Dunham Massey.

Art I was told off by one of the attendants when I described Dunham Massey Hall as a stately home. “Not so stately” she whispered to me mischievously. I’m still not sure how else to describe it, given that it’s a rather large house in the middle of an estate. The National Trust website calls it mansion so we'll go with that. Of all the venues I've visited from Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections In North-West England book, it’s the first so-far that I’ve actually wanted to live in, with room after room filled with gorgeous furniture and a genuine sense of lost time. Except I’m not sure where I’d put the telly and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to plug in a computer.

The mansion was built in 1616 by Sir George Booth, one of James I’s baronettes and across the years has been occupied by various Lords and Earls of Stamford and Warrington before falling into the hands of the National Trust on the death of the 10th Earl Roger Grey in 1976. Since then the house has hardly been changed which means that as you stroll past wood paneling and wallpaper, across wooden floors and worn carpets you can see the modification and developments added by many of owners, all attempting to make it their home.

In many cases the original furniture was kept in state and later generations have simply filled other rooms with their life with areas such as The Great Hall, the Library and the Billiard Room all seeming like separate time zones, the visitor stepping through portals between. At first it’s quite disorientating and there’s certainly too much for the eye to take in, every detail suggesting the tastes and decency of the people who lived here. It’s probably best to concentrate on a particular aspect and focus, which is why it’s helpful that I particular wanted to see the fine art collection.

To an extent it’s a building-shaped family album, with every wall featuring at least one portrait of somebody or other. With the exception of the Romney and the Reynolds, most of these are head and shoulders 'shots' and actually a bit samey and of the kind which would be dashed off quickly by a painter living off the commissions. Since we are seeing generations of the same family though, you can see how painting methods have developed over the centuries, techniques becoming more sophisticated with the passage of time, from rather sombre ladies in black from the Jacobian era to the bright face of the turn of the last century.

You’ll need a good pair of binoculars though, since the best of these portraits tend to be at the opposite ends of large rooms, a frustration of stately homes were security is paramount. There’s an amazing picture of Dorothy Wrighte, the wife of the 3rd Earl of Stamford attributed to Jon Richardson in the Dining Room, with vivid reds in her dress but you can only see it from a small mezzanine leading in from the Stone Parlour. Similarly you need some determination to have decent look at the canvas that dominates the summer parlour, a full length by J. Ernest Breum of Penelope Theobald, Countess of Stamford and her children.

In general though, I think the finest pictures are fairly unheralded and you’d miss most of them if you weren’t looking. On ducking into the entrance hall, the staff are determined to herald you on, but I managed to stop in the doorway of the adjoining courtyard and noticed on either side two paintings by J Boultbee, Denham Oak. These appear to be mirror images of each other, broken trees moodily gathered in dark wood. Look more closely and you’ll notice that actually the artist has painted the same scene from two different directions and if you were to lean the two canvases back to back, you’d have a three hundred and sixty degree view within a two dimensional plain. A.L.R. Ducros’s Temple of Minerva Medici, Rome uses much the same trick showing a ruined dome within a landscape from opposite angles as nature in the form of vines and trees claims this ancient architecture for its own.

Roped off nearby in the parlour you can just about glimpse J Nelson Drummond’s Where Heroes Rest, a poignantly misty view of St. Paul’s Cathedral created in coloured crayon, greens and blues blended to underscore the sense of doom in the title. Along the corridors, don’t miss Le Champ Du Drop D’or, a 1774 engraving at the bottom of a stairwell showing the procession of Henry VIII to meet the French King Francis I, which as well as featuring some wonderfully Hogarthian characterisation amongst hundreds of faces has a dragon, yes, a dragon flying through the sky, something Shakespeare omitted when he got around to writing the King’s stage biography. Further into the house, the weirdest picture by far is the one Edward highlights in his book by Jan Wyck of A Dutch Mastiff with Dunham Massey in the Background. He calls it ‘sensitive and touching’ but it's also scary, a kind of forced perspective suggesting that the dog’s grown to Digby proportions and is preparing to stamp all over the town which also lies in the background, giant paw prints in its wake.

Most of these curiosities aren’t even mentioned in their guide book, which prefers to spend much of its time detailing the silver, jewelery and furniture, the history of the house and its gardens. It does take time though to include John Harris’s birds-eye views of the hall painted in 1751. Predating the game show Treasure Hunt and Google Earth by around two hundred and fifty years these are fascinating descriptions of the grounds of the house and how the 2nd Earl of Warrington very much saw them as an extension of the property, avenues fanning out into his plantations. I presume they’re extrapolations of the plans, that century’s equivalent of the artist impression as seen whenever a new building project is being proposed (see the soon to be opened Liverpool One).

This one of the most idyll places I’ve ever visited. In the gardens alone, despite having spent most of life near Sefton Park I still wasn’t prepared for the freshness of the air and fragrances, the colours and the silences. Or the wildlife; deer walk freely around the estate and I couldn’t help pointing and exclaiming ‘It’s a deer!’ to the staff member I’d luckily got off the bus with and was showing me the way to the house. Ironically, even if much of the collection is slightly obscured from view, it’s relatively expensive to get in and it wasn’t the easiest venue to reach (it took three and a half hours to get home) I think this might well come close to being my favourite of these visits, if only because it far exceeded my expectations.

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