Even with the nifty little satnav that I bought when I started this challenge, finding Osterley Park was far from straightforward. The NT handbook helpfully informs you what postcode you should enter into satnavs, but my little machine then asked for a house number so I just selected 1… as you do… only don’t, because No. 1 Jersey Road appears to be on the wrong side of the Great West Road dual carriageway and quite some distance from Osterley. With some extra help from the A to Z (bless old-fashioned paper), we finally reached our destination, without the ‘you have reached your destination’ fanfare!
We started our visit in the gardens, which are not extensive but right up my street, with a fairly wild, cottage garden feel rather than more formal rows of bedding plants. The garden highlights outlined on a blackboard at the entrance mentioned roses and sweet peas, which were duly delivered in some quantity, plus a Giant Himalayan Lily in the Winter Garden, which we also managed to track down although I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a bit bigger (well, it did say ‘giant’!)
After a spot of lunch in the stable café, where we sat in one of the old stalls, we headed into the house in time for the 1pm introductory talk, described as ‘500 years in 15 minutes’. There was time to have a look at the Entrance Hall (stunning) and Eating Room before heading through to the Long Gallery for the talk. Our volunteer speaker was very good and rattled through a lot of history in her 15 (or so!) minutes. She focused on three key periods of ownership, starting with Thomas Gresham, who built the first large house on this site in the 1570s, and moving on to Nicholas Bradon, a physician-cum-economist-cum-property developer, who died without paying an outstanding mortgage, which meant that in 1713 Osterley wound up in the hands of the Child family, where it remained until 1949 when given to the Trust.
It is actually the Childs’ vast wealth that is the most influential ‘character’ in Osterley’s history. The first Child owner, Sir Francis Child the Elder, started out as an apprentice goldsmith before working his way up in the trade, marrying the boss’ daughter (who inherited a tidy sum) and moving into the lucrative business of banking and trade. However, Sir Francis and his next two heirs spent relatively little time there, although his third son Samuel paid slightly more attention to the place. It was Samuel’s own son, another Francis (neatly described as ‘Francis the Grandson’ by our speaker), who later put in motion the significant changes that created the Osterley of today.
Here we come to the single most important personage in the Osterley story: Robert Adam. Already something of a celebrity in the 18th century design world, Adam was employed by Francis the Grandson to remodel Osterley. This could have ended shortly after it had begun when Francis died suddenly, but fortunately his brother, Robert, maintained the relationship with Adam and over almost 20 years the architect/designer transformed the house.
The most obvious change to the outside of the house was the addition of the transparent portico with pediment, staircase and raised courtyard on the east front of the house, a striking feature that makes one’s entrance to the house feel a little more important than it actually is! Inside, the Entrance Hall is a good start to the Adam experience and is probably my favourite room, but if you like Adam interiors you certainly couldn’t come to a better place than Osterley as his influence is absolutely everywhere. As a practitioner of ‘total design’, he had a hand in a lot of the furniture design and placement as well as the decorations and fittings. Even the door handles were intended to enhance the overall impression. Another touch I particularly liked was Adam’s habit of mirroring his ornate ceiling designs with complementary shapes in the carpet or floor tiles and the Entrance Hall is again a good example of this.
The (very stately) bed in the State Bedroom is something else that has to be seen to be believed – I don’t think the sleeping experience was a particularly important factor in its creation as any occupant would find it hard to close their eyes with so much to look at on every side. Look out for the marigold emblems that can be seen on the bed and its linen as this is an indication of Adam’s attention to detail; the location of Child’s bank (at 1 Fleet Street) was once known as ‘at the sign of the marygold’ so this is an important family motif.
Any fan of Adam designs will be dazzled by virtually every room on the principal floor but other particular highlights for me included the Great Stair with its ornate blue banisters and stunning ceiling painting (albeit a copy of the original), the Etruscan Dressing Room with its unusually painted walls and the Tapestry Room where you should look out for the porcupine, not something you see in a National Trust house every day! Mind you, the room is kept very dark to protect the wall hangings so you will need to let your eyes adjust before looking for the little fella.
The ceiling over the Great Stair originally sported a painting by Rubens – The Glorification of the Duke of Buckingham – but this was destroyed along with much of the house’s prized art collection in a fire in Jersey in 1949. The paintings had been removed from the house when it was donated to the Trust, which in hindsight was a very bad decision. Today, many of the paintings on display in the Long Gallery are borrowed from the V&A and the Royal Collection and are used to demonstrate the types of paintings that would once have hung at Osterley.
Something else that is sadly missing from Osterley is Francis Child’s book collection, much of which was sold in 1885 to raise money for roof repairs. Again, the shelves now house items that would have been typical of a gentleman’s library of the time, although there’s not enough of them and some of the shelves are completely empty… which is verging on criminal. (Okay, that’s a slight over-reaction but it’s coming from someone who never has enough book space!)
The Breakfast Room is also missing at the moment. Yes, you did read that right! There is an extensive conservation project underway and the walls have been stripped back to try to identify their original decorations. There is a blog right here on WordPress that will fill you in on what’s happening (osterleybreakfastroom.wordpress.com).
Most of Osterley’s highlights are on the principal floor, with just Robert and Sarah Child’s bedrooms and dressing rooms on the top floor and the kitchens and store rooms on the ground floor. If you like your stately home kitchens and servants quarters you won’t be disappointed at Osterley but I have to admit to passing through quite quickly (with a little nod to the generations of servants passing in and out who had left the stone steps considerably worn down). However, the most interesting thing for me on the lower level was the thickness of two columns in the coal pen, which demonstrate just how much support was needed when Adam created the portico and raised courtyard on the east front.
And so finally I’m just going to come back to the wealth of the Childs once more and how important this was to Osterley. Not only did it allow the creation of what is said to be one of the most complete Adam interiors still in existence, but it also helped in the survival of that interior. How so? Well, the Childs had so much money and so many houses that they were not in residence as often as they might have been and the house was shut up and empty for long periods of time. Only Francis the Grandson and then Robert and Sarah Child spent any considerable time at Osterley. The line of inheritance after Robert and Sarah was also important (although the guidebook is sadly lacking a family tree and I had to resort to an old guide that my dad lent to me). Their daughter, Sarah Anne, eloped to Gretna Green with the 10th Earl of Westmorland who had a reputation as a gambler. Although he forgave his daughter, Robert changed his will so that Osterley and the Child fortune would pass to Sarah Anne’s second child (as the first would inherit the Westmorland property). It was also stipulated that the Child name must be retained so the Westmorlands’ second child, Sarah Sophia, became Mrs Child-Villiers when she married George Villiers, the 5th Earl of Jersey, in 1804. Once more, however, Osterley was not top of their list of possible homes so it was again largely empty, this time for up to 70 years. We can only be grateful for these long gaps in habitation as it means that very little has been changed since the Adam period. Although poor Osterley may have been slightly lonely and neglected in the past, its ornate interiors mean that today it has a regular flow of visitors to admire it so let’s hope it is now a little happier and proud of itself.
NB: A few little asides to finish up. Osterley makes it onto my regal list of properties (which I fully intend to write up soon!) having been visited at least twice by Elizabeth I in its Tudor days. In addition, it has its own links to another NT property as Upton House in Warwickshire was also once owned by the Child family. Rather than trying to build a map of all these connections, I have decided to simply add them to the summaries below so you can follow the network for yourselves. I will try to update previous entries as well as those from here on.
Highlights: The Adam decorations in general and the Entrance Hall and Great Stair in particular
Refreshments: Chicken and Summer Vegetable One Pot with bread (more like a very chunky soup so you’ll need a spoon); Cream Tea
Purchase(s): Guidebook plus two secondhand books (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girls by Lori Lansens)
NT Connections: Upton House (also owned by the Child family)
NB: One of my readers has kindly pointed out to me that Child’s Bank was the inspiration for Telson’s Bank in Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. As this is by far my favourite Dickens novel (despite the fact that it makes me cry every time!), this was a really interesting little gem of info so I thought I’d share it.