Every Picture Tells a Story

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.

Ingestre Hall

Ingestre Hall by Jason Kirkham

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’.

The grand staircase aka The Blue Staircase. By Jason Kirkham

The grand staircase aka The Blue Staircase. By Jason Kirkham

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.

Blue Staircase with portrait of Alderman Reuben Fairley JP

Blue Staircase with portrait of Alderman Reuben Fairley JP. By Jason Kirkham

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.

Inside the not-so-secret waiting room

Inside the not-so-secret waiting room. By Jason Kirkham

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…

One of the many Talbot dogs at Ingestre

One of the many Talbot dogs at Ingestre. By Jason Kirkham

Bookcase Ingestre

In the library. By Jason Kirkham

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)

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1423544/Nadine-Countess-of-Shrewsbury.html
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

Orange Peel

In the mid 1930s, the Lichfield Mercury ran a series of articles called ‘The Beauty that is England’, featuring local country houses – ‘what they are and have been’ – around Lichfield. Each article blends the author’s description of the house (if still standing) and grounds with a heady mix of folklore, hearsay, historic records and poor quality photographs. Taken with a pinch off salt, they make for fascinating reading. As well as describing the past, they are now the past, providing us with a snapshot of almost eighty years ago – a ‘Now and Then and Then’, if you like.

The Orangery at the old Fisherwick Estate. Just about.

The Orangery at the old Fisherwick Estate. Photo from the Lichfield Mercury July 19th, 1935.

I was delighted that number eight in the series was Fisherwick, the site of a once grand mansion built for the Marquess of Donegal in the 1760s, but torn down and sold off to pay family debts after barely half a century. It’s a place I know well and I recognise much of it from the description from the 1930s – the beauty of its woods, the old arched bridges, the River Tame meandering through rich and colourful meadows. Yet of course in eighty years there have been changes. The red brick of the now demolished Elford Hall can no longer be seen in the distance, Fisherwick Hall’s ice house, ‘a brick enclosed fissure, built into the side of the hill’, near Home Farm has since disappeared, as has the pub in nearby Whittington which took its name from Robert Peel who purchased some of the dismembered Fisherwick estate.

Still hanging on in there just is the Orangery, although its portico (just visible in the above image), supported by four pillars with carved ionic capitals and reached by four worn steps has vanished since the 1930s, as has the frieze around the walls, said to have been carved in white stone with goats’ or sheep skulls linked by flowers. It’s a miracle anything survives at all. Even eighty years ago the author described its ‘crumbling sandstone, rotting bricks and decaying beams’, noting how ‘the ravages of time and nature are playing havoc with the beauty it barely possesses’. Then, in the 1970s, Nature upped her game and the Orangery was struck by lightening and scheduled for demolition. Why this never took place, I don’t know but I’m pleased it didn’t. It gives us an idea of what the rest of the estate may have looked like, and has the added interest of carved graffiti – the author thought everyone in Lichfield had added their signatures, based on the number and variety of names scribbled all over it.

Orangery

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Fisherwick 016

The Lichfield Mercury article ends with a tantalising yet unsubstantiated snippet of a story, saying that, ‘in 1800, a fatal duel was fought at Fisherwick, where a suitable enclosure near the hall had been lent for the combat’. I don’t know who the two gentlemen were, or what their quarrel was over, but this is just one of the many tales which have weaved their way around this intriguing place.  If you’d like to hear more Fisherwick Stories and explore the Orangery and whatever else remains of the estate today, including the community farm which has grown up in and around the former walled garden, then you are more than welcome to join us on our Lichfield Discovered walk –  2pm on Saturday 5th April at Woodhouse Farm and Garden.