Have you heard these strange tales about the Ancient House, Ipswich?
PUBLISHED: 19:03 27 May 2019 | UPDATED: 12:43 28 May 2019
Ever wondered the reason behind all the fancy plasterwork at Ancient House in Ipswich? STEVEN RUSSELL takes a look at the intriguing history of the 15th-century building.
It's almost impossible to gaze at the Ancient House in Ipswich (once a beloved bookshop, now homeware store Lakeland) and not adopt a (rubbish) Loyd Grossman drawl. "Who lived in a house like this?" Especially once you learn the man responsible for its Look-at-Me! façade was, probably, not normally a bloke who did bling.
For this is a story about a family that favoured the losing side in the English civil war and had to back-track rather desperately to avoid falling foul of a revitalised monarchy.
There was also a bit of friction between the man who commissioned the pargetting (that decorative plastering on the wall) and his stepmother. More of that later. First, the background.
All this, and more, will be aired at an illustrated talk next month by retired university history lecturer John Sutton. It's called Secret Faces: Reconstructing the Lost Picture Gallery of Ipswich's Ancient House. One of those faces is "Mr Pargetting" Robert Sparrowe, who lived from 1629 to 1698.
Robert's portrait was among a magnificent collection of paintings owned by the family - "visual pomps", says John. There were kings such as James I, Charles I and Charles II.
Most paintings were displayed in the first-floor drawing room running along the front of the Ancient House, in Buttermarket. On the landing of the main staircase, visitors could see a grand portrait of George I, while on the upper landing was the likeness of Charles I's consort, Henrietta Maria.
"The early Sparrowes were a prosperous mercantile family, successive members being portmen of Ipswich (administering the affairs of the town). They allegedly traded in exotic spices. They also seem to have been grocers and mercers (dealers in textiles)," reports John Sutton.
Historian John Woddespoon put together an inventory of the family's artwork during the mid-1850s and called it "more fitting for the mansion of a nobleman than the residence of a private individual". It was that good.
A less than loyal past
Of Robert Sparrowe, John Sutton says: "His portrait reveals a rather shy, retiring man; an image completely at odds with the flamboyant plasterwork… How are we to explain this discrepancy? This is a real mystery."
"It is often asserted that the Sparrowes were ardent royalists. Their assembly of paintings of royals would certainly suggest this. But the historical reality was rather different.
"Robert Sparrowe had a less than loyal past. His father William" - who died in 1647 - "had been a leading member of the Ipswich Town Council during the first Civil War (1642-46) and been a supporter of the Parliamentary cause."
Robert himself "adopted a low profile during the Interregnum (1649-1660, between the execution of Charles I and the re-emergence of son Charles II) but threw in his lot with the Protectorate (Parliament) in the late 1650s.
"Early in 1659 he took an address from the town fathers commiserating with Richard Cromwell on the death of his father Oliver on September 3, 1658, and congratulating him on his succession as the second Lord Protector.
"Unfortunately for Robert he backed the wrong horse, for Charles II was restored in May 1660.
"In a nifty display of political footwork, however, he managed to ingratiate himself with the restored King by going down to London with a congratulatory address and a liberal sum of money to present to him.
"This canny, prudent behaviour shines out in Robert's portrait!"
There's also a likeness of Robert's stepmother, Anne Bennet, "with whom relations appear to have been rather strained. So much so that she lived in a house on the Cornhill rather than with Robert in the Ancient House during the Interregnum.
"She also had prime access to the swanky country residence which the Sparrowes had built at Thurleston (north of Ipswich) before the civil wars of the 1640s - an occupation which led Robert to sell off the property in the late 1650s!" explains John.
"Robert's father William's will hints there was tension between her and Robert by making provisions for her shelter should she choose not to reside with the latter at the Ancient House. She was given special rooms to live in at the new country residence of the Sparrowes at Thurleston.
"Now, one of the great oddities of the mid-17th century Sparrowes is why they should have sold off their 'Sparrowes' Nest' when they had made it to the ranks of the country gentry. But your ever so humble Robert preferred to live in his town house as a mere trader, rather than at Thurleston, where he could cut a dash as a country gentleman. He clearly didn't do 'dashing'!
"The only possible explanation for this turn of events is ill-feeling between Robert and his stepmother. Yes, it does sound spiteful!"
Robert Sparrowe's wife was Anne Parker. Her father bought Charles II a new set of clothes when he arrived in Rouen, France, in October, 1651, in a highly dishevelled state.
John Sutton reminds us Charles had been on the run for six weeks after defeat at the Battle of Worcester by Oliver Cromwell.
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Anne was the daughter of a Reigate merchant who traded with Portugal and the Levant. (Part of the Middle East that included the historic lands of Israel, Palestine and Syria.)
"Her father, John, was a royalist, having one of his ships impounded in 1650 for allegedly smuggling arms to the pirate fleet of the Cavalier Prince Rupert. He (John) was the man who bought Charles II a new suit of clothes when he reached Rouen.
"Anne looks very demure in her portrait: a perfect partner for her costive (slow in expression or action) husband!"
"Very strikingly, the family owned two quarter-length portraits of the Merry Monarch, together with an exquisite miniature of him," says John.
"This fascination with the second Charles is intriguing, especially in view of the erroneous family legend that he had been secreted at the Ancient House after the Worcester fight.
"The special relationship between the Sparrowes and the Merry Monarch cries out for explanation."
It's that re-writing of history, again: the exuberant pargetting that saw Robert's house badged with the royal coat of arms centre-stage. "I think he was engaged in an exercise of damage limitation, trying to cover up his flirtation with the Cromwells!"
Paintings of Tudor and Stuart national celebrities loomed large in the family collection, including Cavalier heroine Jane Lane, "the woman primarily responsible for enabling Charles II to escape abroad in 1651.
"The reason why Robert Sparrowe acquired miniature portraits of Charles II and Jane Lane after the Restoration was almost certainly due to his connection with the latter by preserving her in his concealed attic chamber after the Worcester fight. Look to the woman, not the man.
"The Sparrowes owned a lustrous miniature portrait of this remarkable woman, encased in a gold frame which they preserved 'like a sacred relic'. Sadly, this gem has not survived."
Sir John Sparrowe was clerk-comptroller of the Board of Green Cloth during James II's reign. (The board refers to officials of the Royal Household.)
"During the Glorious Revolution of 1688" - which replaced the Catholic king with his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange - "he fled with his royal master to France, serving him in the same capacity at the exiled court at St Germain-en-Laye."
Sir John had been knighted at Windsor on July 3, 1687, "the only member of the Sparrowe family to enjoy that distinction.
"The title was conferred on him in recognition of 'his great care and expense' whilst accompanying the German princess Maria Sophia Elizabeth of Neuburg on an English naval frigate from Holland to Portugal, where she became its new Queen.
"Post 1688, he was a fervent Jacobite, accompanying the deposed James II to Ireland in March, 1689. He took part in the siege of Londonderry the following autumn, appearing there in full military garb. For this action he was indicted for high treason!
"He returned to France, where as 'le Chevalier Jean Sparra' he lived at the exiled Jacobite Court until at least January, 1698. His wife was a Timperley - the ardent Roman Catholic family of Hintlesham Hall."
What happened to the paintings later?
That chief gallery on the first floor "had disappeared by 1870, when the original drawing room had been converted into a library, prompting John Glyde in his Illustrations of Old Ipswich to comment 'Paintings of portraits by... Gainsborough and other masters have given place to rows of books'.
"The paintings remained in the possession of the Sparrowe family and its descendants right down to the 1950s, when they began to be sold off. The first to go was Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of John Sparrowe (1690-1762), thirteen times bailiff of Ipswich.
"There was then a long lull until 2016-2018, when a whole batch of Sparrowe paintings was sold by a variety of art houses.
"As for the hard cash garnered by the recent sales of the Sparrowe pictures, I know the family depictions sold for an average of £2,000-£3,000.
"But the portrait of the young James VI of Scotland/James I of England by John de Critz - snapped up by Philip Mould of Fake or Fortune fame - raised £68,000. Neat!"
Hear more from John
John's illustrated talk "Secret Faces" is from 7pm to 8.30pm on Wednesday, June 5. It's in Chapters Restaurant - part of the Ipswich Institute - and is for members of the institute (though members can bring non-member guests). Tickets are £4.
Chapters Restaurant is in The Admiral's House, 13 Tower Street, Ipswich.
John Sutton, by the way, made a series with Anglia TV called A War in the Kingdom. It was about eastern England during "the brother-killing days" of the 1640s.