Sunday, 3 September 2017

Charlton House - a Jacobean gem

The Royal Borough of Greenwich is best known for its naval connections and of being the home of Greenwich Mean Time. But less than two miles to the east is a little-known gem: Charlton House, one of the finest surviving Jacobean manor houses in England. It sits on a hill, and when construction began in 1607, the estate stretched right down to the river. The diarist, John Evelyn, described the view as ‘one of the most noble in the world, for city, river, ships, meadows, hills, woods and all other amenities’. Today it's surrounded by urban sprawl. The house, however, retains many of its original features. It was built for Sir Adam Newton, tutor to James I’s son Henry, older brother of Charles 1. He sadly died at the age of 18 but the royal connection features in several places, including the Prince of Wales feathers above the east door to the Minstrel Hall, where you enter.
 Leading off this is the Grand Staircase, where the decoration becomes more ornate as you ascend. It was believed evil spirits grew more dangerous the higher you were, so carved into the banisters are grotesque faces whose mouths grow bigger as you ascend – all the better to devour them.
On the first floor the Long Gallery, designed to provide space for exercise in bad weather, is unusual in that it stretches from front to back, rather than sideways.
Next to it is the Grand Salon, recently used as a set for a film about the Getty family.
Ceilings have elaborate plaster-work, and the numerous fireplaces are decorated with beautiful tiling.
On the ground floor, each of the doorways to the Chapel and Wilson room (now a public library) bear panels with crests. The house is thought to have been designed by John Thorpe, one of the earliest known British architects, who lived c 1560 – 1620. It passed through several owners, and between 1767 and 1923 was owned by the Maryon-Wilson family, who added the Old Library with its striking ceiling (below) and the Minstrel Gallery in the entrance hall (now a tea room).
They also enclosed the village green at the front of the house, which is why the original gateway, with its elaborate decoration (below), now stands apparently stranded in the middle of the front lawn.
During World War I the house was used as a hospital for officers, and in 1925 was bought by Greenwich Council. The building’s front was damaged in WWII when a German V2 rocket struck in the garden.
Among the interior casualties was this statue of Vulcan, on the Grand Salon fireplace, who lost some toes, and the plaster work ceiling in the Long Gallery. This was recast using the original moulds that had been stored in the basement; the facade was rebuilt with non-matching bricks (all that were available in wartime). Today Charlton House is cared for by the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust.
In the grounds you will find Jacobean stables, an Amnesty International Peace Garden (above), and a magnificent gnarled mulberry tree, said to have been ordered by King James I to encourage the establishment of a silk industry in England. (Unfortunately it never took off, as the trees he procured were black mulberries, while the silkworms feed on white.)
It still produces fruit, which is used in the cafe’s seasonal desserts. There’s also a Summer House, originally a banqueting house.
This was built in 1630 and attributed to Inigo Jones, who designed the nearby Queen’s House in Greenwich. After having been converted to public toilets, it was closed in the early 90’s. Restoration is now underway, thanks to a donation from the World Monuments Fund. Once the first stage of this is completed, it will become home to temporary exhibitions and events - yet another reason to visit Charlton House.
Entrance to the house and grounds is free.

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