The Major and the Colonel
Lindsay Want gets more than she bargained for on the Market Place in Lavenham as she discovers the ‘bazaar’ collections lurking within the wonderfully restored walls of half-timbered Little Hall
The fascinating story of Little Hall in Lavenham
“COME IN, come in – welcome!” encourages the voice of the shopkeeper from deep inside. Set amid a bright blaze of sun-scorched ochre, the doorway is dark, and there’s no real clue to what treasures might lie within. ‘Free entry to shop’ reassures a sign in the leaded window. ‘House & Garden Open’ suggests another. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” comes an internal whisper and without further ado, the necessary steps are taken.
Inside, there’s that ‘Mr Benn’ moment, as eyes finally accustom themselves to the relative lack of light, and suddenly, as if by magic, the shopkeeper appears. A brief exchange and crossing of palms with a few coins later, the rich and varied textiles of Lavenham’s Little Hall, woven by time and the travels, needs and aspirations of its former residents, slowly start to unfurl.
A TRULY RICH TAPESTRY
Architecturally, Little Hall is an amazing hall house of Tudor and even earlier origins. Set at the very heart of one of England’s most prosperous medieval wool towns, just across from the massively impressive Guildhall of Corpus Christi, it’s about as English as it comes, and hardly the most obvious candidate for the title of ‘Aladdin’s Cave’. But burrow through its dimly lit half-timbered passageways, in search of its most precious jewel – a truly awesome medieval crownpost roof – and as you wind your way past Persian panels and fragments of Kashmiri painted tiles, the idea certainly doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as some of its artefacts.
In the old Tudor buttery, an Egyptian cat has definitely creamed off the purrrfect spot, regally taking pride of place on a Queen Anne side table and surrounded by the leatherbound tomes of today’s little low-ceilinged library. Upstairs, a massive collection of huge Mediterranean travelling chests somehow look lost under the great pink slanting sails of ceiling on the upper deck of the ancient hall, all at sea on the waves of widest floorboards. And outside, near the little island of English knot garden, a classical head looks on, where swathes of colourful exotic fruits drip down the Della Robbia replica ceramic relief all the way from Florence. Without doubt, Little Hall’s treasures collected from far and wide are all placed to perfection, whether in the private chamber of the medieval ‘solar’ or in the ‘Well Room’, once a yard used for wool processing, they have somehow been
transported half-way across the world to a place where they can, through some sort of magic, still feel totally at home.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Ah, home. Now that’s a word with real resonance at a place like Little Hall – to the point in fact that it doesn’t seem quite right to call it a museum. On the door to the back courtyard a collection of old enamel numbers pile high to peer above the purple creeper in the humble hope of keeping the memories alive. Today, with its sand-coloured beams and sunny flower borders, it all seems like one bright oasis of rich heritage and unified beauty, but raw realities are only a flying carpet ride away back through time. Just
how did the original medieval building and its 17th century north wing look, carved up into six separate Victorian tenements? Was this beautiful place really once all casement windows and crumbs of pebble-dash façade, home to more than two dozen people? Up in the ‘dormitory’, it’s almost possible to imagine the wartime evacuees from Bethnal Green bedding down for the night under those smoke-blackened hall-house roof rafters. They left their names on the chest of drawers – and the privileged 1960s art students who enjoyed ‘the chance to get a feeling of graciousness in life’ here in what was likened to ‘a very miniature Oxford college’, left behind their artworks too.
Although no one lives here today, and the building resides with the Suffolk Building Preservation Trust for safe-keeping, Little Hall undeniably has a homely feel about it still. To explore its rambling passageways and discover its fascinating trove of treasures is like stepping into someone’s personal vision and love of the world. There’s a real spirit and presence about the place. So, who was the genie, or genius, who worked all the magic here?
TWO OF A KIND
“Actually there were two twin brothers, Colonel and Major Gayer-Anderson,” relates a knowledgeable smiling face. “In the 1920s, towards the end of their distinguished military careers and service abroad, they needed a base in England to retreat to. They were artists, historians and avid collectors. That’s what attracted them to Lavenham. Both were very interested in recreating timber-framed buildings, although the Major was mainly based in Cairo.” There’s a hush in the smartly set out dining room, beneath the curious collection of European stained glass and the mighty beams of a rich Tudor clothiers’ showroom. In the time of old cobbler Billie Bye you’d have almost heard a hobnail drop.
“The Colonel was a great craftsman,” continues the storyteller, pointing to a fine oak dresser by the doorway. Then almost as an after-thought: “The major became a renowned Egyptologist, you know. Even in the first official party to enter Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923.”
And so the threads of Little Hall’s rich tapestries reveal their true colours as they weave across the continents between the time-honoured trading centres of Cairo and Lavenham. The plot thickens. One twin turns
out to be Egyptian art dealer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, not to mention Kitchener, the Crown Prince of Sweden and Lawrence of Arabia. The other, an amazing master craftsman who, after a final tour of duty in India, did much of the renovation work in Lavenham, as well as casting a fine bronze replica of his brother’s famous found cat, which sits like it owns the place in the library.
Across the miles, the Major restored the ancient ‘House of the Cretan Lady’ in Cairo as his home, while the Colonel worked on Little Hall. Both are now ‘museums’ which celebrate their lives and their vision.
As he returned to Little Hall to see out his final years, the major delighted in the title of ‘Pasha’, bestowed upon him in 1942 by King Farouk. Meanwhile plans were mooted with Reginald Brill for Little Hall and its surroundings to inspire future generations of artists, and the Colonel helped to form the Lavenham Preservation Committee in 1944, which raised funds necessary for the National Trust to take on the mighty Guildhall. Celebrating the beauty of the past, yet always looking to inspire the future. There’s plenty to dwell on in Lavenham’s homely Little Hall, and a very special sort of spirit that’s well, pure magic.
Little Hall on Market Hill Lavenham
Memories of the tenements
The bronze cat
Volunteers at Little Hall, Lavenham
Stained glass in the corridor
The dormitory’s great medieval crown post
The knot garden
Art students’ memories of Little Hall and Lavenham
In the garden, Della Robia ceramics