When I booked this spring’s holiday cottage in North Yorkshire, I was completely unaware that the visit (with Mum in tow once again) would coincide with the annual 4-day Tour de Yorkshire cycle race. And that our holiday cottage was directly on Saturday’s route from Richmond to Scarborough! In an ideal world, we could have stayed here in Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe for the day and joined the enthusiastic locals cheering the cyclists as they whizzed through the village, but my NT trips don’t often allow for going ‘off piste’ and this week is no exception with little time to spare for non-NT activities. So, we had to simply plan a little creatively: leaving the village before the rolling road closure kicked in and returning after the road had re-opened. All went smoothly and we then watched the cycling highlights on TV in the evening.
We headed south to avoid any other inadvertent contact with the race route and made our way to Beningbrough Hall & Gardens. During my travels, I have come across a few properties that I tend to think of as ‘no strings attached’ houses, i.e. properties that the Trust has been able to mould in its own way without too many historical ties or limitations, and Beningbrough seems to be one of these. In this instance, the house came to the NT in 1958 with few significant contents and with a rundown garden so it was initially tenanted for a number of years. It wasn’t until the 1970s that restoration began to create a visitor attraction. What has been done with Beningbrough – in association with the National Portrait Gallery – is actually fairly special and has turned what could have been a relatively empty house into an interesting space, blending Baroque architecture and decoration with a modern art gallery. The visitor travels from the awe-inspiring double-height Italianate Great Hall right up to the top floor’s display galleries, which would not be out of place in a contemporary museum.
Perhaps because of this, there is less attention than usual paid to the various owners of Beningbrough and to who did what and when. I had to turn to my guide book to fill in the gaps but it appears from this background reading that there are still many mysteries about the Hall. For example, there are no images of the Tudor manor that stood on this spot before the current house was built, plus some uncertainty about how the surroundings of the current Baroque house may once have looked: a painting of the property in the Great Staircase Hall shows flanking buildings and a turning circle that may never have existed… or did they? No one knows.
As far as the people are concerned, there is a little more clarity: Ralph Bourchier built the original Tudor house then several generations later John Bourchier inherited the estate at the age of 16 and after four years on the Grand Tour returned with major plans for an Italian-style home. Thankfully, he married a wealthy heiress (so many of these house builders did!) and Beningbrough Hall was created. The Bourchier line ended with Margaret Earle, née Bourchier, who owned the house for 65 years in total, although it was left abandoned for a long period during that time as she and her husband travelled the Continent. The Earles spent so much time abroad that commentators of the day reported Margaret to ‘dress very French’ and speak only ‘broken English’ on her return.
Margaret’s two sons were both killed fighting Napoleon so the property then passed to a close friend of the family, the Reverend William Dawnay and the Dawnay family presided at Beningbrough between 1827 and 1916 when the estate was sold. Lord and Lady Chesterfield acquired the house in 1917 but they vacated in 1941 to make way for servicemen from nearby RAF Linton-on-Ouse, with Canadian Air Force personnel also billeted there from 1943. A poignant exhibition in one of the display galleries tells the story of this time and presents the memories of airmen who saw comrades arrive, go out on ops and never return to their empty beds. There are also copies of letters that parents received to report their sons missing in action. This is only a single exhibition room but certainly leaves its mark.
What will make Beningbrough most memorable for some though is its role as a portrait gallery and education centre. The alliance with the National Portrait Gallery (something that I had already considered a success at Montacute House in Somerset) means that visitors to this Yorkshire house can not only see some fairly special 17th and 18th century portraits – including examples by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough – but also learn about portraiture as an art form. You can even get a ‘virtual’ portrait of yourself created. Mine is pictured here: although I can’t really see a clear resemblance, I like that she appears artistic and looks poised to create something memorable (or blog about her day!) The exhibition even includes a display about portrait sculpture where you can create a new nose for Captain Cook out of clay (note to self: this is probably for kids, but hey ho!)
The Trust’s over-arching theme for 2018 is Women and Power so the rolling temporary exhibition space at Beningbrough is currently dedicated to ‘Celebrating Creative Women’, with portraits of actresses, writers, dancers and singers on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. These include JK Rowling, Dame Judi Dench and Darcy Bussell, among others.
The portrait theme is carried throughout the house, so even in the formal rooms, the wall space is crammed with art. One room focuses specifically on members of the Kit-Cat Club, a Whig club formed in the late 1600s and named after Christopher Cat, the owner of the tavern where the members met and ate mutton pies. As someone who spends her working life writing about the food industry, I was actually surprised to learn that the club’s name inspired Kit-Cat boxed chocolates, a name that Rowntree’s later adopted instead for its crunchy chocolate wafers. The number one selling chocolate bar in the UK is named after a man who made mutton pies… that’s the kind of fun fact that makes me love history.
The other thing about Beningbrough that surprised me was its gardens. Described as ‘in much need of attention’ when the restoration of Beningbrough began, the gardens have clearly come a long way and continue to evolve and expand, with a current project to create a wisteria pergola being handled by RHS Chelsea winner Andy Sturgeon. There was plenty of colour and impact around the gardens, with my particular favourite sights being the magnolia in the American garden, the bright splash of warm coloured tulips in the West Formal Garden, and the flowering cherry overlooking the south lawn, under which we sat for a rest and a read.
I do like to find a novelty during my visits and Beningbrough’s is probably the lever to the left of the front door, which servants could use to open the iron entry gates as visitors approached up the driveway. Today’s cars take the same approach, gifting the visitor with an impressive view of the house on their way in, but there were no servants on hand today so we had to spin off into the car park.
Highlights: Portraiture; spring blossoms
Refreshments: Sicilian lemonade with half a fruit scone; chicken and leek pie with new potatoes and cabbage; half a slice of treacle tart
Purchase(s): Guidebook; Rucksack in a pack; plus bread and cakes from the Home Farm farm shop (which you can visit on your way out of the estate)