Madame Patti's Castle
Madame Patti resided for much of her life at Craig-y-Nos, a castle nestled amongst the Welsh hills and valleys that she purchased and developed into a palatial home. There she was feted like a Queen and held court in the same manner. The story of how Patti came to purchase Craig-y-Nos, a house surrounded by rugged wastes seventeen miles from anywhere - between Brecon to the north and Swansea to the south - is an interesting one.
It began some time after her judicial separation from her first husband, the Marquis de Caux, when Madame Patti was paying a round of visits, at the close of the London season, to some of her friends from the English nobility at their respective country-houses. She was so impressed with the comfort and reposefulness of some of these grand mansions that she became taken with the idea of securing a provincial pied aterre of her very own, in which she might rest and "recuperate" between the stressful concert seasons. With this in mind she instructed her business agent in London to keep a lookout for rural freehold properties that might suit her requirements, viz. it must offer privacy, be situated in a region of great picturesqueness, and afford opportunities for fishing - a favourite pastime of her new lover, the distinguished vocalist Signor Ernesto Nicolini, who subsequently became her second husband.
Eventually a property in Wales was brought to her attention, Craig-y-Nos, a large house near Abercrave in the Breconshire hills. Craig-y-Nos, which literally translates as "Rock of the Night" was built in the style of a castle in 1840 by Captain Rice Davies Powell of the Indian Army. It occupied a site on the banks of the Tawe in the upper reaches of the Swansea Valley, in the shadow of the Brecon beacons.
Madame Patti paid it a flying visit and, finding that it satisfied all of her basic requirements, opened negotiations with it's then owners, the Morgans of Abercrave. She purchased the castle and it's surrounding grounds in 1878 for the sum of £3,500 - a veritable fortune in those days but a tiny fraction of what she would eventually spend on improvements. Almost immediately, Patti set about a programme of enlargement and embellishments to make her new home a palace worthy of the Queen of Song. These works would take some years to complete and swallow a considerable portion of her massive fortune - being variously estimated at between £40,000 and £50,000.
In 1879 she added the Winter Garden, Stables and Waterworks as well as beginning work on the first of two massive new wings. Huge rates demands (British: annual property taxes) and problems with poachers caused Patti to rethink her purchase, however, and in 1880 Craig-y-Nos was temporarily put back on the market (this would not be the only occasion on which Patti declared an intention to sell!). But when no offers were forthcoming, Patti declared her intention to stay by throwing a grand prise de possession attended by all her musical acquaintances, and featuring a massive fireworks display for the Swansea Valley populace who gathered in their thousands on the neighbouring hillsides to watch.
Over the following years she threw herself into her renovation works with renewed vigour, adding a clocktower, a second huge wing, a conservatory, electricity generating station, and, most interesting of all, a private theatre, designed to hold an audience of 150. The most remarkable feature of this chamber was that the floor of the auditorium space could be raised by means of a hidden mechanism to the level of the stage, thus creating a large level dance floor capable of accomodating as many as 300 for entertaining. The theatre was opened with a grand ceremony on 12th July, 1891, with a guest list which included the Spanish Ambassador and Baron Julius Reuter. Distinguished actor William Terris gave the opening address.
Patti continued to live at Craig-y-Nos with Nicolini, whom she married in 1886, and later (following the death of Nicolini) with her third husband, Baron Rolf Cederstrom, until her death in 1919. Shortly before her death Patti had donated the Winter Garden building to the city of Swansea, and it was dismantled and re-erected overlooking Swansea Bay. Baron Cederstrom inherited the remainder of the property and sold it to the Welsh National Memorial Trust in March 1921 - whence it became a Children's Tuberculosis Sanatorium, The Adelina Patti Hospital, which it would remain for almost 40 years. The castle next served as a Community Hospital until the closure of that establishment in 1986.
The building was then, for a time, maintained by the Welsh Office but was subsequently sold into private ownership.
At the height of it's glory, W. Beatty-Kingston, writing for the Anglo American Times (14th Jan., 1893), described the castle in the following terms:-
"It stands back about 100 feet from the main road, behind a long range of high stone walls mantled with ivy, jessamine and climbing roses. Within the enclosure fronting the house is a large square garden, the central portion of which, laid out in turf and flower beds, is framed, so to speak, by abroad circular drive. Passing through the lofty arch that faces the main portal of the corps-de-logis, the lodge and stables are to the right, and a large shrubbery, masking a pheasantry and old-fashioned parterre, intersected by high hedges of holly and yew, to the left. A winding path that skirts the eastern wing of the castle leads to a broad gravelled terrace fronting the whole length of the building and its annexes at either extremity, to wit, the massive clock-tower at one end, and the crystal banquetting-room, and winter garden at the other.
The steep slope tending downwards from this stately esplanade to the river-bank has been symmetrically terraced and smoothly turfed, so that it looks like a huge giant's staircase carpeted with green velvet. These grass terraces are connected by winding paths with easy gradients, and are centrally traversed by a flight of stone steps hewn out of the face of the rock. The lowest of the range merges into a broad lawn level with the embankment of the Tawe, a trout stream that babbles so loudly as it hurries seaward that its ceaseless tattle can be distinctly heard from every part of the castle grounds, which are linked to the opposite bank of the bright little brook by a light iron bridge leading to a fine young fir plantation. This wood is bordered by a gravel-walk running parallel with the river for some hundreds of yards, and a similar promenade fringes the hitherward bank, leading past a spacious walled enclosure to a circular lake abundantly stocked with trout, and fed by a mountain brooklet issuing from the broad breast of the Night-Rock. This path, meandering between river and lake, commands a noble view of the Swansea Valley, walled in on either side by beetle-browed, bald-crested hills, and closed at its north-eastern extremity by a huge rampart of stone - one of the froward and forbidding Brecon Beacons.
The three specialities of the "Nightingale's Nest" that impressed me most vividly on the occasion of my first visit to Craig-y-Nos were the winter garden, the huge orchestrion (nicknamed "The Soul of the Castle" ), and the Diva's unique autographic album. Considerably enlarged within the last four or five years, the winter garden, at the period to which I am particularly referring, consisted of a long range of lofty glass-houses, fringing and overlapping the western wing of the chateau, and affording an ample promenade during wet weather, which is scarcely less chronic in South Wales than in the Scottish Highlands. The stately crystal gallery, utilised as a banqueting hall, and the great suite of conservatories, of which it is the gorgeous ante-chamber, are tapestried, save on their river frontage, by climbing exotics, profuse in fantastically patterned leaves and huge, glowing, scentless blossoms. Set like dazzling flowers among the tangled luxuriance of this tropical foliage, oval electric lamps gleam and sparkle after dark, illumining the deep valley below, and making Tawe's impetuous waters glitter fitfully as they rustle along over their stony bed. The magical glamour cast by this limpid reservoir of lambent light upon the wild perspective of wood, water, and rock, that is commanded by the southern facade of Craig-y-Nos Castle, must be seen to be realized; and, once seen, can never be forgotten.
The orchestrion of 1880 has been lately replaced by one of more than twice its capacity and value - the finest instrument of its kind in the world. It cost Madame Patti-Nicolini £6,000, is worked by electric power, and plays some 200 overtures, operatic selections, and arrangements of ballet music with all the polyphonic effects of a full orchestra. Two sides of the deep and lofty recess in which this mighty mechanism is set up are lined with oak-panelled compartments in which were formerly ranged its predecessor's burnished cylinders, each of which exacted the strength of two able-bodied men to lift it into and out of its place in the heart of the orchestrion. These capacious repositories are now occupied by tiny rolls of stiff perforated paper, which a child can carry about without effort, and which latter-day ingenuity has substituted for the massive spiky barrels that used to animate l'ame du chateau by their ponderous revolutions."
Westinster Budget [London] - 14th June, 1895.
PATTI AT CRAIGY-NOS
THE QUEEN OF SONG AT THE OPERA ONCE AGAIN
On Tuesday night Patti appeared in "Traviata" at the Italian Opera, and was of course enthusiastically welcomed by a great audience. Only for a short season will the most famous of singers tear herself away from that most sumptuous palace of hers in Wales, to which we give some pictures here, and a few notes of a visit paid to her some time ago by one of our contributors:-
During my visit to Craig-y-Nos we usually spent our evenings in the billiard rooms. There are two at the castle, an English room and a French one. In the French room there is the great orchestrion which Madame Patti had built in Geneva at a cost of £5,000. It is operated by electricity, and is said to be the finest instrument of the kind in the world. M. Nicolini would start it of an evening, and the wonderful contrivance would "discourse most eloquent music" from a repertoire of 116 pieces, including arias from grand operas, military marches, and simple ballads. Music is the one charm that Madame Patti cannot resist. The simplest melody stirs her to song. In the far corner from the orchestra she will sit, in an enticing easychair, and hum the air that is rolling from the organ-pipes, keeping time with her dainty feet, or moving her head as the air grows livelier. Now and again she sends forth some lark-like troll, and then she will urge the young people to a dance or a chorus, and when everyone is tuned to the full pitch of melody and merriment she will join in the fun as heartily as the rest. I used to sit and watch her play the castanets or hear her snatch an air or two from " Martha," "Lucia," or "Traviata." One night the younger fry of us were chanting negro melodies, and Patti came into the room, warblirtg as if possessed by an ecstasy. "I love those darky songs" said she, and straightway she sang to us, with that inimitable purity and tenderness which are hers alone; "Way Down upon the Swanee River," and "Massa's in the Cold, Cold Ground," and after that "Home, Sweet Home," while all of us listeners felt the tears rising, or the lumps swelling in our throats.
Guests at Craig-y-Nos are the most fortunate of mortals. If the guest be a gentleman, a valet is told off to attend upon him; if the guest be a lady, a handmaid is placed at her service. Breakfast is served in one's room at any hour one may choose. Patti never comes down before high noon. She rises at half-past eight, but remains until twelve in her apartments, going through her correspondence with her secretary, and practising a little music. At half-past twelve an elaborate dejeuner is served in the glass pavilion. Until that hour, a guest is free to follow his own devices. He may go shooting, fishing, riding, walking, or he may stroll about the lovely demesne, and see what manner of heavenly nook nature and Patti have made for themselves among the hills of Wales. Patti's castle is in every sense a palatial dwelling.
She saw it fifteen years ago, fell in love with it, purchased it, and has subsequently expended at least £100,000 in enlarging and equipping it. The castellated mansion, with the theatre at one end, and the pavilion and winter garden at the other, shows a frontage of fully 1,000ft, along the terraced banks of the Tawe. But the place has been so often described that it is unnecessary for me to repeat the oft-told story, or to give details of the gasworks, the electric-lighting station, the ice-plant and cold-storage rooms, the steam-laundry, the French and English kitchens, the stables, the carriage-houses, the fifty servants, the watchfulness of Caroline Baumeister, the superintending zeal of William Heck.
Every afternoon about three o'clock Patti and her guests go for a drive, a small procession of landaus and brakes rattling along the smooth country roads. You can see at once that this is Patti land. The cottagers come to their doors and salute her Melodious Majesty, and all the children of the countryside run out and throw kisses. "Oh! the dears," exclaimed the kind-hearted cantatrice as we were driving towards the village of Ystradgynlais (they call it "Ist-rag-dun-las") one afternoon, "I should like to build another castle and put all those mites into it, and let them live there amid music and flowers!" And I believe that she would have given orders for such a castle straightway had there been a builder within sight.
On the way home Patti promised me "a surprise for the evening." She appeared later on covered with jewels, and when the non-appearance of the ladies kept the gentlemen waiting in the drawing-room at dinner-time I was the more puzzled. Nicolini, to pass the time, showed us some of Madame's trophies. It would be impossible to enumerate them, because Craigy-Nos Castle is like another South Kensington Museum in the treasures it holds. Every shelf, table, and cabinet is packed with gifts which Madame Patti has received from all parts of the earth, from monarchs and millionares princes and peasants, old friends and strangers. There is Marie Antoinette's watch to begin with, and there are the portraits of the Prince and Princess of Wales to end with. There is a remarkable collection of portraits of Royal personages, presented to Madame Patti by the distinguished originals on the occasion of her marriage to M. Nicolini. Photographs of the Grand Old Man of Politics and the Grand Old Man of Music rest side by side, on a little table presented by some potentate. Gladstone's likeness bears his autograph, and the inscription: "Con tanti e tanti complimenti"; Verdi's, his autograph, and a fervid tribute written in Milan a year ago. There are crowns and wreaths and rare China, there are paintings and I know not what, wherever one looks. If one were to make Patti a gift, and he had a king's ransom to purchase it withal, he would find it difficult to give her anything that would be a novelty, or that would be unique in her eyes. She has everything now.
For my part, I would pluck a rose from her garden, or gather a nosegay from a hedgerow, and it would please her as truly as if it were a priceless diadem. She values the thought that prompts the giving rather than the gift itself. She never forgets even the smallest act of kindness that is done for her sake. And she is always doing kindnesses for others. I have heard from the Welsh folk many tales of her generous charities. And to her friends she is the most open-handed of women. There was one dank, drizzly day while I was at Craig-y-Nos. To the men this did not matter. The wet did not interfere with their projected amusements. But every lady wore some precious jewel which Patti had given her that morning - a ring, a brooch, a bracelet, as the case might be. For the generous creature thought her fair friends would be disappointed because they could not get out of doors that day. How could she know that everyone in the castle welcomed the rain because it meant a few hours more with Patti?