It’s been a while since my last entry but I have finally returned to the challenge in mid-April, a little later than last year. I also have a busy year of foreign travel lined up and I’m not sure I’ll be able to match last year’s numbers but we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Although I’m a little late embarking on my 2015 visits, you’ll have to agree that I’ve managed to segue smoothly from one year to the next as I finished 2014 with a trip to Red House, the first house designed by Philip Webb, and have started 2015 at Standen, the last house he ever designed. Both are also strongly associated with William Morris, the first as Morris’ home and the second as an exhibition of his Arts & Crafts decorations and furnishings.
One thing that my visit to Standen brought home to me was how differently I am viewing the people associated with each property: some of them stand out for the characters who inhabited them, while others (like Standen) are more notable for those who created them. I won’t gloss over the owners of Standen entirely, though, as that would simply be rude, but hopefully I can cover them fairly quickly.
As one of the newer of the NT’s properties – a late-Victorian country home built between 1892 and 1894 – Standen does not have a long family tree to wade through, having been in the hands of two generations of the Beale family from the time of its construction right up to its donation to the Trust in 1972. As much as I love uncovering the characters in each house’s past, it was a bit of a relief to see such a short family tree in the guidebook for a change!
The man who hired Philip Webb to design Standen was James Beale, a solicitor from an established Birmingham family that had fingers in many Midlands pies. In total, the house cost around £18,000 to build, which would be equivalent of £1.5 million today. The family money came mainly from the role that the Beale & Co family business played in the Midland Railway and the creation of the impressive London terminus at St Pancras. Negotiations about this terminus prompted the company to establish a London office and James Beale headed south with his family to run it. With an expanding household, which by 1891 included seven children aged between five and nineteen, Beale then decided it was time to build a country retreat within striking distance of the city. (Interestingly, on the very good introductory talk that I listened to on my visit, a train journey to London from East Grinstead is now only 3 minutes faster than it was when James Beale was travelling backwards and forwards.)
Standen is presented in such a way as to make sure that the Beales are celebrated almost as much as the house, with the current layout being based on how it would have been in 1926 at a time when the eldest daughter Amy was visiting with her family. Also, one of the bedrooms, which was used for many years as a studio by Maggie Beale, the second oldest daughter, has recently been converted back to this format, with examples of Maggie’s pictures on display.
Although the Beales cannot and should not be forgotten, it is most likely that the Arts & Crafts architecture and interiors are the main attraction for most visitors to Standen. In line with the movement’s focus on simple and traditional craftsmanship, Webb was committed to using local materials in his designs and there are a lot of different examples on show in Standen, including Horsham bricks and tiles, Sussex oak beams and weather-boarding, and sandstone quarried from the hillside right behind the house. Webb was also influenced primarily by the needs of the house’s occupants and was a supporter of more sensible architecture, so Standen’s kitchens are within easy walking distance of the dining room and the morning room is located at the east end of the building where it catches the best of the morning sunlight. (This was my favourite room, incidentally, as it is homely, cosy and full of books!)
Ostentation also had no place in a Webb house so although there are some unusual fireplaces and light fittings designed by Webb, they still retain the simple values of the Arts & Crafts movement and take design inspiration from the natural world. Webb was apparently once quoted as saying that he wasn’t happy until his work looked ‘commonplace’, which is perhaps a little too self-effacing, but you can understand the sentiment. His contributions at Standen are probably not what I would call commonplace but they are certainly more modest and understated than you might expect from the architect of a country pile.
Something else that my Dad noticed and asked the tour guide about was the height of the chimney stacks at Standen. With Webb’s lack of interest in ostentation, it seemed odd that he had chosen to include such imposing chimneys on the house, but we were reliably informed that they had to be that height as the house has high land to the back and smoke from a lower chimney could have been diverted back into the courtyard and gardens. So, in true Webb style, function over form.
While Red House is still slowly revealing all of its William Morris delights, examples of the designer’s work have long been on display at Standen, with Morris wallpapers, textiles and furnishings in virtually every room. I took a few photos of the wallpapers wherever the light was good enough. A lot of the rooms at Standen are kept fairly dark to protect its contents and I could embark on a long debate here about the pros and cons of sacrificing the visitors’ experience in favour of protecting the contents they have come to see… but there just isn’t the time or space. I am sure you have your own opinions on this issue.
I’ll just draw your attention to a few other highlights of Standen. First of all, there are quite a lot of examples of William de Morgan ceramics in the house; many belong here full time, but others are on loan to Standen while the William de Morgan collection is looking for a new home. I was pleasantly surprised by these boldly coloured bowls and plates and I have to say I prefer them to many more recognised and traditional ceramics so I may have to seek out the full collection once it has found a new exhibition space. In the meantime, my Dad – who went to see the collection at its old home in the Wandsworth Museum – has lent me a book to read about de Morgan and his wife. You may remember that I had decided to read up about William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites after my Red House visit and the Standen shop supplied me with the requisite reading material on both, so I should be busy self-educating for some time now!
Anyone visiting Standen with children (or the young at heart) might want to set them a ‘Spot the Sunflower’ challenge in the Drawing Room as there are examples everywhere, from wallpaper and textiles to light fittings and even the stretcher on a William Morris six-legged table. Other fun things for younger visitors (and me!) include the address stamp in the Billiard Room so you can take home a piece of paper with the Standen address imprinted into it. The old typewriter in the Business Room is also free for visitors to use, but I hope you do a better job than me as I managed to type ‘Standen Visit 2985’ instead of 2015! My twenty-first century brain looked for the backspace key… to no avail!
I must just finish with a mention of the gardens, which are something of a work in progress as the Trust is recreating Mrs Beale’s 1920s gardens. For those interested in garden design, there is a display about the project in the Potting Shed next to the café. Despite the unfinished nature of certain parts of the garden, they are certainly well worth a look at the moment as Standen is holding a tulip festival, and the beds are awash with spring colour.
Highlights: William Morris and William de Morgan decorations; the cosy Morning Room
Refreshments: Pot of tea and a toasted teacake (we later had lunch at the Star Inn on the A22 nearby as Dad refused to get in the very long queue at the Barn Café!)
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘William Morris’ by Richard Tame; ‘The Pre-Raphaelites’ by Tim Hilton; three secondhand books (‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis, ‘My Last Duchess’ by Daisy Goodwin, and ‘Sister’ by Rosamund Lupton)
Companion(s): Mum, Dad, Sue and Roger
NT Connections: Red House (an earlier house designed by the architect Philip Webb and with Morris interiors); Wightwick Manor & Gardens (Morris & Co interiors and pre-Raphaelite paintings); Cragside (Morris & Co interiors)