Throwing open the shutters

THE finishing touches are today being put to a series of new period rooms at Christchurch Mansion -some of which have been closed for quarter of a century.

By Tracey Sparling

THE finishing touches are today being put to a series of new period rooms at Christchurch Mansion -some of which have been closed for quarter of a century. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING gets a preview.

SHUTTERS are being thrown open, to let the bright light of a spring morning flood in through newly-polished windows.

For quarter of a century, the Green Room behind the front facade of Christchurch Mansion has been closed to the public, locked up in darkness and quietly harbouring memories of times gone by.

But today the finishing touches are being put to it, for new residents to move in and visitors to enjoy.

Five rooms in total are being refurbished over three weeks, and opened to inject new vigour to Ipswich's landmark Tudor house.

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The Ipswich Museums team has concentrated on creating new room settings on the East Wing, reflecting the period 1750 to 1800, when the Fonnereaus became the third family to own the house. You will be able to see the Green Room which is a 1750s morning room, a family dining room, and a gentleman's library for the first time.

Enthusiasm oozes from collections manager Sally Dummer, as she darts from room to room, overseeing the work underway.

The rooms retain their original wallpaper and architectural features, and include original furniture, and paintings. In the Green Room, chairs have been re-upholstered, original wallpaper cleaned, and glassware polished. Experts pored over interior design guides of the time, and tested the paintwork to discover its original colour and match it - and colour has brought a few surprises.

“When we finished working on the wooden floor it looked so new,” she said, “we were all amazed. We are so use to seeing old floors aged through time to a dark colour, that it was a real surprise to see that the wooden floor would have originally been made from newly cut timber which looks so fresh and light in colour. It really makes the room bright and airy, instead of that dark gloomy feeling that some old rooms have.

“The wallpaper - which has been protected from light damage by the shutters being closed - is actually bright green. It is wonderful to see it intact, centuries later.

“It all started when we removed a model of the ship the Royal George from this room, to be included in the Sea Britain exhibition at Ipswich Museum last year. The very large ship model case was built in this room, and once it was out, we were able to start focusing on opening it up to the public. It's provided a real chance to get so much stuff out, that hasn't been on display before.”

In 1735, the mansion was sold to Claude Fonnereau, a wealthy London merchant, of Huguenot decent. Either he or his son Thomas made alterations in the early eighteenth century. Sally told how as a new MP aspiring to climb the ranks of society in the 18th century, Thomas Fonnereau would have entertained his political friends in the Green Room, showing he was an educated man and somebody to be consulted and respected. Gentlemen would have sat round a table to play 'new' card games, and drink tea which was then a rare luxury. To give visitors a sense of that lifestyle, the new rooms have been given a 'lived-in' feel, by the addition of mannequins.

A family of new residents were driven to their mansion home on Wednesday, by manufacturers H&H in London. As Sally watched the procession of mannequins being carried in, unwrapped and put in to place, she said: “They will really bring these rooms alive.”

In pride of place by the mantelpiece, now stands a gentleman who could be taken for Thomas Fonnereau. The once-plain dummy has undergone a full makeover from top to toe, complete with a top-of-the-range period wig, make-up, and been sewn in to an authentic velvet costume.

He is accompanied by two mannequins which represent a lady teaching a little girl to play cards. They wear silk dresses, adorned with antique linen and gold lace which would have sparkled in the candlelight of the era.

The costumes were created by Barbara Painter from Bury St Edmunds, who based them on portraits from the time. Their finery was a dramatic change from a previous commission to make the iron age costumes for mannequins at West Stow.

She had the challenge of working with silks and velvets, in the London studio full of plaster dust where they mannequins were made, and had to erect a polythene screen to protect them.

A door has been opened up into the 'new' wood panelled dining room, decked out with portraits of the Fonnereaus' immediate family.

The Wolsey Art Gallery will also reopen with a new permanent exhibition of the Councils nationally-significant collection of works by Suffolk's two leading artists Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable and the new gallery will explain the Ipswich link which draw their stories together. Both were born within ten miles of each other on the River Stour, and loved the countryside of their native Suffolk. They went on to inspire followers, who shared their vision and they changed the way we perceive landscape painting. For the first time a display of their drawings will also be on show, in a new £8,000 display case.

Tim Heyburn, head of museums at Ipswich Borough Council, said: “None of this work would have happened without the ongoing support of Ipswich Borough Council, but we would especially like to thank the Eats of England Co-Operative Society and the Friends of Ipswich Museums for their extra sponsorship of the refurbishment.”

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The new rooms will be officially opened on Thursday at a ceremony with the mayor Bill Wright. As a member of the public you can see the rooms from Tuesday .

A 16th century manor house set in a historic 100-acre park.

It was the site of the Augustinian Priory of the Holy Trinity founded in the twelfth century.

The rooms are furnished in various period styles from Tudor to Victorian.

Throughout its long history, the mansion belonged to only three families.

It opened as a free museum in 1896.

Today it is also home to an art gallery dedicated to the work of Suffolk artists.

Born: October 27 1699 in London, baptised that November in St Swithin, London. He died in 1779.

Home: Given Christchurch Mansion by his dad Claude for a peppercorn rent. The family stayed at Christchurch Mansion until 1894, after which the building was threatened with demolition until banker Felix Cobbold bought it to present to Ipswich Corporation. It has been a museum since 1896.

Family: Thomas was in a long term relationship with Elizabeth, but they never married. They had a daughter together.

Occupation: Director of east indian company, MP for Sudbury lots of times

Likes: Socialising, playing cards, parton of the artists including Gainsborough

Dislikes: parish clerks (he spoke in the house against them), and poachers who let his deer out of his park.

Ambition: To be very, very rich

Funny story: Thomas asked Gainsborough to 'paint his house'. Gainsborough thought he meant take a portrait, Thomas meant decorate!

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