Between 1924 and 1932, a Midlands businessman, Graham Baron Ash undertook the transformation of what had started life as an Elizabethan Farm house and outbuildings in Warwickshire (he used his middle name Baron, it was not a title). Packwood House had undergone several transformations of Georgian Gothik and Victorian tricking-out during its 350 year history before Alfred Ash, Baron’s father, owner of a perforated zinc ware business named Ash and Lacy, bought the property and the 52 hectare estate in 1904 when Baron was 16 years old. Baron undertook a world tour at the age of 21 between 1909-10 and at the end of WW1 in 1919 he was serving in Belgium and developed an interest in antiques. On his return he felt that the changes Packwood had accreted over time detracted from and obscured Packwood’s essential beauty so he set about stripping them away and recreating what he felt was an ideal of the Elizabethan original. This was not an attempt to return the house to its original form when it was first constructed for John Fetherston (a yeoman farmer) between 1556 and 1560 but rather an extemporisation on the theme both of what Ash thought that house had been and his own imaginings of the idealised English country house. In doing so he wanted to create a private world in which despite the industrial origins of his wealth he was to be seen as an archetypal country gentleman. To do so he excised all trace of the Packwood’s Georgian and Victorian past and first embarked on substantive repairs and restoration of the surviving Tudor and Jacobean masonry fabric of the building, its timber frame, floors and roofs. He replaced the Victorian sash-and-case windows with Jacobean leaded ones and returned the lines of the gables to their original Elizabethan form.
He transformed the adjacent large cow-barn into a Great Hall for dining, dancing and entertaining, complete with a bay-window at the high table end, minstrel’s gallery and sprung dance floor. The Great Hall was connected over a distance of about 50 yards to the main house by a new Long Gallery. The principal rooms in the main house were the dining room and entrance hall separated by a screen passage aligned with the main entrance, this was the standard model of the late medieval hall-houses found in buildings of that age all over England. There was a substantial second range to the west of the entrance hall at the end of the screen passage which nearly doubles the size of the original house and this was converted into an inner hall, a drawing room and a study.
Packwood had never actually had either a Great Hall or a Long Gallery, it had been a large farm house not a prodigy house or a house of estate but Baron Ash was not alone in creating this kind of historical architectural fantasy at this time in England. Chequers in Buckinghamshire and the Treasurers House in York are two examples of many architectural “reconstructions” which are similar in their intent and relied not just upon major restructuring of the fabric of the building but also the importation of antique architectural salvage from historic buildings elsewhere. Packwood House was no different and Baron Ash bought up a great deal of spolia from in and around the midlands and beyond and where originals were not available he had copies made. For instance the fireplace in the Great Hall comes from a wine shop in Stratford which it was claimed was in existence when Shakespeare lived and the corbels for the roof trusses which are in the shape of human heads are copies of ones in Carcassonne in France. The screens passage is not original either, its panelling comes from elsewhere and the fine chevron boarding on the floor comes from Lymore Hall in Wales. The old staircase which used to be in the entrance hall was removed and a new one built outside in the corner between the entrance hall and the new long gallery. This was furnished with salvaged medieval linen fold panelling some of which is used to enclose central heating radiators! Whether one can accept today this approach and the serious ethical and archaeological issues that go with it, this re-use of components from demolished buildings has a very long history and is a form of antiquarianism which Baron Ash pursued with great energy and it has to be granted with no little exercise of aesthetic judgement.
He employed the prominent Birmingham based arts and crafts architect Edwin Francis Reynolds (1875 – 1949) working (in conjunction with the Birmingham architects Wood & Kendrick) for seven years from 1925 – 1932 to coordinate and oversee the works at Packwood. Reynolds had travelled extensively in Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and Egypt and was an independent consultant architect from 1905. As an architectural assistant he’d worked for and with a number of other architects in London and Birmingham and was articled to Jethro Anstice Cossins and Frank Barry Peacock in Birmingham from 1893-1896. He taught at the Architectural Association (AA) Day School in London between 1901-03, won the Soane Medallion in 1903 and then taught at the Birmingham School of Art (where he had studied) from 1904 onwards. Reynolds had “restored” Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford and had an authoritative but understated approach which allowed the salvaged building components in an ensemble to show their qualities in a balanced way to best effect. Working together with Ash the Long gallery perhaps shows Reynold’s at his most effective in this. In this entirely new built addition to the house he demonstrates the imaginative use of a necessary space of communication as more of an elongated drawing room, a space to be inhabited, not just passed through, with window seats and hanging space for portraits and textiles and a grand fireplace. The illusion of perspectival distance to the end of the gallery is heightened by the use of bold gridded ceiling panelling and the space is punctuated by points of interest; an antique vase on display here, a particular portrait there each in a specific architecturally designed position. In terms of interiors, carved oak and tapestries are the two important internal furnishing features throughout the house and are used as a theme for creating a particular kind of warm and distinctly English interior.
Baron Ash was conscious of the importance of regionalism in artistic and architectural tastes, a central tenant of the Arts and Crafts movement. Among a number of tapestries he bought he famously acquired a framed Judith & Holofernes which had been made at the Sheldon tapestry works at Barcheston in Warwickshire. He also acquired painted hangings (in the day a cheaper alternative to expensive woven ones) which were a speciality product of Warwick and Birmingham in the 16th and 17th centuries. He bought the examples which now hang in the Queen Margaret’s Bedroom from houses which were being demolished. He also bought furniture from local landed families who needed to raise money to maintain their properties. One such was Cecil Ferrers from nearby Baddesley Clinton from whom he bought tapestries, carvings and a large Elizabethan hall table with scrolled uprights and mother of pearl inlay which are now all at Packwood.
Packwood was originally, and still is an Elizabethan timber frame building but the framing has been covered with cement render since at least the early C19. It’s shown in its pre-rendered state in a drawing of c 1756 (private collection) and the timber framing with diagonal bracing is clearly visible over the whole exterior. The latest incarnation of this – a cement render – is most clearly visible and accessible on the south façade where you can get a good look at its diagonal keying.
John Fetherston II (d.1670) trained as a lawyer and married a local heiress. He built the stables and farm buildings adjacent to the house in the mid C17. After him the house passed to his son Thomas Fetherston (d.1714) and thence through the female line to the Leigh family and then the Dilke Family before it was sold in 1869 to a Birmingham solicitor George Oakes Arton with whom it remained until 1901. On the right is one of Edwin Reynolds and Wood & Kendrick’s elevational drawings of the south façade (Right) showing their intentions to re-expose the timber frame and make it more elaborate. The print above suggests that the building was rendered during John Fethston’s lifetime but this cannot be certain, it may be a speculative “this-is-what-its-intended-to-look-like” promotional piece of propaganda. It is more certan that the building did have a rendering during the tenure of the Dilke’s.
On the first floor there is the usual array of bedrooms two of which are named after royal visitors. Two of the bedrooms are equipped with en-suite bathrooms. This was quite advanced thinking for the time and the Ireton bathroom in particular remains a fine, attractive space with a deep bath-tub surrounded by antique Delft tiles with a lion’s head spout (all the bathrooms have this), facing a large leaded window and fireplace behind. There is a charming wash-stand with sink and accoutrements in a closing corner cupboard opposite. The Ireton bedroom to which it’s attached is named after the Cromwellian general Henry Ireton, who is supposed to have slept in this room before the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. Again the smallness and domesticity of the scale with low light levels make these room seem attractively habitable and restful.
Outside, formal gardens surround the house on all sides and there are informal pleasure grounds next to the lake to the south-west and west. The east garden which is between the forecourt and the entrance to the House is enclosed by a 17th century wall which has heating flues for fruit trees. Mature cherry trees grow against the north face of this heated south wall and a wrought-iron gate in it at the south-west corner gives access to the south garden. This has a rectangular lawn which is again enclosed by a high, mid C17 brick wall and is formed into a raised terrace walk with low stone walls and flagstone paving. There’s a small semi-circular niche below the south façade of the house with pool and water fountain set into the east wall. The corners of the garden wall have brick gazebos (again 17th century – but some 20th century rebuilding) and there are views south across a topiary garden.
Overall Packwood prompts some serious questions about adaptive re-use of historic buildings. In 1931 Baron Ash said himself, “I am proceeding with the utmost caution. I hope that my efforts will not provide the future with an object lesson of what not to do in restoring an old house!” However the eminent architectural historian Sir Nikolas Pevsner wrote in his entry for Packwood House in the Buildings of England series that the result looked like a modern grammar school and that the stables were better than the house. To conclude it is worth quoting Pevsner’s entry for the house and stables in full because it still characterises a significantly influential outlook in scholarly and professional thinking on this aspect of historic buildings:
“Packwood House, ½ m. SE. Quite a stately timber-framed house of about the third quarter of the C16. Rendered. The house has a porch, and to its r. the large hall window with three transoms, which is not original. The other windows also mostly transomed and re-done. The gables are a reconstruction too, but a correct one. The interior is well furnished, but most of this was brought recently, and the long gallery and great hall to the N were only made c.1925-30. Their brick exterior looks rather like part of a grammar school, and the provision of new period exteriors and interiors in this way is something more appropriate in America, where the real houses don’t exist, than in England. The chimneypiece in the great hall comes from an inn in Stratford-on Avon. The Jacobean panelling of the dining room and the study are original but not in-situ. So are the drawing room panelling and the fireplace. The panelling and the elaborate overmantel in the Ireton Room however are in situ. On the whole the STABLES etc. are architecturally much more rewarding than the house. They must be of the 1660’s. John Fetherston, who built them, died in 1670…” p.370-371, The Buildings of England, Warwickshire, Nikolas Pevsner and Alexandra Wedgewood, Penguin Books, London, 2000, ISBN 0 14 071031 0.