BAFRA at Godinton House, Ashford, Kent – 5th October 2017 by Rachel Cooze
The venue for this year’s AGM was Godinton House, near Ashford, Kent. This gem of a red brick Jacobean manor house, mellowed with age, sits in tranquil parkland. The outline of its semi-circular Flemish gables is echoed in the neat yew hedges that separate the garden from the park.
A blustery wind wafted delegates through the entrance where they were greeted by two welcoming ladies who were valiantly clinging to a large painting of a former lady of the house to prevent it from being blown from the wall.
Hot drinks and biscuits were presented the airy Billiard Tea Room as delegates mustered for the day. Name badges helped put names to faces, and the buzz of colleagues catching up with each other filled the air as new arrivals filtered in.
At 11.00, the group was divided into two, and the house tours commenced. After a brief introduction and request for no photography, a jovial guide explained how the house had retained many objects and features due largely to having been owned by generations of the Toke family over 500 years. New owners at the turn of the 20th Century preferred to retain the homely comfort of what had gone before and modifications and updates had been carried out sympathetically, so the character of the house remained. The last owner, Alan Wyndham Green, set up a trust to preserve the house as it was left and to allow visitors to enjoy the fine collection of furniture and ceramics.
The first room visited was the Dining Room, where our guide told of the characters whose pictures adorned the walls. One key owner was Captain Nicholas Toke, who was largely responsible for the house in its current form in the Jacobean period. He lived to the ripe old age of 94, having married five times, and was on his way to visit a prospective wife sixth in London when he died in 1680. Bruce Luckhurst, our outgoing chairman, who had over the years worked on the restoration and conservation of much of the furniture on behalf of the Trust, was on hand to give extra information about the large dining table and set of 18th Century chairs. The table was actually one large one and a smaller one on the end acting as an extension. He explained how the mellow sheen of the table top had been achieved through burnished wax only, in keeping with the age of the table, and shellac had not been used. The mahogany dining chairs were by a contemporary of Chippendale, and had a very high value. Not to Chippendale himself though, who had criticized their design. Closer inspection suggested he may have had a point as the solid wood lattice work of the backs had presented problems for repair over time. Chippendale preferred to use laminated wood for similar designs. The rails were carved and the broken design around the arms suggested they were a later addition, but again closer inspection during restoration proved they were originally made that way. The chairs had been sold off at one stage but repatriated in the mid 20th Century by the last owner’s grandmother.
The group then moved into the oldest part of the house, the Great Hall, which was part of the original building, and had a massive original beam supporting the barreled ceiling. Here was a large, ornately carved Jacobean fireplace, as well as fine examples of 17th century chairs, tables and cabinets. The walls were adorned with gilt-framed portraits of former owners, carved panels and screens. The main room led to a smaller chamber, which had likely housed beasts in the earliest days. The carved paneling here had been carried out at the turn of 20th century by Liberty of London to match that of the Great Hall. A further Jacobean fireplace had been installed from another local old property. The furniture was from the 17th century. Bruce explained the restoration and conservation work that had been done to various items. A gateleg table was examined. As the owner had requested the house remain as it was left, prior restorations were left as they were. The top had been replaced but was not of the thickness one might have expected in a piece of the period. The ‘barley-twist’ legs had been heavily stained. Bruce suggested that had the restoration been carried out according to current fashion; the stain might be removed and finished to reveal the colour and grain of the wood. Here also were examples of the extensive ceramic collection amassed by the last owner’s wealthy grandmother, who was an avid collector.
Next, it was onwards and upwards via the ornately carved Jacobean staircase. Here the wealth of the owner and his status were emphasized, not least by the beautifully carved newel posts. Symbolic beasts, including a phoenix, the lion of England and Unicorn of Scotland (sadly without its horn), were designed to impress local visiting dignitaries. The stained glass windows were decorated with family crests and arms showing advantageous marriages. The windows displayed two methods of producing stained glass, one side having used coloured glass, the other painted before being fired. On the landing, three carved maidens stood on each post; as they were each revealing shapely legs, it was believed they were unlikely to be representations of Captain Tokes’ three daughters!
Upstairs, each room had an individual style and based a different period. The Gallery overlooking the Great Hall was a light, airy room with gilt, French salon chairs, an exquisite satin-wood Bonheur du Jour and a fine, large Louis XV ormolu and painted wood clock, amongst other delights. The dark, wood paneling of below had been abandoned in favour of delicate light-grey walls and adorned with finely embroidered pictures.
The next room, The Great Chamber, was back to earlier times, with oak paneling on the wall. Here the owner had displayed his status and ability to raise a militia. Carvings around the frieze displayed the dozens of practice fighting pikestaff positions the men would need to know in order to be effective members of the owner’s army. A fine Georgian tea table had a complex serpentine gallery to prevent guests from sending the tea service crashing to the ground. The wide, upholstered chairs were designed to accommodate ladies in voluminous gowns and gentlemen with their swords as they took their tea in comfort. A fine square piano also graced the room. The carved slate of the fireplaces showed the carvers ideas of various exotic animals. Was that a giraffe or a leopard? Native fauna, such as the squirrel, owl and hound were a little more recognizable!
After a change of guide the tour took in further rooms, such as the Library and White Drawing room; each, with a high degree of comfort, displayed fine furniture and further collections of delftware and Sevres porcelain. The Chinese Room had a beautiful hand-made carpet, a superb lacquered cabinet and chairs, and a painted temple screen. The painted wall paper featured exotic birds. A fine blue vase, in a protective case, caught the sunlight flowing through the window.
The tour of the upstairs also included the last owner’s bedroom, and revealed his life and personality. Here Alan Wyndham Green slept in the modest, narrow curtained bed, formally owned by his formidable grandmother. His old army uniform with ‘desert rat’ insignia hung casually on a wardrobe. Hats displayed around the top of the bed included a straw boater, army cap, top hat and bowler, and revealed various stages of his life and interests. Mementos had been kept of greetings from local friends, including a small picture of a bird made of feathers and cloth, and given by a staff member as a birthday gift.
The tour of this fascinating house concluded all too swiftly. Delegates were then free to wander and chat in the walled garden and formal gardens now bathed in the autumnal sun, which showed the house and estate to perfection. The last blooms of the famous Delphinium collection were still putting on a show as the gardeners trimmed the extensive hedges and topiary.
To round off the visit and prior to the AGM itself, guests sat down to a splendid lunch, including the best butternut squash soup this delegate had ever tasted!
The morning and lunch were a perfect preamble to the serious business of the AGM, the minutes of which will be published in due course for members who were unable to attend another excellent BAFRA event.
Details and pictures of Godinton House can be found at www.godintonhouse.co.uk