Early interiors at Preston Manor

Preston Manor interior, MKIL040003
Preston Manor interior, MKIL040003

Until recently, a series of photographs taken in 1909 by the owner of Preston Manor, Ellen Thomas-Stanford, comprised the earliest known views of the interior of the house. In 1982 a series of watercolours was purchased depicting the interior and exterior of the Manor before the Stanfords remodelled and refurnished it between 1904-1905. The four interior views, which have an indecipherable monogram and are dated between 1896-1897, were apparently painted by an amateur watercolourist named Captain Jackson, a friend of the Macdonald family who occupied Preston Manor in the latter half of the 19th century.

The watercolours cannot, of course, be considered as important works of art; that is not the point. Their very artlessness brings to life vanished schemes of decoration and illustrates a fascinating phase in the history of Preston Manor. The interior views can be complemented by a partial inventory of the house, taken in 1904, and the will of Ellen Thomas-Stanford’s mother, Mrs EM Macdonald, dated 26 May 1899.

‘The Drawing Room, 1896-7′ (no image) is relatively uncluttered compared with most late Victorian interiors; watercolours in gilt frames are symmetrically placed on the blue-grey walls. The 1904 inventory refers to two pairs of lined tapestry curtains; it is possible that the latter are replacements as the watercolour appears to show rep (a corded fabric) curtains. The inventory also identifies a double cushion ottoman, which can been seen to the left of the window; and a small mahogany table with stage and two flaps, which can be seen in the right foreground. Eleanor Macdonald’s will mentions a five-fold leather screen and a white pedestal, both of which can be seen on the left of the picture.

Dog or cat?

Preston Manor 'The Dining Room 1896-1897'
Preston Manor ‘The Dining Room 1896-1897’

The view of the Dining Room (now the Macquoid Room) is of particular interest as the room was remodelled in 1939 to incorporate the Macquoid Bequest. The curious object under the dining table, at first sight resembling a cat, is more probably one of the numerous family dogs, most of which are buried in the walled garden. The 1904 inventory describes the room in some detail, and most of the objects can be identified in the watercolour. The muslin and blue rep curtains can be clearly seen, although curiously the salmon-coloured pelmet is omitted; one of the ‘ten carved mahogany frame dining chairs in marone (sic) rep’ can be seen on the right, while the ‘two mahogany frame library chairs with cane seats and backs and leather cushions’ are still in the house today.

All the chimneypiece ornaments are mentioned in the inventory: two white china grotesque ornaments with plated candle holders, two blue tear bottles, two oriental vases and covers, openwork clock by Savery (sic) under glass shade on stand. The clock, by J Cox Savory, still survives in the Morning Room. The Butler’s mahogany tray and stand, and the 60 inch mahogany circular loo table (for card games) with cover for same, can be seen in the background.

Some of the objects had been removed from the house at the time the inventory was taken: for instance, Mrs Macdonald’s will describes the leather screen, dining room table, two oil paintings of Preston, and a sea picture by Vandervelt. Marine paintings were particularly popular in Victorian dining rooms, and the picture can be seen prominently placed above the chimneypiece. The picture was returned to the house following the death of Christiana Macdonald in 1947.

Swords and epaulettes

Preston Manor 'The Entrance Hall', PM190078
Preston Manor ‘The Entrance Hall’, PM190078

The Entrance Hall is shown as a comfortably furnished ‘living hall’. The inventory mentions ‘an ebonised circular stand’ and a ‘small ebonised table’. These can be seen to the left and right of the picture. The ceiling light is described thus: ‘three light bronzed gas pendants and globes each filled with one electric light burner.’

The writing tables, large red leather screen, red leather chair, and musical clock are all mentioned in Mrs. Macdonald’s will, together with ‘the swords, epaulettes and wings belonging to my late husband, Captain George Varnham Macdonald’ (1828-1881) who held a commission in the 19th Regiment, Princess of Wales’ Own.

Adjacent to the hall was the Stucco Room so called because of its elaborate cornice moulding. In 1905 the wall separating the Entrance Hall from the Stucco Room was pierced by a screen of Ionic columns, thus making a large circulation space so favoured by the Edwardians. The view of the Stucco Room, evidently painted between December 1896 and November 1897, is perhaps the most charming in the series. A sparsely furnished room is set off by a green carpet and pale yellow walls – a remarkably unsombre colour scheme for an upper middle class house of the 1890s. The inventory and will fail to mention the two most prominent objects: the sideboard and standard lamp. The former is a good example of a Sheraton-style sideboard dating from the 1790s; the latter is of particular interest as it is almost certainly by W A S Benson (1854-1924), the artist and metalworker who became Director of Morris and Company in 1896. A Benson ceiling light survives today in the North East Room.

Uncluttered rooms and conversational groups

Preston Manor: 'The Stucco Room. 1896-7', PM190076
Preston Manor: ‘The Stucco Room. 1896-7’, PM190076

‘The Stucco Room’ depicts the house in its late 19th century guise.

The rooms are less cluttered than might have been expected at this date; indeed, they are less crowded than they were to become during the tenancy of Ellen Thomas-Stanford. Allowance must, however, be made for the fact that rooms might have been re-arranged before being painted – the disposition of chairs in the Drawing Room bears little relation to any usual arrangement; chairs were inevitably placed in groups designed to encourage conversation. The furniture shown suggests that the house was refurnished in the 1870s and 1880s with a mixture of 18th century pieces, reproductions, and a sprinkling of ebonised Aesthetic Movement tables.

Today, there are few objects which can be connected with Mrs Macdonald’s tenancy. With few exceptions, the furnishings were dispersed among her four daughters following her death in 1903. When Charles and Ellen Thomas-Stanford moved in in 1905 the house was almost bare.

This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website.

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