Robert Beddard shows how a sumptuous mansion by the Thames became a hive of intrigue and activity for its Stuart courtier owners.
Ham House, situated on the River Thames, outside Richmond, in Surrey, is a house with a tale to tell. For three centuries it was the home of the Tollemache earls of Dysart, a title in the Scottish peerage. Since 1948 the house has been in the safekeeping of the National Trust, which in co-operation with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the guardian of its contents, has restored it to its former splendour. Set in the midst of its level lawns and peaceful gardens, Ham House presents itself today as an oasis of calm surrounded by the noisy, westward sprawl of the metropolis. Yet, its present cosetted tranquility belies its bustling past, for it was once a hive of activity – political, social and cultural.
The house holds a special fascination for students of Stuart politics and culture, for it is the courtier's house par excellence. Built by a courtier in the reign of James I, it remained a courtier's house well into the reign of his grandson, Charles II. Better than any other furnished mansion that has survived from the seventeenth century it conveys a sense of what life was like for those who were industrious and fortunate enough to work their way to the top of Stuart government and society. Moreover, it does this, not merely for one particular period of the seventeenth century, but repeatedly for the major part of it.
Unlike the Earl of Pembroke's, Wilton House, near Salisbury, which speaks to us exclusively of Charles I's reign, or Oliver St John's Thorpe Hall, in Northamptonshire, which relates completely to the Cromwellian interregnum, the building and decoration of Ham House span the eight decades from the 1610s to the 1680s. Through six occupants and three families Ham served as a home for a sequence of dedicated courtiers. Carved on the heavy front door is the builder's motto; it speaks eloquently for them all – vivat rex, long live the king! To step through its portals is to enter the extraordinarily privileged, intensely hierarchical, and increasingly sophisticated world of the Stuart court, where the names, reputations, and fortunes of men and women rose and fell with astonishing, and at times bewildering, rapidity.
Despite the efforts made by an older generation of disapproving historians to lessen the political stature and abilities of the Stuart monarchs and their ministers, and to exaggerate the importance of Parliament and the judiciary in the public life of the nation state, the royal court is now seen for what it always was: the nerve-centre of government, the fount of honour, the source of patronage, and the acknowledged spring from which all temporal blessing flowed. Throughout the center it exercised a powerful magnet pull, attracting men of ambition, talent, and culture into its orbit front home and abroad. A great deal of the recurrent instability that afflicted Stuart government - both before the Great Rebellion of 1642 and after the Restoration of 1660 - arose from the fact that there were too many, not too few, able men competing for high office. All too often it was the fate of princes to find that, in dispensing office, they created one grateful courtier and disappointed innumerable others.
The key to official advancement in the age of personal monarchy lay in obtaining physical access to the person of the monarch. Without it the acquisition and retention of royal favour was virtually impossible. In the ruling class the ideal of service to king and kingdom was bolstered by enlightened self-interest. While for some finer spirits the performance of one's duty to the crown was sufficient reward, for many it brought tangible rewards in the shape of wealth, titles and influence. Ham House is a standing monument to the successful pursuit of office. After the elapse of three hundred years, its unrivalled contents bear testimony to the massive material benefits that came from the attainment of high office under the Stuart kings.
Ham House began life as a comparatively modest building, which in the course of the century, and with changes of ownership, was gradually transformed into the sumptuous mansion we see today. Its complicated evolution is made much easier to understand if, at the outset, we recall that it had three main stages in its domestic and architectural history. Each chronological stage - the 1610s, 1630s, and 1670s - coincided with a particular occupant: a pointer, should one be necessary, to the supremely important role of the individual in history.
First, the original building was the work of Sir Thomas Vavasour, and reflects the preponderantly vernacular style of the early Jacobean period. Then came William Murray who embellished the interior in accordance with the taste of Charles I's court, in which Continental influences were to the fore. Finally, there was the substantial expansion of the house, and the completion of the state rooms, by the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale in the reign of the Francophile Charles II.
At each stage of its evolution Ham kept pace with the development of court culture, so that to study the fabric and furnishings of the house as a seventeenth-century document is to trace the transformation of royal and aristocratic ideas of polite living: a process which carried England further and further away from its roots in the Gothic, medieval past, and into the mainstream of European Renaissance culture. Ham House is, for all its apparent 'Englishness', hugely indebted not only to its later Scottish owner-occupiers, but also to the impact of foreign ideas, artists and craftsmen.
The house was built in 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshal to the recently installed Scottish James I and VI. He was the officer of the royal household charged with maintaining the good order and discipline of the court. He had judicial cognisance of any transgressions that occurred within the king's presence or verge of the court, a jurisdiction which extended over a twelve-mile radius from the royal palace. His official duties were such that he had always to be within call to take offenders into custody, and to make arrangements for their detention and diet during the king's pleasure. They included state prisoners, seminary priests, and idle Scots.
The scale on which Vavasour conceived the building of his new home reflected his middling position in the court hierarchy; just as the siting of it catered for the fundamental requirement of his post, which was constant attendance. The meadows bordering the Thames below Richmond Hill, then deep in the unspoilt Surrey countryside, afforded a suitable site for his residence. It was accessible to, and from, the already well-established string of pa4ces that lined the Thames, which in the seventeenth-century constituted an important ceremonial route for the barges of the king and nobles, as well as a mainline for the transport of livestock, commodities and provisions of all sorts.
The very nature of Vavasour's official 'policing' duties tied him to attend the court wherever it happened to be. Whether he chose to travel overland or by water, he was within easy reach of the royal palaces of Richmond, Whitehall and St James's, downstream, and of Windsor, upstream. Ham provided him with a convenient dwelling in the developing, early commuter belt of the appropriately named Home Counties, that encircled the capital, and stretched from nearby Syon, the cashiered Brigintine nunnery that served the Percy earls of Northumberland as their southern home, to Hatfield House, the magnificent residence of Robert Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury, in Hertfordshire.
Solidly constructed of red brick with stone dressings, Vavasour's house corresponded to his ample, but modest, income and needs. Not for him the stupendous, largely stone-built, spendthrift prodigy house of the kind that Lord Treasurer Salisbury, the greatest of the 'Jacobethan' courtiers, erected at Hatfield. The original appearance of Ham House, as recorded in the background of Alexander Marshall's portrait miniature of Catherine, Countess of Dysart, was that of a typical Jacobean mansion. It consisted of nine bays and three storeys, with a strong vertical emphasis to the North facade – an emphasis which derived from the projecting wings and shallow frontispiece, the abundant fenestration, and the breaking-up of the roof line. Although the elevation was symmetrical and well proportioned in the manner encouraged by a diffuse, but as yet inexact, appreciation of the principles of Renaissance architecture, it was innocent of the rigorous classicism of Palladio, which, with the return of Inigo Jones from Italy, was so soon to burst on the Jacobean court. Only the presence of the loggias, or 'Cloisters', with round-headed arches, flanking the entrance, and the deployment of columns and architrave around the doorway, furnish a hint of the approach of genuine classicism, based on a scholarly understanding of the buildings of ancient Rome that had been worked nut by the humanists of the Italian Renaissance.
Study of the floorplan of the house – always the most revealing method of opening up the vanished social life of a building – indicates a similar conservatism in the arrangement and use of rooms. The survival of the architect Robert Smythson's autograph plan, or 'Platforme of Sur Thomas Vavesir's house', c.1610, shows it to have been what is technically called 'a single pile': a building which is only one-room thick, so that the amount of external walling was extensive, and one room opened inconveniently into another, making warmth and privacy difficult to achieve.
Raised on a traditional H-plan, common in England since the early Tudor period, the house comprised a central block, with projecting wings placed at right-angles. Though the front door was centrally located on the outside, inside it was not, but led directly and awkwardly into one end of the Great Hall, which still functioned as the main apartment, as in a medieval house. The Great Stairs were positioned to one side of the house, and shut off from the Great Hall. Upstairs, on the first floor, were an Elizabethan-style Long Gallery and Great Chamber, rooms which were to go out of fashion as the century progressed. All the architectural signs point to Vavasour's having lived a rather old-fashioned existence, surrounded by his menial servants.
Far more up to date was the layout of the garden and orchard to the front of the house, which aped in a simplified form the latest French fashion. The design was severely geometrical, the plantings mirroring the symmetry of the facade. It followed a tripartite arrangement: a larger central rectangle, corresponding to the main block of the house, which was divided into four by bisecting paths; and to each side, corresponding to the wings, narrower rectangles, in which the beds were variously laid out, but always regularly. At the rear of the house there was an Inner Court giving access to the river, a Back Court containing the stables, and 'the Principall Garden', perhaps for growing produce for the family.
This was the house and garden which, after the short tenure of the Earl of Holderness, passed in 1626 into the possession, and in 1637 into the ownership of Charles I's Scottish favourite: William Murray, later Earl of Dysart. The son of the minister of Dysart, in Fife, Murray had been introduced as a boy into Charles' household by the prince's tutor, Thomas Murray, his uncle. There he served as Page and Whipping Boy to the young prince. It was his unenviable lot to bear the punishment whenever Charles misbehaved. From this unpromising relationship developed a lasting friendship between them, so that Murray became one of Charles' intimate companions.
It was as such that he waited on the prince and the Duke of Buckingham when, in 1623, they made their madcap visit to Madrid in pursuit of the Infanta's hand for the future king. While at the Spanish court Murray had the same opportunities as Charles and Buckingham to view the great collection of Renaissance masterpieces which Philip IV had inherited. Like them Murray responded to the dazzling achievements of European art, to the extent that, on his return to England, he became one of the White- hall group of connoisseurs and collectors who stimulated the sudden flowering of art at Charles I's court. His new post as Gentleman of the Bed-chamber and his confidential services to the king brought him a well-born wife, Ham House, and eventually, in 1643, a Scottish earldom.
Ham underwent a remarkable transformation in the late 1630s, as Murray and his wife, Catherine Bruce, embarked on an ambitious programme of refurbishment and decoration. It is doubtful whether the arriviste Murrays had the means to remodel the exterior. They wisely concentrated their money, knowledge, and energy on improving the interiors of the house. Between 1637 and 1639 they systematically applied the artistic standards of the Caroline court to their home, making it altogether more stately and refined.
Murray's alterations epitomised the latest style of decoration introduced by the architect, Inigo Jones, Surveyor of the Royal Works to James and Charles I. It is more than likely that he employed the naturalised foreigner, Francis Cleyn, principal designer of the Mortlake tapestry manufactory, to co-ordinate, if not design, the redecoration of Ham. A native of Rostock, Cleyn had come to England from the court of Christian IV of Den- mark, but only after he had acquired the fashionable vocabulary of Late Mannerism during his years of study in the Netherlands, Venice and Rome. A third-rate painter, he was generally content to copy the designs of more accomplished artists.
With the aid of Cleyn's expertise, and a team of able craftsmen, all of whom were capable of working in the Jonesian style, Murray created a spectacular sequence of state rooms on the first floor – now firmly designated the piano nobile for the reception of guests. Starting downstairs, he dramatised the focus of the Great Hall by adding a mantelpiece with standing figures of the classical deities, Mars and Minerva, attributed to Francesca Fanelli, the Florentine sculptor patronised in England by Charles I. Fanelli almost certainly cast the gilt-bronze mounts of the mantel, and the small scale bust of Catherine Murray which is still at Ham.
Having opened an archway to the foot of the stairs, Murray made the staircase into the splendid feature it is today. Rising to the roof, it has a most unusual carved balustrade. Instead a balusters or strapwork it has panel displaying military trophies. The woodwork of the balustrade, newel posts, and landing doors was grained to simulate figured walnut, and the detail of the carving highlighted in gold leaf.
The Great Stairs led to the Great Dining Room, North Drawing Room Long Gallery, and Green Closet which in varying degrees still retain their 1630s decoration. The Dining Room (the floor was cut away in about 1690 to form the present gallery above the Hall.) retains its fine geometrically conceived ceiling and attendant classical frieze and cornice the work of the plasterer, Joseph Kinsman. The Drawing Room also ha Kinsman's ceiling and frieze, which provides an effective contrast to the exceptionally ornate panelling and doorcases of the joiner, Thomas Carter. The carved panelling surrounding the marble fireplace has probably been moved from the Dining Room. The twisted half-columns, with their bands of putti scrambling through vines, are derived from Raphael's cartoon, 'The Healing of the Lame Man at the Temple Gate’: one of a series illustrating the acts of the Apostles, originally commissioned for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Palace, and bought for Charles at Genoa in 1623. Cleyn would have known the set from his work with the Mortlake weavers, whom Charles supported. The inset paintings of 'Naked Boys', above the mantel and doors, are from Cleyn's brush, and are executed in tempera on paper.
The Long Gallery was subjected to the novel discipline of the classical orders. Already panelled, the woodwork was recut, and twenty Ionic pilasters inserted at regular intervals, complete with pedestals and capitals, and topped by a frieze of laurel leaves and a classical cornice. The Green Closet, the last of Murray's rooms, was designed as a cabinet of rarities – mostly miniature portraits and small oil paintings, protected by case curtains when not being viewed. Cleyn's cove and ceiling paintings – perhaps redundant tapestry cartoons – remain. The subject matter is derived from the sixteenth-century Roman painter, Polidoro Caldara. The heavy gilt carving of scrolling acanthus and swags of 'frutage' is reminiscent of Wilton. Finished on the eve of the troubles which erupted into civil war, Murray's decorations were preserved by his daughter and heir, Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart in her own right. Having re-possessed Ham on the lifting of the Parliamentarian sequestration in 1651, she did little to the house during her marriage to Sir Lyonel Tollemache, of Helmingham Hall, Suffolk (1647-69).
Following Charles II's restoration and the raising of her children, the countess spent more time in London. A woman of beauty, wit and ambition, she ranked alongside the king's mistresses, Cleveland and Portsmouth, as one of the outstanding females at court. Rumour, which had, in the past, scandalously linked her to Cromwell, despite her loyal membership of the Sealed Knot, also made her the mistress of the Secretary of State for Scotland: John Maitland, 2nd Earl and 1st Duke of Lauderdale, whom in 1672 she belatedly married.
Lauderdale, the most uninterruptedly successful of Charles II's ministers, was the only one of the detested Cabal administration to survive the Anglican Cavalier takeover of the mid-1670s. A Royalist who had fought at Worcester in 1651. and had consequently endured nine years imprisonment in the Tower, he was valued for his ability to rule Scotland – a hotbed of faction. For much of the reign Viceroy of the Northern Kingdom, his monopoly of Scottish power gave him and his ravenously covetous wife opportunities to make money hand over fist. Moving from Highgate to Ham for the same reason that Vavasour and Murray had lived there – namely its proximity to the court – Lauderdale made it his main residence, though he had official lodgings in Whitehall, Windsor and Holyrood, a house in Westminster and Thirlestane Castle in Scotland.
In anticipation of her remarriage the countess put plans in hand for enlarging Ham, consulting her cousin, Sir William Bruce, who, as Surveyor of the Royal Works in Scotland, was soon to refashion Holyrood for Lauderdale. The duke commissioned the gentleman architect, William Samwell, to remodel the Gar- den Front. This he did by adding a new range, which closed the wings and turned the house into a more commodious 'double pile'. Samwell was an obvious choice for the job, having lately worked for the king at Newmarket, and for two of Lauderdale's colleagues in the Cabal – the 2nd Duke of Buckingham in the Royal Mews and Lord Arlington at Euston
The plan of the new range followed continental Baroque precedent. The private Dining Room occupied the central position on the ground floor, being sited on the same axis as the existing front door. The apartments of the duke and duchess were symmetrically disposed to each side, and decorated as rooms of parade, with an enfilade running the width of the house. On the first floor, as an addition to the state rooms, and in expectation of a visit from Charles II's consort, Queen Catherine of Braganza, the Queen's Bedchamber was similarly placed on the central axis, with an adjoining Ante-chamber and Closet. In this way Samwell contrived to locate the grandest rooms at the centre of the house, and therefore at the focal point of the updated, axially planned, formal garden. He had effected the perfect marriage of house and garden in the grand French manner exemplified at Versailles by Andre le Notre, Louis XIV's gardener.
Samwell's architectural triumph was matched by superlative interior decoration and opulent furnishings. Everything was in the height of court fashion, making Ham a paradigm of conspicuous consumption. For example, the Queen's Closet with its cyphered parquet, scagliola fireplace, carved alcove, brocaded satin hangings, Verrio ceiling painting, and reclining chairs was the last word in Restoration luxury and comfort. The survival of three, dated, household inventories, together with a large amount of original furniture, much of it imported, has facilitated an unusually scholarly recreation of the late seventeenth-century appearance of the rooms.
Since the destruction of Whitehall Palace by fire in 1698, and of Hugh May's State Apartments at Windsor by the Gothicising George IV, Ham is a unique reminder of the extravagance of Charles II's court, and of a period when, to quote John Evelyn, the 'politer way of living', which came in with the Restoration, 'passed into luxury and intolerable expense'. Himself a well travelled connoisseur of art and architecture, Evelyn pronounced the Lauderdales' house and garden 'inferior to few of the best villas in Italy', the house being 'furnished like a great prince's', and the grounds abounding with 'parterres, flower gardens, orangeries, fountains, aviaries', and statues. Ham is, without doubt, one of the best preserved and most historically informative of National Trust properties.
- P Thornton - 17th-century Interior Decoration in England, France & Holland (London, 1978)
- PK Thornton & MF Tomlin - The Furnihsing and Decoration of Ham House (Furniture History Society, 1980)
- RT Gunther - The Architecture of Sir Roger Pratt (Oxofrd UP, 1982).
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