Canons Ashby – An English Manor House

Canons Ashby was the home of the Drydens, a family of modest, literary Northampton-shire squires. In 1551 John Dryden (d.1584) inherited the property which was at that time just a small farm house and had been part of the nearby, small Augustinian priory. This had been founded between 1147 and 1151, it was suppressed in 1536 and the following year the farm house was granted to Sir Francis Bryan, a supporter and ally of Henry VIII. It then passed to John Cope (a wealthy lawyer in Banbury) and thence to John Dryden. He extended it and in 1580 added a Hall and kitchen on an H-Plan. Subsequent generations climbed the Elizabethan and Jacobean social ladder, adding more as they came and went, mainly in the prevailing architectural taste of the period. The early 18th century saw Edward Dryden put up classical paneling and lay out a formal terraced garden but throughout, scions of the family respected what previous generations had done and in the main part they simply added. The Victorian period saw Henry Dryden create a “book room” where he could indulge his antiquarian interests, display objects in his cabinets of curiosities and write his early archaeological pamphlets. The house was published twice in Country Life Magazine, first in 1904 and then again in 9121. On both occasions the building had fallen into a state of mild neglect and was in itself now an antiquarian curiosity. At a time when so many English Great Houses were being demolished to make way for “improvements” it is remarkable that Canons Ashby survived relatively unscathed, in its out-of-the-way, rural, Northampton-shire location. It’s fair to say that for much of the 20th century the building lay dormant, awaiting a revival but the long sleep took its toll and when the family eventually gave the house to the National Trust it was in a parlous condition. It took a three year program of restoration led by Rodney Melville to bring the house and its grounds back into a serviceable state and what a sound job the National Trust have done.

The Great Hall at Canons Ashby (center) tower (left) and kitchens (right).

The East Range is the oldest part of the house, where the original small farmhouse used to be. It contains the brew-house and the pump room. You pass through an archway in this shallow range and into a pebbled courtyard which is at the heart of this complex of buildings. In front of you is the Great Hall, with a tower to the left and the kitchens to the right in the corner. Standing in the courtyard you get a sense of just how accumulative the development of this group of buildings has been, with different stone and brickwork phases clearly visible, including obvious changes in fenestration and chimney-heads. In many ways the Great hall is typical for this small form of manor house, but no less remarkable for that. It has an interesting over-mantle painting of 18th century militaria – the family helped raise the Scots Guards to counter the first Jacobite rebellion of 1717 – and there is a charming dummy board of a red-coated guardsman in his miter cap, wearing a sabre and carrying a musket. The dining room is more recent, first erected in 1717 and at that time called the right-hand parlour. It had newly invented twelve pane sash-and-case windows in deep window recesses (those on the 1st floor are 24 pane). These dining room windows have been beautifully preserved and with low sill seats invite the visitor to sit within the window reveal and soak up the winter sun pouring through from the south. They are quite deep and wide enough for two to sit in comfortably. The window reveals and walls are covered in plain but well-made oak panelling and a series of fascinating, good quality family portraits hang at a strangely high level, just under the cornice. One of these is of the family’s most famous son, the poet and satirist John Dryden (1631-1700) who was made poet laureate in 1668.

The Dining Room, portrait of Elizabeth Rooper, wife of the 7th Baronet (left), one of the window reveals (middle), portrait of the poet John Dryden possibly by Kneller about 1698 (right – upper).

Sir Henry Dryden’s Victorian book room is charming if somewhat under-furnished. This could be a gentle criticism leveled at the house more generally, there is a feeling of Spartan austerity in the interiors but one senses it’s a deliberate policy of curation by the national Trust so that that the actual fabric of the building can show through more fully. Nowhere is this more so than in the small antiquary room or studiolo (called Sir Henry’s Museum, formerly the “Painted Parlour”) at the end of the hall, drawing room, book room sequence. Here we have a charming redecoration by Elizabeth Creed (a cousin) in the early 18th century under the direction Edward Dryden. It has 2 ½ dimensional Corinthian fluted columns painted on board and an inclined frieze on a blue and grey ground. The columns are marbled and the capitals are particularly convincing since they have plausible painted shadowing.

Painted Corinthian Column in the “painted Parlour” (left), The Book Room (center), small graffito in the Spenser’s Room (bedroom) of a cleric and a lady (right)

The Drawing Room is an impressive exercise in small Jacobean magnificence. It’s dominated by an enormous (for the size of the room) barrel vaulted plaster ceiling bearing entwined thistles (a symbol of marriage), pomegranates (symbolizing fecundity), Indian princesses (was this Hiawatha?) and the coat of arms of Sir John Dryden who inherited in 1632. From the center of the vault hangs an impressive plaster-work pendant and on the north wall is a magnificent Jacobean fireplace with an upper register of paired composite columns, a decorated cornice and Delft tiles in the chamfer below.

Of course much of the original furnishing were lost from the beginning of the 20th century onward and this was a particular issue in the tapestry room on the 1st floor where very few of the original Flemish tapestries survived. Those few original samples that do exist are not on show – there is one badly damaged one of an enthroned king in the National Trust’s collection which is Flemish (possibly Oudenaarde) of circa 1600 – circa 1625, 3.22 m (H); 3.28 m (W), in wool and silk (NT 494835.1). Another original Tapestry fragment in wool and silk does survive and again is not exhibited but shows a Soldier and Angels. To give a sense of what the rooms looked like the National Trust has acquired other comparable tapestries and hung them in the the original positions. The result is effective for the purpose.

Outside the gardens are undoubtedly more attractive in the summer time, as all gardens generally are but today give little sense of the topieried grandeur that still survived until as recently as the 1920’s. Formal gardens had surrounded the house since the 16th century and the present layout is largely the work of Edward Dryden between 1708 and 1717 on the south front of the house (see below). In keeping with the rest of the house and the parsimony of the Dryden family, the need was never seen to replace this perfectly good early 18th century scheme with later fashionable “picturesque” attempts at landscape gardening in the manner of Capability Brown. Interestingly, through the pages of Country Life this horticultural survival became an important influence on the Arts and Crafts style of gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens. Well worth a visit.

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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