In a friendly manor
Lindsay Want checks out Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich
“OF what use is wealth, if I may not use it?” question the learned Latin words carved in capitals above the garden door of the fine gabled mansion house. They’re dated 1550, so are most likely the musings of young Edmund Withypoll, master of the original Tudor hall built on the Holy Trinity Priory site that’s almost on top of medieval St Margaret’s.
Perhaps it’s more than just favour and good fortune which have preserved the inscription, alongside the classical columns, bombastic balustrade and 17th century swirls of the Christchurch Mansion façade that we know today. Step up to the front porch, dare to look inside. Christchurch Mansion is home to a real wealth of local and national treasures, beautifully displayed, lovingly looked after, right on the county town’s central doorstep. Wonderfully accessible and it’s all for free!
Christchurch Park and Mansion have been significant landmarks on the Ipswich horizon in some shape or form for over 500 years, owned primarily by just three families, the Withypolls, the Devereux and the Fonnereaus. But records as early as 1724 reveal a certain spirit of sharing about the place, with locals allowed to enjoy the private grounds and host county events – check out the mansion’s 19th century John Duval painting of the Suffolk Show held in the park.
But in 1892, Ipswich ratepayers didn’t love the place quite enough to part with £50,000 when William Neale Fonnereau sought to sell up to the Ipswich Corporation. With some of the land already being lost to development, Felix Cobbold of Ipswich brewing family fame, stepped in, presenting Christchurch Mansion to the town, on condition that its main structure ‘be preserved in its integrity’ and that the Ipswich Corporation purchase the remaining parkland. In 1896, the mansion opened its doors to the public as an archaeological museum, picture galleries and classroom for the Schools of Science and Art. 1903 saw the house restored and displayed as a museum, with friendly Felix bequeathing a generous trust fund for the purchase of
artworks. No wonder his portrait takes pride of place in the Great Hall.
More than just part of the Ipswich furniture Christchurch Mansion has been a museum for over a century, welcoming generations of visitors. It’s full of re-invention as well as stately splendour. Filled with fascinating bits and bobs in 16th century oak, 17th century walnut and 18th century mahogany, you’ll find it brimful of Suffolk and Ipswich furniture, from long case clocks to a collection of Mendlesham chairs, not to mention practically whole local housefuls of precious panelling accommodated in rooms especially added in the 1920s and 30s. Don’t miss the Wingfield panels, one of the first examples of Renaissance art in England, or the grand painted ‘over-mantle’ saved from the house of early Ipswich globetrotter, Thomas Eldred. Over the course of thirty-three – yes, that’s 33! – rooms, you can simply roll back time in awe of lavish Georgian wallpapers and Tudor oak cladding, or trace the roomy development of storage chests in all their carved and inlaid forms. Closet visitors can spend hours pouring
over Lady Drury’s outlandish devotional paintings on the 17th century Hawstead Panels, or you may find yourself simply standing and scratching your head in the library at the bizarre bellows incorporated into an ‘exercise’ chair, designed for ageing equestrians to relive their riding days.
Discover Christchurch Mansion with children and a walk in the park will truly never be the same again. Weave your way up the sweeping staircase, past portraits of the wise and wealthy who played their part in putting Ipswich on the map, and the wonders of bold Baroque vistas, Rococo drawing rooms and a bedroom fit for a king are soon brushed aside by the mesmerizing detail of dolls houses, tinplate toys, Victorian parlour games and long-loved, benevolent-looking bears. Mooch along the corridor to graze on morsels by Matisse, Renoir and Picasso. Or stay closer to home and entertain a trip on board the ‘Felixstowe to Ipswich Coach’ 1939-style, courtesy of Russell Sidney Reeve. Stand and
dream at Munnings’ ponies (‘Travellers’ 1910). You may even spot a Leonard Squirrell.
But when it comes to losing yourself with the locals, few experiences could be finer than finding yourself in Golding Constable’s Flower Garden or down in his nearby veg patch, whiling away a moment by the well-known Mill Stream, or fishing around Holywells Park courtesy of Thomas Gainsborough. The Mansion’s 1934 ground floor extension – the Wolsey Art Gallery – part-funded by a 400th anniversary pageant for the eminent Ipswich Cardinal – is home to the largest collection of Constables and Gainsboroughs outside London. Reached via a display of Lowestoft porcelain, it’s also the place to come literally face-to-face with John Constable, thanks to his distinctly creepy death mask. Visit this exhibition space soon and you’ll be greeted by heavenly faces with amazing tales to tell and fascinating local connections. Don’t miss Wolsey’s Angels – pop in on a special event day, you might even meet that ‘glorious peacock’ of a cardinal himself.
What makes Christchurch Mansion, this fine home of stately bed-knobs and broomsticks (did we mention the Tudor kitchen?!) so very special? Is it the building? The location? The local links or sheer scope of things to see?
“Yes, it’s all of those,” shares Denise Fiennes, vice-chair of the Friends of the Ipswich Museums (FoIM), which has played a significant unsung role in supporting the borough’s acquisitions, conservation and exhibitions at the mansion for over 80 years. “It’s a quality building and museum with lots to offer from decorative arts to pictures and costumes, that’s very involved with local names and social history. The 70 acre park sets it off fantastically well, of course too. But I love the entrance to Christchurch Mansion in particular – it’s such a crossroads.”
Ah, that chequer-floored hall, towering with awesome arcades and alcoves; leading off in all directions, through many periods of history; pointing the way to all sorts of discoveries. Stray from familiar parkland paths to arrive here and the stately threshold may still seem like a big step.
But if the Great Hall is in any way a crossroads into unexplored territories, then it is certainly not a daunting one. For the welcome from the knowledgeable museum assistants couldn’t be warmer. The free daily short tours led by Museum Friends couldn’t be, well, friendlier. And above all, you can feel that the place has a really special history – a history of being truly valued, shared and loved by locals past and present.
The library is one of 33 rooms waiting to be explored
The devotional paintings on the Hawstead panels