Although it is tempting these days, when the public can tromp through them, to regard the stately homes of England as grand and unchanging museums, in a sense, they are slow-moving works in progress. Much like the making of a patchwork quilt, each generation preserves and honors what is already there, while laying down their own personal mark.
It's a tradition of which Hugh Crossley, 4th Baron Somerleyton, is well aware.
"These houses absolutely have to be full of treasure," he says. "I don't think the treasure has to be valuable, but it does need to be significant to the house. If it's just junk, it's absolutely wrong. We're very clear that we'd like to add furniture, art and other things as much as we can."
, a Jacobean manor in Suffolk, England, was built in 1610 and then transformed by Sir Samuel Morton Peto to the Italianate style between 1844 and 1851. The current owners, Hugh Crossley, 4th Baron Somerleyton, and his wife, Lara, Lady Somerleyton, have restored the property with the help of interior designer Laura Ingrams.
The portraits in the stair hall depict Crossley's great- grandparents, Sir Savile Brinton Crossley, the first Lord Somerleyton and Lady Phyllis Crossley. The custom Wilton runner is by .
Somerleyton Hall — pronounced "summer lay-ten" — rises out of the broad, horizontal landscape of East Anglia, where the haunch of England hits the North Sea. It is situated about a three-hour drive northeast of London, in the midst of a 5,000-acre estate of arable land, woods and ornamental gardens.
(It was here, in 1955, that local inventor Christopher Cockerell first demonstrated his prototype for the hovercraft; a limestone column on the estate's lawn commemorates the event.)
The core of the building is a Jacobean manor erected in 1610 by John Wentworth and extensively remodeled in the Italianate style by the Victorian railway developer Sir Samuel Morton Peto; his additions include a pair of towers with a great clock by Benjamin Vulliam (based on a design originally intended for use on the Houses of Parliament). The Crossley dynasty of carpet magnates and Liberal politicians bought Somerleyton in 1861, and it has remained the family home ever since.
The Crossleys with their three children, from left, John, Christabel, and Margot, in the estate's 19th-century formal west garden, which is surrounded by London plane trees.
The winter garden's 19th-century marble bench is Italian; wrought-iron grilles set into the original agstone floors distribute heat.
Today, while the ornate 1920s library resounds with the tramp of tourists' feet, in the private former servants' quarters to the south, the sounds are of small children and the skitter of terriers' paws. Hugh — a former restaurateur who inherited his title from his father, Savile Crossley, in 2012 — and his wife, Lara, divide their time between managing the estate and raising their young family: John, the six-and-a-half-year-old heir apparent, and his sisters Christabel, four, and Margot, two.
"It's a very changed environment from when I was young, and we were looked after by a nanny," Hugh says. "That's one huge spin-off of working from home: You get a lot more kid time."
The Louis XV–style desk in the library originally belonged to Hugh's grandfather.
In the entry hall, an 1865 statue of Lord Savile Brinton Crossley as a boy by Joseph Durham is anked by busts of his parents, Hugh's great-great grandparents, Sir Francis and Lady Martha Crossley, by the same artist; the sofa and table are Victorian, the floor is covered in Minton tiles, and the polar bears are trophies from Lord Savile's two-man 1897 trip to the Norwegian Arctic.
With an eye to passing on the house to the next generation, Lord and Lady Somerleyton have embarked on a fairly extensive program of renovating and updating in recent years. The newly redecorated rooms are historically sensitive but fresh-feeling, with bright painted or silk-covered walls, antique mahogany furniture, and Axminster carpets made to order by the family room.
In particular, informed by Lara's background in the London gallery scene, the couple enjoy buying contemporary art, especially favoring such local Norfolk painters as and Fred Ingrams — one of whose vibrant landscapes hangs above the replace in the kitchen.
"We're not really investors," Hugh says. "It's about enriching the house with a fresh set of art, rather than just hunting prints."
The kitchen island is by , the mahogany table is Victorian, the curtains are of a stripe, and the walls are painted in Tablecloth by ; the 2015 artwork above the mantel is by .
The stair hall's armchairs are 19th-century Italian, and the 17th-century Ferdinand Bol painting depicts Rembrandt and his wife, Saskia.
In leaving their own mark on Somerleyton Hall, the couple have been sensitive to the decorating legacy left by their predecessors, however idiosyncratic. In the Tapestry Room, for example, in bygone days, a Flemish wall hanging depicting the Rape of Lucretia was cut in half to better fit the space — the kind of devil-may-care bisection that would be unthinkable today.
Another sign of changed attitudes is the pair of polar bears that looms over visitors in the entrance hall. These giant taxidermy specimens were trophies bagged by Hugh's great-grandfather, Sir Savile Brinton Crossley.
"He went to Spitsbergen [Norway] on a so-called conservation geographical expedition in the 1890s and — hunted might not be the right word — they shot them," he says. "All in the name of science, obviously. He had another similar trip to India, which is where the tiger skins came from."
The Jacobean-style dining chairs in the morning room retain their original leather upholstery, the china is by , and the custom Crossley carpet was made in Halifax, in West Yorkshire.
In the Crimson Room, the 18th-century French bed's canopy is of a Colefax and Fowler silk lined with an ticking, the curtains and wallcovering are by Bennison Fabrics, and the rug is antique.
The extended Crossley family (Hugh has four sisters) often descend upon their ancestral seat for Christmas, one of the advantages — or drawbacks, if you'd rather — of having a 12-bedroom house with a large Victorian dining room.
"We live in hope of a client coming and renting the whole house over Christmas," jokes Crossley, referring to their new business venture of offering up the manor for hire to interested parties.
It's the latest stage in the continued evolution of English country houses, in addition to hosting tours, weddings and private events. And it's another measure designed to ensure that — unlike those polar bears — Somerleyton Hall is not simply preserved, but will remain very much alive.
A guest bath has a tub and fittings reclaimed from another part of the manor; the curtains are of a silk, and the carpet is by .
In a guest room, a Victorian oak bed is draped in a , and the Knole sofa is Victorian; above the custom silk wallcovering from Gainsborough, the walls are painted Slate III, and the doors in .
This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Siweb.