Directly off the Long Gallery lies a suite of rooms originally decorated in honour of Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of King Charles II of England. Poor Catherine was as plain as a pikestaff compared with the beautiful mistresses who held sway over her husband. Catherine was even placed in the invidious position of having to accept some of them as her ladies in waiting. Yet Catherine was spared the far greater humiliation of being divorced by her husband as some of his advisers strongly advocated. Not only had she failed to give him a living heir she was also a devout Catholic, a fact which won little sympathy with the predominantly Protestant public of the time. At first it seems odd that the Lauderdales, whose own romance had scandalised even the licentious Stuart court, should have wished to honour Catherine in such a singular way. Perhaps they hoped that such marks of respect accorded to his queen would sit well with Charles.
The first room is an ante chamber which once served as the library. The walls are still lined with the original blue damask 17th century hangings against dark brown and gilded panelling. The next room was turned into a drawing room in the 18th century but served as Catherine of Braganza’s state bedchamber in the 17th century. Although it too like the North Drawing Room has 18th century tapestries hanging from its wall, the overall impression is far less flamboyant. Both the carved red and white marble fireplace and the gilded plasterwork on the overmantel are positively restrained by comparison. The final room in the sequence is the Queen’s closet, the most private of her rooms. Only the most exalted guest would be permitted to enter this room where Catherine would sit in a chair of state placed on a raised dais. The chair was set within a richly decorated alcove hung with crimson damask and with a gilded plaster crown set high above the panelling painted to resemble white marble. Two of Catherine’s “sleeping chayres,” now occupy the space within the alcove. Both are gilded and upholstered in their original crimson silk and silver thread. Apparently the backs of the chairs can be adjusted to allow it to recline somewhat, thereby affording a greater degree of comfort to the Queen when she wanted to snatch the odd forty winks. The Queen’s Closet features an elegant scagliola (coloured and highly polished imitation marble) fireplace decorated with foliage and flowers and the Lauderdales’ personal cipher and coronet. The scagliola ducal motif is repeated in the parquet flooring. Sadly, the fireplace can only be partially glimpsed as a rope barrier allows the visitor to venture but a small way into the room. Holding aloft a hand mirror, left in the room for such purposes, I was able to see the ceiling roundel, painted by the Italian artist Antonio Verrio, depicting the classical myth of Ganymede and the Eagle.Though the wall hangings and upholstery are much faded, Catherine of Braganza would have readily recognised this room and its furniture three centuries after her death.
I then walked back down the Great Staircase to resume my tour on the ground floor. I was perplexed as to how the Marble Dining Room, just off the Great Hall, got its name as there was little marble present It seems it originally had a black and white marble floor which was replaced with parquet in the mid 18th century. At the same time the 17th century leather wall hangings were replaced by the current gilded and stamped leather hangings. Leather was preferred to tapestry as it was thought they would not retain the odours of cooked food. That 17th century man-about-town Samuel Pepys boasted in his diary on Monday 8th October 1660 of his plans to buy the highly prized “gilded leather” for his own dining room. Southside House, Wimbledon, also has some gilded and stamped leather wall hangings on display in the breakfast room but they have fared badly over the centuries. I discovered later that inset into the fireplace was a copy of a painting of King Charles II being presented with a pineapple by his gardener John Rose. Nowadays the pineapple appears laughably small, given that it is the subject of a painting. Nonetheless at the time it was deemed an impressive feat to be able to grow such a fruit in England’s less than tropical climes.
The most interesting feature of the Withdrawing Room, which guests would retire to after dining, were the two young schoolgirls eagerly demonstrating how to clean an antique vase as part of their Duke of Edinburgh award. By now it was growing dark outside adding to the overall subdued light of the interior.
The only memorable aspect for me of the Volury Room was that it was named after a series of birdcages, no longer extant, that the Duchess of Lauderdale had built immediately outside the bay window so that she could hear birdsong from this room, which had served as her bedchamber. She later swapped bedrooms with the duke, as his afforded better access to the bathroom on the floor below. Like the Queen’s Bedchamber, the Voluary Room was converted into a drawing room in the 18th century. The walls are now hung with 17th century tapestries but they were actually first introduced into the house by an 18th century descendent of the Duchess’s. In her own era, the panelling was painted to imitate white marble and the wall hangings were predominantly of yellow silk, which would have created a far lighter effect than the somewhat gloomy interior today.
Despite its high ceiling the White Closet is on a much more intimate scale. Yet more putti frolic around the ceiling but the cream coloured walls painted to imitate marble gives the room a lighter touch than the North Drawing Room. Perched in an alcove above the chimneypiece is a gilt bronze bust of the Duchess of Lauderdale’s mother, Katherine Bruce. It was too high up and the light too subdued for me to compare it with the likeness of the female figure in the Great Hall chimneypiece, which is also said to be of Katherine Bruce. A door leads out to what would have been the cherry garden in the Duchess’s time but is now filled with lavender bushes.
Next to the White Closet is an equally small room known as the Duchess’s Closet. Two lacquered chairs have been placed around a table, set out for tea. The furniture and the teapot were used by the Duchess. I have to say the japanned chairs did not look at all comfortable to sit on. Apparently the Duchess kept her books in this closet as well as her favourite paintings. It was in this room that I discovered for the first time the purpose of a jib door. Its floor to ceiling design meant that a jib door allowed wall hangings to be folded back so that people could pass in and out of the room with comparative ease.
Outside the jib door was a servant’s passageway. In one corner was a small wooden spiral staircase. The way to the staircase was barred by the same kind of dummy boards or silent companion I had seen at Knole. I was told by a guide that the servants’ corridor was pitch black at night when the modern day electric lights were switched off
Although Ham House is noticeably smaller and more compact than Knole, there are far more rooms on display to the general public as it ceased being a family home when it was handed over to the National Trust by Sir Lyonel Tollemache and his son, Cecil, in 1948. Thus I find I needs must return to this subject as there are yet more intriguing rooms left to explore, including the Duchess’s bedroom with the only state bed on display in the entire mansion, her personal stillroom an unique relic from the 17th century as well as a pretty little 18th century dairy that would have made Marie Antoinette green with envy.