By Imogen Lepere
Adam Munthe remembers his father as incredibly frugal, accusing Adam’s mother of being too extravagant with everyday things such as butter. Every Christmas, however, there was no shortage of treats and their London home was filled with piano music and laughter.
“We’d put real candles in the Bohemian crystal chandeliers, a tree in the entrance hall and fill the vast table in the dining room with turkey, the squelchiest bread sauce and flaming plum puddings,” says Adam, now in his late seventies and retired from a varied career ranging from textile worker to Arctic explorer. “Local children who were caring for ill parents would come over for a concert and Mrs Bridges, my mother’s music teacher, would bang on the instrument until her false teeth fell out.”
Personality still oozes from the bricks of the 10-bedroom Southside House, hidden behind a wall near the southern edge of Wimbledon Common. Currently home to a curator and artist in residence, and periodically open to the public, it is on the market for £10m.
The beguiling property features in Simon Jenkins’ architectural guide, England’s Thousand Best Houses, and is a meandering series of formal and informal rooms spread over 14,500 sq ft of living space. There is also a cobbled courtyard with parking for at least 10 cars, plus storage vaults, stables and an acre of garden opposite the fee-paying King’s College School.
The earliest part of the house was built as a farm in the early 17th century for Robert Pennington, a friend of King Charles II. However Adam, chair of the Pennington Mellor Munthe Charity Trust that owns the building, says the “real architect” was his father, the “very brave and rather tragic” Major Malcolm Munthe.
“He was an incredibly seductive raconteur — I never knew what was real and what wasn’t,” says Adam. “It is entirely thanks to his wild imagination that Southside is now Grade II*-listed.”
Malcolm was the youngest son of the British cotton heiress Hilda Pennington-Mellor and the celebrated Swedish doctor and author Axel Munthe, who wrote the bestselling memoir The Story of San Michele. Malcolm was captured while serving as a spy during the second world war, says Adam. On his return to Britain after the war he set about gathering his family’s scattered estate in the London house owned by his mother since 1931.
“Over the next 50 years, he wove together oral history, imagination and inspiration to create a kind of dream hideaway he hoped would save him psychologically,” says Adam. Malcolm rescued tapestries and ionic columns from London theatres bombed during the Blitz and constructed a grand baroque main hall with a vast stone fireplace and minstrels gallery that remains one of the most impressive rooms in the house.
Quirky features include a chapel, with a ceiling imported from Scandinavia, which was consecrated in the presence of Princess Alexandra, patron of the trust, and a secret room filled with ammunition that Adam discovered under the hearthstone in the dining hall, in 2010.
Since Adam took over running Southside in 1995, the music room has hosted concerts, reading groups, seminars, charity events and literary evenings. Painted cloud grey with gilt detailing and alcoves filled with Classical-style statues, it has been a place of congregation for more than 200 years. “I can still picture writer John Julius Norwich prattling about Rome, poet James Frenton discoursing on life and death, and actor Simon Callow performing poetry,” says Adam.
He is selling the house to consolidate the trust’s antique furniture and art collection, which includes Van Dyck, William Hogarth and John Constable paintings, in the family’s other home, Hellens Manor in Herefordshire, where they plan to open an exhibition space.
“So many people — some famous, many infamous — have been happily infected by Southside House over the years and passed on the obsession,” says Adam. “It is literally propped up by stories but my father’s is at the heart of it all. That is what makes this place authentic and so wonderful to live in.”
Photography: Luke J Baker; Savills