Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Beauty of Croome ~ Part Two

The House

Croome Court is built in ‘warm-coloured Bath ashlar’, a Palladian mansion with two flights of steps leading to the north front and a pedimented portico to the south flanked by Coade stone sphinxes.

North Front © Heather King

South Front © Heather King

Architecturally, it has eleven bays on each side, a basement and a balustrade to the upper floor. The roof is slate, being pyramidal over the corner pavilions, and has three sets of two chimneys. On both north (entrance) and south (garden) fronts, the central section has three bays, there being a broad sweep of steps to the south portico. The staircases on both sides are guarded by balustrades, the southern door having a cornice on consoles above. The north front has a Doric doorway beneath a smaller pediment and carries a heraldic cartouche by Adam. The corner towers on this side have piano nobile windows beneath their own pediments, while Venetian windows face the garden side. The southern tetrastyle (meaning four) portico boasts unfluted Ionic columns and confers a grand façade on the building. The two-storey Red Wing is attached to the house on the eastern side (shown to the right of the second photo) and has a newly renovated slate roof. Beyond the service wing, connected by a wall, lies the stables and stable courtyard, now used as holiday accommodation. The stables were open to the south, being enlarged and rebuilt by Brown circa 1752 from the original layout planned by Francis Smith in 1714 and erected in 1716-19. They were later rebuilt again by Adam, being also brick and with three pedimented entrance arches, stone-faced on the inside. Attached on the eastern side is a groom’s cottage dating from the mid to late eighteenth century. Both stables and house are Grade II listed. Private gardens are situated further to the east, as well as the Walled Kitchen Garden – seven acres, all told – of which more later.

Red Wing and Stable Courtyard, Stables on left © Heather King

The Stables and Coach-house Poster © NT Croome
Photo courtesy Morton S. Gray


With Croome’s chequered history, much of the interior has been lost, although the National Trust is working hard to restore it to its’ former glory. Many items have been returned to furnish the rooms they once graced. About a fifth of the original furnishings were retained by the Croome Estate Trust following an auction which took place in 1948. The rooms are of handsome rather than splendid dimensions, designed for practical use. The 6th Earl, according to Head Gardener William Dean, was given to saying to his friends, “Go to Blenheim for grandeur; but come to Croome for comfort!”

Capability Brown worked on the interior design, in association with Robert Adam from 1760. One suspects he took a more backward seat from that date. Plasterwork was executed by Francesco Vassalli, Robert Adam himself and Joseph Rose. Brown, it seems, was behind the more sober rooms, designing door-frames with straight tops, fine carving and fluted columns; deep, moulded cornices and elaborate chimneypieces – mostly in the Rococo style. He designed both the Entrance Hall, with its’ stuccoed ceiling supported by four fluted Doric columns, and the Saloon behind, reached by a pedimented doorway fronting a cross-corridor. The Saloon, decorated in gold, white and green, boasts a coved ceiling with three plain panels by Vasselli and a doorway with a broken pediment which is flanked by fluted Ionic fireplaces.

Looking through into the Entrance Hall © Heather King

Saloon Fireplace © Heather King

To the right of the Entrance Hall lies the Billiard Room, where once portraits adorned the walls and a huge table held centre stage. Nowadays it is used for a film introduction to Croome. A flight of stairs lead down to the Basement, where much-needed refreshments may be had in Kitty Fisher’s Coffee House. Kitty Fisher was the famous eighteenth century courtesan who was reputed to have had an affair with the 6th Earl of Coventry. There is also a line of lockers dating from the house’s years as a school, now holding a collection of footwear. Within the Basement were the Housekeeper’s Room, the Butler’s Pantry, the Silver Strong Room, the Wine and Dry Cellars and the Servants’ Hall. A doorway and stairs lead to the Red Wing.

Bypassing the stairs to these nether regions, the visitor passes into the Long Gallery, once known as the Statuary. It is a fine apartment, stretching the full width of the house and with a large bow window at the centre of the west wall. There are beautiful views across the park from here.

View from Long Gallery © Heather King

It is a bright, airy room and is Robert Adam’s masterpiece here. It was his first ever complete room design. Seventy feet long and twenty-five feet wide, the Long Gallery has an eye-catching elongated octagonal and lozenge design of plasterwork on the ceiling, as well as other moulding by Joseph Rose, and a beautiful white marble fireplace. During the 6th Earl’s time, it was used as a family/morning room and was filled with statues in the various niches set into three walls, mirrors and furniture.

Moulded ceiling by Joseph Rose, Long Gallery © Heather King

The Long Gallery © Heather King

Fireplace, Long Gallery, carved by Joseph Wilton

From the Long Gallery, the visitor moves on into the Yellow Drawing Room, where once were displayed a host of valuable paintings, both portraits, landscapes, the Madonna and two pictures of Cleopatra, among others. Two of the most treasured were full length portraits of King George III and His Consort, presented by their Majesties when they honoured Croome with a visit in 1788. It has Rococo plasterwork and a marble fireplace.

From the Drawing Room we come to the Saloon again. A wide wooden door leads out on to the portico and thence to the lawns on the south side. The pair of sphinxes rest on their plinths, guarding the steps with stony aloofness, safe in the knowledge they will still be there after we puny humans have all gone. Portraits of family members used to hang here, including Thomas Coventry, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Statesman and lawyer; Lord Thomas Coventry (possibly the former’s son); Maria, Countess of Coventry and her sister, the Duchess of Hamilton. It commands a ‘most delightful prospect’ of the park from its’ windows, over verdant grassland, winding waters and the one-time herd of deer, to the grand sweep of lush woodland.

The Tapestry Room is next, although sadly the whole was moved in 1958 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Based on a design by Robert Adam, the room was created between 1763 and 1771. The tapestry, of Gobeline manufacture, had a crimson background and was ornamented with coloured figures to represent the four elements. According to William Dean, it was marked with the names of the artist, Neilson, and the designer, Boucher. The furniture matched the hanging and there were more superbly crafted mirrors. The tapestry and furniture was sold to a Parisian dealer by the 9th Earl in about 1902 and then the fabric of the room – floor, ceiling, chimneypiece, doors, door-frames etcetera were bought by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1949, later to be donated to the Met. Museum. The chair and settee frames have now also been acquired by the museum with the help of the Kress Foundation. They have been recovered with the original upholstery. A copy of the ceiling has now been put in place of the original.

Tapestry Room, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Only the marble fireplace by John Wildsmith remains of the original Adam Library. The mahogany bookcases were removed to the Victoria and Albert Museum. In William Dean’s day it was ‘appropriately furnished’ and contained ‘a collection of books, not large, but choice’. The 6ht Earl of Coventry was a man of taste and refinement. He would only have the choicest specimens in any collection.

A second door leads from the Library into the main staircase hall. The staircase is not grand, being made of cantilevered stone with an iron balustrade. Crossing the hall, the visitor enters the Lord’s Dressing Room. Today (or at least it did when this author visited), it has the portrait of the 6th Earl by Allan Ramsay – returned to Croome after 76 years – hanging above the fireplace and a magnificent commode (no, not that sort of commode), which was one of Lord Coventry’s most prized possessions.

Commode belonging to Lord Coventry © Heather King

The commode is a large cabinet, one of a pair, made by John Mayhew and William Ince, 1759-1803, their showrooms situated off Golden Square in Soho, London. It is made of satinwood and holly, and has a top shelf which slides out, providing a flat surface for the brushing of clothes. It also contains various drawers and is decorated with the raised urns as shown in the photo and other classical images requiring great skill.

The Friends of Croome Park Newsletter of May 2012 informs us that much of the Croome collection was then at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire, but gradually the items are, thanks to the National Trust, being returned to the house in which they belong. During the 6th Earl’s tenure, the accounts show that over £3,000 was paid by Lord Coventry to two more celebrated furniture makers, for in excess of 1,300 items. William Vile (what a name to be saddled with!) and John Cobb were often commissioned to produce pieces of furniture for Croome. It may not sound a lot in these inflation-ridden times, but it was a lot of money then.

Finally, we come to the Dining Room, a spacious and handsome room, painted by the Hare Krishna movement in the 1970s to 80s. Currently it contains exhibitions of Croome’s porcelain.

Dining Room plasterwork

Porcelain Display © Heather King

The second floor holds Lord and Lady Coventry’s bedchambers, Lady Coventry’s Boudoir and Dressing Rooms, the Chinese Bedroom and three other bedrooms. There are some interesting artefacts, paintings and furniture on display, including (if I remember correctly) the 6th Earl’s canopied bed, purchased for his marriage to Maria Gunning. Unfortunately, the only genuine parts remaining are the posts and the photograph didn’t come out because of the lack of light. Nevertheless, there are some curious low chairs, a horse’s hoof inkwell, à la Copenhagen’s (which sits in pride of place on a sideboard at Horse Guards) and two equestrian paintings. The most interesting of these is attributed to John Wootton and is entitled The Great Horse or Jack-a-Dandy, circa 1680-1710. Only with a guide can the visitor access the stairway properly to see this enormous painting. Not having a wide-angled lens, this author had to take it in two halves.

Jack-a-Dandy,  The Great Horse, attributed to John Wootton
Photo © Heather King

The story goes that Sir Henry Coventry, soldier, ambassador and politician, had a wager with his brother-in-law, Sir John Pa[c]kington, on a horse race in which Jack-a-Dandy was to take on Sir John’s horse. The loser was to found charity alms-houses in Droitwich and name them after the winner. Thus the Coventry Charity Alms-houses were founded by Sir John without the honour of his name being given to them. From the Entrance Hall, where it was carefully restored, the painting has been re-hung in its’ historical position and is on long-term loan from The Coventry Charity.

 Armchairs and Pie-crust side-table © Heather King

Another extremely interesting item is Lord Coventry’s ‘Gentleman’s Exerciser’ or ‘Chamber Horse’, a contraption the 6th Earl is reputed to have used when unable to ride due to the effects of bad winter weather or gout!

As the National Trust says, ‘It is poignant to imagine the 6th Earl in his later life, reduced to taking his exercise in this way, looking out from the Court at his created landscape and unable to ride or walk out over it.’

Layers of wooden boards had springs in between. These compressed beneath the weight of the person and expanded again in a similar action to an accordion. Covered in leather, it had openings in the sides to permit the air to escape on the downward thrust. Holding the arms of the chair, the person used their legs to push up from the floor in a repeated action… not unlike an eighteenth century space hopper!

Gentleman’s Exerciser © Heather King

The second floor is only accessible to the public on guided tours, because it houses the collection which is in store. I am sure it will prove fascinating, and one of these days I shall return to take the tour. There is always so much to do and see at Croome!
All photos © Heather King unless otherwise stated

Next time, I shall take you on a tour of the Park.

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