I have just been perusing an advance copy of the book Ham House: 400 Years of Collecting and Patronage. The sale copies of this book are apparently somewhere on the high seas en route from the printer, and are due become available within the next a few weeks, but I thought I might provide a little preview here.
This book is the result of a conference held a couple of years ago about the history and collections of Ham House, one the best preserved 17th-century houses in Europe. It includes 28 essays by internationally recognised scholars accompanied by specially commissioned photography, as well as transcriptions of Ham’s historic inventories.
Ham is justly famous for its 17th-century interiors and has acquired the reputation of being a kind of ‘sleeping beauty’, a house where nothing ever changed. However, several essays in this book puncture that myth and focus on restorations and embellishments carried out by its 18th- and 19th-century owners.
Christopher Rowell, the National Trust’s furniture curator, discusses the taste and patronage of Lionel Tollemache, the 4th Earl of Dysart (1708-70), who inherited Ham in 1727. The 4th Earl repaired and remodeled a number of rooms in the house, and introduced new furniture, but Christopher demonstrates that he did so with great sensitivity to what was already there.
The 4th Earl commissioned cabinetmakers George Nix (1744-51) and William Bradshaw (1700-75), among others, to supply chairs, tables, stands and even tapestries. But the new acquisitions were designed to harmonise with the existing furnishings, or to function as facsimiles of items which had become damaged or worn out.
The subtlety of the 4th Earl’s contributions have almost caused him to be written out of Ham’s history.
Horace Walpole (171-97), who lived in nearby Twickenham, may have started that process by describing Ham, in his characteristically vivid and sweeping manner, as a house that time forgot: ‘Close to the Thames in the centre of all rich and verdant beauty, it is so blocked up an barricaded with walls, vast trees and gates that you think of yourself an hundred miles off and an hundred years back.’
I hope to do a few more posts highlighting aspects of this splendid new book in the near future.