Thursday, 30 September 2010

No. 229, High Street: Birthplace of Sir Thomas Bodley

The 18th century facade of No. 229, shown left © RAMM, belies the fact that this was in fact probably the most important surviving timber-framed Elizabethan townhouse in Exeter. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum regards it as "perhaps the grandest of all Exeter townhouses", although both Bampfylde House and No. 171 Fore Street were amongst several other contenders for that title. The building's history extended back into the Middle Ages where it occupied a prime site in the centre of Exeter on the corner of the city's main thoroughfare with Gandy Street.

Surviving documents show that between 1394 and 1395 a house standing on this site was rebuilt using volcanic trap quarried from near the village of Thorverton in the Exe valley and sandstone quarried from Whipton (in fact 3,917 stones from Whipton were purchased!). The resulting construction would've been one of the most significant medieval properties in the city, consisting of a hall, bed chambers, a kitchen and stables with a cellar running underneath, as well as two shops at the front with solars above. Oak for the building came from stocks held by the cathedral and Baltic wood was even imported from Riga. It cost in total just over £173 with 53 men working on it for fifty-eight weeks.

The image right is my attempt to suggest how the front elevation of the building might've appeared in the 1580s, based on other other buildings typical of the period.

One of the city's most notable mayors, John Shillingford, lodged at the medieval house during the 1440s. At one point the property belonged to the Cathedral's Dean and Chapter and in 1544 it was leased by the Chapter to one of Exeter's wealthiest merchants, John Bodley. It was almost certainly in this house that Bodley's son, Thomas Bodley, later Sir Thomas Bodley and the future founder of the Bodleian Library, the main research library at Oxford University, was born on 02 March 1545.

Being devout Protestants, the Bodley family left England during the reign of the Catholic Mary I in the 1550s, and it was upon returning to the country after the succession of Elizabeth I that Bodley entered Merton College at Oxford University. Bodley was well-acquainted with two other locally-born famous Elizabethans, the great miniaturist court painter and goldsmith Nicholas Hilliard and the explorer, poet and courtier Sir Walter Ralegh. The eponymous library at Oxford, one of the oldest in Europe and now only second in size to the British Library in London, was refounded in 1602 by Bodley and subsequently bore his name.

The image left is a detail from Hedgeland's great wooden model of the city showing Exeter is it appeared in 1769. The front block of No. 229 High Street is highlighted in red. It it shown prior to the reconstruction of its High Street facade, its twin gables facing onto the street. The High Street runs left to right in front of the property with Gandy Street running up past the side wall.

No. 229 High Street was substantially rebuilt in 1585 by another of Exeter's wealthy Elizabethan merchants, and another former mayor, George Smith. Apart from 18th century alterations to the facade it was this house which remained standing until 1930. Yet another of the city's mayors, Roger Mallock, took out a lease on the house in 1627. The high status of the building could be seen in its sheer size. Many large merchant houses in Exeter were built as matching pairs, akin to modern-day semi-detached properties, one room wide and one room deep, with a further block of accommodation at the rear, but No. 229 was two rooms wide at the front, built as a single residence.

By 1640 the property was being used as lodgings for visiting judges. In that year the judges complained about the accommodation. As William Cotton wrote in 1877, "there must have been something wrong with the furnishing or situation of Mr Mallock's residence to give any ground for complaint, as the house itself would, even now, if restored to its original state, be considered a grand one". Cotton goes on to give a description of the property as it existed in 1877: "The dining room was richly decorated with carved panelling of a high order, which is still to be seen, although the dimensions of the apartment have been curtailed; in a large room on the first floor a portion of the fine moulded ceiling and chimney-piece yet remain, and in the basement there are traces of an extensive kitchen, with a huge fireplace, now disused and partly filled with rubbish".

No. 229 was still remembered as 'Mallock's House' on the 1876 Ordnance Survey map of Exeter. That map also suggests that the property was accessed via a passageway which ran underneath the right side of the house. Between 1584 and the 1630s, No. 229 acquired what were some of the richest, more ornate and opulent late-Elizabethan and Jacobean interiors in the entire city.

The British Archaeological Association visited the "ancient private Mayoralty hall of Roger Mallock" in 1862 and noted the "finely carved wainscoting". Fortunately enough records survive to indicate exactly what a loss the house was to the city's architectural heritage. At least three of the rooms had extremely ornate chimney pieces. The example shown above right, drawn in the 1880s by James Crocker, was made of oak and plaster. It had richly-carved pilasters either side of the fire itself, which were surmounted by grotesque masks, above which was an overmantel divided into three panels by pilasters with a frieze added to the top. In the central panel, probably executed in plaster, was the Royal coat of arms while either side were smaller heraldic details.

The image left shows the lower portion of a second overmantel. It is carved of oak and features two caryatids (sculpted female figures) in the centre, flanked at each side by two bearded telemones (sculpted male figures). Three Romanesques arches stand between them. Above each figure is a superb grotesque mask and the oak between the masks has been carved with stylised foliage (the soft wood panels within the arches are a much later addition). All of this work is typical of early-Jacobean carving and almost certainly dates to the time of Roger Mallock. This section of woodwork is now in the city's Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

A third chimney piece, now in St Nicholas's Priory, featured the coat of arms of Elizabeth I, a lion and a Welsh dragon, and must've been installed by George Smith c1590. Either side of the fireplace are architectural pilasters that terminate in carved lion heads left. The overmantels were just the beginning though as the house was stuffed with rooms filled with elaborate oak panelling and wainscotting, with carved doors and decorative plasterwork ceilings. These interiors were a magnificent example of the English Renaissance, customed made for the house into which they were fitted. Their only counterpart in Exeter in the 20th century were to be found at Bampfylde House (destroyed 1942) or at No. 171 Fore Street (demolished in the 1930s).

The photograph right shows Exeter's High Street c1910 with No. 229 highlighted in red. No. 226 and No. 227 stand to the left. Most of the buildings to the right of No. 229 were destroyed during World War Two.

Given their quality, and the importance of the house to Exeter's architectural history generally, it is extraordinary and incomprehensible that in 1930 the entire building was completely demolished. (More about the building which replaced it can be found here.)

Clearly someone realised the value of the decor that was being removed. A year earlier Robertsons of Knightsbridge, a company specialising in the sale of antique interiors, descended on Exeter and removed the panelling, ceilings, woodwork and plasterwork from six entire rooms. These six interiors were then cobbled together to form three coherent rooms. The three rooms were then packed into crates, shipped across the Atlantic and sold to another company, French & Co. French & Co. then sold all three rooms to William Randolph Hearst. In 1940 one of these rooms was acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City (where it can still be seen today). A second room was gifted by the Hearst Foundation to the Detroit Institute of Art in 1958 (where it can still be seen today). The third of the rooms from No. 229 was bought from Hearst for $5000 in 1945 by Mrs John Magnin, after which it was gifted to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.

(The image left shows an aerial view of the modern city overlaid with the map of 1905. The long and narrow tenement plot occupied by No. 229 before its demolition is highlighted in red.)

In 2001 this third room was purchased by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. Apart from the oak panelling, the section of the overmantel shown above were also purchased at the same time, following a grant of £9,848 from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The repurchased panelling and plasterwork overmantel are currently on display in the Tudor Room of St Nicholas's Priory below.

Apart from the scattered remains of its incomparable interiors there is no trace today that the house ever existed. Peter Thomas calls No. 229's demolition in 1930 "an act of considerable vandalism". And so it was. Dozens of medieval and Tudor houses were demolished in Exeter during the first three decades of the 20th century, but there's something particularly shameful about the city's heritage being dismantled and flogged off.

However, by a strange quirk of fate, the destruction of the building probably saved the interiors that remain today. The present building that stands on the footprint of the old Elizabethan house was damaged by fire during the bombing raid of 1942. More can be read about it here. It's highly likely that, had the old house not been dismembered and demolished, then the entire lot would've burnt to the ground.


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