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Shropham Hall

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Shropham Hall

Jeremy Musson visits Shropham Hall, built for the Barker family
in the 1720s and passed by descent until the beginning of the 20th century

Monday, March 3, 2005Norfolk is a county famous for its big estates, such as Houghton and Holkham, but there are many lesser country houses that represent the history of the smaller landowning families, allied to merchants of the major towns and serving the county as lords lieutenant, sheriffs, MPs and magistrates. Not least among them is Shropham Hall, mostly dating from the 1720s. At first sight, it stands proudly framed by fine Atlantic cedar trees planted in the early 19th century, the whole scene seeming to be composed for a watercolour (Fig 1). But it is not—as it might seem at first glance—a straightforward example of an early-18th-century country house. There are puzzles about its construction, and modest additions and alterations have been made
in each half century to adapt the house to current
taste and fashion. The whole is perhaps none the less satisfying for that.
A sturdy, red-brick Classical house, constructed in a fine, mortared Flemish bond (Norfolk is not a county for stone houses), Shropham Hall has a dignified broad entrance front, facing south, of five bays. It rises to a central point with a kind of pediment (half sunk into a parapet) over the central three bays. The stepped arrangement of the parapet means that the outermost bays have the appearance of wings, at least on the approach. A narrow giant-order pilaster at each side, which rises to the stone string course above the first-floor windows, frames the central three bays. The pilaster is repeated, to a slightly wider dimension, on both wings. On the eastern and western fronts, a diaper effect is created by the appearance of dark headers; on the first floor, the bricks are arranged round the windows to suggest the basis of rusticated quoins.
The elegant front door, shielded today by a Classical porch of about 1800, with Tuscan columns supporting a Doric entablature, also retains the original early-18th-century arrangement of some elegance, with a round-headed fanlight under a ‘broken’ pediment supported by scrolled brackets. The house was limewashed in the late 18th or early 19th century
(it is shown thus in several early-19th-century paintings). This has gradually been allowed to return to the red brick, but has created a handsome patina of age that could not be created by artificial means.
Little documentary evidence for the building
of the house has been found, but I am grateful to Charles Lynne, son of the present owners, for sharing his considerable researches on Shropham Hall. One rainwater head bears the year 1729 and suggests a date for the end of the house’s construction. We do know that it was built for a John Barker, who married a daughter of the owner of neighbouring Breccles Hall (indeed, Shropham Hall was originally known as Little Breccles Hall). The Barkers’ family pew in the parish church at Shropham is marked by the carved head of a leopard (their crest); this head is thought, by local tradition, to be a barking dog—a pun on their name. They were perhaps connections of the 18th-century MP for Ipswich, Sir John Barker, 4th Baronet, of Grimston Hall in Suffolk.
Also in 1729, the owner of the estate, John Barker, married Elizabeth Engle, daughter of a prominent merchant and mayor of Great Yarmouth. The antiquary Blomfield wrote of Shropham in his History of Norfolk (1739): ‘John Barker, Esq, the present owner hath built a seat here, which is the only house in this place.’ Present day Shropham is the result of the union of three ancient villages, Shropham, Breccles-Parva and Bradcar, which explains partly why the hall stands some distance from the village. John Barker inherited the property from his father, James, in 1718, although the family interest dates back to 1687, when John’s maternal grand-father, Wormsley Hethersett, Mayor of Thetford in 1692 and 1698, acquired the manors of Great and Little Breccles. The fine Elizabethan manor house of Breccles Hall itself passed to the Baylis family through Hethersett’s oldest daughter.
It has been mooted that the unusual construction of the roof of Shropham Hall—it runs north-south, rather than east-west and is not hipped in the manner one might expect for a more conventional house of this date—indicates that the present house was a major remodelling of an earlier house. The historian Richard Garnier has suggested that this may have taken the form of the central three bays, of two storeys and an attic, gabled at each end and orientated east-west, the half-pediment being originally a gable end.
Mr Garnier has also raised the possibility that the house was even more emphatically Baroque in character, and that certain embellishments (such as more ornate capitals to the pilasters) may have been removed during the more Palladian treatment of the house in the 1750s. The existing attic storeys have a number of rooms, which are fitted out in different panelling, some from the early 18th century and some apparently 17th-century. This may simply be reused from elsewhere, but could it indicate a reworking of a late-17th-century house?
The entrance hall, the staircase hall and the study, which is to the west of the entrance hall, all retain a distinctly early-18th-century character. The entrance hall (Fig 5) has its original wainscotting, with Doric-order fluted pilasters that rise to a plaster cornice. The staircase hall (Fig 4), which also gives onto the north front, has an early-18th-century
oak wainscot and a fine staircase of that date, with three balusters to each tread, every third fluted. Ionic capitals are repeated on the first-floor level in
plasterwork; the ceiling above also appears to be of the same date.
Mr Lynne has found some evidence that the proportions of the staircase hall have been reduced, presumably in the 19th century, to give extra space to the dining room (Fig 2), which may have led to the modification of the staircase. It is possible that there was an everyday entrance to the house on the west side, to connect with the stableyard, as the secondary staircase on this side is of good quality, rising to a newel with paired Doric balusters.
There is no documentary evidence for the designer of the 1720s house. Some comparison can be made to the (pre-Donthorne) house at Elmham Park, built in about 1727, which had similar giant-order pilasters and a rusticated stone doorcase. This has now been demolished, as has nearby West Harling Hall—also of the 1720s. Interestingly, the elegant Baroque wall monument of 1718, which is dedicated to James Barker (father of the builder of Shropham), in the local parish church of St Peter’s, is signed J Fellows Lynn on its base.
John Fellows (or Fellowes) of King’s Lynn was a well-known local sculptor, who provided a marble chimneypiece for Raynham Hall. Rupert Gunnis noted in the Dictio-nary of British Sculptors 1660–1851 (1952) that Fellows was made a Free-man of Lynn in 1714 as ‘free stone- mason’. Could he be a candidate for the design? He completed some architectural projects, such as the nave of St Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn, but no domestic commissions are recorded.
The two distinctive two-storey canted bays on the north side are thought to date from the mid 18th century (Fig 7), and three of the rainwater heads to the eastern side of the centre three bays show the year 1756. This is both the date of John Barker’s appointment as High Sheriff of Norfolk, and also of his death, so he or his son may have carried out the work. The library, to the east of the staircase hall, has a handsome Rococo ceiling, which extends into the ceiling of the bay, and a fine marble chimneypiece.
Shropham Hall passed by descent, but through daughters, so the list of owners’ surnames reads like the cast of characters in a Trollope novel. John Barker had a son, also John, who died without issue, so the estate passed to the daughter of his younger brother, James, ADC to Brig Gen Townshend at the battle for Québec in 1759. He had, in 1803, the same year that he was appointed lieutenant general, taken his grandmother’s surname of Hethersett.
His daughter Sarah and her husband, the Revd George Leathes of Roydon, seem to have carried out a number of minor improvements to the house in about 1800. Many of these were essentially cosmetic: the porch to the south, the overall limewashing of
the exterior, and the addition of the shutters and
the loosely Gothic-style plasterwork of the drawing room. They also added a substantial bay window to the east side of the house.
There are two handsome marble chimneypieces, which combine Classical and Gothic motifs (such as quatrefoils in warm sienna-coloured marble insets), which could be part of works for the Leathes. In the later 19th century, the estate (still of some 2,868 acres) passed to Sarah’s sister, Jane Maria, who was married to Henry D’Esterre Hemsworth, son of an Irish landowner from Tipperary. They added a useful range of single-storey kitchen buildings to the west and planted many of the best trees in the park.
In 1894, the Hemsworths’ grandson, Augustus Hemsworth, completed a major refitting of the house—including the rebuilding of a substantial wing to the west. Some part of an earlier building
is visible; this earlier wing, which is shown in an early-19th-century painting in the house, consisted of two low storeys with a pitched roof and dormers.
This must have originally provided servant’s accommodation, but was refitted apparently to provide extra bedrooms for shooting parties. At this time, the dining room was also enlarged. The Hemsworths’ son and heir died in the First World War and, at the end of the war, the estate (then 1,730 acres) was sold up. The house and park were acquired, in 1918, by Col Sir Edward Grogan, Bt, who died in 1927.
In 1999, George and Angela Lynne bought Shropham Hall. They keep it in a great spirit of care and tenderness. No intrusive modernity disturbs the dignified atmosphere of the house, although there is evidence of thoughtful repair—some of it guided by their son, Charles—that is all in harmony with the original.
Mrs Lynne is a collector of fine children’s costume, clothes and toys, and books that relate to childhood—principally from the early 1900s to the 1950s—and one of the attic-storey rooms is maintained as a museum set piece of a between-the-wars nursery. A series of 19th-century genre paintings of childhood by Harry Brooker, which perfectly complement the nursery collection upstairs, hang in
the dining room.
Shropham Hall is an interesting example of
a particular strand of English provincial Baroque house, but it is also an example of a type of attractive smaller country house that, modestly adapted, serves every generation well. The survival of much good early-Georgian panelling and the excellent staircase are immediately noticeable. Less immediate, but ines-capable, is the feeling of how successful the gentle alterations of the later 18th and the 19th centuries have been and just how engaging and enjoyable
this house remains, despite its inevitable (and perhaps insoluble) puzzles.
Photographs: Jane Buck

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