Sep 122016
Croome, with the church on the hill in the background

Croome, with the church on the hill in the background, shown courtesy of the National Trust

When I was considering which talks to select for the nine presentations I need for the cruise on board the Boudicca to the Cape Verde Islands in November I was fairly sure that I would include one on gardens and garden designs in the 18th Century. I then started to have second thoughts – after all, it is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, and every man and his dog seems to be bringing out books on him and his gardens. Rather than jump on the band-wagon I decided to be my usual contrarian self, and do the talk as a hatchet-job on Brown – he was a vandal who destroyed stunning Elizabethan gardens, he was a copyist who merely followed where Bridgman and Kent had gone before, he was not as good a salesman as Humphry Repton with his marvellous little red books….

The Panorama, Croome

The Panorama, Croome

Dunstall Castle

Dunstall Castle







And then I went to Croome… it is situated just off the M5 motorway south of Worcester, and it really is a fascinating place to visit. Some 670 acres were acquired by the National Trust in 1996. More recently, just a few years ago the Trust was granted a lease of Croome Court after a period of half a century when it was used as a Roman Catholic School and then as a Hare Krishna centre. Neither set of users would appear to have done much to preserve or enhance Brown’s handiwork, and clearly the land surrounding the fine Palladian mansion had suffered from years of intensive agriculture, deep ploughing, timber extraction and so on.

So what we see now, before all the tree planting works being implemented by the National Trust come to fruition, is something similar to what Brown would have seen after he had completed his early rounds of landscaping, drainage and so on, but before his tree-planting scheme had been completed.

The 6th Earl of Coventry

The 6th Earl of Coventry

What I had not appreciated was that Brown was not just the park-land designer – he was the architect for the main house, designed for the 28-year old Sixth Earl of Coventry when he inherited the title and the estate with its Jacobean mansion house, in 1751. Apart from re-modelling the house, Brown the architect also called for the entire village of Croome to be razed to the ground, and all the inhabitants were moved out of view “round the corner” behind some trees. He didn’t think that the medieval church looked in place – so he pulled it down, and in its place left us a gothic church which to my mind looks slightly odd, divorced as it is from any obvious congregation and some distance from the Big House. Clearly it was seen by Brown as “just another eye-catcher” – almost a folly-on-the-hill. Not content with designing the main house, Brown was responsible for many of the interiors before handing over to Robert Adam in 1760. Perhaps slightly surprisingly, Brown left intact the seven-acre walled garden (one of the largest enclosed gardens in Europe at the time, and now privately owned).


Brown's grotto, shown courtesy of the Gardening Way Blog

Brown’s grotto, shown courtesy of the Gardening Way Blog

Several of the eye-catchers you can see around the horizon are not actually Brown’s – the Park Seat, the London Gate and the Temple Greenhouse were all designed by Robert Adam, while James Wyatt was responsible for the Panorama Tower and the Worcester Lodge. Between the two of them they also designed the ‘ruins’ comprising Pirton Castle and Dunstall Castle. Brown, however, was responsible for the lake and its bridges and the Island Pavilion, the Rotunda and the grotto. But I think what impressed me most was the realization of the extent of Brown’s powers as a water engineer. I believe he acquired these skills while working in the Fens before accepting the Croome commission.

When the young earl asked Brown to come up with suggestions for the site, it consisted of a boggy morass quite unsuited to farming or gardening. Brown had the skills to know how to drain the site, alter the water tables, construct stone-lined culverts and drains, and to draw the water off into a new pond. He quickly perfected the means to line his ponds with a twelve-inch layer of puddled clay (to stop water leakage).



Croome Church, standing in splendid isolation

Croome Church, standing atop the hill in splendid isolation

Fake, it's a fake! But boy oh boy, who's to know?

Fake, it’s all fake! But boy oh boy, who’s to know?

Stone drainage culvert by the Evergreen Shrubbery shown courtesy of the National Trust

Stone drainage culvert by the Evergreen Shrubbery shown courtesy of the National Trust

He then installed what was to become his signature feature – a sinuous serpentine pond resembling a river, which wound its way under Japanese-style bridges before disappearing out of view. In fact of course it isn’t a river – the artificial pond simply ends in a spot hidden from the house by a clump of trees.

The problem with this type of arrangement is that ponds tend to fill up with silt – soil carried down off the land in the rains. I see that when Brown arrived at Burghley he installed special silt ponds – holding-pools where the silt was allowed to settle rather than being washed down into the main pond. That way, each year the labourers could dig out the year’s silt and put it back on the land. But at Croome the silt was able to build up, and by the time that the National Trust came along, they had to shift 50,000 cubic metres of mud and sludge which was silting up the pond. The improvement to the site has settled in immediately and the lake area looks remarkably settled and ‘natural’.



Funny, ha-ha?

Funny, ha-ha?

Turned to stone I was, (while waiitng for Godot?)

Turned to stone I was, (while waiitng for Godot?)

All around the park Brown constructed ha-has (to control sheep and cattle without the need for intrusive walls and hedges). He also introduced carriage ways which wend their way circuitously around the park, so that you get “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” glimpses of the main house before, at last, your coach and four pulls up in front of the imposing entrance to Croome Court. It really is well worth a visit, and it has given me food for thought as to whether to include Brown in my next-book-but-one. First comes ‘Petticoat Pioneers’ – about women in the 18th Century who shifted paradigms and  made break-throughs in what was a predominately male world, but after that I am going to do one on Georgian Greats. On reflection I think Brown deserves the accolade of ‘great’. After all, any man who persuaded the landed gentry to pay him fees of many thousands of pounds was doing his bit to even-up the inexcusable gap between the rich and the poor. In doing so he helped elevate The Garden to a really significant and important feature of everyday life.



Brown may have designed “only” a couple of hundred gardens but many, many, more times that number were based upon copies of his ideas and designs. His work made him a wealthy man. The customer account ledgers of Drummonds Bank of Charing Cross, London, which are held in RBS’s archives, show that in 1768 alone he had receipts totalling £32,279 and that over the period of his working life he was paid more than half a million pounds. In modern money that makes Brown a multi-millionaire – a tribute to his abilities as a businessman as well as a garden designer. He also deserves credit as a water engineer – his ability to control water, put in dams and drains and to disguise such works so that they are almost totally hidden from view. The fact that he was also a first rate architect surprised me – but I am reminded that Humphry Repton had this to say about him: “Mr Brown’s fame as an architect seems to have been eclipsed by his celebrity as a landscape gardener, he being the only professor of the one art, while he had many jealous competitors in the other. But when I consider the number of excellent works in architecture designed and executed by him, it becomes an act of justice to his memory to record that, if he was superior to all in what related to his particular profession, he was inferior to none in what related to the comfort, convenience, taste, and propriety of design in the several mansions and other buildings he planned.”

For anyone interested, the National Trust are holding a belated birthday party for good old Lancelot, at Croome, on 25th September. You can find details here.

May 092016

Dennis Severs' HouseOne of the most extraordinary museums I have ever visited was the highly evocative house of Dennis Severs at 18 Folgate Street in London. Each room is unique, and reflects the fact that the 18th Century occupier of that particular room has just popped out for a break. The low lighting, the sounds, the smells are all done to re-create a perfect Georgian atmosphere. Visitors go round in small, silent groups, so no coach parties of children, no flocks of foreign tourists with motor-driven cameras a-whirring, just you and a few other lucky people tip-toeing through history.

This June sees some unique joint visits to Dennis Severs’ House and the Museum of Immigration at 19 Princelet Street. The latter reflects the wave after wave of immigrants into the Spitalfields area, not just with the silk weaving Huguenots, but others right up until the 20th Century. And let’s face it, most of us come from families who were immigrants at one time or another. “Immigrants” just mean that people have yet to be assimilated into the melting pot. My lot were Anglo-Saxon immigrants. Anyway, the museum reflects all the diverse immigration waves over recent centuries and is one of those places where “the walls talk”. The joint venture is interesting because up until now it has been almost impossible to visit both museums on the same day – because of their very limited (and often conflicting) opening hours.

The first part, consisting of a tour of 18 Folgate Street, is to be followed by a short walk to Princelet Street and a tour around what has been described as ‘one of the most charismatic, moving, beautiful places in all London’. Apparently the joint tour is designed to take an hour and three quarters. Tours are at midday and at one p.m. and will be run on various days between 7th June and 25th June.

More information can be obtained via the website at  It sounds an interesting experience, and one I highly recommend if you are in London in June.

Oct 272015

1 YorkI recall doing a blog once before on Fairfax House in York (here) but felt it was time to update the post, having been to see round the house last week. Fairfax House had kindly hosted the conference on “Retail Shopping in the Eighteenth Century” and in addition to a highly enjoyable reception at Fairfax House we were able to look round the exhibition linked to the symposium. It was small, but it was beautifully formed, with display cabinets full of the minutiae of  the retail world – samples, advertisements, trade cards, shop signs and so on.

York 2The house is likewise on a ‘human’ scale: it has been described as “the most perfect example of an eighteenth century townhouse … anywhere in England”. Certainly you will come across larger and more impressive stately piles, but this was a townhouse, to be lived in by the family of Viscount Fairfax of Gilling Castle during the winter months. York 3It is compact, beautifully decorated and furnished, and there is little to remind you of the fact that for years the building was used as a dance hall and local cinema. As the guide book helpfully shows you, the bedroom of Viscount Fairfax  was at one stage used as the men’s loo. Thankfully the urinals have gone and the room is restored to its former glory! Much of the elaborate ceiling work was buried under layers of bright red paint, but the pains-taking restoration work in the 1980s has polished up this little gem so that it gleams like an emerald.

York 4Much of the furniture comes from the collection of Noel Terry (he of Terry’s chocolate fame) and it sits perfectly in the beautifully restored rooms. I was particularly impressed with all the staff – helpful, informative and enthusiastic, but also quite willing to leave you alone if you just wanted to soak up the atmosphere.

York 5I cannot show images of the actual exhibition for  copyright reasons: suffice to say that if you are in York, go see it. I skipped on the chance to see the Jorvik Centre, which I am sure is excellent, but instead wandered round the Shambles, saw York Minster, and went round the Castle Museum with its fine and evocative re-creation of a Victorian street scene. Oh, and I stumbled across a most excellent antiquarian bookshop in Micklegate Street, and came away with several  fascinating tomes on Hogarth, Rowlandson, Gillray and Constable. Mind you, I did feel a bit like  someone who buys books by the yard – I had a weight allowance on my return flight to Spain and therefore had to buy the books according to weight. It meant that there was no room for Sir Joshua Reynolds, but then, hey, that was no great loss as I am not his greatest fan…

York 6

York 7

And finally, because I am a Fairfax myself, descended on the wrong side of the blanket from the dear old Viscount, a picture of my own and only memento of the family – a tinder box kept by my ancestor Richard Fairfax.Fairfax tinder box 1 002

Sep 092015

1 BuildingVisiting Quarry Bank near Manchester a few weeks ago reminded me that Manchester’s nick-name was ‘Cottonopolis’ because in the 1800’s it was the centre of the cotton milling industry. Quarry Bank, started in 1784 and extended in the 1790’s and over the following one hundred years, originally  harnessed water power to drive the machinery which prepared the yarn for spinning, but later moved on to steam power in order to power the actual looms. What you see today is no empty run of buildings, but a restored industrial building into which much of the original machinery has been placed.

2 BuildingThere may not be looms for hundreds of nimble-fingered youngsters to be employed carrying the cans of spools, or threading the heddles on the looms, or cleaning the dust which clogged the working parts of the machines, but there are enough in working order to get something of the flavour of what it must have been like 200 years ago. The clattering noise from just one machine is pretty deafening: multiply it to reflect the fact that in the 1830’s there were over three hundred looms operating, and the cacophony must have been terrifying.




You can trace the whole process through from the arrival of the sacks of cotton bolls through to the cotton being prepared as yarn, to it being loaded onto the looms and made into different fabrics. Nowadays it seems to be drying-up towels mostly…

Display of all the differe t types of material made using cotton, from fustian to moleskin

Display of all the different types of material made using different thread, from fustian to moleskin

Display card from the 1790's showing the different patterns available.

Display card from the 1790’s showing the different patterns available.









There are explanations of the different types of fabric woven there – and although I had come across the word ‘fustian’ before I had not appreciated that it was made using a linen thread for the warp and cotton for the weft. It became known as “Manchester Cotton”. All is explained in easy-to-understand graphics. There is also a detailed explanation of how the water mill worked, and how steam power transformed the manufacturing process.

4 yarn

6 threads

Workers suffered from cotton-dust on the lung – similar to asbestosis – and the working conditions must have been appalling. But the visit to Quarry Bank is worthwhile if only to see the casualties of the great Industrial Revolution – wealth and prosperity certainly came at a price in terms of “quality of life” for the poor sods who had to work in Blake’s “dark satanic mills”.

8 loomsDo get the chance to visit Quarry Bank if you are in Manchester – the National Trust have done an excellent restoration job, and have just about managed a balance between making it an educational centre aimed at ten year olds and restoring it to something of its original glory. There are enough machines working on every floor to help you overlook the simplistic explanations, the “now, boys and girls, what do we think went on here?” to make it a fascinating experience. Even for a curmudgeon like me…Imagine 320 of these machines in the weaving sheds, all working flat out ....

Imagine 320 of these machines in the weaving sheds, all working flat out ….

Aug 242015
Quarry Bank Apprentice House

Quarry Bank: The Apprentice House

Recently I went to a National Trust property in the village of Styal, near Manchester, called Quarry Bank. It is a late 18th century cotton mill, full of fascinating detail and will be the subject of another blog in a day or two. But one of the ancillary exhibitions which I found especially interesting was the restored Apprentices House, with its focus on education for the poor in the 18th Century.

The school room

The school room

Writing slates and chalk, for doing those confounded letters...

Writing slates and chalk, for doing those confounded letters…

1 Alphabet

Hannah Greg, the wife of mill-owner, was instrumental in housing sixty girls and thirty boys, from the age of nine upwards, in the Apprentice House. A devout Unitarian, she was convinced that both her husband’s business, and the children, would benefit from the “homely” environment in which children could be brought up – providing labour during the day, and giving the children an education in the evening. The girls were taught to read and write, and it was interesting to see the sand trays (in which the younger children could practice their letters) and the slate tablets upon which the older children would trace out their copperplate script over and over again. The punishment for running away could be severe – fines of up to five shillings were recorded in some instances, paid back at the rate of a penny a day if the child worked overtime. But, since the children had to rise at 5.30 in the morning for a shower under the outside pump, and a spoonful of solid cold porridge to be eaten out of the hand en route to the factory 200 yards away, it is hard to see how “overtime” could be fitted in, since a day in the factory lasted until nightfall, and was then followed by lessons. Six days a week they worked – and then were expected to do their washing on Sundays – while fitting in two visits to the local church for services in the morning and afternoon.

Thirty beds for sixty girls, in one room...

Thirty beds for sixty girls, in one room… in practice there were twice as many beds as those now on display.

Amazingly the sixty girls were crammed into wooden-framed beds in a single small dormitory, two to a bed. Six chamber pots were provided in the room, in which the girls were locked overnight. Mod. Cons ? Well. not exactly, but they were given straw in lieu of loo paper – and as the windows were left open all night and there were no fires, the poor little blighters must have been frozen. Still, they were better off than being in the Workhouse, and they got an education into the bargain.

A loo with a view - slop bucket and basket of straw, girls backsides, for the use of... slp

A loo with a view – slop bucket and basket of straw; backsides, for the use of…

Interestingly, new arrivals were checked out by the local doctor (Dr Holland), who made sure that the newcomers were old enough and fit to be admitted as apprentices. For his £20 annual fee he would give the children regular surgeries, bleed them with leeches when they suffered from reactions to the constant cotton dust, supply them with brimstone and treacle if they had stomach aches, and cut off damaged digits if they caught their fingers in the looms and yarn spinning machinery.

Having worked from the age of nine for perhaps ten to twelve years, the apprentices might then get a paid job in the factory, but at that stage would move out into other accommodation in the village. It seems amazing to think that a childhood of abject slavery was considered ‘enlightened’ but in practice the apprentices were fortunate to get regular meals, a roof over their head, and a chance to get a job afterwards. So, well done, Hannah Greg!

But Hannah  was not unaware of the injustices of the world and I must say I was impressed with some of her ideas which she recorded in her diaries in the last decade of the 18th Century. These are not the retrospective comments of modern-day feminists, or of rabid opponents of the British Empire – they were what a thoughtful, conscientious, person was thinking at the time, 215 years ago. It makes you think…1 Hannah GregAnyway, Quarry House was well worth a visit. More of the noise, the dust, the sheer awesome scale of the factory operations, in a future blog. Details of the National Trust property opening times appear here.

Jul 312015

12 exterior

12 Saltram






I didn’t think I really did justice to Saltram House when I blogged about it  last week – I got into such a mess with the photographs that I stopped, and missed off many details about the house, which is a shame because it really is fascinating.

Plasterwork cherubs on the Adam ceiling

Plasterwork cherubs on the Adam ceiling

The house, built high above the River Plym, is magnificent. It was constructed during the reign of George II,  on the site of an older Tudor mansion, as a home for the Parker family, and they have lived there ever since. 1743 may have been when the Parker family finished cladding the older building with stucco, but the main refurbishment  of the interior waited until  1768 when John Parker II succeeded his father. He and his wife Theresa Robinson poured all their energies and artistic talents into decorating the interior, and the joy is that little has happened since then to mess up the Georgian grandeur. The odd room lay-out has been altered, with two smaller rooms being combined to make a magnificent library, and an exterior porch was added in the Regency period, but the building still has the symmetry and elegance of the original Georgian building. You can however still see a few traces of the Tudor building, with its red-bricks showing in the inner courtyard.

John Parker, First Baron Bornngdon, by Joshua Reynolds

John Parker, First Baron Boringdon, by Joshua Reynolds


Theresa Parker by Reynolds

Theresa Parker by Reynolds














It was handed over to the National Trust in 1957 in lieu of death duties and the Trust has done a great job of maintaining the main building as well as the outbuildings, such as the fine orangery, and  the garden with its lovely specimen trees.

The interior of the building you see today is a masterpiece by Richard Adam, and the main drawing room or salon is often regarded as the finest example of his work.  Adam didn’t just design the salon, its ceiling, its fireplace and doors but also the minutiae of the finishes – the mouldings, the plasterwork, even the door handles. For lovers of the style, it is an Adam-heaven!

12 salon


12 fireplace

12 doors

John and Theresa Parker were great friends of Joshua Reynolds and they acquired ten of his portraits, mostly of members of the Parker family. The third John Parker married twice and his second wife was an accomplished (and beautiful) woman whose own paintings adorn several of the rooms. But it is the chinoiserie which impresses most, especially in the bedrooms upstairs. OK a few bits have suffered from damp (and the predations of silverfish) but the overall effect is undiminished. As I alluded to in the previous blog, the walls are adorned with painted mirrors – the manufacture of reflective glass was not a technique known to the Chinese, so the mirrors were made in England, and then shipped out to China so that their craftsmen could scrape off the backing of silver nitrate and mercury. The decoration would then be painted on in the Chinese style, and the finished decorative mirror was then exported back to England. Artistry never came cheap …. but the effect is great and you can just imagine how these tiny reflective mirrors must have picked up the flickering candle-light in the dark evenings.

12 chinese ppaer12 fourposter









12 paperThe house has a well restored kitchen/pantry/larder area and I was especially interested in the smoke jack fitted into the kitchen so that the rising heat from the fire turned the spit. My ancestor Richard Hall had great difficulty fitting his smoke jack – it was obviously a messy job, particularly if the chimney was narrow and already coated with soot….

The kitchen

The kitchen



The smoke jack

The turning mechanism, linked to the smoke jack

The library is really splendid with a fine collection of 18th Century books. At the time of my visit there was also a display of early Worcester porcelain – normally shut away, but thankfully laid out as a tea service for all to see. And what I liked most – there wasn’t too much of the “touchy-feely, let’s make all this accessible to young kids” which the National Trust love nowadays. I am all for getting children involved but I must admit an emphasis on dressing up in nylon costumes is no substitute for seeing a house in its original state, and just walking around having a good inspection. Personally I am not too keen on trying to make a fine stately home into an adventure park.  Curmudgeonly, that’s me. To the core… but I was prepared to overlook the odd teddy-bear having a picnic….

The Library

The Library. The photographs om display may seem to be an anachronism, but it is a home not a film set!

Jul 272015

S1Considering that I live less than twenty miles away from Saltram House I find it remarkable that I have only just got around to visiting it! It occupies high ground overlooking Plymouth, and although much of the original estate had long since been sold off, enough remains to provide a lovely area for walks and so on.

S2It really is a Georgian gem – which is no doubt why it was used in Ang Lee’s version of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.

S14I visited on a wet and windy day so the gardens were not at their best, and the orangery looked somewhat forlorn, but the main building is  fabulous, with elegant symmetry, Robert Adam designed interiors, a fine display of early Worcester porcelain, enough paintings by local boy Joshua Reynolds to fill a gallery, a splendid library and some extraordinary chinoiserie not least in the form of hand-painted Chinese wallpaper and some remarkable mirrors which were apparently made in Britain, exported to China for “finishing off” and then re-imported in order to match the paper.

Reynolds pained by fellow Royal Academician Angelica Kauffman

Reynolds pained by fellow Royal Academician Angelica Kauffman


The link to the National Trust site is here.

Here are a few more images of this fascinating house:










S5   S7














I have always heard that chamber pots were "hidden" in pieces of furniture, and this proves it!

I have always heard that chamber pots were “hidden” in pieces of furniture, and this proves it!

The chinese rooms were especially impressive:




Mar 052015

a George 3

The GeorgiansFollowing on from the publication of ‘An Illustrated Introduction to the Georgians’ I have been asked to co-author ‘An Illustrated Introduction to the Regency’  jointly with Philippa Sutcliffe. She just happens to be my wife, so it means that she gets lumbered with doing the research while I sit back and write what I am told….. well, that’s the theory!

But it does mean that we have the incentive to visit all sorts of Regency venues as part of the research – places such as the fine Regency terraces in Cheltenham, or Royal York Crescent in Bristol, or the splendid Soane Museum in London, about which I will blog separately. But best of all it gave us the incentive to visit Brighton and to go round the Royal Pavilion, and it really is ‘something else’!

Rather than visit Weymouth with his sanctimonious prig of a father (George III) the fun-loving Prince of Wales preferred to shack up with his rakish uncle at Brighton. For ‘fun-loving’, read whoring, drinking and gambling. So when the PoW entered into a form of marriage with the twice-widowed (and Catholic) Maria Fitzherbert he already knew Brighton well, and would escape there to get away from the prying eyes of the King and his courtiers. There are some lovely caricatures of the Prince belting along the London-Brighton road, mistress in tow.

    A Trip to Brighton, or, the P- and his reduced household retiring for the summer season, shown courtesy of the British Museum

The Prince and Mrs Fitzherbert in  a 1786 cartoon by William Dent, and  shown courtesy of the British Museum. The head-bands of the emaciated horses are inscribed ‘Whim’ and’ Caprice’, and inside the coach Mrs Fitzherbert reads a book called Principles of Oeconomy.” The plume of feathers is upside down, reflecting the parlous state of the Prince’s finances.

The companion to this was ‘Return from Brighton, or A journey to town for the winter season’ and was also by William Dent, published in 1789. Louis Weltje still controls the lead horse, but this time it is a coach and four, and Fox follows on the second pair, propelled by bellows with the words ‘Motion for Increase of Income’. Atop the coach sits George Hangar, still with a shillelagh under his arm,  but this time he is holding plans for finishing off Carlton House. The fortunes of the Prince are on the up  – and his plume of feathers is shown the correct way up. Intriguingly, the first print shows Maria with a pile of  bed-linen for a child,and on their return she is shown with a baby in tow. This would appear to echo rumours circulating at the time that the Prince had fathered a child by Maria – rumours which  continued for many years. The Prince, meanwhile, looks at a paper marked ‘Town Amusements.’ This caricature is on the  excellent Lewis Walpole Library site.

a george 7

a GeorgeWhen he was in Brighton, the PoW was able to indulge his love of horse riding by building a most impressive stable building, capable of housing fifty or sixty horses. As someone remarked at the time, the horses lived in rather more comfort than the Prince and his party, who stayed in a small farmhouse. But the Prince had ideas to build a suitable magnificent retreat. Initially he commissioned Henry Holland to come up with a building in the neo-classical style, but all that changed when  he opted for something really way over the top, a building based loosely on designs for Indian palaces from a couple of centuries earlier. Drawings showing Indian palaces had started to circulate in the last two decades of the Eighteenth Century, and influenced architects such as John Nash. He came up with ever-grander plans, reflecting the change of status as the PoW moved from Prince to Regent to King. What is more, the new King seemed to regard himself as being on a par with the great Chinese emperors, so to him it was entirely appropriate that this Indian-inspired edifice (from the outside) should be filled on the inside not with Indian furniture but with chinoiserie. Loads of it, preferably heavily gilded, and hopelessly over-the-top. Here was a man for whom bling could have been invented. Amazing ceilings bedecked with flying dragons, ornate chandeliers, elaborate ‘bamboo’ furniture made out of mahogany and painted to look like bamboo,  and rooms large enough to impress a multitude – they all are concentrated into one building in the centre of Brighton, just back from the sea-front.

a George 4‘The court at Brighton a la Chinese!!’ by George Cruikshank, 1816, showing the corpulent George IV as a Chinese emperor, attended by courtiers. On the King’s right sits Lady Hertford, mistress to the King until 1819, and on his left his daughter, who is suggesting that she should be married off ‘to a China man instead of getting me a husband among our German cousins’. It appears courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library.*

I rather like the idea that whereas George IV fancied himself as a sort of Far-Eastern emperor, what the public saw was a corpulent old roué who treated his wife abominably, and spent tax-payers’ money as if there were no tomorrow. If they saw His Royal Fatness (well, his waist did come to around fifty inches….) they laughed. So, to avoid the gaze of the Common Man, the King ordered a tunnel to be constructed leading from the Pavilion to his stables so that he could go riding without being seen. Later, as he got older, the journey down to Brighton got a bit too much for the King, so he retreated to Windsor and became something of a recluse. When he died (1830) it left his brother William to finish off the Pavilion, but of course when William IV died Queen Victoria took one look at it (well, two to be more accurate) and decided that it simply Would Not Do. So she stripped out the usable furniture, and sold the Pavilion to the local authority. For Victoria, it was pointless being so near the sea and yet too far away to see it from the main rooms, and also it was a bit of a bachelor-pad, not really suited to her married status. Besides, the Pavilion is in effect an island, surrounded by roads, which meant that she couldn’t set foot outside of its grounds without being gawped at. Oh, the hardships of being royal…

The Banqueting Hall, in a painting form the 1820's  shown courtesy of the British Museum

The Banqueting Hall, in a painting from the 1820’s shown courtesy of the British Museum, and showing the immense chandelier dangling from an ornate dragon.

a George 2Anyway, it is well worth a visit, as long as you can avoid Brighton’s appalling traffic. I went on a Saturday and spent over one hour crawling the four miles from the outskirts of town  through to the sea-front. I am sure that there are short-cuts for those in the know, but for those of us who simply follow the SatNav and have to wait for every temporary set of traffic lights, and endless road-works, it is a nightmare! And when you arrive, parking is difficult, so next time, I will go by train…



* I assume that the figure of a native woman on a pedestal, shown above the portrait of Lady Hertford, represents  Saartjie Baartman, known at the time as “The Hottentot Venus”.  She spent some years traveling in Britain and later in France, being exhibited in what was in effect a freak show, amidst great interest on account of her prominent buttocks. The poor woman died in 1815. Brief details appear here.

Sep 202013

ab11This week I finally got around to doing something which had been nagging at me for ages – arranging a visit to Dennis Sever’s house at 18 Folgate Street in London’s East End. And what an astonishing place it is! It is, to my way of thinking, one of the most remarkable “museums”  that I have ever seen (it chooses to tell us that it is in fact a private house rather than a museum). Indeed you don’t just see it – you smell it, you hear it, you feel the entire experience and it is  absolutely astonishing and  evocative.

Where is it? In a rather un-prepossessing street not far from Shoreditch High Street tube station, just a few hundred yards from where the famous Sunday street market in Petticoat Lane is held.


It may look as though it is falling down, but you quickly realize, on entering, that looks are deceptive. Nothing is quite as it seems. The first thing you notice as you tip-toe through the hallway is the heavy silence. And the gloom. Venture down the unlit stairs into the kitchen and you can just make out the gleam of a shaft of light from the basement window, reflecting off a polished copper saucepan. You sense that the cook has just ventured out from her room, leaving the work surfaces  covered with a scattering of daily objects from centuries gone by.

18 folgate st

You slowly venture through the other rooms and up the stairs calling in on scenes where the last occupant has just left, two hundred years ago. A half-consumed biscuit, a nearly-drained cup of tea, a pipe spilling its tobacco –  are all carefully set as part of what Dennis Severs termed “a still life drama.”  It is, literally, sensational.

Smoking Room detail

Most museums exhibit prized possessions as individual items to be admired in isolation – here they are gathered together to show them in everyday use – cluttered, haphazard, and very much part of the story.


The smell of bergamot hits you as you go into the bedroom, a discarded garment hangs over the  screen where it was draped  a few seconds, or maybe a few centuries, before you looked in and noticed it. Everywhere is half-light and  untidiness – in fact a delicious atmosphere of neglect. You were not expected to come into this room, so no-one has cleaned it up for you!

It really is a wonderful experience. The house itself was constructed in around 1724, and is Grade II Listed. Dennis Severs  lived there for twenty years, from 1979, and set about gradually recreating the rooms as a time capsule in the style of previous centuries. You are led to visualise the life of a fictional Huguenot family of silk weavers, called Jervis, with each room leading through from one period of time to another, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Severs bequeathed the house to the Spitalfields Trust shortly before his death on 27th December 1999. Its motto, often repeated as you soak it all in as you carefully wend your way through time, is  ‘You either see it or you don’t.’


Rather more about the “museum” and the idea behind it can be seen at the website for the Dennis Severs house here. Be aware though – you do not need to book but do check the rather limited opening times.

The images are shown courtesy of the site. Go see!

Jun 152013

Global theatre royalAs a Bristolian I was brought up to believe that the Theatre Royal in Bristol was the oldest working theatre in Britain – although I was aware that it had been hugely modernised and altered over the years. So I was delighted to come across an absolutely splendid provincial theatre known as the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, Yorkshire and which is by far the least hacked-about, the most complete and perhaps the most authentic of the four Georgian theatres still in existence in Britain. Not surprisingly, it has Grade One Listed status, on account of its historic and architectural importance.


The theatre was established in 1788 by a man called Samuel Butler. He had started a small chain of theatres in the North East (at Beverley, Harrogate, Kendal, Northallerton, Ripon, Ulverston and Whitby) and his theatre company performed regularly on a circuit, using Richmond until 1830. Eventually productions ceased, the pit was floored over and the lower area was used for wine vaults. Above floor level, the place became an auction house. By some extraordinary twist of fate nobody destroyed the original boxes or the gallery and the interior remained largely intact. It was “re-discovered” in 1930. Initial restoration projects included some rather garish and inappropriate stage lighting, a somewhat intrusive ventilation system, and rather incongruous gilt ballroom chairs in the various boxes.

In 2003 new renovation works were started – the restorers seem to have carried out a magnificent balancing act between preserving original features, replicating lost ones, and at the same time introducing modern requirements to comply with Health and Safety concerns, For instance, the original theatre would have been lit by candles – and the number of disastrous fires in theatres throughout the Georgian era is testament to the fact that naked flames and flammable stage scenery and curtains do not mix happily! The newly restored theatre therefore has to use “imitation” candle lights, for instance for the footlights. They flicker authentically and can be raised up to stage level or lowered out of sight when not in use. In the main auditorium fifty-four new ‘candles’ have been incorporated, each set in a glass chimney supported by a cast iron fitting. Above each column, small iron rings are hung from brackets to a design derived prevalent in theatres at that time, while the remainder are suspended on large iron rings from the ceiling.

Where possible the restorers have tried to assess the original colour scheme and put in a “best guess” for the design and colour of the features which have been lost. Floor boards have been left as wood, walls are a neutral colour, paintwork is green or blue, and the ceiling is decorated with clouds against a blue background.

Improvements in 2003 aimed at making the place more user-friendly include an extension comprising a box office, a third dressing room, bars and foyers, and greatly improved ventilation and access.


The theatre owns the country’s oldest piece of stage scenery – a “Woodland scene” painted around 1816 but it is too delicate to be in use and therefore a replica “Woodland scene” has been made and is now in use.

There are eleven theatre boxes, all named after playwrights whose works would have been staged by Samuel Butler. They range from William Shakespeare to Sheridan, and from Ben Jonson to Oliver Goldsmith and each box has been syNew lion rampant painted panel (Sheridan box)mpathetically restored. They look magnificent. Meanwhile down in the pit there are padded benches with detachable backs and removable bench ends designed to extend the benches over the aisles. The end result is a theatre which is now a vibrant part of the community, regularly used for putting on plays, but one which is also faithful to the original ideas of Samuel Butler. He died in 1812 aged 62.

The lovely thing about the theatre is its small intimate size, It has a capacity of 214 and the furthest seat is less than 11 metres from the stage! Talk about up close and personal!

samuel butler grave

I am indebted to Nicholas Allen for an article on the  Building Conservation  site for details of the restoration, and to the lovely, helpful, people at the Theatre itself for the images used in this post. Their website is here .