Taking on a 100 room Grade 1 listed fortified mansion is a decorating challenge few of us would want to contemplate. Yet, for the owners of Eastnor Castle, the decision to redecorate the family’s ancestral home after 50 years of neglect was a labour of love and the start of a transformation which has breathed new life into the castle’s fortunes. Chris Yeo tells the story.
Ah, the sweet breath of Spring. What better excuse to hit the road and head out of leafy Tetbury, over the county border into equally verdant Herefordshire. Here, at the southern tip of the Malvern Hills, a short drive from the medieval town of Ledbury, you’ll find Eastnor Castle. Rising majestically in its wooded lakeside location, Eastnor is a fairy tale castle straight out of the pages of Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. But the fairy tale analogy doesn’t end there. Having been one of the most sumptuous and celebrated country houses of the 19th century, Eastnor was for many years a shadow of its former self; a sleeping beauty whose glory days seemed well and truly in the past. Until, that is, the talented hand of a new owner brought it back to life.
For generations the country houses of England were the acme of style, splendour and comfort, at times even eclipsing the palaces of Royalty. Yet for much of the twentieth century, their history was one of survival against harsh economic forces; seemingly forced either to go down the route of moth-balled shabby chic – only frequently lacking the chic – or re-invented as Disneyfied olde worlde theme parks. But for a few brave owners there was a third way. When James Hervey-Bathhurst and his first wife Sarah moved into the castle in 1988, Eastnor was a shadow of its former self. The interior hadn’t been touched for decades and its state rooms, once the height of 19th century sophistication, had become a temple to the philosophy of ‘make do and mend’. While most people would have turned on their heels at the challenge, the couple saw the potential of restoring the house to its former splendour and embarked on a ten year programme of redecoration. The results are truly transformative, introducing a modern sensibility into the 200 year old building while still keeping a sense of the opulence enjoyed in its heyday: a melding of antiques, interior design and modern style. A perfect subject for the Lorfords blog.
Eastnor is an example of that strange phenomenon – the sham castle. Part house, part toy fort, these architectural fantasies were briefly fashionable in the early years of the 19th century. It was built between 1811 and 1824 for the 1st Earl Manvers. The Earl wanted a home that would impress his contemporaries and raise his family into the higher ranks of the ruling class. For this he turned to a young architect, Robert Smirke (who would go on to design the British Museum) who proposed a building in the Norman Revival style. His grandson, the 3rd Earl was at the forefront of High Victorian taste and undertook lavish embellishments of the castle in the 1860s and ‘70s. The 3rd Earl was a serious collector with catholic tastes. Under his guiding hand Eastnor filled up with 17th century Italian furniture, Renaissance art, Flemish tapestries and medieval armour. The castle’s interiors reflected his love of Italy with richly decorative interiors in jewel-like colours.
The finest of Eastnor’s interiors is the Gothic Drawing Room. Completed in 1849, it is considered one of the best and most complete surviving interior by the master of the Victorian Gothic Revival, A.W. Pugin, then fresh from his most famous commission, the Houses of Parliament. When it was completed the room caused such a stir that it was rumoured Queen Victoria was planning to visit. The brilliant scheme, inspired by the heraldry of the family, is picked out in glinting gold-leaf over deep shades of red, blue and green on the plaster fan vaulting. At its centre, the vast brass chandelier is by Hardman’s of Birmingham and was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Camelot brought to life in Herefordshire!
Like many country houses, Eastnor’s party ended with the outbreak of World War Two. The castle was closed up, its contents packed up and put into store and the family moved out to a cottage on the estate. When, after the war, the family moved back into the castle it was to the former nursery wing, a suite of small rooms in a corner of the house. Hobbled by death duties and drastically reduced income from the estate, as James Hervey-Bathurst puts it ‘the name of the game from 1945 to ’85 was survival’. There was little money to spend on the house and nothing on decoration. The great reception rooms were made good for opening to the public but this meant cream painted walls and velour curtains, while original Victorian furniture and paintings remained in store. The result was a dowdy, under-furnished and unwelcoming interior.
The Hervey-Bathursts had the good sense to realise that in order to make the castle a commercial success, not just to day trippers but also for corporate events, the sense of comfort and splendour needed to return.
The task ahead was formidable; in all over 60 rooms were redecorated. Furniture which had been in store since 1939 was retrieved from attics and cellars and returned to its original setting. To this were added new purchases of antique furniture and a re-hang of all the castle’s pictures. Unnecessary clutter was banished. Through a process of trial and elimination – ‘lots of different pieces tried in lots of different places’, as Lady Bathurst says – things began to fall into place. The result is a rich, full-blooded evocation of the original Victorian interior. In the huge – 60ft high – Great Hall, previously bare and uninviting, the decision was taken to return it to the spirit of the comfortable and densely furnished ‘living hall’ shown in Edwardian photographs. Tapestries, suits of armour and paintings are mixed with Victorian taxidermy, lamps, rugs, tapestry covered armchairs and ottoman and two huge sofas. These were specially made to order but, so convincing are they that one leading furniture historian assumed they were part of the original furnishings. The effect is welcoming and luxurious: as if ready for the arrival of an Edwardian house party.
The dining room was previously painted a pale beige over which was hung a single row of portraits. In 1990 the walls were painted a deep blue and densely hung with pictures brought in from other parts of the house. New curtains were made and the suite of chairs re-covered in a matching fabric. In all over one hundred and eighty metres of fabric was used. An Italian chandelier of rock crystal is suspended from the ceiling decorated with crests associated with the family painted in the 1850s. The original dining table leaves were missing and so new ones (of Spanish rather than Cuban mahogany) were commissioned. The Victorian overmantle mirror was a new auction purchase and was previously in a Salvation Army hostel.
The Staircase Hall is part of the original design by Robert Smirke. The Gothic banisters are made of cast iron. The wooden chandelier came from the Palazzo Corsini in Florence while the set of 16th century Bruges tapestries were bought and hung in this room in 1990. Victorian taxidermy and hunting trophies, rescued from outbuildings on the estate, add a tongue in cheek decorative touch.
Shades of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton give an Oriental flavour to the Queen’s Bedroom. The hand-painted wallpaper is early 19th century Chinese while the ceiling is decorated with cranes in flight. This was the best guest bedroom at Eastnor in the 1930s and takes its name from a visit by Queen Mary in 1937. The room is little changed today. The embroidery on the bedspread and the cushions is taken from Chinese Imperial robes.
The Dressing Room attached to the State Bedroom has been converted into a bathroom, with a free-standing bathtub surrounded by decoration inspired by Renaissance Italy. The wallpaper is a copy of the original Victorian design from Watts of Westminster.
By the end of the 1990s the massive project was largely complete and, as a result, today Eastnor Castle looks better than it probably ever has. Not only that, in its new clothes it’s thriving as a business. As well as the tourists who throng to the place to admire its rooms and enjoy its grounds, Eastnor is now a popular venue for weddings and corporate events as well as film and television shoots. After two hundred eventful years Eastnor Castle is in better shape than ever. And that’s a happy ending worthy of any fairy tale.
Photographs courtesy of Eastnor Castle.