Pirouettes and marionettes and silhouettes. A silent metronome ticks to the galliards and sarabands of our lives. And so we arrive at a large villa or small mansion. Ranger’s House in, at, on, and opposite Blackheath. It was built around 1700 by Captain Francis Hosier, Vice Admiral of the Blue. Our destination, our desirous subject of the day, is a red brick two storey over raised basement block with later brown brick single storey over raised basement bow fronted wings. The southern wing is bowed at both extremities lending symmetry to the front elevation; the northern wing is missing a bow robbing the garden elevation of symmetry.
The striking marrying of a house and a collection occurred at the beginning of the 21st century. Ranger’s House was missing artwork and furnishings. The Wernher Collection was homeless. English Heritage acted as matchmaker. The collection of Sir Julius Wernher once graced the interiors of Luton Hoo (his Bedfordshire country house) and Bath House (his London townhouse). The former is now a glitzy hotel; the latter, long demolished. Sir Julius (1850 to 1912) and his business partner Sir Alfred Beit (1853 to 1906) made their fortunes from gold and diamond mining in South Africa. The Beit Collection is housed in Sir Alfred’s former country house, Russborough in County Wicklow, and the National Gallery of Ireland.
Sir Julius’ will was the largest ever recorded at the time by the Inland Revenue. Sir Alfred was reckoned to be the richest man in the world of his time. The tycoons’ busts flank the entrance to the Geology Department of the Imperial College of Science and Technology in Kensington, founded in 1907 with a donation from Werner Beit + Co. There is another Irish connection. The late 5th Duchess of Abercorn, “Sasha” Alexandra Phillips, was the great granddaughter of Sir Julius Werner. Her sister Natalia is the Dowager Duchess of Westminster. Luton Hoo was sold in 1997 following the death of their brother Nicholas. Their mother Georgina Lady Kennard (née Wernher) was a close friend of the Queen.
Our tour of Ranger’s House with John O’Connell, who designed the interiors of the Wallace Collection, begins. “A portico can be expressed or suppressed, nothing else. The ultimate expression is a porte cochère. Here, it is suppressed as a temple front. We love the expressed aprons and rubbed brickwork!” Moving indoors, “The timber staircase would probably have been painted to resemble stone. Three balusters per thread is very noble. The panelled stairs below denote a basement of consequence.”
There are 700 items spread over two floors. “It is one of the best English Heritage collections with some knockout pieces,” John explains. “The Pink Drawing Room has most emphatic Inigo Jones Whitehall Palace style ceiling plasterwork. The interconnecting door to the Entrance Hall is missing its enrichments on top. The Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait, disposed to one side of a wall composition, should be moved and placed centrally. There would have been pier mirrors and tables between the three windows.”
The Grade I Conservation Practice Architect points to a desk: “This is a Jean-François Oeben wow piece! Mr Oeben was a great craftsman. He would have made the woodwork but the guild system wouldn’t have allowed him to make the metalwork. That would have been executed by another craftsman.” Pointing to an earlier more modest piece of furniture: “This work table illustrates the development of specific pieces of furniture for rooms, the search for comfort.”
“The Adriaen van Ostade is a typically allegorical 17th century Dutch painting. The gentleman playing cards suggests profligacy. The lady gazing out the window is showing disloyalty. And the 1617 Gabriël Metsu is wonderful, an absolute beauty, a very important painting. The broom is symbolic of spiritual cleansing. The lapdog represents loyalty.” Our tour continues through the reception rooms. “Such ravishing marble matching mantlepieces and hearthstones. That’s what you get at a certain moment,” admires John. Completing the tour upstairs: “The corridors remind us of Castle Howard.”