Knole has been described as a prodigy or calendar house in that it is claimed to have as many rooms as there are days in the year. However, given that the house has been substantially changed since Archbishop Bourchier lived in it and that even today no-one knows for sure quite how many rooms there are in the house this claim has yet to be verified. Truth to say there must be a prodigious quantity of rooms of which modern day visitors only see a part. One wing of the house for example is lived in by the latest generation of Sackville-Wests. The family added the name West when Knole descended through the female line in the 19th century, there being a dearth of male heirs. Elizabeth Sackville, having inherited the property on the death of her elder sister Mary, decided to add her husband’s name to her own rather than give her children her husband’s surname alone, thereby continuing the tradition of Sackvilles living at Knole. It was a pragmatic response but the irony was that later Sackville-Wests were obsessed with the idea that Knole should only be inherited through the male line. If that principle had been rigidly adhered to when Elizabeth and Mary were alive, the house would probably have passed out of the Sackville family altogether.
Although their quarters are separate from the state rooms open to the public, traces can still be glimpsed of the current generation of Sackvilles who live at Knole. Thus, I saw children’s bikes propped up against a wall within an enclosed private courtyard and a large transparent bag bearing the legend: XL ten pin bowling kit. Given that the pins and the bowling ball were made of plastic, methinks I might have acquitted myself with more glory using them than I was able to achieve with the far weightier lignum vitae balls at the Old Naval College skittles alley.
Returning to my mind’s eye tour of the house, I forgot to mention that alongside Lady Betty’s blue and white china, there was another cabinet in the Venetian Ambassador’s dressing room displaying examples of late 18th century Sèvres and also Vincennes porcelain. Although doubtless prohibitively expensive, I find such china distinctly unappealing, which is probably why I forgot all about it.
I found the ballroom, which had once served as the private dining room of the 17th century owners of the house, oppressive. The great black, white and grey marble and alabaster fireplace reminded me of one side of a Jacobean or Elizabethan tomb. Coincidentally, according to the guidebook, the master mason who worked on this room also built Mary Queen’s of Scots tomb in Westminster Abbey. The frieze of mermaids, sea creatures and grotesques seemed vaguely sinister unlike the enchanting mermaids in Sir Adam Newton’s chimney piece at Charlton House. Counterbalancing the gloomy atmosphere was the charming 17th century van Dyck portrait of the young Frances Cranfield, dressed in black silk, softened with luminous pearls and roses. Much of the gilt furniture in the ballroom was of a far later date to the original decorative scheme. When I later glanced through the guidebook, it explained that the Jacobean room would have been empty of much of the later acquisitions, the idea being that it needed only a few portraits and pieces of furniture to display the interior to its best advantage. Perhaps it was, to my mind, the disharmonious effect of all the clutter that made the ballroom seem oppressive despite its great size.
The second painted staircase, barred to the general public, leads to the attics and to the family quarters on the lower floor. It was also where I saw the plastic ten pin bowling kit. Again, I found the staircase, covered with monochrome motifs of war, less off putting than the frescos covering the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College.
The early 18th century red stamped velvet walls of the Reynolds Room were devoid of pictures as the room itself was undergoing conservation. I found its emptiness somewhat refreshing after the intensity of the ballroom. I now think that the piles of paintings stacked up in the ballroom probably came from here.
In the Cartoon Gallery the bay windows are decorated with grotesques of monkeys, flowers, fruit and caryatids. Unlike at Charlton House, these carvings boast their original polychromatic scheme. For me though, the main point of interest about this room was the copies of Raphael Cartoons. The original cartoons had been painted by the artist as a template for the tapestries to be woven from their design. These tapestries in turn were destined to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. The Cartoons at Knole are from the same sequence of paintings that I saw on the walls of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, themselves copies of Raphael’s originals. I am not sure whether the Knole Cartoons would have held my attention were it not for the fact I had only recently seen similar versions in Greenwich.
Leading off from the Cartoon Gallery is the King’s Closet. The walls of this closet, which would once have served as a dressing room, are still lined with 17th century wallpaper. Having seen a similar one on display at Hampton Court Palace, I immediately identified the red velvet covered 17th century thunder-box by the door. It seems the royal posteriors of either King Charles II or his brother, King James II were wont to make use of the chamber pot concealed under the lid.
A short flight of stairs leads from the King’s Closet up to the King’s Room. Unlike the Spangle Bedchamber, this bedroom still sparkles with gold and silver. Encased in glass, the blinds shut fast against sunlight and hermetically sealed, this room contains another bed that had belonged to James II before he was forced into exile. This time both gold and silver thread was used in the bed-hangings. The dressing table itself and the mirrors are made of silver as are the toilette set, salver, candle stands and wall sconces. The Stuarts certainly loved their bling.
After such a display of unparalleled luxury, I returned to the Cartoon Gallery and descended down the steep Lead Staircase and out into the sunlit and comparative austerity of the Stone Court, where I was able to gratefully sit upon a bench for a while. Having rested, I promptly went through the house a second time. It is always my habit, where feasible, to try and make two trips around a stately home on the same day. My first perambulation is to get a general impression of the place and my second to fill in the detail. I finally left just as the House was closing for the day. Fortunately there was still time for me to return to the visitors’ centre and watch a short introductory film about Knole and its various inhabitants. I then popped into the shop and bought a number of items which might end up as Christmas presents.
Knole is a fascinating house to visit but I would not want to live there. It is far too big, even I suspect in the private family quarters. I much prefer Ightham Mote. I could well imagine arriving at the latter with just a holdall of clothes and spending a delightful weekend there with friends, having first pulled down the portcullis gate to keep riff raff out. As for décor, in my mind Charlton House equally wins hands over fist, but then it is empty of the ornate 17th century furnishings that fills Knole and which is not to my tastes. In addition, Charlton House seems light and airy, mainly because it does not have delicate furnishing, tapestries and paintings to protect from the harmful effects of sunlight.