Episode 327 – The Ranger’s House

We decided to explore another corner of Greenwich Park today: The Ranger’s House, with its impressive art collection. It’s the first time we’ve been asked to knock before entering!

The knocker didn’t change into Marley’s ghost, so we figured we were safe.

The house itself has quite an amazing history, even before gaining North American recognition as the exterior of the Bridgerton family’s home in the Netflix series!

Bear with me – I find this stuff fascinating.

The Georgian era Palladian-style villa was built in the early 1720’s for Vice-Admiral Francis Hosier, who sadly did not get to enjoy it for long, since he died in 1727 – together with about 4,000 other seamen – of yellow fever in Porto Bello (in what is now Panama) while blockading Spanish treasure ships. Apparently there is a ballad about that, called Admiral Hosier’s Ghosts.

It started out as a typical symmetrical Georgian house on the outside, but inside the symmetry was broken by putting the staircase on the left instead of in the centre. It was also one of the first homes to use a corridor with individual rooms opening off a hallway, instead of rooms connecting to one another in a chain.

Typical Georgian: central door and each side a mirror image of the other.
The very (for the time) avant-garde upstairs corridor.

After a long drawn-out legal dispute between his widow and his mother’s relations, the home’s lease was finally sold to John Stanhope in 1740. On Stanhope’s death in 1748, it passed to his elder brother, Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who used the house as his country retreat. The house was named “Chesterfield House”; the laneway leading to the house is still called Chesterfield Walk.

(Viewed from the rose garden behind the house).
Lord Chesterfield added the wing circled on the left to house his own art collection. The arrow on the right indicates what from the front looks like a matching wing (more about that later). You can see that Chesterfield extended his wing beyond the back wall of the existing house, into Greenwich Park, which was royal property. As a result, he had to pay a heavy annual “lease” for the extra land he’d encroached upon.

After Chesterfield’s death in 1773 the house passed to his godson and heir, Philip, 5th Earl of Chesterfield, who sold it just 10 years later to Richard Hulse, an art collector, barrister and deputy governor of the Hudson Bay Company of Canada (Canadian connection #1). Hulse’s ownership lasted 24 years.

(View from the front). Chesterfield’s wing is now on the right. Hulse built a “matching” wing on the left to restore the manor’s Georgian symmetry, but he was smart enough not to extend it into the park! Note that, unlike in the Bridgerton series, the house is not actually covered in wisteria.

In 1807, Augusta, Dowager Duchess of Brunswick, sister of George III, took up residence at the house, which then became known as Brunswick House.

The first “Ranger of Greenwich Park” (theoretically the “keeper” of the park, but really just an honorary position granted by the monarch of the time) to live in the house was Princess Sophia Matilda, niece of George III, who arrived in 1815 and lived there until 1844. From her residency onward it has been known simply as The Ranger’s House. Prior to the Princess, Rangers from 1609 until 1815 lived in the Queen’s House, also in Greenwich (and which we’ll visit next weekend).

The next Ranger was George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, who was Foreign Secretary when he was made Ranger in 1845. He must have needed either the house itself or the location. When he became Prime Minister from 1852 until 1854, and moved into the Prime Minister’s official residence, his son Lord Haddo and daughter-in-law Mary continued to live in Ranger’s with their young family for a while, but the house was left more or less unused from 1855 until Aberdeen died in 1860.

Lord Canning, the first Viceroy of India, was then appointed Ranger, but both he and his wife died within seven months of being granted the house. 

In 1862, 12-year-old Prince Arthur of Connaught, the third son (7th child) of Queen Victoria, was sent to live at Ranger’s House with his tutor, to study for a place at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, which is located in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. He kept Ranger’s House until he turned 22 in 1872. Another Canadian connection: Prince Arthur was Canada’s 10th Governor General.

Four years after her son moved out, in 1877, Queen Victoria appointed the widowed Countess of Mayo as Ranger of Greenwich Park. Her husband, the 6th Earl of Mayo (Mayo is a county in Ireland) was assassinated during his tenure as Viceroy in India, and as a widow this sinecure would have given her the opportunity and independence not to play second fiddle to the new Countess.

The last Ranger to occupy Ranger’s House was Field-Marshal Lord Wolseley, who lived there with his family until 1890, after retiring from active service.

Queen Victoria transferred Ranger’s House to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests in 1897 in exchange for the restoration of Kensington Palace. The following year the grounds at the back of the house were reabsorbed into Greenwich Park.

For over 80 years the house was used variously as a sports club, tea rooms, short-term art exhibition hall, and was even requisitioned for use by the military as administrative offices during each of the world wars.

Since 2002, Ranger’s House has been home to a world-class art collection amassed by German-born diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher around the turn of the 20th century. Wernher spent his adult business life in London and South Africa, and was made an English Baronet in 1905. At the time of his death in 1912 he was one of the richest men in the United Kingdom, valued at over £12 million, leaving behind not only a massive art collection, but also bequeathing £250,000 to establishing a university in Cape Town, and £100,000 to the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London.

According to the English Heritage website, “over 700 works of art are displayed across a dozen panelled interiors, and include medieval sculptures, glittering enamels, ornate jewellery, Renaissance paintings including Madonna of the Pomegranate (Madonna della Melagrana) from Sandro Botticelli’s workshop, Dutch Old Masters and French tapestries” many of which are unique examples of their kind.

Each exhibit room contains a blue cloth-bound hardcover book containing the details of that room’s objects. It makes it easy to concentrate on specific pieces.

Most of the rooms are wood panelled, and painted in the deep colours popular in the 18th century: dark blue, burgundy, and greens. The one exception is the “pink room” which has been decorated to recreate a similarly coloured room in Wernher’s London home, Bath House: deep pink damask covered walls, a gorgeous glass chandelier, and filled with 18th century French paintings and Sevres porcelain pieces.

Since the art collection belongs to the Wernher estate, the English Heritage does not own copyright to the pieces. That means absolutely no photography of any of the pieces is allowed, however Ted got permission to photograph a couple of the manor’s architectural elements, like the ceiling in the Chesterfield addition.

Lord Chesterfield was a Knight of the Garter, entitled to use that order’s motto: Honi soit qui mal y pense”.

Touring the house and collection made for an interesting couple of hours, and we got lots of interaction with the knowledgeable volunteers since we were the only visitors during our time there. That said, I’d only recommend it if you’re really interested in art with predominantly religious themes, and you’ve already done the major tourist attractions.

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