More than 120 years after London’s V&A museum paid a small fortune to acquire one of the grandest bedrooms of Tudor England, it has been formally transferred to its original home, Cumbria’s Sizergh Castle, now in the care of the National Trust.
“We’re delighted. We know it’s in safe hands and will be enjoyed by so many people back in its proper context,” said Nick Humphrey, a curator and Tudor furniture specialist at the V&A. The museum paid £1,000 for the room in 1891, followed five years later by another £400 for its towering bed and heraldic stained glass windows.
The castle dates back to the 14th century but was fashionably remodelled in the 16th century by Walter Strickland, who began work on the spectacular second-floor bedroom. Still unfinished when he died in 1569, the room was completed by his widow Alice Tempest and her third husband. It was panelled in oak inlaid with creamy white poplar wood and black bog oak, under an ornate plaster ceiling. It also had a porch to protect the occupants from draughts from the stone spiral stairs outside.
By the late 19th century, however, when many of the great houses of England were importing American heiresses to balance their books or selling their treasures in the other direction to US collectors, the Stricklands had fallen on hard times.
George Howard, the ninth earl of Carlisle, was roped in to make discreet approaches to the V&A. The house was “in a rather ruinous state”, he wrote, and the owner wanted to sell his best bedroom. “This you must really have. It is the best thing of the kind I have seen … dealers have already been at him.”
After some haggling the enormous price was agreed. Humphrey, who has been poring over the correspondence, says that the museum was more interested in continental interiors at the time. The panelled room from Bromley-by-Bow, now on display in the British galleries, cost only £225 in 1894, and in 1899 the museum paid £375 for 100 carved wooden panels from Waltham Abbey. “In 1890 and 1891 any purchase more than £100 was rare, with the majority of acquisitions less than £15,” he said.
The entire Sizergh room was stripped out, leaving only the original ceiling – which was copied in South Kensington from a cast – and the fireplace, which had been heavily altered in the 18th century. The windows and the bed, which had also been altered, followed in 1896.
The earliest letter Humphrey can trace from the family saying that they would like their room back came in 1949. When the house was transferred the following year to the National Trust, it promptly asked the museum too.
The response from the V&A has echoes of the bitter controversy involving the British Museum and the Parthenon marbles. The trustees concluded that they would not be able to dispose of the collection legally, they were unsure how secure it would be in Cumbria, it would open a floodgate of requests for other returns … and they were not convinced the National Trust would last.
There was much the same response in 1991, when the architectural historian Marc Girouard, an expert on English country houses, wrote in Country Life that the room should go back.
Humphrey says the real change of heart came as the V&A prepared to open the new British galleries in 2001. With the display of complete rooms being reduced, the prospect was of only showing pieces of the bedroom panelling, with most of it going into store. Instead the whole room went back to Sizergh on long loan, to be reinstated under its original ceiling.
A historic legal agreement has now been signed to formally transfer ownership of the room to the National Trust. Georgina Gates, the collections manager at the castle, said it was “without doubt the jewel in Sizergh’s crown”.
Humphrey said: “We now know the National Trust isn’t going away any time soon. The room is back in the right place.”
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