At the weekend, we went to Ham House, a Stuart-period house built by James Murray. He was a commoner from the village of Dysart who somehow (I am not sure how) got the job of whipping-boy to Prince Charles (the second son of James VI of Scotland, later King Charles I of Scotland and England, who came to a bad end in 1649).
He was whipping-boy in the original and literal sense. He was Charles’ companion, and shared all his lessons. But when the royal prince misbehaved, it was absolutely forbidden to punish one of royal blood, so Murray was whipped instead. (Who knows, Charles might have turned out better if he had been whipped a few times.) Inevitably, Charles must have felt some obligation or attachment to his whipping-boy, so when the Stuarts took over the English throne on the death of Elizabeth in 1603, within a few years James Murray was living in and rebuilding a house on the Thames, conveniently placed for the royal palaces of Richmond and Hampton Court; later Charles made him 1st Earl of Dysart.
It is not really open at the moment, but they run guided tours around some of the rooms. On the extraordinary staircase up to the dining room (some of it pine but painted to look like walnut) are good copies of Titians, with an interesting story. Charles was supposed to marry the Spanish Infanta, but decided to go to Spain incognito with a small party including James Murray to check the lady out. The marriage fell through, but the Spanish king gave Charles an original Titian and several copies, some of which (or perhaps further copies) came into Murray’s hands and were placed on his grand staircase. As the guide pointed out, Titian’s naked ladies were about as great a contrast to the very formal and stylised portraits of Tudor times as could be imagined, and must have made a considerable impact.
The house also has many of Van Dyck’s paintings, including Charles I, Charles II, and the self-portrait with a huge sunflower.
Murray’s daughter Elizabeth inherited the house. She was a skilled spy, being on good terms with Oliver Cromwell and reporting his moves to the exiled Stuarts in France. She had eleven children by her first husband Lionel Tollemache, of whom five survived. After he died she married the influential Duke of Lauderdale (a member of Charles II’s “cabal” ministry). Perhaps it was a marriage of convenience; in the wedding portrait they look rather gloomy. They extended the house; the back contrasts with the front, being closer to what we think of as Queen Anne style. The Tollemache family retained the house until the 1940s, when it was given to the National Trust. In the intervening time, very little was done, so it is a remarkably unspoiled example of a 17th century great house, a “sleeping beauty” as the guide leaflet says.
After the tour we had lunch in the orangery café. I am pleased to report that they serve ham sandwiches there.
You can find some further pictures of Ham House on the London Daily Photo site, posted last week (scroll back to 2-5 November 2011).