A manor house nestling snugly in six acres of glorious gardens – could there be a more perfect setting for al fresco opera? Yet Garsington Manor, with its manicured lawns, romantic lake and breathtaking views across the Oxfordshire countryside, was a cultural haven long before Leonard Ingrams, founder of Garsington Opera, arrived on the scene. The leafy glades that are now filled with operatic arias for four weeks every summer were once filled with the chatter of some of the finest writers, poets, artists and philosophers of the early 20th century, most notably those of the famous Bloomsbury set.

A medieval manor once stood on this site, and from 1428 was owned by Geoffrey Chaucer’s son, Thomas. After his death in 1434, the manor passed to his daughter, Alice, and her husband William de la Pole, the Earl of Suffolk, and later to their son, John, the Duke of Suffolk. The house was forfeited to the crown when John’s son, the Earl of Lincoln, led an unsuccessful rebellion against Henry VII, which ended with his death at the Battle of Stoke in 1487. The present building dates from around 1624, when the land was bought by William Wickham. Oliver Cromwell briefly took possession of the house during the Civil War, but otherwise it remained the property of the Wickham family for nearly 300 years, although for much of that time they leased the estate to farmers.

It was the acquisition of Garsington Manor by Philip and Lady Ottoline Morrell, in 1913, that put the estate on the cultural map. For the next 15 years, Garsington Manor played host to a constant stream of influential political and literary figures, who were drawn to this rural sanctuary by the Morrells’ renowned hospitality and the chance to chat with fellow intellectuals. For some, it was a refuge from the horrors of the First World War.

Philip Morrell came from a long line of Oxford solicitors. His great-great-grandfather, James Morrell, had founded the Morrell legal firm in the 18th century, and also financed the founding of Morrell’s brewery in 1797. After being educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Philip joined the family firm, but later went into politics, serving as Liberal MP for Henley from 1906-10, and for Burnley from 1910-18.

In 1902 he married Lady Ottoline Cavendish-Bentinck, sister of the Duke of Portland and cousin to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later the Queen Mother), after being drawn to her striking beauty and her “mass of deep copper-coloured hair” as she cycled through Oxford. At over six feet tall, and with an unusual but elegant dress sense, it was as much Lady Ottoline’s arresting appearance as her friendliness that drew people to her, and at Garsington she became the muse for many of the most outstanding literary and artistic talents of the day. Photographer Cecil Beaton and artists Henry Lamb, Duncan Grant and Augustus John were all inspired by her, as were novelists D H Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Grahame Greene, Alan Bennett and Virginia Woolf.

Some of the literary portraits of her were less than flattering, as her eccentric lifestyle attracted as much derision as admiration. D H Lawrence described her affectionately as “a Queen among women”, yet parodied her when he created Hermione Roddice in Women in Love. It is believed that she was also the inspiration for Lady Chatterley.

Aldous Huxley, who first came to Garsington in 1915 as an undergraduate, was captivated by her, calling her “a quite incredible creature”. Mrs Bidlake in Point Counter Point is believed to be modelled on Lady Ottoline, while his first novel, Crome Yellow, is a thinly-disguised portrait of life at Garsington.

Controversially, the Morrells had an open marriage, both enjoying several affairs throughout their lives. Lady Ottoline, a bisexual, had a string of high profile lovers, most notably the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who once described her as “my wonderful beautiful friend”. Other lovers included the artists Augustus John, Roger Fry and Dora Carrington, and novelist Dorothy Bussy. She also enjoyed close friendships with Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

Despite all this, the Morrells appeared to have a happy and successful marriage, based at least partly on shared politics, attitudes and interests. Both were conscientious objectors during the First World War, and Garsington became a sanctuary for other pacifists, including Lawrence, Huxley, Grant and David Garnett. Siegfried Sassoon, who was injured on active service, recuperated at Garsington.

By the end of the war, the Morrells were in severe financial difficulties, and eventually, in 1928, they reluctantly left Garsington and returned to their Bloomsbury residence in Gower Street. But they left a rich legacy with the sensitively-restored manor house and the luscious gardens, the latter largely designed by Lady Ottoline.

Over the next 54 years Garsington had several changes of ownership. Occupants included the painter Thomas Lowinsky, who lived at the manor during the Second World War, and Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, one of the co-founders of St Anthony’s College, Oxford. Sir John was a friend of King George VI, and so Garsington once again attracted some high-profile visitors, from royalty and other members of the aristocracy to politicians, including the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Sir John died in 1975, and in 1982 his widow, Ruth, sold the manor to Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams, heralding the start of another major phase in Garsington’s history.

Leonard Ingrams was a banker by trade, but his enduring fame rests on the opera festival that he founded at Garsington 20 years ago. Born in London in 1941, the youngest of four children, he grew up surrounded by music. His mother, Victoria Reid, had studied the violin in Leipzig and had rubbed shoulders with the likes of Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, so she was keen to encourage her children along a similar path.

Leonard began violin lessons at the age of six, and later played with the National Youth Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent.

His second eldest brother, Richard, played the cello, and is now best known as the founder of satirical magazines Private Eye and The Oldie.

Leonard graduated from Corpus Christi in 1963, after studying the violin in Munich for a year, and married Rosalind Moore in 1964. A successful and high-profile career in banking followed, but music remained an important part of his life.

In 1989, he invited Opera 80 (now English Touring Opera) to stage a couple of outdoor performances of The Marriage of Figaro to help raise funds for the Oxford Playhouse. These were so successful that the following year the Downshire Players were invited to stage Haydn’s Orlando Paladino.

Ingrams’ first home-grown production was Haydn’s Il Mondo Della Luna in 1991, and from that small seed grew the month-long celebration of opera of today.

Ingrams suffered a fatal heart attack as he drove home from a performance of Verdi’s Otello at Glyndebourne in July 2005, aged just 64. Tributes poured in immediately, but the fact that his opera festival continues to flourish, four years on, is probably the greatest tribute of all.

From 2011, however, the opera company will be in a new home, and Garsington Manor — after nearly a century of cultural activity, during which many celebrated figures have graced its lawns — will enter another, more peaceful, phase in its history.

For more information about Garsington, visit www.garsingtonopera.org