Sherborne House is an impressive house in Sherborne, Dorset. It has a Tudor wing but the principal building dates from 1720. The chief glory of the House is the mural in the hall painted by Sir James Thornhill, himself a Dorset man.
The Tudor House
The Tudor building that first occupied the site was built sometime after 1570. All that remains is a single wing consisting of the first two rooms of the present Gallery with the rooms above. It has fine moulded beams and bosses decorated with ribbons and Tudor roses and some excellent examples of Tudor mullion windows. It was retained by Portman as the service wing of his new House, the first room with its bread oven being the kitchen.
The Portman House
Henry Seymour Portman bought the House in 1720 and pulled it down save the part mentioned above. He then commissioned Benjamin Bastard of the Blandford Forum family of architects and craftsmen (who were largely responsible for the rebuilding of Blandford after the Great Fire of 1731) to build the present Palladian edifice. An Inventory, drawn up in 1726 and listing every item of furniture in the House, was recently discovered in the Public Record Office at Kew and from it we can work out how the House worked. One of the remarkable things about the House is that so much of the original fittings, plasterwork and panelling are still in place.
The Thornhill Mural
Sir James Thornhill (1675 – 1734), a Dorset man and doyen of English decorative history painters in his day with works at Greenwich, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Chatsworth, Blenheim and Hampton Court, had also redecorated the chapel of All Souls College, Oxford. Part of this had been paid for by Portman, a patron of the College, so clearly the two men were already known to each other. It was therefore to Thornhill that Portman turned to decorate his new House in Sherborne. All the walls and the ceiling were decorated by the artist centred on the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of the Calydonian Hunt.
Sherborne House in the 18th Century
Portman died in 1728 and the family ceased to live there. It was let out to tenants until finally in 1799, it was bought by a wealthy local farmer James Toogood. He died in 1816 and his brother Charles then sold the House to Edward, 2nd Earl Digby for £2,000. For more than a century it continued to be leased out. It is possible that we owe the survival of so much early eighteenth century panelling, in particular, to the fact that for most of its existence it was not lived in by the families who owned it. The Digby tenants included Samuel Pretor, a banker, Robert Willmott, a silk manufacturer, Miss Armitage who ran a school and Major Bogle who won a Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny.
William Charles Macready, Dickens and Thackeray
The most distinguished of the tenants of the House was William Charles Macready who leased the House from 1850-60. He was the leading actor manager of his day but decided at the height of his career, to leave the stage and retire to the country. While at the House, he was visited by friends from London including Thackeray and his closest friend of all, Charles Dickens. The latter gave public readings including A Christmas Carol. Macready was also much occupied with the refounding of the Sherborne Literary Institution which moved into the old stable block of the House refurbished through the generosity of Lord Digby. Macready himself played a vital part in the success of the venture which included the equipping of a Reading Room and creation of an evening school.
In 1931 the House was first leased and then sold to Dorset County Council and became the home of Lord Digby’s School in 1932. Following the 1944 Education Act it became a Girls’ Grammar School and remained at the House until it closed in 1992, its pupils going instead to the Gryphon School.
The Sherborne House Trust
In 1995 The Sherborne House Trust was established in order to restore the House and develop it as a regional centre for the visual arts. The intention was to offer extensive inside and outside exhibition space with restaurant and shop plus education and workshop spaces. It was also intended to become a home for the archive of Dame Elisabeth Frink including rotating exhibitions of her work. For many years Sherborne House Arts, the management committee for the Trust, ran a highly successful visual arts programme from temporarily converted rooms in the House. Demonstrating a creative vision in its approach to showing contemporary art in a heritage context, exhibitions and projects often used the House and its history as a catalyst for stimulating projects and new work. In October 2007, after an unsuccessful heritage Lottery Fund application by the Trust, and an awareness of the continuing deterioration of the fabric of the building, Dorset County Council decided to sell the building on the open market. No longer able to use the House as a venue Sherborne House Arts continue to present a visual arts programme working in partnership with other venues, organisations and projects whilst the Trust pursue options on future use of Sherborne House.
Sherborne House Now
The House has now been sold to Redcliffe Homes – a property development company. Their plans for the site include full restoration of the House for use as prestigious office space, with new homes to be built on land to the rear. Redcliffe Homes are sympathetic to the use of the House as an arts venue and are in discussion with the Sherborne House Trust on the leasing a of portion of House and outbuildings to allow for the continuation of the cutting edge arts programme, a home for the archive of Dame Elisabeth Frink and providing public access to the Thornhill mural.
Access to the heritage of Sherborne House
Sherborne House is currently undergoing refurbishment and is closed to the public.
For access to these please contact The Friends of Sherborne House
Sherborne House and its People
by Shelagh Hill.
This 67 page book has been researched by a local historian and covers the history and the interesting people who have lived in the House.
Sir James Thornhill
This video narrated by Jeremy Irons introduces the life and achievements of Sir James Thornhill and covers many of his works still on public display and, of course includes Sherborne House. It has been researched by Jeremy Barker who is an authority on Thornhill’s life.
Dickens & Macready
The Sherborne Literary Institute.
by Katherine Barker .
A paper on the founding of the Literary Institute in the stables of Sherborne House.