A visit to Standen

The approach to Standen is something of a surprise. Though the house is so near the busy town of East Grinstead, a leafy, wooded lane cuts deeply through rocky banks, and the branches arch overhead to form a tunnel. The view opens out onto what looks like a village green - now known as ‘Goose Green’ - set round with ancient farm buildings which the architect Philip Webb preserved and integrated into his plans. The main house is laid out on three sides of a peaceful courtyard, reached through a gateway in the service wing, which links it to the fifteenth-century Hollybush farmhouse.

Standen was built as a country home for James Beale from 1892-94. He came from a Birmingham Unitarian family and was a prosperous, well-connected solicitor running the London office of his family’s firm, which specialised in railway work. James Beale dealt with the complex assembly of land in North London which allowed the Midland Railway to bring its main line through to a terminus at St Pancras.

One of Webb’s later country houses, Standen displays his reverence for local materials and styles in the handmade Wealden bricks and hung clay tiles, oak weather-boarding and creamy sandstone, quarried from the site. With its roofscape of varying levels and angles, and tall plain chimneys, the house nestles into the hillside, blending in with the landscape and commanding fine views over a gentle valley to the south. A row of linked, weather-boarded gable ends on the second floor creates a zig-zag rhythm against the wide expanse of tiled roof behind.

For me, it was a second visit, and the house enfolded me in its welcome, as ‘with a familiar friend. The cosy, wood-panelled porch opens into the ball, extended by nine feet in 1898 into a stone bay window to accommodate a piano for musical evenings. Here, the square-cased piano by C.R. Ashbee, other furniture by Webb, metalwork by W.A.S. Benson and ceramics by William Dc Morgan begin to re-create an Arts and Crafts environment for the visitor. The extensive collection owes much to Arthur and Helen Grogan who rescued the main part of the house by leasing and restoring it in the nineteen seventies, after Helen Beale bequeathed it to the National Trust

It is a light, airy house which fulfilled the family’s practical needs; its spaces and objects are functional as ‘well as decorative. Philip Webb was a founding member of Moths & Co., and continued as the firms design, consultant and patron. Set against the white-painted panelled walls, the rich colours of their textiles and hangings form a glowing contrast. Morris wallpapers were used quite sparingly in the principal ground-floor rooms, more extensively in the passages and first-floor bedrooms The warm brown and yellow ‘Bachelors Button still lines the main staircase and corridors leading off it, There are quieter patterns of green leaves and small pale flowers in the bedrooms, like Larkspur.

My own interest in Arts and Crafts metalwork was well met by the wide variety at Standen, including early electric light fittings by Webb and Benson, and a Benson oil lamp with fanned copper shade, known as ‘The Standen Lamp’. There are line example: of Ashbee and Benson silver tableware, Benson hotplates, kettles on spirit-stands and serving dishes in copper and brass combinations, an innovative and colourful touch in its time. Bensons ingenious table-lamp, which converts easily to a wall-light, is used in some of the bedrooms, its flower-like stem and shade echoing the floral motif of the textiles. His suite of fronded, wrought-iron holders for the opalescent glass shades by Powells of Whitefriars have hung in the halls and landings since 1894, and there are several different versions of his lead-weighted adjustable standard lamps. His fire-irons, candlesticks and bowls dress the main rooms. Arts and Crafts repoussť copper-work is well represented by the ornamental chargers, wall-lights and fire-surrounds in the dining room and the drawing room, made to Webb’s designs by John Pearson, senior metalworker at Ashbees Guild of Handicraft when it started in 1888. The furniture upstairs includes work by Ernest Gimson, bedroom suites for the principal guest rooms commissioned by the Beales from Collinson & Locke, and by contrast, Liberty furniture in Helen Beale’s bedroom.

Ruth Gofton, the curator, gave us a talk on Standen and the Beale family. She said that the presence of Helen Beale at Standen from the 1890s until 1972 meant that it had remained a family home for all the grandchildren. Miss Gofton pointed out many traces of the family still in the house. A pair of chairs in the hail, for instance, was a house-warming present in 1894. Margaret Beale and her daughters, who were excellent needlewomen, finished embroidering the ‘Vine’ hanging in the hall in the 1920s. As strict Unitarians, they believed that children should never have idle hands and there is a bead curtain in the morning room which they made, while being read to from Swiss Family Robinson and The Woodbegoods.

We were shown slides of some pasts of the house rarely open to the public, such as the two ‘Victorian gentlemen’s lavatories’ (which we later saw) and views of the garden with its original features, including a wind pump possibly used to re-cycle water. Interviews with former servants had recently revealed snippets of ‘below-stairs’ gossip. The children of the house, we learned, did not eat with their parents until they were fourteen years old. They used the back stairs with the servants except on special occasions, when they joined the adults for lunch. They would all process into the dining room where Mr Beale carved the roast expertly at the dresser, the head footman standing by to advise on portions. The women and children arranged flowers daily from the gardens in Powell’s glass vases, and then sat in the morning room, while the men read the newspapers in the billiard room. Helen Beale was a champion billiards player and had been allowed to join them in this all-male pastime. Maggie Beale had studied art at the Slade School and in Paris and enjoyed designing her own embroidered cushions and bed-covers and spinning her own yarn. There were tennis and croquet parties with all the prominent families in the area, hunting with beagles, golf and horse riding. The Beales holidayed in Japan and the Middle East and brought exotic mementoes back, as well as buying them in Liberty’s. They were a well-travelled family.

After the talk, we climbed up to see the views from the water tower, peering at the rafters in the roof space and noticing with what care Webb had crafted even the humblest of staircases, placing windows in unusual positions and creating interesting spaces and angles with the wooden supports. There was a small exhibition in one of the upstairs rooms, documenting Webb’s planning and building of Standen. A full and lively correspondence survives between him and the Beales, indicating their desire for a down-to-earth house, finished to time and within budget. Two anecdotes stand out in my memory: how in 1893, the architect had granted the seven year old Helen Beale’s request for him to build ‘a little room’ especially for her above the conservatory, and charged her sixpence; and the Beales’ gift to Webb on completion of the project, of a snuff box engraved: ‘When clients talk irritating nonsense I take a pinch of snuff.’

Later, exploring the gardens and woodland in the late Spring sunshine, the air was heavy with the scent of bluebells, cowslips and wild orchids. A truly memorable visit.

Avril Denton