Chesterfield Walk, Blackheath
London SE10 8QX
Tuesday August 14th 2018
With Jo still busy being a grandparent Linda & Roger decided to tackle this (pretty local) attraction, most easily reachable by the 53 bus. We had been many years ago – it’s ideal for dark winter Sundays when there’s not much to do, though you need to be alert to its rather restricted opening times. Indeed until recently you could only visit via a booked, guided tour if at all but since July it has reverted to ‘free flow’ access. This we knew from the English Heritage person on duty, and accordingly their visitor numbers have increased. . Our guide book dated from 2002 and gave a much fuller life story for Julius Wernher than that now displayed.
Instead of conventional labelling, each room has several copies of detailed descriptions of that room’s selection from the many hundred items in the collection. Essentially it was a collection without a home, the previous residences of the Wernhers – Bath House in Mayfair and Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire – having both been demolished or otherwise disposed of.
On the other hand the Ranger’s House was a home without a collection. It was built as a kind of grace-and-favour residence for the ‘Ranger’, which in turn was an honorary position, nominally to oversee the Blackheath and Greenwich Parks but entailing very little real work. There had however been a few interesting post holders, so to speak, but essentially the House was empty when passed to English Heritage so they welcomed a collection which included furniture, pictures and artefacts.
The House was originally part of a much larger complex/estate named variously Brunswick House, Chesterfield House and Montagu House. Here you have a clue to one of the former ‘Rangers’, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield known for his abundant correspondence on all topics but especially letters to his (illegitimate) son containing generally sound and timeless advice , some of which you can find here.
Some of the letters are on show in the downstairs rooms where information boards include a few details about the other inhabitants of the house, several of them ‘minor royals’ including Prince Arthur during his time at Woolwich learning to be a soldier – a role his father had prepared him for at Osborne (isle of Wight) by building a toy fort. By the end of the 19th century there were no more Rangers and the house passed into public ownership (at one time serving as the changing rooms for the nearby tennis courts) passing through various hands from the London County Council eventually to English Heritage.
During the 1990s the Wernher Collection was looking for a home and was offered The Ranger’s House. Because it is essentially a private collection, the restrictions are various – no photos and the objects arranged in many cases much as they were in Julius’s time. The displays are fairly traditional so glass cabinets with numbered items and the text in blue binders.
(The pictures are from the EH website)
The other, largely unacknowledged, issue about this collection is its ‘bloody’ origins. Julius Wernher came from a middle class German Lutheran family in the Frankfurt area (ever the financial centre of the new Germany). He apprenticed to a bank there and moved to Paris briefly before being recalled for military service and a return to France as an ‘occupying soldier’ . Once free of the Army he moved to London and shortly thereafter, via a former Paris banking contact, was invited to go to South Africa to buy ‘raw diamonds’. Julius was to spend ten years in South Africa and he developed a real aptitude for spotting the purity and clarity of good gems, a skill he was later to use as he acquired the artefacts on display. Combined with his business skills and some knowledge of engineering (his father had been running the railways) he was soon a major share holder in the burgeoning diamond trade, based round Kimberley where there were also some gold seams.
Now of course we know that his fortune and much of the UK’s were based on the displacement/ occupation/ colonisation and death of many of South Africa’s original inhabitants and the industries and management left a legacy of continuing exploitation and apartheid. These were the infamous ‘Randlords’.
It also meant Wernher was one of the richest men in London and with wealth came marriage, family, social climbing and two grand houses and the ability and skill to collect, though another uncomfortable aspect of the collection (to modern eyes) is that two cabinets at least contain ivory works and artefacts made from rhino horn.
The visitor is directed upstairs where the first ‘Red’ Room is an echo of the drawing room from the Wernhers’ London home. The collection is grouped both chronologically and by type of artefact so a small side room is the jewellery vault with large intricate pieces with equally large precious stones – rubies and emeralds as presumably Julius regarded diamonds as ’work’ rather than pleasure.
Room 3 has a range of religious artefacts – small exquisitely carved ivory devotional objects. It was originally thought these were to convey the Bible’s stories to the illiterate but much more likely handy devotional (and very covetable) items for the wealthy.
Rooms 4 & 5 are my personal favourites as they have a really colourful display of small chiefly 15th century enamels mainly from Limoges. Clearly I am not alone in admiring these but will have to remain satisfied with admiring them in museums.
The same could be said of the Renaissance ceramics with those from the Iznik Pottery in Anatolia taking pride of place. More controversial (yes, yet more un PC exhibits!) are the couple of works from Palissy, a French Renaissance potter/craftsman. His colours and glazes have no equal but sadly the animals – mainly reptiles – that adorn his (only for ornament) plates were indeed harmed in the production as the link here explains. On the Italian side there are equally colourful works using myths and legends as their narrative base.
Staying with the Renaissance there is a room of smaller bronzes; downstairs is a more interesting bronze of St Sebastian shown in agony (?ecstasy) but without arrows.
After the rather intense experience of the upstairs displays you can go downstairs where the reception rooms retain some of the Wernhers’ furniture and pictures – there are some good pieces: a lovely Lippi and a rather dingy de Hooch alongside some other works from the Dutch Golden Age so a lovely Ruysdael . One room has four different clocks – you get the picture.
The long Gallery is an impressive space and is hung with some interesting Beauvais tapestries depicting scenes from the life of a Chinese Emperor (as imagined by Europeans) while the last room of the tour looks at the range of Rangers emphasizing Lord Chesterfield.
We approached by a sort of sideways drive but you can exit round the side and back into a rose garden. This area formed part of the previous larger residences of which there remains only the walls and a ceremonial bath with steps – this was the sort of bath we saw at Carshalton and was designed more for show than cleanliness, This one was the pride of Princess Caroline.
Unlike many houses nowadays little attention is paid to the role of the servants in keeping everything going ( ? and dusted) but one such is remembered out in the garden..
I may have given more reasons not to visit this property – that would be wrong as there are some gems. I suspect if English Heritage had full access to the collection they would display it differently and certainly offer a more child-friendly experience. As it is the visit will appeal to those who enjoy browsing the well-chosen beautifully crafted artefacts that serious money can buy in a calm and often uncrowded space.