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In comparison with neighbouring counties, West Sussex has few National Trust properties in the shape of houses.  However, we do possess two of the most contrasting in style: Petworth and Standen.  Much as we may marvel at the splendour of Petworth, I doubt whether any of us would daydream about taking up residence there.  The opposite is true of Standen, with its family friendly style and scale, and a garden that is a paradise for children and adults alike.

Standen was purpose-built in the 1890s for James and Margaret Beale, and their growing family of ultimately seven children, as a holiday home and a centre for family gatherings.  The Beales were members of a Unitarian family long-established in Birmingham and traditionally prominent in many aspects of civil life, both economic and cultural.  James was a solicitor whose main work was connected with the affairs of the Midland Railway.  In 1868 the Railway was extended to London, the volume of work in the capital made it convenient for him to move to London, where the family established itself, initially near the Railway’s new terminus at St Pancras, and later in Holland Park.  Here several of his neighbours lived in houses designed by William Morris & Co. James Beale was evidently impressed, and decided to follow suit for his new country house at Standen.

Standen is built on a hillside, where formerly there were three farms.  With typical reverence for old buildings, Webb incorporated some of the existing farm buildings into his new plans.  Thus, the fifteenth-century Hollybush farmhouse still stands overlooking the area of grass, known as Goose Green, where we gathered for an introductory talk, and he also preserved the farm’s great barn, which is now the National Trust café.  Wherever possible, Webb used local materials for the new house, which is built of both stone and brick.  The beautiful sandstone was obtained from a quarry which can be seen just to the west of the house, now transformed into a magical dell, full of ferns and greenery.

The Beales did not do much serious entertaining at Standen, and it was designed, not to impress, but to provide a comfortable retreat where the family, including visiting relations, could relax.  On the ground floor, there is a spacious entrance hall, which contains a grand piano and could double up as a music room; a billiard room, with a long seat in an alcove for onlookers; a drawing-room and dining-room overlooking the garden, a morning room, facing east to offer the maximum light for such activities as letter-writing and needlework, and an office for the master of the house on the shady side of the house, conveniently close to the front door and service wing.  Upstairs there are numerous bedrooms, often with William Morris furnishings.  In one, there is an amazing bedspread (made around 1896 in the William Morris & Co workshop) on which every inch of the background material, including the cream background to the complicated ‘Acanthus’ pattern, is covered with embroidered stitches.

William Morris himself never visited Standen, but his presence is everywhere felt, since the carpets, curtains, wallpapers, etc. are predominantly of his design, or from his workshops.  The women of the family added even more Morrisian elements by embroidering cushion covers and other items with motifs taken from his designs.  One of the most attractive features of Standen is its large conservatory, full of light, and big enough to accommodate creepers and shrubs in pots – an ideal place to take afternoon tea, and to admire the view over the garden towards a towering tulip tree.  Among the many interesting items on view in the house are exquisite lusterware by Philip de Morgan, and a venerable rocking horse, called Dobbin, which was given to the Beales’ eldest child, Amy, in 1874, when, at the age of three, she had mastered her alphabet.

The extensive gardens, laid out on various levels, seem to flow gently down the hillside, and, apart from the rose garden, they are largely informal.  A circular path with steps leads up the hill above the house, through trees and shrubs to the quarry garden, and eventually to a ridge with a wonderful view.  Elsewhere, there are lawns, terraces, flower borders, clusters of trees and bushes, summer-houses, and a huge kitchen garden with both vegetables and flowers.  Of interest are the ancient espalier apple-trees, planted close to the time when the house was built, and still going strong after nearly a century and a quarter.  At the very bottom of the garden is an orchard with beehives, and warning notices.

Webb’s Socialist principles were reflected in his architecture.  When ‘Clouds’, another of the houses which he designed, was largely destroyed by fire, the Wyndham family, who owned it, was forced to move temporarily into the undamaged servants’ wing, and, in a letter to a friend, Mrs Wyndham commented: “It is a good thing our architect was a Socialist because we find ourselves just as comfortable in the servants’ quarters as we were in our own.”  The term “Below Stairs” does not apply to Standen, where the servants are no more “Downstairs” than the master and mistress.  Webb placed the whole service wing above ground, with windows to the outside world, and those of the servants’ hall (not open to the public) face west so that the room received most light at a time when the servants were likely to have a chance to relax.  They even overlook part of the garden.

In 1999, the National Trust invited former Standen servants back to the house to talk about their experiences.  Two of them were interviewed by ‘The Guardian’ (18.03.1999), which reported that neither had anything but ‘grateful memories’ of Standen.  One of them, Jean Billings, who had started work there as a fourteen-year-old scullery maid in 1929, when Margaret Beale was still alive, commented: “A good bed, we lived well.  Whatever food the gentry had, we had.  I wouldn’t be so well as I am today if I hadn’t been treated well.”

To know that Standen was a happy place for all who inhabited it, certainly adds to the pleasure of all who enjoy visiting it today.

Text by Mercia MacDermott


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Standen House and Gardens

Beale Family circa 1900

Philip Webb and William Morris had first met in 1856, when Morris, newly down from Exeter College, Oxford, was articled to the same architect in whose office Webb was already working.  Morris soon abandoned the idea of becoming an architect, but he and Webb remained close friends for the rest of their lives.  

Webb collaborated with Morris in countless ways, including not only such professional matters as the design of Red House, Morris’s first marital home, and the campaign against unsympathetic Victorian restoration of ancient buildings, but also when, after 1884, Morris became convinced that only a complete revolution in society could achieve his aesthetic ideals and devoted his main energy to the propagation of Socialism.  Moreover, although Morris excelled in creating designs based on plants, he often asked Webb to draw any birds or beasts that were required.  The thrushes in Morris’s ever-popular ‘Strawberry Thief’ design are the work of Webb, as are the birds in the Trellis design wallpaper, with its climbing roses, so effectively used to enliven the corridor leading to the service wing of Standen.

Philip Webb

William Morris

In one of the upstairs rooms, there was a special exhibition devoted to James and Margaret’s youngest daughter, Helen, who joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service soon after its formation in 1917, and who bequeathed Standen to the National Trust in 1972.

Helen Beale’s  recruiting poster for the WRNS