Bringing Wanstead House Back to Life

Press report by Paul Donovan

The connection between George Washington, a fireplace and Wanstead Park may not be immediately obvious but the link makes up one of the most intriguing parts of the fascinating history of the area. The link has been made by local historian Steve Pewsey, who as part of the lottery funded Wanstead Parklands Community Project (WPCP) is seeking to find out what has happened to the building and contents of what was Wanstead House.

Built between 1715 and 1735 and funded from the proceeds of the East India Company, Wanstead House would have rivaled Blenheim Palace and Chatsworth had it survived until today. Sadly, this groundbreaking architectural edifice lasted less than a century before being torn down and sold off in bits to the highest bidder.

The demise of the house was caused by William Wellesley Pole, the nephew of the Duke of Wellington, who married heiress Catherine Tylney Long and managed to bankrupt the estate inside 10 years. As a result in September 1822, 3,000 furniture, fittings and paintings were auctioned off. Two years later the whole house was demolished and sold.

Now Steve Pewsey together with other members of the WPCP, is seeking to trace the contents of the original house. Once a proper inventory is completed it is intended that a 3D model will be created on a website that will enable the public to effectively walk through Wanstead House as it was in the early 19th century. Steve though has a long way to go given that so far he believes he has only sourced 1 per cent of the contents, but new information is coming in all the time.

The fireplace mentioned earlier has had one of the more curious journeys from Wanstead to George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon, where it still resides today.

The Fireplace, Washington

Architect Samuel Vaughan, who had been commissioned to build much of the new Washington by the aforementioned George, bought the fireplace. Vaughan was acquainted with founding father Benjamin Franklin, the two men having walked together in the grounds of Wanstead Park. Steve suspects the link between Vaughan and Franklin was forged originally due to the Quaker links between the two men. The fireplace was originally bought as a gift from Vaughan to George Washington.

Wanstead House may have been dismantled and sold of in the 1820s but it has spread far and wide forming integral parts of well-known buildings as well as providing a template for famous buildings throughout the world. "The Mansion House in the City of London. is a direct copy by George Dance of the centre of Wanstead House," said Steve. "There are also aspects of Wanstead House in the architecture of Trinity College Dublin and Prior Park in Bath."

The Mansion House, London

The grand staircase from Wanstead House went to Lord Chesterfield’s house in Mayfair. "Some of the chairs went to Lord MacDonald of the Isles – some of which were auctioned recently," said Steve, who is always on the look out for old artifacts from the house coming up for sale. "Quite a few pieces finished up at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House," said Steve.

The capitals that topped the columns of Wanstead House now adorn the Hendon Hall hotel in north London. One of the doors forms part of Wanstead House in Cambridge. Builder Richard Woods, who managed to get a number of the building artifacts from the old house, put this building together.

Wanstead House, Cambridge.

"There was a white marble fireplace and wrought iron staircase put in the house – it was done as a sort of showcase of what was available," said Steve.

"There are some urns in West Ham Park and one of the columns of a part of the house that was never completed, out at the Warren in Loughton."

Steve recalled "the four magnificent 17th century urns from the grand hall that finished up at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridge" but is at present on display at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Another two fireplaces have finished up at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland.

A life-sized portrait of painter William Kent now resides in the National Portrait Gallery. Kent was a rival to Hogarth, who was another famed painter of the time who contributed to the artistic riches of Wanstead House.

One of the very few parts of the old house that remain on the site are the gate posts at the end of Overton Drive. Once completed, the 3D model of the old house will provide a real insight into how life was just two hundred years ago, an important part of the WPCP member’s endeavours to bring the history of the park back to life for the local community.