Monday, 15 November 2010

Ham House Part Two

The approach to the north front of the house is dominated by the Coade stone statue of Father Thames. Coade stone was named after its creator Eleanor Coade. In the 18th century she invented a way of manufacturing synthetic stone which could be used to embellish buildings or carved into great monuments such as the neo-classical statue in front of Ham House. Coade stone received a royal seal of approval when it was used in the construction of Buckingham Palace. Another palace, belonging to the Archbishops of Canterbury at Croydon, used Coade stone to repair mullioned windows, whose original Reigate stone surrounds had markedly decayed over the centuries. In niches above the entrance porch and in the surrounding wall are lead heads of various Roman emperors and even two Stuart kings, although I have yet to work out where the latter are.

By now I should be something of an expert on Jacobean doors, given my prior excursions to Charlton House and Knole. The two coat of arms on display and added later on in the 17th century are those of the Duchess of Lauderdale and those of her first husband, Lionel Tollemache.

As at Southside House in Wimbledon, the ceiling of the original single storey hall was pierced to construct a double height hall with an upper gallery. The plaster figures on the chimney are said to have been modelled on the Duchess’s parents, which, if true, is somewhat surprising given the scantily clad female figure. Other family portraits captured in oils are hung around the upper and lower parts of the gallery. Two portraits of 18th century women caught my attention; one was of Henrietta Cavendish and the other of Charlotte Walpole. Despite their papas not being married to their mamas when they were born, both went on to make grand marriages within the Tollemache family, Henrietta marrying the eldest son and heir to the 3rd Earl of Dysart and Charlotte marrying the 5th Earl in her turn. Charlotte’s full length portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows her posed with one arm behind her back. It was a ploy by Reynolds’s to hide the sitter’s withered arm. 

Directly off the hall is the family chapel, although it started out as a dining room until converted into a place of worship in the 1670s. It is comparatively small. At the back, either side of the nave are the two box pews belonging to the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale. To right angles to them are a number of other pews. A surprising amount of the original 17th century crimson damask textiles, such as the book covers and altar hangings, are still on display today; hence the necessity for subdued lighting in the chapel.

 Before proceeding up the staircase I wandered around the bottom of the stairwell and to the closet underneath it which contained a 19th century blue and white porcelain toilet bowl encased in wood with a brass and ivory handle to open the shute and flush away the contents of the bowl. It rather reminds me of the one at Kew Palace, although I imagine it is of a latter design.The three brass taps of the marble washbasin bore the legend: hot, cold, soft. I am not sure if these facilities are still plumbed in and I would caution against making use of them.
From the prosaic to the bombastic, I ascended the Great Staircase built at the end of the 1630s by the Duchess’s father, William Murray. Decorated with trophies of war it reminded me of the seconded painted staircase at Knole, although the military emblems at Ham are carved from wood and highlighted in silver leaf. As far as I am aware William Murray was not noted for having had a glorious military career either before of after he built the staircase. Bishop Gilbert Burnet in his "A History Of My Own Time" summed up Murray's character thus: "He was well turned for a court, very insinuating, but very false; and of so revengeful a temper, that rather than any of the counsels given by his enemies should succeed, he would have revealed them, and betrayed both the king and them. It was generally believed, that he had discovered the most important of all his secrets to his enemies. He had one particular quality, that when he was drunk, which was very often, he was upon a most exact reserve, though he was pretty open at all other times".

The staircase allows the general public to ascend to the first floor. The way to the second floor is barred by a rope. Before entering the upper gallery of the hall I stepped into the museum room. It had a rather natty 18th century gentleman’s night cap, dressing gown and mules as well as a silver dressing table set. There was a range of other eclectic items from Ham House's past. Next to the museum room was a pretty white chamber formed from one of the projecting front bays, allowing natural light to flood in from two sides. Apart from the original fireplace with blue and white floral tiled surrounds, there was nothing else in the room requiring protection from strong sunlight. I have since discovered that this room was formerly known as the Chapel Chamber Closet. 
Having seen what happened to Lee Remick in the Omen and given the number of small children around, I kept very close to the wall as I walked along the balcony to the North Drawing Room. When the hall had been single storied, the upper chamber served as the dining room enabling guest to retire afterwards to the adjacent North Drawing Room. My mother once gave me a small gilded plaster putto, or winged representation of a baby boy and I thought that was bordering on decorative excess. My idea of hell would be being locked in the North Drawing Room. It was crammed full of depictions of putti from those painted above the doors and in the central panel of the chimneypiece to the monstrous larger than life sized carved putti on either side of the mantelpiece. The giant putti stood beneath equally massive gilded cockle shells. 18th century silk and wool Mortlake tapestries, depicting bucolic scenes of harvesting, ploughing and milking cows etc, hung from the walls.  The white marble fireplace had two very large gilded twisted barley sugar columns on either side. The elaborately plastered ceiling and cornices add to the visual overload. This room is also notable for its 17th century ivory cabinet and late 17th century Parisian seats, the latter featuring gilded dolphins painted to look as if they were frolicking in the ocean. When it came to decorating their homes the Stuarts could never be accused of favouring minimalism.

After the excesses of the North Drawing Room the Long Gallery proved a sobering contrast with its panelling painted dark brown colour and comparatively modest amount of gilding. The walls of the Long Gallery are lined with family portraits and those of Stuart royalty. There is an especially pretty picture of Henrietta-Maria, the French Queen of King Charles I. The fact that the royal painters overly flattered the Queen is made evident by her niece’s, the future Electress of Hanover, candid recollection of their first encounter. Far from being the beauty her official paintings suggested, Henrietta-Maria was in reality "a little woman with long, lean arms, crooked shoulders, and teeth protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort". I noticed that the ceiling was unadorned. Given the date when Ham House was built, I would have expected the ceiling to be elaborately plastered in a similar fashion to those of its near contemporary Charlton House. At Knole, a guide had explained that plain ceilings in the state rooms of a Jacobean mansion indicated that either a fire or some other disaster must have occurred in the room. The guide at Ham House was adamant that the ceiling in the Long Gallery at Ham House had never been damaged. 
At one end of the Long Gallery is the Green Closet. Just when I thought it was safe to step into it I was confronted with yet more putti adorning the coffered painting ceiling. The Green Closet had a series of small paintings and miniatures on display, some of which I recognised having taken the opportunity to browse through the following link in advance. As we were only permitted to step a small way into the Green Closet
there was little time to examine the collection in any great detail. I was, however, able to engage one of the guides in conversation. She said she was grateful that the English had their Revolution in the mid 17th century, which eventually led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, thus sparing the country, in her opinion, from the more protracted bloodshed of other European revolutions in later centuries.
At the opposite end of the Long Gallery from the Green Closet is the Library Closet. The most intriguing image in this room is the tinted engraving of plans for a new Palace of Whitehall designed by the architect John Webb. The plans were never brought to fruition as a result of the English Civil War. He might not have been able to realise his dreams for Whitehall Palace but the architect John Webb did go on to build the King Charles Building at the Old Royal Naval College, which I saw at the recent London Open House weekend.    
The Library itself was closed to the public. I cannot recall ever having been inside on the various occasions I have been to the house over the years but it could be viewed through the glass of the wooden door.
Given that Gillbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, had grudgingly admitted, in his otherwise forthright character assassination of the Duchess,  that she had “ a wonderful quickness of apprehension, and an amazing vivacity in conversation. She had studied not only divinity and history, but mathematics and philosophy”, it would not be too fanciful to imagine that she would have helped herself to the odd tome from time to time.The Duchess had sold off her husband’s entire collection of books on his death as part of her efforts to clear his massive debts. Today the shelves of the Library are filled with books bequeathed to the National Trust by a bookseller, on the strict understanding that his collection should never be broken up. The empty shelves at Ham House proved ideal to display the late bookseller’s collection. Coincidentally a small number of the Duke of Lauderdale’s own books were later found to be amongst the collection. Through the glass I could also spy a couple of antique globes standing on the floor. Given her alleged royalist sympathisers, despite being very chummy with Oliver Cromwell when it suited her, I am not quite sure the Duchess of Lauderdale would have approved of the addition to the Library of an 18th century plaster figure of the Commonwealth poet John Milton, whose Republican leanings had forced him to go into hiding for a while following the Restoration of King Charles II. Apparently, at the far end of the Library is a door leading to a staircase, connecting the Library to the Duke’s private closet on the floor below. 

I have yet to describe the suite of rooms dedicated to Queen Catherine of Braganza on this floor and the remaining family and servant quarters below. I shall return to the subject anon.