Period Property of the Month - April 2010
Alison Dalby enjoys a remarkable family house in Sussex which today remains a towering monument to the Arts and Crafts movements in late Victorian times.
A perfect pedigree
Few Arts and Crafts houses retain such a wealth of original features as Standen in Sussex. Yet, this masterpiece of Victorian design was also a much-loved family home.
In 1891, at the age of fifty, prosperous solicitor James Beale was reflecting on his successful career. Having originally moved from Birmingham to London, he felt the time had come to find a country retreat in which to spend weekends with his wife Margaret and their seven children. He chose the ideal site for a new house, among the picturesque rolling hills of the Sussex Weald.
In the streets around the Beales' London home in Kensington were buildings designed by Philip Webb, a pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement.
The integrity and modesty of Webb's buildings, and their homely quality, greatly appealed to James and Margaret, and so did his reputation for sticking to budget. Webb was also a considerate architect who went to great lengths to understand a client's point of view and he struck an immediate rapport with the Beales.
Webb's genius was to make a new home look as if it had grown from its environment and had evolved over time. On the site of the proposed house were a number of redundant old farm buildings, so instead of removing them he integrated them into the new design. With a love of fine craftsmanship and quality materials, he insisted on using sandstone, quarried from the garden, with local bricks, pegged and hung clay tiles and oak weather-boarding and render. It was a supreme achievement and turned out to be the last house that Webb would build.
Among Webb's design trademarks were impressively tall chimneys, but these were not merely for aesthetic purposes. He was passionate about their practicality. "There are two types of fireplace in architecture," he would say, "those that smoke, and those that don't. Mine don't." He also hung internal doors to open away from the fireplaces and prevent draughts blowing smoke into the room. Although Standen had central heating, the fireplaces were a main feature of the interiors - no two were the same and they gave every room a unique character.
The decoration and furnishing for the house were pivotal in creating a welcoming family home. Webb frequently specified pieces by William Morris, with whom he had founded the firm 'Morris and Co'. The house also retains many original schemes and works by some of the greatest names and influences in Arts and Crafts design, including ceramics by William de Morgan and Della Robia. Most rooms were decorated in Morris' new wallpapers, which complemented the plain painted panelling, and Margaret Beale, an exceptional needlewoman, worked with two of her daughters on embroideries and tapestries. Among the wall-hangings, chair covers and cushions were items made by daughter Maggie, a trained artist, in her studio which is now the 'Willow' bedroom at Standen.
The Beales bought hand-crafted and Arts and Crafts furniture for the house. Some was in the 'rustic' style associated with the movement, such as rush-seated, ebonised 'Sussex' chairs from 'Morris and Co'. However, there were also examples of more elegant, inlaid rosewood and mahogany pieces by companies such as Collinson and Lock. With his insistence on practicality, Webb designed built-in furniture for the house as well. This included dressers for the dining-room, and bedroom wardrobes - highly unusual for the time - which were suggested to him by the Beales' eldest daughter, Amy.
Even the youngest members of the Standen family had their chance to participate in the design of Standen. Helen Beale, aged just eight, asked Webb to build her a 'little room' at the far end of the conservatory. He agreed and charged her sixpence. For many years Beale children and grandchildren held secret society meetings there, climbing on to the ledge outside, unseen by the adults on the terrace.
Not all of Webb's designs quite fitted the needs of the family, however. The hall, with its seating area, was originally shorter and painted in 'dragon's blood' red. The Beales found this too cramped and gloomy and, in 1898, they invited Webb back to make some alterations to the house. These included the addition of a bay window in the hall, to accommodate a piano, and redecoration in a much lighter scheme of cream. After that, the room became a favourite venue for taking afternoon tea and for musical evenings and amateur theatricals.
Elsewhere, the house epitomises Webb's love for light-filled interiors, from the large conservatory with its high vaulted ceiling to the various south or east-facing bedrooms and family rooms. Electric lighting - not found in many houses at that time - was also fitted, with a variety of lamps, shades and sconces designed by W.A.S. Benson, an innovator in creative design, which provided a soft and homely atmosphere.
The Beale children adored Standen and returned regularly with their own children and grandchildren. For seventy years, the house and garden remained the focal point of family life and today it displays many of the personal items that made it so endearing. The children's rocking horse, Dobbin, has pride of place in the billiard room. Originally bought for daughter Amy as a reward for learning her alphabet when she was three years old, Dobbin was ridden for years afterwards by up to six children at a time.
Eclectic collections of books filled the shelves in the morning-room, where the women would gather to write letters after breakfast, but with 'no novels before lunch'. The table in the striking green dining room is laid for the fruit course of one of the family's meals, complete with finger bowls, believed to be designed by Webb. The family ate wholesome meals, especially for breakfast, when the children would have porridge, hot scones, cups of milk and ripe peaches. The garden at Standen was a haven for the family and the focus for parties and pastimes. Originally laid out in a geometric and formal style by London landscape designer, G. B. Simpson, it was substantially developed by Margaret Beale who added alpines, Japanese trees and other exotic plants. For the children, the garden was a perpetual playground, in which they would spend idyllic days gathering blackberries or riding their bicycles across the lawns. And the rock garden pool, in which they played, has been unearthed as part of an ongoing restoration project by the National Trust which cares for Standen. There is still more, it seems, to be revealed about the halcyon days of this happy Victorian family.
Standen, West Hoathly Road, East Grinstead, West Sussex, RH19 4NE. For opening days and times and further details, tel: 01342 323029 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk