Posts Tagged ‘Uppark’

Imagine losing all your precious possessions in a major disaster. What would you rescue? Photographs? Your computer? Your jewellery? I know what I’d grab first but this isn’t about me. (If you’d really like to know what I’d save, click here – I wrote about it a while back).
Last week we visited Uppark, a Georgian stately home completely devastated by a monumental fire in 1989 when a builder, finishing off repairs to the lead flashings on the roof, had an accident with a blow torch. Pictures, treasures, furniture and tapestries were pulled from the wreckage. The unfortunate builder’s insurance eventually coughed up £20 million, providing the wherewithal for the National Trust to undertake a major conservation project.

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Uppark, South-facing view

Six years later, in 1995, the house had been restored to its former glory and re-opened its doors to the public. It’s taken us since then to travel the twenty miles or so to check it out. It was the restoration rather than the history of the house that interested me – I’m not usually that bothered about mooching around former homes of the upper classes who, having fallen on hard times or wanting to avoid inheritance tax, bequeath their stately piles to the Trust in return for modest accommodation somewhere on the site.

However, for those who like a little historical content, the house was purchased by one Matthew Fetherstonhaugh, the son of a baronet, in 1747. He then married into the Hugenot family so between them, he and his wife were not short of a bob or two. They embarked on the Grand Tour  – a rite of passage for all the wealthy, ox-bridge educated elite of the time. This was a lengthy tour of cultural Europe, ostensibly undertaken to widen horizons and educate but what it did was allow our monied gentry to purchase works of art, furniture and the like to fill their stately homes after indulgently sampling everything else the continent had to offer. (And our kids thought they invented the gap year – pah!) Over two years the couple amassed a wealth of artworks with which they decorated Uppark.

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Evidence of past pursuits – bagging a couple of pheasants

The years passed by, the house was left to Matthew’s only son Harry who lived a riotous life. He had a brief but torrid affair with a teenager called Emma Hart who lived at Uppark with him until she became pregnant and then he sent her packing. She would later become Lord Nelson’s infamous Mrs Hamilton. The Prince of Wales was a frequent visitor to Uppark where he followed such pursuits as gambling, shooting and hunting.   Through this royal connection Harry met and befriended the designer Humphry Repton who was responsible for adding the front portico,the dairy block and the stables to Uppark.

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The front portico, designed by Repton

At the age of seventy, Harry married his dairymaid, Mary Ann, and the couple lived together until his death twenty years later. She inherited the house and her descendents have lived there ever since, passing Uppark into the hands of the National Trust in 1954 while retaining part of the house for their own use.

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The dairy where Harry met Mary

So, other than providing us with an example of how the wealthy lived in those days, has Uppark actually left the nation with any kind of legacy? Well, yes, because below stairs between 1880-1893, HG Wells (the author) lived briefly with his mother, where she was employed as the family’s housekeeper. It is thought that he gained inspiration for his novel ‘The Time Machine’ while playing in the tunnels that linked the old kitchens at Uppark to the main house.

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The kitchen, now in the main house

Now – enough of the history stuff and on to the restoration. Most of the main house and its contents were damaged in the fire and it was a frenzied labour of love by the family and the National Trust together with countless fire-fighting teams to salvage as many treasures as they could. Touring the house today visitors are hard pushed to detect what is genuinely old and what has been renovated, conserved or restored. Floorboards look fashionably distressed; old paintings and chandeliers cleaned and rehung.  Walls and ceilings have been meticulously copied from old plans – the gilding of the ceiling in the main saloon is stunning. Each room displays a large photograph showing the extent of the damage and it is testament to the craftsmanship and expertise of the restoration team that the house now presents as it does.  An art work that sadly didn’t survive the flames was a Canaletto landscape. One of the fire crew managed to remove it from the wall in the saloon only to leave it resting at the top of the staircase for someone else to carry down …

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Zoe Hillyard’s patchwork vases

Running currently at Uppark is a modern art exhibition whereby thirteen artists have been commissioned to respond to moments and events reflecting the history of the house. Each room houses one of these art works and it was fun to spot them and work out their significance. My favourite were the ceramic patchwork vases created by Zoe Hillyard displayed in the red drawing room. They added a splash of colour, they looked like ceramic pieces stuck haphazardly together but on closer inspection it is revealed that they are made from fabric off-cuts stitched together like a patchwork quilt. A little reminiscent of Grayson Perry’s ceramics – which is probably why they caught my eye.  This exhibition finishes on 2nd November but is worth catching if you can.

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