A Visit to Ham House
On the River Thames in Richmond sits an absolute jewel of an historic home, Ham House.
I recently managed to visit (having had it on my very long to-do list for a while!) so here is the history and my personal highlights…
History of Ham House
Ham House was built in 1610 for Sir Thomas Vavasour an MP, soldier and influential member of the court of King James I.
Through his royal connections he was gifted a patch of crown land on which to build a suitably fancy home but the house really came into its own with the following owner, William Murray.
Murray was born around 1600 and grew up with the future King Charles I. He held the fairly unenviable position of the King’s whipping boy, ie getting the beatings otherwise meant for the future King given any bad behaviour.
Charles didn’t forget this loyalty and Murray was appointed Gentlemen of the Bedchamber to the King who then granted him the lease to Ham House and the title of Lord Dysart.
On his death in 1626 Ham House passed to his eldest daughter, Elizabeth. Unusually well educated, capable of running a household and thoroughly connected at court, she had 11 children with her first husband Lionel Tollmache (though only 5 survived to adulthood) then when he died she remarried John Maitland, gaining the title of Duchess of Lauderdale.
(As an aside, it’s this Duke of Lauderdale after which the least famous Barbican tower in the City is named, the others being Shakespeare and Cromwell)
It was during their relationship that she fervently worked on the house and gardens, creating opulent and fashionable interiors and grounds.
John Evelyn, writing in 1678, said it was “inferior to few of the best villas in Italy … the House furnished like a great Prince’s”.
As you approach the front of the house, the architecture proclaims its Royal loyalty.
A bust of King Charles I is visible along with “Vivat Rex”, “Long Live the King” carved on the wood of the front door.
This might seem like overkill but you have to remember the tumultuous times in which Elizabeth Murray was living. In 1649 King Charles I was executed following a bloody civil war and the country became a republic.
Elizabeth played a shrewd game, seeming to cosy up to Oliver Cromwell when he visited Ham House, while at the same time being a fervent supporter of the restoration of King Charles II.
The overt displays of Royal sympathies were post-restoration additions from around the 1670s.
She was also a key patrons of the Arts, something all too apparent when you enter Ham House.
Inside Ham House
The Great Hall was once the dining room but is now the reception space, complete with the original 1610 chequerboard floor reminiscent of Queen’s House, Greenwich.
Once you’ve ascended this 1630s wooden staircase,
a balustraded hole allows light to tumble down. You can easily imagine clustered guests peering down from The Round Gallery on dancing couples below.
The plastered ceiling was the work of Joseph Kinsman in the 1630s and he was so celebrated that he also worked on Whitehall Palace for King Charles I.
At the head of the room is a painting of the happy couple, commissioned to celebrate their marriage.
Alongside the paintings, thanks to sheer luck, I visited during open cabinets week so the astonishing craftsmanship of this furniture can be fully appreciated.
This example was made by Gerritt Jensen, whose career was boosted by the patronage of the Murrays. It dates from 1672-83, made of oak, pine, ebony, walnut, fruitwood, ivory and stained horn. The details are exquisite, to the extent you can’t believe it’s all inlaid wood and not painted.
Amongst the other surviving furniture was this 1675 gilded leather wall hanging. Although it wasn’t as prized as a tapestry, leather had the benefit of not absorbing the smells of food, making it a perfect addition to dining rooms.
There are also new luxuries that now seem commonplace to us, like this teapot.
Dating from c.1650-80 this porcelain and gilded silver teapot was made in Zhuangzhou, China. Tea drinking had been introduced to the English in the 1660s by Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II.
Elizabeth Murray was a friend of the Queen who even came to stay at Ham House. These two ‘sleeping chairs’ from the 1670s were added to the newly furnished ‘Queen’s Apartments’ for Catherine, set on the raised dais where the Queen could greet select guests.
What I really enjoyed about Ham House was just how personal everything felt, you get the impression you’re really snooping around Elizabeth’s home and she might re-appear at any moment.
One touching item is this portrait of her mother, Catherine Bruce, painted in 1638. It’s set within travelling case which might suggest that William, 1st Earl of Dysart (her husband and Elizabeth’s father) took it with him to attend the exiled court of Charles I in Oxford in 1643. In any case Elizabeth clearly loved and admired her mother, always keeping this on display in her private closest.
Another insight into the couple’s taste is the Library.
Built when he house was enlarged in the 1670s, it’s one of the earliest purpose-built houses in the country and has books reflecting John’s work as Secretary of State for Scotland and regrettably his role in establishing what would later become the slave trading Royal African Company.
One of the absolute jewels of Ham House is the Green Closet. Decorated in the 1630s by William and Catherine, this is almost entirely as they intended it and full of miniatures, Dutch paintings and two fabulous cabinets.
Although it wasn’t open on my recent visit, anyone can enjoy a full 360 interior tour online here.
Finally, on a more practical note, one of my favourite features were the leather buckets that hang from the ceiling and acted as an early fire prevention method.
Thank goodness they were never required and this gem is still preserved for us to admire!
Visit Ham House
Ham House is open daily, 12-4pm but the gardens and cafe open earlier, from around 10.30 depending on the day.
It part of the National Trust so member go free, otherwise it’s £14 for an adult ticket. Find out more and book on their website here.
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