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Saturday, 6 March 2010

Keep the homes fires burning.


Today I shall take a mind’s eye tour of Sutton House, the only Tudor mansion remaining in the London Borough of Hackney. The house has two entrances at the front, a reminder of the fact that in the 18th century the building was divided into separate residences. One of the entrances incorporates the original Tudor door within its 18th century door frame, complete with Georgian fanlight. The space that would have formed the 16th century Great Hall on the ground floor is now occupied by the separate entrance halls and a Georgian panelled room currently used as a shop. A panel in this latter room has been partially raised to allow visitors to glimpse the red Tudor brickwork underneath.

The parlour to the right of the shop is thought to have been used as an office by the courtier Sir Ralph Sadleir, who built the house in the 1530s. I have just watched Fred Zimmerman’s Oscar-garlanded film “A man for all seasons” again. I have always thought that Robert Shaw gives one of the best portrayals of Henry VIII that I have ever seen on screen. Jonathon Rhys Meyers should hang his head in shame at his own lacklustre portrayal of Henry in the risible television series: “The Tudors.” In one scene in the Zimmerman film, Thomas Cromwell is depicted in a strikingly similar office to that of his real life protégé Ralph Sadleir. The parlour at Sutton House has 18th doors and sash windows but Sir Ralph would have recognised the extant linen fold panelling and the carved stone fireplaces if not their colour. The Tudors favoured polychromatic colour schemes both on stone and panelling. Hints of how colourful the room would have looked in Ralph’s time can be gauged by lifting certain sections of the panelling to display the 16th painted wall scheme underneath. The room contains a bricked up doorway, which originally had steep stairs leading to the upper floor. It was in the parlour that I found the chest of puppets and the replica Tudor hats and caps. If I say so myself I looked rather fetching in the lady’s padded headdress.

As might be expected, examples of linen fold panelling in the Parlour can also be found at Hampton Court Palace, the former home of Sir Ralph’s royal master: Henry VIII. Until recently I thought extensive renovations by subsequent generations meant such panelling was limited to the so-called Wolsey Closet, a small room with an adjacent alcove thought to have been a former garderobe. But as more of Hampton Court has been opened up to the public, I came across a suite of rooms last year which once formed, at different times, the royal apartments of Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr and his eldest daughter Mary. The walls of these rooms were lined with the distinctive linenfold panelling.

Before exploring the upper parts of the house, I walked gingerly down the worn steps into the musky cellar, which would have housed casks of wine and ale for the household. Hampton Court retains a splendid wine cellar with huge wine casks on display under the vaulted brick roof. As well as handing over Hampton Court Palace to Henry VIII in a doomed attempt to retain his favour, Cardinal Wolsey was later forced to relinquish his equally sumptuous abode at York House (sited in modern day Whitehall) to the rapacious king. The only remnant of the Cardinal’s palace at York House to survive is the brick undercroft which I have never seen in real life. By contrast, I have been able to wander around the remains of Henry’s former palace concealed within Government offices at Whitehall. I remember walking along a corridor and stepping into what looked from the outside to be a nondescript broom cupboard. Instead of stepping into Narnia I stepped in front of a soaring brick wall, complete with stone mullioned windows, of Henry VIII’s former indoor tennis court. Elsewhere, in the same office complex, I came across the turret of the covered tennis court, around which staircases had been built in the modern era. Sadly, I fear security considerations makes it unlikely that such treasures will be as freely available for the general public to queue up to see as happened just a few years ago.

In the 17th century a new staircase was added to the interior of Sutton House and decorated with elaborate wall paintings. During this period the house was owned by a certain Captain Milward. He had made his fortune from the East India Company and seems to have been inspired by the colours of the Orient for the bold and colourful decorative scheme he employed at Sutton House. He is also known to have furnished the rooms with silk carpets. Captain Milward’s ownership reminds me of Eagle House on Wimbledon High Road. The latter was built in the Dutch style in 1613 by a founder member of the same East India Company, Robert Bell. The exterior is reminiscent of Kew Palace with its gables. Eagle House retains its elaborate Jacobean plaster ceilings and like Sutton House has 17th century wall paintings in the stairwell. Eagle House was restored by the Al-Furqan Foundation in the late 20th century. Consequently, the modern owners complimented the ornate Jacobean panelling and ceilings with sofas covered with candy coloured striped silks. Captain Milward would have approved.

Captain Milward’s staircase leads to the two principal Tudor bedchambers. Only one of them retains its panelling. The other was turned into a Victorian dining room. The only outward cue to its Tudor origins lies in the closet containing the garderobe. A guide thought this chamber would have belonged to Sir Ralph. I beg to differ. Sir Ralph’s office was immediately beneath the first bedroom and would have been accessed by a staircase joining the two rooms. It would surely make more sense for Sir Ralph to have this bedroom for his own use rather than have to disturb his wife every time he wanted to access his bedchamber from his office late at night. On the red walls of the second bedchamber is a print of the even grander and more ancient Brooke House.

Earlier, I lamented the fact that Brooke House was demolished by Hackney Council in the 1950s. It was small consolation that they had commissioned a comprehensive architectural survey of the site immediately prior to demolition. To my delight I came across a copy of this survey online. I was fascinated to read the detailed report. Amongst other gems it contains a large number of old drawings of Brooke House, several of which I have never seen before. Some show fragments of wall paintings that would have decorated the medieval chapel, including an image of the man who had endowed the original chapel praying to St Peter. I like to think that it was an image Anne Boleyn’s first great love, Henry Percy, would have been familiar with when he owned the house. In addition, there are photographs showing Brooke House both before and after it had sustained substantial bomb damage during World War II. The authors of the report claim in the frontispiece that the building could not have been saved. In view of the fact that it was Hackney Council who paid for their survey, they could hardly criticise their paymasters’ philistine actions.

Between the two bedrooms is the Great Chamber. When Sutton House was lying derelict for a period in the late 20th century, some of its original panelling was stolen. Most of it was recovered. A segment over the fireplace had to be expertly restored to make up for elements that were never returned. On one wall are inscribed the names of men associated with the house when it was a Christian recreational club and who later died in World War One. The house has two cellars. One, which was used for storing wine and ale I have already described. The other was converted into a chapel for the club. It is said to be haunted although I have never felt any ghostly presence there.

Part of the upper floor has been turned into a gallery exhibiting modern art. From the red dining room a flight of stairs lead up to a room under the eaves, containing amongst other things, the detritus that had slipped between cracks in the wooden flooring over the centuries such as gloves, purses and even shoes! The latter might have been deliberately placed there to ward off evil spirits. On the ground floor at the opposite end to Ralph’s office is a charming Georgian drawing room. It has a closet which would have housed the lower part of the shaft from the garderobe in the bedchamber above.

As a schoolgirl I was told that the house contained lanterns taken from ships in the Spanish Armada which had floundered on British shores. There were no signs of such lanterns in the mansion. There is however an Elizabethan leaded window, which somehow escaped when the rest of the windows in the house were replaced in the 18th century. Could this window have come from a Spanish galleon and led to the legend of the lanterns?

I once harboured ambitions to live there at Sutton House on a permanent basis. I had toyed with the idea of replying to an advertisement for a live-in caretaker there. Occasionally in winter real fires are lit in the Great Chamber and the parlour to atmospheric effect. With the shutters closed to hide the thoroughly incongruous modern building across the way and fires blazing in the stone fireplaces, I would be in my element. If I cannot live there whilst I am alive, I have a grave fancy to join the lady in blue who is said to haunt the mansion.

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