This Tudor house was the unlikely venue for the first meeting of the founding group of The Arts Society. John Goodall tells its remarkable story. Photographs by Paul Highnam.
A storm at sea – if family lore is to be believed – launched the career of John Russell. On January 17, 1506, heavy weather forced a ship carrying the king and queen of Castile ashore at Melcombe Regis in Dorset. By happy chance, Russell, the son of a local gentleman, was a linguist, so the harassed official responsible for dealing with these unexpected royal visitors chose him as both an interpreter and an escort to conduct the Castilians to Henry VII at Windsor. Russell never looked back: he became a courtier and then a companion to the young Henry VIII, in whose household – and between duties as a soldier and diplomat – he was steadily promoted.
Relatively early in his career, in 1525 or 1526, Russell married the wealthy heiress Anne Sapcote. She brought him a new residence at Chenies, convenient to the court and to London. He assumed the property as his principal seat and developed it on a sufficient scale to receive Henry VIII in 1534 and again in 1542. The antiquarian John Leland, visiting in about 1540, the year after his ennoblement, commented on the resulting transformation of the buildings: ‘The olde house of Cheyneis is so translated by my Lorde Russel…that litle or nothing of it …remayneth ontranslatid; and a great deale of the house is…of brike and timber: and fair lodgings be new erected in the gardein… And there be about the house 2 parkes, as I remember.’
Leland also recorded that the interior of the house was ‘in diverse places richely paintid with antique works of white and blak’. By this he probably meant that the walls were decorated with a combination of animal and vegetable forms also termed ‘grotesques’, decoration copied from the cavernous ruins or ‘grottos’ of Rome. To Leland, familiar with interiors hung with tapestries or wainscot, they were evidently a striking and fashionable feature of the house.
Russell went on to serve Edward VI, by whom he was elevated to the title of Earl of Bedford in 1550. He declared for Mary I in 1553. Following his death two years later, his body was brought back from London with great pomp and laid to rest at Chenies. All his ancestors to the present day have followed him and their spectacular collection of tombs is gathered in the private family chapel on the north side of the parish church that stands immediately to the east of the present house.
Russell’s son, Francis, 2nd Earl, served Elizabeth I and likewise received her on several occasions at Chenies. An inventory of the house, drawn up at his death in 1585, gives a flavour of its scale and opulence. It also mentions a bed in the downstairs parlour ornamented with Henry VIII’s arms, almost certainly used by the king in his last visit when his physical condition made it inconvenient to go upstairs.
Only a small fragment of the Tudor house survives today. It comprises two brick ranges set at right angles to each other on an L-shaped plan. The shorter range to the west is entered through a porch and its two floors are connected by a generous, spiral stair in brick. Recent tree-ring – or dendrochronological – dating of timbers from the building suggests that it was constructed in 1537–8.
The much longer south range is punctuated by six massive gabled projections, each crowned by stepped battlements and richly carved chimneys. Accommodated originally within the volume of the project-
ions were latrines and fireplaces at both ground and first-floor level. This arrangement – which effectively created a series of independent domestic chambers – almost certainly identifies the range as an accommodation block for senior members of the household. The dating of timbers from the structure suggests that it was built in about 1552 (and could not, therefore, have been seen by Leland).
Both the surviving Tudor ranges formed part of an outer or base court to the main residence, which stood elsewhere. Such evidence as has been assembled to date implies the existence of other structures to the north of the present house. These include the archaeological identification, during a Time Team dig broadcast in 2005, of footings for a substantial range with projecting bay windows (a later addition) overlooking an area of gardens. There also survives in this area a vaulted cellar that stands completely independent from the present building.
It’s an open question as to when the main body of the house was demolished. What is known, however, is that in 1608 the seat of the Earldom moved first to Moor Park, outside Rickmansworth, and then to Woburn Abbey in the 1630s, where it remains. It is perhaps a mark of abandonment in this period that one of the latrine chambers in the south range preserves a large daubed graffito dated September 1, 1619. This invokes the reader to remember Thomas Thoroton while they ‘here do sit’ (presumably on the latrine) and concludes with the Latin epithet ‘time flies’.
By 1728, the bulk of the house had been demolished. The west range, meanwhile, was rented for £23 per annum as a farm by one Mr Henry Blythe and the south range was in decay. A few years later, in 1735, the estate steward noted that ‘Chenies Place is a very large old house, brick built with some very large and lofty rooms, but the apartments are not very regular and of no more value than to be pulled down’. The buildings survived, as they would another demolition proposal in 1760. They also apparently escaped plans in 1746 to block up windows in response to the window tax, because Horace Walpole particularly admired the surviving stained glass in September 1749.
‘There are,’ he wrote, ‘but piteous fragments of the house remaining, now a farm, built round three sides of a court. It is dropping down, in several places without a roof, but in half the windows are beautiful arms in painted glass. As these are so totally neglected, I propose making a push, and begging them of the Duke of Bedford. They would be magnificent for Strawberry-castle.’ Perhaps as a direct result of Walpole’s request, the Duke removed the glass to Woburn the following year. As a final indignity, in 1760 the south range was divided into five tenements.
The decline of the house was finally arrested in 1829. That year, a younger son of the 4th Duke, Lord Wriothesey Russell, was both married and appointed to the living of Chenies. He immediately repaired the manor with the help of the architect Edward Blore and made part of the south wing, now known as the Long Room, into a school (pending the construction of a proper school house). Further changes followed in 1840, when the juncture of the two historic ranges was reconfigured with a bay window. In the 1860s, there were alterations to the fenestration of the building, probably including the insertion of the present iron-lattice windows.
In 1954, the association of Chenies with the Bedford estate finally came to an end when the manor was sold in one lot for £182,000 to pay the death duties of the 12th Duke. Part of the farm was then purchased by Lt Col Marston, DSO MC, a talented electrical engineer. In 1920, he had entered into partnership to found Statter and Co and built a factory in Little Chalfont making heavy-electrical switches. When he was eventually bought out of this venture, he purchased the estate with the proceeds. He did not, however, buy the house, which was initially bought out by its long-term tenant. When he sold up in 1957, he persuaded his recently married son-in-law, Lt Col Alistair Macleod Matthews, and his 22-year-old bride, Elizabeth, to take it on and lent them some money. ‘You’ll never be bored’, he assured his daughter.
Lt Col Macleod Matthews had served in the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War. Afterwards he joined British Petroleum, which took him regularly to the Middle East and also to the USA. They made a formidable team: he had an interest in historical research and antiques, especially carpets and she was practical and resident in the house, capable of driving forward the process of restoration while he travelled.
‘My mother really led the charge with the restoration’ recalls her son Charles, the present owner. ‘She would take a couple of rooms at a time and work away at them until they were finished.’ By degrees, the house was repaired and new rooms created. The consistent intention was to bring back the 16th-century spaces of the house and, where possible, remove later partitions. The Stone Room, for example, was created by clearing away a scullery and kitchen and the Victorian staircase that was sandwiched between them.
As new rooms were created, they complemented their collection of inherited pictures and furniture with new purchases. They had eclectic tastes embracing Stuart and Georgian furniture, tapestry and fabrics. A nine-month posting to the USA also yielded a hoard of oak furniture.
It was on January 22, 1965, when this process of restoration was well underway that a new society, The Chiltern Antiques Group, gathered in the Long Room – then still used as a village space – to hear Miss D. K. Millington on the subject of ‘Small Antiques in our homes’, which described her collection of Victorian teaspoons. The group later became the first constituent body of NADFAS, now The Arts Society, and has maintained a close connection with the house ever since.
As the house assumed its new form, the Macleod Matthews set out a formal garden to the west and south of the house. At the time of the purchase, much of the land around the house was still planted as a potato field, a legacy of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. All that survived of the historic landscape was an ancient oak. It is more than 1,000 years old and, by tradition, it is the tree beneath which Elizabeth I lost a piece of jewellery. They established a tulip festival here every April and also a reputation for growing Dahlias, of which about 850 are planted out each year. An isohedral maze was also laid out here after a design competition organised by The Times in 1991.
In the 1970s, during the course of their restoration work, the house was opened to help raise money for the repair of the church roof. The experience encouraged more regular openings, using NADFAS volunteers as guides and a former tractor shed as a tearoom. This, a shop and other visitor facilities have been gradually improved. In 2002, a 16th-century ruin known as the Nursery was renovated as a house to prevent its collapse.
Alistair Macleod Matthews died in 2001 and his wife 15 years later. His son has reunited the estate by buying out his cousins from their share of the farmland purchased by his grandfather. Charles and his wife, Boo, continue to open the house to the public and make it available for filming, events and weddings. It is the gardens, however, that perhaps remain the chief attraction of Chenies, setting off the rambling Tudor buildings to perfection.
Visit www.cheniesmanorhouse.co.uk for further information
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