Or, the art of British country house interiors

April 21, 2013

Levens Hall

Levens Hall is located on the edge of the Lake District, in Cumbria. The estate is best known for its beautiful topiary gardens developed in the late 17th/early 18th century, but the large Elizabethan house is also of considerable note. Levens Hall dates back to the 14th century, but was refurbished in the late 16th century, resulting in the house we see today [1]. Many of its room can be seen in the BBC miniseries Wives and Daughters as Hamley Hall.

Levens Hall's interiors feature original oak panelling from the Elizabethan period throughout the house, on which many paintings are displayed. Its art collection includes works by Rubens and Lely, as well as many family portraits [2]. There is no one main painting gallery at Levens Hall, so their collection of portraits can be seen in many various rooms of the house including a bedroom and the drawing room.

The bedrooms at Levens Hall are on the second level, accessed by a long oak staircase. While its 18th century furniture and Portuguese four-poster bed are well-renowned, the female portraits on either side of the bed are also quite lovely [3]. These portraits can be understood as being displayed expressly for the owners of the house; bedrooms were like a sanctuary in a country house, completely away from the prying eyes of guests and tourists. Thus, an appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of the works, along with a pride in the ancestral legacy connected to individuals in the portraits both factor into the interior decoration of this private sphere.

 Wives and Daughters- bedroom

Featured prominently on the wall of the drawing room is the portrait by Sir Peter Lely of Colonel James Grahme, who purchased Levens Hall in 1689 [4]. This Grand Manner portrait displays the fashionable elegance of Colonel Grahme, in his full-length wig and ruffled, expensive robe. It is no wonder that this work decorates the drawing room, which would have been a place of much socializing and entertaining of visitors. Also, as Levens Hall passed from family to family, the display of this portrait exhibits the current owner's celebration of the house's grand history.

Wives and Daughters- drawing room

While being filmed for Wives and Daughters, Levens Hall's drawing room featured a male and a female portrait to the left and right of the fireplace. However, in more recent photographs of the room, a woman in a grand hat is to the left and some sort of historic scene is to the right; this speaks to the fluidity of country house art collections. Hardly ever static, works were sold, acquired, and moved with some frequency [5]. Likely, the owners decided to rotate the artwork in their drawing room after Wives and Daughters was filmed in 1999. Or perhaps those in charge of set design for the miniseries requested slightly smaller and less ornate works in the drawing room to match the somber tone of Hamley Hall.

 Wives and Daughters- drawing room

This portrait of Roger and Osborne Hamley decorated an upstairs hallway of Levens Hall during the filming of Wives and Daughters. I wish there was more information available about this work created for the miniseries. It looks artistically and historically accurate to me, if a little traditional. The portrait would have been painted in the early 19th century; I would have perhaps expected brighter tones and visible hands in this 3/4 length double portrait. Also, usually such a fine work depicting the heirs to the country house would have been displayed in the great hall or drawing room, instead of the more private area of the upstairs hall. This portrait functions in the plot of Wives and Daughters similarly to portraits in From Time to Time, filmed at Athelhampton House; the main character, Molly Gibson, sees the work before she meets the individuals represented. She, and the audience, form an opinion about the two brothers based on their portrait, and then must reevaluate that opinion upon their introduction.

Wives and Daughters- portrait of Roger and Osborne Hamley

Bill Paterson, who played Mr. Gibson, enjoyed making Wives and Daughters as it allowed him to delve into another period in history. Of experiencing Levens Hall, he said, "When I go into [Levens Hall], I imagine what it must have smelt like with all that ripe cheese, powerful drink and overflowing drains - it must have been an onslaught for the senses and a fantastically rich experience. We don't get that so much anymore, so this is a wonderful opportunity to step into that life - without actually having to live it and risk catching all those diseases like cholera and small pox that finished people off by the age of 25. We have the best of both worlds - the fantasy of living then, and the comfort of coming back to a cozy modern caravan and a hot lunch" [6]. This true of many country houses, I believe; you can experience the history of a wonderful house, such as Levens Hall, and then return to contemporary life with a newly acquired appreciation for the past and the present.


[1] The National Heritage List for England. “Levens Hall.” Accessed April 21, 2013. http://list.english-
[2] The DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses. “Levens Hall.” Accessed April 21, 2013. 
[3] Levens Hall. “Bedrooms.” Accessed April 21, 2013. www.levenshall.co.uk/the-house/about-the-house-and-
[4] Levens Hall. “History.” Accessed April 21, 2013. www.levenshall.co.uk/the-house/history.html.
[5] Hearn, Karen. In Celebration: the Art of the Country House. London: Tate Gallery, 1998.
[6] Eras of Elegance. “Wives and Daughters (1999).” Accessed April 21, 2013. http://erasofelegance.com/

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