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West Country Collections

"….Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!"
The World
William Wordsworth

In his poem Wordsworth was alluding to the materialism of the Industrial Revolution. The avid collectors at six West Country mansions would disagree strongly with his point of view. These collectors developed particular passions for specific things that spoke to their hearts, and money was no object to possessing them. For families who have the advantage of staying in the same home for generations, collections can accumulate over many lifetimes. Just ask the Chichesters of Arlington Court.

Arlington Court by Barbara Ballard Set in beautiful wooded country in Devon, the property was the seat of the Chichester family from 1385. The Neo-classical exterior of Arlington Court, built in 1822 for Colonel John Chichester, gives no clue to what’s inside—a plethora of collections. The articles mainly reflect the interests of Rosalie Chichester, who lived at Arlington Court from her birth in 1865 to her death in 1949. When she was a child, her father, Bruce Chichester, took her on two world cruises. (It is he who created the staircase hall and collected the yachting pictures on the walls.) Most of Rosalie’s acquisitions derived from interests developed during the cruises.

More than 100 ship models, pewter pieces, costumes, tea caddies, candle snuffers, paperweights, and shells found their way into the home. The Ante Room contains a notable collection of silver, English and Irish glass, and jade, soapstone and crystal animals. English and French porcelain and snuff boxes grace the White Drawing Room. There is an abundance of Regency and Victorian furniture. Rosalie’s favourite collectible is said to be a red amber elephant from China, prominently displayed in the White Drawing Room. The stable block holds an interesting collection of horse drawn carriages, ranging from Queen Victoria’s pony bath chair to an omnibus.

Rosalie also had a fascination with birds and kept canaries, budgerigars, and parrots. Her favourite parrot, Polly, was given the freedom of the house. She “collected” hobbies as well, dabbling in painting, plaster work, photography and gardening.

Cotehele House by Barbara Ballard In Cornwall, medieval Cotehele House—the original 13th century property was remodelled in the late 15th century—is another one-family home, that of the Edgcumbes, who lived here for 600 years. It first came into the family in 1353 as part of the dowry of Hilaria de Cotehele on marrying William Edgcumbe. The granite, sandstone and slate house, sited by the River Tamar, is ‘one of the least changed medieval houses in the country’, according to author Sir John Betjeman. This family, too, amassed a collection. Original tapestries—cut and sewn together to line the walls for warmth—and period furniture fill the rooms. Arms and armour decorate the walls of the Great Hall with its arched timber roof. 18th century pewter plates, mugs, and campaign chairs complete the picture. The most unusual item, dated 1489, is the oldest working domestic clock in England, powered by two 90-pound weights rather than a pendulum.

Kingston Lacey courtesy Risto Hurmalainen 17th century Kingston Lacy—it takes its name from the Lacys, Earls of Lincoln—houses a collection of paintings and Egyptian artifacts. In the 1630s the royal estate was purchased by a lawyer, John Bankes, best known for his connection with Corfe Castle. Unlike the Chichesters of Arlington House, he suffered from supporting the Royalists in the Civil War and lost his fortune. Fortunately, his son, Sir Ralph, also a lawyer, was able to keep the estate and construct a new family home. Originally built of brick and now faced with stone, the less-than-grand home still managed to bankrupt Sir Ralph. Though family fortunes rose and fell for the next 300 years, the Bankes maintained ownership of the house, which was remodelled in the 1780’s and later in 1830.

Born in 1786, William John Bankes, like Miss Chichester, was a traveller. He went on several European tours with his best friend, Lord Byron. His collections from his travels inspired him to restyle Kingston Lacy as an Italianate palazzo. The Spanish Room—it took almost 20 years to complete—with gilded leather walls and a coffered ceiling was designed especially to house Spanish paintings acquired during his travels. Other paintings, including works by Rubens, Titian, Lely, Reynolds, Brueghel and Van Dyke, hang throughout the home. Kingston Lacy is particularly noted for its 30-foot wide white Carrara marble staircase, enhanced with a collection of bronze statues. When travelling to Egypt and the Middle East, Bankes purchased Egyptian artefacts for the gardens—of particular note is a pink obelisk.

Knightshayes by Barbara Ballard The Victorian Gothic Knightshayes Court, in Devon, has a different sort of collection, one of décor rather than objects. It was built for John Heathcoat-Amory, a Member of Parliament for Tiverton and a lace-mill owner (the largest operation of its kind in the world in 1860), by architect William Burges in 1869. Burges, well known for his flamboyant style, proceeded to build in the medieval romantic style. However, Burges’s expenditures cost him his job. John D. Crace finished the work. Painted ceilings, friezes, and stenciled walls, wood panelling, carved corbels of men and animals, and architectural drawings abound. Leering gargoyles, quatrefoils and plate tracery enliven the scene still further. Family furniture, including a large painted bookcase in the stairwell, portraits, and 17th century majolica (glazed Italian ceramics) add to the treasures, along with paintings by Constable, Turner, and Rembrandt.

Montacute House by Barbara Ballard Set amidst the rolling Somerset countryside, Montacute House, built of honey-coloured Ham Hill stone, was once described as ‘the most beautiful Elizabethan house in England’. The home, starring in the film, Sense and Sensibility, was the property of Sir Edward Phelips, a politician and lawyer, best known as the opening lawyer for the prosecution in the trial of Guy Fawkes.

Like Knightshayes Court, there is a collection of decorative ornamental work: carved stone parapets, heraldic glass, plasterwork, decorated ceilings, ornate chimneypieces, and heraldic beasts looking down from the parapets. 100 Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits, including those of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr, Anne Boleyn, and the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I from the National Portrait Gallery’s collections, line the walls throughout the home. Many of the artists are unknown. The 172-foot Long Gallery houses 17th and 18th century furniture—hard times forced much of the original furniture to be sold after the Civil War. Of interest to all embroiderers is a collection of samplers—donated by Dr. Douglas Goodhart—dating from the 17th-20th centuries.

Mompesson House by Barbara Ballard Mompesson House, in Wiltshire, is a Queen Anne townhome, built in 1701, for Charles Mompesson. The house, also featured in Sense and Sensibility, is located in Salisbury Cathedral’s close. Like Knightshayes and Monacute, décor rules the day with Baroque plasterwork in the form of swags, cartouches, and scrolls. The house is noted for its 18th century Turnbull collection of drinking glasses. 370 different types of glass are shown in period cabinets with the earliest dating from 1700-45. Examples include glasses with air and opaque twist stems, and engravings or enameled glassware. Dutch flower paintings and part of the Bessemer Wright collection of English porcelain are displayed. Mezzotints and 17th century stumpwork (embroidery using a ‘tent’ stitch on a linen canvas) are found in the Green Room. 18th century mahogany furniture, Sevres and Coalport china, Derby and 18th century Bow porcelain figures add to the elegance of the collections. On view are photographs, watercolours, and diaries of the three Townsend daughters who lived here from the mid 19th century.

Thomas Carlyle said, “A person usually has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason”. Whatever the reason these West Country collectors had for amassing their treasures, we can be sure they gave their hearts to it. Thankfully, we can enjoy their passions today.

Visitor Information

Arlington Court
7 miles northeast of Barnstaple, on east side of A39
Open: house and garden open various months, days, and times; check National Trust website for exact details.
Tel. 0 1271 850 296

Cotehele
St Dominick near Saltash
Cornwall
Open: house and garden open various months, days, and times; check National Trust website for exact details.
Tel. 0 1579 351 346

Kingston Lacy
1 ½ miles northwest of Wimborne on the B3082
Wimborne Minster
Dorset
Open: house and garden open various months, days, and times; check National Trust website for exact details.
Tel. 0 1202 882 402

Knightshayes Court
Bolham, Tiverton, Devon
Open: house and garden open various months, days, and times; check National Trust website for exact details.
Tel. 0 1884 254 665

Montacute House
Montacute, Somerset
Open: house and garden open various months, days, and times; check National Trust website for exact details.
Tel. 0 1935 823 289

Mompesson House
The Close, Salisbury
Wiltshire
Open: mid March-end Oct, Sat-Wed, 11am-5pm; check National Trust website for exact details.
Tel. 0 1722 335 659

Photo of Kingston Lacey courtesy Risto Hurmalainen

National Trust website: National Trust

This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine.




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