Standing on the banks of the River Thames in Richmond-upon-Thames, Ham House is one of the grandest Stuart houses surviving in England.
Ham House was built in 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour, a courtier to James I. It has a glittering history, with links to King Charles I and King Charles II, and today is renowned for its collections of paintings, furniture, and textiles.
The house and gardens are now managed by the National Trust. Let’s take a look at the history and attraction of this great house to visitors today.
The history of Ham House and garden
While the original Ham House was completed in 1610, the interiors which can be seen today were created by William Murray, Earl of Dysart, who leased Ham House from King Charles I in 1626. Murray and the king were close childhood friends and he was given the lease as a gift. Between 1637-9 Murray set about an ambitious renovation programme, in which his daughter Elizabeth Murray later became involved.
Following the death of her first husband, Sir Lionel Tollemache, in 1672 Elizabeth married her second husband, John Maitland, the wealthy Duke of Lauderdale. He was close to the King and Ham House became a focus of decadent court life.
The couple were prominent members of the royal court and collected furniture from around the world to make the house one of the grand houses of that time period. The richly decorated interior features baroque ceiling murals by Antonio Verrio, damask wall hangings, and a fine carved and gilded staircase, along with one of the earliest libraries to be built in a country house in England. The main entrance to the house faces the River Thames and visitors often arrived by river, approaching through piers and entry gates to be greeted by a statue of a river god.
On Elizabeth’s death, Ham House became home to the Tollemache family through her first marriage for almost 300 years. It’s renowned for being one of England’s most haunted houses; strange footprints have been found and the Duchess is said to walk the corridors.
Since the 1740’s few changes had been made to the property; the house retains much of its original opulence, making it a rare surviving example of a grand 17th-century country house. The National Trust took over the management of this historic house in 1948.
The English Civil War
As the war broke out during Charles I’s reign in 1642, Murray fought for the Royalists against the Parliamentarians. When the Parliamentarians won the war and the king was beheaded, Cromwell became Lord Protector. While this put Royalist families in a difficult position, Elizabeth managed to keep Ham House during Charles II’s exile. A skillful diplomat, she managed to maintain good relations with Cromwell and the Parliamentary supporters. When Charles II was restored to power in 1660, she became Countess of Dysart and Ham House regained its status as a place of lavish entertaining.
Ham House today
Many of the extraordinary items on display are original to the house and have been there for over 400 years: they include historic textiles, paintings, and fine furniture collected from around the world. Visitors are welcomed into the great hall, with the original 1610 black and white marble floor and grand staircase with balustrade panels carved with trophies of arms. A carving of the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale depicted as Mars and Minerva sits proudly over the fireplace.
Above is the Round Galley which looks down on the hall and formed an entertaining space for the Lauderdales and their guests. The grandest rooms include The North Drawing Room and the Long Gallery on the first floor with its portraits of family members, and cabinets and tables dating from the 1670s. The Green Closet, the Queen’s apartments created for Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, is the UK’s only surviving complete 17th-century private closet. It contains intricate miniature paintings including Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature of Elizabeth I, along with Japanese cabinets, green silk wall hangings, and painted ceilings.
The marble dining room with its carved oak panelling, which hosted many grand dinners, can also be viewed, along with other dining rooms, the duke’s closet, the library closet, and the duchess’s bedchamber. Downstairs, you can see the beer cellar, the duchess’s bathroom, the kitchens, and the Bath Room, one of the earliest rooms built for bathing in England.
The lovely gardens
Ham House is surrounded by formal 17th-century gardens, among the few not to have been altered during the English landscape movement and which were restored in the 1970s. In spring, Ham House hosts a display of over 500,000 bulbs on sweeping lawns known as The Plats, including purple crocus, tulips, and blossom trees.
There’s also a Cherry Garden, made up of clipped box hedge compartments filled with lavender, watched over by a statue of Bacchus, the God of wine. Other features of the gardens include historic avenues of hornbeam, gravel terraces, floral marquetry parterres, and an orangery cafe. Visitors can also see the brick icehouse and a dairy.
The kitchen garden dates to the 1600s and today it’s very productive, working on organic lines and featuring fruit trees and vegetables. In the 17th-century, wilderness gardens were fashionable as places for walking and reflection, and today this woodland area is home to a variety of wildlife. There’s also a walled garden and the only remaining 17th-century Still House, where medicines and cosmetics for the house were made.
The extraordinary collection at Ham House comprises 5,186 items including many original furnishings and paintings, including a large collection of Dutch art. There’s also a series of miniatures, including works by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, along with books from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Visit Ham House
Ham House is internationally recognised as one of the most complete surviving examples of a grand 17th-century house in Europe. If you’re inspired to take a closer look at this historic house, its superb collection of treasures, and its lovely gardens, visit the National Trust website here for details of opening times, standard admission prices and travel information. It’s readily accessible from Richmond station and Kingston train station.