A sleep­ing beauty awakes

A house with a prime view of the Hen­ley Royal Re­gatta has un­der­gone a nine-year restora­tion. Clive Aslet re­ports

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Pho­to­graphs Paul High­nam

Mag­nif­i­cent House’, ‘fine as­sem­bly’ and ‘sure we are in London’: ac­cord­ing to Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys, these were the ex­pres­sions on guests’ lips dur­ing a party at faw­ley court in 1777. Vis­i­tors to the Hen­ley Royal Re­gatta will know it from the el­e­gant fish­ing lodge that James Wy­att built in the form of a tem­ple. ever since the Re­gatta be­gan in 1839, tem­ple is­land has marked the start of the course and, for many years, served as the Le­an­der en­clo­sure. the house it­self, a few strokes up­stream and con­nected to the river by a long-wa­ter (Fig 5), is less fa­mil­iar and Coun­try Life is vis­it­ing it for the first time, to cel­e­brate a nine-year cam­paign of restora­tion.

in its present form, faw­ley court is the cre­ation of one capt Wil­liam free­man, the son of col Wil­liam free­man. the colonel was one of the ear­li­est set­tlers on the West in­dian is­land of St Kitts, where he was granted 500 acres in 1628. Hav­ing cleared the land, he was able, by 1666, to build up an es­tate that boasted (ac­cord­ing to an in­ven­tory) a dwelling house, two sugar houses, re­finer­ies, mills, fur­naces, cool­ers, 260 sugar moulds, vine­gar houses and three in­digo vats, in ad­di­tion to at least 20 slaves and sundry an­i­mals.

that year, how­ever, the free­mans were dis­pos­sessed when St Kitts was seized by the french. capt free­man had al­ready set­tled on ne­vis, where he would own plan­ta­tions; he also ob­tained a large grant on the vol­canic is­land of Montser­rat. His for­tune was re­in­forced by a po­si­tion he se­cured with the Royal african com­pany, which he ad­vised on the mar­ket for slaves and took a com­mis­sion on sales.

then, in 1674 or 1675, he trans­ferred his op­er­a­tions to London. to mod­ern eyes, free­man’s ca­reer does not look at­trac­tive, but we know an ex­cep­tional amount about it, be­cause of the let­ter books that he kept from 1678 to 1685, edited by David Han­cock and pub­lished by the London Record So­ci­ety in 2002.

the 686 let­ters that they con­tain pro­vide a rare and vivid in­sight into the world of a London agent, whose work com­bined that of a ‘seller, ship­per, buyer, gov­er­nor, mar­riage coun­sel­lor, teacher, care­taker, wine ste­ward, out­fit­ter, ac­coun­tant, banker, funds-man­ager, and money-lender’ for friends, re­la­tions and busi­ness con­tacts in the West indies.

By Septem­ber 8, 1683, free­man had had enough. On that day, at the end of a long busi­ness let­ter to thomas Hill, Deputy gov­er­nor of St. Kitts, he sought to be ex­cused for hav­ing ne­glected his cor­re­spon­dence, on the grounds that he had ‘lately pur­chased a small seate 30 miles from London on the theames neare Henly where i now spend most of my time in or­der to the set­tlinge of my­selfe, beinge re­solved to with­draw from London’.

although only in his late thir­ties, he had been suf­fer­ing from ‘hott rumes’ and in­cip­i­ent blind­ness. a busi­ness con­tact on Montser­rat was asked to send cedar and lo­cust­wood for use as ‘wen­scott’. the old faw­ley court, a Ja­cobean build­ing, was de­mol­ished.

the new man­sion, on a nearby site, is con­fi­dently de­scribed as ‘one of the few coun­try houses de­signed by Wren’ by Oliver Hill and John corn­forth in the caro­line vol­ume of the ‘english coun­try Houses’ se­ries (1966). Wren’s do­mes­tic ar­chi­tec­ture is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to pin down and the first ref­er­ence to Wren at faw­ley is in 1797, when thomas Lan­g­ley pub­lished The His­tory and An­tiq­ui­ties of the Hun­dred of Des­bor­ough.

What can be said, how­ever, is that faw­ley arose at a time of con­fi­dence for the coun­try house and de­vel­op­ing ideas. eng­land had got over the dis­lo­ca­tion of the civil War and overseas trade and com­mer­cial pros­per­ity were ris­ing, with the re­sult that (as charles Saumarez Smith has shown) twice as many coun­try houses were be­gun in the 1680s than in the pre­vi­ous decade.

Fig 1: The house, as­so­ci­ated with Wren, was re­worked by James Wy­att in the 1770s and Pa­ley and Austin in the Vic­to­rian pe­riod

‘Faw­ley arose at a time of con­fi­dence for the coun­try house and de­vel­op­ing ideas’

Sev­eral of these, like Faw­ley, are on the com­pact, square model that emerged un­der the Com­mon­wealth in Thorpe Hall, was con­tin­ued in Mel­ton Con­sta­ble and reached per­fec­tion in Winslow Hall and Nether Lyp­i­att; Wren was prob­a­bly the ar­chi­tect of Winslow as well as Tring Manor.

Faw­ley’s con­san­guin­ity with this group is less ob­vi­ous now than for­merly, be­cause the mul­lion win­dows were re­placed with sashes in the 18th cen­tury and the dorm­ers al­tered by James Wy­att in the 1770s (Fig 1). How­ever, there is noth­ing sur­pris­ing in the client. The new house form suited mer­can­tile as­pi­ra­tions, as can be seen from Hon­ing­ton Hall, in War­wick­shire; its builder, Henry Parker, had in­her­ited a for­tune made from trad­ing with the Le­vant.

Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est is Eye Manor in Here­ford­shire, a house just five bays across, but with a rich in­te­rior: the owner, Fer­di­nando Gorges, known as the King of the Black Mar­ket, was an­other slave trader, this time from Bar­ba­dos. Many of these houses, in­clud­ing Faw­ley, were built of red brick.

The plan of Faw­ley is sym­met­ri­cal, with an en­trance hall to the west (Fig 3) and a sa­loon to the east (Fig 2) of the ground floor be­ing bal­anced by wings of three rooms each on ei­ther side, pro­ject­ing slightly; the stair­case, with bar­ley-sugar balus­ters, oc­cu­pies the south-west cor­ner. The of­fices were con­tained in base­ment vaults.

To­day, the star of the in­te­rior is the sump­tu­ous ceil­ing to the sa­loon, a joy­ful ex­plo­sion of fo­liage, fruit and birdlife, as well as a bat in a car­touche and the arms of Free­man and his wife, El­iz­a­beth Bax­ter (Fig 4). This ap­pears not to have been in place for Wil­liam III’S un­ex­pected visit: the date is 1690. A hint of what the dec­o­ra­tion may have been like in one of the up­stairs rooms ex­ists in a se­ries of mar­ble pan­els.

Free­man died in 1707, be­queath­ing El­iz­a­beth £300 a year for life as well as plate, jew­els and ‘my best coach and pair of horses’. His nat­u­ral son Wil­liam, ‘an in­fant at nurse’, got £30 a year and the rest went to his nephew John Cooke, on con­di­tion he took the name of Free­man. This John Free­man, as we should now call him, oc­cu­pies an in­ter­est­ing po­si­tion in the his­tory of taste for the flint­work grotto that he built be­tween Faw­ley Court and the Thames.

Fin­ished in 1732, it is cred­ited with be­ing the ear­li­est Goth­ick folly to evoke a ru­ined abbey or church (Fig 7). This is all the more re­mark­able, given that the in­spi­ra­tion was a visit to Cu­per’s Gar­dens, Lam­beth, that Free­man made with his friend Ed­mund Waller, a grand­son of the poet, in about 1719.

Twenty-seven years ear­lier, the Duke of Nor­folk gave a bat­tered rem­nant of the Arun­del Mar­bles to a for­mer fam­ily ser­vant called Boy­der Cu­per—it was he who founded the gar­dens and needed or­na­ments for it. In 1719, John Aubrey’s post­hu­mous Nat­u­ral

His­tory and An­tiq­ui­ties of Sur­rey lamented the ‘very ill us­age’ they re­ceived from be­ing ex­posed to ‘the open Air, and Folly of Passersby’. Free­man and Waller bought the stat­ues for £75 and made a divi­sion be­tween them.

Those in Free­man’s half were dis­played (still in the open air) on his folly, where some re­mained un­til the 1980s. The much-de­cayed Arun­del Homer was ac­quired by the Ash­molean Mu­seum (Michael Vick­ers’s ‘Man­gled

Stat­ues from Perg­a­mon,’ Coun­try Life ,➢

Novem­ber 13, 1986). A stone in the base­ment of Faw­ley de­clares that Free­man’s build­ing work—un­spec­i­fied in the man­sion it­self—was un­der­taken to give the poor em­ploy­ment (Fig 8).

In 1771, Free­man’s son, Sam­brooke, be­came one of James Wy­att’s ear­li­est coun­try-house clients, em­ploy­ing him to re­model the house and build the Tem­ple. Wy­att was only 24, but the brief was com­pre­hen­sive and the bud­get large: £8,000. As John Martin Robin­son de­scribes in James Wy­att, Ar­chi­tect to

Ge­orge III, al­most ev­ery room was trans­formed. Ac­cord­ing to the di­arist Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys, the ‘very fine old stucco’ sa­loon ceil­ing was spared be­cause ‘Mr Free­man thought [it] too good to be de­stroyed’, but even that was im­proved with a new cen­tral panel of stucco—a neo-clas­si­cal pat­tern of vine leaves and thyrsi or Bac­chic staves (pre­sum­ably to re­place a paint­ing).

Parts of the Wy­att scheme sur­vive, such as the draw­ing-room ceil­ing in an un­ex­pect­edly sharp pal­ette of yel­low, pink and green. Ac­cord­ing to Mrs Lybbe Powys, the walls of this room were hung with striped crim­son da­mask: it was just be­com­ing fash­ion­able to hang pic­tures against stripes.

The book­cases of the li­brary stand be­hind a screen of scagli­ola col­umns (Fig 6)— a favourite Wy­att de­vice—and the break­fast par­lour con­tained more cases, this time for Free­man’s col­lec­tion of cu­riosi­ties. A re­lief from this rich fare was pro­vided by the eat­ing room, dec­o­rated in ‘a Quaker brown… I al­most pre­fer this to any room at Faw­ley Court’.

Up­stairs, the late Mrs Free­man’s ‘ladies’ work’ was on dis­play in the best room, which Mrs Lybbe Powys judged ‘pe­cu­liarly fine… The dress­ing-room to this is pret­tier than ’tis pos­si­ble to imag­ine, the most cu­ri­ous In­dia pa­per as birds, flow­ers, &c., on a pea­green pa­per’.

Fur­ther notes of proto-re­gency ex­oti­cism were added by bed­rooms in the Chi­nese and

even Per­sian tastes (Henrietta Mccall’s ‘The Per­sian Rooms at Faw­ley Court’ in ‘The Burlington Magazine’, Jan­uary 2011). How­ever, one of Faw­ley’s most re­mark­able rooms does not lie in the house but in the Tem­ple. ‘Or­na­mented in a very ex­pen­sive man­ner’, it is the ear­li­est known ex­am­ple of the Etr­uscan style in dec­o­ra­tion, de­rived from the plates in Sir Wil­liam Hamilton’s Col­lec­tion of

En­grav­ings of An­cient Vases, pub­lished in 1766 and 1770, and Josiah Wedg­wood’s Etr­uscan wares, be­ing man­u­fac­tured from 1768.

By 1777, Free­man had mar­ried again and could throw a party for 92 peo­ple, with card games, the ‘fine wines’ for which ‘Free­man is al­ways fa­mous’, hot­house fruits and ‘ev­ery­thing in the con­fec­tionary way… ev­ery­thing,’ noted a re­plete Mrs Lybbe Powys, ‘con­ducted with great ease—no bus­tle’.

An im­age of Faw­ley Court in the early 19th cen­tury sur­vives in J. P. Neale’s Views of

Seats, 1823: nestling in a land­scape de­signed by Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown, as boats and swans drift serenely past, the house was now stuc­coed —the red of the brick walls would cer­tainly have been too bright an ac­cent for Brown

(Fig 9). The stucco was re­moved dur­ing a cam-

paign of work for a Vic­to­rian owner, Wil­liam Macken­zie, by, strangely, the Lan­cashire church ar­chi­tect Pa­ley and Austin, which in­cluded a new ser­vice wing (Fig 10).

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World, Faw­ley be­came a train­ing school for the wire­less op­er­a­tors of the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive, who shared the house with 300 cab­i­nets from the en­to­mo­log­i­cal depart­ment of the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum as well as var­i­ous mem­bers of staff. In 1952, it came into the hands of the Mar­ian Fa­thers, who ran it as a Catholic board­ing school for the Pol­ish com­mu­nity.

There was, how­ever, al­most a pre­des­ti­na­tion in Faw­ley’s at­trac­tion for its new owner of Ira­nian her­itage. Although the fit­tings of the Per­sian bed­room were dis­persed, along with the rest of the Wy­att fur­ni­ture at Faw­ley, in 1952, some­thing must have spo­ken to her. The house has not only been re­stored and dec­o­rated as a pri­vate home in a man­ner as bold as Wy­att’s, but the strik­ing church of St Anne, built by the Pol­ish ar­chi­tect Wladis­law Tadeusz Je­orge Jarosz us­ing im­mense struc­tural tim­bers, has been con­verted to a con­cert hall and event space.

Af­ter half a cen­tury of un­cer­tainty, Faw­ley Court has re­cov­ered the con­fi­dence it had when the Re­gatta was first launched from the Tem­ple.

Fig 3 left: The en­trance hall. Fig 4 be­low: Cor­ner of the sa­loon ceil­ing. Fig 5 fac­ing page: A view through to the Thames

Fig 2: The Sa­loon, with the ‘very fine old stucco’ ceil­ing that Wy­att’s client thought ‘too good to be de­stroyed’

Fig 6 above: The li­brary with medal­lions at­trib­uted to Anne Sey­mour Damer, a gen­eral’s daugh­ter who de­vel­oped an artis­tic ca­reer af­ter her di­vorce. Fig 7 be­low: Flint­work in the folly that used to dis­play some of the Arun­del Mar­bles. Fig 8 bot­tom: Plaque declar­ing that John Free­man’s build­ing work gave em­ploy­ment to the poor

Fig 9 above: Faw­ley at the end of the or­na­men­tal canal lead­ing to the Thames. Fig 10 be­low: An­i­mal heads in the link to Pa­ley and Austin’s wing

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