In the depths of lockdown last year, I received an email from Dr David Bostwick, a respected cultural historian with connections to Bishops’ House going back a long way. He mentioned a friend of his who would like to meet to discuss something that would be ‘of interest’. David brought his friend, buildings researcher Andrew Bower, along a few days later and there began such a brilliant experience. It depends on what makes you tick, of course, but for the many, many people who visit Bishops’ House and are won over by its appeal, architecturally, historically, indescribably – this is such a great story.
In approximately 1878, for reasons that we still don’t fully understand, a rare and beautiful carved oak chimneypiece was removed from the parlour at Bishops’ House, along with the panelling for that room. Many of us have been aware of this and have trawled the internet trying to trace where these items went. Some of us have seen a sketch featured in the 1885 Sheffield and Rotherham Advertiser, by Topham, which hints at how impressive this room had once been. By 1889 another sketch showed the walls of the room bare, much as we know it today.
We knew that initially they went into the collection of a Sheffield doctor, Dr Morton, who loved oak furniture and was so taken by the chimneypiece and panelling that he built a special room to house them in. However in 1921 Dr Morton died, and his collection was auctioned off, at Eadon and Lockwood. An advert for the auction featured in the Connoisseur, an antique collector’s magazine, in 1922, and old copies of this magazine gave us the best image we have had of the chimneypiece. (Incidentally, if anyone has a copy of the auction catalogue from Eadon and Lockwood with the chimneypiece in it, *please* get in touch, we would love to see it!)
Since then, for almost 100 years, the chimneypiece, installed at Bishops’ House in 1655 by Captain William Blythe to coincide with the marriage of his daughter, Constance, has been lost without trace. The auctioneer’s records were destroyed in the Blitz and that was the dead end to a trail that a few researchers have followed.
The fine carvings are the work of craftsmen who lived in the area not far from Bishops’ House, in Greenhill, Norton (once part of Derbyshire, now in Sheffield). David Bostwick has been researching these highly skilled craftsmen, who worked in plaster and in carvings, for many years. They were the subject of his PhD thesis, and he had first seen the connoisseur magazine advert in 1980, whilst working for Sheffield Museums (which often included work overseeing exhibitions at Bishops’ House). Almost forty years later, in 2018, Dr Bostwick put out a call for help in tracking down the chimneypiece to the Attingham Society, believing the chimneypiece to have probably ended up in America. There was no response. No response that is, until his fellow researcher, Andrew Bower (ex. English Heritage buildings inspector and vernacular buildings expert – who lives much closer in the Peak District!) made contact with David about the fireplace. He had seen David Bostwick’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.
You can imagine me sitting with these two men being brought up to date with this story and realising, with astonishment, that Andrew had actually found Captain Blythe’s chimneypiece. Immediately my first thought was, of course, “we need to get it back!”. And then the reality sunk in: anyone in possession of this beautiful item was not necessarily (at all) going to let it go. Andrew had not managed to make contact with the owner but through planning records and the invaluable help of a friend I soon received a reply from the owner (who wishes to remain anonymous). We were asked to get a valuation and told that they would consider selling it. Words can’t describe the joy upon realising that the owner was willing to consider selling the chimneypiece to us, even more so when they confirmed they would sell it! In the end they were very generous and let us buy the chimneypiece for half of its valuation (donating these proceeeds to local charities). Essentially this has cost these kind people dearly, as they would then have been left looking for a new centrepiece for their room. We really are very grateful and feel so lucky that the owners were so sympathetic to our cause. This has made an impact on our finances, but we could afford to buy it as we had been saving, for years, for another project (still under wraps, but it will be announced soon!). We had to take the opportunity and not delay – it still seems unbelievable that the opportunity arose..
In the end Andrew Bower was even able to go and collect the chimneypiece and help restore it to its original location in the parlour, with the help of an old work colleague who is a furniture restorer. The sight of the chimneypiece being carried out of a van and into Bishops’ House is one I will never forget!
Here it is below – reunited with Bishops’ House and back where it belongs. Now that we have re-opened following the lockdowns please do come and visit it to see it for yourself.