If there was ever a view that could move me to rapturous hyperbole it is this one. Behold: a grainy cell phone photo of the view from my bedroom at West Dean College in Sussex, my home for the next five days. Every part of my Jane Austen-obsessed heart wants to call this photo the view from my bed chamber; and now that I think about it, I believe that term is completely adequate for a room that boasts a marble fireplace (check), eighteen foot ceilings (those too), a medieval carved wardrobe (perhaps leading to Narnia), and a bathtub deep enough to turn a flip (splashed quite a bit of water on the floor in the attempt). Needless to say: West Dean is a marvelous English country house and I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to be here.
West Dean, much like the Hermitage, has endured several phases of expansion and reinvention. It is easy to understand Mrs. Sloane’s penchant for rearranging the layout of her home when you learn how common the practice was amongst her 19th century predecessors. English country homes were rarely left untouched by the lucky families who inherited them, and the result is usually a pastiche of architectural movements and (occasionally dubious) taste. Successive generations altered their homes to reflect their increasing status (or lack thereof in the case of certain Dairymaids who married certain elderly Dukes — but more on that anon), and newer styles were often built around the carcasses of older, smaller homes like a shell.
West Dean is no exception, and is essentially a decorative Gothic shell (constructed primarily of local knapped flint) over a timberframe Elizabethan core. The house has existed in some form since as early as 1086, evidenced by its mention in the Domesday Book — the comprehensive survey of England drawn up for Charles I following the Norman Conquest.
This from class notes:
The present house was built in 1804 for James Peachey, 1st Baron Selsey (d. 1808), on the site of an Elizabeth house largely rebuilt around 1622 by John Lewkenor. The newest house was designed by James Wyatt (1746-1813), Surveyor General to George III, who also remodelled nearby Goodwood House.
William Dodge James (1854 – 1912) purchased West Dean in 1891, shortly after his marriage to renowned society beauty Evelyn Forbes. The pair quickly commissioned extensive alterations and enlargements to the house from the famous architectural practice of Sir Ernest George (1839 – 1922) and Alfred Bowman Yeates (1867-1944) with the landscape and garden designer Harold Ainsworth Peto (1854-1933). A new and greatly enlarged entrance portico and central tower were constructed, the east wing added, a second storey raised, and the tower increased in height. James’s house and garden were intended to suit the requirements of lavish country house parties given by the social group surrounding the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). Between 1893 and 1902 alterations to the interior were carried outby the London decorators Charles Mellier & Co. of Cavendish Square, one of the foremost furnishing and decorating companies of the period. Suitably lavish furniture abounds.
In 1929 West Dean Park was inherited by the multi-millionaire Edward James (1907 – 1984), the only son of William and Evelyn James. James decorated the house in the most progressive Modernist style and filled West Dean with his superb collection of Surrealist art, including woven images of his wife’s footprints in the carpet, fruitwood overdoors designed by Rex Whistler, and with an extraordinary collection of decorative objects including an enormous Giraffe head and a lobster phone.
And now a bit about the gardens, for Yolima: West Dean’s formal gardens cover over 9 acres, with a further 49 acres of arboretum. The earliest plan to survive in the archives dates from 1768 and shows plans for a large kitchen garden, pleasure garden, and an “arranged” landscape in the park. The back of the house boasts a 300-foot long rose pergola built in 1911, and a Gazebo with a floor mosaic made of knapped flint and horse molars.
Since I started writing this post we have already visited Uppark, Cowdray, and Arundel Castle. I have over 28 pages of notes from three days, and two lectures left this evening! If we continue at this pace I will either die or request some sort of two-handled trophy at the end. Tomorrow: Petworth. Huzzah!