Suffolk is well-known for big, open skies. These skies of cool blue with puffs of white cloud were made famous in the paintings of Suffolk-born, John Constable, from Dedham Vale on the Suffolk/Essex border.
However, it’s not always sunny in Suffolk and recently there have been spells of speedily arriving storm clouds and heavy summer showers.
These conditions, combined with the evening sunlight, have resulted in some spectacular, brilliant rainbows. Sadly, I didn’t get the best shot as it was gone by the time I’d run back indoors to get my camera, but one rainbow looked like it was dipping into a pot of gold in the depths of the sea. It was the brightest, most vibrant rainbow I’ve ever seen.
The next morning following the stormy showers it was the return of blue skies and white clouds complementing the painted houses bright along the seafront – a very English view.
Still, what’s to do on a stony, shingle beach with a very calm sea, ah yes, skim stones.
A couple of months ago everything in the garden looked as though the abundance of summer would never arrive and then suddenly here it all is. There are plants bursting into flower and flowing all over each other.
20th April 2016
12th June 2016
Here are a couple of examples that have so far withstood the torrential rain we’ve been experiencing, but, sadly, I have to report my old fashioned roses have been hammered.
But, after a quick tour round the beds I see there’s plenty of potential waiting in the wings. There are lilies, perennial poppies and some knautia all in bud.
Of course, the open, cheerful and always reliable oxeye daisies are a favourite with the bees. They also look beautiful and fresh in the early morning sun (when we have some!).
It’s always interesting to go visiting and have the opportunity to climb up a medieval spiral staircase and take in the views from the roof. The original gatehouse of Oxburgh Hall has just such a staircase. Apparently, it used to be possible on a clear day to see across to Ely Cathedral some 20 miles distant before trees obscured the view.
The climb to the roof top begins by taking the North Staircase lined with some amazing and unusual embossed and painted leather wall-coverings.
On the first floor of the gatehouse is the King’s Room. It’s called the King’s Room as some time during the late 15th century King Henry VII slept at Oxburgh Hall, but not actually in this room. Just off this chamber is the King’s Room Closet with a small garderobe (medieval loo). In the corner of this small space there is a brick-topped trap door concealing the entrance to a tiny priest hole hidden beneath.
Now it’s up the spiral staircase to directly above the King’s Room where we find the Queen’s Room . The Queen in question was Henry VII’s wife, Queen Elizabeth of York. The spiral staircase along with the external appearance of the gatehouse is the one part of the Hall that survives from the 15th century without being substantially remodelled and gives us an indication of the superior quality of the original building.
When you reach the top the spiral staircase opens onto the roof. More 15th-century details are visible such as the machicolations in the turret walls and a trio of gothic window arches. Machicolations are openings in a wall or floor through which missiles could be thrown down in the event of an attack on the house.
And here are the views looking out into the Norfolk countryside. The photograph on the right is the view to the south-west in the direction of Ely Cathedral. Looking at the near line of trees and the more distant wooded land I think it’s been many decades since anyone glimpsed Ely Cathedral in the distance.
Perusing the National Trust’s guidebook to Oxburgh Hall the recurring theme, we are told, is loyalty. That is, over the centuries, the Bedingfeld family’s loyalty to their Roman Catholic faith and their loyalty to royalty. Obviously, these ‘two loyalties’ have not always been compatible hence the priest hole. I’m not sure what the NT think of their paying visitors, but the tone of their guidebook towards this house and family is bordering on reverential.
Sometimes I think the NT finds it difficult to fully accommodate some of the properties they have been donated and these days with modern marketing they have to have a story to sell, sorry, tell. I don’t envy them this tricky task when promoting Oxburgh Hall. Essentially, Oxburgh Hall is presented as Tudor with its original gatehouse and moat, but in reality, thanks to extensive 19th-century remodelling it is mostly Mock Tudor, sorry that is Gothic Revival. I appreciate that any building existing on the same site for over 500 years has evolved, however I personally feel that authenticity matters when selling ‘heritage’. This house’s story is definitely about survival though how we find it today is probably more about wealthy Victorians and their rose-tinted view of the past.
Following on from Oxburgh Hall Part 1 let’s now take a tour of the interior of this National Trust moated manor house. As we wander through the ground floor rooms we find essentially a nineteenth-century, neo-Gothic revival aesthetic. As with any property surviving over 500 years the handful of grand rooms open to visitors is an eclectic mix of period layers, but essentially the top gloss is a Victorian version of Gothic.
The first noteworthy room on the tour is the Saloon. This is a large space built to be a picture gallery by the architect John Tasker in 1775. Today, all is not quite what it seems. For example, beneath the residual Neo-classical frieze (see chandelier photo) is a red Gothic Revival wallpaper. The original Pugin design for a red flock wallpaper was made by J D Crace, but the paper on the walls today is a replica. This large room is also hung with a number of oil paintings that turn out to be mostly 19th-century copies of earlier royal portraits.
There are a few earlier primary pictures such as this portrait of Lady Arundell of Wardour that may have adorned this specific space when it was first built. Lady Arundell was a distant cousin of Sir Henry Arundell Bedingfeld’s (1689-1760) wife. As an interesting and valuable original painting, it was sold from the estate in 1951 before the house was given to the NT. However, in 2007, it was bought back by the NT for £11,250 from an auction at Sotheby’s in London and then restored to Oxburgh Hall.
The decision to style this room, despite its 18th century origins, with royal portrait copies, heavily carved neo-Gothic furniture, flock wallpaper and a 19th-chandelier giving it a high Victorian sensibility, is puzzling. Perhaps this is more a nod to a version of the manor house when it was in its Victorian heyday. Of course, all these derivative oils may have been collected/bought by the Bedingfelds during the 19th century to boost their credentials during the period when the old English Catholic families were returning from exclusion. Interestingly, there is also a question mark as to the authenticity of one of the Oxburgh grand furniture pieces, the splendid Antwerp Cabinet. It looks like a Collectors’ Cabinet that was traditionally made in Antwerp during the period 1650 to 1670, but according to the experts it has features that suggest it may have been constructed in the 19th century to look like an older piece.
The West Drawing Room was also originally a Neo-classical room with floral chintz wallpaper, but was substantially changed in 1865. Today there is a painting by the renowned 18th-century portrait painter Angelica Kauffman hanging to the right of the original Neo-classical fireplace.
It’s a portrait of Mary Walsh also later known as Mrs Ralph Clavering, another Bedingfeld’s wife’s relative. It too was sold in 1951, but in 2008 it was also purchased back at Sotheby’s in London for £79,250 and returned to Oxburgh Hall by the NT. And, here’s what the NT has to tell us about finding the funding to make the purchase. It is an excerpt from their blog – Treasure Hunt, National Trust Collections:
It was clear that we would need significant funds to buy back the personable Mrs Clavering. However, the volunteers who run the second-hand bookshop at Oxburgh generously contributed a substantial sum, and we also managed to secure a grant from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund. In the end we had just enough to beat off the competition, and the picture is now back at Oxburgh.
Next we walk past the West Staircase which is adorned by the most fascinating painted leather wall covering (early 18th century from the Low Countries), but it’s cordoned off. Then it’s into the library. This room displays more of a wholesome expression of Victorian Gothic as it appears less restored and has a more authentic feel.
Naturally, a library has many books and along with the room’s original Buckler fireplace (1831) and the (mostly original) heavily carved Victorian Gothic furniture, the library contains little groupings of ephemera that bring the room to life.
For example there is a table set with a cut glass decanter, glasses, pipes and matches, and, predictably, a family photograph. Oddly the chosen photograph is not an early photographic portrait – though it could be. They could have used the 19th-century photograph of Margaret Paston who married Sir Henry Bedingfeld in 1826. It was she, together with her husband, who was primarily responsible for the creation of this room. Obviously, the original image cannot be displayed in daylight, but a good quality copy could be easily made.
After the library we walk into the Dining Room which used to be the library during the 18th century. Like much of Oxburgh Hall this is another room reworked by the Victorian architect J C Buckler. During the 1830s Buckler oversaw the installation of the heavily carved wooden panelling some of which also includes earlier carved sections dating from 1635 and 1731. The room has an enchanting atmosphere created by the slightly distressed, gilt and scarlet wallpaper thought to be designed by the Victorian stained glass artist, Thomas Willement.
However, the most beautiful arrangement in the room is the octagonal table in the bay window.
How delightful it would be to sit here, sipping coffee and gazing out over the moat towards the Norfolk countryside.
Morning view towards the south-west.
Morning view towards the north-west.
As National Trust visitors when you enter Oxburgh Hall you turn right, but if you’re “U” then you turn left . . . . . . . . a bit like boarding a plane!
Oxburgh Hall is a moated manor house in the depths of rural Norfolk. It has been ‘owned’ by the National Trust since it was donated by the Bedingfeld family in 1952. The donation of this interesting building to the National Trust has allowed it to be saved and maintained for the nation. In that quaint, slightly snobbish English way, the terms of the donation also allows for two generations of the Bedingfeld family to reside in half of the property. Apparently, maintaining the continuity of the family’s presence is . . . . . no, not sure what it is, but that’s the deal.
The well-maintained manor house we see today is mostly a Victorian interpretation of medieval Gothic. The only substantially originally medieval part is the magnificent gatehouse that comprises both the King’s Room and the Queen’s Room, and a noteworthy Priest’s Hole.
Detail of late-15th century gatehouse at Oxburgh Hall
Superb late medieval/Tudor brickwork. Oxburgh Hall gatehouse
Imposing brick gatehouse at Oxburgh Hall.
In 1482, with royal permission for crenellations (originally a licence to construct a fortified property), Sir Edmund Bedingfeld oversaw the building of a brick manor house including a crenellated gatehouse. This combination of gatehouse and moat gives Oxburgh Hall an overall impression of a fortified building, but during the late-fifteenth century moats and gatehouses were more about the conspicuous display of wealth and status than defending the family against bombardments.
As with any site that has been occupied by a substantial building for over 500 years there have been many changes, additions and improvements as different architectural ideas, together with the family’s fortunes, waxed and waned over the centuries. As was traditionally the custom for any notable medieval house, Oxburgh Hall once had a Great Hall, but, unfortunately that was pulled down by the 4th Baronet, Sir Richard Bedingfeld, in 1775.
It is difficult to make more than a cursory summary of the broader, social circumstances of the many different lives lived over the centuries at Oxburgh Hall without making a detailed, in depth study of the historical record. As usual we only get the faintest hint of the many hands that built, maintained, worked and served at Oxburgh Hall. Of the Bedingfeld family we learn more. They remained a Catholic family after the English Reformation and as such fell from royal favour, but 100 years later found themselves back enjoying comfortable times with the Restoration and the arrival of King Charles II to the English throne.
Oxburgh Hall south-east tower remodelled Victorian Gothic.
Remodelled in 1860 family accommodation at Oxburgh Hall.
A private bay within a National Trust manor house. Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk
Oddly, the National Trust’s guide to Oxburgh Hall has a somewhat one-sided, almost hagiographic approach when discussing the role of the family as though by simply being born a Bedingfeld one had achieved something of note. Their medieval beginnings featuring the acquisition of land and status is a familiar story of fighting, scheming and beneficial marriage alliances. And, apart from being Royalists during the Civil War, the Bedingfeld’s main claim to fame is that they have remained resolutely Roman Catholic. From the heritage point of view, rather disappointingly, we don’t find any of them were renowned patrons of the arts or great collectors or even sponsors of some of Norfolk’s distinguished artists such as John Crome or John Sell Cotman.
Furthermore the only truly exceptional art works of national interest at Oxburgh Hall – the Oxburgh Hangings – were brought to the hall by Mary Browne of Cowdray Park on her marriage to Sir Richard Bedingfeld in 1761. These captivating Elizabethan needlework pieces consist of many embroidered panels sewn by Mary, Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick (full post on the Oxburgh Hangings).
Detail of Tudor-style chimneys
Romantic moat? Also used to receive foul water from the latrines!
However, if you are interested in experiencing the cool, lofty space of The King’s Room within the gatehouse, or undergoing confinement in a priest’s hole, or simply the pleasure of wandering through a ‘time capsule’ Victorian library, then Oxburgh Hall is worth a visit.
Recently I noticed a display of blue and white china in a local store and mused how we use the word ‘china’ interchangeably with ‘porcelain’. Of course ‘china’ was commonly used to mean from China when referring to dinnerware and tea sets as until the mid-eighteenth century porcelain only came from China.
However, during the 18th century experimentation saw the creation of the first European porcelain pieces, as shown in the photograph below. This roughly finished dish was made in Holland with the year 1739 painted into its design. Produced with a poor, pitted glaze finish it is clearly a lesser version of any similar contemporary Chinese porcelain.
Interestingly, one of the places in Europe where blue and white soft paste porcelain was successfully produced by the 1750s was Lowestoft, a fishing port on the Suffolk coast of East Anglia. The Lowestoft factory produced domestic items from 1757-1801.
Their ceramic range included teapots, teabowls and saucers, mugs, jugs and creamboats decorated with various blue underglaze patterns in a Chinese style.
Lowestoft porcelain saucer. c1770-80. Decorated with wavy bands and sprays of flowers in blue. This is known as the Robert Brown pattern. Robert Brown was one of the owners of the Lowestoft factory.
Blue and white Lowestoft porcelain 1768. Feeding cup also known as a sick-cup decorated with flower sprays and a butterfly.
Although the Lowestoft china business was small compared to Staffordshire or London, enough authentic pieces still survive to support a devoted group of mostly East Anglian collectors. A small saucer may be acquired for about £100, whereas the record price for a rare, 14 cm tall, flask is £24,000 achieved at Bonhams in 2010.
I certainly don’t have a spare £24,000 for this beautifully painted flask, but I do find the old Lowestoft factory’s interpretation of the classic ‘blue and white’ aesthetic pleasingly inspirational.
In the past I’ve blogged about the beautiful examples of medieval art in East Anglia not least the stunning rood screen at Ranworth. However, although many parish churches across the region still have their original rood screens often they have survived in much reduced circumstances.
The Church of St Mary and St Andrew in the Norfolk village of Horsham St Faith is a fine medieval building. It is essentially a 15th-century church with some earlier 13th century features such as part of the flint and freestone West Tower dating from 1290. Inside the building, separating the chancel from the nave, is the rood screen comprising of twelve painted panels. There is a dated inscription (1528) recording one William Wulcy and his two wives as the donors of the screen.
The church also has a similarly decorated pulpit with more painted panels. It’s accompanying inscription records the pulpit was painted in 1480.
Like so much of the medieval ornate imagery of saints found in churches, both the pulpit and rood screen have been subjected to the iconoclastic forces of the puritan William Dowsing (1596–1668) and his followers.
At the moment I am working on a piece inspired by both the beauty of these paintings and the various examples of the defaced and faceless images that still survive. My own preference is for work that is either unrestored with all the fury of the scraped and scored faces still visible, or, panels that have been gently restored by restrained contemporary conservators.
Obviously, in the past there have been efforts at restoration with good intentions such as these carried out in 1978, but the heavy-handed often frankly amateurish repainting of the faces significantly detracts from the whole. And, in some cases the work is so bad it looks almost comical. (Somehow my photos, below, have softened this coarse attempt, but nevertheless the faces show no interest in capturing the medieval aesthetic.)
Sometimes you just need to get away from everything for a couple hours and let the wind blow away all the cobwebs in your head. The exposed east coast of Norfolk often has a ‘brisk’ breeze and I usually come back from a walk at Waxham feeling as though I’ve been somewhat sandblasted.
Most of the dogs at the beach seemed to thoroughly enjoy running around off the lead.
However, not all of them appreciated a soaking by an unexpectedly, energetic wave catching them off guard.
For me, I’m re-energized and feel ready to carry on with the wall hanging and now have a clearer idea how to achieve the finished piece – eventually!