Croome Court

“Welcome to my office,” said Joe as he led the Friends of Lydiard Park group from the visitor’s centre along a winding pathway which opened up on to this breath-taking view.

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Croome Court has been a work in progress for more than 260 years as restoration continues today. The 6th Earl of Coventry’s £400,000 (worth £35 million in today’s money) project began in 1751 with the building of a Palladian mansion and a landscaped parkland and work continued throughout the 18th centuries. Croome Court was sold in 1948 following the death of the 10th Earl at Dunkirk in 1940.

The National Trust acquired 670 acres of the Park in 1996 and in 2007 the Croome Heritage Trust bought Croome Court and leased it to the National Trust on a 999 year lease. The house opened to the public on September 26, 2009.

The 6th Earl of Coventry inherited Croome Court in 1751 when he was 28 years old, but he already had a vision for his family home. He engaged Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who designed first the house and then the grounds) and Robert Adam neoclassical architect, interior and furniture designer, to fulfil his ambitions.

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At my first glimpse of Joe’s ‘office’ I could see many similarities to Lydiard House. Admittedly on a larger scale, well yes a MUCH larger scale, but then John St John probably didn’t have £400,000 at his disposal.

Joe walked us past the Georgian Gothic church, built when the 6th Earl demolished the medieval church which stood too close to the house, pointing out the world’s most impressive greenhouse in the distance and up to the stairs on the north front where we met volunteer guide Rosie who gave us a most fascinating and comprehensive tour of the house.

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Most exciting for me was visiting the apartments occupied by the 6th Earl’s 2nd wife Barbara St John.  Barbara was the fourth daughter of John St John, Baron St John of Bletsoe and his wife Elizabeth Crowley.

Barbara was no slouch in the beauty stakes as is evident from her portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds around the time of her marriage.  Today the portrait is part of the Faringdon Collection and is on display at Buscot Park.

The Earl’s second marriage was much more successful than his first to the actress and society beauty, the stunning Maria Gunning. The teenage Maria and her sister Elizabeth were presented at Court to George II in December 1750 and in little over a year they were both married.  Elizabeth to the 6th Duke of Hamilton and on March 5, 1752 19-year-old Maria married George William 6th Earl of Coventry.

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In his second wife Barbara the 6th Earl found a soulmate, a meeting of like minds.  She was interested in birds and animals and George created a menagerie and a model dairy and farm for her.  Boating parties took place on the lake with firework displays to entertain their guests.

Barbara’s rooms at Croome Court were among those re-decorated by one of the more recent owners of the property who gave her elegant bedroom a bathroom makeover. Quite what happens to this room is still up for debate as the National Trust occupancy is still relatively recent and there is an awful lot of work still to do.

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So what were the best bits of my day – well, I loved standing in Barbara St John’s rooms, and the attic rooms, oh and the Church where I discovered the grave of William Dean (more of that to follow) but I didn’t have time to explore the parkland with its numerous follies or visit all the rooms in the house, or the walled garden not to mention the RAF Defford Museum where radar was developed.

 

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Croome Court most definitely requires a second visit…

Barbara St John – Countess of Coventry

Maria Gunning must have been a tough act for Barbara St. John to follow.

The five famous Gunning sisters were born in Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire, the daughters of genteel but impoverished Irish parents.  When the going got even tougher the family temporarily returned to Ireland but Mrs G had aspirations for her daughters, especially the devastatingly lovely Elizabeth and Maria.  Following the girls headlining debut at Viscountess Petersham’s ball held at Dublin Castle in 1748 the family returned to England.  Elizabeth and Maria launched a brief career on the London stage, the first step to getting noticed in Georgian high society.  Their arrival created something little short of a phenomenon and every appearance they made saw crowds of swooning men and women in attendance.

The teenage sisters were presented at Court to George II in December 1750 and in little over a year they were both married.  Elizabeth to the 6th Duke of Hamilton and on March 5, 1752 19 year old Maria married George William 6th Earl of Coventry.

The marriage was not a particularly happy one; Maria was described as beautiful but rather silly, just how Frederick St John liked his women. Yes, Maria had dallied with the disreputable Frederick, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke.

Maria and George had a son George William who became the 7th Earl and three daughters, Elizabeth Anne, Mary Alicia and Anne Margaret raised at the new family home Croome Court, a Palladian mansion in Worcestershire designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Sadly it was Maria’s preoccupation with her looks and her love of dangerous lead and arsenic based Georgian make up that eventually killed her in 1760.  Ten thousand people reportedly turned out to watch her funeral at St Mary Magdalene Church, Croome d’Abitot.

Four years later George was ready to take a second wife and married Barbara St John in September 1764.  Barbara was the fourth daughter of John St John, Baron St John of Bletsoe and his wife Elizabeth Crowley.

Barbara was no slouch in the beauty stakes herself as is evident from her portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds around the time of her marriage.  Today the portrait is part of the Faringdon Collection and is on display at Buscot Park.

Other artists were keen to catch a likeness of the second Countess of Coventry and produced mezzotints in the style of Sir Joshua.

The Earl’s second marriage was much more successful and in Barbara he found a soulmate, a meeting of like minds.  She was interested in birds and animals and George created a menagerie and a model dairy and farm for her.  Boating parties took place on the lake with firework displays to entertain their guests.

Two sons survived to adulthood, the Hon John Coventry and the Hon Thomas William Coventry.

Barbara died in 1804 and George five years later in 1809.