Christchurch Mansion: not quite the sum of its parts

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On a cold wintry afternoon the collection of Dutch gables that make up the roof line of Christchurch Mansion radiate a certain kind of homeliness which  is a welcome sight, even if there was no roaring fire was there to great us in the Great Hall. The Elizabethan E-plan house was built the site of a priory that lay just outside the town centre. Its location must have been attractive for developers who bought the house in 1892 planning to demolish it and develop the land. This fate which was to be the lot of so many other houses was averted by the generous donation of a local benefactor. The house was given to the council on condition that they would acquire the park  so that both could be opened to the public, the inhabitants of Ipswich benefit from this enlightened act to this day.

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A fire in the 1670s destroyed much of the original interiors, the floor-plan and some excellent diaper brickwork on the exterior are the only visual reminders of an Elizabethan origin. The Great Hall is a Restoration re-working of the original space. For a relatively small house it has some excellent original interiors, most of them either Restoration or Georgian in date.

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The council run museum has a slightly confusing approach to displaying the house and its collections. Many rooms are presented as Period Rooms with mannequins dressed in appropriate clothing for the period that is the focus of the display. The best is perhaps the Green Room which also boasts a rather marvellous fireplace . Other rooms are used as galleries to display specific collections, such as a collection of toys or porcelain. Part of the collections have a link with the house and the families that are associated with it, though the distinction is sometimes blurred.

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For some reason the house has a rather wonderful collection of flock wallpapers, some original to the house. The so called Privy Council pattern in the state bedroom now has a buff coloured background although this would originally have been red. The elegant bed set within the ornately decorated alcove is very good, though the room could do with a few less pieces of furniture that are exposed here for unclear reasons.

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In the 1920’s a wing was added to the back of the house which contains elements of interiors and building fragments of some houses that were demolished in Ipswich, these two rooms, the Lower and Upper chambers, contain some marvellous surprises.

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In the Lower chamber there is the richly carved fireplace has three paintings that refer the the owner of the house who was an explorer. There is an abundance of wood in carved oak, panelling and beamed ceiling which is rather excellent, but it suffers from terrible lighting. The original central lighting fixtures in the house have been maintained throughout and would possibly have been quite good with old fashioned light bulbs. All of the bulbs however have been replaced with energy saving examples of the worst kind whose only purpose seems to be to add a green hue to all the interiors and make it near impossible to see anything that is reflective such as the polished wood in these rooms, or the many glazed picture frames elsewhere in the house.

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Among the many interesting building fragments are some excellent examples of Tudor and Jacobean wall painting. Especially fascinating are some examples of classically inspired renaissance ornaments that were applied over timber framed interiors, we tend to forget that even houses that weren’t constructed according to classical principles and using stone would still be decorated in the latest fashion, or a local version thereof.

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The Upper chamber contains some excellent examples of such classically inspired motifs applied over or between timber framed constructions.

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An absolute highlight in the house is an interior known as Lady Drury’s Closet. The closet, is made up of panels apparently painted by Lady Anne Bacon Drury (1572-1624) herself in about 1610 for Hawstead Place, her country house near Bury St.Edmunds. Soon thereafter it moved to Hardwick Hall in Suffolk (not it’s more famous namesake in Derbyshire) where it remained until it was acquired at auction in 1924 to be installed in Christchurch Mansion, Hardwick Hall was to be demolished soon after the sale. The slightly naive paintings depict various emblems that are related to emblem books of the time, and there are links between the Drurys and John Donne. This room should truly receive more attention, the website for the museum doesn’t even mention it amongst the highlights and a recent academic study of the room isn’t on sale in the shop.

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Another reason to visit Christchurch would be the collection of paintings by Gainsborough and Constable, which are presented in a gallery style exhibition space. With the wonderful interiors on offer in the house this is perhaps a bit of a missed opportunity to show the paintings in an appropriate setting, though it doesn’t detract from the pieces themselves of course.

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The house has a lot going for it, with excellent original interiors and a broad range of collections, some of which are very good. Somehow this doesn’t quite make an ideal combination as it tries to do too much at the same time. It is unclear if the focus should be on the house, the family, the artworks, social history or any one of the many separate collections. This seems to be the fate with many houses run by councils as museums. With the arts funding bias in favour of London and the mounting cuts in regional funding there is a risk that places such as these will find it increasingly difficult to remain relevant and continue to develop a good programme of events and interpretation. Perhaps those museums and institutions that receive the bulk of the funding could be enticed to offer their services as consultants to local museums so they can benefit of their knowledge on issues such as lighting, displays and interpretation, a model that the Shadow Education minister has proposed for private schools if they want to retain their lucrative tax breaks.

However not everything needs to be too complicated, improving the visitor experience at Christchurch could be as simple as changing the light bulbs.

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