Some of this country’s finest houses are perched on a hilltop, others tucked away in woodland, some dominate a landscape with imposing intent, others block uninvited entry with obvious fortification. Aside from a stone ha-ha to keep out curious deer, Parham House has none of these, its builders having chosen to settle it on a plain with a view south to the South Downs, neither exposed nor timidly sheltered. Its lack of defences and its many windows say all this without any guide book. Orientated with its back turned onto the working part of the estate, its living quarters can privately face an untrammelled view of the Downs. Parkland surrounds the house, cushioning it against the rush of the modern world. Its broad, open courtyard invites the unhurried visitor into its gardens and into the house itself. There are no playground attractions, but children will be spellbound by the place as much as adults.
Ian Nairn said of Parham that “the house itself is straightforward and sober, without a hint of Elizabethan extravagance” and I’m inclined to agree — for its exterior certainly. There is nothing flashy or grandiloquent. No pomp, no ceremony. Parham isn’t a prodigy house built by a courtier to impress a king or queen, so it doesn’t push itself onto the visitor.
I also agree with Simon Jenkins, who elevated Parham into his Top-Twenty of England’s Best Houses, saying that “nothing at Parham is superfluous, nothing unloved. It is a house of magic”. Understanding that special spell takes a deal of reflection.
Parham’s essence announces itself on the approach. The parkland’s oak trees are the house’s honour guard. One’s first view of the house, nestled and cradled in the South Downs, settled on the plain at their feet, is a view softened by oak trees (some of whose ancestors were felled for the Royal Navy all the way back in 1669). There’s the suspense of parking up — beside oaks — and crossing to the gate, then the formalities, and then one’s inside. And there it all is: the inescapable oak panelling (or wainscoting), more than four hundred years old, but pale, a mid-amber, honey-coloured oak, not dark and gloomy, but youthful, joyous. Glory be the oak panelling at Parham: it’s nearly everywhere and certainly unmissable, fooling us that it was put there but recently!
There is a condition that goes by the lilting name of quercophilia of which I must have been a long-term sufferer. It would be good for the planet if there were more of us. It doesn’t require medication: indeed, it is surely auto-therapeutic. I nominate Parham as one of its global headquarters. (Explanatory link provided below.)
The house is mostly constructed of a blue sandstone from nearby Amberley — with dressing stones cut from several other sources. Its foundation stone was laid in 1577. Most of its timber came from the surrounding park’s oaks. Parham’s Jacobean oak panelling would originally have been undecorated. The house’s Victorian owners — in some sulphurous fit — dark-waxed or painted all the panelling, thus committing what I consider to be a cardinal sin. After the Pearson family acquired the house in the 1920s they used humble Nitromorse to undress the panels, revealing their true beauty. Now protected with colourless wax, they must be twenty shades lighter than if they had been left uncovered. I’m no fan of paint-stripper, yet in addition to removing tasteless colouring from the panels’ surface its use here would have slightly bleached the fibre of the oak. This labour of love was the making of Parham. Hallelujah, Halleluyah, Alleluia!
Parham’s Great Hall, “an older and deeper sense of rhythms”
A thought experiment, heretical in the extreme, nags as the house unfolds: how would these panelled rooms look devoid of their fine paintings, furniture and tapestries? Would the panels be interesting enough undressed, unadorned? Would they still retain an appeal? It’s not that I’m not seeing the worth of all that hangs or stands in these rooms. It is truly sumptuous and is cause for much lingering. The panelling is not mere background stage design. It’s a major player in the Parham theatre, appearing in nearly every scene.
My imaginary documentary script would have each room filmed with bare panelling on the first slow-mo camera pan. The second pan would progressively fade into place each of the missing paintings. To everything its proper context because the grain of the oak has its own abundant beauty.
Lingering along this north wall of the Great Hall (above) reveals, left to right, a magnificent four hundred year old narwhal tusk — in its painted case; handsome Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, disappointment to the Queen, who made him pay for it in 1601 with his life; central over the fireplace, small and ethereal, Edward VI, Henry VIII’s only son by his wife Jane Seymour; to the right of him, William Cecil, Lord Burghley; on the far right at floor level, Elizabeth Palmer, an early occupant of Parham; beside her in abundant lace, surrounded by regal red, the most opulent Queen Elizabeth I. The scale and quality of the display is reminiscent of that at Montacute House, rural outpost of London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Large-scale portraits abound. Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, is at floor level on the left. Above him, Sir Edward Bisshop, 2nd Baronet, who inherited Parham from his father in 1626. On the far right, back at floor level, is a portrait of Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. Between them, still at floor level, hangs Robert Peake’s 1611 portrait of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. As the son of James I and Anne of Denmark, it was thought that he would be England’s great Protestant Hope. Parham use this portrait on the cover of their guide book, inside which is the explanation that the Prince’s leading the figure of winged Time by the forelock was over-painted in black (along with the brick wall) after the Prince’s life was tragically cut short by typhoid in 1612. This obliteration was discovered by X-ray only in 1985, after which this black over-painting was removed. The ornamentation of the Prince’s embroidered skirt is exquisite in its detail. Above him are the Arms of Elizabeth I who, legend has it, visited Parham in 1593.
Nairn and Pevsner maintain that Parham’s mullioned windows are all 20th century restorations, except for the grandest — the one in the Great Hall, facing the South Downs — which is Elizabethan. It deserves attention. There’s a satisfying geometry at work with the stone, glass, iron and lead in three bays framed in stone by vertical mullions and horizontal transoms.
These ascending columns of glass, through which daylight falls in a mottled and clouded fashion, possess an arithmetical neatness fit for contemplation. The leaded tracery is softened by three pairs of glorious, almost inconspicuous, fabrics that fall the full height of the splayed reveals of each bay. Close to the colour of stone, they serve to soften the geometry of lead that holds all these lights in place.
Too often when viewing Britain’s ancient homes, the curtains are drawn, the blinds lowered or the shutters swung shut. “The light damages everything”, we are told. Visitors squint about in ancestral gloom and photographers (refused the assistance of flash or tripod) depart disappointed. Not so at Parham. Everything is open and light floods in. Indeed, it not so much floods in through its old lead glass, but dances in, negotiating the uneven, hand-made, window glass. Light in abundance at Parham is shaped by the swirls and ripples of the glass panes through which it passes. But pass it does and when you get up close to Parham’s paintings, panelling and tapestries, their detail is illuminated perfectly. They are returned to their privacy when all the curtains are drawn behind departing visitors at the end of each day. Bravo.
The Great Hall’s screen is oak-carved, Tudor, elaborate with pronounced profiling. The windows above gave the steward discretionary surveillance. Curtained arches allow entrance from the front porch behind, unlike in most houses of the time where their halls were to the right of their porches — another difference that sets Parham apart.
Carved between 1577 when the first stone was lain and 1583 when the construction was completed, the screen is exquisite. Nairn said that “with its pilasters and rich, crisp, small-scale ornament [it] is a good example of a style which we undervalue by tracing all the motifs by repeated comparisons with France or Italy…”. He went on to say that “the big windows and the south view take the hall out of straightforward architectural space into an older and deeper set of rhythms”. Recall those words if you have the chance to visit the place: “an older and deeper set of rhythms”.
Parham’s Great Parlour
Upstairs, Parham’s Great Parlour was the house’s private sitting room facing both south and west. The Pearsons commissioned the plasterwork to be re-modelled in 1935 and it shows crests and coats of arms from Parham-connected families. The master plasterer, Esmond Burton, used no moulds, just his bare hands as was the tradition in earlier centuries.
Portraits abound once again, seeming even more accessible in this low-ceilinged space. To the left of the south bay Charles I poses on horseback in the style of Sir Anthony Van Dyke, although on a smaller scale. In the south-west corner is a small portrait of ‘An Infanta of Spain’. Imposing in front of sumptuous scarlet drapes is Susan Villiers, Countess of Denbigh, sister of the Duke of Buckingham, friend to James I. The detailing of her lace cuffs and ruff are fine. The purple cape and robe have extensive gold thread detailing.
Left of the Parlour’s fireplace is a 17th century portrait — probably — of the Princess of Piedmont, daughter of Henry IV of France. Above the fireplace, a huge canvas of Charles I’s Sovereign of the Seas, launched in 1637, destroyed by fire in 1696. On the extreme right, Adriaen Hanneman’s painting of Henrietta Maria, Henry IV of France’s youngest daughter, Charles I of England’s Queen.
The Great Chamber
Remodelled in 1924, the Great Chamber is now smaller and more compact than it would originally have been. Its south-facing window offers lovely views of the South Downs and its west-facing window admits evening light whose colour has been amplified by the room’s decorations.
The windows’ latticing attest to 20th century renovations, but the furnishing and embroidery are contemporaneous with this Elizabethan house’s origins.
The chamber is dominated by the Great Bed, probably dating from the court of Henry VIII. Its flame stitch embroidery is dated 1620, whilst the canopy, headboard and bedspread date from 1585. The fleur-de-lys suggests an Italian or French origin. Looking at its detail, it’s as if the wheel of style has turned full circle many times. Did William Morris see this quality of workmanship, this profusion of detail, one wonders? Each period’s idioms borrow from the past.
Parham’s Green Room and Sir Joseph Banks
The Parham story is its own Russian doll of stories-within-stories. One such concerns the famous botanist Sir Joseph Banks, remembered for his expeditions to Newfoundland and Labrador (in 1766) and for accompanying Captain Cook on his five-year voyage in Endeavour to the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia (1768 — 1771). Banks was president of the Royal Society for 41 years and played a key role in the founding of Kew Gardens.
Banks’ connection to Parham is indirect in that he married Dorothea Hugesson, the sister of an antecedent of Alicia Pearson, the wife of Parham’s 1922 purchaser.
Parham’s Green Room celebrates this connection with an array of items bought for Parham by the Pearsons. These include a mahogany specimen box belonging to Banks, a miniature mezzotint of the portrait of Banks by Reynolds (above), and George Stubbs’ paintings of a kangaroo and a dingo, the former based on an inflated kangaroo skin brought back by Banks. Reynolds’ original portrait used to hang here in the Green Room and is currently on display in the British Library. Memorably, there is also an early globe — probably not the one shown in Reynolds’ portrait above — which shows Australia with a missing southern coastline because that part of the continent was terra incognita at the time.
The principle portrait on the wall above is by James Northcote of Omiah, the Otaheitan chief, who returned to Britain with Captain Cook, thus becoming the first South Sea islander to visit Europe. The two Stubbs paintings of a kangaroo and a dingo are either side of that. Above those are two portraits by George Romney, on the right is one of his many portraits of Emma Hamilton, and on the left one of Frances Bisshopp, Lady Warren, descendant of Sir Edward whose likeness hangs in the Great Hall.
Parham is invested heavily in the Sir Joseph Banks connection, as visitors will discover when they arrive at the Long Gallery, described below, the route to which passes through the Green Room. Gearing up for this with a refresher on Sir Joseph Banks is worth it. His Florilegium of 738 engravings records the plants (and related scenes) collected by Banks and Solander and subsequently drawn by Sydney Parkinson on board Endeavour on Cook’s famous first voyage of 1768-1771. The original copperplates were left by Banks to the British Museum and were eventually printed in colour. The one above of Pemphis Acidula, drawn by Sydney Parkinson on 10 August 1770 at Point Lookout in Australia, is a limited edition copy of plate 133 of the Florilegium, hung in the window bay of Parham’s Green Room. The original collection is now held in the Natural History Museum in London
Parham’s exquisite Long Gallery
The oak door that opens into Parham’s Long Gallery is a teaser. One steps over the threshold and the door bars one’s view of the gallery’s full length. The west window is fully visible as is five metres of the exquisite barrel-vaulted ceiling, but the gallery’s full length is hidden until one steps out from behind the opened door. Then the heart races at the scale and splendour of it all. That’s a deliberate tease, a kind of false summit, a nice touch.
The gallery extends the full length of Parham’s east-west axis, some 160 feet, making it the third-longest long gallery in a private house in England. Up here in bad weather, one promenaded, stepping out along the oak boards, enjoying the views south to the downs and north to the estate buildings. Children played here, games were played, the yeomanry were even drilled up here. Ian Nairn’s gnomic observation about Parham’s Long Gallery is a blinder: “The up-and-down walk provided the regularity, the side-to-side views and the ability to stop provided the freedom. Shakespeare kept the same balance between fate and free-will.”
Pegged and morticed-and-tenonned oak panelling was made with rectangles of thinly-split boards inserted into grooves in upright (muntins) and horizontal rails. Runs of these are interspersed with oak Ionic pilasters. The top row of these panel boards and the pilasters are carved, adding the appearance of structural integrity to the design.
A moulding cut has been applied to the sides of the upright muntins of this panelling, and a matching moulding has been applied to the bottom of each rail. The top of each horizontal rail has a simpler moulding cut and the bottom edges of the muntins that sit on it have been scribed to accommodate the moulding on which it sits. This would have speeded up the assembly of the whole. The application of a mason’s mitre cut to the top two corner mouldings of each panel dates the work to the early 1600s.
The carpenters that originally worked on Parham’s oak panelling would probably have used what we today call quarter-sawn cut boards. By avoiding the most common timber cut running down the trunk but also right across it, they would have avoided splitting and warping along the grain in response to the changing humidity of the seasons. Instead, quarter-sawn boards don’t traverse the trunk’s core, and use the most stable and desirable part of the tree. The faces of these boards possess a more refined appearance because the grain of the wood (its ‘rings’) are 90 degrees to the face of the board. This is the most expensive cut of the tree because it wastes the most, but its gives the finest result particularly one that has the greatest durability. Lucky us.
A crowning glory of the connection between Parham and Sir Joseph Banks runs above the heads of visitors to the Long Gallery where the floral designs of Oliver Messel (created between 1962 and 1968 — Messel was from nearby Nyman’s also in West Sussex) are in the style of the drawings and paintings made by Sydney Parkinson on board Cook’s HMS Endeavour, subsequently brought back by Banks from that epic journey with Cook. Connections like tendrils, reaching out to us from the past.
Gardens of delight
Parham is settled in its own 875 acre estate, a large portion of which is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest which includes its medieval deer park. (The citation for this designation — on Natural England’s website — is worth a read.) Close up against the house on its north and west sides lie a 4 acre Walled Garden and 7 acres of Pleasure Grounds. Wander aimlessly around these and lose yourself, whatever the season, in calming reverie. They are delightful.
The Walled Garden is thought to pre-date the house having been cultivated by monks from the monastery at Westminster in the 14th century. Its stone walls date from at least the 18th century but the whole fell into disrepair until restored by the Pearson family in the 1920s. Apparently ‘Parham’ means ‘Pear Enclosure’. The walled enclosure underwent extensive remodelling in the 1980s.
The borders in Parham’s walled garden rise and fall with the seasons, spring bulbs, bright summer colours and golden autumn foliage.
St. Peter’s Church, Parham
St. Peter’s Church sits at the edge of Parham’s south lawns, outside the stone ha-ha, its churchyard walled against deer, with the rolling sweep of the South Downs beyond. Possibly dating from the middle of the 12th century, its chancel chapel was built in 1545. The base of its tower is classic English Perpendicular. Inside is untouched Gothick. Opposite the parson’s pew is the squire’s pew next to a fireplace, whose modest chimney tops the north transept.
There’s something in Parham for everyone. Its appeal is personal, for some it’s the gardens and parkland, its downland setting, or maybe the portraits, furniture, tapestries or embroideries. Or maybe it’s something less tangible, more difficult to pin down, an understanding that evolves with each return visit, like the unfolding of a favourite poem which resonates anew upon each reading. Everywhere here exudes the cherished appearance of timelessness. Notes of poetry hover in stilled rooms; the South Downs send soft light through mullioned windows. Vases of freshly-cut flowers votively connect the season’s bounty to that “older and deeper set of rhythms”.
Links and references
- The Parham House and Garden website.
- Quarter-sawn vs. plain-sawn vs. rift-sawn wood boards explained.
- Historic England’s entry for Parham.
- About Sydney Parkinson, one of Sir Joseph Banks’s botanical artists
- The Natural History Museum’s on-line gallery of botanical illustrations from the voyage of HMS Endeavour (1768-1771).
- Oliver Messel, the designer of the 1960s ceiling panels in Parham’s Long Gallery
- Quercophilia explained: on the International Oak Society’s website.
- Ian Nairn and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Sussex; Penguin Books, 1965.
- Simon Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Houses; Penguin Books, 2003.
- Parham; Jarrold Publishing, 2018.
- R.J.Brown, Timber-Framed Buildings of England; Robert Hale, 1986.
The Parham guides
Special mention has to go to the Parham guides. They really are approachable and make you feel truly welcome. They are there to answer questions no matter how trivial or abstruse. If they don’t know the answer, they try to dig it out from each other or their own papers. Have no idea where to start? Ask them for inspiration. Unlike guides in a zillion other grand houses, the Parham guides will engage you at your level and with a warmth that is contagious. They also change posts every hour to guard against staleness through repetition. Walking encyclopaedias, I say!