London TW7 RB
Thursday May 11 2017
As the weather had lifted slightly we dared to venture out on the Piccadilly Line (completely irritating with the announcements going full time and repetitively all the slow way out to Osterley Station) where the very kind station attendant allowed us to use their toilets and made sure we set off in the right direction – sometimes it pays to look a bit ditsy. The walk to the National Trust Property (donated back in 1949) took us along the Great West Road (a route we remembered from our bus days) down a side street and through the park, passing some cows en route.
The house's history goes back to 1564 when Thomas Gresham, that wily founder of the Royal Exchange, had it built as an investment and to some extent that is how it has mainly been treated. Not far enough into London to be a ‘capital residence’ nor far out enough in the country to offer the full hunting/shooting / fishing experiences it seems often to have been the owners’ second if not third property, used mainly for summer parties. Gresham left no direct heirs so the house eventually passed to the Child family as one of their number had stood guarantor for a rather speculative and profligate owner who could not keep up the payments on both the house itself and the rather incoherent alterations he was making to the basic Tudor brick building. The Childs had started life as London Goldsmiths but morphed into bankers and like many of their ilk went for a showy makeover. As luck would have it some local worthies – Francis Dashwood (he of the Hell fire Club) and the Duke of Northumberland (we had spotted his canals from the buses locally) – recommended the capital’s newest architect Robert Adam, who not only remodelled the exterior but paid intense attention to the details of the interior thus giving the nation a unique legacy of the range of his work.
Adam reduced the number of rooms and there are in fact only a few open to the public. Interestingly I had a guide book from the Nineties which indicated you could see some bedrooms on the second floor but today we followed a trail round the ‘piano nobile’ – a very posh, built-to-impress upper ground floor – and some of the ‘below stairs’ rooms. The park garden and café were all quite busy but inside the house there were only two visitors apart from ourselves. This meant the National Trust room stewards (in the US they would have been called ‘docents’) were keen to share their knowledge. To be fair they did point out details we might not have noticed or known – for example that the short column supporting a vase in the dining room concealed the chamber pot. Likewise in the state bedroom (already an outmoded addition when Adam designed it) contains the pot in the steps needed to climb into the bed.
The tour starts in the hall after you have climbed the significant number of stairs to reach the door through the ‘floating portico’, and arguably this is the most impressive and elegant of the rooms – the palette is quite muted but the detail in the plaster work intricate and absorbing. Jo found an overweight putti whose teeny wings would never have got him airborne... The trompe l’oeil friezes (much scope for misplacing your vowels there) either end over the fireplaces are impressively deceptive and the inlaid floor is both practical for those entering from outdoors and an exhibit in itself.
The next room is the ‘Eating Room’ – unusual for what is usually known in these circles as ‘dining’ but maybe they had abandoned the separate ‘breakfast room’ and just ‘slummed it’ in here? Again there is plenteous (sorry 18th century speak creeping in) pretty plaster work, this time against a pale green background – you can really see where Josiah Wedgewood found his inspiration.
Adam made sure his carpets were designed to echo his ceiling motifs which gave all the rooms a pleasing coherence. Adam's hand is in every item – pedestal, light – I expect he changed the window handles. The plaster work is designed around a range of pictures, mainly on mythological themes and chosen, one felt, because of the décor rather than any intrinsic impact.
No carpets in the Long Gallery but a good stretch of floor for exercise and running for children, we suspected. The pictures here are mainly ancestral and look out across the garden. Between the generously provided windows are a series of ivory carvings of intricate workmanship and ships – literally. Carved ivory has a wonderful lace like quality and one can still see the appeal of this now banned substance.
From the gallery you plunge into what I call ‘conservation gloom’ where the light levels are so low it’s a bit difficult to make out what you are looking out – necessary but sad especially when the decoration involves multiple tapestries.
Also underlit but much more visible is the State bedchamber – not that a royal visit was ever really anticipated and even less than royal guests to this room were few and far between (according to the steward, the lady of the house would bunk down here having given up her own bed to visitors) but it was a chance for Adam to design a bed – as tall as a double-decker (a fact these visitors will certainly retain) and needing steps to access it; the commode (as noted) hidden inside the steps.
The tour of this floor ends on the most dramatic note, as is usually the case, with the very unique ‘Etruscan Room’ lined with hand painted wall paper. The steward pointed out the small areas of ‘dirt’ left on each wall to indicate how grimy it had become before it was carefully cleaned.
Talking of cleaning, this was our cue to descend to the kitchens and domestic areas – spacious, stone flagged and pretty cold unless you were one of the cooks, we suspected. Such ovens as there are post-date Adam, who would not have been interested in where, as Jo calls them, the ‘lowly worms’ were working. We have come to suspect that the National Trust run a central ‘lending library’ of fake plaster food and you order in according to the season and period of the house... In what must have been the servants’ communal sitting room there was what looked like a football table but which proved to be a variant of ‘Devil Among the Tailors’ – a sort of table top skittles, whose history and rules are explained here. Though this was rather a handsome set the top proved too top-heavy to work – excusing the pun.
We left the house by the lower entrance apparently used by the family in bad weather.
The gardens today, even without much sun, were a real joy and offered a refreshing contrast to the artifice of much of the interior – always a risk giving a designer total free rein but it was good to be in nature as opposed to such a contrived environment. Not that the gardens are neglected in any way – far from it. You do not escape Adam totally for he provided the owners with a little summerhouse/conservatory which today held a combination of heady jasmines and citrus bushes in bloom.
We were very taken with the Paulownias, which looked quite exotic but are perhaps not as difficult to manage in the UK as all that and there were late tulips under their spread.
There is also a Winter garden which was ‘going over’ but with a good range of slightly tougher specimens, and from there if you choose you can enjoy a longer woodland walk which takes in more of the untamed property and walks you round the lake coming back to another good view of the house. We crept quietly round mother Swan preparing to rehearse her cygnets for the 'pas de quatre'.