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Monday, 25 April 2011

Osterley Park and House: Part One.


The Brimstone Butterfly finally made her way to Osterley Park a few weeks ago. I had toyed with the idea of paying a visit there all last year but I had been put off by the thought of the sheer scale of the place. I harboured the erroneous impression that it had ceased to be lived in as a family home from the early 19th century onwards.  Thus, I envisaged a vast empty edifice, denuded of all furnishings. In reality although it had ceased to be a principal residence it remained very much in family hands up until the end of the second world war. Towards the latter part of the 19th century, Osterley become something of a pleasure palace as the setting for extravagant weekend end house parties.

According to Daniel Lysons in his Environs of London published in 1810 Osterley Manor had been owned for a short while by the abbess and convent at Syon in the 1530s. The suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII meant that the property fell to the crown and from thence into a sequence of private hands until bought by Sir Thomas Gresham, the Elizabethan courtier and financier. Gresham had managed that rare feat of successfully serving under King Edward VI and his two half sisters, the Catholic Mary and the Protestant Elizabeth. Such was Gresham’s skill as a financial whiz kid he built up an impressive personal fortune which made him one of the richest men in the country. It also enabled him to found the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City of London and replace the existing  farmhouse at Osterley with a splendid new residence fit for a queen. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth came a-calling twice, the first time  in 1578, a year after building work at Osterley had been completed. Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I suggested in passing that a courtyard in front of the house would be significantly improved by the addition of a wall, Gresham secretly made arrangements for the work to be carried out overnight, a feat which greatly impressed the queen and her court when they came across the completed wall in the morning.



Of Sir Thomas’s mansion only the exterior of the stable blocks remain little altered from his time. Their turreted staircases reminded me of those at Eastbury Manor House.  By the close of the 16th century both Gresham and his wife had died and the parklands  had fallen into decay according to the Elizabethan topographer and historian John Norden, who wrote of Osterley in 1596:
“a faire and stately building of bricke. It standeth in a parke  well-wooded and garnished with manie faire ponds,  which afforded not only fish and fowle, as swanes and other water foule, but also great use for milles, as paper milles, oyle milles, and corne milles, all of which are now decayed. (a corne mill excepted.) In the same parke was a very faire heronrie, for the increase and preservation whereof sundrie allurements were devised and set up, fallen all to ruin.”

Swams were very much in evidence on my visit to Osterley. I was enthralled by the way one swan in particular was determined to give no quarter to a Canadian goose, who had the temerity to  try and swim on what was clearly Swan Lake.

Osterley Park and House subsequently passed through various hands until it ended up in the Child family and through the female line to the last owners, the Earls of Jersey, who bequeathed Osterley Park and its contents to the National Trust in 1949. 

Like Sir Thomas Gresham the Child family had had made their money through banking and trade and like him they were keen to flaunt their fabulous wealth. Thus, in the 1760s the Child family began the process of remodelling Osterley, calling upon the talents of one of the foremost architects of the period, Robert Adams. Incidentally, Sarah Jodrell the widow of Robert Child, who had done so much along with his elder brother Francis to transform Osterley, had married the Right Honourable Francis, Lord Ducie upon Robert’s death. This Lord Ducie must surely be related to the same Sir William Ducie, who had lived at Charlton House in the 17th century.

The neo-classcial Osterley closely followed the footprint of Gresham’s earlier mansion, in that it retained a red brick exterior, enclosed courtyard and four turrets. Nevertheless, there was one sunning difference between the Georgian and Elizabethan façade in the guise of  the so-called “transparent portico. “ Adams had wanted to pull down the East façade. The Childs did not. The transparent portico was an inspired compromise, affording as it did a view through the portico to the enclosed courtyard beyond, whilst at the same time bringing to mind the buildings of Imperial Rome and Greece. Like Richard Boyle at Chiswick House a few decades earlier, Adams has been on the Grand Tour of Europe. His subsequent work was heavily influenced by the architecture of the classical world he had witnessed, albeit most of which had been in ruins. Unlike Boyle who relied upon William Kent to perform such a role, Robert Adams was as keen to design the interior as well as the exterior at Osterley. His eye for detail extended to the very bell pulls themselves. Horace Walpole, who  chose to design the antithesis of a neo-classical villa at Strawberry Hill,  gave the completed mansion a mixed review. ( I have just discovered that Daniel Lysons, who wrote the history of Osterley which I referred to earlier,  was encouraged in his endeavours by Horace Walpole, who appointed Lysons as his family chaplain). In 1778  Horace Walpole gave his own critique of thework at Osterley writing:

“ The first chamber, a drawing-room, not a large one, is the most superb and beautiful that can be conceived, and hung with Gobelin tapestry, and enriched by Adam in his best taste, except that he has stuck diminutive heads in bronze, no bigger than a half-crown, into the  chimney-piece's hair. The next is a light plain green velvet bedchamber. The bed is of green satin richly embroidered with colours, and with eight columns ; too theatric, and too like a modern head-dress, for round the outside of the dome are festoons of artificial flowers. What  would Vitruvius think of a dome decorated by a milliner?  The last chamber, after these two proud rooms, chills you : it is called the Etniscan, and is painted all over like Wedgwood's ware, with black and yellow small grotesques. Even the chairs are of painted wood. It would be a pretty waiting-room in a garden. I never saw such a profound tumble into the Bathos. It is going out of a palace into a potter's field. Tapestry, carpets, glass, velvet, satin, are all attributes of winter. There could be no excuse for such a cold termination, but its containing a cold bath next to  the bedchamber: — and it is called taste to join these incongruities ! I hope I have put you into a passion.”

As to whether I share Walpole’s opinions regarding the interior that shall become apparent when I resume my tour of Osterley Park anon.

Chenies Manor House Part Four


Having toured the house and looked around the church of St Michael’s I wended my way to the gift shop to hunt out some blackberry jam. There was none to be had so I made do with another fridge magnet and a tea towel.   

A rope barred my way to the medieval stone undercroft so I decided to go along to the pavilion, or what was known in Elizabethan times as the Nursery.

On my way to the pavilion I stopped at a modern weatherboard and glass fronted building housing an exhibition of paintings in aid of the mental health charity MIND. Upon leaving the by another exit, I realised as I walked through the gardens that I had in fact in fact been in the pavilion all along. On one side was a modern exterior and on the other what appeared to be an extant Elizabethan building, which had once served as the temporary lodgings for Elizabeth’s I principal Secretary of State, William Cecil.

The formal gardens fell into a decline as Chenies went from being a principal residence of the Bedford family to winding up as a farmhouse, with the gardens constituting valuable agricultural land. The present chatelaine, Elizabeth MacLeod Matthews, has spent the past fifty years restoring the gardens to their current award winning state.

There is a sunken garden, a mature yew maze, a small physic garden and an ancient oak tree that was said to be centuries old when Queen Elizabeth I visited the house, allowing her to shelter in its shade.  

 A 19th century brick well house contains a  medieval well that  once used horse power to pump up water for the village.There is a quirky collection of lawn mowers in this out-house.



There are a number of sculptures scattered around the gardens. I do not know whether they form a permanent feature. 

One elegant feature that appears authentic to the house is actually a leftover prop from a BBC television production. The pretty white wrought iron gazebo was used by the BBC when they did  location shooting for Little Dorrit at Chenies. They offered to leave the summerhouse behind and very imposing it looks too.

I had a final chance to admire the exterior of Chenies and the decorative Tudor chimney pots before making my home.

Prior to concluding this post I decided to replay the Time Team episode on Chenies Manor House. It seems the escape tunnels are in fact the Tudor drainage systems for the house, stables and dairies. But at least I got to see inside the mysterious tunnels: a man can just about move along them with no room to spare.The Pavilion or Nursery is now thought to be one side of a Tudor gatehouse. 

The strangely blank walls along one range of the mansion are the result of tenant farmers in the late 18th century removing 60 out of 100 windows in response to the onerous window tax which can come into force. Despite some disappointments, Time Team did find the exact location of the state rooms with their bay windows where Henry VIII and later his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I stayed.  His ulcerated leg meant that Henry’s bedchamber was on the ground floor, which makes nonsense of the suggestion that his shade would go hobbling up the spiral staircase of the extant medieval tower  in search of his wanton of a wife, Catherine Howard. Queen Elizabeth I must have loved Chenies because in 1570 she stayed for an entire month which, given the size of her entourage, must have almost eaten poor Sir John Russell out of house and home. Bur I leave the final words to Time Team presenter Tony Robinson: “Which just goes to show you shouldn’t always believe what you read in the guidebooks.”