I am only 22 properties into my challenge but I am already starting to discover the incestuous nature of the NT world. Almost everywhere I go I am reminded of previous visits or given a foretaste of what is to come. On this occasion, I didn’t feel I had come a million miles from Sutton House in Hackney, with Tudor themes again strongly in evidence. Having seen linenfold panelling for the first time in Hackney, I was then treated to a whole lot more of the stuff down in Hampshire. Unfortunately, though, The Vyne’s Oak Gallery, which has the best examples, was closed up for the winter so I could only peer at it from the doorway.
Like Sutton House, The Vyne was also built by a courtier who managed to survive the Tudor court with head still firmly on shoulders. And this appears to be quite some achievement in the case of William Sandys as he was opposed to Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and plans for the Church. As a result, he tended to feign illness and absent himself from court when the atmosphere got a little too close to boiling point. Having said that, Henry VIII visited The Vyne three times in the course of his reign and on the last occasion he brought his new Queen, Anne Boleyn, with him. This was probably the first ever example of those awkward occasions on which a man you know brings his new wife round for dinner and you have photos of him with his ex on display! Today, these can be subtly slipped into drawers but William Sandys was a bit stuck as his tributes to Catherine were a lot more permanent, including her motifs and insignia on the panelling in the Oak Gallery and a stained glass window in the Chapel that shows her worshipping alongside a similar image of Henry. Oops!
To complete the Tudor story, I’ll just add that the royal associations didn’t end there, with Queen Elizabeth I also visiting the house twice during her reign. And I must admit to being more than a little disappointed by a painting of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in the Dining Parlour. Having got used to watching him played by the lovely Henry Cavill in the TV series of The Tudors, the reality was more than a little deflating!
Like many older houses, The Vyne has changed considerably over the years and although the Tudor-style brickwork remains, the house looks very different today than it did when William Sandys completed his works. The guidebook gives great detail on the many changes made by different occupants over the years and I did tend to glaze over a little reading them all, but a few stand out and I will mention these as I run through some of the notable later owners.
Which brings me to Chaloner Chute, or in fact several Chaloner Chutes. This has to go on my list of unusual names although I really can’t decide whether it’s a name that would be best swooned over in a Gothic romance or giggled over as a comical character in a Dickens novel. As it is pronounced ‘choot’ rather than ‘shoot’, I’m veering more towards the romanticism of the former.
There were actually four Chaloners who owned The Vyne at one time or another, with three in succession in the 1600s and then another much later in the 1800s. The first Chaloner Chute, who bought the house from the Sandys family was an interesting one as he was first a lawyer, then an MP and finally Speaker of the Commons, albeit for just three months before he was struck down by illness. In much of the literature about the house, though, he is still known familiarly as Speaker Chute. He worked with the architect John Webb to make the first significant changes to the house, including the addition of the Portico on the North Front of the house. This is surprising in that it comprises columns made of brick and then rendered in stucco and a pediment made of painted wood. It was also in Speaker Chute’s time that the round summer house was built to the east. This has had a varied history, serving once as a banquet hall and later as a pigeon house.
The next Chute to have a major impact on the house was Speaker Chute’s great grandson, John Chute, who was a great friend of Horace Walpole and one of the ‘Committee of Taste’ that worked with Walpole to Gothicise his Strawberry Hill house. Walpole tried to get Chute to take a similar approach to refurbishment of The Vyne but was clearly not persuasive enough. There are suggestions that Chute didn’t have the money to make such large-scale changes but I think it more likely that he simply didn’t want to change the face of the old family pile to so great an extent. Instead, his most important alterations included the Staircase Hall, which is very much in keeping with the classical feel of the Portico that leads you into it, and the Tomb Chamber to the side of the Chapel, in which he erected a memorial to Speaker Chute.
John Chute’s travels in Italy also influenced the house, with several key artefacts having been brought back from his tour, including a beautiful Pietra Dura casket in the China Room. Although Walpole failed in making another Strawberry Hill at The Vyne, he had an influence on some of the house’s contents, making a number of gifts to Chute, including the blue-glazed Sèvres porcelain vases on the mantelpiece in the Further Drawing Room and the pair of stone eagles that greet the visitor outside the South Front door. He was also instrumental in the acquisition of a copy of The Last Supper for the Ante-Chapel, although this is not the best example ever and features a slightly plump, jolly-looking version of Christ.
To complete the rundown of the most influential Chutes, the last to have a major impact on the house was William Lyte Wiggett, who changed his name to Chute on inheriting (just as a previous non-Chute had done two generations earlier). He spent a lot of money and made numerous changes to the house, both inside and out, but this is already a long entry and you wouldn’t thank me for listing them! Let’s just say that they were mostly enhancements rather than wholesale alterations.
Some of Wiggett Chute’s changes involved moving some of the fireplaces around inside the house. Eagle-eyed visitors surveying the art will also detect some moving pictures (not movies, I hasten to add, just static art that’s been moved). Wiggett Chute’s wife Martha and daughter Elizabeth both painted watercolours of some of The Vyne’s rooms and Elizabeth’s painting of the Large Drawing Room shows a pair of Sebastian Pether paintings, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Sunrise’, which are now to be found in the Dining Parlour (and were by far my favourite paintings in the house; portraits of the Chutes are all very well but a good landscape will win me over every time). Meanwhile, in complete reverse, a painting of a nun featured in Martha’s picture of the Dining Parlour is now in the Large Drawing Room.
Before I finish with the house, I’m afraid I have to make a complaint. I know it’s out of season and the Trust is trying to find ways to encourage people to visit, but if I had known that there was extremely obtrusive modern art (the Unravelling the Vyne exhibition) in many of the show rooms I would have put off my own visit for another day. For me, the atmosphere of a house is part and parcel of the experience and I like to walk through the rooms imagining the old families that have walked there before me. But entering a room and being greeted by a lot of red worms cascading out of the chimney (apparently these are meant to depict roots rather than worms) blew all atmosphere straight up the very same chimney. In Sutton House, the modern artworks were paintings rather than installations and didn’t detract from the house at all as they simply helped to fill rooms that had no artefacts of their own. But at The Vyne, things were mentioned in the guidebook that I missed completely on my visit because the room was too crowded with scattered books or textile ‘pigeons’ supposedly having a party.
On top of this, I’m afraid Christmas also had a detrimental impact on my visit (bah humbug!). The supposedly interesting perspective of the Staircase Hall, which cleverly fills a long, narrow space, was lost completely as there was a snowflake mobile hanging from the ceiling and distracting garlands wound around the bannisters.
Turning to the grounds, those with green fingers may be a little disappointed by the lack of formal garden at The Vyne. Instead, there is an open (slightly dung-strewn!) lawn on the North Front which you can walk across to get down to the lake. Some of the trees alongside the lake were bright with autumn colour so it was worth braving the sub-zero wind chill to take a closer look. The garden around the Summer House and the herbaceous border on the east front appear to be later additions by the Trust rather than pre-existing features. The Walled Garden, however, dates back to Speaker Chute’s time or just after and is still a thriving kitchen garden. Some produce is for sale, although we baulked at spending 5p per walnut; in fact, I could see my Dad carefully adding up how much he could earn by selling the walnuts from his own tree! But it was the chickens that were the highlight for me, burbling away to greet us on our arrival. Then, when we walked past again at the end of our visit, a volunteer invited me in to the pen to feed the ‘girls’. There was almost a mass brawl as they ran to peck pellets from my hand, even though their feed tray was already full of the very same pellets – well, there’s a reason the term ‘bird-brained’ exists!
PS: I must just add a compliment to the cooks in the Brewhouse restaurant. Although winding down for winter and readying for their Christmas meals, the kitchens still managed to turn out one of the best soups I’ve had in ages, a lovely leek and potato containing great big chunks of soft potato, perfect fuel for a cold day in November.
Highlights: The Staircase Hall (in its unadulterated form, as seen in the guidebook), the Chapel, feeding the chickens!
Refreshments: Leek and potato soup with crisps for lunch; chocolate crispy cake with a cup of tea later
Purchase(s): Guidebook, ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac from second-hand bookshop