mrs Greville’s guests must have done when arriving at Polesden Lacey: we could hear a piano playing in the saloon and a fire was burning in the chimney surrounded by intricately carved woodwork; we half-expected the butler to bring the welcome drinks and collect our coats. This is the first room the guests would have seen, and it had to impress, so the Hall is draped with 16th century Flemish tapestries. The oak paneling and decorative carvings were originally the reredos from Christopher Wren’s St Matthew church in London, acquired at auction after the church was demolished.

White, Allom & Co had an interest in salvage and recycling, and were less concerned with continuity and coherence: each room is different in style from the one before. For the Saloon, an extravagantly carved and paneled ‘salone’ dating from c.1700 was removed from an Italian palazzo and planted in Polesden Lacey Saloon. From the scintillating chandelier to the Persian carpet and the red brocade, the sense of glamour and luxury abounds. There is a large portrait of Margaret Anderson by Hermann Schmiechen, a German artist. Mrs Greville’s brief to her decorators was that she wanted a room fit to entertain Maharajahs and that is exactly what she got – not one, but at least five Maharajas visited Polesden Lacey for weekend house parties and dinners.

Food, glorious food

Dinner was indeed one area of entertaining where Mrs Ronnie could, and did, outdo her competition: the food served at her table was described by the Daily Telegraph as “unsurpassed anywhere”. This was in no small part due to Monsieur Delachaume, who would prepare the most exquisite dishes. A French chef was considered a very important asset in Edwardian high class society. It also had the advantage of being served hot – a rarity at the time. But at Polesden Lacey the dining room had a jib door leading to the servery and beyond to the kitchen – ensuring the food arrived hot and the champagne chilled.

The collection

In addition to rich and famous people, Mrs Greville also collected paintings and objet d’art, many of them gifts from friends and visitors. Like the house decorating style, the collection is eclectic: silverware, Faberge, Cartier, ceramics and a display cabinet full of maiolica on the main staircase. The Paterson Children, a beautifully balanced and tender composition by Henry Raeburn was Margaret’s most expensive art purchase. There are a couple of Dutch gems acquired by her father, William McEwan the brewer: the exquisite oil on panel The Golf Players by Pieter de Hooch and the intriguing An Officer making his Bow to a Lady by Gerard ter Borch the younger. In 1942 Mrs Greville died and was buried at Polesden Lacey, which she bequested to the National Trust, having had no children. “There is no one” wrote Sir John Simon “to whom to send a message of sympathy and condolence”.

In a final gesture, she left her impressive collection of jewels to Queen Elizabeth – her posthumous link to royalty. “I’d rather be a beeress than a peeress” – Mrs Ronnie once proclaimed. Her life of courting the aristocracy and her values appear to contradict this credo.