Yesterday I travelled from Cambridge to my sister Maisie’s farm deep in fenland to visit and stay the night. I missed seeing Francis, my brother-in-law, as he’s filming in Northumberland, but was enthusiastically greeted by Jane (on left), well fed and watered by my sister, and then this morning drove back to Leeds cross-country.
This afternoon my daughter and I visited Temple Newsam, on the eastern side of Leeds.
At present they’re running A House of Birds (until 30 September), a ‘display [which] looks at some of the ways in which birds, real and imaginary, contributed to the richness of the decorative arts in 18th and early 19th century England’. This is birds decorating porcelain (e.g. vases, dishes, teapots); textiles (e.g. bed hangings, tapestries); wallpapers; and real birds – live and caged, or the victim of taxidermists.
One room features American Birds in a Chinese Garden. This celebrates what can only be described as an act of cultural vandalism. In September 1827 John James Audubon visited Lady (Frances) Hertford and persuaded her to become a subscriber to his The Birds of America1; in due course she received the first volume. What would you do with a book like that? If you were sitting in your Blue Drawing Room, decorated with the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper that the Prince of Wales had given you in 1806, what would you do with this double-elephant book containing 100 life-size, hand-coloured aquatints based on sketches drawn from nature during Audubon’s journeys into the North American wilds, if you were one of the only 175 subscribers in Britain to have a copy of this fine book? Lady Hertford knew exactly what she wanted done with it. She (or more probably a servant at her command) cut out 28 of the birds from 10 plates and pasted them onto the wallpaper. Luckily, Lady Hertford died before any more volumes were published.
There’s a (whole and complete) original volume 1 on display in the Bullion Room, on loan from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.
The house has had quite a chequered history. It was first mentioned in the Domesday Book as Neuhusum (= New house), and in c1155 it was given to the Knights Templar, hence the first part of the name. Thomas Lord Darcy built a four-sided courtyard house on the site in the early sixteenth century, but in 1537 it was seized by the Crown following his execution for treason (he was involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace rising). Henry VIII gave the house to Margaret Countess of Lennox in 1544, her son, Henry Lord Darnley, was born in the house the following year. In 1565 the estate was again seized by the Crown, this time Elizabeth I, after Lord Darnley made the mistake of marrying Mary Queen of Scots – not the best move of his life for more than one reason.
The house fell into disrepair, on the accession of James I of England in 1603 he gave the estate to his cousin Ludovic Duke of Lennox, and it languished tenantless until Sir Arthur Ingram bought the estate in 1622 for £12,000; he rebuilt the house as the three-sided building which exists today, one wing of the old house being kept as the central wing of the new house. There was a financial crisis when the family lost a fortune in the South Sea Bubble, but that was sorted out by a son marrying an heiress; so more work could be done on the house, and Capability Brown landscaped the park.
Through the nineteenth century there were major works done on the interiors and the grounds, and in 1904 the estate was inherited by a nephew, Edward Wood, first Earl of Halifax; in 1922 he sold some of the parkland to Leeds Corporation for £35,000, the house they acquired for free.
This has stopped the city of Leeds encroaching on the open land, but soon after the municipal purchase much of Brown’s parkland was turned into golf courses, and subsequently more of Brown’s landscape was destroyed by opencast coal mining during the Second World War; the peace is somewhat spoiled by the noise of at A1/M1 link motorway running in a valley nearby; the view of a distant temple on a wooded slope opposite is marred somewhat by a cellphone mast.
The house is very impressive but not that attractive; it’s rather blocky and the regularity hides the fact that its parts are from various periods: the north front Jacobean altered in the Georgian and Victorian periods; the centre of the west front early Tudor; the corners Jacobean; the south wing remodelled in the 1790s.
The contents of the house were dispersed. Lord Halifax did return 100 of the family pictures in 1948, and the house has since developed as a museum of fine and decorative art – pieces from the original collection are being sought all the time and regularly returned to the house. The Art Fund seems to have done quite a lot here, as has the Leeds Art Collections Fund, and some works have arrived here via the government in lieu of taxes. In 2001-2003 the house was closed for major restoration – I don’t know what it looked like before, but the interiors are magnificent now.
The wallpapers have been restored, much of the furniture has been replaced, and the walls are covered with paintings. There are a lot of paintings, some are indifferent, but some are excellent. As might be expected there are a lot of portraits, and a number of landscapes.
My favourite portrait was The Hon Mrs Hugo Meynell, née Elizabeth Ingrams (1762-1817) by John Hoppner. I don’t know why some portraits stand out from the majority, but this one does, and looking at some of Hoppner’s other works suggests that others of his do too – he appears to have been particularly successful at painting women and children.
I also particularly liked a marvellous full-length Portrait of Mrs Brown, Housekeeper at Bramham Park by George Garrard (1760-1826): she’s standing in the the Dry Laundry with her arms folded, a wrinkled look of contentment on her face. How many households had their servants’ portraits painted, yet alone by a Royal Academician?
My daughter was particularly taken with ‘The Fair Nun Unmasked’ by Henry Morland (c1730-1797) – but ‘This apparently ravishing evocation of 18th century glamour conceals something rather more sinister’. The original title was ‘A Lady in a Masquerade Habit’, the ‘Nun’ title only appearing over an engraving later on – the inscription under the engraving was taken from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock: ‘On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore / Which Jews may kiss and Infidels adore’; the description of a woman as a ‘nun’ in C18th Protestant England was implication of whoredom.
I really liked this place, but it’s interesting how local authorities manage heritage properties – the house very much has the aura of a museum, rather than a house; we were there later in the afternoon and it did feel very much like we were being hassled to leave about fifteen minutes before closing time. The grounds are a bit like a municipal park, there’s little in the way of interesting garden adjoining the house, although there is a walled garden (once the kitchen garden) away by the farm which I didn’t have time to visit, and they do house five National Collections, as well as having a very good collection of rhododendrons and azaleas. There are 1500 acres of parkland and woodland with lakes, and a leaflet has been published giving a walk of archaeological interest.
The rather handsome stable block of 1742 has been developed as reception, a shop, and a tea room; this range of buildings also once housed the bakery, dairy and laundry, and was joined to the house by two tunnels to preclude any toffs’ eyes being sullied by an accidental glimpse of a minion. There’s also a working rare breeds farm (apparently Europe’s largest) set in the original Home Farm buildings, and Colton, the estate village, has had its character preserved.
I shall be going back, and I think I’d need to give myself a day; I only scratched the surface today.
1 Update 8 Dec 2010: A ‘fine’ copy of the first edition of Birds of America sold yesterday at Sotheby’s London for £7 million. (I put ‘fine’ in inverted commas as there is a subsequent list of all the minor defects, which, if I had been listing it, I would have said made it a very good copy at most, probably just good.) There’s a complete description and provenance on Sotheby’s website.