I’m off to Wiltshire for the Chalke Valley History Festival this June to hear Rufus Bird, Deputy Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures (now there’s a lofty title) talk about the furnishings of the royal palaces. That set me thinking about the best places to see fine furniture collections in Britain. So here are some ideas for you in case June isn’t quite a flaming as you hope.
If you think medieval houses didn’t have much in the way of furniture, you might revise your assumptions when you see the furnishings of King Henry II’s keep at Dover Castle in Kent. The brightly painted beds, stools and chests commissioned by English Heritage may not be authentic but they make this gorgeous medieval space sing and certainly set you thinking.
Parham House in Sussex is a Tudor house where you really feel that Queen Elizabeth has just stepped out of the room. The house has a fine collection of 16th and 17th century oak furniture particularly the court cupboards in the Great Hall which sit well with the portraits, pewter and oak paneling. Tapestried walls, fine 16th century needlework and the sunlit Long Gallery create a convincing atmosphere of Parham’s original 16th century interior.
For the turbulent 17th century, I love the National Trust’s Ham House, Richmond, partly because it is so much the creation of a clever woman – Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart – and partly because it has an unmatched collection of 17th century furniture. Walnut predominates with baroque swags fine tapestries and japanned chests.
For rococo extravagance, it’s a toss up between Holkham and Houghton Halls in Norfolk to see William Kent’s furnishings still in situ. Both have side tables, pier glasses, stools and settees decorated with gilded exuberance but, for me, the ethereally green state bed at Houghton with its massive scallop shell headboard is where I dream of sleeping.
Things calmed down under the influence of neo-classicism, in furniture as in interiors. In the 1760s, the newly enriched Lascelles family at Harewood House in Yorkshire invested in talent by commissioning the young Thomas Chippendale to create suites of furniture for the state rooms of their new Palladian house including another unrivaled bed. He also indulged his love of Chinoiserie with japanned cupboards and hand painted Chinese wallpaper in the East Bedroom.
Thomas Chippendale’s Chinese style appears again in the best collection of 18th century furniture in Scotland at Dumfries House in Ayrshire. The restored bed in blue damask once stood next to the exquisite breakfront bookcase that is now in the Blue Drawing Room with a matching mahogany suite of chairs and tables. Dumfries was also furnished by Scottish 18th century master furniture makers, Francis Brodie, Alexander Peter and William Mathie.
At the end of the 18th century emerged another furniture maker of talent and style, Richard Gillow of Lancaster. The best place to see his work is at his own home Leighton Hall near Carnforth. The suite of furniture in the dining room in particular, where the chairs are solid enough for visitors to be invited to sit, glows with the warmth of mahogany.
Few houses retain the concentrated clutter so typical of high Victorian interiors but it is perfectly preserved at 18 Stafford Terrace, the home of Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne.
You’ve just got time to visit before the house closes for Housekeeping on 20 June until September. This is a middle class home, stuffed with furniture and fringing, clocks, lamps, prints and bronzes clearly demonstrating the influence of global exploration on the tastes of the day.
To take you into the 20th century don’t miss the Art Deco jewel created within the walls of medieval Eltham Palace by wealthy socialites Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s, opened by English Heritage. Some of the furniture is a recreation but the dining chairs were discovered at Pinewood Studios in 2001 and remarried with the stylish walnut dining table. This story alone gives you a hint of the theatricality of their taste.
Of course most English interiors have evolved over centuries and mix furnishings from all these periods, that’s really what gives them their charm. Visiting historic houses is a great way of learning to recognise the key features of different styles and using them to give your interiors something unique.