During its history, Basildon Park has gone through more ups and downs than a yo-yo and the downs have been low enough that it is something of a miracle that the house is still standing today. Lady Luck has certainly played her part in Basildon’s survival but it is Lord and Lady Iliffe – its final owners before it was gifted to the National Trust in 1978 – who are perhaps owed most thanks for the property we can visit today.
If houses had human emotions, Basildon would probably be in need of intensive psychotherapy to come to terms with the neglect and abandonment in its past. Learning about its history during the extensive (one-and-a-quarter-hour!) tour that we took, I actually felt extremely sorry for it. Happily, though, the recent story is more positive as the Iliffes lavished a lot of attention on the house and the many visitors that now pass through its doors will also be doing their bit to restore its self-confidence.
To summarise some of the ups and downs, we start with Sir Francis Sykes who paid for the construction of the Palladian-style building in the 1770s, using some of the riches he had made while working for the East India Company in Bengal. As Sykes’ fortunes faded, however, there was no money to finish the interiors and his heirs, also financially challenged, seem to have viewed the mortgaged Basildon as more of a burden than a blessing. In 1838, things picked up for a while after the house was bought by James Morrison, who had made his money from haberdashery (and from marrying the boss’ daughter; this strategy seems to crop up in quite a few stories of successful men in the 18th and 19th centuries!). Morrison oversaw the completion of the unfinished rooms and also invested heavily to fill the house with art.
But after this first James Morrison the lows come thick and fast. Major James Morrison, who inherited the house in 1910, didn’t live there and used it only for the occasional shooting party (one of which incidentally involved representatives of a paper company who decided to name their new line of writing paper Basildon Bond). During the First World War, Basildon was used as a convalescent home for soldiers and then later, with Major Morrison’s fortunes suffering under the pressure of three marriages, it was eventually sold in 1928. It was bought by the 1st Lord Iliffe, whose attitude to the place was as different from the 2nd Lord as it could possibly be. His only interest in Basildon was in its land so he took what he wanted and then put the remaining property back on the market. In his short tenure, however, he stripped some of the house’s internal doors and chimneypieces, which were removed to his London home; these have since been recovered, although one of them has a plain panel where it was damaged during the London bombing raids in WWII (right).
The depths of Basildon’s lows were still to come, however. In 1929, the house was bought by George Ferdinando, a property developer, who planned to sell the house lock, stock and barrel to an American and dismantle it in order to rebuild it on the other side of the Atlantic. Fortunately – and this is where Lady Luck really played her part – the economic situation in the States meant that no one took him up on the million-dollar asking price. Just like Lord Iliffe, though, Ferdinando took what he could get from Basildon, stripping many more of its fittings so it was already in a fairly sorry state before the army took over during WWII… and caused even more damage.
Are you crying yet? Well, never fear, we now get to the part of the story that involves the 2nd Lord Iliffe and his wife and our poor house starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Iliffes (this time using money from newspaper publishing) bought the house in 1952 and immediately went to work on refurbishing the property and returning it to its glory days, with some rooms showing signs of the original 18th century Sykes designs, while others have a more Victorian feel from the Morrison era. Today’s visitors can even experience some of the 1950s era with kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms displayed as they would have been in the Iliffes’ early years.
Lady Iliffe was very hands-on and did some of the textile work herself, adapting curtains into wall hangings, sewing bed covers and personally nailing the red felt to the walls of the Octagon Drawing Room. The Iliffe family influence is also evident in the Shell Room, which houses the shell collection of Lord Iliffe’s mother combined with another collection acquired by Lady Iliffe in 1945. The guide that led our tour described this as one of the Marmite rooms in the house that you’ll either love or hate, although I have to say I don’t feel that strongly either way, I just appreciate the room as something of an oddity. It’s certainly very different and the amount of work that has gone into the creation of the wall designs and cabinets is extraordinary.
As ever, taking the house tour was extremely interesting as it gave all the highlights in every room and also delivered a few juicy titbits that we might otherwise have missed, e.g. the Basildon Bond story. There are a couple of other things that I found particularly interesting. The first is that the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York has a Basildon Room containing some of the painted panels and fittings from the Dining Room, sold off by our neglectful property developer between the World Wars. The second is the fact that Bill Sikes of Oliver Twist fame was named after Sir Francis (William) Sykes, the grandson of our first Sir Francis and one of Basildon’s former owners. His wife Henrietta appeared to have been fairly generous with her affections, embarking on numerous affairs with lords and politicians (including Disraeli) but it was not until she switched her attention to the artist Daniel Maclise that her husband really took umbrage (clearly politicians and lords of the realm were more acceptable lovers!). Maclise was a good friend of Dickens so when Sykes cut his wife off without a penny as punishment for her affair with a lowly artist, Dickens offered to name a character in his next book after Sykes and so we get one of the biggest villains in English literature. The power of the pen!
The Disraeli connection ties this story in with that of Hughenden and a wardrobe from Hughenden can be found in one of the bedrooms. There is also another obvious NT connection in the form of the original Alec Cobbe paintings on the ceiling of the Dining Room (replacing the panels that now grace the Waldorf Astoria). Cobbe’s art can also be seen at Hatchlands, which is still one of his homes and also houses his collection of musical instruments. I have already visited both Hughenden and Hatchlands so have a look at the separate entries if you want more info on either of them.
The last thing I need to mention about Basildon is its popularity as a film set. Most recently, it was used for the filming of the Christmas special of Downton Abbey and stills from the programme are displayed around the house (left) so you can see where various scenes took place. I am now quite keen to watch the programme again, just to look at the backdrop. Mind you, there are a lot of alternatives as many other programmes and movies have used Basildon locations in the past ten years: Pride & Prejudice (2004), The Duchess (2009), Dorian Gray (2009), The Royal Bodyguard (2011), Parade’s End (2011) and The Wedding Video (2011). I’ve actually got Dorian Gray on DVD so I may have a look at that soon to see if I can spot the Green Drawing Room.
For anyone interested in this aspect of Basildon, you mustn’t miss the exhibition in the south pavilion. There is a video that describes various aspects of the house and the Downton filming but I was more interested in some of the other displays. These included a call sheet for Pride & Prejudice, outlining the ins and outs of the day’s filming, who was due on set and even summarising what the various unit vehicles were expected to do, e.g. unit vehicle two had to collect Brenda Blethyn from her hotel at 7am and take her to set! There are also several set dressing proposals highlighting which objects were being kept or removed from the various rooms during Downton’s filming. For a film lover like myself these insights into the workings of movie-making were fascinating.
Last but not least, even if you aren’t looking for a cuppa or a spot of lunch, the ground floor tea room is worth a quick visit as it has some unusual wall paintings created by Lady Iliffe’s nephew. These show Asian scenes as a reminder of Sir Francis Sykes’ Indian dealings. And if you want to bring your own refreshments, there are currently works going on near the stable block (home to reception and the shop) so you will soon be able to have a picnic in an old Victorian pigsty… now, that’s not an experience many of us can lay claim to!
Highlights: The Dining Room, the Octagon Drawing Room, the Shell Room, the film connections
Refreshments: Redbush tea (there were even several varieties to choose from, best redbush selection ever!); ploughman’s lunch; cream tea
Companion(s): Mum and Dad
NT Connections: Hughenden (there is a Hughenden wardrobe in one of the bedrooms and Disraeli had an affair with Henrietta Sykes, wife of a former owner of Basildon); Hatchlands (Alec Cobbe of Hatchlands painted the ceiling in the Dining Room); Baddesley Clinton (the Erard piano in the Octagon Drawing Room was bought from a sale of items at Baddesley Clinton; the Iliffes apparently also looked at Baddesley Clinton as a potential purchase before they bought Basildon Park).