Today’s jaunt was based on Richmond upon Thames, a borough in the south-west of London. Today known as a pleasant place to live or spend time, Richmond has ancient royal connections. It was originally called Shene (these days spelt Sheen) and in the Middle Ages the Royal Courts were held in Shene Palace. Henry VII rebuilt the latter after a fire and named it after his northern earldom, Richmond. Later, Charles I hunted here on what is today extensive parkland.
The town of Richmond was not our intended destination, but we walked through it and enjoyed revisiting the town and some of its historic buildings, such as the 1880s library, shown above.
Right next to the library, though younger than it by nearly two decades, is this handsome theatre, dating to 1899. There were two previous theatres in Richmond, including the Theatre Royal (1760s), named after the theatre in Drury Lane of which it was a scaled-down copy. It was pulled down in 1884 to make way for a villa.
The previous theatres had stood on the Green (and had sometimes been known as the Theatre on the Green) but for a new theatre, a new site had to be found. Accordingly, the new theatre was built in 1899, next to the library, on Little Green.
At first called the Theatre Royal and Opera House, it is today known more simply as Richmond Theatre. It was designed by Frank Matcham, the famous theatre architect.
Though we were allowed to take photographs, we were confined to the lobby and immediate area. While it is beautifully appointed, this area is quite small and it is hard to get an angle for a wider view of the whole.
The combination of stone and dark woodwork characterises the décor and would, I think, be especially effective at night when you enter the lighted interior and feel yourself wrapped in its elegant richness.
We now took a bus towards our next destination. This brought us near parkland called King George’s Field. The area nestles in a curve of the Thames near Ham and Petersham. (If you are interested in old houses you might now guess where we’re heading.)
We stopped off for refreshments at a handy pub that just happened to be called the Royal Oak, reflecting the royal theme of the area. Afterwards we set out to walk to our goal.
There is still a lot of open land in Richmond but it has gradually been eaten up with housing. When the Royal Courts were here, the rich and important moved into the area. Later it was people seeking a better environment than London with the added motive of avoiding the plagues and epidemics.
While some of the houses around here deserve the designation “cottage”, along with these there are more commodious homesteads with grounds to match.
Walking along rural-seeming roads, passing fine houses and beautiful green open spaces, we eventually came to King George’s Field, a stretch of green parkland that is continuous with the grounds of the place we had come to visit – Ham House.
The Borough of Richmond’s Web site explains the name of the Field thus:
Together with the adjacent riverside playing field, this sports ground takes its name from King George V Trust which made funds available for councils to purchase land for use as sports fields in the 1930s.
As we walked along the path, we could see the bank of the Thames and the various craft moored there. Water always exercises an attraction, I find, and we determined to walk down to the river after our visit to Ham House. In the meantime, we had come within sight of the latter.
The front of the house was covered with scaffolding and green netting, making it unattractive to photograph. The above picture, showing a side view of the house, at least gives an impression of the style of the façade.
A striking scene meets our eyes already in the forecourt, where Neptune lounges majestically if moodily on a rock and classical-style busts line the walls, one of which is shown in close-up above.
Described as “a treasure trove” and “an extraordinary 17th century survival”, Ham House was built in 1610 but, for our purposes, comes into its own with the third owner, William Murray, in 1626. Murray was a courtier and in fact a personal friend of Charles I, whose whipping boy he had been, a relationship said to create a close bond between the two young men.
Sharing the same tastes as the King and not being short of cash, Murray set about turning the house into a showcase of gracious living in the Stuart age. When Charles (unfortunately, no doubt, from Murray’s point of view) lost his head, Murray had to flee abroad until the Restoration enabled Royalists such as himself to return.
Murray’s eldest daughter Elizabeth took the house in charge during her father’s absence. Intelligent and determined, she continued the work of furnishing and decorating the house and protecting it during the Cromwell era. After her death in 1698, the house remained unchanged as she had left it, providing for us today a priceless historical monument and document.
The house as we know it today did not come into being overnight. It evolved over many years, yet somehow converged towards a harmonious whole. As evidence of the process of evolution, we can cite the conversion of the Great Dining Room into a gallery which, impressive in its own right, added light and space to the entrance hall, increasing its impact on visitors.
The Murrays, father and daughter, evidently shared a love of pictorial art. There are paintings everywhere, not only portraits but also scenes from mythology, religious themes and military subjects. There are ceiling paintings, pictorial decorations on furniture and rich wall hangings depicting all sorts of events and peoples.
There are generally speaking three groups of rooms, firstly those to which visitors are admitted, whether for business or for social events. Examples of these have already been shown. Secondly, there are the more intimate accommodations for family and close friends only, such as the dining room above.
Private quarters have a more intimate feel but are still decorated with careful regard to style. After all, close friends and relatives would have been admitted and the rich elegance of the house as a whole therefore needed to be reflected here. It was becoming the custom to entertain particular friends in places such as dressings rooms which in consequence needed to be properly furnished and decorated.
Most of the doors and doorways in the house are as much interior design features as the rest of the décor, sculpted and painted with care and attention to detail. Here and there, though, one encounters doors intended to blend into the background. These are not secret doors (the door lock is obviously a giveaway!) and much less priests’ holes. They are more likely to give access to the separate corridors and staircases used by servants, doors that are “there but not really there”.
The private room that perhaps had the biggest impact on me was Murray’s study. This small room, despite showing the attention to detail that was characteristic of the house as a whole, is relatively plain and unfussy. It is the one where I could most easily imagine that the occupant had just stepped out for a moment and would soon return. Note the manly naval battle scene painted above the fireplace.
The third group of rooms is that used exclusively, or almost exclusively, by servants. Most of these are, alas, not open to the public, but glimpses of them suggest that they were meanly appointed compared with the family parts of the house. That, of course, was standard for the age when people knew their place and did not aspire to what was not theirs by god-given right.
While I have concentrated on the house and décor, I should mention that the items of furniture show as much care as the rest. Nothing was too exotic for this family yet, somehow it all fits together in a harmonious way. (Pictured below, a table leg.)
As you enter, you are given a pamphlet to guide you around but this tells you very little. Moreover, the house is so full and complex that it would take several visits to really understand the layout and function of all the parts.
After our visit to Ham House, we naturally gravitated towards the river. We saw terns diving and picking something off the surface of the water (you may just be able to see them in the next picture).
Nearby is a small ferry capable of carrying a dozen or so passengers across the water. We were the only customers on our trip but the cheerful ferryman was happy to take us. Then we walked along the shady bank towards Richmond. There was plenty to see here, too, such as…
Marble Hill House is another place to visit, one of these days, a listed 18th century house, built for the mistress of a Prince of Wales, no less.
And thus we came to Richmond Bridge, an 18th century listed building, and crossed back to the other side of the river once more. We had coffee in a quiet cafe bar where we were the only customers and then caught the bus for home.
If the visit to Ham House was the highlight, the rest of the day provided many other pleasures, such as seeing the ornate interior of Richmond Theatre, exploring “rural” Ham or taking a gentle stroll along the leafy bank of the Thames to Richmond Bridge. We shall certainly return.