Melrose House, Somerset

Built in the early 1690s, Melrose House is the most impressive Queen Anne house in Frome, Somerset. Five years ago, it stood empty and derelict. Since the Second World War it had been divided into bedsitting rooms and its painted and panelled interiors were lost beneath a dozen layers of mildewed wallpaper.

In 1997, the house was rescued by Ivan Massow, a financier based in Soho, London, who is a keen follower of hounds, an art collector, and a former chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Discovering the dilapidated structure, he was immediately reminded of Michael Henchard’s house in Thomas Hardy’sThe Mayor of Casterbridge. Hardy describes a proud fa?ade abutting directly on the pavement, with corn-wagons trundling to the barns beyond a ‘mossy garden’ where fruit trees flowered on old stone walls.

Melrose was an unusual choice for a weekend retreat from London, especially as Mr Massow’s original intention had been to buy ‘the perfect English manor house’. Melrose is as handsome as many a small manor house, with two acres of garden surrounded by high stone walls which descend to the river. He decided that he did not want the concerns of owning land, and that his guests would rather explore the streets of a lively old town than tramp across woods and fields.

Melrose House has been brought back to life in an imaginative and flawless restoration which also is a reminder of the importance of merchants’ and manufacturers’ town houses to the historic character of country towns and cathedral cities. Once inseparable from the economy of the surrounding countryside, whether corn at Casterbridge or bales of wool at Frome, few remain as private homes. The great majority have become residential care homes, it seems, or offices for solicitors or software firms. If it had not been for Mr Massow’s purchase, Melrose House might be surrounded by asphalt and garaging; inside would be filing cabinets instead of the glow of firelight on panelled walls, wrought-iron latches and oak floorboards.

The house was built by William Whittocks, a tanner, in about 1690. The evidence for the date is the sudden increase in property rates for the site, as recorded in the churchwardens’ accounts. ‘Whittocks’ is one of the new family names which appeared in the town in the late 16th century, according tothe historian Michael McGarvie in hisBook of Frome(1980).

By the late 17th century, the town’s wool industry was thriving; in his Tour of England of 1724 Daniel Defoe described Frome ‘so prodigiously increased within these last 20 or30 years, that they have built a new church, and so many streets of houses . . . that Frome is reckoned to have more people in it than the city of Bath, and some say, than even Salisbury itself, and if their trade continues to increase for a few years more . . . it is likely to be one of the greatest and wealthiest towns in England’.

Melrose House is the most imposing house in the Trinity quarter of Frome, the suburb formed by the new streets which Defoe describes. As important examples of early industrial housing, the weavers’ cottages have been the subject of a major programme of conservation in the past decade; the meeting house in Rook Lane, built in 1707, is one of the finest early-18th-century non-conformist chapels in England.

When built, Whittock’s mansion stood in open ground on the very edge of town. Later, the terraced homes of weavers encroached to the south and west. Indeed, one possible explanation for the blocking-in of the windows on the west elevation during the first decades of the 18th century is the intrusion of Whittox Lane, a public road, into what had been an open space.

The house has been the subject of an excellent historic study by Keystone, historic building consultants based in Exeter, in conjunction with Edward Moreland of Wolstenholme and Partners, the surveyors to the project. A new roof was built, 1960s extensions were pulled down, and the interior temporarily stripped – a thorough restoration which has led to many interesting discoveries.

The house was no doubt designed by a local craftsman – even in a town as sophisticated as the spa resort of Bath there was no architect until John Wood arrived in 1725. However, Melrose House introduced the innovative principles oflate-17th-century country-house design to the town, with a ground plan aligned on a symmetrical fa?ade and centralised round a showpiece staircase. Whittocks built to impress, and behind the fa?ade the house is only one room deep.

The location of the kitchen in the half-basement would also have been an innovation; existing houses in the town would have had their kitchens in a separate structure, detached from the main block of the house as a fire precaution.

Whittocks was a Quakerand his house was impressive without being pretentious. The walls are of the local limestone, a ‘rag’ which is too friable to be sawn into sharp-edged blocks. Its only decorations were quoins, cornice, window surrounds and a simple doorcase, all of ‘freestone’ – that is, stone which can be sawn in any direction-from the quarries at Bath, 15 miles to the north. William died in 1703, and it was his son who added the pediment-like an assertive circumflex – over the front door, the flaming urn and the hood-moulds to the ground-floor windows.

To make the elevation grander, he probably employed one of the masons from Bath who specialised in carving ornaments in their soft local stone, and who are recorded as travelling as far afield as Dublin tosell their door cases, balustrades and urns. The new pediment is in the Palladian style, introduced to the city by John Wood in the mid-1720s.

As built, the house had transom-and-mullion windows with leaded lights; the wooden sash windows now in place were installed by a later owner, John Yeoman, in about 1830. At the same time, he added the service extension to the east end of the house.

English Heritage insisted upon the consolidation, not restoration, of these eroded stone ornaments, with the one exception of the reinstatement of a corner of the pediment. This approach is open to debate. The purpose of the hood-moulds placed above the windows by the younger Whittocks was to add definition to the fa?ade by sharply chiselled mouldings; eroded, they no longer fulfil their function in the design.

The house has only two rooms on each floor. In the centre, the staircase occupies the full depth of the house, with a square newel-post and slim balusters turned in the form of Classical vases. A blocked transom-and-mullion window was discovered in the north wall and this has been restored to its original pattern of leaded-glass panes. The stairwell is once again flooded with light.

On the ground floor, the parlour was to the left of the staircase, with two windows facing south. The room was originally also lit by two windows in the west elevation; a third and smaller opening adjacent lit a closet. Looking at their blocked embrasures-as if at a blurred glass-plate negative-one can picture the handsome wall of leaded lights glittering in the evening light.

The fact that the panelling of the parlour and of the bedchamber above are not in line with these openings indicates that the windows were blocked at the same time as the interior was refurbished by the younger Whittocks. He inherited in 1703 and the style of the new interiors would suggest a date before 1725. The door frames, the panelling and the fire-surround of claret-coloured marble are decorated with bolection mouldings. This was the most fashionable decorative profile for Somerset craftsmen in the first two decades of the century and is also seen round the front door.

However, the exceptional feature of the interior are the seven oil paintings which, miraculously, survived in situ beneath the wallpaper in three of the four rooms of the house. Painted directly onto the panelling, they include scenes of harvest, winter, a shipwreck and a battle, but it is impossible to identify any allegorical, seasonal, biblical or mythological themes.

Nevertheless, this is the finest series of decorative paintings to survive in any merchant’s town house of this period in the South-West. John Thorp of Keystone, an authority on late-17th- and early-18th-century town houses in Devon, notes that elsewhere-for example, at what is now the Royal Hotel in Bideford-decorative painting is limited to the overmantel ofthe principal parlour.

The room across the hall is now used as a study but is thought originally to have been the dining room for the Whittocks family. Discoveries made during the recent repairs, including a blocked-in doorway opposite the stairs down to the kitchen, indicate that there was a small but well-lit room behind a partition wall at the north end of the room. This probably functioned as servery. Upstairs are two bedrooms and the younger Whittock’s panelling also survives in the principal chamber-it was fitted round the headboard of the master’s bed.

In the early 19th century, Melrose House was the property of John Yeomans, a prosperous maltster with extensive yards on adjacent land. It must have been during this phase of its life that Melrose House most resembled Henchard’s mansion in Hardy’s novel. Yeomans added the small extension to the east, with a wine cellar in the basement and service rooms above. The basement kitchen was also modernised and today it is an exceptionally pleasant room extending the full length of the house.

Today, this space has been the opportunity to create one contemporary interior inside the Grade-II*-listed house.

After Yeomans’s death in about 1830, Melrose House passed through the hands of a number of less wealthy owners, its decline reflecting the fortunes of Frome itself. In about 1850, a detached cottage was built to the north of the main block, placed at right angles to face east into the garden. This has been refurbished by Mr Massow as rooms for guests, creating a degree of privacy but also emphasising the architectural distinction between Victorian cottage and Queen Anne house.