WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – RORY CARNEGIE
As patrons of architecture and design, Johnny Bute's family have quite an extraordinary and unique heritage. Most famously, the 3rd Marquess of Bute commissioned a startling range of flamboyant projects in the 19th century, including his Victorian gothic fantasy home on the Scottish Isle of Bute itself, Mount Stuart. Johnny Bute – the 21st century Marquess – has honoured the family example by continuing with the careful restoration and upkeep of Mount Stuart itself, but also by commissioning new projects from contemporary architects and designers.
With his wife Serena, Johnny Bute has continued conservation work at the house, including reinstating some of the original room colours of Mount Stuart, which were painted over with whitewash during World War I when the house was used as a military hospital. But they have also commissioned – among other projects – a striking and highly contemporary visitors' centre for Mount Stuart, which is open to the public for half the year, as well as hosting weddings and special events.
''The care and restoration of Mount Stuart is an organic process,' says the Marquess, whose official title is Sir John Colum Crichton-Stuart, 7th Marquess of Bute, but who prefers to be called Johnny Bute. 'Naturally I'm continuing to develop and evolve the estate as my father did and his father before him and so on. Having grown up at Mount Stuart I do have a great appreciation of eccentricity and eclectic design. I also like classical architecture and a beautiful Georgian house is amazing aesthetically. But it doesn't excite me as much as modern architecture and design.'
Designed by architect Munkenbeck + Marshall, the new Centre has won a huge amount of praise as well as awards and shortlisting for the Stirling Prize for architecture. Purposefully set a good distance away from Mount Stuart itself, it houses the ticket office, shop, exhibition spaces as well as a café/restaurant upstairs.
'If you are running a business like this then you do need to do some special things in and around it and the Visitors' Centre is a project that works very well,' says Bute. 'It is a great building and not just aesthetically interesting. We sometimes have events in the restaurant or dinner parties and my sister Sophie launches our Mount Stuart visual arts programme up there.'
Being the first port of call for visitors to the Estate, the Centre only makes Mount Stuart itself even more of a surprise. The house was commissioned in the late 1870s after the original Queen Anne building on the site was devastated in a fire. Only two wings of the original house survived and the 3rd Marquess asked leading Scottish architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson to create an extraordinary new family seat which was built over the next decade.
The 3rd Marquess was never short of imagination nor a passionate interest in architecture and the decorative arts, partly funded by family wealth generated by the transformation of Cardiff Docks into one of the leading coal shipping centres in Europe. As well as transforming Cardiff Castle – later handed to the city itself – the 3rd Marquess created a vibrant four storey fantasy at Mount Stuart, with decoration by H.W. Lonsdale and others. But at the same time the house was also very up to the minute with one of the world's first heated indoor swimming pools, a lift and electric lighting.
'The house is quite unique and extraordinarily beautiful,' says Serena Bute. 'It can't help but take your breath away. It's very whacky and over the top – a fantasy. There is this rich, luxurious side to the house that has become muted in places and we would like to get back that sense of richness as the rooms are crying out for vibrancy. The rooms come to life when the colours are warm, vivid and strong.'
Having discovered samples of the original colours under layers of paintwork, the Butes have already restored a number of the main bedrooms on the first floor. Serena has also collaborated with her friend Rose Uniacke, the interior designer, on redesigning their private sitting room on the lower ground floor of the house – a more intimate and secluded retreat.
While Mount Stuart still serves as a family home, it is also a hive of activity at times, especially during weddings such as Stella McCartney's, who got married here in 2003. So the Butes also have a farmhouse on the island, ten minutes drive away, where they have created a secluded family home to share with the six children that they have between them. It is set on a mesmerizing spot overlooking Scalpsie Bay – with its seal colony – and the Firth of Clyde.
'The farmhouse has been very much a work in progress,' says Serena. 'When we are in Bute we are both usually working and things do tend to be rather a rush. But we really want to do some more work on the farmhouse now and Johnny and I are always a very good team when we work on projects together, whether it's our home in London or something up here. We are a big family and it is important to us to create a family home.'
Serena is also highly creative and once worked for fashion label Joseph and then created her own childrenswear line during a period living in Jamaica. She now runs her own fashion business, Anonymous, with co-founder Lindy Ross. They have two stores in London and sell to independent fashion shops internationally. Their King's Road store was designed by architect Juian Powell Tuck, who the Butes also asked to design their London family home in Notting Hill. Powell Tuck radically extended and updated a period home that had been untouched since the 1940s, opening up the building and creating a dramatic modern extension at the back of the building.
'We try to spend as much time as we can in Bute but I also have commitments in London,' says Johnny Bute. 'It's about 50/50 between London and Bute but that can change depending on the intensity of work in either place. When I am in Bute I am always slightly in work mode so we do all go away for a summer holiday. But there are certain time of the year when we are all in Bute – Easter, Christmas, New Year, Autumn half-term and usually most of July.'
Johnny Bute has recently added to the three existing libraries at Mount Stuart with the new Library Four, to help in archivist Andrew McLean's painstaking work in cataloguing and conserving the vast collection of books, family archives and architectural drawings at Mount Stuart. Other new plans include trialling a biomass plant, using wood chip from the Estate, to heat the garden pavilion and other satellite buildings with the aim of eventually heating Mount Stuart itself in the same way.
There is a Mount Stuart arts programme, an Eat Bute food festival that Mount Stuart supports, plus the ongoing development of family firm Bute Fabrics in nearby Rothesay. Founded by Johnny Bute's grandfather in the 1940s, Bute Fabrics produces high end upholstery fabrics and works closely with a wide range of contemporary architects and designers, including Timorous Beasties, Tom Dixon and Jasper Morrison. The business sits well with Johnny and Serena's interest in contemporary design.
'It is a company that I inherited, of course, but it is a good fit,' Johnny Bute says. 'We have been involved in some really good projects and some iconic buildings like the Opera House in Cardiff.'
The tranquility and natural beauty of Bute seems a world away from Johnny Bute's first career as a racing driver, but one which he embraces. Bute drove for Lotus in Formula 1 in the late 1980s and won Le Mans in 1988, before stepping back and then focusing himself on Mount Stuart and Bute.
'I really used to miss the sport and it took me a few years to get over being a professional driver. It's a lifestyle that's very intense and a huge psychological and physical commitment. It took some time to move on from that. But when my father was ill I decided to quit the sport and do what I could to give him some support. Then taking on the family businesses really opened a lot of doors for me. It has given me the opportunity to do some really interesting things. Now we are building up all these different aspects of our business and diversifying and bringing different people to different events on Bute. It is an organic process of evolution and change.'