‘Like the old house, but bet­ter’

Sy­den­ham House, Devon Home of Mr and Mrs Graeme Hart This out­stand­ing house has re­cently emerged from a ma­jor restora­tion fol­low­ing a dis­as­trous fire in 2012. De­spite the dam­age it sus­tained, it has lost none of its charm or in­ter­est– as Clive Aslet repo

Country Life Every Week - - Out & About: Chelsea Flower Show 2018 - Pho­to­graphs by Paul High­nam

One night in novem­ber 2012, Graeme Hart, an or­thopaedic sur­geon, re­ceived the call ev­ery home­owner dreads: his house was on fire. Both he and his wife, Hi­lary, were away and, by the time they reached west Devon, the blaze had turned the sky or­ange. no fewer than 98 fire­men were fight­ing it, their ef­forts watched and, where pos­si­ble, helped by a crowd of neigh­bours.

Flames ripped through the house, much of which was made of wood. It ap­peared that this an­cient and cel­e­brated property, largely dat­ing from the first half of the 17th cen­tury, had been lost—an­other vic­tim of the com­mon­est cause of coun­try-house dis­as­ters.

Five years on, it might seem as if a mir­a­cle had oc­curred. From the out­side, there is very lit­tle to show that Sy­den­ham had been in flames; the fresh­ness of the point­ing be­tween the mar­malade of lo­cal stones—buff, tawny and brown—is the ob­vi­ous clue, al­though a glance up­wards may show the in­formed eye that some of the chim­neys have been re­built.

In­side, the ef­fect is even more re­mark­able. Most of the sur­viv­ing wood­work in the house, the com­plete­ness of which was one of Sy­den­ham’s out­stand­ing fea­tures, is back in situ, richly oiled and re­freshed. As Mr Hart says: ‘It feels like the old house, but bet­ter.’

How has this been pos­si­ble? For­tu­nately, the cause of the fire had been a shav­ing mir­ror that di­rected the beams of a low au­tumn sun onto a cur­tain, with the con­se­quences any schoolchild who has ex­per­i­mented with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass will know well. This meant that flames broke out on the first floor.

On that floor, the fire was rel­a­tively con­tained and, al­though the roof was con­sumed, the gar­landed plas­ter ceil­ing over the stair­case brought down and the Queen Anne gallery de­stroyed, the rest of the house was not touched by the blaze it­self. As so of­ten, the great­est dam­age was caused by smoke and wa­ter, which left all the rooms in a sorry con­di­tion. Alas, the wine cel­lar was flooded.

The fire had also taken hold slowly enough to al­low fire­men and neigh­bours to re­move nearly all the im­por­tant con­tents from the house. They in­cluded a long oak re­fec­tory ta­ble from the hall and even the oak cab­i­nets from the kitchen, which had been made by Mrs Hart’s brother, David Prick­ett. Dur­ing restora­tion, they were all stored in nearby barns.

A de­bate took place over the sod­den pan­elling—was it bet­ter for it to dry where it stood or should it be moved to a cli­mate-con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment? The ap­pear­ance of mould quickly de­cided the mat­ter, so it was care­fully taken down, pho­tographed and an­no­tated. The pan­els were then re­moved to a restora­tion stu­dio, un­der the guid­ance of the Austin Newport Group, the spe­cial­ist his­toric-restora­tion con­sul­tants that man­aged the project. When the pan­elling was re­turned, it was dif­fi­cult to dis­cern the trauma that had oc­curred.

Traces of gold were found on the carved wyverns set un­der the eaves of the en­trance tower, so they were regilded: a fit­ting sym­bol of Sy­den­ham’s re­turn to splen­dour.

One sur­prise, on the first floor, was the dis­cov­ery of El­iz­a­bethan plas­ter­work, with Tu­dor roses, which had pre­vi­ously been left un­de­tected be­hind mid-17th-cen­tury pan­elling. This in­ci­dent en­cap­su­lates the build­ing his­tory of the house, most of which is com­pressed into the first 60 years of the 17th cen­tury.

Sy­den­ham is built on rock. Outcrops of it can be seen, ap­par­ently break­ing free of the low­est cour­ses of ma­sonry, at var­i­ous points around the house. There could hardly be a bet­ter foun­da­tion and, at some point be­fore 1600, it seems to have caught the eye of a mem­ber of the Wise fam­ily. Wa­ter was pro­vided by the youth­ful and sparkling River Lyd, a few yards from what are now Sy­den­ham’s gates, and, on the fur­ther bank, hang­ing woods rise steeply to of­fer shel­ter from the Devon winds.

Noth­ing is known about the shape of this early house, al­though some or all of it was in­cor­po­rated into the present build­ing, which was built in about 1600. In the course of the restora­tion work, it was found that carved stones from the bat­tle­ments and mul­lions of an ear­lier struc­ture had been built into Sy­den­ham’s chim­ney. How­ever, they may not have come from the pre-ex­ist­ing build­ing on this site; one pos­si­bil­ity is that they were

car­ried from one of the two cas­tles at nearby Lyd­ford when they were de­mol­ished.

The new Sy­den­ham, ei­ther late-el­iz­a­bethan or Ja­cobean, was built for Sir Thomas Wise. Knighted at the Corona­tion of James I, Sir Thomas was a vig­or­ous lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tor, who, for some years, rep­re­sented Bere Al­ston, where he had property, in Par­lia­ment (he was im­me­di­ately elected to seven leg­isla­tive com­mit­tees). In the 1590s, on the deaths of his fa­ther and elder brother, he in­her­ited a large es­tate, which he in­creased through mar­riage to a lo­cal heiress, Margery Stafford, seen rest­ing be­side her hus­band in the pair’s elab­o­rate tomb in Marys­tow church.

An­other money-mak­ing op­por­tu­nity came when a French prize ship en­tered Ply­mouth har­bour, an event that re­sulted in Sir Thomas be­ing sum­moned be­fore the Privy Coun­cil in 1622, al­though he was ex­on­er­ated from wrong-do­ing. Sir Thomas also built a se­cond seat out­side Ply­mouth called Mount Wise.

The old house at Sy­den­ham had faced south-west (Fig 4). As Arthur Os­wald de­scribes in Coun­try Life (June 28, 1956), Sir Thomas turned it about so that the en­trance court is now on the north-east side. This work in­volved mov­ing the fledg­ling River Lyd fur­ther from the house and cre­ated a sym­met­ri­cal E-form façade (Fig 3). Al­though the walls are built of lo­cal shale and rub­ble, the win­dow frames and mul­lions are of gran­ite, so hard to work that the mul­lions have a cylin­dri­cal shape.

The gables on this front are not stone at all, but wood that has been plas­tered and, dur­ing the post-fire restora­tion, scored to re­sem­ble ash­lar. In his Chrono­log­i­cal De­scrip­tion or Survey of the County of Devon (posthu­mously pub­lished in 1714), Sir Thomas’s con­tem­po­rary Tris­tram Ris­don de­scribes Sy­den­ham as ‘beau­ti­fied with build­ings of such height, as the very foun­da­tion is ready to reel un­der the bur­then’.

In­side, the chief glory of the pan­elling is found in the din­ing room (Fig 7), where the wood is in­cised with two se­ries of arabesques; the in­cised lines are filled with lead putty. When Sabine Bar­ing-gould, au­thor of more than 100 books, the writer of hymns such as On­ward Chris­tian Sol­diers, col­lec­tor of folk­songs, fa­ther of 14 chil­dren and the squire-vicar of nearby Lewtren­chard, vis­ited Sy­den­ham for Coun­try Life in 1915, the arabesques were vis­i­ble, but the in­lay dark­ened over the years. Now, the in­ci­sions have re­cap­tured their old bright­ness.

Up­stairs, the bed­room known as the King’s Room not only has its orig­i­nal pan­elling, but also Ja­cobean iron­work on the doors (Fig 5).

Sir Thomas’s son, Thomas, fol­lowed his fa­ther into Par­lia­ment, but he died in 1641. By the time his feck­less son, Ed­ward, came of age in 1653, Sy­den­ham had lived through the va­garies of the Civil War. That it did not suf­fer too rad­i­cally can be seen from the➢

quan­tity of Ja­cobean pan­elling that sur­vives; nev­er­the­less, Ed­ward, who had mar­ried Ara­bella St John when still a mi­nor, thought that some build­ing work was in or­der.

Ac­cord­ingly, es­ti­mates were pro­cured from a Mr Bat­ley for the ‘vallew of þe build­ing of my house at Sy­den­ham’ and ‘A guesse given by me what þe ma­te­ri­als will cost with all car­riage’. Un­for­tu­nately, to­gether with a love of build­ing, Ed­ward in­her­ited a debt of £3,000 from his fa­ther, so he de­cided against em­ploy­ing Bat­ley, find­ing it cheaper to do the work him­self.

This cam­paign saw the ad­di­tion of two in­ward-turn­ing bays to the pro­ject­ing wings of the en­trance court and the in­ser­tion of charm­ing Vene­tian win­dows, of the type as­so­ci­ated with the 16th-cen­tury Spar­row’s House in Ip­swich, Suffolk, made of leaded lights at the end of the two wings, on the first and se­cond floors. The Doric en­trance porch must also have been added at this time.

In 1659, the last year of the Com­mon­wealth, Sir Ed­ward be­came an MP. Pre­sum­ably sup­port­ing the Restora­tion, he was also re­turned to the Par­lia­ments of 1660 and 1661 and, in the lat­ter, he was knighted. How­ever, he made lit­tle con­tri­bu­tion to gov­ern­ment and even­tu­ally stopped at­tend­ing.

Per­haps he pre­ferred life at Sy­den­ham, where he cre­ated the pan­elled hall with its deep oriel re­cess (Fig 6), as well as, per­haps, the stair­case next to it. The com­ple­tion of this work was cel­e­brated by the hall fire­place, bear­ing the Wise arms im­pal­ing those of St John, in a ped­i­ment that is flanked by re­clin­ing fig­ures of Adam and Eve (Fig 1). Above it is the date 1656.

This over­man­tel—as well as the plas­ter­work over the up­per land­ing of the stair­case —has been tri­umphantly re­stored by Alan Lamb of Swan Farm Stu­dios, a vet­eran of the Up­park, Wind­sor and Hamp­ton Court post-fire

restora­tions. Made from cob cov­ered in moulded plas­ter, it had been bro­ken into some 200 pieces by the time plas­ter spe­cial­ist Sean Wheat­ley took it to the com­pany’s work­shop. Not only was it pos­si­ble to re­assem­ble the jig­saw, but anal­y­sis could be per­formed on the sur­viv­ing lay­ers of paint. This has en­abled the vi­brancy of the orig­i­nal colour scheme to be re­in­stated. Adam and Eve’s locks are no longer grey, but shin­ing gold, as they may have been in the Gar­den of Eden.

To Os­wald, the stair­case seemed to be late Ja­cobean rather than Cromwellian or Caro­line (Fig 2), but the plas­ter­work over the first-floor land­ing is un­doubt­edly from the mid 17th cen­tury. This ceil­ing col­lapsed com­pletely as a re­sult of the fire. In­cred­i­bly, Mr Wheat­ley was able to re­cover more than 70% of the orig­i­nal en­rich­ments. Gaps were filled by tak­ing sil­i­cone moulds of the two re­peat­ing el­e­ments of the de­sign, made up of fruits, berries and leaves. Us­ing these moulds, it was also pos­si­ble to re­pro­duce the dec­o­ra­tion above the main stair­case, com­plet­ing the scheme as Sir Ed­ward would surely have in­tended, but, for some rea­son, per­haps lack of funds, did not carry out.

If we avert our eyes from Philip Tilden’s Hol­ly­wood me­dieval­is­ing in the late 1930s, the last ma­jor in­ter­ven­tion made at Sy­den­ham be­fore the fire came at the turn of the 18th cen­tury. By then, Sir Ed­ward and his two sons had all died and his heir, Is­abella, had mar­ried into the Tre­mayne fam­ily of Col­la­combe. The Tre­maynes de­clared their ten­ure by erect­ing their crest of two arms hold­ing up a man’s head, wear­ing a high­crowned hat, over the en­trance gate.

The gallery, their prin­ci­pal achieve­ment in­side the house, could not be saved af­ter the fire. How­ever, it has been re­placed with new work, the qual­ity of which is a joy in it­self. The stables, built in the 1720s, were un­touched and the walls still sup­port a pear tree, whose adaman­tine fruit is unique to the house.

Were Bar­ing-gould to re­turn to Sy­den­ham, he would still find a house of ‘pic­turesque charm’, if, in some re­spects, rather less quaint­ness. Sy­den­ham’s ser­vices have all been re­newed. This has al­lowed the re­moval of a hated en­gine house on the side of the build­ing; heat is now pro­vided by a biomass boiler dis­creetly housed in an old barn some dis­tance from the house it­self.

To quote ar­chi­tect Aaron Brookes: ‘Sy­den­ham has stood for 400 years. We think we’ve put it on a sound foot­ing for the next 400.’

Fig 1: The hall with its re­stored fire­place. Adam and Eve re­cline upon the ped­i­ment

Fig 2: The main stair­case. Its ceil­ing col­lapsed in the fire, but has been re­con­structed

Fig 3: Sy­den­ham’s 17th-cen­tury façade is en­closed within a small fore­court. The pro­ject­ing wings and porch were added in the 1650s

Fig 4 above: The en­trance front to the old gabled house. Fig 5 be­low left: The King’s Room pre­serves its orig­i­nal pan­elling. Fig 6 be­low right: The oriel re­cess off the hall

Fig 7: Af­ter the fire, the 17th-cen­tury pan­elling in the din­ing room was re­moved and re­stored. Its in­laid dec­o­ra­tion is now leg­i­ble once more

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.