The Old Houses of Shropshire in the 19th Century: The Watercolour Albums of Frances Stackhouse Acton

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Julia L. Ionides and Peter G. Howell, The Old Houses of Shropshire in the 19th Century: The Watercolour Albums of Frances Stackhouse Acton (Ludlow: Dog Rose, 2005), 222 pp., 369 illus. in colour and black-and-white, £25.00 (hbk), ISBN 0952836742

This is not just an intensely Salopian book, but more particularly a Ludlow production. It comes from the Dog Rose Press, which works out of two houses in Bell Street and Greenacres in the town, and it features the architectural watercolours of Fanny Knight. She was born in Gothick Elton Hall on Bringewood Chace overlooking the town, and brought up on the other side of the Teme at Downton Castle. With a father, Thomas Andrew Knight, co-founder of the Royal Horticultural Society, and an uncle, the formidable fanatic for the Picturesque, Richard Payne Knight of Downton, it would have been surprising if Fanny, as Frances was always called, had not made something remarkable of her life (other than to marry a sickly husband twenty years her senior and bear a much-loved daughter, who faded away from a mysterious illness at the age of eighteen).

Marriage to Thomas Pendarves Stackhouse brought Fanny to the ramshackle, late sixteenthcentury Hall at Acton Scott, and that experience may have fired her passion for the old houses of the county. She had taken drawing lessons as a child and proceeded to paint bold, rather bright, watercolours of virtually every picturesque mansion in Shropshire, filling two albums and publishing three books. Ninety-five of her watercolours are published here; often two or three studies of the same house and garden. Each house is accompanied, if it survives, by a modern photograph together with comparative paintings by other artist-antiquaries such as Henry Bryan Ziegler, John Homes Smith and Henry Edridge. The result is a colourful time-trip back into the state of Shropshire’s manor houses of the early nineteenth century. Some paintings have caught their subjects at fascinating moments of change. There is one extraordinary study of 1839, with Edward Haycock’s challengingly neo-classical Millichope Park in the background and, in total contrast, the triple-gabled, half-timbered old Millichope in the foreground, littered with genre detail of washing on the line, wagons on the drive, and a pony and cart full of children. Four years later the old house was demolished.

Other watercolours raise garden ‘problems’. There is a well-known plan of 1635 of the gardens at Shifnall Manor, showing exedral terraces to a formal layout with a gazebo above a heart-shaped pool and a straight canal. Fanny’s two views show the gazebo but reverse the curve of the exedral walls and bring the axial flight of steps down, not to the heart pool, but to a sluice, a waterfall and a rough meadow. Another sepia study of the grounds of Eyton, built in 1607, shows not only the octagonal Eyton Turret, now owned by the Vivat Trust, but also its lost octagonal, ogeedomed twin with more ogee arches on a decayed Gothic ruin in the foreground. In a reverse to the Eyton development, Fanny’s record of Plaish Hall of the 1580s shows what is now an impressive entrance front, with authentic-looking ogeedomed turrets, as the faintly squashed backside to the Hall: no turrets, just two projections on each side of the kitchen chimneystack and a privy in the yard. A truly horrid ghost story relates to those three chimneys, and one of the minor pleasures of this book is that hauntings and indelible bloodstains are recorded as faithfully as architectural insights and lists of past owners.

What is disappointing, but authentic, is the state of the house gardens. Occasionally, as at Loton Park, Downton Hall and Condover, Fanny has caught a garden of Italian formality with urns, terraces, balustrading and even a fountain; but hers were the years of the Gardenesque, that least attractive of garden styles. There is a noble absence of those firmly clipped walls of yew, which we tend, from their later Edwardian popularity, to associate with houses on either side of 1600. Today, Condover is much be-yewed, but in Fanny’s time the drive was lined with pots of alternate red and blue flowers. Most of the yeomen or lesser gentry houses seem to have dispensed with gardens. A fence, a low wall and a few bushes, probably for fruit, are the meagre gestures of demarcation. Is the whole cult of garden-caring a post-Robinson, English Flower Garden phenomenon, a suburban rather than a country enthusiasm? Certainly formal beds and ornamental paths are few and far between in Fanny’s Shropshire.

Tim Mowl
University of Bristol

33:2 (Winter 2005)

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