Back where it belongs..
It has been satisfying to see experts from various fields converge on Bishops’ House and during the last decade there have been real advancements in our understanding of the history of the ‘Old Hall at Norton Lees’ (as the building was once known) and its occupants.
Archaeologist Ken Dash laid down the groundwork, for years painstakingly surveying the building and researching its history. Ken also instigated a dendro dating study, which raised more questions than it answered! We had the surprise finding that the more ornate cross wing (1554) predated the range by some 26 years. The realisation that the range was probably rebuilt has naturally led to no end of musings about what it must have originally looked like and when it might have been built. The dates also strongly indicate that Bishops’ House was almost certainly a Victorian misnomer.
Recently we have been lucky to have Dr David Bostwick join our ranks. Dr Bostwick was former keeper of the Social History collection at Sheffield Museums and in the 1980s was actually based at Bishops’ House, where he established the fine collection of 17th century regional furniture which can still be viewed in the house today.
I first met Dr Bostwick four years whilst I was volunteering at the House. He was making notes whilst carefully studying the configuration of the parlour. I had to ask what he was doing and he explained how he was revisiting the subject of his PhD thesis, on the work of the Norton plasterers who helped decorate many fine buildings in the area. Little did I know at the time just how many discoveries about Bishops’ House and the Blythe family he was going to make.
The award for the most exciting discovery must however go to David Bostwick’s fellow researcher, Andrew Bower. The first hint I had of this was in an intriguing email from David explaining who Andrew was (vernacular buildings enthusiast and ex-English Heritage listings officer) and that Andrew would like to meet as he had come across something which “may be of interest”.
This was in the depths of the first Covid lockdown. We had been poised to celebrate our tenth anniversary of opening Bishops’ House when covid forced us to close our doors. It felt an unusual time to be meeting anyone, when Ken and I turned up outside the House, bemasked, to be introduced to Andrew. David for his part had driven for an hour to meet us, so it seemed that we were going to be told about something at least quite interesting.
As the details of Andrew’s discovery were revealed, my jaw dropped. The discovery concerned a lost carved oak chimneypiece. I knew about this chimneypiece because, like many others, I had seen a photograph that featured in an advert for an auction that took place in 1922.
The advert showed a detailed photograph of the beautiful chimneypiece, (or overmantel, as the advert would have it) noting that it was from the estate of a recently deceased collector and that it was ‘.. removed from the Bishop’s House’. Initials and a date, clearly visible on the photograph of the chimneypiece, confirm that it was first installed at the House by Captain William Blythe III in 1655.
It remains a mystery how this beautiful fireplace could ever have been removed from Bishops’ House, and it was not only the chimneypiece. Sketches in Victorian local newspapers showed the parlour before it was gutted, with walls of ornate panelling and the chimneypiece all intact in a sketch dated 1874. A similar sketch dated 1890 shows the parlour left bare.
I and many others have spent hours on the internet hunting for clues as to the whereabouts of the chimneypiece. Others have contacted the auctioneers, who are still in business, only to gather that the auction records were destroyed in the blitz. All of us had given up the hunt years ago. So you can imagine my astonishment, to learn not only that Andrew had found where the chimneypiece had been taken to a hundred years ago, but to be shown a photograph of the chimneypiece, in situ at someone’s home and looking superb.
The chimneypiece was the work of craftsmen who lived in the area not far from Bishops’ House, in Greenhill, Norton (once part of Derbyshire, now in Sheffield). The Rose family of joiners would go on to specialise in the plasterwork David was studying, making use of the same pattern books. David had also see the advert with the photograph of the chimneypiece, long before the rest of us in 1980! As he resumed his studies he put out a call for help in 2018 to the Attingham society, believing the chimneypiece had quite likely found its way to an American collector. There was no response. No response that is, until Andrew Bower made contact with David about the fireplace. He had seen David‘s call for help online, and he had just discovered the missing link that enabled him to track the chimneypiece down, to the South of England, where it had been sitting peacefully for almost 100 years.
My immediate response to learning of the existence and location of Captain Blythe’s Chimneypiece (or WB1655 as we first called it!) was simply ‘we have to get it back!’. This was quickly followed by the realisation that, of course, the chances of a person owning this beautiful thing and relinquishing it were uncertain to say the least.
This whole story is full of so many lucky coincidences that it really does feel as if the stars aligned for us. Having discovered the location of chimneypiece, Andrew had been unable to make contact with the owners. I scoured planning records and took a stab in the dark, approaching a friend who might have known the architects who had been working on the property. It was a remote possibility, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. My friend hit gold and within a couple of days, the owner of the chimneypiece emailed me. Over the course of a few emails, I tentatively raised the question of a possible purchase. It felt like I had won the lottery to be told that they agreed it should never have been removed and that they would consider selling it.
When the owner had finally consulted with their family and valuations had been obtained, we were told that we could buy the chimneypiece for half of its valuation. The owners, who wish to remain anonymous, have been extremely generous. Their proceeds were donated to other charities, and so this became a costly episode for them given that WB1655 would need to be replaced.
In order to pay for the chimneypiece, we needed to use funds saved up for another exciting project that we had lined up for our tenth anniversary celebrations. We will soon be announcing that project and hopefully donors will help us to recoup the outlay. As with all things related to Bishops’ House, I’m feeling optimistic.
In December of 2020, just before Christmas, Andrew Bower and an old furniture restorer colleague of his, Chris Wells, hired a van and set off ‘down south’. A day later, as the sun was going down, they returned to Sheffield with Captain William Blythe III’s chimneypiece. I will never forget the sight of it being removed from the van and the euphoric experience of helping haul it into Bishops’ House. A few days before Christmas, Andrew and Chris reinstalled it, back to its rightful place in the corner of the parlour it had occupied between 1655 and c.1875. There it rested for months as the House remained closed, a secret in plain view to anyone who pressed up against the little diamond segments of the parlour window.
Nick Roscoe April 2022