In 1961, the 21st Earl of Shrewsbury sold Ingestre Hall to what was then the West Bromwich Corporation. Along with the red-brick Jacobean style mansion came sixty-six paintings, most of them portraits of the Earl’s ancestors – the Chetwynd, Talbot and Shrewsbury family.The collection was catalogued in 2013 by the Ingestre Festival Association to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the building of the hall and is available to view on the BBC website here, as part of their ‘Your Paintings’ project.
Amongst them are George Talbot, Keeper of Mary Queen of Scots for fifteen years and his wife Bess of Hardwick, arguably the second most powerful woman in Elizabethan England. The 19th Earl of Shrewsbury, Charles John Chetwynd-Talbot, appears twice – aged four and wearing a red dress and aged around twenty five and wearing full dress uniform. The infamous Anna Maria is here too, as a young woman of seventeen, in the year that she wed Francis Talbot and became Countess of Shrewsbury. The marriage would end with the Earl’s death, fatally wounded by his wife’s lover, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, in a duel that took place on 16th March 1667. The event was recorded by Samuel Pepys who described Anna Maria as, ‘my Lady Shrewsbury, who is a whore, and is at this time, and hath for a great while been, a whore to the Duke of Buckingham’.There were reports elsewhere that she had attended the duel disguised as the Duke’s page but whether these rumours (or the ones about what happened in that bloodstained shirt afterwards) are true, we’ll never know. Also at Ingestre is a portrait of the Shrewsbury’s younger son, John Talbot, who in a twist of fate was also killed in a duel, sometime around his 21st birthday in February 1686. This cause this time was not infidelity but, ‘having given the Duke of Grafton very unhandsome and provoking language’.
As far as I can see, there is no portrait of Francis Talbot. Perhaps it was destroyed in the devastating fire which swept through the hall on the night of 12th October 1882. Unfortunately, no inventory was taken until afterwards. A contemporary account tells us that, “Some valuable paintings…were saved”, but that “The grand historical paintings on the staircase, however, were all destroyed”.
Hanging on the staircase in the place of these lost paintings are portraits which reflect a chapter in the history of the hall’s present owners, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council. There are paintings of the Earl of Dartmouth, and Alderman Reuben Farley who persuaded him to lease part of his estate for a nominal rent of £1 in order that a park could be established for the people of West Bromwich. Under Sandwell Council’s ownership, the hall is used mainly as a residential arts centre, although it can also be hired out for weddings. I’m sure that dreams of having a photograph taken on the grand blue staircase in a nice white frock have influenced many a prospective bride’s decision in choosing Ingestre as the setting for their big day.
Impressive as the grand staircase is, it was the nearby secret staircase hidden behind a wall which captured my imagination. Leading to what was easily the shabbiest of all the rooms we saw, it would be quite easy to believe that no-one else had stepped inside here since 1961.
It’s thought the room may have been used by those waiting for a signal from the Pavilion to tell them that the coast was clear for illicit night time activities of some description to commence. If only those carved Talbot dogs could talk…
There’s yet another concealed door in the library, in a bookshelf full of pretend books. As Joss Musgrove Knibb from the Lichfield Gazette pointed out to me, even more shocking than this literary deception is that whoever was responsible didn’t even take the opportunity to include puns along the lines of, ‘Percy Vere, in 15 large volumes’ as they had done at Chatsworth. Seems the conclusion to be drawn from an afternoon at Ingestre is this – it’s the paintings and not the books which tell the stories here.
Notes: Thanks to Jason Kirkham of UK Urbex, who has very kindly let me use his photographs as I forgot my camera. And then couldn’t download the ones I took on my phone. (Let’s be honest, it’s probably worked out better that way)
http://www.altontowers.com/alton-towers-heritage/heritage/family/the-11th-earl-francis/ The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Volume 2
A Short History of Ingestre by Anne Andrews
Catalogue of Paintings – Ingestre Hall Residential Arts Centre
Portraits of Illustrious Personages of Great Britain by Edmund Lodge