Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Ham House Part Four:Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady's chamber

When the Duke of Lauderdale swapped bedrooms with his wife, he retained his original dressing room, now set at some distance from his new bedchamber. Perhaps the inconvenience betrayed his undiminished infatuation with his wife. According to the less than charitable Bishop Burnet in his “A History Of My Own Time” the Duke’s character was greatly changed by the baleful influence of his spouse and not to the good. Burnet declared that the Duchess “came to have so much power over the lord Lauderdale, that it lessened him much in esteem of all the world; for he delivered himself up to all her humours and passions. All applications were made to her: she took upon her to determine every thing: she sold all places, and was wanting in no methods that could bring her money, which she lavished out in a most profuse vanity. As the conceit took her, she made him fall out with all his friends, one after another: with the earls of Argile, Tweedale, and Kincardin, with duke Hamilton, the marquis of Athol, and sir Robert Murray, who all had their turns in her displeasure, which very quickly drew lord Lauderdale's after it”. Bishop Burnet then goes on to reveal the real reason why he is so scathing about the Duchess. “If after such names it is not a presumption to name my self, I had my share likewise. From that time to the end of his days he became quite another sort of man than he had been in all the former parts of his life.”

The Duke’s Dressing Room has a concealed door which had been left ajar on the day I visited and a figure of a dummy board or silent companion placed in the doorframe. It is dressed in the scholastic robe of the learned retainer, who acted as secretary to the Lauderdales and would have used this route to gain direct access to the Duke to discuss business matters. This room contains a fine collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain from the late 17th century Kangxi period. I wondered whether the two schoolgirls were given one of these pieces to practice on for their Duke of Edinburgh award. The crimson damask wall hall hangings are modern reproductions and therefore much brighter than their time dimmed counterparts in the Queen’s Closet.

The naval paintings inset over the doors of the Duchess’s bedchamber hints at the room’s more masculine origins. Although Brimstone Butterfly Towers could fit comfortably into this one room, even I was stunned to realise that it had once served as the nursery for the Duchess’s eleven children by her first husband, Sir Lionel Tollemache. The four poster bed with its plumed feathers and the scarlet and black hangings are also modern reproductions. The large silver and ebony framed mirror on display in the bedchamber is the very looking glass through which the Duchess would have gazed at herself. Concealed behind one of the doors is a narrow wooden staircase leading to the bathroom in the basement. Although I have descended down these stairs in the past, when I went at Halloween the way was closed off.

The Duke’s Closet is immediately beyond his former bedchamber. Again, it was a rather jolly room with its scarlet wall hangings. It contained a veneered wooden writing cabinet and displayed yet more blue and white Chinese porcelain. It seems this room, along with the Library closet, were provided with what must be some of the earliest known examples of double glazing to help the Duke keep warm. To prevent draughts the Duke could also draw together the two curtains hanging inside the door.     

Leaving the Duchess’s bedchamber I came out into the West Passage, with its striking display of leather fire buckets. Seeing them reminds me of a scene in Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film “The Draughtman’s Contract.”  The country house setting for this film also has a hall with similar fire buckets, although these, according to one of the female characters, are said to be already filled with water to which she has “added a little of her own” over the years. The leather buckets at Ham House remain reassuringly empty of stale water drawn from the well or from a passer-by suddenly caught short.

The dark brown panelled Stewards’ Hall like the Back Parlour beyond is noticeably plainer in style than the rest of the house. This is hardly surprising given that they were used by the more senior servants rather than family members or guests. The Steward’s Hall contains the wheelchair in which William Tollemache, the childless 9th Earl of Dysart who died in 1935, was wheeled around in by his valet George Horwood. The bay window of the Back Parlour looks out towards the statue of the River God at the North Front of the house. Although it too has plain dark brown panelling it does have a marble fireplace and inbuilt cupboards, though the latter concealed only mundane cleaning supplies and not even 17th century ones at that. Of all the family photographs displayed upon a side table, one of them is especially poignant. It shows a young man in an officer’s uniform from the First World War. It is of Lieutenant John Eadred Tollemache. He was killed in action on the 21st August 1916 whilst leading his troops in the Battle of the Somme. He was just 24 years old.

Further along the West Passage is the buttery. It still has its original Greek key edged panelling dating from when the house was first built for Sir Thomas Vavasour in 1610. Apparently linen, sliver and glasses were stored here and this was where the butler took one last look to ensure that the food passed muster before allowing the footmen to carry it off to the Marble Dining Room beyond.

I then ascended the narrow wooden staircase to the range of domestic offices to be found below. In the kitchen by its great fireplace a young man sat at a table and gamely polished a copper jelly mould. The shelves around were filled with copper vessels that must have been a nightmare to keep clean in the not so distant past, when the house was not besieged by hordes of volunteers anxious to do their bit to earn their Duke of Edinburgh award. .

The Servants’ Hall could only be glimpsed through a glass panel in a door. It seemed more redolent of the late 19th and early 20th century than the 17th, with a decorative length of lace hanging from the mantle shelf, a wall clock, a long table and several winged armchairs.
I have expressed  disappointment  in the past that the Duchess’s luxury bathroom would only have held a wooden bathtub. I had imagined that it would have had at the very least a sunken marble bath with and hot and cold running water. Maid servants haring around with pitchers of water do not count. Henry VIII had plumbed water in his bathrooms as did King William of Orange back in his Dutch homeland.  On a raised level are the original black and white marble floor tiles upon which the bath tub would have been placed. In the corner is an early 20th century bathtub complete with multiple jet shower fixtures. In the other corner is the door to the small staircase leading up to her bedchamber. After she had bathed the Duchess would have walked down the steps and across the parquet flooring to a special four poster bed, where she could lie down swaddled in towels to recover from such a rigorous ordeal. A small fireplace lined with blue and white Delft tiles would have helped ensure the Duchess did not catch a fatal chill afterwards. Somewhat surprisingly, the Duchess was sufficiently enlightened to commission a separate bathhouse for her servants, although I doubt if they would have been so mollycoddled afterwards as she was.Whilst I was looking around the Duchess’s bathroom trying to commit it to memory, out of the blue a blonde haired woman with a heavy foreign accent started asking me questions about the place. I was more than happy to oblige and related all that I had gleaned on that and previous occasions. When I had finished the woman seemed impressed and asked how I happened to know so much about the subject. I told her I was an amateur historian. I did toy with the idea of mentioning my website but refrained from doing so. Perhaps I should carry around discreet calling cards with me on such field trips.
A small unfurnished room in the basement was empty except for several photograph albums taken when Ham House had been used for location filming, such as scenes for the recently released film “Young Victoria”. I have yet to see the film although I have it on DVD. I shall be fascinated to see which parts of the house I can identify from it.

The Duchess’s stillroom must be accessible from within the main body of the house, although nowadays visitors enter it from the courtyard outside. Like so much at Ham House, the Still room is a rare survivor from the 17th century. It would have been used by the Duchess to prepare essential oils for her perfumes and to concoct herbal medicines with which to treat her family and household. With hindsight such traditional home-made remedies were probably just as efficacious as those offered by the male doctors of the time who, despite all their vaunted learning, in reality knew precious little about how to effectively treat disease and illness.

Near the still room is the domed roof of the icehouse, the orangery and the dairy. Althought the exterior of the dairy at Ham house is of plain red brick and as such no match for the more picturesque exterior of the dairies at Kenwood House the interior far outshines Kenwood. The marble counter tops are supported by cow shaped legs and the pretty ivy foliage tiles all date from the 18th century. Apparently the dairy maid was considered at the very bottom of the pecking order of servants at Ham House. Yet she would have had the last laugh. The very nature of their work meant that dairymaids were prone to contracting cowpox, which left unsightly blisters on their hands and arms. However it also gave them a natural immunity to the more deadly smallpox, which often caused dreadful scarring to the faces of those it did not kill. In 1774 a Dorset farmer, named Benjamin Jesty decided to give his children a dose of cowpox in a desperate bid to spare them from the ravages of smallpox after realising that his two dairy maids seemed immune to the smallpox contagion, which had felled members of their own family. His treatment worked and Jesty was inspired to offer similar vaccinations (from vacca, the Latin for cows) to others. He also received a great deal of ridicule for his troubles from certain quarters. It would take a further two decades until Edward Jenner came to prominence for carrying out and taking the credit for similar work. When I first visited Egypt I was placed in the strange position of having to have a smallpox inoculation before I would be allowed into the country, having just come from England. It was thought that the disease had been wiped out globally. Very tragically a medical photographer, named Janet Parker, died in 1978 after being accidentally exposed to a sample of the deadly pathogen held in the Birmingham University Medical School for research purposes.

The last building I visited was the café housed in the former Orangery. With its cream coloured walls, high ceilings, busts of figures from the classical world in niches on the wall and a fine fireplace with a large gilt mirror above it, the Orangery serves both as a general café and an elegant reception room for weddings, after the ceremony itself has been held in the Great Hall. The Orangery and the Dairy constitute two of my favourite rooms at Ham House, their elegant simplicity more to my tastes than the florid baroque interior.

I had little time to spare exploring the gardens but I did manage to walk along the gravel terraces on the South Front, whose façade is noticeably different to the North Front. In the Cherry Garden to the East of the house, I could see examples of lavender, box hedges and pleached hornbeam arbours in abundance, but little in the way of cherry trees. The statue of Bacchus was covered up at Halloween to protect it from the ravages of the coming winter months. Consequently my images, like those of the stillroom, were taken a number of years ago,

By the time I left Ham House it was already dark and the journey through the unlit park outside the perimeter walls was more than a little spooky, even if it had not been Halloween. Having described Ham House during the day, I shall return with a description of my tour around the mansion at night, with only a solitary torch to light my way, as part of a revised anthology of all the stately ghosts of England I have come across to date.