Ham House, situated beside the River Thames in Ham, just to the south of Richmond, in the United Kingdom, is claimed by its present owners, the National Trust, to be "unique in Europe as the most complete survival of 17th century fashion and power".
It was built in 1610 for Sir Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshal to James I and in 1626 passed into the hands of William Murray who had been the "whipping boy" for the future Charles I. He took the punishment on behalf of the young prince, and formed a close bond with him, growing up to share his taste in art and architecture. Between 1637 and 1639, Murray remodelled the interior of Ham. He created the Great Staircase and the suite of sumptuous rooms on the first floor: the Great Dining Room (now the Hall Gallery), the North Drawing Room, and the Long Gallery with its adjoining picture closet. When the Civil War broke out in 1642, Murray naturally joined the Royalist cause, and was created the Earl of Dysart for his loyalty. He died in Edinburgh in 1655.
Ham passed to Murray's eldest daughter, the red-haired Elizabeth. Her father's titles were conferred upon her in 1655, after his death, when she became the Countess of Dysart.
She was described by contemporaries as beautiful, sharp-witted, ambitious and greedy. In 1648, she married Sir Lionel Tollemache, 3rd Baronet, of Helmingham Hall in Suffolk, a wealthy and cultivated squire. They had eleven children, of which five survived to adulthood.
Renowned as a political schemer, she is said to have belonged to the Sealed Knot, the secret organisation supporting the exiled King Charles II restoration. Even before Tollemache's death in 1669, Lady Dysart was rumoured to have formed an attachment to the ambitious John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale, Secretary of State for Scotland. Maitland was a former Scottish Covenanter who had changed sides in the Civil War and was central to the Cabal Ministry under Charles II.
Following their marriage in 1672, they extended and refurnished Ham as a palatial villa reflecting the Duke's status as one of the most powerful ministers of Charles II. The renovations were done by architects William Bruce and William Samwell. Much of this luxurious interior decoration survives today, along with rare textiles, furniture and paintings.
After the Duke's death in 1682, the Duchess had to curb her extravagance and was eventually reduced to pawning her favourite pictures and jewellery. Elizabeth died at Ham in 1698. Ham House and the Dysart title then passed to her eldest son from her first marriage: Lionel Tollemache, 3rd Earl of Dysart (1649–1727).
Lionel took little interest in the house but by contrast, the 3rd Earl's grandson and heir, another Lionel, the 4th Earl, carried out major structural repairs in the 1740s. He filled many of the rooms with new furniture and paintings.
Most notably, the Queen's Bedchamber, furnished by the Lauderdales for Charles' Queen, Catherine of Braganza, was converted into a first-floor drawing room. The mahogany chairs, gilt pier-glasses and tables, and tapestries after Watteau survive in situ.
The 5th Earl partially re-landscaped the garden and was succeeded in 1799 by his brother, Wilbraham Tollemache, 6th Earl of Dysart, who immediately made improvements inside and outside the house. The 6th Earl was a generous patron of Reynolds and Gainsborough. He created the striking Yellow Satin Bedroom, but most of his changes were antiquarian in spirit, enhancing Ham's 17th Century character.
The roof was renewed, electricity and heating installed, and much of the 17th Century furniture repaired. The 9th Earl died in 1935, when Ham passed to his second cousin, Sir Lyonel Tollemache. Sir Lyonel and his son, Cecil, gave Ham House to the National Trust in 1948. The House has frequently appeared on film, such as in the third episode of the 2007 BBC television adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (in which it played Cleveland), and in the films To Kill a King and Spice World.
The beautiful Stuart gardens include the famous Cherry Garden. It features lavender parterres flanked by two berceaux (vaulted trellises) of pleached hornbeam and a statue of Bacchus at its centre.
There are also eight grass plats; a south terrace border with clipped yew cones, hibiscus and pomegranate trees; a maze-like wilderness and a 17th-century Orangery.
The tea terrace is reputed to have the oldest Christ's thorn bush in the country. Walnut and chestnut trees in the outer courtyard act as roosts and nesting sites for a large flock of green parakeets. The formal listed avenues are formed by more than 250 trees.
The house has changed little in 300 years, and the same applies to its formal gardens, which feature the oldest Orangery in Britain, an icehouse and a dairy. The National Trust has a tea room for visitors.
The house is said to be haunted by the Duchess of Lauderdale and her dog, which a number of visitors claim to have seen running down the corridors (no dogs are allowed in the building).
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