Icons / June 2016

The Leader of the Pack: Woolf Barnato

Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato – the hell-raising heir to a diamond fortune, who purchased Bentley Motors in 1926 – sealed his place in the annals of rakish folklore by taking a…

Ardenrun Hall, near Lingfield in Surrey, England, is a 350-acre country estate constructed from 1906 to 1909, during the last great phase of British country- house building. It was designed by Ernest Newton, a protégé of the great Victorian master Richard Norman Shaw, to mirror the tastes of the landed gentry at a time when Britain's empire reached over a third of the globe.

But Ardenrun was to become most famous (perhaps 'notorious' might be more accurate) as the country house of one Woolf Barnato, and the de-facto home for the Bentley Boys - the hard-driving, hard-partying playboys who epitomised the cocktail-fuelled, decade-long party that was the Roaring Twenties.

Woolf Barnato's father, Barney, was born in 1852 in the slums of Whitechapel in London's East End, but went on to flourish in the booming years of South African diamond mines and gold fields. His common-law wife and then legal spouse, Fanny Barnato, and their three children continued to enjoy a pleasant but surprisingly unspoilt life, considering the manner in which the elder Barnato had lived and died (a paranoiac episode drove him to leap overboard a yacht and drown when Woolf was two), dividing their time between a house in Colwyn Bay, North Wales, a flat near London's Marble Arch and a seaside villa at Brighton.

Woolf Barnato, powerfully built and given the sobriquet 'Babe' (either a reference to his position as the third and last of the children, or an ironic glance at his stocky 1.82m frame) made a name for himself as a boxer and athlete at Cambridge; then, during the war, he enlisted as a private and eventually became a captain, serving in Palestine. Once hostilities were over, he cultivated a passion for racing cars and racy women.

It was his old Commanding Officer, who lived on a house on the Ardenrun estate, who had secured the house for him, and Barnato set about the business of joining the 'squirearchy' with gusto, expanding the estate to around 1,000 acres and adding a golf course. Under Barnato, Ardenrun was not the traditional English country house that its builder had envisaged; instead, it was turned into a playboy mansion, quite literally. Barnato built a full-size mock Tudor pub in the rambling basement of the house. Its small Elizabethan-style leaded windows with diamond panes, behind which were electric lights, gave the impression of daylight, while a large oak-beamed fireplace was festooned with pewter tankards. Depending on the time of day, or night, visitors would encounter either hunting folk fortifying themselves with hearty helpings of bacon and eggs, tipsy show- business types - such as Fred Astaire and Scottish actor Jack Buchanan - or carousing men-about-town.

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Nick Foulkes