Madresfield Court History
In 1798 William Jennens died aged 97, unmarried and intestate, leaving a large fortune; he had been known as the richest commoner in England.
Although the legal wrangling over his estate continued for over a hundred years (and was reputed to be the inspiration for Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, William Lygon and his wife Catherine Denne inherited a portion of this legacy which was paid out in 1815.
They immediately set about adding to the collection at Madresfield.
From the 1860s, the reconstruction in the Victorian Gothic style was begun by the 1st Earl’s grandsons, the 5th and 6th Earls, who were responsible for the creation of the new house you see today. Work was undertaken to house the extensive collections of furniture, paintings and porcelain purchased by previous generations.
The architect was Philip Hardwick (1792-1870). All the windows and the roof were replaced. The old entrance block remained, but a chapel, bell tower, and large public rooms for display and entertainment were added.
As a moated property, the extension could only be inwards or upwards. The house had originally occupied only a quarter of the moated area but by the time the work was completed most of the available space was filled with the new buildings leaving only a very modest patch for a garden.
The architectural alterations were completed in 1890 and the 6th Earl, Frederick, died the following year.
Detail of inner courtyard from a drawing of 1889
The Staircase Hall
When Frederick’s son, another William and the 7th Earl Beauchamp, inherited Madresfield Court, he transformed three rooms in the centre of the house into one, dramatic, double-height staircase hall: the oak floor was made from oak grown on the estate and laid by the estate carpenter; the lions, swans and bears on the newel posts were taken from the family crest; the emblems on the ceiling illustrated the different aspects of his career.
However, his most notable additions to the house are undoubtedly the decoration of the library and the chapel. Madresfield Court is widely recognised as perhaps the most thorough expression of Arts and Crafts theory in Britain, and possibly its most lovely.
Formed in the late 19th century as a reaction to the increasingly industrialised and mechanical nature of production, the Arts and Crafts Movement championed craftsmanship, beauty and purpose. Its proponents wanted to create beautiful objects such as ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and furniture, that were useful in everyday life, often using images taken from nature.
The 7th Earl was a dedicated patron of the Arts and Crafts movement and there are many commissions from the period throughout the house.
The carvings in the library are considered to be the major achievement of the Guild of Handicraft based at Chipping Campden. The work was started in 1905 with Charles Ashbee as the designer and the 7th Earl was personally involved in all aspects of the scheme.
The theme chosen by the Earl for the decoration of the room was the “Search for Light” – i.e.‘knowledge’ – and the room is a showcase of the Guild’s skill in wood and metal carving carried out by Alec Miller and Will Hart, whose descendants are still carving in the same workshop to this day.
The muted tones of the library do not prepare you for the explosion of colour which greets you in the chapel, the decoration of which was a wedding present from the 7th Countess to her husband. Commissioned in 1902, the work was interrupted by the First World War and completed in 1923.
It is considered to be the most important scheme of decorative painting and probably the most famous of all the Arts and Crafts schemes from the Birmingham Group.
The wall paintings were designed and painted by Henry Payne with three young assistants, Joseph Sanders, Dick Stubington and Harry Rushbury, later Sir Henry Rushbury R.A. When they started, one of these young assistants was 21, another only 15. Henry Payne spent several years at Madresfield and was able to incorporate the family’s seven children into the design.
It is an idyllic scene of innocent children playing amidst flower-strewn meadows, honeysuckle scrambles up the walls to the organ gallery, harebells adorn the panels. Forty-six different flowers and plants, all found on the Estate at the time, are depicted on the chapel walls and you can almost hear the gentle sounds of a summer afternoon.
"The whole interior had been gutted, elaborately refurnished and redecorated in the arts-and-crafts style of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Angels in printed cotton smocks, rambler roses, flower-spangled meadows, frisking lambs, texts in Celtic script, saints in armour, covered the walls in an intricate pattern of clear bright colours. "
Tales from the Court
The house is also known for its connections with Edward Elgar and Evelyn Waugh, who both drew inspiration from Madresfield for their very different works - Elgar for [Number 13 of] his Enigma Variations and Waugh for Brideshead Revisited. During the 1930s, Evelyn Waugh was a frequent visitor to Madresfield. Waugh undoubtedly used Madresfield and the Lygons as the framework of his plot and much has been made over the years of the Brideshead connection.
The 8th Earl succeeded in 1937 but had no children, so the Earldom became extinct at his death in 1979. During the Second World War, the house was kept in readiness for the family of King George VI if they should have to leave London because of the bombing. Crates of food were stored in the cellars in preparation, but they were never needed.
Lady Morrison, daughter of the last Earl’s youngest brother, Richard Lygon, lived at Madresfield Court until 2011. When she moved in, she noted that Madresfield appeared to be very glamorous to visit but that living there was another matter; often the hall was so cold you could see your breath in it. The house, rather warmer now, is heated by woodchip from the estate woodland.