Reason to visit: to see an early English Palladian villa and learn that rendering your house white means it never quite looks perfect unless pristine.
This house was interesting in a dozen or more different ways.
It is a very early example of a Palladian mansion, with central hall, elaborate plaster work, piano nobile giving a delightful parade of rooms including two first floor bedrooms, an aspect to the river to the south and parkland to the north, a grotto (there is another somewhere in the grounds but it hasn’t yet been discovered – the one there is was only revealed when the 1987 storms ripped down some poplar trees); and some replica mid-18th century Chinese wallpaper (at a cost of £15,000 to English Heritage) replaces the £48 wallpaper originally placed here (to put the original cost into perspective, the cook at the time would have been paid £8 per year and that would have been considered a good wage).
The ‘mock’ windows around the central staircase should never have had pictures hung within them; to do so would be a faux pas – the windows are to represent the open courtyard of an Italian villa and should be left empty.
There is a double cubed entertainment hall of 24ftx24ftx24ft.
The main bedroom is immediately off the entertaining hall, showing the progression in architectural styles between, say, Ham House (dating from the 17th century) across the river where a series of withdrawing rooms would have existed: the more important the guest, the further one would get to the actual bedchamber, and a Palladian mansion such as Marble Hill House, where guests would have taken a tour of the entire Piano Nobile, including bedrooms. There are further guest bedrooms on the second floor.
A sketch of George II leads nicely into a story about how he could have had autism and really disliked having his picture drawn, which is why a portrait of him is rather rare.
The second mahogany staircase built in England is located at the house, the first being at Houghton Hall in Norfolk (Robert Walpole’s house).
The might of a woman in the 18th century & the royal court
The house was built for Catherine Howard, Lady Suffolk in her later days, who grew up at Blickling Hall in Norfolk before being orphaned at 12 (and possibly going to live with a distant relative, the Earl of Suffolk – at 18 she ended up marrying his third youngest son, who had sold his commission and decided to sue Catherine’s trustees for her inheritance to fuel his spendthrift ways. It was only when his elder brothers died without legitimate issue (after much hardship and at a time when the married couple had not seen each other for some considerable time), that Catherine’s husband earned his title, Earl of Suffolk).
Catherine saved her family by finding favour with George I’s mother and ultimately securing her drunken, womanising, abusive husband the job of Master of the Bedchamber to George I while she was Mistress of the bedchamber to the future George II’s wife, Charlotte. When George I fell out with the future George II and banished him from St James’ palace, Catherine chose to go with her employer, Charlotte, while her husband remained with his, the King.
The role of a royal mistress
Catherine was chosen as the mistress of George II while he was a prince, which some say he took because it was expected of a man of his position rather than because of his desire. There is rumour they had a child and his Queen, Charlotte, encouraged the match for fear of getting a much worse replacement for whom George might feel real affection. The £11,500 pay off George gave Catherine was used to pay (almost) for the construction of the house. However, there wasn’t enough money to build the exterior staircase up to the Piano Nobile.
18th century medicine
Catherine Howard died in the bedroom at this very house. She went deaf in one ear in her 30s but wisely resisted the then medical advice to have her other ear cut off so as to let more sound in!
Chinese looking glasses
English Heritage house (one of) the largest Chinese looking glass collections in the country on the second floor of Marble Hill.
An early example of protecting historic property
The Cunnard family owned the house in the 19th century. They stripped it of most of its glory and wanted to build a housing estate on the land of Marble Hill House, after having knocked down the house itself (a plan dating from 1898). They started laying the sewers, which can be seen in the dips in the gardens. However, the outrage at the time led to one of the first examples of national protection of historic property.
Horace Walpole (of Strawberry Hill) befriended Catherine in her later years. He liked nothing better than to gossip with older ladies and he wanted Catherine’s court gossip.
Alexander Pope was also a frequent visitor at Marble Hill House.
Oriental pottery & a whole lot of clutter
Catherine was a great collector of oriental pottery and built an entire L-shaped wing to house her collection. In contrast to how the house is delicately presented today (including beds and chairs on loan from the V&A), Catherine stuffed the house with collections. In the entrance hall she had a dining table, 2 card tables and numerous chairs. When she died an inventory of her possessions was taken, which means English Heritage know exactly how much she had collected. While the spoons were itemised, the inventory just said “a great deal of pots”.
Tours are on the weekend and very informative. The interiors are in good condition. The art is good (Reynolds for example), but the contents rarely original to the house. There is one pier table that was found in an hairdressers in Australia and now in the main entertaining space. There are (hopefully) three others still in existence that English Heritage are looking for.
The council/English Heritage has owned the land here for so long that the “park” outside is a little sad – definitely a council area. However, the stables house a good café, there are spaces for sports, the river path runs right past the front door. And only a few minutes away one can jump on a cross-river ferry that takes about 30 seconds to make the crossing and drops you off almost right outside Ham House. At £1.50 for me and the bike I reckon that’s the most expensive trip per mile I’ve ever taken.
When visited: August 2012
House * out of 5: ****
Garden * out of 5: n/a (it’s now a park)
Theme tune: This is a Man’s World