Sir Lowthian Bell, 1st Baronet : biography
Sir (Isaac) Lowthian Bell, 1st Baronet FRS (18 February 1816 – 20 December 1904) was a Victorian ironmaster and Liberal Party politician from Washington, County Durham, in the north of England. He was described as being "as famous in his day as Isambard Kingdom Brunel".Howell, 2008. p7
Bell was an energetic and skilful entrepreneur as well as an innovative metallurgist. He was involved in multiple partnerships with his brothers to make iron and alkali chemicals, and with other pioneers including Robert Stirling Newall to make steel cables. He pioneered the large-scale manufacture of aluminium at his Washington works, conducting experiments in its production, and in the production of other chemicals such as the newly-discovered element thallium. He was a director of major companies including the North Eastern Railway and the Forth Bridge company, then the largest bridge project in the world.
He was a wealthy patron of the arts, commissioning the architect Philip Webb, the designer William Morris and the painter Edward Burne-Jones on his Yorkshire mansions Rounton Grange and Mount Grace Priory.
On 20 July 1842 Bell, known as Lowthian, married Margaret Pattinson, daughter of his business partner Hugh Lee Pattinson and Phebe Walton. Margaret's younger sisters married Bell's business partners Robert Benson Bowman and Robert Stirling Newall: all three brothers-in-law were members of Tyneside Naturalists' Field Club and the Natural History Society of Northumberland.
Their children were Mary Katherine, known as Maisie, who in 1873 married Edward Stanley, 4th Baron Stanley of Alderley, Sir Thomas Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet, known as Hugh, who fathered the explorer and diplomat Gertrude Bell, Charles, Ada, and Florence. He had about 60 grandchildren.
In 1854, he built Washington New Hall, a few miles south of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In 1872 an illegally young chimney sweep, aged 7, died in a chimney in the Hall. Bell promptly moved into the newly built Rounton Grange near Northallerton, leaving Washington Hall empty for nineteen years until he donated it as a home for poor children, named at his request "Dame Margaret's Hall". According to his granddaughter's biographer Georgina Howell, he was "a formidable giant of a man" and somewhat abrasive.Howell, 2008. pp 5–7. The family prepared a Christmas alphabet in 1877 at Rounton Grange, including "C is the Crushing Contemptuous Pater", which Bell's daughter Elsa later annotated "Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell". In Howell's view, another event also hinted at Bell's character: one cold winter's night, his coachman was found, according to some papers found in Mount Grace Priory, "frozen stiff on the box-seat of his carriage". Howell notes that the coachman could simply have had a heart attack, and not have died of exposure at all, but still, in her view "consideration for others was not, perhaps, Lowthian's principal quality".
Rounton Grange was finished in 1876, under the architect Philip Webb; it was at that time his largest project. The house was five storeys high, of yellow brick with a pantiled roof, enormous mock mediaeval chimneys and "gothic" features. It was set in an estate of 3000 acres with lawns, a wood full of daffodils, a rose garden, and two lakes. Inside was an immense arched gallery that stretched the full width of the house, a wide curved staircase and baronial fireplace. In the main drawing room there was an Adamesque fireplace, and two grand pianos on a vast carpet. There was a large tapestry frieze of Chaucer's Romaunt of the Rose designed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, and made by Lady Bell and her daughters over several years.Howell, 2008. pp 64–66.
Given his huge wealth, Margaret and he lived relatively simply, preferring the relatively humble Arts and Crafts style for his three-year refurbishment of the mediaeval Mount Grace Priory near Osmotherley, which was in serious disrepair when he purchased it in 1898Howell, 2008. p423. as a weekend retreat. The house was decorated by the best designers of the day in the "Aesthetic" style, with William Morris's "Double Bough" wallpaper hand-printed using 22 apple wood printing blocks. For the restoration of 2010 the original blocks were used to produce a close replica of the original wallpaper, each roll taking a week to print by hand. While decorating the great house, Morris spoke of "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich".
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