Ham House, London
Resplendently 17th century Ham House is one of the great English houses –– unblemished by time’s indifferent hands and vile modernizations. For 400 years, its venerable gaze has watched down on the Thames.
The Thames peeking through the foliage
Ham House viewed from the Thames path
The vegetable and herb garden
Some of the decorative gardens NT Photo
It’s hard to believe you’re in London when you walk the grand expanses of gardens, lawns and parkland (I wish I'd had more time to spend in the magnificent gardens). With such proximity to a great metropolis, I was shocked to discover I had the place nearly to myself on a Monday morning. One of the kind volunteers told me that Ham is rarely overflowing with visitors. His theory was that people who lived in London would rather leave the city to go to the “country” and bridle at the bit of a walk from the Underground. Lucky me, I hate crowds. I loved Ham.
JMW Turner, Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent's Birthday
It’s a snap to get to by car and close to Heathrow airport –– there’s even a foot ferry across the Thames that goes from Marble Hill to Ham House. People can enjoy the walk and the gardens as well as feel they are indeed in the country by walking down a lane to Petersham Lodge Woods or up Richmond Hill to get a view that was guaranteed by a 1902 Act of Parliament known as the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act. It has barely changed since Turner painted it in 1819. You can visit their site HERE for hours and directions.
To celebrate its 400th birthday, Christopher Rowell, furniture curator at the National Trust, wrote Ham House: 400 Years of Collecting and Patronage –– a history of a house that reflects a pure vision of the 17th century like no other.
Gilt x-frame sofa 1735-40
I was encouraged to visit because Emile de Bruijn of the National Trust Treasure Hunt published the picture of an x-frame sofa that made my eyes light up, but I only needed a small nudge. I had been thinking about Ham House for quite some time. You see I had fallen hard for a very silly marble counter in the dairy building of Ham House from the first moment I saw it years ago. I loved the cast-iron cow legs, the marble and the ivy-painted tile –– the sin of “thou shalt not covet” is committed every time I gaze upon it. It did not disappoint when I saw it in person, but then, nothing about Ham House disappointed.
This is a small room off to the side – I had to shoot through a door
I began my tour of the house itself in the kitchen where I met the lovely ladies who cook there, recreating historical recipes in the large but simple kitchen –– ingredients were strewn casually on a magnificent worktable the size of a small airplane wing (ok, more coveting for a table like this). The room is simple but perfect. I could be terribly happy working here.
Thomas Toft, 17th century (Ashmolean Museum)
I could have just moved in to the Ham House kitchen then and there –– I felt so at home discussing 17th century cooking with the ladies –– but had the whole house to see.
Rear of Ham House
Ham House was built in 1610 by Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshal to James I. Its first years were tumultuous.
William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart
After Vavasour's death, Charles I gave the house to his friend William Murray in 1626. Murray undertook extensive renovations in the 1630's but did not get to enjoy his elegant house. As a supporter of the King he was forced to flee to France after a stay in the Tower during the Civil War in the 1640's. His daughter, through her friendship with Cromwell, kept the house safe while many Royalist's houses were forfeit to the government (it is rumored she was a member of the Sealed Knot (an organization that supported the restoration of the King), as well as a mistress of Cromwell!).
John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale and Elizabeth Murray (1626-1698)
The Restoration ended the upheavaling and the Murray/Tollemache family resided there for nearly 300 years –– till the house was given to the National Trust in 1948.
Murray’s daughter Elizabeth married Lionel Tollemache in 1648. After Tollemache’s death in 1669, she became the mistress of the wealthy Duke of Lauderdale and married him in 1672 –– he owed her his life as she had gone to Cromwell on his behalf. Without her intervention he would most certainly have been executed. They became a power-couple and it is said they popularized tea drinking in private homes (no doubt influenced by the Portuguese fashion of tea-drinking that Catherine of Braganza brought with her when she married Charles II).
Elizabeth was well educated and seemed to enjoy her father's passion for art, architecture and interior decoration (interests that he shared with his friend King Charles).
I read on the History and Women site that historian/Bishop Gilbert Burnet described her thusly: "She was a woman of great beauty, but of far greater parts. She had a wonderful quickness of apprehension, and an amazing vivacity in conversation. She had studied not only divinity and history, but mathematics and philosophy. She was violent in every thing she set about, a violent friend, but a much more violent enemy. She had a restless ambition, lived at a vast expense, and was ravenously covetous; and would have stuck at nothing by which she might compass her ends. She had blemishes of another kind, which she seemed to despise, and to take little care of the decencies of her sex." Take into account that Elizabeth's biographer thought Burnet was a "spiteful old busybody" –– he did say this after she could no longer defend herself (or tear into him if his observations were correct). Even with the acid, there is a grudging admiration.
She made Ham House what it is today –– polishing the work begun by her father. Aside from a few changes in the 18th and 19th century, the house is much as she left it (although the contents were sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum when it passed to the National Trust –– most have returned).
John Constable drew Ham House in 1835 when the Dysart’s were his patrons and he was a frequent visitor.
The entry hall is grand but with a human scale even with the 2-story open plan. There are lovely spindly railings to lean over to view art and arriving guests and family portraits displaying oceans of silk finery look down bemused at we visitors tromping through their stately home.
The excellent 17th century Titian copies are by Miguel de la Cruz. You can just glimpse the cantilevered construction
The red in the recently cleaned painting at the bottom of the stairs just blazes out.
Murray installed the great staircase in 1638 and restorers discovered it was partially gilded during its early years –– the dark colors we see today are a later color scheme. The gilding would have popped out at night in the darkened hall like a shimmering golden pathway.
The long gallery with its museum-worthy furniture and artwork is impressive...
Floral Marquetry table, Gerrit Jensen, c. 1672-83
Japanese lacquer cabinet on giltwood stand
and the cabinet completely covered in ivory in the North Drawing room is a marvel...
Ivory cabinet, probably made in Antwerp, 1670's -- it looks sparkling new
Interior of the cabinet from BBC program
The jewel box of a room called the Green Closet couldn’t be lovelier filled with precious miniatures done by the likes of Hilliard...
Man Consumed by Flames (Isaac Oliver, 1556-1617) NT photo
Miniature of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) NT photo
The Queens bedchamber (minus the bed) is still splendid...
There is even a small room with a chair for the queen, the most private of rooms for only intimate guests (you can see the entry on the right in the photo above)...
But my favorite "upstairs" room was the Queen’s antechamber with the remarkable faux bois painting, a trompe-l'œil technique that did wood one better. I loved this room.
See the conservation of the magnificent fabric panels HERE (they were originally all blue!)
There is of course much more to see at Ham House –– I‘ve just served the appetizer ––go see the house on your own for a full course meal of Ham House’s treasures (you can see a house tour HERE or hear one HERE)
Yes, I’m starting to think about food. You’ve seen the kitchen but there's also a leather-walled dining room set up for an intimate dinner. Although it is called the Marble Dining Room, the marble was replaced by parquet in the 19th century. The original Flemish leather was also changed at that time.
Catherine of Braganza, Lely 1663-5
Victoria Bradley who is the collection’s manager at Ham House told me, “Catherine of Braganza [queen of Charles II] dined here the week of July 14th 1671 and the accounts show that instead of the usual 9 pullets, 19 chickens, 12 ducks and 100 or so eggs the following was used:
16 pullets, 39 chickens, no ducks, but 327 eggs. I think this gives a pretty good idea of the amount of extra food that was required of such a visit. The use of herbs and spices also increased dramatically and included caraway, coriander and fennel seeds.
The amount of alcohol consumed went up too and included canary, sherry, muskadine, porta port, chapane, rennish, terce claret.”
What to eat in the spirit of Ham House? I found a recipe that intrigued me from John Murrell's 1615 A new booke of Cookerie, about the same vintage as the house. It had lovely little birds with a creamy rice. It reminded me of a cross between rice pudding and risotto and I thought it would be terribly good –– a 17th century version of comfort food. It could be done with Cornish Hens or chicken as easily as the quail I used. It felt right for the house. I substituted parsnips for the skirret root as I have seen them mentioned interchangeably in period cookbooks (ie skirret or parsnips). I don't keep mutton broth around so substituted chicken. I can imagine if you use mutton broth, since it is a very strong flavor, you would need to up the quantities of all the other flavorings to compensate.
Pigeon or Quail with Rice in the French Fashion based on Murrell's recipe, serves 2- 4
4 pigeon or quail (I used semi-boneless quail from D'Artagnan but their wood pigeon should be coming in soon)
1 cup of mixed herbs, with some stems (parsley, thyme, sage, marjoram, hyssop, chervil etc)
1 t salt
1 t pepper
1 T butter, 1 T olive oil
11/2 c chicken stock (or mutton broth!)
1/2 t mace
1/2 c + 2 T verjuice*
1/4 t nutmeg
6 roasted parsnips, sliced in half (if you are doing a 2 quail portion, only use 3)
3/4 c arborio rice
1 3/4 c milk
1/2 t salt or to taste
1 T sugar (or to taste)
2 T butter
1/2 c dried barberries or cranberries soaked for 1/2 an hour (if you use cranberries you may want to chop them up a little)
Put the rice, milk, water and salt into a pan and cook over low heat until done, stirring occasionally. You want the same doneness you would want for risotto so a bit of bite left in it but creamy, around 15 minutes.
While that is cooking, salt and pepper the birds, inside and out. Stuff them with the mixed herbs. If you are using the boneless quail, the slightly stiffer stems give bulk to fill out the cavity –– they flavor the birds magnificently.
Heat the oven to 400º.
Add the butter and oil to a large skillet. Saute the birds on the top side till browned, about 5 minutes.
Pour the stock in an ovenproof dish or skillet (enamel works well for this). Heat the stock. Lay the parsnip halves in the pan and put the birds over them. Put in the oven for 10 minutes -- do not overcook as game birds taste liverish if they are overcooked.
Remove the quail and parsnips and tent to keep warm.
Pour the stock and verjuice into the rice and stir. Taste to see if you like the proportions of verjuice and sugar, adjust to your taste. It will be very creamy. Add the nutmeg and stir in the butter. Toss the parsnips in the 2 T of verjuice. You can serve them like I did or cube them and put them in the rice
Put the creamy rice on the platter and lay the birds and the parsnips down on it if you haven't cubed them. Sprinkle with barberries.
*if you don't have verjuice, use white wine vinegar. Dilute it with a tablespoon of water or better still, crush a handful of green grapes with it and strain it. That will more closely resemble verjuice unless you have unripe grapes in your garden –– just crush and strain them for the real deal.
Still Room at Ham House
I can't leave Ham House without sharing this with all you burgeoning alchemists out there. Ladies of the house were known to go to this "still room" and make concoctions of flower waters, medicines and cordials hence the marble floor in what one would imagine would have been a servant's room. It's all on its own on the ground floor away from the kitchen like a private laboratory. Although a large still would have been necessary for things like "snail water", the small pottery version seen here would have worked for concocting smaller quantities of a ladies perfume or potion. We know that many great ladies had recipes for medicines –– since they wrote them down it seems likely they were proud of their efforts (although the therapeutic value of most of these is questionable).
Sarah McGrady at Ham House shared information about the restoration of the room that I found fascinating, I hope you will too.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the still-house was used as a store room and in the 1960s, the ceiling was rendered in concrete and plasterboard. When the historical significance and original purpose of the room was finally realised in 1999, the National Trust decided to restore the room back to its 17th century appearance.
A team consisting of the House and Collections Manager at Ham House, the regional curator for the National Trust, and Peter Brears, a respected historian on ‘below stairs’ interiors, used the inventories of the room from 1677, 1679 and 1683, as well as bills relating to its construction to restore the room. An archaeological survey was commissioned to discover evidence of lost features. Fragments of the original lime plaster were found on the walls as well as evidence that a large cupboard had run from floor to ceiling along the east wall.
The concrete render and plasterboard ceiling have been removed and replaced with a traditional lath and plaster ceiling. The walls have been lime plastered, and the internal woodwork and windows and doors have been painted in a lead white. The cornice has been copied from the Duchess’ Bathroom which is a room of similar status, and the cupboard reinstated.
After the restoration, the Property Manager had the room dressed with items from a seventeenth century still-house. Inspiration was taken from two paintings at Ham House, The Alchemist, which hangs in the Duke’s Closet and An Alchemist, situated in the Withdrawing Room, both by Thomas Wyck."
still room table
The three 17th century inventories reveal a well equipped still-house containing three pewter stills with nine glass heads, stoves for drying sweetmeats, and an array of saucepans, chafing dishes, preserving pans and a Bain Marie for gently heating stills. A Bain Marie is a bowl of heated water or sand in which a vessel can be placed and its contents gently heated. It was named after the Old Testament prophetess Miriam (Maria) who was supposed to have invented the Bain Marie, as well as the arts of alchemy and distillation themselves.
Items for preparing ingredients include marble mortars, tin graters and brass scales and weights, as well as the necessary tables and chairs for working at. The inventory lists 3 platters and 6 earthen basins. Cheaper pieces of pottery, like storage jars, and small wooden items, like spoons, would not have been mentioned as they were seen as disposable."
Sarah also mentioned that most of the recipes they use at Ham House come from either the Wellcome Collection or Christine Stapley’s account of The Reciept Book of Lady Anne Blencowe.
Just for a treat, Sarah found an extraordinary recipe for snail water that may have belonged to the Duchess Elizabeth. I've also included a copy of a medicinal document from Ham House with highly scented concoctions for wounds and sores!
Many thanks to the amazing staff at Ham House who made my trip memorable and were so generous with their time and resources, especially Victoria Bradley and Sarah McGrady. Thanks to Emile de Bruijn at the National Trust for getting the ball rolling for the visit.
Kate Quinn asked me to be part of a group cooking Renaissance Italian delights to celebrate the release of her new book, The Serpent and the Pearl (A Novel of the Borgias). On September 16th I will post and link to the 4 other bloggers participating in this event. Romance writers (and readers) like getting their hands dirty with history and I count many aficionados of the genre as readers of Lost Past Remembered. It will be a blast, tasting history always is.