CDAS Visit to Corsham Court, Saturday 30 April 2022

10 members and friends visited Corsham Court on our first visit of the 2022 CDAS summer visits.

We had an excellent guide, Simon, who told us about the Court's history and also about the important collection of art works housed there.

The Court is in the picturesque village of Corsham with its rows of Flemish Weavers cottages. It is 3 miles west of Chippenham.  Corsham was a Royal Manor of the Saxon Kings and reputed to have been the seat of Ethelred the Unready.  After the Norman Conquest the Manor continued to be passed down through the Kings of England often as part of the dowries of the Queens. It was part of the dowries of Catherine of Aragon  and Katherine Parr. The Royals appreciated the clean air and water of Wiltshire.

Elizabeth I sold the Manor and in 1582 the owner Thomas Smythe (no relation to the Ashton Court Smythes) started the present house. The South Front, Riding School and Stables are from this period.  Thomas Smythe had acquired the Office of the Customs under Mary and then Elizabeth I.  It was a mixed blessing as although he made money through the post, he also acquired large fines as a result of his management.  

Anthony Hungerford was another owner and a general in the Parliamentary Army in the Civil War. His wife had the Hungerford Arms Houses built in the town. 

The next important owner was Sir Paul Methuen who bought the house in 1745.  He was a noted politician and diplomat (mentioned by Voltaire in his diaries, for his integrity). He had no children and passed the house to his cousin also Paul Methuen, who undertook the enlarge it to accommodate the art collection his cousin had accumulated during his diplomatic service.  He added wings on either side of the Tudor front for the  state rooms where the art collection was displayed.  Paul Methuen employed Lancelot “Capability” Brown to design the new wings and also design the surrounding gardens and park.  The Picture Gallery containing some of the most famous paintings is a triple cube, with an intricate coffered plasterwork Rococo ceiling, over a high cove stuccoed in scrolls.  Our guide told us Brown “borrowed” the design from another house that was not completed.  The plaster work was  done by Thomas Stocking of Bristol and took several years to complete.  The walls of many of the new rooms were covered in Red Damask.  This was also used to cover the settees and chairs.  It did not wear well. When the upholstery needed replacing, Damask was taken from behind the larger paintings and used for repairs. The rooms contain furniture and fittings by Robert Adam and Thomas Chippendale.  Brown's design of the gardens included a Gothic Bath House and a Folly Castle. His plans for the grounds were not completed and were finished at the end of the 18th Century by Humphrey Repton. At this time the North facade was remodelled by John Nash in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style. This work proved to be a disaster as Nash had used unseasoned wood and included iron work in the construction. It was eventually replaced in the mid 19th century by the hall, staircase and North facade we see today in a more Classical style, designed by Thomas Bellamy.

The Art Collection

 Corsham Court has the collection of the first Paul Methuen, that he acquired during his diplomatic service.  This was added to when the paintings collected by Rev John Sanford, while he was in Italy following the Napoleonic wars. Sandford's daughter had married in to the Methuen family.  At one time the collection included over 250 picture.  However many were sold when the family needed funds for building work and other pressing needs. One of the Methuens was the Governor of Malta in World War I and is reputed to have used his own money to set up hospitals for the soldiers wounded in the Gallipoli Campaign.  “The Betrayal of Christ” by Van Dyck was accepted by H.M. Government as part of Death Duties. It is now owned by Bristol Museum, but remains at Corsham Court.

Other important works in the collection are the following:

“Three Children” by Sofonisba Anguisciola.  She was an Italian Painter who was mentored by Michaelangelo as a young woman. She later became a Lady in Waiting to Philip I I's third wife.  She undertook many portraits in the Spanish Court.  On the death of the Queen, Philip arranged a marriage to a Sicilian Nobleman. After he died Sofonisba married a sea captain and lived to be 93.  Van Dyck visited her when she was very old and found her views on art  inspiring. She was a trailblazer for female artists such as the more famous Artemisia Gentileschi.

“Allegorical Painting of Elizabeth I” is a portrait unlike any other of the Queen.  She looks old and care worn, exhausted by the years of turmoil including those caused by the Book of Common Prayer. She holds a copy. The Grim Reaper and Death look on. From the style of her dress, it appears that it was painted around 1610, 7 years after the Queen's death in 1603.

“Interior of Ely Cathedral” is a water colour by Turner that escaped damage when a burst water tank in the roof flooded the Dinning Room.

There are several Family Portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

“Equestrian Portrait of Charles I” is a copy of the well known painting by Van Dyck.

“The Annunciation” by Filippo Lippi.  Another painter with an interesting life.  He was a monk who abducted a novice nun and  they produced a child Filippino together. However the artist came to a sticky end,murdered  either at the hands of the novice's relatives or by a jealous subsequent mistress.

As well as paintings, the collection has a sculpture of a child possibly by Michaelangelo. 

There is also a 4th century BC Athenian vase.

We went on to view the gardens and Bath house and the after a walk down the High Street, we had an excellent lunch in the Methuen Arms.

A fascinating visit! 


Tom Chown, 1st May 2022