After the death of her beloved great aunt in 1993, Lady Emma Barnard had three weeks to decide whether she would take over the responsibility of Parham House. It is a grand Elizabethan mansion nestled in the West Sussex Downs, that her great aunt, Veronica Tritton, had devoted her life to restoring.
Aged just 30, it was a daunting decision. She had visited often as a child, and to help make up her mind, she stayed overnight all alone in the house. In the morning, she knew that the spirit of Parham was one that needed protecting.
In doing so she stepped into the shoes of her great-grandfather, the Hon Clive Pearson and his wife, Alicia, who bought the crumbling house in 1922, and along with their eldest daughter, Veronica, set about painstakingly bringing it back to life.
“I was fourth on my great-aunt’s list [of people to take over the house], and really against all odds it fell to me. Fortunately the wonderful ignorance of relative youth meant I didn’t quite realise what I had taken on,” she says.
As the eldest daughter of the 3rd Earl of Iveagh, Lady Emma, 54, had grown up in houses of Parham’s size, but it was still a different life to the one she anticipated as an English scholar. She also had to negotiate the purchase of the house, four-acre walled gardens and 300-acre deer park for its charitable trust.
Parham was one of the first houses of its size to welcome in the public, and is opening for the season on April 1. This July marks 70 years since the house opened its doors to visitors in 1948. It has changed very little in that time, a point of pride for Lady Emma.
“Parham sits very comfortably in its own skin. It has been like this for a long time. If I were to rip things out and start again it wouldn’t be the same,” she says. Stepping into Parham and climbing the staircase to the Great Hall, it is easy to understand what she means. Although filled with treasures of the Tudor period there is a spaciousness and lightness. The curtains at Parham are always open for visitors, “so they can actually see the rooms”.
In 1942, with fears in the south of England of Hitler invading, the family moved into a wing of the house, and Canadian soldiers moved into the other half
The original oak fireplace was revealed by her great-grandfather behind two others. Using his skill as an engineer (S Pearson and Co was one of England’s foremost engineering firms), and working with Victor Heal, the architect, Lady Emma says he restored Parham with “enormous intelligence and interest”.
Today they are still reaping the benefit of his knowledge and sensitivity. While Lady Emma has rewired and brought in zoned central heating, it is only now that the original boilers installed in the Twenties are finally being replaced.
“He did everything of such quality. The adage, ‘if you do things properly they last’, applies here,” she says. During the Second World War the house avoided the fate of many of its kind that were requisitioned. At first the family took in a motley crew of elderly aunts, friends from London, and an elderly governess.
“It was a melange of waifs and strays including 30 evacuee schoolchildren from Peckham,” says Lady Emma. In 1942, with fears in the south of England of Hitler invading, the family moved into a wing of the house, and Canadian soldiers moved into the other half. At the end of the war, they toyed with the idea of opening the house to the public.
“They genuinely thought they were not grand enough, and people wouldn’t want to come and see it. After all, it’s not Blenheim or Chatsworth. But a friend said, ‘rubbish – you’ve got lovely things, why don’t you just try it?’” Sharing Parham was a source of immense joy to the family, and has never been done to raise money (visitors’ tickets barely cover staff wages even today).
The Pearsons wanted people to have an opportunity of “seeing and appreciating for themselves the beauty and interest of an Elizabethan house and its value as a record of the past”. Its many additions mean you can walk through history: leaving the 16th-century Great Hall, we move chronologically into the 17th-century great parlour and then into the 18th century in the saloon.
“Once they opened, they got the bit between their teeth and started collecting things. They had spies in the London auction rooms,” says Lady Emma. As well as buying back pieces original to Parham (only two other families have lived at Parham, the Palmers and Bisshopps), the house became refuge for items from other homes that were then being demolished. At the top of the house is the spectacular 160ft Long Gallery – the third longest in England. In a room off the gallery is an exhibition curated by Lady Emma, chronicling her great-grandparents’ restorations.
She describes her own stewardship as a “light touch”. She and her husband, barrister James Barnard, and two sons (currently away at university) still live in a wing of the house, and most of her time is occupied with the management of the house and grounds. “James still asks me ‘benefit or burden?’
"There are moments when you want to say burden but I’ve always said benefit. It has shaped our lives. It has restricted our lives, but it has also enriched our lives,” says Lady Emma. “I do really think that great houses like this die when there isn’t someone guarding their spirit.”