Richmond, TW10 7RS
Friday July 7 2017
(This entry guest/ghost-written by ’63 Regular’ as Linda was busy.)
Ham House was an easy add-on to our visit to the Richmond Museum – all it took was a pleasant mile or so’s almost entirely car-free stroll along the river on a path offering views of passing boats and a wide choice of benches for lunchtime sandwiches. The planes, of course, flew over continuously but we were able to forgive even them on a beautifully sunny day.
Arriving this way your approach to Ham House is impressive: a stately 17th Century red brick façade behind a garden courtyard featuring hedges and topiary cones and cylinders of box (smelling wonderful in the sun), a plethora of carved pineapples and classical busts and a Coade-stone statue of Father Thames.
The house is surrounded by gardens. To the left (as you look at the front) is the formally laid-out but rather misleadingly named Cherry Garden, which is actually given over almost entirely to lavenders and santolina; to the right the kitchen gardens, orchard etc, and behind the house an expanse of lawns and a ‘wilderness’ which is again a bit of a misnomer given that it is very neatly divided by hedges into a Union Jack pattern…
Ham House was originally built in 1610 on land leased from the royal family by Sir Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshal to James I, for whom the river would have made a pleasant commuter route to work at court whether in London, Windsor, Richmond or Hampton Court. After Vavasour died in 1620, the house went briefly to another tenant but in 1626 the house was leased by William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart, and by dint of some very astute politicking, inheritance and marriage management and general wheeler-dealering (not least through the difficult period of the Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration) Ham thereafter remained a Dysart family property through no fewer than nine Earls and Countesses – a confusingly large number of them called Lionel or Elizabeth – until it was donated to the National Trust in 1948. An early example of a useful marriage was that between a Dysart heiress and the Duke of Lauderdale, who served a stint as Charles II’s Secretary of State for Scotland and was the ‘L’ in the King’s 'CABAL' kitchen cabinet.
Lauderdale apart, the family seems not to have made a conspicuous contribution to ‘public service’ in any of the traditional aristocratic forms – government, military or religious – but its history does throw up some spectacular alternations of wealth and debt, large broods of children and childlessness, lavish restoration of the house (the Duke and Duchess created several of the rooms you now see at Ham) and near total neglect, and hospitality and reclusiveness, all of which you can read about in the guide book or here.
We found the house itself imposing rather than inviting – the need to keep light levels low to protect the old panelling, tapestries, inlaid floors and leather wall coverings unfortunately make it all rather gloomy and there was nothing above stairs that encouraged you to think of it as a home where a family might actually have enjoyed living. In this reaction, we seem to be echoing Horace Walpole, who visited the house in 1770 after one of his nieces married into the family. Even that well-known lover of things Gothic(k) found it all a bit much: “The old furniture is so magnificently ancient, dreary and decayed, that at every step one’s spirits sink, and all my passion for antiquity could not keep them up.” In the care of the National Trust, ‘decayed’ is no longer fair, but we wouldn’t argue too much with ‘ancient’ and ‘dreary’.
Visitors enter by the old main entrance, straight into the Great Hall which has an unusual first floor gallery and a fine black and white marble floor. Pausing for the very dark (even by Ham standards) chapel, you come to the splendid Great Staircase with impressive wood carving and plasterwork, an action-packed painting of the Battle of Lepanto and a number of ‘after-Titian’ type pictures.
From the top of the stairs, you go back through the Hall at Gallery level, with many family portraits, into the North Drawing Room and then into the Long Gallery which is not actually as long as some we have seen but still provides hanging space for several more family portraits by Lely and others. Opening off the Long Gallery is the Green Closet – a rare example of a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ surviving from before the Civil War when such showcases for treasured knickknacks were all the rage. This one has many miniatures, and a 1630s ceiling which (the room guide was careful to tell us) was not decorated in situ but was actually made up of paper panels stuck to the ceiling after they had been painted.
Diagonally across the Long Gallery is the ‘new’ Library, constructed in the early 1670s: a pleasant working room rather than one for socialising or showing off (although the books on the shelves are not original to the house). The room guide pointed out that cedar wood darkens with age, so the room would have been lighter when built; he also pointed out some of the ‘unknowns’ on the 18th Century globe.
The highlight of this first floor, back on the Green Closet side, is a suite of Versailles-style State Apartments (Antechamber, Bed Chamber and Closet) built to entice visits from Charles II’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza. You visit in a brief guide-led tour. The rooms have spent much of the time since their installation shut off from the rest of the house, and are in excellent condition, with parquet floors, tapestry hung walls, decorated ceilings and fireplaces and grand furniture, though the state bed itself is no longer present.
Returning to the ground floor, you can view a majestic WC installed under the Great Staircase, with a wash basin offering three taps (‘soft’ in addition to the usual H&C) before you go on to the suite of apartments for the Duke and Duchess, each of whom originally had a similar set of rooms as in the Queen’s Apartment upstairs, arranged either side of the Marble Dining Room. The Duchess very soon swapped bedrooms with the Duke so she could have easier access to a bathroom she installed in the basement, though they seem otherwise to have hung on to their own designated closets etc, which cannot have been convenient. The Duchess’s original bedroom, later the Duke’s (keep up at the back) and subsequently a Drawing Room, is known as the Volury Room. No, we didn’t know what that meant either: it is not in our Collins dictionary and Google defaults to ‘Voluntary’ but it evidently has to do with birds, as the Duchess originally had birdcages installed outside her bedroom windows. Another confusing name is the Marble Dining Room, as the floor after which it was named (continuing the chequerboard pattern of the Hall) was later replaced by parquet, but it remains a fine room even if leather wall coverings are not to your taste.
From these apartments you pay a brief visit to a couple of rooms allocated to senior domestics and then out again into the daylight. Round the side of the house you can gain access to some of the below-stairs areas: a volunteer was demonstrating the preparation of herbal posies and potions in the Still Room, and the Kitchen and Cellars clearly provide scope for visiting school parties to unwind a bit. You can also visit the Duchess’s bathroom referred to earlier, a corrective to all our lazy assumptions about personal hygiene in the old days.
Out-buildings accommodate shops, café and loos, and lead into the gardens, which we enjoyed very much. Part of the Kitchen Garden is given over this year to growing the 35+ ingredients for a ‘Grand Salad’ that the website describes as ‘a 17th Century showstopper’ inspired by the writings of John Evelyn: you can get a taste (ho ho) of Evelyn’s thoughts on ‘Sallets’ in this other blog.
We had a bit of a wander through the Wilderness and also lingered in the so-called Cherry Garden, which is wonderful, though bee-lovers might think the determination to grow all those lavender and cotton lavender bushes as attractively coloured tufts of leaf rather than for their flowers is a bit unfair.
Personally, we would put Ham House in the ‘interesting rather than uplifting’ category of stately home, though we feel a bit guilty saying so, as the property is very well looked after and everyone we met – whether staff or volunteer – was helpful, efficient and enthusiastic. We still found plenty to look at, and the gardens (and the tea room) are a good way of raising your spirits after visiting he house.