Hello! This is Nicola with a post for everyone who enjoys a virtual tour of a historic house! I have to admit that country house visiting is one of my favourite pastimes. Luckily I can claim it as research so I don't feel as though I am playing truant but instead am virtuously doing something work-related! One of the most famous country house visitors in literature is Elizabeth Bennet, of course, whose tour of Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle in Pride and Prejudice leads to an unexpected meeting with Mr Darcy at Pemberley. Whilst my own visits to historica houses have not been quite as momentous, I have seen some wonderful places and met some eccentric, endearing and very interesting owners over the years. My favourite was at castle Matrix in Ireland (shades of Monty Python), where we staggered in on a wet afternoon and the owner made us a pot of tea and a sandwich before giving us a personal tour of the castle and spinning a marvellous tale about her late husband, whom she claimed had been a modern day Knights Templar!
So one never knows quite what to expect, which is part of the fun, and last month I went to a house that I have wanted to visit for a long time. It is called Corsham Court and it is near Bath. It houses a world famous collection of Old Master paintings and has stunningly beautiful gardens and pleasure grounds, as well as a troupe (is that the correct collective noun?) of peacocks who can be found wandering into the town, sitting beside you in the gardens or even perching on the roof!
The village of Corsham itself has a wonderfully historical atmosphere. It is recorded that King Ethelred the Unready had a summer palace there and that in 1244 Richard Earl of Cornwall, one of the sons of King John, built himself a Manor there. The estate was given to both Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Parr, but it is said that by the end of Henry VIII's reign the medieval manor house was in ruins. It is reasonable to speculate that the current house, which was built in 1582 might well have been on or near the site of the medieval manor and the earlier palace. Sir Paul Methuen, a wealthy diplomat, bought Corsham Court in 1745 and it has remained in the Methuen family ever since. It was Sir paul who accumulated the grand collection of Old Master paintings that still hang in the house today.
The first guidebook to Corsham Court was produced in 1806. At the time the general public were permitted to view all the staterooms including the State Bedroom. These were where most of the portraits were hung and the early guidebooks provide a detailed description of the collection, making it clear how proud the Methuen family were of displaying them. Two hundred and three years later I followed in the footsteps of those early visitors! One of the things that I particularly liked about Corsham Court was that much of the house has remained architecturally unaltered since the 1760s and so walking through the staterooms was like stepping back into the eighteenth century in all its opulence.
Many of the paintings are displayed in the picture gallery against a background of crimson silk damask. In the eighteenth century this was considered to be the optimum material for displaying paintings in gilt-wood frames. The chairs and sofas were covered in matching material, which meant that a huge order was put in to Morris and Young of Spitalfields. In 1765 they supplied seven hundred yards of damask at thirteen shillings and sixpence a yard. Four years later that provided a further four hundred and seventy eight and a half yards of material for the furniture. The price had gone up to fourteen shillings a yard. I loved the fact that when, over the years, the damask furniture inevitably became worn, pieces were cut from the material behind the paintings in order to patch them up!
Of the many magnificent portraits on display in the house, my favourite was this painting of Paul Cobb Methuen and his sister Christian by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Paul has such a vivid little face and a naughty twinkle in his eyes and I adored Christian's hat!
Such a picturesque house is bound to be in demand as a flm location so it was no surprise to me that Corsham has featured in the BBC adaptations of Tess of the D'Urbevilles and Wives and Daughters and also in the film Barry Lyndon.
The splendours of the house are matched by the gardens and pleasure grounds (I love the idea of pleasure grounds – it conjures up lazy days strolling under the plane trees or riding about the estate!) There is a wonderful view of the deer park and grounds from the Picture Gallery windows. This pastoral scene was the vision of Capability Brown who re-designed the park with a vew to integrating the landscape paintings indoors with the view outdoors. He created a "Great Walk" with panoramic views of the estate, and a romantic wilderness woodland complete with a little ornamental bridge of petrified stone. In the early years of the nineteenth century Humphrey Repton developed the Corsham vision further by creating a lake from the medieval stew ponds and planting specimen trees such as the American Oaks and Oriental Planes that look so magnificent today.
As always with historic houses it was the little nooks and crannies that intrigued me the most and my favourite bit of my visit was discovering the bathhouse. This was the work of Capability Brown and it was intended to provide an invigorating cold dip for the family, friends and visitors. The bath was sunk into the arcaded ground floor and a flight of steps led to a dressing room above. The style of the bathhouse was gothic, with arched windows, niches and pinnacles on the roof. It was absolutely charming but possibly not sufficiently so to temp me to shed my clothes, even in an English summer! Close by was another building that caught my fancy – the Sham Ruin. Built as a folly in the late eighteenth century and intended only for decoration, it did contain some of the stonework from the medieval house demolished in the sixteenth century.
Those of you who have read the “Regency Authors Go Wild” page on my website will know that one of my most pressing requirements for country house visiting is that there should be a tea shop close by so I was thrilled to discover that whilst there was not a teashop at Corsham Court itself, there was a lovely little pavement café in the village where we sat in the sunshine and enjoyed tea and cake.
I hope that you have enjoyed this “virtual tour” of Corsham Court! I wondered what it is about a trip that makes it special to you? It needn’t be to a historical place, although it could be – anywhere that you love or that is important to you. Do you have special places that you visit or things like my country house afternoon tea ritual that you particularly like?