Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Marble Hill House Part One

Last weekend the Eagle and the Owl invited me around for supper. I noticed that the Eagle had a book by about Katherine Howard on her shelf and asked if I might borrow it to read. I also noted that she still has my copy of the Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir which she borrowed off me a number of years ago and has yet to return. Our mutual love of Tudor history saw us going along to Hampton Court one New Year’s Eve to see a costumed demonstration of the preparations for a royal feast in the original 16th century kitchens. I felt so envious of the cooks who got to stay in the Palace after dark, the more so when they explained that the rooms in question were thought to have once formed the apartments lived in by Anne Boleyn when she was first elevated to the position of royal favourite. The Eagle had dismissed Joanna Denny’s book on Katherine Howard as being a mere impulse buy at an airport. So I was pleased to discover that it was in fact a scholarly work that offered a fascinating insight into a young woman, whose own tragic life is usually overshadowed by that of her more famous and equally doomed cousin, Anne Boleyn.

Katherine Howard must be an even more distant relation by marriage to one Henrietta Howard, whose delightful 18th century house I visited yesterday at Marble Hill. Like Katherine, Henrietta had to endure an equally unhappy marriage to a heartless man. Fortunately for Henrietta, her marriage lead to an enforced stay in Hanover as her husband sought to escape his creditors in England having run through his own fortune and then hers. It was here that she began an affair with the future King George II of England. She returned to England on the accession of George’s father to the throne. By the time George succeeded in turn he had grown bored of Henrietta. It was said King George II only had mistresses because it was expected of him. His wife, Queen Caroline of Ansbach knew that if her husband discarded Henrietta, who was also one of her own ladies-in-waiting, there would always be someone else to take her place and that someone might prove less accommodating to Caroline, perhaps using her influence to dabble in court politics, an activity Henrietta had always shunned. Thus Queen Caroline sought to persuade Henrietta to stay on at court when she announced her intention in the 1720s to retire from public life and live quietly by the Thames. Henrietta was adamant. The King had given her a pay-off of what would now be deemed a small fortune. She was determined to invest this money in building a fashionable villa to retire to. Separated though not divorced from her husband, Henrietta was anxious that he should not learn of her windfall since by the laws of the time a married woman was not entitled to own property in her own right and therefore he could lay claim to it. In the event her estranged husband never seemed to have questioned how she was able to afford to commission such a splendid new house.

The resulting mansion is now known as Marble Hill House. Its design is heavily influenced by the Renaissance architect Palladio and the English born 17th century Inigo Jones, who was also responsible for the design of the Queen’s House at Greenwich and the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall. As with other former grand mansions such as Sutton House and Eastbury Manor House Marble House did succumb to what looked to be terminal neglect at one stage. Fortunately it too was saved in the early 20th century as a result of action by the local populace and local authorities. But by then the two storey servants’ wing has been buried underground. Unlike the empty rooms of Eastbury Manor House, Marble House has been renovated to a close proximity of what it might have looked like in Henrietta’s time, using a detailed inventory taken after her death here in 1767.

At ground level you now enter the house through what would have been the servants’ hall, now turned into a shop. From here you proceed past the narrow and vertiginous stone staircase to a stairwell containing a broad staircase in what was then exorbitantly expensive mahogany. On each tread I could see where brass stair rods had been placed in later centuries. The balustrades seemed on the cusp of moving away from the heavy baroque style favoured by a previous generations to the more elegant and light styles favoured by later generations. Before I ventured up the staircase I went into hall. It had a black and white chequered marble floor. Like the marble tiled one in my own kitchen the floor was looking distinctly worn in parts. It seems the 4 pillars in the centre of the hall were meant to echo the open squared courtyard of an Ancient Roman house. The hall also contained a number of contemporary riverside views of the house as well as various 18th century chairs, mirrors and a carved walnut and marble topped pier table. When Henrietta died it seemed she had been using the hall for card games and dining.

I then passed through to what is now referred to as the dining room, the walls of which are decorated in a modern version of an 18th century wall paper. In this room I was able to watch a short video presentation on Henrietta and her association with the house. I also took the opportunity to browse through swatches of similar wallpaper which I have no doubt would cost a small fortune to buy even today. All in all a very charming room.

I then proceeded to the equally delightful Breakfast parlour. The trellis design wallpaper on this room dates to when the house was rented by Maria Fitzherbert between 1795 and 1796. Maria’s dalliances with the future King George IV were said to have ended in a secret marriage a decade earlier in 1785. Despite having gone through a wedding ceremony of sorts with Maria, the then impecunious Prince of Wales, later King George IV, chose to ignore the fact when he married his official wife Caroline in 1795 in exchange for Parliament’s help in dealing with his massive personal debts. A small table had been set out for the lady of the house to indulge in a dish of tea with her friends. The blue and white porcelain on the table was echoed by the blue and white vases on the chimney breast. A quick glance at the guide book told me that some of these had come from my beloved Kenwood House, also run by English Heritage. The room was broken up by a number of small arches and the ceilings were edged with a plasterwork design which was new to me.

Having rested in the window seat I returned through the hall to the foot of the staircase. Its broad tread made it a pleasure to ascend and would have posed no problem either for 18th century ladies to walk gracefully up and down it despite the wide panniers beneath their silk court dress. It leads into to the Great Room. When I had last been at Kensington Palace I had been shocked to see the gilded statues in the room containing the huge timepiece which had been a present to Queen Caroline and assumed it, like the rest of the rooms had been specially styled for the exhibition. I was wrong. The Great Room at Marble Hill house also contained more than its fair shared of gilding. I spoke to the woman on duty, who explained that she normally worked in an office behind the scenes and had been dragooned in to helping out in the public areas. Consequently her knowledge of the house was a little rusty but she felt that the gilding would have looked very different when softened by candlelight, giving the impression of opulence rather than gaudiness.

In one corner stood a black and gold Chinese screen, the different panels of which at one stage were destined to be cut up into coffee tables until someone realised that the screen had belonged to Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, as she became on the elevation of her estranged husband to the Earldom. There is also a card table set out for a game. I noticed that the cards seem to have little musical scores written on the backs of them. Facing opposite the carved marble fireplace is an ornate pier table, one of four originally commissioned by Henrietta for the Great Room and which were purloined by a tenant of the house in the late 19th century and found its way to Australia. On the walls are copies of Van Dyck’s full length paintings of King Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria respectively. I immediately recognised the portrait of the dwarf and one-time royal favourite Jeffrey Hudson alongside the Queen. Jeffrey had made his first appearance before the royal couple by stepping out of a baked pie. Part of his appeal was doubtless the fact that he made even the rather small monarchs appear tall by comparison. Hudson went on to lead a colourful life including being kidnapped by pirates and enduring a number of years as a slave before being able to return to England. In the intervening years his King had been executed and he himself had grown and so no longer even had his uniquely small size to recommend him for royal patronage. The ornate crystal glass chandelier date from the 1960s and was made in Murano, a Venetian island famous for centuries for its glassworks. According to the guidebook the 1960s candelabra was based on the original 18th century design commissioned for the house by Henrietta Howard. The woman on duty was not willing to confirm if this was the case or whether it was actually a 1960s chandelier based on a late 20th century design. She was far more ready to confirm that with one or two exceptions, the fireplace surrounds in the house were 20th century replicas installed by the Greater London Council when they had last owned the property after the originals had been stolen.

Afterwards, whilst I was reading the guidebook on the train home, I discovered that the 18th century fireplace in Lady Suffolk’s bedchamber although of the correct period had been taken from another Georgian house, following its demolition in 1954. I realised that the house had been by Clapton Common. I had a friend whose family had lived in a flat in one of the surviving Georgian terraced houses along there. I had been so envious of her lantern light stairwell which still featured bas relief plaster carvings around the edge. I was even more jealous of the unknown man next door who owned the entire Georgian house and was said to be a millionaire, at a time when the very term millionaire was uttered in a hushed reverential tone.

I shall return to my tour of the house anon and will also relate my visit to Orleans House next door, former home of the last King of France.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Eastbury Manor House Part Two

Last year I watched a short season of ghost stories on the BBC  set around the titular  "The Crooked House." One episode, called "The Knocker," featured a grand Elizabethan manor house located in the middle of a mundane housing estate. I assumed the television company had used trick photography to achieve the effect. That was until I arrived at Eastbury Manor House and wondered whether the author had been inspired by the place. I took the underground to Upney Park, a place hitherto unknown to me. The architecture in the main was rather drab but it was obvious that a number of people had bought their council houses and had decorated them to suit their own tastes, I was rather impressed by one, I assume pre-war house, which had been rendered with plaster on the outside and decorated with motifs of wheat sheaves akin to designs I had seen on the exteriors of ancient cottages in certain parts of the English countryside. The PVC windows with the mock leaded lights rather spoilt the effect for me.

At the house itself I made my way through the main entrance. I then walked past the original 16th century oak spiral staircase to the enclose courtyard beyond. In the centre was a mature cherry tree whose luscious black fruit lay upon the ground. I was tempted to pick some up but refrained from doing so. I thought the custodians had missed a trick not selling the fruit on to visitors like me. As I looked around I was joined by one of the guides who related at length the history of the place. She explained that of the two turreted staircases only one had survived into the 21st century. That one had been used by the servants. The family staircase had fallen into disrepair and had been pulled down in the 19th century. In recent years the National Trust had agreed that a new turreted staircase could be built in its stead. However they stipulated that it must not be a replica of the other. Rather than have a pastiche the National trust settled on a turret which followed the same foot print of the original but had a cast iron spiral staircase installed as opposed to the original oak staircase. From the traces of a previous hand rail set in the wall it seems this new staircase twists in the opposite direction to the original. The outside of the new turret is covered with oak planks rather than brickwork, the remnants of which can be glimpsed to one side. The oak planks have already started to weather producing a pleasing patina. Thus the modern and the new serve to compliment each other.

The guide ended her story by warning me that when the tea shop would close and left me to my own devices. Having explored the courtyard I decided to venture up the servant’s spiral staircase. It is not for the faint hearted or those subject to vertigo. The servants’ staircase does not possess a handrail as more often than not their hands would be full carrying and fetching things from one part of the house to the other. In addition the ancient broad oak treads had worn away in parts to reveal glimpses of the floor below. Commonsense told me that I was not taking my life in my hands as I slowly and rather labouredly ascended the steps to the very top of the house. My eyes told me something else. I was glad indeed when I reached the top of the turret and could sit down upon the wooden chair thoughtfully placed there for just such a contingency. Fortunately the roof access was padlocked shut, relieving me of the necessity of climbing up the narrow wooden ladder.  From the leaded window I could see the twisted barley chimney stacks but the view itself was otherwise nondescript. The windows would have afforded a far more mysterious and imposing vista in the 16th century when the house was set on high ground and surrounded by lonely marshland.

Now that I had reached the top without falling through the staircase I could take the time to admire the impressive feat of Elizabethan engineering that had gone into is construction.  The fan shaped treads set against the whitewashed walls had a certain rustic beauty to them, the more so since I am especially fond of wooden objects. It is now thought that the treads themselves would once have been painted although this is not apparent to the untrained and naked eye.

Being a connoisseur of home made cakes I was disappointed that such fares were only available at weekends in the cafe. So I settled on a pot of peppermint tea and a packet of crisps. I was seated at a small table by the original open kitchen range. I could still make out marks in the wall of the fireplace where the spits for roasting huge joints of meat would once have been placed.  I could not tell whether the serving hatch cut out of one wall was authentic or added in recent years to facilitate access to the modern kitchen beyond. Then I remembered that Hampton Court Palace had similar serving hatches in the kitchen complex. I was also able to make out a bread oven set high in the wall by the range As I waited for my tea to cool I wandered into an adjacent and empty panelled room. The panelling seemed to be to be more 18th century than Elizabethan. It did not resemble the linen-fold panelling still to be found at Hampton Court Palace and at Sir Ralph Sadlier’s earlier brick built Tudor mansion Sutton House in Hackney. It has also been painted in a drab colour unlike the vibrant colours fashionable in the 16th century. The panelling itself reaches down to the level of the kitchen floor but steps have to be climbed to reach the modern floor. The panelled room acts a a charming overflow for the seating in the kitchen and garden areas. 

Fortified I returned to my tour of the house. The attic rooms now provide a mixture of offices and exhibition space. Originally it would have been divided up into servants’ quarters and a long gallery for the ladies of the house to promenade up and down when the weather was too intemperate to allow them to venture abroad. The latter so called East Attic had on display an exhibition charting the mixed history of the house up until the present day.

This time I used the modern iron spiral staircase to descend to the floor below. The empty rooms betray little of their original purpose or decorative schemes. Tucked away at the end of one chamber I came across an extant garderobe. Although it lacked the flushing mechanism or regal splendour of King George III's water closet at  Kew like the King’s it was possessed of a small window near the top of one external wall to allow ventilation.As with Sir Ralph’s garderobe at Hackney, the Eastbury Manor House garderobe must have once serviced a bedchamber. I was told that of the three modern public conveniences on the same floor, the room set aside for the disabled had something of a mystery attached to it as no one had ascertained its precise purpose when the house was first built.

Little remains of Eastbury Manor’s Tudor decorative scheme except for the Painted Chamber. The walls of the latter were adorned with brilliantly coloured frescos inspired by motifs drawn from the Classical World and were commissioned by Alderman John Moore  when he rented the house in the late 16th century. He ensured that his own coat of arms were incorporated into the wall painting. It was through his step daughter Maria Perez de Recalde that the house became associated with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 as she married Lewis Tresham the younger brother of one of the key conspirators, Francis Tresham.  The latter had the good fortune to die of natural causes in the Tower. I say good fortune because various other conspirators were later hung drawn and quartered as traitors. Lewis went on to become a baronet in 1611, proving that his brother's involvement in the Gunpowder Plot had not irreparably damaged the family's social standing.
The remaining frescoes depict views from an imaginary Renaissance villa. They are greatly faded and only small fragments survive but there is a small model of how the chamber might have looked when first painted. In “The Environs of London: volume 4: Counties of Herts, Essex & Kent” written in 1796 Daniel Lysons hints that even at the close of the 18th century wall  frescoes could be seen in rooms other than simply the Painted Chamber. Unfortunately he offers no further description as to their whereabouts in the house. Posterity not only has Alderman Moore to thank for the  frescoes, his death in 1603 resulted in his executors drawing up an inventory of Eastbury Manor House in 1603 giving  detailed description of the precise furnishings of the principal rooms.

The adjoining East Chamber is missing an ornate fireplace which someonehow found its way into another, much smaller house in the vicinity. It is a pity it is not still in situ but at least it was not simply demolished. I descended to the ground floor by a very prosaic set of steps. By now the tea room was closed for business and  to my regret I was told that I that the air raid shelter was no longer open to the public on account of it being below sea level and consequently extremely damp. I therefore made my way to the Old Hall instead. On display over the fireplace is a specially commissioned modern appliqué commemorating the marriage of the daughter of the man who had built the house: Clement Sysley  Nowadays the Hall is licenced for couples to hold marriage or commitment ceremonies in the chamber.
The walls of the Winter Parlour have exposed brickwork and the room itself was empty. Its counterpart the Summer Parlour was filled with boisterous young children for most of the time I was in the house. The furnishings may have long vanished but it is clear that the parlours would have offered the original family comfortable and spacious accommodation and afforded fine views over the gardens
Before I had arrived at the house I had fondly imagined there would be spacious gardens to explore. I was mistaken. Nevertheless there was far more external space at Eastbury Manor House than remains of Sir Ralph’s formal gardens at Hackney. On a bright summer’s day the enclosed garden and the rest of the open spaces must make pleasant vantage points from which to view the house. When I went the day was predominantly overcast and drizzling.

Eastbury Manor House is one of those hidden jewels in which London  abounds but few people have heard of. It is well worth making the effort to see it.  National Trust Eastbury Manor House

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Eastbury Manor House Part One

Having spent the past few weeks closeted at home, the Brimstone Butterfly decided it was time to emerge once more from her cocoon. Thus I made the lengthy journey by Tube to Upney in order to explore Eastbury Manor House. Owned by the National Trust but run by Dagenham and Barking Council, this fine Elizabethan House once enjoyed a splendid isolation set high above the surrounding marshy countryside. Over the centuries the landscape has changed markedly. The marshes were drained, the farmland sold off and vast tracts of social housing built in their stead for the poor of London, moved out here from their slums in the East End.

Upon viewing Eastbury Manor House for the first time, I was immediately struck by the incongruity of seeing a 16th century mansion surrounded by a sea of nondescript council houses from the 20th century. The celebrated author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, only ever saw Eastbury Manor House on the one occasion and then it was in passing as he rode by on his epic journey to record his “Tour throughout the whole island of Great Britain.' In the first volume of this book published in the 1720s. Defoe described Eastbury Manor House thus:

"A little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, antient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was at first contriv'd, and that all the first consultations about it were held there."

In “The Environs of London: volume 4: Counties of Herts, Essex & Kent” written over 70 years later in 1796 another Daniel, this time one Daniel Lysons, is sceptical as to the house’s connection with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, writing:

“Eastbury-house, an ancient and very spacious brick edifice, of which a view is annexed, stands about a mile west of the town, on the road to Dagenham; and is now in the occupation of Mr. Brushfield. There is a tradition relating to this house, either, as some say, that the conspirators who concerted the gunpowder plot held their meetings there, or as others, that it was the residence of Lord Monteagle, when he received the letter which led to its discovery; both, perhaps, equally destitute of foundation. It is probable that Sir Thomas Vyner made this house his country residence, before he purchased the old mansion near the church at Hackney. Some of the rooms at Eastbury are painted in fresco; in one of them is a coat of arms.”

Modern scholarship also throws doubt on there being any firm link between the principle conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot and Eastbury House. Certainly there is no evidence to suggest that any part of the conspiracy was hatched here or that the mansion was used to shelter fugitive conspirators once the plot had been discovered. The legend may well have arisen because a sister-in-law of Francis Tresham, one of the indicted plotters, was married to his younger brother Lewis. In 1603, just two years before the plot Lewis Tresham, his wife and his mother-in-law, the latter two both named Maria Perez, were all recorded as residing at Eastbury Manor House. In that year the elder Maria Perez’s husband had died and an inventory was taken of the house and its contents.

Eastbury Manor House, like Sutton House, is an early example of a brick built house in England. It was built around the late 1560s on land once owned by the Abbey of Barking. The Abbey itself had fallen into ruin after it has been dissolved by Henry VIII several decades earlier. Sir Ralph Sadlier, the builder of Sutton House in Hackney had made his money from being a courtier. Clement Sysley, the original builder of Eastbury Manor House made his fortune as a merchant and could afford to install costly glass imported from Italy in the windows. When the house was leased by Alderman Moore, husband of the elder Maria Perez, in the late 16th century, the walls of some chambers were covered with frescos, which were mentioned in Daniel Lysons aforementioned book of 1796. Sadly only fragments of the wall paintings survive today, but there is a reconstruction in miniature on display in the house which shows how the chamber would have looked in all its original painted glory.

Eastbury Manor House, like Sutton House underwent a decline in its fortunes and even faced the real threat of demolition in the 20th century. After its grand beginnings as the country residence of a man of wealth and status in the 16th century, Eastbury Manor House was reduced to being tenanted by farm labourers in the 19th century, who used part of the ground floor to store hay and stable horses. As with Sutton House, the neighbourhood around Eastbury Manor House also saw a decline its fortunes. That was perhaps why the house survived. In subsequent eras, it had not attracted wealthy owners, who had the means to either extensively remodel it or have it pulled it down so a more fashionable dwelling could be erected in its place. When faced with demolition, it potential fate captured the attention of those who realised its unique value as an Elizabethan manor house, which structurally had survived little changed for centuries and was now an architectural jewel in an area with little left to commend it from such an architectural perspective. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was able to bring to its influence to bear on the National Trust who purchased the manor house and its remaining grounds in 1918. The National Trust in turn leased the manor house to the local council, who are responsible for its maintenance and upkeep. Over the past century or so the house has had many uses: at one point it was used as a convalescent home for the sick, at a time when the local marshy air was considered more beneficial and wholesome than the polluted atmosphere of the city; its sole surviving original turret was used as a look-out point during the Second World War; for a time it served as a museum for the district, displaying suits of armour, oil paintings and other such treasures.

Eastbury Manor House now serves as vibrant community centre. Its rooms no longer contain furnishings of earlier centuries. Indeed, the only furnishings are distinctly utilitarian in the main such as late 20th century chairs and tables used in the many functions which take place in the mansion today, such as weddings, business functions and school workshops. What Eastbury Manor House loses in terms of period pieces it more than compensates for by the large numbers of people who use its rooms on an almost daily basis. At times there will be as many if not far more people roaming around its Tudor chambers than were ever present in the household of its original builder, Clement Sysley.

Having set out the history of Eastbury Manor House, I shall be returning to the subject to describe my tour of the mansion itself.