Saturday, June 29, 2013

Knole House: Noble estate in the Kent Countryside

Note: The following narrative is based on My Trip Journal entries recorded during a trip I made to England and France in May 2013.

I arrived at Heathrow Airport just before noon on May 9, 2013.  Although the primary target of this trip to Europe is southern France, I and two companions are planning to put a car on the ferry at Dover then drive to our first major stop at Fontainebleau.  Not to waste a moment of my time here in England, though, we headed to Knole House on our way to my friends' home in Chatham where we will spend the night before our departure tomorrow morning.

A large herd of fallow deer populate the 1,000 acre parkland
surrounding Knole House in west Kent.  Photo by 
Mary Harrsch.

Knole is a huge English country "house" in the town of Sevenoaks in west Kent, surrounded by a 1,000-acre deer park. One of England's largest houses, it is reputed to be a calendar house, having 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards.  The house was built by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, between 1456 and 1486, on the site of an earlier house belonging to James Fiennes, the Lord Say and Sele who was executed after the victory of Jack Cade's rebels at the Battle of Solefields. On Bourchier's death, the house was bequeathed to the See of Canterbury.  In subsequent years it continued to be enlarged, with the addition of a new large courtyard, now known as Green Court, and a new entrance tower. In 1538 King Henry VIII expressed how much he "liked" Knole House to his Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who subsequently "gave" it to the King.  Henry seemed to acquire a lot of properties this way!

Classical nude statue of a warrior in a courtyard at
Knole House.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, the property was transferred to the queen's cousin,  Thomas Sackville, whose descendants have lived on the property since 1603 except during a brief period during the English Civil War when the house was occupied by the forces of Oliver Cromwell.  (The Sackvilles were royalists loyal to King Charles I and lost a son fighting for the king)

Tudor-era chimneys at Knole House.  Photo
by Mary Harrsch.
The leases granted the tenants the right to remodel most of the structures and the Sackvilles did so during both the 17th and 18th centuries.  Some of the architectural alterations reminded me of Hampton Court, another Tudor-era structure that was subsequently remodeled by later ruling monarchs.  The chimneys, in particular, look very similar to those at Hampton Court as well as the addition of guardian animals as architectural elements placed near the main gate.

Today, the Sackville family still lives in the private quarters on the property and the National Trust operates the public spaces including the Great Hall, three long galleries leading to three royal bedrooms and the attendants bedrooms - 20 rooms in all.

The admissions section of the property contains informative multimedia displays about the history of Knole House and an interactive map to help you orient yourself to the most important aspects of the property before you begin your tour.  There is a theater that features a short film about the home and its colorful history and informative books about Knole House and the English monarchs who visited it are also offered for sale.

Interior courtyard at Knole House.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
As a photographer, though, I was very disappointed that, like many other properties managed by the National Trust, photography - even without flash - is prohibited in the building's interiors.  I do wish the National Trust would join the 21st century in this regard.  As long as flash and tripods are prohibited, no harm is done to the delicate artifacts by capturing images of them with a digital camera.  As long as photographers are courteous to those around them no visitors are disrupted by allowing restricted photography either.  Many museums around the world have finally awakened to this fact and have subsequently profited from free publicity when photos of their collections or property are shared on today's social networks.

Detail of carved door at Knole House.
Photo by Mary Harrsch
The other problem for all visitors is the extremely dark interiors of the home with minimal auxiliary lighting.  Again this is a result of overreaction, in my opinion, on the part of the National Trust in their efforts to protect the fragile contents.  Knole House, like many houses of the period, features very dark woodwork.  Without supplemental lighting, it is difficult to see and appreciate the beautiful accents carved on the panels or embellishing the furnishings.  I know the National Trust is in the middle of a multi-million pound restoration project, mostly targeting water damage and repairs to the basic architecture but I hope they include at least some attention to museum-quality lighting to aid visitors in seeing and appreciating the artifacts on display.

Like many royal houses, Knole House contains a lot of royal and noble portrait paintings by such artists as  Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Sir Peter Lely, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Sir Joshua Reynolds and the famous Tudor dynasty artist, Hans Holbein the Younger. One such portrait depicted a beautiful young woman with the iconic red hair of the Stuart line wearing a tunic that looked very much like one a man would wear under a breastplate. Apparently the National Trust folks weren't sure who it was but there was speculation it was a young Mary Queen of Scots. She looked every inch the warrior queen. Perhaps Elizabeth's counselors were right to convince Elizabeth to execute her!

Tudor-era door hardware at Knole House.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
Furnishings included a lavishly gilded bed used by Queen Elizabeth I, another used by King James II and a very early billiards table.  Much of the furniture is showing its age but I hope this will be remedied in the new conservation studio that is planned as part of the current fund raising effort.

After we completed the tour of the house, I wandered about the courtyards photographing some of the architectural accents, statues, carved doorways and beautiful windows of the home.   As Henry VIII considered himself a Renaissance man, the colonade of the interior courtyard was dotted with portrait busts of men of antiquity.  I'm afraid the famous fallow deer herd was not near the front entrance this time, though, like it was when I stopped at Knole House late on a summer afternoon in 2008.

I and my two companions were getting hungry so we walked over to Knole's brewhouse where we found a very well stocked gift shop and cafe offering freshly baked scones, muffins, cakes, sandwiches and pots of steaming soup.  My friend Richard suggested I try a type of meat-stuffed pastry that is served cold.  I selected a piece of freshly baked English shortbread (that absolutely melted in mouth!) and a lemonade to go with it.  I smiled when I saw the pot of vegetable soup as it was the same type of vegetable soup I had enjoyed at Hampton Court.  Every time I have ordered vegetable soup in England I am presented with a bowl of pureed vegetables that looks a lot like pureed carrots.  It is really tasty but has no "lumps".  When I visited The Louvre in Paris in 2008 and ordered vegetable soup there it also came out looking the same way.  I'm not sure what they call whole vegetables in broth that we call vegetable soup in America.  Perhaps I would need to order stew to get that type of meal in England.

Clock tower at Knole House.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
With one last look at the late afternoon sun reflecting off the face of the clock on the clock tower at Knole House, we headed toward our evening accomodations.  We need to get to bed relatively early tonight as our ferry leaves from Dover at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning.

To see more of my images of France, visit my Flickr account!


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