As I have done for the past few years, I used my annual trip to the Cheltenham horse racing festival to get my NT visits underway and headed off to Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire the day before the horses took over my every waking thought for four days (hence the delay in writing this up!)
Hanbury Hall is one of those houses that may not have survived until today were it not for one particular jewel in its crown. In this instance, the National Trust’s interest in the house was stirred not by its pretty exterior or its cast of interesting characters but purely and simply by the dramatic staircase with its murals painted by Sir James Thornhill (best known for his later work on the cupola of St Paul’s Cathedral and on the walls of the Painted Hall at Greenwich). The artwork is certainly dramatic, with characters appearing to ‘fall’ from the ceiling to the wall, while every inch of space is covered in either full colour or more muted two-shade trompe l’oeil effects. The Trust clearly has great pride in the staircase and has recently restored the paintings. There is even a series of display boards on the upper landing to explain what each of the paintings shows and how it fits in to the classical story of Achilles.
James Thornhill was noted for the use of political statement and satire in his works and I have already visited the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, which features various monarchs, including King William with his foot on a figure that is thought to be depicted as Louis XIV. Hanbury’s staircase also makes a few political points, with the pictures including a representation of Henry Sacheverell being thrown to the Furies. This Tory preacher had been put on trial for sedition by the Whig government so his fate in the painting would have amused Hanbury’s Whig owner, Thomas Vernon.
Like so many of the families I have ‘met’ at the National Trust’s stately homes, the Vernons of Hanbury Hall are certainly worth looking into. During our visit, we managed to secure the last two places on the second of two morning tours, so we got a good introduction to key members of the family during a walk around the downstairs rooms. However, it was a little confusing trying to keep up with who was who and which portrait was which, so I think it would perhaps be helpful to have a handout that gives some of the key facts about the most interesting Vernons and points out where they can be found looking down from the walls.
The most important of all the Vernons – in as much as he made most of the family’s money and built the current house at Hanbury in the early 1700s – was Thomas Vernon, a successful lawyer who made his fortune in the Chancery court. He also commissioned the Thornhill paintings and paid for garden designer George London to lay out the gardens and grounds. Fortunately, London’s designs have survived so the gardens have been recreated to his original ideas, including the Sunken Parterre (above), the Fruit Garden (below), the Wilderness and the Grove. The Orangery is a slightly later addition but no less welcome because of it, while I was also fascinated by the mushroom house, which was something I’d not come across before and which was home to forced rhubarb growing away in the pitch dark. Although the Sunken Parterre is likely to be much more dramatic in a few weeks when the spring flowers burst into life, its symmetry and clipped hedges still make it a sight to be seen even with relatively empty beds. And spring has sprung in other parts of the gardens, with primroses, daffodils and anemones cheering the scene here and there.
Returning to the Vernon timeline, Thomas died childless so Hanbury Hall was left to his cousin’s son Bowater Vernon who proceeded to spend as much of his inherited fortune as he could. It was perhaps a fortunate fortune, in that Bowater died within a couple of years of inheriting, thus limiting the damage. His granddaughter Emma was the next Vernon of note. Having married Henry Cecil, later the Earl of Exeter, she then took a shine to a local curate and eventually ran off with him to Portugal. He died shortly after and she returned to England, married again and eventually moved back to Hanbury after Henry Cecil died. Cecil himself had had an interesting time since losing Emma, moving to the countryside and living a simple life under an assumed name before marrying a local farmer’s daughter, initially bigamously before getting his divorce and marrying her again! His wife was later dubbed the ‘Cottage Countess’ and it seems she never really fit in to her new role when the Earl took over the family’s estates at opulent Burghley House.
Later, Hanbury came into the hands of Sir Harry Foley and Lady Georgina, who took on the estate in 1859 and were worthy and charitable folks with strong ties to the local community. Sir Harry also became the first of the family to gain a title when receiving a baronetcy in 1885. After these, we come finally to Sir Bowater George Hamilton Vernon who spent much of his life raising horses on an Argentinean farm and who committed suicide at Hanbury in 1940, leaving the contents of the house and of nearby Shrawley Wood (another Vernon home) to his parlour maid!
This decision actually placed Hanbury’s future at great risk as Ruth, the aforementioned parlour maid, sold a lot of Hanbury’s contents, which took away some of its attraction to those who might have been interested in preserving it. Over the years, the house’s interiors had also been altered, with walls being knocked through, fireplaces moved and windows blocked up, so it had become something of a hotchpotch of design. All in all, if it weren’t for the painted staircase, the National Trust may never have been interested in taking on the property, and as it was, an anonymous donor was still required to deliver the required endowment so the Trust could take over at Hanbury in 1953.
It would seem that in more recent years, the Trust has been investing heavily in the property, with a new roof being put on in 2008/09 (complete with hidden solar panels), while work on the gardens continues, with new avenues of trees planted between 2007 and 2010 (the same year in which the restoration of the Great Staircase was completed). A new tearoom has also opened upstairs in the house, which could be very important as the restaurant is more than a little cramped and seems to be catering to rather more visitors than it was originally designed for – even on a Monday in March.
One final note brings me back to the Vernons and their family motto: ‘Vernon Semper Viret’, which means ‘Vernon always flourishes’ or is ‘always green’. On the fireplace in the Main Hall and the porcelain in the Dining Room, this motto is written with a space in the middle of Vernon, i.e. Ver Non Semper Viret. This suggests a whole different meaning – ‘spring is not always green’ – and it is appropriate that this seems to sum up the Vernon family to a tee: for every flourishing Thomas or Sir Harry, there was a spendthrift Bowater or a scandalous Emma. I am not entirely sure what it says about me, but I know that I would enjoy my historical families far less if they were all ‘jolly good eggs’ with no hint of profligacy or disgrace. Thankfully, the Vernons didn’t let me down in that regard, so even if painted staircases and William & Mary design are not your thing, you could always seek out the portraits of Hanbury’s more colourful characters and ask the room guides for the gossip.
Highlights: The sunken parterre, the John Thornhill painted staircase
Refreshments: Servant’s lunch (i.e. a ploughman’s by another name!), half a slice of salted caramel chocolate cake
Purchase(s): Guidebook; jelly beans