Arbury Hall is a hidden gem in Nuneaton
Apr 23 2010 By Chris Upton
Chris Upton reveals the secrets within the walls of one of the Midlands’ finest stately homes
The room looked less like a place to dine than a piece of space enclosed simply for the sake of the beautiful outline; and the small dining-table, with the party around it, seemed an odd and insignificant accident, rather than anything with the original purpose of the apartment.
So wrote the novelist, George Eliot, of Cheverel Manor in Mr Gilfil’s Love Story, first published in 1857. It was a room like a cathedral, so beautiful that no use could possibly do justice to it.
George Eliot knew personally of a room such as this, and must have peeped into it as a child, when her father was an estate manager in Warwickshire. In those far-off days – 30 years before Scenes from Clerical Life – George Eliot went by her real name of Mary Anne Evans, and her father – Robert Evans was the estate manager, not of Cheverel Manor (which did not exist) but of Arbury.
Arbury Hall is one of the least-known, but best-preserved of all the Midlands’ great houses. It keeps itself to itself, in that it is still a family home and opens its doors to the public only on four weekends a year. But on those days – the four bank holiday weekends between Easter and August – a great secret is revealed.
Let’s begin with George Eliot’s dining room. Now, I’m not prone to gasps of amazement when I visit stately homes. More often than not, I trudge morosely round in search of the tea-room. Georgian furniture makes me think of Victoria sponge.
But on entering the dining room at Arbury, there was an involuntary intake of breath. Had I stumbled unexpectedly into the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral? Could my sense of direction be this bad? It is the ceiling that makes one gasp, an explosion of white fan-vaulting. George Eliot elsewhere described it as looking like “petrified lace”.
Whoever the architect was – and we do not have an answer to that – he had studied long in the gothic churches, and perhaps visited the shrine of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey. Here, in size and style and proportion, was Arbury’s inspiration.
Even more lace-like is the saloon, with its extraordinary bay window of intricately-patterned vaulting. The light flooding in from the garden emphasizes the etherial exuberance of the ceiling. Indeed, this might be the room that George Eliot remembered more vividly.
The man responsible for the look of Arbury was not some medieval mason, but a landed gent of 18th-century Warwickshire, with an evident taste for the Gothick. The Newdigates came into possession of Arbury as the result of a 18th-century version of a house swap with a lawyer who needed to live nearer to London. They left their Middlesex home and took over Arbury in 1586.