On the garden highlights tour today I was asked about the plaques set into the Italian Garden wall where the pets’ names are recorded. Animals, both real and imaginary, have always played an important part in the life of the family. Birds, dogs, and horses are all commemorated in the grounds and in various paintings in the house. Look out for the darling one of Lady Mairi as a child with her dog in the Sitting Room. Creatures from the Ark Club are also in evidence in the Italian Garden; spot the cheetah, the rabbits and the alligator, together with orangutans on pillars, kittens, and in the Shamrock Garden, animals fashioned in yew by our gifted topiarists.
In Lady Edith’s fairytale book, The Magic Inkpot, Cruncher the cat, the Stewart dragon, dachshunds, golden retrievers, bats, a wise owl, and bees accompany the children on their adventures. Lady Helen’s doves get a mention too. In times past, on garden open days dog shows were popular, and as a child Lady Mairi ran a small menagerie to be enjoyed at a small charge for charity. Until recently, the screeches from her pet cockatoos just a corridor away from the house tour route raised many a smile, and startled visitors asked, ‘Is that the ghost?’. In relation to practical matters in the gardens, Lady Edith in 1938 took delivery of 72 tree frogs in an attempt to naturally contain the snail menace. Lizards and green terrapins were also on her shopping list, and King Fuad’s gift of pink flamingos provided an unusual and picturesque sight at the lake.
On Jubilee Terrace the white stag holds sway and the swans and ducks are valued occupants of the lake area.
Horse racing was important, the family hunted and attended point to points and Lady Edith played in a ladies’ polo team. Lady Mairi had received a bequest of horses in her father’s will and estabished at Mount Stewart the first bloodstock stable in Northern Ireland. Her filly, Northern Gleam (see the memorial in the Pony Wood) won the 1953 Irish 1,000 guineas, and Fighting Charley took the Ascot Gold Cup two years in a row.
Polemarch was a very successful racehorse, famously winning the St Leger in 1921, at 50-1, and featuring with his proud owner the 7th Marquess on family Christmas Cards that year. Polemarch’s portrait is in the Entrance Hall with his jockey Joe Childs, who later rode for George V. Polemarch was eventually sold and went to stud in Argentina.
The latest four-legged favourite in the gardens is Poirot, our Mouse Experience Assistant, complete with handsome moustache. Patrolling mostly around the entrance area, this furry feline insures against any possible mouse shortage by being especially nice to the reception staff. I think he knows they have a pet shop’s worth of cat groceries stashed behind the counter, but so far he has missed the goldfish in the Spanish Garden pond. Of course, being Belgian, Poirot maintains his favourite dish is Chocolate Mouse.