5. First Floor
A detailed look at the first floor of the original house and the extensions
In the inner hall we look upwards to the hemispherical dome which drenches the inner hall with light – added, as we already know, to provide this light after the original Dining Room was added by the Rev John Halls in 1780. We ascend the wide staircase with its two bends to the left and we admire once again the impressive balusters on the left and the equally magnificent oak panelling on the right. As we step onto the main landing we are experiencing what perhaps is the most lavish piece of decoration in the whole of this neo-classical building. We face the Venetian window which looks out onto the High Street, flanked by adjoining rooms. Our backs are towards the 1780 mezzanine floor with its delightful central balcony room overlooking the garden. The rest of the relatively plain first floor rooms of 1904 fall away from the corridors to east and west adjoining this original highly-decorative landing.
We are surrounded by classical mouldings of every type – around doorways, coving, panelling, and of course the central Venetian window. It is difficult to imagine that this richly-decorated space was only the landing of a 1755 house. It might have fulfilled another purpose. In Garraway’s sale of August 1813 the house is described as having “seven airy bedchambers on the first storey with storeroom, closets etc.” Two of these lead off the landing, have windows to the front and are also heavily decorated – unusual for bedrooms. Two more, plainer, ones are now indistinguishable having been absorbed by the east and west extensions made in 1904. Both of these, as with all bedrooms of this period, would have had fireplaces, which, of necessity were removed to make way for the corridors to the east and west. The other three bedrooms occupy the mezzanine floor.
Another reference in a paper attributed to the late Enid Bishop, a former Principal of the college, states that the contrast in styles between some plainer rooms on the ground floor and some more decorative ones on the first floor suggest that the clergyman (the Rev John Halls) occupied the plainer rooms and his wife and mother-in-law occupied the more decorative ones. But this model does not seem to fit.
It is tempting to speculate that this relatively large landing with its four adjoining bedrooms was a “piano nobile” which would have been copied from a Palladian building of the Renaissance period where the first floor, and its rooms, were a reception area for guests. This would explain the lavish decorations which were to impress the guests. Against this theory is the fact that there is no external cascading stairway. This was a very important feature in Palladian style buildings (such as Chiswick House in London which has an exceptional example) to allow access to the first floor reception area without passing through the mundane ground floor and servants’ quarters.
Whatever the reason behind this exceptionally decorative landing, it can still be admired. There are mouldings of many types and several that are very typically favoured by the Victorians. Most of these are carved wood in contrast to those in the Adam style already seen in the ground floor Dining Room which were mostly of plaster and gesso. Above the oak panelling of the staircase is a moulding known as ‘running dog’. Oak panelling to the dado rail would have continued around all the walls of the landing.
Oak would also have been used to frame the doorways. At the time of writing the panelled doors and surrounds have been picked out (during the 1980s) in blue and white which lighten the effect. These were the favourite pale sky blue and white of Robert Adam’s choice (see Appendix). In the 1700s, also, many of the mouldings would have been emphasised with lavish gold leaf. Others would have been left in their natural dark oak state. The mouldings around all four doorways leading off the landing follow an ordered scheme. Egg and dart (another favourite Victorian moulding) appears around all of them. Additional mouldings include those known as bead, cable, wave and dentil (see Appendix).
The intricacies of the carvings around the Venetian window are quite exceptional. At least two more types of mouldings can be distinguished here and corbels make an additional decorative feature.
Carvings around window first floor
They surmount the two carved sections which separate the arched central portion of the window from the two flanking rectangular sections. Here the attention to detail and meticulous carving almost stop us in our tracks. The two panels are individually worked and far from matched, neither are they mirror images. They are not intended to be.
Twining stems, foliage and flowers are rich and lifelike – much in the manner of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). He was a leading English sculptor who not only worked in marble, stone and bronze, but was much more famous for his decorative carvings in wood – particularly limewood – which were delicately executed as ornament for panelled interiors, picture frames, overmantels, choir stalls and screens (such as those in St Pauls’ Cathedral). Several of his contemporaries and those who followed on after him were heavily influenced by his designs and techniques, and it is possible that the sculptor of these Venetian window carvings was touched by his genius. This interesting landing in the days of the Adult Community College was, for a period of time, a library, where the motifs around could be as stimulating as the words in the books themselves. In contrast, when the building was occupied by Colchester County High School, the space under the Venetian window was the sick bay, with the bed head immediately underneath the window – facing it with its intricate beauty would surely have produced instant recovery!
Continuing our tour, a panelled door to the east with its surrounding egg and dart mouldings and scroll and leaf decoration above leads to a highly decorated room, which in the days of the Adult College was the Registry. Whether it was the master bedroom of the original house or an elaborate reception room designed to impress is again a matter for speculation. In shape and size it reflects the room below. All window and door surrounds and coving are lavishly decorated with egg and dart and dentil mouldings. The bay with its three sash windows, shutters and shelves exactly matches those of the Breakfast Room on the ground floor.
The most outstanding features of this room are the overmantel and the fireplace. The overmantel appears to be original and includes a mirror which reflects light back into the room. This gives added credence to the fact that this room on the first floor was far too impressive to be just a bedroom.
The decorative pine surround of the mirror (which almost extends to the coving of the ceiling) is exquisitely carved with vine leaves and bunches of grapes which hang in full ripeness down both sides of the frame. Each side of the mirror, like the Venetian window decoration, is not matched and quite independent. The grandness of the over-mantel overshadows the fine mouldings of the coving in this room. Here we have the usual dentils and below this a variation of egg and dart around the entire circumference of the room.