Saturday, August 4th 2018 – Basildon Park, Berkshire
Headed for an evening at a particularly excellent restaurant in Berkshire (or possibly Wiltshire – I haven’t double checked yet) we were casting around for something to do in the afternoon, to make it into more of a “holiday” than just a trip out for dinner. After casting around for a while, and lighting on a number of possibilities that we then rejected on the grounds that a sunny Saturday in August would be more crowded than we could deal with and hang on to our sanity we realised that Basildon Park was not that far off our route, and neither of us had ever been, or in fact knew anything about the place.
I suppose I knew it was nowhere near Basildon, which is probably just as well, given that a) Basildon is an unremittingly grim sort of place – or at least it was back when one of our friends used to live there – and b) on the wrong side of London given where we wanted to be. Actually it’s close to Reading (which is not that thrilling a place either but nowhere near as bad as Basildon), but we didn’t go there en route anyway, just headed down a series of quite small and lovely country lanes until a final slightly unexpected veer off into the car park, which was full. We were directed to the also pretty full overflow car park. It looked as if the whole world (or at least a large part of the Netherlands) had decided to visit all at once.
However, once we arrived at the ticket office we could see that there was a great deal of space available inside in terms of grounds at least – the house was not visible from there – and so we decided we’d nose around the house first, and then, if it had cooled off at all, we might take a stroll around the grounds should we still have time.
The walk through the woods to get to the house was lovely, and cool, and reminded me somewhat of the path between the car park and the castle at Burg Eltz, though less steep.
It also contains a number of fun benches with carved wooden animal heads for armrests…
And some very Tim Burton-esque trees! I know I kept expecting a hobbit or two to pop out from behind the trees any second.
Anyway, reaching the house it was soon apparent that it’s an interesting structure, very much the picture of Palladian symmetry, which I think is pretty rare. Most houses have had bits added on (or removed), and so they don’t have quite the precise frontage that Basildon Park manages. The estate was bought by Francis Sykes, who had made a fortune in the East India Company, and it was he who demolished the house that was already there and had John Carr, the architect, build him a new one. Most people who know Carr’s work won’t be surprised by the style, but the location is unusual; he didn’t normally work outside Yorkshire and its immediate vicinity. As a Yorkshireman himself, Sykes managed to persuade Carr out of his normal geographical comfort zone, and work began on the house, though it was not completed in Sykes’ lifetime, which presumably didn’t help his political ambitions, given that he’d bought the estate because he required a house suitable for entertaining that would also show off his at this point considerable wealth and that was close to London. He wasn’t alone; many rich returnees from India settled in this part of Berkshire, so much so that it became known as “the English Hindoostan”.
Sykes plans to rise politically and socially met with mixed success and when he died at his London house on 11th January 1804, none of the principal rooms at Basildon Park were completed. They didn’t get much love afterwards either, with the heir, also Francis Sykes, died a few weeks after inheriting the unfinished pile. Next in line was Sykes’ grandson, the five-year-old third baronet. As he grew up he showed no sign of financial sense, and pretty much bankrupted the family fortune by the time he was 14, an association with the Prince Regent not helping at all. In 1829 the estate was placed on the market, but it didn’t sell for a considerable period of time because Sykes would not lower the price below £100,000. As a result the house was often let out over the 9 year period it was on the market, finally being sold to the entrepreneur James Morrison for £3,000 under the £100,000 asking price. He completed work on the house and filled it with treasures, working with architect John Buonarotti Papworth to create what Morrison described as “a casket for my pictorial gems,” which included works by John Constable, J M W Turner and many Italian and Dutch old masters. Morrison died at Basildon on 30th October 1857.
Morrison’s daughter, Ellen, inherited the house and live in it until her death in 1910. It was then inherited by her nephew, James Morrison, who made some improvements initially, including commissioning Edwin Lutyens to design workers’ cottages in the neighbouring villages. He didn;t live in the house though, and in 1914 it was requisitioned by the British Government and used as a convalescent home for injured soldiers. After that period, Morrison’s lavish lifestyle and three marriages meant he had in effect run out of money, and in 1929 he sold the house to property developer, George Ferdinando.
He initially planned to sell the house to an American, marketing it for sale foe $1,000,000, which would include the cost of taking it down and re-erecting it in America. Luckily for us, he changed his mind, and converted the old sawmill at the top of the park into a house for himself and his wife. He also persuaded one of his sons to return from America with his family and to take up residence in the east wing. This son, Eric, did some renovation work, including returning fittings like the stair balustrade. Some of it they could not get back, however.
In World War II Basildon was a billet for troops, and a training ground for tank and ground warfare was set up in the park. Damage was perhaps inevitable, with walls damaged by bridging units used on the river and massive holes left behind. Requisitioned by the Ministry of Works, it suffered further indignities when a caretaker stole the lead from the roofs.
The ministry would not pay for most of the damage, and Ferdinando moved out, leaving Eric to deal with the house. When his father died, between inheritance tax and the repair costs, the house had to be sold. Despite its rather sorry state, the second Lord Iliffe, who lived in the area, bought it under persuasion from his wife, Lady Iliffe. Lord and Lady Iliffe spent 25 years restoring and refurnishing the house, buying fixtures and fittings from similar houses that were schedule for demolition, finding that 18th-century mahogany doors and marble fireplaces fitted in the spaces available perfectly in many instances. Having no children, the Iliffes donated the house and park to the National Trust in 1978, along with a large endowment for its upkeep.
It may not be the most spectacular architectural gem, and it’s not the home of any especially notable art works now, but its sheer survival makes it notable, given the state it had been reduced to when the Iliffes took it on. We actually started outside the house, nosing into the cafe and buying a cold drink each, needing to refresh ourselves after a two hour drive and the woodland walk to the house. Next to the cafe area (which is on the ground floor under the main house) was the original kitchen, in the north pavilion, away from the main house to avoid kitchen smells in the living quarters. Because Palladian buildings need symmetry, there thus had to be a second pavilion, in this instance a laundry. To avoid food having to be transported across an open area in all weathers, when Lady Iliffe was modernising the place she had a new state of the art kitchen installed on the piano nobile, but that was to be seem later in our visit.
Before that we also walked around the rose garden, which apparently looks towards the River Avon (though you can’t actually see it), but sadly the roses were pretty much past their best after the summer we have been having. There are some statues in the garden, several of them headless after being used for target practice by American soldiers billeted in the house in WWII.
After that we headed into the south pavilion, where there was an exhibition of “domestic” paintings, At Home with Art – Treasures of the Ford Collection, most of them the sort of thing that would have covered the walls in houses like this, produced more as a form of wall covering than art of great merit. It was interesting enough, though I doubt anyone apart from historians of the domestic would go out of their way to see it.
The house, thankfully, is more interesting, and the volunteers in particular are very keen to offer any information you might want to make your visit more informative. In addition, it turned out that photography was permitted in the house with a couple of exceptions (the portraits of each of the Iliffes, which I was a bit baffled by, and what is known now as the Sutherland Room, formerly Lady Iliffe’s dressing room, which contains studies for Graham Sutherland’s tapestry “Christ in Glory” which decorates Coventry Cathedral which I can understand).
The hall contains a lovely ceiling which is actually original, unlike much else to be found in the house. It has of course been renovated. The hall also has its original Spanish mahogany doors, removed in the 1920s, but returned in 1954. It also contains one of a number of white marble fireplaces salvaged from Panton Hall prior to its demolition.
Of the rooms I particularly liked the Octagon Drawing Room, which was used to display the owners’ best art works. It was restired and the walls covered in red felt, and renewed with works from Pompeo Batoni and Giambattista Pittoni. I loved the shape of the room, and the way the three windows provide fabulous views over the park and surrounding countryside.
The Dining Room is a lovely space, decorated in a neoclassical style, and it too has had a somewhat chequered history. In 1845 it was redecorated by the architect David Brandon, who replaced the original paintings with polychrome depictions of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The walls were not much changed though, retaining their 18th-century plasterwork. In 1929, Ferdinando stripped the dining room of its panels, mirrors, fireplace and doors and sold them to Crowther’s, a firm of architectural antique dealers. They were sold to what was until last year the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York where they formed the Basildon Room. Lord and Lady Iliffe opted to redecorate it in a style similar to the original scheme by de Bruyn, using Carr’s surviving plasterwork, and a fireplace and doors salvaged from Panton Hall to return the room to its original neoclassical form.
The second floor, with all the bedrooms, is also interesting with the Shell Room probably the most startling. Apparently, shell collecting was very much a thing for ladies at one stage, and they have been used to odd and slightly alarming effect to decorate pretty much any surface that didn’t need to be flat!
The Bamboo Bedroom is rather fun too, the bed having apparently cost £5 in an auction.
The rest of the room is of course decorated to suit.
Also on display is a spectacular Coromandel screen, which is a 17th century Chinese lacquerware screen, unusually made for the Chinese domestic market not for export, and is one of a handful of such items now left in the UK. It would likely have arrived in the UK along with the newly popular pursuit of tea drinking in the 17th or 18th century,, and depicts a famous gathering of scholars in the garden of the Emperor’s son-in-law in the 1100s. Half of it is apparently missing, with just six panels remaining, but as it was not uncommon to cut down Coromandels to create other pieces of furniture, it’s more remarkable perhaps that half of it has survived. It’s even more remarkable that it’s still intact now, having been bought to hide a toilet door from guests by Lady Iliffe. It had started to deteriorate because of the conditions in the cloakroom, but is now on display and undergoing restoration. It’s really spectacular!
I’d love to know what it would have looked like when complete! It was towards the end of the visit and we finished off by diving into the “new” kitchen I mentioned earlier. It’s very, very 1950s and we had some fund spotting things that were familiar to us. I would have happily made off with the picnic basket, mind. It was very stylish.
We were about ready for some more refreshments, so an ice cream and a sit down were the order of the day (and I was very pleased to find a raspberry Magnum on sale). After that we took a wander into the Garden Room, which Lady Iliffe was in the process of converting to an “Indian” room to reflect the heritage of the house when she died. It’s lovely, but incomplete, and will presumably remain that way now.
And then it was time to retrace our steps through the woods, back to the car, and on to our destination for the evening.