This is how the National Trust describes Berrington Hall, a late 18th century sandstone Neo-classical mansion overlooking the rolling Herefordshire landscape a few miles north of Leominster (see map). Designed by London architect Henry Holland, Berrington Hall was built between 1778 and 1781 for Thomas Harley.
Last Tuesday, Steph and I made our second visit to Berrington; we were first there in September 2011, the year we joined the National Trust. It was a beautiful day then, as it was this week. The weather forecast had promised a better day if we travelled westwards. Berrington Hall is 37 miles almost due west, and a little over an hour by road, from Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire.
We arrived not long after 10:30, and already the car park was quite full. After heading off to the tea room for a refreshing cup of coffee, we enjoyed a long walk around the park before heading back to the car for a quick picnic lunch, and then into the house itself.
We followed the route due south of the house towards and around the bottom of the lake, past the Boat House, around George’s Plantation, and back to the house.
Berrington Hall is not large compared to some 18th century mansions we have visited. Indeed it is quite modest, somewhat austere in appearance. But it sits so comfortably in its landscape, facing southwest, that it was always meant to be there. Eighteenth century landowners and their architects certainly knew just where to begin construction to the best effect.
A grand Triumphal Arch now hosts the National Trust entrance office, and a driveway approaches the house from the rear, before circling around the front of the house to reveal a majestic portico supported on four large pillars, strategically spaced never to block any of the windows.
As was Capability’s intention, the house is best seen from different advantage points in the park, as is the park from the steps of the house.
Brown knew how to exploit the view of the parkland from the house to best effect. It was no laughing matter. He placed a ha-ha just in front. A ha-ha is ‘a recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond. The design includes a turfed incline which slopes downward to a sharply vertical face, typically a masonry retaining wall. Ha-has are used in landscape design to prevent access to a garden, for example by grazing livestock, without obstructing views‘.
The ha-ha at Berrington is one of the finest. The landscape just floats away, uninterrupted, from the house, the only evidence of its presence being a change in colour between the short grass of the terrace and the fields beyond, that is clearly seen in the video clip below.
On the rear of the house is a courtyard, a stables block (with clock), a dairy, and laundry. Most of the buildings now accommodate facilities for visitors: the tearoom, toilets, a shop, and the like, as well as offices.
Inside the house, the atmosphere is one of restrained elegance. None of the rooms is particularly large, unlike many other houses we have visited. Nevertheless, there are flashes of flamboyance: in the mouldings around the doors, on the architraves, and particularly the ceilings which are most elaborately sculpted and painted.
The staircase, and the first floor landing surrounding the staircase on three sides, is rather stunning, all marble pillars reflecting the natural light from the cupola.
We encountered our biggest surprise, however, when we entered the dining room on the ground floor. In September 2011 the dining table was laid out as though dinner was about to be served. On the walls are paintings reflecting the battles of Admiral Lord Rodney, whose son, George, married Anne, the daughter of the man who built Berrington Hall, Thomas Harley. On his death, Berrington passed to the Rodney family.
On this visit, the room was almost in darkness, with just spotlights focused on a sculpture, War & Pieces, that extended the length of the table. Created by Dutch artist, Bouke de Vries, this is how the sculpture is described in the National Trust brochure:
War & Pieces is a striking piece, nearly six metres in length, inspired by the grand seventeenth century sugar sculptures found on the dining tables of the wealthy. By the early eighteenth century, sugar had been replaced by exquisitely crafted porcelain depicting allegorical, classical or architectural scenes that displayed the host’s wealth and taste at their banquets.
Between the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it became popular for banquets to be held for generals and their officers on the eve of great battles.
War & Pieces is an envisioning of one of these war banquets showing deconstructed porcelain figures engaged in a deadly struggle with a giant central mushroom cloud composed of skulls, ‘frozen Charlottes’ (a nineteenth century mass produced child’s toy) and presided over by figures of the crucified Christ and Guanyins, the Chinese goddess of compassion.
The piece is composed of broken antique porcelain and glassware, as well as parts of plastic children’s toys and sugar, bringing together the notions of modern warfare and art with those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and making us reconsider our perceptions of beauty and the usefulness of broken objects.
The scene of war on the table is echoed by the maritime battles depicted on the walls by Thomas Luny (1759-1837). Admiral Lord George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792), the naval hero of The Seven Years War and the American Wars of Independence, is celebrated in these paintings. Rodney was the youngest captain in the British navy and is, arguably, the tactician who first attempted the manoeuvre called ‘breaking the line’ which was used to such great success in later British naval victories. At Berrington, his grim engagements with the French and the Spanish upon his ninety gun ship of the line, The Formidable, in the 1780s are highlighted by Luny’s paintings. The Formidable is the ship depicted on the plates on the dining table that surround War & Pieces.
The handles of the knives are shaped like AK-47 rifles! Comments in a visitors’ book reflected the wide expression of opinions about this sculpture. I thought it was an inspiring commentary on the futility of conflict.
Berrington also has a large walled garden, planted with heritage apple trees that I have commented on and illustrated elsewhere in this blog.
All in all, a very pleasant second visit to Berrington. And it would be remiss of me to finish this particular account without mentioning the extremely friendly staff and volunteers who contributed to our overall enjoyment. The two ladies in the ‘dressing-up room’ on the first floor kept us entertained with their descriptions and demonstrations of the intricacies of 1770s and 1805 fashions!
Here is a short video I made of our visit.