When I went to Strawberry Hill Villa, Horace Walpole’s sumptuous 18th century Gothic fantasy in Twickenham, with the Aviatrix last winter we ended the day by walking to York House. It was a fitting conclusion to our perambulations as the original heir to Strawberry Hill Villa, the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer, had also owned York House for a spell. Anne had incurred the censure of Hester Thrale, the muse of the celebrated 18th century English man of letters Dr Samuel Johnson. Mrs Thrale satirised Anne’s penchant for dressing up in male attire and hinted darkly at her alleged lesbian affairs. I for one will not hear a word said against Anne as I have lately discovered that she shares a birthday with the Brimstone Butterfly and my very good friend Mandip. Besides, Mrs Thrale proved to be no better than she ought to be, running off with her Italian music master following the demise of the wealthy brewer Mr Thrale.
Unable to access the house, we wandered the grounds and came across the extraordinary Italian statuary placed there in 1906 by Sir Ratan Tata. It is a remarkably frivolous piece of sculpture for someone regarded as a great philanthropist in his native India and whose endowments continues to benefit his fellow countrymen today. The Tata family business, established by Sir Ratan’s father in the 19th century, ranks as one of the largest multination conglomerates in present day India. According to the Corporate Tata website, Sir Ratan Tata “supported Mahatma Gandhi and Gopal Krishna Gokhale with funds, left directives in his will for his wealth to be used for basic and advanced (postgraduate) education, primary and preventive health, rural livelihood and communities, art and culture and public initiatives. The trust named after him was established in 1918. This fund prioritises projects based in rural India and those that involve the advancement of women and children”.
Sir Ratan was buried in Brookwood Cemetery in 1918 alongside his father. There was a recent BBC radio documentary about this Victorian cemetery, once the largest in Europe. It used to have its own terminus at Waterloo station, known as the London Necropolis Railway Station. But after the terminus sustained heavy bomb damage during World War Two it was never reopened. On the radio documentary a woman recalled going to the London Necropolis Railway station as a child with her mother. Their journey was not to accompany the dearly departed to their final resting place but because the fares were a great deal cheaper than ordinary trains, as the real money was made from transporting the coffins to Surrey. At the railway station within the cemetery, mourners could avail themselves of refreshments in the café, so no-one would notice if a mother and her child wandered off once they had reached their destination. These refreshment rooms were licensed to sell alcohol and, as the notices used to proudly proclaim, they also “served spirits.”
Today, York House serves as municipal offices for the London Borough of Richmond. Consequently, admittance is restricted. Thus, I was delighted to have the rare opportunity through Open House London to explore the house in depth.
In the 1440s York house was known as Yorke Farm, named after the family who rented it. As such the name had nothing to do with two subsequent Dukes of York who came to be associated with the building. The first Duke of York was the future James II, who had married into the Hyde family. The latter had bought the place following the Restoration. The second Duke of York, later King George VI, formerly opened the new Council offices established there in 1926. York House or rather the estate on which it was later built, had other royal antecedents. Various Tudor monarchs had owned it and it was part of the marriage settlement of Henrietta Maria when she married Charles I in 1625.
In the 19th century York House along with Orleans House, named after the last King of France, and various other properties in the area became home to prominent members of the royal House of Orleans. One of the king’s sons, the Duc d’Aumale bought the house in 1864 on behalf of a nephew, the Comte de Paris, three of whose children were born here. By the end of the 19th century York House came back into Orleans hands when the Duc d’Orleans purchased his childhood home. When he finally sold up in 1906 the link with the Pretenders to the French throne was severed forever. I wonder if the cast iron urinal in the grounds, manufactured by Walter Macfarlane Saracen Ironworks of Glasgow, was placed there to remind people that there is a corner of some foreign garden that is forever France? Apparently the urinal is still in use today but for obvious reasons I did not care to personally check the veracity of this statement.
Other than a small blue plaque attesting to the fact that Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, had lived there and the front door being in the 17th century style, the exterior of the house gives little indication of its origins as a mansion built in the 1650s on the site of the former Yorke Farmhouse.
The Entrance Hall used to be the family dining room. The carvings on the wooden chimneypiece are tentatively attributed to the great Dutch born Grinling Gibbons, who first came to prominence at the court of Charles II and went on to produce carvings for Kensington Palace, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle amongst other commissions. The resourceful late Denis Severs achieved a similar effect at his 18th century home in Folgate Street by buying wax fruit from the local supermarket, sticking them to the ceiling and then smothering them in plaster. He was not averse to covering toilet rolls in upholstery fabric either when he wanted to achieve a particular interior design effect that mimicked 18th century originals but at a fraction of the cost. The plaster ceiling in the entrance hall at York House dates from the 19th century. As with much else in the mansion, the interior of York House was heavily influenced by the House of Orleans. Nowhere is this more apparent than the wrought iron fire backs featuring two angels in a tent, holding up a crest bearing 3 royal fleur de lys surmounted by a crown.This motif was repeated in fireplaces found elsewhere in the house.
The Orleans were not responsible for the travesty of placing a lift plonk in the middle of an extant 16th century staircase. The parts of the staircase that have survived are probably one of the few elements in the house that the 17th century Edward Hyde would have recognised. It is thought the oak staircase might date from the period when the building was still a farmhouse. It must have been a very grand farmhouse if the staircase is anything to go by.
I particularly liked the Mayor’s Parlour with its elegant marble fireplace and restrained plasterwork. The blue parlour (the colour based on authentic 17th century paints) was once part of the Billiard Room.The black bag on the floor in the second image constitutes my survival kit for the day containing as it does a bottle of l'eau de robinet, drawn from the artisan tap in the Brimstone Butterfly's kitchens, a banana, a camera and at least 6 additional fully charged batteries (after my near disaster at Osterley Park and House when my batteries dried up on me use I have always veered on the safe side ever since), a bar of organic chocolate, an A-Z of London, glasses, magnifying glasses, two pens, a note book, the Open House London guide, a book to read, sunglasses, hand cream, antiseptic hand gel and a small pack of tissues. I strive to prepare for all contingencies.
The former Library has been turned into a Council Chamber. A guide told me that it was still irksome for the residents of Twickenham that their name was not retained in here at least, following the electoral boundary reorganisation of the 1960s, which subsumed them into Richmond.
The 18th century French Rococo style Saloon with its pink walls, delicate white plasterwork, cut glass chandeliers and elegant brass wall lights would not look out of place in a French chateau, which is hardly surprising given the pedigree of certain former residents.
The Rotunda was equally delightful. Had I but looked upwards I would have seen the lantern in the ceiling. Overall, this is a very charming room with its simple marble fireplace and delicate plasterwork.
I walked straight through the Hyde Room, there being nothing to catch my attention. It was named after Edward Hyde, whose daughter Anne married the future King of England, James II. It was very much a shotgun affair imposed on the sulky James by his brother, Charles II when the family were still in exile on the Continent. Although honours and wealth did come the father–in-law’s way, Edward Hyde was forced to flee abroad when he was threatened with being impeached in Parliament for his high handed ways. A similar fate and for similar reasons awaited his royal son-in-law a number of years later. His daughter Anne never lived to be queen consort but his two granddaughters by her succeeded to the throne in their own right as Queen Mary and Queen Anne respectively.
The Clarendon Hall, also named after Edward Hyde, was a fencing room in the 19th century. Intriguingly there is an extant marble swimming pool concealed underneath the stage. It should be noted that both the Hyde Room and the Clarendon Hall could equally well relate to Edward’s eldest son Henry, which is rather fortuitous as new research has revealed that he, rather than his more illustrious father, actually owned York House.
I did not realise that the black and white tiled floor of what I took to be the kitchens led instead to the Winter Gardens, now a café until the domed glazed roof. In extenuation I was running to a tight schedule and needed to dash off to see the nearby Marble Hill House before it closed for the day.
It was whilst I was in the small pink Terrace Parlour that I noticed the elegant door furniture which was, like so much of the décor, in the French style.
In the Terrace Room, as well as the French marble fireplace, the other points of interest were the alcove with its Corinthian columns and the Walter Everitt of Teddington clock in its carved wooden casing, perched on a wall bracket. Both the Terrace Room and Terrace Parlour led out onto the Sunken Garden.
Charlton House, Knole and elsewhere, was 17th century in origin. This would make sense as we were in the oldest part of the house.
Room number 7 was the final room I explored. Its plasterwork and decorative cornices and the view over the front of the house signalled that it must have been a very grand room in its heyday. I believe the painting is of the Earl of Clarendon by Peter Lely, although none of the other images I found of the first Earl, Edward Hyde, show him in a periwig.
Having seen all the principal rooms I made my way down to the Terrace Room and out into the sunken garden. A large group of people were already outside discussing the place as a possible wedding venue. The house certainly has a very handsome façade, though any wedding party may wish to steer clear of the larger than life frolicking nude statues in the gardens, lest more people than just the bride end up blushing.