Alison Joyce meets James Methuen-Campbell at Corsham Court, Wiltshire.
PUBLISHED: 15:39 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013
Alison Joyce gets privileged access to Lord Methuen's incredible Corsham Court
Alison Joyce meets James Methuen-Campbell at Corsham Court, Wiltshire.
If you drive through Corsham you can see the majestic black iron gates leading to Corsham Park. Walk down the beautiful High Street, with its charming Bath stone houses, cobblestones, escapee peacocks and independent shops on either side, and you could be in a film location. Turn right at the post office down towards the beautiful church and there, on your left, is Corsham Court.
As I walk up the driveway towards this fine stately home, I feel as though I am in a Jane Austen novel, visiting the big house. With this in mind I walk past the grand entrance to the side doors and ring on the door bell. The charming Leonora answers and shows me in. We walk down corridors and enter the grand hall. Wow! My breath is taken away. It reminds me of the Vatican museum before you reach the Sistine chapel. It's very wide and straight, with statues, oil paintings and busts on either side.
Leonora introduces me to James Methuen-Campbell, the eighth generation of the Methuens to live here. He succeeded to the Corsham Estate on the death of the 7th Baron Methuen in 1994. It is thanks to successive generations of his family, who have lived here since 1745, that we can enjoy this wonderful building and extraordinary art collection today. Originally a substantial Elizabethan manor house dating from 1582, the earliest known records date back to 978 when the house was a summer palace for the Kings of Wessex.
The Methuen dynasty starts in 1745. Corsham Court was acquired with a trust fund inherited by Paul Methuen, the godson of Sir Paul Methuen, with the express intention of housing his internationally renowned collection of 16th- and 17th-century Italian and Flemish Old Master paintings. His collection, of which about 75 still remain at Corsham today, includes important works by artists such as Van Dyck, PP Reubens, Reynolds and Romney, as well as the intriguing allegorical portrait of Elizabeth I (used by David Starkey in his recent TV series).
Sir Paul Methuen had entered the diplomatic service in his twenties and succeeded his father as ambassador in Portugal. He undertook various diplomatic missions and is even mentioned by Voltaire (not renowned for his love of the English) in his writings, describing him 'as one of the most generous, brave and most sincere men that his country had ever employed'. His prestigious posts included Lord of the Admiralty, a Lord of the Treasury, and privy councillor. During his life and travels he amassed this wonderful collection. As he never married, he passed on his fortune and paintings to Paul Methuen, on the understanding that he could house his vast historic collection which had been displayed at his home in Grosvenor Street.
Paul Methuen was true to his word, and during the 1760s he employed Lancelot 'Capabilty' Brown to enlarge the house and create the magnificent picture gallery and suite of state rooms. These rooms still retain original wall hangings and furniture designed by Chippendale, Thomas Johnson and John Cobb. Robert and James Adam were commissioned to create the mirrors, tables and even a frame for the Rubens 'Wolf and Fox Hunt' above the mantelpiece. The vast suite of seat furniture is attributed to Thomas Chippendale - no expense was spared. During the late 18th century, crimson silk damask was the height of chic for displaying collections of paintings in giltwood frames. The walls and all 40 chairs were covered in this fabric provided by Morris and Young of Spitalfields. Remarkably, the original fabric can still be seen here today.
Corsham Court has had its fair share of complications too. The ambitious but disastrous John Nash altered the house in 1800. His Gothic north front had to be demolished in 1846 due to poor construction. What could today be described as a 'dodgy' builder, his ability to competently service commissions was lamentable; he was often absent on site when needed. He failed to factor in the weight of his additions to the Elizabethan foundations. This, and his failure to understand the materials he used, led to 'differential expansion and contraction in roof members, with consequential rainwater penetration'. His estimating was also awry. What was expected to cost 5,647 in 1778 turned out to be 25,500 by the time it was finished in 1805! In order to preserve the collection of paintings and artefacts, Lord Methuen commissioned Thomas Bellamy to remodel the north front of the house (for the third time in 100 years) in 1846, redesigning the hall and adjacent rooms at the same time.
Many important paintings from the Revd John Sandford collection came to Corsham in the mid-19th century as a result of the marriage of his daughter and only child, Anna Horatia, to the second Lord Methuen in 1844. These include paintings by Salvator Rosa and Sofonisba Anguissola, who had drawing lessons from Michelangelo, and who was widely admired as a court artist to King Philip II of Spain. Sandford had been buying Old Master paintings during his residence in Florence in the 1830s.
Surrounding the Court are the stunning gardens and parkland, which were also designed by Capability Brown. The 13-acre lake which he planned was eventually completed by Humphry Repton nearly 40 years later. Brown built the Gothic bath house and ha-ha, planted the avenues and numerous specimen trees, some of which still survive today. The enormous oriental plane tree now has a circumference of over 240 yards! The first Lady Methuen was responsible for the basic layout of the flower gardens, which include delightful herbaceous borders and the lily pond.
The state rooms at Corsham Court have been open to the public for 200 years, and Leonora kindly takes all morning showing me around. I could have spent hours there. It seems a great privilege to have such a place as Corsham Court for us all to see and enjoy. Not only because of the wonderful location, the landscape and the architecture, but for the phenomenal collection of paintings, china and artefacts from across Europe, along with Britain's best craftsmanship.
The BBC's adaptation of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey was filmed at Corsham Court in the 1980s and the interior shots of the film The Remains of the Day were filmed here too. During the Second World War, the sixth form of Westonbirt Girls' School was in residence, but after the war parts of the house became a convalescent home for the wounded. In 1946 the newly founded Bath Academy of Art was established here and continued until 1986 when it was incorporated in Bath College of Higher Education.
The Court is open to the public throughout the year from 20 May until 30 September daily (except Mondays and Fridays but including Bank Holidays) from 2pm-5.30pm. From 1 October until 19 March it is open weekends only from 2pm-4.30pm (but closed during the whole of December).