Visit to Lyme Park 10th May 2016
Our arrival at this palace on the edge of the Pennines took place in driving rain but this did not dampen our enthusiasm for enjoying its treasures. Having been given to the National Trust by the 3rd Lord Newton in 1946 the house stood almost empty and bereft of its soul until its management was taken in-house by the Trust in the early 1990s. Since then enormous strides have been made in repatriating its heirlooms, conserving and restoring the fabric and interiors, and interpreting the rich story of the Legh family – owners and guardians of the house since the 14th century.
Such an ancient house has a complex and challenging architectural history reflected in its interiors and furnishings: Elizabethan / Jacobean; Restoration; early Georgian / Palladian (Giacomo Leoni); Regency (Lewis Wyatt); and Edwardian (the Jouberts), together with other interludes in between. It requires considerable persistence to unpick these.
Leoni’s grand cortile leads into the Entrance Hall, essentially an early 18th century creation but overlaid with Edwardian accretions. It is dominated by the three outstanding Mortlake tapestries from the Hero and Leander series designed by Franz Cleyn. We saw here the start of a long suite of mid 18th century mahogany furniture including a number of armchairs with unique scrolling forms at the back of their splats. The magnificent Pugin carpet from nearby Abney Hall was a reminder that Stockport Council had been responsible for these historic buildings for most of the late 20th century and had worked hard to find suitable homes for their orphaned furniture.
In contrast the Drawing Room next door has fine 16th or 17th century panelling and plasterwork, and ancient stained glass installed in a spirit of antiquarianism in the early 19th century. There were a number of stars here: the first of a series of three large mid 18th century giltwood chandleliers, complete with scrolling branches and dangling tassels, of extremely rarity. Chippendale illustrates some of a not dissimilar design remarking they come much cheaper in carved wood than in glass or brass. Almost as rare was a set of three carved giltwood girandoles from c1760 combining naturalistic, gothick and chinoiserie elements, complete with a h oho bird perched on top. A pair of slightly earlier pier glasses between the windows had been ‘married’ to a pair of tables with unusual Chinese lacquer tops, and a pair of remarkable high rococo marble top side tables either side of the door. Here we also encountered the first of a suite of mid 18th century armchairs covered in the late 17th century crewel work (possibly originally hanging in the State or Yellow Bedroom until replaced with tapestries).
The panelled Stag Parlour next door was the meeting place for the Cheshire Jacobites, for which cause the Legh family were supporters. The 1820s ‘Chippendale’ armchairs, sporting the monogram of Charles I in their splat backs, are upholstered in embroidered silk reputed to have been part of the cloak worn by the king on the scaffold.
The Dining Room is principally Wyatt’s sensitive recasting of the Restoration period Great Parlour. Two pairs of superb rococo console tables flank the doors at each end of the room: one pair from the mid 18th century, the other from the Wyatt period, possibly the work of the carver Edward Wyatt. The table was laid à la franҫaise with the magnificent Egyptian style Sevres porcelain dinner service, presented to Lord Liverpool by the French government for his part in securing the short lived Peace of Amiens in 1802. The carpet here was for many years in the library of William Beckford at Bath.
The Library has been restored to its 19th century appearance with its rich crimson and gold flock wallpaper, gaufraged velvet curtains and grained ceiling. It contains Lyme’s greatest treasure, the Caxton Missal of 1487, repatriated to the house in 2008.
The Saloon is located immediately behind Leoni’s great south portico and was fitted out with its fine panelling in the 1730s. In the Regency however Lewis Wyatt clad the wall with the virtuoso 1680s limewood carvings attributed (with good reason) to Grinling Gibbons, hitherto having been in the Dining Room or Parlour. They were surely augmented by Wyatt at the same time. The 1720s walnut chairs are remarkably documented: they were sold second hand in 1720 to the then Peter Legh by his niece Lady Coventry for £25 as she had been left hard up after the death of her husband. The panelling of this striking interior had been stripped of its heavy dark varnish in the 1970s with unconvincing results, but returned to a more sympathetic light stained finish a few years ago allowing the fine Gibbons carvings to stand out.
Upstairs, the Long Gallery is Elizabethan but with considerable modifications to the panelling and plasterwork. It now contains a number of bureaux and cabinets, some being loans and others indigenous. These include a Chinese coromandel black and gilt cabinet c1660 on an English silvered stand on c1680. Here as elsewhere there was much late 17th century oyster-veneered walnut furniture, often in genuine country house condition. A set of unique side chairs with backs in the form of pairs of intersecting and elongated ovals was remarked upon.
Returning downstairs, the State Apartment (now known as the Tapestry Dressing Room, Yellow Bedroom and Morning Room) are reached, created for the visit of James II (as Duke of York) in 1676. Originally the walls of the State Bedroom were probably clad in panels of needlework (‘tapestry’) hangings bordered in velvet. Remarkably, an outline impression created by the dust which had seeped through to the plaster wall revealed their contour. This was evidently not brushed away when the hangings were replaced by tapestries in the 19th century, and this evidence was revealed when the room was being restored in the 1990s. A number of important pieces from this period have survived here. In addition to the angel bed, there is a fine settee of c1690 upholstered in French embroidered wool and original passementerie; a set of four high back chairs upholstered in pink and gold with elaborate fringing; a very rare suite of blue japanned table and candlestands, decorated in painted floral festoons; and an unusual seaweed marquetry chest of drawers surmounted by a ‘matching’ coffer with massive brass hinges and mounts, but not of good enough quality to be by the master of this genre, Gerrit Jensen.
To finish the tour visitors see the remarkable collection of clocks assembled by Sir Francis Legh, the 3rd Lord Newton’s youngest son, augmented by the gift of Mr and Mrs M.H. Vivian. They include models by all the great early English clock makers, Joseph Knibb, George Graham and no less than five by Thomas Tompion.