Beningbrough was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Benniburg and was owned by a man named Asford. Much of the land passed to the Hospital of St Leonard, a religious foundation run by monks, during the 12th and 13th centuries. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, St Leonard’s Hospital and its land were surrendered to King Henry VIII. In 1544 the land was sold to John Banester and in 1556, his nephew Ralph Bourchier inherited the estate. Ralph began building a house on a site approximately 300 metres south-east of the present hall and recent surveys suggest that it had a timber frame with fine panelled interiors – some of which were reused in the present hall (Alton, 2011). The building passed down a line of Bourchiers and was eventually inherited by John Bourchier in 1700, aged just 16. The present hall was completed in 1716 and rises out of the flood plain of the River Ouse.
In 1704 John Bourchier embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe and spending almost two years in Italy, he absorbed the Italianate Baroque architectural style into his plans for a new house at Beningbrough. The command of the classical Renaissance vocabulary that Bourchier admired in Europe played a major role in the planning of the hall and although the building is constructed in the English tradition of brick, much of the exterior detailing is derived from Roman sources. Like Bourchier, many gentlemen scholars undertook Grand Tours as part of the 17th century tradition of the virtuoso. Referred to by Francis Bacon in 1605 as those who “entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation”, these men did not receive any formal training in building design. The highly acclaimed English Baroque architect Sir Christopher Wren taught himself “when he turned to architecture” (Downes, 1971). The grammar of the Renaissance was initially learned from the treatises of Alberti and Vitruvius and the illustrated books of Serlio, Palladio, Vignola and Scamozzi with practical experience gained under a great master. Following his grand tour in 1754 and his study of the Baths of Diocletian and Caracalla, the architect Robert Adam declared in his Ruins of Spalatro that “with sword in hand… and reflections on the subject I must own they contributed very much to the improvement of my taste and enlarged my notions of architecture” (Adam, 1757). Essentially public architecture, the baroque country house was almost always built for the gentry or aristocracy. With eternal ideas deriving from antiquity and the desire to emulate their elegance and purity of a better age (Tinniswood, 1991), the 18th century classicists agreed that the buildings of the ancients should “serve as models which we should imitate, and as standards by which we ought to judge” (Adam, 1774).
Little is known about the building history of Beningbrough but it is believed that William Thornton, a “joyner and architect” (Tinniswood, 1991) supervised the construction of the hall. Thornton is described as Bourchier’s architect in a list of Yorkshire houses contained in a copy of The Builder’s Dictionary of 1734. Thornton worked at Bramham Park, Wentworth Castle and under Nicholas Hawksmoor at Castle Howard and on the restoration of Beverley Minster. Working to the designs of Bourchier, Beningbrough is a two storey building of double-pile plan and constructed of red brick in Flemish bond with ashlar dressings and cumberland slate roof. The symmetrical facade features a central entrance bay with Doric pilasters supporting an entablature with cornice.
The Great Hall is a fantastic display of splendour with imposing fluted composite pilasters gracing the double height room that soar to the groined vaults above balconied openings. Resembling the classical grandeur of Baroque palaces in Italy, the Great Hall connects a lot of the ground floor rooms and not only designed to impress, it was used to serve as a busy circulating space. The room is lavishly adorned with monumental portraits of 18th century British monarchs which come from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. The National Trust acquired Beningbrough in 1958 and when conservators stripped back paint on the plinths supporting the pilasters, they discovered that they were made from solid York stone. The creamy white colour of the stone is what the pilasters have been redecorated with and at the same time, the floor was re-laid with smooth flagstones, as it had originally been (Alton,2011). Often decorating the entrance halls of Roman villas, sculpted portraits also feature at Beningbrough. The impressive bust of Pope Clement XIV (below) is above the fireplace in the Great Hall and was carved in Rome in 1771 by the Irish sculptor Christopher Hewetson. When Mrs Earle, owner of Beningbrough during the 18th century, became pregnant, Pope Clement gave her special permission to stay in a convent during her time in Rome in 1770-1771.
Providing a link between the Great Hall and the original state apartment (now the Drawing Room) on the ground floor and the Saloon on the first floor, the Great Staircase Hall (below) displays particularly fine craftsmanship. Reserved exclusively for the owners and their guests, the cantilevered wooden staircase would have been climbed in formal procession on special occasions. To the left of the Great Staircase is a small door which opens onto another tiny set of stairs which run alongside their much grander counterpart and were used by the servants. The intricate fretwork of the banister appears to be elaborate wrought-iron work but the spindles are in fact carved in wood – likely to have been crafted by William Thornton, the chief craftsman and master woodworker.
The last in the Bourchier line to hold Beningbrough was Margaret Bourchier. Margaret married Giles Earle in 1761 and they had two sons. Following the death of both sons fighting in the war against Napoleon, when Margaret Earle passed away in 1827 Beningbrough passed to reverend William Henry Dawnay, a close friend of one of her sons. The estate was owned by the Dawnay family between 1827 and 1916 (Alton, 2011).
The State Apartment and State Dressing Room (below) are on the ground floor adjoining the Dining Room. The original form of the state apartment was lost with the creation of the current Drawing Room so the National Trust has re-created the State Apartment in the south-east part of this floor. The intimate Dressing Room and Closet would have been reserved for use by the occupant of the State Bedchamber with only close friends permitted to enter. These smaller rooms would have provided a cosy retreat to escape the biting cold of the larger rooms during the winter. Kings would have met with their key ministers and advisors in their own closets, also known as cabinet rooms, and is where the origin of the political word cabinet stems. The stepped chimneypiece was specifically designed to display ceramics. Oriental porcelain was the fashion from the late 17th century and the room displays some fine pieces of Delftware on loan from the Ashmolean and Victoria and Albert museums.
The fabulous Dining Room (below) was originally referred to as the Great Parlour during the mid 18th century and was the main dining room by the 19th century. Rather than hung with fabric, the walls are of panelled wood and although they are painted a pale green colour, the original decor would have been a stony white colour. Inspired by the colours found at Boughton in Northamptonshire, the National Trust chose the current scheme as an ideal colour to complement the gold framed portraits. The walls are ornately covered with portraits of members of the Kit Cat Club. Sharing a commitment to uphold the “Glorious Revolution” (Alton, 2011), Whig politicians founded the most distinguished and influential club of its day – the Kit Cat Club. Meeting regularly in a London tavern, the club took its name from the mutton pies that were served up by the owner of the tavern, Christopher Cat. The custom of presenting a portrait to the club’s secretary, the publisher Jacob Tonson, was introduced by the Duke of Somerset. Sir Godfrey Kneller was an artist and member of the Kit Cat Club and during the first two decades of the 18th century, he painted nearly 40 club portraits. Almost half of Kneller’s Kit Cat portraits are on display at Beningbrough with the remainder at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
‘Hence did th’Assembly’s Title first arise, And Kit Cat Wits sprung from Kit-Cats Pyes’ (The Kit-Cats, A Poem, anon 1708).
The Drawing Room (below) is next to the Dining Room and was originally two separate spaces – a bedroom and a withdrawing room that formed part of a state apartment. The dividing wall was likely to have been removed during the 1830’s when the fashion for ground floor bedrooms was superseded by a greater need for large reception rooms. The room features an exquisitely carved wooden frieze depicting shells, vases and palm fronds that is intricately detailed with the initials JMB which stand for John and Mary Bourchier, who the house was originally built for. The magnificent woodcarvings and panelling were moved around during 19th century alterations and again after 1917 when Lady Chesterfield had the woodwork stripped of paint to reveal the pine beneath. Thought to be original features and depicting members of the Bourchier family, some of the portraits in this room were actually bought by the Dawnays in the 1890’s (Alton, 2011).
Originally referred to as the Great Dining Room, the Saloon (below) would have been used for large parties, county balls, family celebrations and banquets. This grand room features gilded pilasters, decorative dentils and a coffered ceiling. Allowing space for celebrations, the Saloon was kept uncluttered with chairs pushed to the edges of the room. There are two 18th century mirrors in this room that come from Holme Lacy. To prevent deterioration, the mirrors were carefully cleaned and treated in 2009 as part of the ongoing conservation work by the National Trust. The elaborate Italianate decoration in the room is another example of William Thornton’s skilful wood craftsmanship and not, as it appears, moulded in plaster.
Enid Edith Wilson was a wealthy shipping heiress and became Lady Chesterfield following her marriage to Edwyn Francis Scudamore-Stanhope, 10th Earl of Chesterfield, in 1900. The Chesterfield’s furnished Beningbrough with lavish furniture and pictures from Holme Lacy, in Herefordshire, where they lived until 1909. They finally came to Beningbrough in 1917 and completely redecorated the house. Lord Chesterfield died in 1933 and making way for servicemen from nearby RAF Linton On Ouse, Lady Chesterfield temporarily moved to Home Farm in 1941. She returned after the war in 1947 and remained at Beningbrough until her death in 1957 aged 79. As there were not enough assets to cover the death duties, Beningbrough was offered to the Treasury and in June 1958, it was acquired by the National Trust. Lady Chesterfield transformed her closet into a luxurious modern bathroom (below) in the 1920’s. A very extravagant touch are the taps above the bath which can be shut away in their own cupboards to create a more finished look to the room.
On the top floor of the building are galleries (below) that combine the National Portrait Gallery’s 18th century collections with interactive technology. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the galleries are the result of collaboration between the National Trust and the National Portrait Gallery who have been in partnership at Beningbrough Hall since 1979. Hosting a vibrant programme of touring exhibitions and long term loans, this Baroque mansion is an appropriate historical setting to display the fine 18th century portraits. Launching a new initiative in 2006, the Gallery and the Trust refurbished and restored the rooms on this floor and opened the galleries to the public for the first time. Bringing the 18th century portraits and sculptures to life, the interactive galleries are home to Making Faces – 18th Century Style, Visiting Portraits, Portrait Explorer, Family Matters, Portraits Tell Stories, Getting the Picture and Turning Heads exhibitions. The touch-screen computers in the IT study room on this floor enable visitors to search the entire National Portrait Gallery Collection. The ‘Virtual Portrait’ computer in the Getting the Picture room lets you commission your own 18th century style portrait which can even be emailed home. The new very definitely meets the old on this floor!
Most of the trees in the parkland at Beningbrough were planted between 1830 and 1870. The Head Gardener at this time was Thomas Foster and he was responsible for over 300 acres of parkland as well as the gardens. The various owners at Beningbrough have all left their traces on the landscape surrounding the house. Lewis Payn Dawnay, who inherited Beningbrough in 1891, planted 11,000 trees, extended the lawn to the south and replanted the north avenue with broadleaved lime trees. The accomplished artist and watercolourist William Sawrey Gilpin was hired by the Dawnay family to advise on the landscaping of the parkland. His influence on many areas of the parkland was extensive and thankfully, his sketches and notes have survived at Beningbrough. Restoration of Beningbrough began in 1977 and the National Trust redesigned the two small formal gardens, the Walled Garden and continued to develop a range of new planting schemes. The gardens are overlooked by the Victorian Conservatory (below) and feature an Italian Border which was recently replanted to reflect John Bourchier’s Italian interests. The South Lawn was inspired by a sketch dating to 1720 by the 18th century printmaker and engraver Samuel Buck which shows how the gardens might have looked at the time.
The Stable Block (below) is now home to offices and a display area. Built in the 18th century for the Bourchier’s, and with 19th century additional wings built for the Dawnay’s, the stables are constructed of brick with stone dressing. The Stable Block main range features a central pediment with a sundial adorning the tympanum and a cast-iron mind vane above. The central three bays project forward and feature a round arched arcade with three windows above. The Latin inscription over the sundial had faded when the National Trust acquired Beningbrough and was only discovered in an old photograph. Having been repainted it reads TEMPUS EDAX which means time is voracious. The Stable Block is Grade II Listed.
The Walled Garden was restored by the National Trust in 1995 and included the recreation of the original paths and the planting of over 120 fruit trees. Among the varieties planted were those known to have grown in the York area during the early 19th century. One of the most famous varieties is the Ribston Pippin which was a Victorian favourite and first grown at Ribston Hall near Knaresborough. The beautiful parkland surrounding Beningbrough is a wonderful landscape and well worth exploring.
The primary status of architecture over the other fine arts is evident when 18th century Britain is compared to 16th century Italy. Seen as the consequence of a widespread improvement in taste and the awakening of a ‘national genius’, the progress in Britain was considered the result of “the study of what is elegant and beautiful, sensibility, discernment, and a correctness of eye… The genius of native artists has been called forth into new and laudible exertions” (Bryant, 1992).
Taken from Tract I by Christopher Wren:
“There are natural Causes of Beauty. Beauty is harmony of Objects, begetting Pleasure by the Eye. Natural beauty is from geometry, and geometrical figures are universally agreed ‘as to a Law of Nature’ to be the most beautiful.”
Beningbrough Hall is Grade I Listed.