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Subject: ‘Country House’

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Dr. Lettsom’s House at Grove Hill, Camberwell

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Historical articles, History, London, Plants on Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Dr. Lettsom's House, Grove Hill, picture, image, illustration
Dr. Lettsom's House, Grove Hill, Camberwell near London

Dr Lettsom was a prominent Quaker who bought some two acres of land on Grove Hill in Camberwell in 1779. The following year work began on his new house, a plain four-storey villa with a reasonably sized garden. He added considerably to the grounds over the next two years, which by 1792 had grown to ten acres. These were laid out with flowerbeds, tree-lined avenues, orchards, ponds, statuary and the all-important greenhouses; for Dr Lettsom was one of the most important botanists of the period. Our unusual picture shows a revealing view of the garden at the back of the house. New wings to Grove Hill contained a library and a museum, and as a plant collector and horticulturalist his knowledge of flora was so extensive that his garden became a famous attraction for the scientific and social elite of the day, and poets wrote verses about its beauties. Grove Hill house was demolished in the late nineteenth century.

Many more pictures relating to Camberwell can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Italian Renaissance architecture bore modest fruit in England

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Famous artists, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 6 February 2014

This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 544 published on 17 June 1972.

Monument of Henry VII, picture, image, illustration
Pietro Torrigiano's monument of King Henry VII and his Queen in Westminster Abbey; it has been called “the finest Renaissance tomb north of the Alps”

Henry V, victor of Agincourt, died in 1422 and in that same year they began the building of Manchester Cathedral, in the Perpendicular Gothic style. It was not finished for nearly 100 years, and was one of the last of the great medieval cathedrals to be put up in this country. Yet, before Manchester Cathedral was even begun, an event took place in far-off Florence that was to mark the beginning of the end of the Gothic style in architecture.

In 1420, Filippo Brunelleschi, a disappointed goldsmith turned architect, began to build a great dome over the uncompleted cathedral of Florence. The dome was not finished in his lifetime, but Brunelleschi took time off to do other architectural jobs around the city, notably a Foundling Hospital in which he put up a graceful colonnade of Composite columns in the old Roman manner.

This was a sensation. Outside of Roman ruins, no one had ever seen a Composite column; nor a Tuscan, Doric, Ionic or Corinthian column.

With Brunelleschi’s dome and his colonnade, the phenomenon of Renaissance architecture had started off with a bang.

It was quite a while before the reverberations of that bang reached the shores of England.

This Renaissance – which means “rebirth” – started off in literature with the writings of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. They revived interest in the works of Ancient Greece and Rome, and set the stage for a revolt against Gothic architecture, which had never been widely popular in Italy anyhow.

Among the great classical works that was rediscovered was the “treatise on Architecture” by Vitruvius, who lived in the time of the Emperor Augustus. It was Vitruvius’s book that laid down the rules for building in the grand old Roman manner. The book soon became a “must” for all Italian architects.

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Britain is a living museum of fine domestic architecture

Posted in Architecture, British Cities, British Countryside, British Towns, Country House, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 5 February 2014

This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 543 published on 10 June 1972.

Tudor house,  picture, image, illustration
The construction of a Tudor house by Peter Jackson

Pharaoh Cheops’s pyramid was built around 3733 BC. Five thousand years have gone by, but no one in Medieval Europe, or indeed in the whole of the known world, has come within shouting distance of rivalling that fabulous edifice in sheer size or in technical brilliance of construction. And when we think of Roman plumbing, with all the luxury of running hot and cold water, and compare it with the plumbing facilities in 13th century London, we well may pause to wonder what progress is all about.

However, most of the architecture we have examined so far has concerned buildings that were put up for purposes of religious worship, to flatter the ego of some tyrannical ruler, or as an expression of national pride in craftsmanship.

There was hardly any choice, for not much else remains for us to examine. The mud hovels of the labourers who built the pyramids have long since crumbled to sand, along with the superior mud mansions of their masters. There are the much-cobbled fragments of a few Roman villas dotted about Europe and the Middle East, there are the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but not much else to tell of the humble millions who made up the mighty empire that once owned the known world.

If human progress can be measured by the increasing tendency for quite ordinary people to build houses for themselves and their descendants that rivalled, in soundness and structure, the temples and churches of religion and the palaces of their rulers, then there was some forward progress by the Middle Ages. Plumbing or no plumbing.

And of all Europe we are particularly lucky, in these islands, to have so many of the smaller domestic medieval buildings surviving; most of them still lived in, and most of them regarded (as the estate agents say) as very desirable residences.

The Romans made little or no impact on the native domestic architecture of these islands. Their villas, with inner courts open to all weathers, did not commend themselves to the natives; nor were the natives beguiled by all that insistence on baths and plumbing.

The largest domestic unit in Medieval England was the manor house. Every small community had one. It was the home of the local landowner, and the centre of community life.

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Sandringham House epitomises homely Edwardian opulence

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 22 January 2014

This edited article about Sandringham House first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 522 published on 15 January 1972.

Sandringham drawing-room, picture, image, illustration
An old photograph shows a vast overmantel portrait of Alexandra, recessed in the even greater area of plaster with which the drawing-room is decorated, by Charles Latham

In the year 1863, while his mother, Queen Victoria, was miserably mourning the death of her husband, Prince Albert, at Osborne House in the Isle of Wight, the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, married one of the most beautiful Royal Princesses in Europe, the Princess Alexandra of Denmark, who was not only beautiful but benevolent. She was deeply in love with her jovial young husband – he was only twenty-two – and she instantly fell in love with the great Estate called Sandringham in Norfolk which was to be her home until she died there in 1925.

Sandringham Hall, as it was then called, with its thousands of acres of woodlands, farmland, ornamental grounds and marshlands full of wildfowl cost the Prince of Wales nearly a quarter of a million pounds. It was his own property, largely paid for out of saved revenue from the Duchy of Cornwall. It was, and has remained, the only private and unofficial royal residence in England – since, that is, Osborne House was given to the nation by Edward when he became King Edward the Seventh on the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 after a reign of over 63 years.

Sandringham is the family home of the Royal House of Windsor. For over a century Royal children have been born there; two Kings, Georges V and VI, and one Queen Consort – Alexandra – have died there. It was from a little room in Sandringham House that, in 1932, King George the Fifth (the best shot in Europe, it was said) made broadcasting history by giving his Christmas message to the nation and the Empire. In her delightful book about Sandringham, Helen Cathcart describes how the nervous Monarch’s first words before the microphone were, “God bless my soul.” His wicker chair had part-collapsed under him. The remark was not broadcast! Until very recently, when the Queen’s Christmas message has been pre-recorded in Buckingham Palace so that B.B.C. staff and engineers might be at home on Christmas Day with their families, every Royal Christmas message has gone forth from the very heart of the great family Christmas party which is just the epitome of this extraordinary great house in north Norfolk.

The Queen is thought not to love Sandringham with quite the same devotion as her forebears who, with the exception of Edward the Eighth who enjoyed only five days shooting on the Estate, have been infatuated with the place. And none has loved it more than its first royal owner, the gay, cigar-smoking, horse-racing, life-loving Edward, Prince of Wales whose home it was for forty-nine years, both before and after he became King.

Sandringham House replaced Sandringham Hall in 1870 when, high over the new porch, the Prince had carved the words: “This house was built by Albert Edward and Alexandra his wife in the year of our Lord 1870.”

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Osborne House was loved by Victoria and spurned by her son

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 22 January 2014

This edited article about Queen Victoria first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 521 published on 8 January 1972.

Victoria at Osborne, picture, image, illustration
Victoria and Albert at Osborne House

They called it “Her Majesty’s Marine Residence at Osborne.” The year of its completion in 1846, gave Queen Victoria and Albert, her Consort for six years, a refuge quite unique among Royal Residences. Albert, always a busy man who was ahead of his time, designed it “in the Italian Style,” helped by Thomas Cubitt, the greatest building contractor of his time. In a thousand acres upon the Isle of Wight, he built Osborne House, complete with two square towers, loggias and terraced gardens sweeping down to the Solent. Albert, stretching the imagination a bit, said that the view reminded him of the Bay of Naples. Queen Victoria herself could not imagine a prettier spot. “We have a charming beach quite to ourselves – we can walk anywhere without being followed or mobbed,” she remarked.

The implication that she was sometimes mobbed arose from her brief attempt to live with her beloved Albert at The Brighton Pavilion, seaside home of her Uncle, King George the Fourth. There were no grounds at Brighton. The common people practically pressed their noses against the windows, and Victoria and Albert had no privacy. Even worse, there were no nurseries there.

This last point was very important, for the royal couple already had four children when they moved into Osborne House, and five more were to come. Victoria and Albert needed nurseries in abundance, for there had to be room for the children to stretch their limbs and romp. As regards these little limbs, the parents had their chubby little arms and legs modelled in marble by a sculptress named Mary Thornycroft who had no shortage of regular work at Osborne. As soon as she had completed modelling the last limb, she was busy sculpting the older children as “The Seasons.” As she had no “season” for baby Princess Beatrice she sentimentally perched the pretty little tot in a seashell.

All these marble models are still part of the extraordinary family bric-a-brac which makes Osborne the greatest expression of well-to-do “Victoriana” in the world.

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Churchill’s ancestral home and birthplace was built for another national hero

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Famous battles, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

This edited article about Blenheim Palace originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

Blenheim Palace, picture, image, illustration
Blenheim Palace

“Here littleness is absorbed in grandeur, and prettiness in magnificence . . .” So, in 1806, wrote Dr. Mayor of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

Here at Blenheim, Winston Churchill was born, and here in the garden he proposed marriage.

Winston Churchill’s mother, when she was taken to Blenheim for the first time by her husband, Lord Randolph Churchill, tells us how she felt, when she wrote: “Randolph said, ‘This is the finest view in England.’ Looking at the lake, the bridge, the miles of magnificent park studded with old oaks, and the huge and stately Palace I confess I felt awed. But my American blood forbade the admission.”

Lady Randolph Churchill was not the first person to be awed by Blenheim Palace and its surroundings. Most visitors were – and still are. In 1724 Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe – wrote of Blenheim: “It requires the Royalty of a Sovereign to support an Equipage suitable to the Greatness of this Palace.”

The dream of the great Palace of Blenheim first existed in the mind of Queen Anne. She wished to create a noble Palace as a gift to John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, victor of many great battles, the most famous being Blenheim in 1704. The dream then became the great architect, John Vanbrugh’s, and finally Sarah Churchill’s, who was the first Duchess of Marlborough.

Queen Anne was a nervous woman, and needed the assurance of others. Her sister, Mary, who married William of Orange, was a very determined woman, and the two sisters had little in common.

Mary became Queen with her husband, William, and we always think of them together as “William and Mary”. They had no children, and when William died, after his Queen, Anne came to the throne of England. She was not beautiful, not haughty, not self-willed. She was happily married to Prince George of Denmark, and she had fifteen children, all of whom died in their early years.

It was Sarah Churchill who helped Queen Anne. She gave the Queen courage and firmness, and made the sad Queen laugh. And Sarah’s husband, John Churchill, brought England glory with his military victories.

So it was natural that Queen Anne dreamed that her hero, and the Nation’s hero, the Duke of Marlborough, and his Sarah, should have a mighty Palace.

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A mansion in the upper mall, Hammersmith, known as the Pavilion of Queen Katherine

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Historical articles, History, London on Thursday, 17 October 2013

Hammersmith mansion, picture, image, illustration
An ancient mansion in the upper mall, Hammersmith, said to have been the Pavilion of Queen Katherine

Catherine of Braganza lived in an old Tudor house in upper mall, Hammersmith which was probably demolished around 1804 by the new owner of a nearby mansion, Rivercourt House, who incorporated the land into his own small estate. The royal residence came to be known as the Dowager Queen’s House, and records reveal that the Queen made extensive alterations to the main building to accommodate her Portuguese courtiers and gentlewomen. The four-acre gardens were carefully redesigned and a “bay-tree house” and “green-house” built to add to the Queen’s comforts. The former was a delightful orangery and this picture of a pavilion is undoubtedly a view of that smaller building, sometimes also called a Banqueting House, located not far from the much larger riverside house, where the Queen lived in considerable luxury, oftentimes returning home in her barge and alighting at the riverside staircase to her own delightful Hammersmith palace.

Many more pictures relating to Hammersmith in London can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The eccentric Duke of Portland built a second stately home beneath Welbeck Abbey

Posted in Country House, Historical articles, History, Mystery on Wednesday, 9 October 2013

This edited article about the 5th Duke of Portland originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 421 published on 7 February 1970.

Underground Welbeck Abbey. picture, image, illustration
Gladstone described one of the Duke's underground roadways as one of the wonders of the world

There have been many reasons why men have made secret hiding places. But why the Fifth Duke of Portland built himself a “stately home” below his existing “stately home” at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire is a mystery. The Duke died in 1879. If he left a reason in some written statement as to why he behaved in such a strange way, then it must be a secret kept in the Bentinck family – Bentinck being the family name of the Dukes of Portland.

It has been suggested that the Fifth Duke led a “Jekyll-and-Hyde” life, and that while he was thought to be hidden in his underground country home, he was, in fact, leading an entirely different existence in London. If this were so, it has never been proved. But what does seem certain is that the Duke suffered from a disfiguring skin-disease – maybe a complaint in which daylight affected the skin – and for this reason alone he led his lonely underground life.

The Daily Chronicle gave this description of the Duke after his death:

“His personal attire was most extraordinary. He habitually wore a hat approaching two feet in height, which rested on an old-fashioned wig. He never stirred out, wet or fine, without a quaint old umbrella, and no matter how hot the weather might be, a loose coat was always slung over his arm. Most curious of all, whether the ground was dry or muddy, he invariably had his trousers tied round a few inches from the bottom with a piece of common string, in precisely the same fashion as a navvy at his work.”

He was a strange man who was less and less seen; a man who was one of the richest of his age; a man who employed, at one time, it is said, 15,000 men to build him his stately underground secret home, and to construct for him miles and miles of secret tunnels under his beautiful estate. For 18 years the building of these rooms, passages and tunnels went on, at a cost of £2 million.

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Paxton’s glasshouse at Chatsworth inspired his more famous Crystal Palace

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London, Plants, Royalty on Tuesday, 8 October 2013

This edited article about Joseph Paxton originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 420 published on 31 January 1970.

Crystal Palace, picture, image, illustration
Crystal Palace, The Grand Nave, London

Young Joseph Paxton was tired of being beaten day after day after day. He was sick of working from six in the morning until six at night on his brother William’s Bedfordshire farm, and of receiving no wages for his pains. He was bored with a diet of watery soup, dry bread, and the occasional “luxury” of turnips. So in 1815, when he was twelve-years-old, he decided to end his life of slavery, and to run away from home.

One night after he had gone to bed without any supper, he put on his only shirt and his only pair of ragged corduroy trousers, put the rest of his few belongings into a red, spotted handkerchief, and made his escape. He was a strong boy, willing to work for a good master; and for the next two months he went from farm to farm, getting a day’s work here, a night’s lodging there. Eventually, after being apprehended as a runaway, and refusing to return to his brother, he became a gardener’s boy at Battlesden Park, in Bedfordshire.

There Joseph worked for a wealthy aristocrat called Sir Gregory Page-Turner. He spent six years altogether tending to the garden, the greenhouse plants, and the many varieties of flowers. By 1821 he had learnt all that he could. If he wished to extend his skill and knowledge he would have to go to London – and so he applied for a gardening job with the Chiswick Horticultural Society.

To obtain the post he pretended to be a year older than he was, so that the officials would not look upon him as a mere youth. Helped by his apparent maturity and sound botanical grounding, he was soon made foreman of the creeping plants section.

Before long he began to yearn for something more challenging. He seriously considered going to America; but, just as he was about to leave, his work with the Horticultural Society brought him the offer of a new and more rewarding post. The gardens at Chiswick were near to a house owned by the Duke of Devonshire. For some time the Duke had admired Paxton’s work and after talking to the ambitious young man, and sounding out his ideas, he appointed him Head Gardener at Chatsworth, his large estate in Derbyshire.

As well as a starting salary of £70 a year, the post included a cottage in the kitchen gardens. Paxton had no hesitation in accepting the offer, and shortly after starting his duties he married the daughter of the housekeeper at Chatsworth.

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Nicholas Owen designed and built England’s smallest and most secret rooms

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Historical articles, History, Religion on Friday, 4 October 2013

This edited article about Nicholas Owen originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 418 published on 17 January 1970.

Priest hole, picture, image, illustration
During the reign of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, Nicholas Owen was responsible for building many hides or 'priest-holes' sanctuaries for hunted men

He was a little man with a limp – a man who spoke little – a man who was nicknamed “little John,” and “little Michael.” These are the only descriptions we have of a man who was perhaps of all, the greatest master builder of secret hiding places – Nicholas Owen.

Nicholas Owen lived in England at the turn of the 16th century. At that time prisons were full of men who did not accept the Protestant religion.

As a young man Nicholas Owen was not silent. He talked too loudly of his opinions on religious matters and found himself chained in a dungeon. He was released because he was considered of no importance, but after that experience Nicholas Owen became a silent man. The limp he got from an accident, maybe a fall from a horse. By trade he was a carpenter and mason.

He then became a lay-brother, and it was possible that Father Garnet discovered that this small, silent, limping carpenter and mason, who was acting as a servant to him, was a genius for building secret hiding places. Father Garnet in his writing says of him: “In the making of secret places he was so skilful, both to devise and frame them in the best manner, and his help therein was desired in very many places. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular. Some escaped, not once, but many times in several searches of the same house. . .”

However, it was not from Nicholas Owen that any of his hides were discovered. But after another arrest and an imprisonment in the Tower and again a release, as he was not considered important, he was finally identified as the man who made the escape of people possible by his skilful hides. He was arrested for the third time and tortured, but he never gave away the whereabouts of even one of his hides. He died in the Tower from results of these tortures.

A great many of his hides have never been discovered and must be still there where he made them, in many old houses. But we do know the whereabouts of some from letters and documents, and these have been discovered.

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