Architecture Local Interest

The Cutting Edge of English Architecture

Ham House in the Seventeenth Century

Ham is just across the river from Marble Hill. In late 18th century, the house was regarded as very old-fashioned. In 1770, Horace Walpole said: ”that the house was so blocked up with trees and gates that you think yourself an hundred miles off and a hundred miles back.” In 1872, Augustus Hare, when visiting the house said, “No half-inhabited chateau of a ruined family in Normandy was ever so dilapidated as this home of the enormously rich Tollemaches”. Yet in the 17th century Ham could be regarded as the cutting edge of English architecture, particularly after it was remodelled by the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale. The house was probably built as a villa rather than as a country house and such villas were built as places for the nobility, gentry and rich merchants to escape from London. Even in the 17th century there were a number of villas along the Thames, though their number grew substantially in the course of the 18th century. The house was built for Sir Thomas Vasavour probably between 1608 and 1610. It is not known who the architect was.

Vasavour died in either 1624 or 1625 and the house passed briefly to the Earl of Holdernesse, but he died in 1626. It then passed to a Sir George Ramsay, and in 1633 the house came into possession of William Murray. He was traditionally known as Charles I’s whipping boy, but he was generously compensated by Charles when he became king. Murray was a member of the Court and wished to ensure that the interiors reflected the latest fashions when he carried out an extensive refurbishment of the interior between 1638 and 1639. The finest room, following this restoration, was probably the North Drawing Room, which included the fireplace with its twisted columns and these are almost certainly taken from the Raphael Cartoon ‘The Healing of the lame man’. Raphael based them on the columns in the old St. Peters in Rome, which was pulled down in 1506. These columns had come from the eastern Mediterranean and were believed to have been part of the temple at Jerusalem, thus the term Solomonic columns. The cartoons were then at the Royal Tapestry factory at Mortlake. The design of the fireplace was probably made by a Danish artist Franz Cleyn, who was the director at the Royal Tapestry factory. Charles I had bought the cartoons through agents in Italy. The long gallery was likely to have been created when the house was first built, but the Great Staircase was put in as part of Murray’s refurbishment.

The Civil War began in 1642 and Murray fought on the Royalist side and he received his peerage in 1643, when he became the first Earl of Dysart. He went into exile after the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and died in Edinburgh in 1655. The title passed to his daughter Elizabeth. She married Sir Lionel Tollemache in 1648, but the family avoided having their property being sequestrated by Parliament, but it was not until the restoration in 1660, that for Elizabeth it was safe to use her title, the Countess of Dysart. Sir Lionel Tollemache had died in 1669 and Duke of Lauderdale’s first wife had died in 1671. No major rebuilding took place until after she married the Duke of Lauderdale in 1672.

In the 1670s Ham House was totally remodelled. The Duke of Lauderdale, who was Secretary of State for Scotland, was both important and rich. It would not have been surprising if he had pulled this house down and built a more modern house. As we know, the Lauderdales kept the original house, probably at his wife’s request, although the house was widened by creating two ranges of rooms and by filling in the area between the wings on the south side. The architect was William Samwell (1628-1676). One of the most important innovations by the Lauderdales was the installation of twenty six sash windows on the south front. This appears to be one of the earliest installations of sash-windows on a large scale. Some of the windows on the east side were double sashes, which is perhaps an early example of double glazing. The counter-balanced sash-window was an English invention, though it had originally been thought that the counter-balanced sash-window had come from France or Holland*. The sash windows, which we see at Ham on the south front today, were installed in the 1730s by John James. He also remodelled St. Mary’s Twickenham in 1715.

One of the first additions in the interior was the creation of a set rooms forming the State Apartments including the Queen’s Bedchamber for the visit of Queen Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s consort. Ham was one of the first houses to incorporate French ideas in the planning of its rooms, such as the sets of apartments and the enfilade. Probably the earliest example of the enfilade is in France, at Vaux-de-Vicomte near Paris, which was completed in 1662 not long before the refurbishment at Ham. Two other important innovations at Ham were the library and the Duchess of Lauderdale’s bathroom. Ham House has the earliest surviving library in a private house. The library and the library closet are relatively small compared to the libraries put into country houses of the late 18th century. The duchess’s bathroom was also something of an innovation for the late 17th century. There was a set of stairs connecting her bed chamber with the bath. It was probably a steam bath. If it was, she would have sat on a chair and the water would have regularly warmed up by water from a jug. In 1682 the Duke of Lauderdale died and Elizabeth Duchess of Lauderdale died in 1698, and thus the Lauderdale era came to an end.

*In 1981 a distinguished academic Dr. Hentie Louw convincingly argued in his D.Phil. that the counter-balanced sash-window was invented in England, probably in the King’s Surveyor’s office at the end of the 1660s

John Moses
Writing for the Marble Hill Society