East Grinstead, Sussex: Standen House

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Another week, another Philip Webb designed Arts and Crafts house.  This was mainly coincidental…I wanted to go somewhere that was decorated for Christmas that we hadn’t been to before (read, NOT Polesden Lacey), and this was the nearest property to us that sounded appealing (especially because Waddesdon Manor was completely booked up for the entire Christmas season, despite this only being the last weekend in November, and my looking it up just a few weeks before, when there was no mention of their Christmas events on the terrible new National Trust website (seriously, you can’t even search for properties near your location anymore.  It’s the worst.  I hope they fired whoever designed it)).  Also, I really like Philip Webb after admiring his awesome chicken/rooster windows at Red House, so I confess I was hoping to see more of his animal art.

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Anyway, Standen House is a typically overpriced National Trust property that you shouldn’t bother visiting without membership (11.50, yikes!).  It was built for the Beale family (yeah, I have no idea who they are either), and every Christmas they do up the rooms with decorations corresponding to each decade the family lived in the house (1890s-1970s, though that obviously involved multiple generations).  This year, they also had a Zandra Rhodes (weirdo fashion designer) tree outside the house, and this was the ugliest tree I have ever seen.  It’s that bright pink monstrosity in the picture above.  Did anyone else read the Amelia Bedelia books when you were a kid?  The premise is basically that she’s a really stupid maid with no apparent grasp on reality, and every time the family she works for directs her to do something, she completely screws it up, but they continue to employ her because she makes a killer spice cake (blergh).  Anyway, the reason I’m bringing up Amelia Bedelia is because in the Christmas book, they tell her to decorate a Christmas tree and put a star on the top, and because she apparently doesn’t know what a star is, she instead hangs a mirror on the top with a little sign saying, “See the Star,” so everyone can be a star.  I have to wonder if Zandra Rhodes is an Amelia Bedelia fan, because this tree had hundreds of little mirrors dangling from the branches.  In addition to all the day-glo orange and pink tinsel.

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But enough about that bizarre tree that had no apparent connection to the rest of the house, which was all Arts and Craftsy fabulousness.  Because Philip Webb and William Morris were thick as thieves, most of the interior decoration came straight from Morris & Co.  Except, I would think, that charming rocking horse named “Dobbin,” shown above (he was no match for my beloved childhood rocking horse, Buckles, but still seemed like a perfectly nice horse).

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So yeah, there were a lot of Morris carpets, tapestries, and of course, wallpapers, including a repeating theme of Trellis in every hallway in the house.  I love Trellis, so I was completely cool with this.

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The Christmas decorations were quite nice too, for all that some of them bordered on the creepy, like those dolls underneath the tree (I overheard one of the volunteers admitting how scary that baby doll is).  They also had a board in each room explaining how Christmas differed in that particular decade compared to the decades that preceded it.

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The house was fairly sizable, even considering that there were a couple floors we weren’t allowed to see, and the room guides were reasonably extensive; for once, no one else seemed to be looking at them, so I didn’t have to impatiently wait whilst some jerk took their time flipping through every page.

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Of course, this being the National Trust, they had to cover a couple rooms in sheets so they could blab on about how much work conservation is (in what I always imagine is a ploy to get people to donate money, like admission isn’t enough as it is).  I guess I should cut them a break at Christmas time, but meh, I’m a scrooge.

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In addition to being partial to Philip Webb’s animals, I also love William de Morgan’s animal tiles, especially the dodo, which they had on display in one of the rooms in a cabinet of his own design.  The side of it was meant to look like a dragon, with a row of triangles representing a row of teeth (see if you can spot it in the picture above; the two sticky up bits are meant to be his eye and a curly bit on the top of his nose).

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William Morris and his cronies sure did like to stick together, so of course Edward Burne-Jones featured here too.  He not only did a few tapestries, and a whole room full of sketches (though those were probably added after the family moved out), he also painted an excellent desk showing St Agnes (I think?) taking her dragon for a walk, you know, as you do.

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Back on the subject of creepy Christmas decorations…we spied the creepiest thing of all resting on one of the beds upstairs.  It was a Santa costume, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it didn’t come with that terrifying mask (is the fact that most British people now refer to him as Santa rather than Father Christmas a sign of increasing Americanisation?).  A volunteer informed us that the house patriarch used to dress up in it every year to scare shitless delight his children, and one of his daughters carried on the tradition after he died (though I honestly think it would have been less scary to just stick the Santa cape, sans mask, on his corpse).

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After leaving the house proper, we encountered a smaller museum room telling the story of the servants who lived in the house (who apparently fared quite well thanks to the Beale’s progressive values, with “airy” attic bedrooms and a special servants’ hall for dining and entertainment purposes), including a butler who was relieved of his duties thanks to an incident involving the master’s whiskey.  And there was a tree where you could write down your Christmas traditions on a card, and tie it to the branches.  There was a working kitchen too, where you can sample some traditional fare on weekends; unfortunately, they gave away the last of the mulled cider to the people just ahead of us, but I did get to try a slightly dry piece of lemon drizzle cake (I think it needed more drizzle, though some cider to wet my throat would have helped too).

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It was very cold the day we visited, but we did explore the gardens a bit.  Philip Webb had created a cool rock garden thing in the back of the house, and there was a nice bench outside the conservatory (nice and cold, that is.  I probably risked piles by sitting on it).  The whole thing was arranged on a number of different levels, and we definitely didn’t have a chance to see it all, because we were muddy and freezing our asses off.

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We did stop to admire the chickens, however, since I quite like them (they were named after Beale women who lived in the house).  There was a small vegetable garden, and apparently an orchard, as there were some wormy old apples available for the taking, with donation (I somehow managed to resist.  I also resisted the gluten-free millionaire’s shortbread in the cafe, because why would you make something that is mostly flour gluten-free, and not have a normal version available as well?!).  All in all, it wasn’t a bad little property (though not worth the admission charge) for members to visit, and I did enjoy all the William Morris interiors, as well as the Christmas decorations, for all that I felt there could have been more of them (maybe more lights outside?).  3/5.

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  1. I’m with you on the creepy doll thing. When I was a kid, I had a small collection of old porcelain dolls (the kind with the little teeth) and I loved them – until I had a very realistic dream about them ‘waking up.’ That was it. I got my mom to put them away and haven’t felt quite the same about them since. And that Santa suit? That’d have turned me off Christmas for good.

    1. Yeah, those porcelain dolls are creepy for sure. I recently went to a Catholic museum with my mother, despite my heathenish ways (it’s a long story, that may or may not make it onto the blog, depending on how mean I’m feeling), and they had this room absolutely crammed full of nun dolls that was the scariest thing I’ve seen in a while.

      1. Ack! Nun dolls?! Why would they create such a thing? You definitely have my ear if you feel like telling the tale.

  2. I actually like santa costume – although I am not sure about the mask! I have fond memories of various relatives dressed as Santa handing out gifts at family gatherings on Christmas day.

    1. The robe by itself seems perfectly nice, but I don’t know why he couldn’t have just thrown on a fake beard instead of that terrifying mask! Though I have to admit I was never a Santa fan; there are numerous pictures of me as a child screaming my head off on his lap, at least until my mother stopped taking me to visit him! 🙂

  3. When I visited Standen a good few years ago, being an engineer with some electrical engineering training, I was intrigued to see that the house was one of the first to get an electricity supply, and it contained many of the original light fittings. But the most interesting thing about that was the electrical distribution board, which also looked to be an original Edwardian item. It still had the name of the installation engineers on it. They were a local company, whose telephone number was East Grinstead 6. Obviously a very modern, go-ahead Edwardian enterprise to be only the sixth establishment in the area to have a phone. I wounder if it brought more business their way? Namely, from the five other telephone users in the area!

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