Audley End

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This week the Gallery Tart wandered off to the fields of Suffolk for a bit of fresh air and the joys of Audley End.  This history of this grand house stretches back to pre-reformation having started out as the site of Walden Abbey in the 12th century.  The abbey was dissolved by Henry the VIII and granted to Sir Thomas Audley, who rebuilt the house into a Jacobean mansion which was completed in the early 1600s. It has had various histories since and survives today in a reduced but still magnificent form.

Covid restrictions still apply, so all masked up, we took the very specific route through the house.  Unfortunately, taking photographs is not permitted within the house so you’ll have to rely on my descriptions.  The first stop is the Great Hall, beautiful, if I had to think about the ideas of Englishness that have permeated to me over the years, this would be part of them. There’s a fabulous oak screen that covers the whole wall around the entrance arch, very beautiful with fantastic carvings, all still intact, after all this time.  The wooden panelling theme continues throughout the hall and around the fireplace.  Obviously this area was intended to impress visitors and indeed it does. 

We continued on up the stairs to the saloon, quite magnificent with painted and gilded wooden panelling in here and an amazing ceiling.  All in white plasterwork, it’s a panelled ceiling with the bosses  at the corners of the square panels elongated into long downward pinnacles.  It feels completely over the top, an exaggeration of the ceiling in the great hall which in contrast feels more formal and sombre, it certainly sets the stage for entertaining.

Next we came to the drawing room, another beautiful room but the ceiling is less prominent and instead we were drawn to the substantial collection of paintings hung in here.  The collection is mainly down to Sir John Griffin, Griffin, (not a typo), who was a collector during his period at the house in the 17th century, the hang is as arranged by the 3rd Lord Braybrooke during the 19th century.  Collecting is a whole area of study in itself, as is the bequeathing of the collection onwards.  To establish themselves as gentlemen, men collected and displayed their collections, indeed many museums we have today rest on this collecting activity since it became fashionable to bequeath them to the nation to enable wider artistic consumption.  It’s good though that this particular collection remains here and can be seen in situ.  Used to the contextuality of national galleries and museums, it’s quite interesting to see old masters just casually hanging there as they used to be.  

We moved on through the libraries, wonderful, scholarly spaces, with, again, collections, this time of books.  Books are dying, they tell us, as we move ever more towards a digital life but somehow I think there will always be a place for them.  Looking at these beautifully bound volumes you just wanted to reach out, I didn’t dare, and touch them, the spines, the covers, so carefully made and tactile. 

We came then to the dining room, laid out for dessert in the 19th century, great big candelabra in the middle, beautiful crystal glasses and gorgeous crockery and cutlery.  I couldn’t help but think about how important entertaining is in diplomacy, here is a big house, where powerful figures gathered to discuss life changing ideas and in the centre of all that is entertaining and the of simple act of offering food and drink as a sign of friendship and trust.     

The next part of the collection I found really fascinating was the Natural History collection, and by that, I mean the collection of stuffed animals that fill the upper and lower picture galleries.  The collection was mostly amassed by the Hon. Richard Neville, the 4th Lord Braybrooke during the 19th century.  Obviously, in contemporary contexts hunting, catching and stuffing animals for display is not acceptable but I think one needs to put on a historical hat and see these collections within the thinking of the time.

For a start, as with the photographs of botanical specimens from the exhibition at the Dulwich Gallery I reviewed a few weeks ago, these were mainly intended for scientific study and teaching exemplars.  Although, of course, you cannot get away from the ideas of self-positioning that this collection throws up, just as with the books and paintings.  The idea of man at the top of the animal kingdom tree, the sense of empire being perpetuated through the collecting of specimens far and wide and the unintended consequences of hunting to extinction that came out of the thirst for such collecting.

That aside though, and looking just at the collection, it’s really interesting how far and wide the collecting went, without our digital access, this was the only chance to see a different world inhabited by different species.  The quality of the taxidermy is of a really high standard, it was quite an art.  The placement of the animals in display cases is also not accidental with realistic backgrounds built to reflect on the areas the animals came from.

As a final note on waxing lyrical on taxidermy, you can clearly see here the influence of such collections on contemporary artists.  I know I’ve referenced Damien Hirst before but his formaldehyde animals started here, as did his butterfly-scapes, while the careful layout of collections of shells recalls his carefully laid out pills and packets in Pharmaceuticals, 2005.  More shockingly perhaps, contemporary artists are working with taxidermy today, you might want to have a look at the work of Darwin.Sinke van Tongeren,  

Of course, there is the house, then there are the grounds, wonderful, we left the house, and, refreshed by coffee and cake, headed off for a walk around the park.  Fabulous as well, the parterre garden at the back of the house, where we exited, was designed by Capability Brown in the mid-18th century, the vogue gardener of the period.  Of course, it declined with the fortunes of the house but it was restored by English Heritage and is now blooming in full glory again.  We were lucky to be visiting in summer when all the flowers were out giving a real riot of colour, even in the English drizzle.

Further out we found the ponds, the kitchen gardens and the stables.  It was lovely, you’re free to explore and we spent ages walking and coming upon little nuggets of fun, old oaks, bridges and even a waterfall. 

A great day away from the Smoke, it was wonderful to have the privilege of wandering around this house and grounds and over so many years of history. So, get out of London, put your walking boots on and go and see some of our fantastic cultural heritage.

Rita Fennell – Historic House Tart

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