Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Rare Elizabethan mansion: Cobham Hall

We spent Bank Holiday Monday at The Leather Bottle, Charles Dickens’ favourite pub in Cobham near Rochester, Kent and touring Cobham Hall. The Hall is only open on selected days as it is a private girls' school.

Cobham Hall is a vast and outstandingly beautiful red brick mansion in a large park, built in 1584, a combination of Elizabethan, Jacobean, Carolean and 18th Century styles. When new, Lord Brooke, Lord Chamberlain, with the power of censorship, in Shakespeare's time, lived here. A smaller house had been visited by Elizabeth 1st in 1559. Henrietta Maria and Charles 1st spent their honeymoon night at Cobham Hall. Royalty down the centuries have been entertained here, most recently Edward VIII.

Mistresses of Cobham Hall included Frances Stewart better known as 'Britannia' on the old penny coin. She was the pin-up of the Court of Charles II, married the Duke of Richmond and lived at Cobham Hall, without succumbing to the ardent pursuit of Charles II. Samuel Pepys thought she was the most beautiful woman he ever saw:  she clearly lived, while her husband was alive, in one of the most beautiful houses in England. Her face as Britannia was struck on coins and medals by the enamoured King. It was on the 50p piece in 2005.cobham1.jpgStuart.jpg

Britannia, mistress of Cobham Hall, Francis Stuart, Duchess of Richmond by Peter Lely - Royal Collection, Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1259482

The house is H-shaped, with Elizabethan wings. The central section contains the Gilt Hall, by John Webb which was in place by the time of Frances Stewart. We had tea and cakes in the stylish, ducal Gilt Hall to celebrate my cousin’s birthday. The whole Gilt hall celebrates music. Below, right, is the musicians' gallery.
Further rooms were later decorated by James Wyatt in the 18th Century. There is an Italian carriage or two seater ‘chariot’ dating from 1721, which for its complexity and weight was a tight squeeze.
The artworks are mainly copies, the originals having been sold fifty years ago, when the Earls of Darnley moved out, to national galleries, to the Royal Collection in London or overseas. Charles Dickens regularly walked through the grounds, cutting through on his semi marathon walks between from his house in Higham (Gad's Hill) to Rochester. He had a key to the grounds as a close friend of the 6th Earl of Darnley.

In 1883, England cricket captain Hon. Ivo Bligh, later the 8th Earl of Darnley, led the victorious English cricket team against Australia and brought home ‘The Ashes’ to Cobham Hall (which may in fact be ashed from the library hearth, the urn having been dropped. The Ashes (of bats) were awarded to him by an Australian lady, Florence Morphy from Melbourne who later became his wife, the Countess of Darnley and doyenne of magnificent Cobham Hall. I was not surprised to find that the entire Hall was used to tend Australian wounded during World War One, its beauties comforting men after Gallipoli.
Australian Florence Morphy who became  mistress of Cobham Hall Morphy.jpg
The Blighs, Earls of Darnley enjoyed the lovely library (which we all expressed the wish to live in) with its door disguised as bookshelves i.e fake book spines - a crafty technique that Dickens imitated in his own study at nearby Gad’s Hill (but all his titles are amusing, or puns). Dickens knew this library well, being a close friend of the Earl and they drank together at the Leather Bottle, in Cobham village. There is original Regency wallpaper in one state bedroom and a plethora of breathtaking Flemish 17th century marble fireplaces (late Elizabethan) some with the artist’s head and a possible death mask of Mary Queen of Scots in marble. These fireplaces are the glory of the internal parts of the house.

The exquisite Tudor external and inner courtyards have great, if eccentric charm. Actually, they show lack of a proper understanding of classical perspective before Inigo Jones was sent to Rome by the Earl of Pembroke to measure the proportions of fallen classical columns and get perspective 'right'. He did this for the first time in The Queen’s House in Greenwich and then in The Banqueting House, Whitehall. Cobham Hall demonstrates native British architecture (brickwork) at its very best and it is breathtaking. The ruling Tudors and nobility were not ashamed to build in the underlying clay of the South East and to add imposing gatehouses, entrances and cupolas. The imaginative Tudors and Elizabethans 'fantasised' in red brickas below:

The gardens, landscaped for the 4th Earl of Darnley by Humphrey Repton are being restored by the Cobham Hall Heritage Trust. The Gothic Dairy, The Pump House and some of the classical garden buildings are also being renovated. The Landmark Trust aims to renovate and rent out the tumbled down Gothic Dairy by Wyatt, where 18th century Countesses made cheese like shepherdess Queen,  Marie Antoinette. The grounds can be visited on open days  (£2.50 for gardens only) and yield many delights for the lover of nature, especially in spring, when the gardens and woods are resplendent with bluebells daffodils, narcissi and a myriad of rare bulbs.

  • Cobham Hall is only open to the public on certain dates. Guided tours of the house cost £5.50. 
  • For public opening times see the website of Cobham Hall School.
  • For holidays in historic buildings, see The Landmark TrustFor a video of the renovation of Cobham Dairy see here
  • A fully clothed and impressive wax effigy is the intended monument of Frances Stewart ('Britannia') shown at the bottom of this web page for Westminster Abbey where she is buried with her husband.

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