Country house tour: Firle Place near Lewes

Join in Country Life’s fifth visit to this incredible country house in East Sussex

Firle Place, near Lewes in East Sussex, has been the subject of feature articles in Country Life four times before. In the first two articles in January 1920, Philip Mainwaring-Johnson described a rather sparsely furnished house, with good 18th-century English furniture, but with pretty standard family portraits and a few copies after Old Masters. The most elaborately decorated room was the Great Hall, which bristled with antlers and exotic weaponry.

By the time Country Life revisited via Arthur Oswald’s triad of articles in 1955, the house had been transformed by the influx of magnificent pictures and furniture from Panshanger in Hertfordshire and Taplow Court in Buckinghamshire, inherited by Lady Gage from her mother, Lady Desborough. The trophies and curiosities had been banished from the Great Hall, which was now dominated by a vast canvas, John, Count of Nassau-Siegen and his Family by Van Dyck.

It was these treasures that formed the subject of Kenneth Garlick’s 1974 account of Firle Place, but Country Life returned in 1999 to celebrate the arrival of much of the other half of the Pan-shanger inheritance, the pictures and furniture lent by the heirs of Monica, Lady Salmond, in that year. This, the fifth visit to Firle by Country Life in just under a century, records another important round of changes restoration, redecoration, practical improvements made to the house and its garden by the present Lord Gage, the 8th Viscount, and his wife, Alexandra. It shows how Firle, like other great houses, continues to adapt to suit the needs of its owners.

With the exception of one import-ant detail, the exterior of Firle Place remains almost completely unaltered. The south front of the house is an amiable jumble of architectural styles, but a gabled wing at its far end is virtually the only surviving relic of the Tudor house not disguised by a casing of 18th-century masonry. This precious survival overlooks Lord and Lady Gage’s private garden and the wing houses their kitchen, with their apartments above.

The kitchen is very much a family room and the heart of the house, and the Gages have a five-year old son, Valentine, so it was essential to have direct access out into the garden. Permission was sought for a new doorway on this front to allow this. Providentially, their architect dis-covered the remains of a blocked-up Tudor doorway, which could be reopened and used for this purpose.

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The local Conservation Officer and English Heritage representatives were completely supportive of this minor, although transformative, alteration, which was sensitively achieved with minimal fuss. Indeed, the new doorway looks as if it has always been there which, indeed, it has.

Lord and Lady Gage married in 2009, but when the new Viscountess arrived at Firle, she was almost immediately precipitated into a major building project. The Great Hall and staircase are the result of an 18th-century recasting of the Great Hall of the Tudor House, probably erected by Sir John Gage, trusted counsellor of Henry VIII, in 1541, using building materials from the dissolved Priory at Lewes. Hidden behind the coved plaster ceiling of the Great Hall is the original roof.

What the 18th-century plasterwork also disguised, however, was the perilous state of the Tudor structure, its supporting walls and adjacent chimney stacks. Repairs were urgently needed, so, in 2011, the core of the house disappeared behind a forest of scaffolding. The works, which cost £1.6 million, supported with a £300,000 English Heritage grant, were carried out by the conservation architect Jane Warner of Smith Gore and took two years to complete.

The Great Hall is now pristine once again and Lord Gage notes grimly that a lot of work was done, and money spent, but very little evidence of it can be seen, but Lady Gage says she rather likes this. To her, the restoration of the Great Hall was
‘a watershed, which helped me to understand and feel part of the house’.

After the completion of the works, little needed to be done to the decor-ation of the Great Hall and staircase, apart from a lick of fresh paint. The colours white for the staircase, and a pinkish grey colour called ‘vapour brown’ in the Great Hall had been chosen by Lord Gage years before and worked well.

The family’s dining room, housed in what had been a billiard room in the oldest part of the house, was a different matter. This dark, potentially somewhat dingy room, had import-ant fragments of Tudor painted decoration over the chimneypiece and a set of distinguished Dutch pictures, including a spectacular, moist-looking An Extensive Landscape with a Windmill by Philips Koninck, which occupies an entire wall. After a great deal of thought, Lady Gage settled upon a grey-white colour that picked up on the silvery flashes of water in the landscape and the result is most successful.

Lady Gage has begun to make changes upstairs as well, in the suite of state rooms that occupy the first floor of the house. These are the public show rooms, where the best pictures, furniture and porcelain are displayed. Nothing has yet been attempted in the first room, the Upstairs Drawing Room, as it was repainted a vivid eau de nil colour not that long ago. This provides perhaps a bit too strong a foil for the important works of art displayed here, including two portraits by Puligo and works by Guardi, Rubens, Moroni and Tintoretto, as well as fine French furniture and two exceptional cabinets by Thomas Chippendale the Elder.

This was where the beautiful Fra Bartolommeo Holy Family, now in the Getty Museum, once hung, reminding us that Firle has not been unaffected by the need to sell works of art in order to maintain the house.

The next room in the suite, the Ante Room, is also unaltered. With its crimson velvet and grey moiré paper walls with painted floral borders, it is a rare and interesting survival of an early Victorian decor, probably carried out for Sophia Selina Knightly, after her marriage to Henry Gage, son of the 4th Viscount, in 1840.

The refined neo-Classical chimney-piece, with its row of Bacchic masks, has recently been identified as a work by John Deare, the precocious and shortlived sculptor, who died in Rome in 1798. Lady Gage aims eventually to review and thin out the accumulated furniture and bric-à-brac, and display the china here more logically, but has reserved most of her energies for the Long Gallery next door, which had its ceiling repaired as part of the recent works.

Once, like so many rooms in the house, painted yellow with white mouldings, this has been repainted a pale, pearl grey, which sets off well the massed pictures and furniture. These remain more or less in their old places, but Lady Gage would like to explore a more rational deployment of furniture, clearing the clutter from the centre of the room. An impressive suite of giltwood seat furniture settees and armchairs, covered in their original rose-coloured brocade might be arranged against the walls, relieving the astonishing number of Louis XV commodes currently marshalled here.

Another challenge is how to display the exceptional Sèvres and other French porcelain, at present mainly shown off in large glass-fronted cabinets along the window wall. This is now all safely back at Firle, undamaged, after being recovered following a particularly audacious theft in 2010. A possible solution might be to create a special china room elsewhere in the house, to display it in optimum conditions, giving more room in the Long Gallery to show off the pictures and furniture.

Firle is unusual in that it has almost too many good things; corridors are densely hung with full-length portraits and even guest bedrooms contain works by Reynolds and Sargent.

Living in a treasure house like Firle can be daunting and Lord and Lady Gage have had to carve out their own personal space in the great house. Lord Gage, who is a talented painter, has his studio in the Old Laundry and his eldest son, Henry, is now taking over running the estate and maintains an office next to the Ante Library. But the handsome stable block, erected in 1800 to the designs of a Mr Brodie, still houses the family horses, including the latest addition: an endearingly wobbly, week-old foal.

Nearby, Lady Gage has colonised the former Gas House, where she keeps her distilling equipment. This is not an illegal still for potcheen, however Lady Gage has long had an interest in the medical properties of herbs and flowers and has planted the 18th-century walled garden at Firle with an extensive array of medicinal herbs. These are tended by the Viscountess and her gardener on organic lines, without chemicals, and are harvested and distilled by Lady Gage to create a range of therapeutic herb-based skin balms, soaps and teas.

The range is about to be extended to include flower waters and a special Firle Place garden perfume. The Firle Place range is sold in the newly refurbished shop and tearoom, which have been redecorated with the help of a local antique dealer, selling locally produced food and crafts when the house is open to the public.

But it is interesting how the old house adapts to the different ways each generation chooses to live in it. The present Lord Gage remembers how his father, Rainald, the 6th Viscount, lived in the house in ‘an almost Edwardian way’ until his death in 1982. It was certainly very much a male preserve he recalls that his mother, Imogen, who brought to Firle all the spoils of Panshanger and Taplow Court, retreated to what is probably the smallest room in the house, the Telephone Room. Rather touchingly, this has been taken over by the present Lady Gage as her office; Valentine has commandeered an 18th-century cock-fighting table here as a depot for his toy cars, plastic dinosaurs and Lego.

From June to September, when Firle Place is open five days a week to the public, Lord and Lady Gage retreat to their side of the house, and, a few days a week, decamp to a small farmhouse near Charleston where they can get away completely. However, what remains striking is the degree to which Firle Place is fully lived in, with lots of reassuring signs of human and canine occupation fires in the grates, fresh flowers in the rooms, toys and half-read news-papers lying about and dog beds for the family’s three Clumber spaniels.

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First published in Country Life magazine on September 3 2014