Tuesday, 3 January 2017

One Last Christmas: Red House Museum, Gormesal, Bronte Landmark

On Sunday, 11 December I went to a beautiful and very special Christmas event that I will always remember - The Red House Museum Christmas event. I have visited this museum several times, but didn't know about this annual event, and when I learnt about it earlier in 2016, I knew I mustn't miss the forthcoming one, particularly because it was going to be the Museum's last Christmas: sadly, on 21 December the Museum closed its doors to the public for good, the reason being lack of funding available to the Council.

The Red House is best known as a home to Mary Taylor, a close friend of Charlotte Bronte, one of the three famous Victorian literary sisters. The two women met at the Roe Head School and formed a strong bond which lasted to the end of their days. Mary was an independent woman who refused to conform to the behaviour expected of a 19th century woman. She influenced Charlotte greatly, especially in encouraging her to travel to Brussels where she accompanied her herself.

The house was built in the 17th century by William Taylor and it remained in the possession of The Taylors until 1920s. It was unusually built of red brick instead of local stone. The Taylors (Joshua, Anne and their six children, Mary being one of them) were prosperous woollen cloth manufactures and merchants. They owned a mill not far from their house and sold woollen cloth to Europe and America. The museum is decorated and furnished in the style of 1830's when Charlotte was a frequent visitor. In her novel "Shirley" she features Red House as "Briarmains" and the Taylor Family as the "Yorkes".

The 2016 Christmas event was a huge success. It was very busy, the house filled all day with visitors wanting to have one last look at this beautiful place and enjoy Victorian Christmas decorations and atmosphere. Apparently, there were more people there than at any event in the last few years.

There was a Christmassy, festive atmosphere not just in the house, but outside too, and throughout the day there were telltale signs of a big event under way.

The house and the grounds looked beautiful even on this grey and cold winter day. I wondered if at least the lovely, award winning, recreated 19th century gardens would remain open to the public after the house had closed.

The entrance hall with the staircase and upstairs landing. One of the best things I took away from the event is learning about traditional evergreen Christmas decorations, particularly the use of ivy in garlands. The need to bring life and light to the dark winter days resulted in the ancient tradition of bringing evergreens into the house. Any seasonal green plants were used, but the main ones were holly, believed to be a symbol of good luck and protection against evil; ivy, a symbol of eternal life; and mistletoe, which has long and deep pagan associations. There were garlands made of evergreens all over the house, and I loved them so much that I decided I must make some for my own home next Christmas.

Kissing Bough hanging from the upstairs landing. This beautiful hanging ball of greenery was a traditional English Christmas feature before Christmas trees became popular in the 1840s. It was decorated with apples and candles, with mistletoe hanging beneath. According to the tradition standing underneath was an invitation to be kissed.

In the parlour members of Nonsuch Dulcimer Club were playing Christmas songs. I don't remember ever having listened to the hammered dulcimer before and was totally bowled over by its beautiful, medieval sound. There were some other mellifluous, old and unusual instruments, too.

The mantel in the parlour. This was the room where the visitors were received. Charlotte Bronte described it in "Shirley" as "The most cheerful of rooms...there was no splendour, but there was taste everywhere...."

The 19th century piano in the corner of the parlour. Music was an important part of life in this era, and middle class women were not only expected to be skilful needle workers but also competent at playing music.

In the scullery mulled wine was being made for the visitors.

Preparation of vegetables, dishwashing and laundry work would have taken place in the scullery.

In the kitchen visitors could taste some of the delicacies prepared by the Taylors' two servants at Christmas time. On the little round table there were some of the most popular recipes of the first half of the 19th century. I am especially interested in this cookery book and can't wait to get my hands on it.

On the table there was potted cheese (absolutely delicious), devilled mushrooms, various home made chutneys, jellied oranges, pearled (sugared) fruit that looked very beautiful, and pomanders - fragrant cloves studded oranges used as room scent. I promised myself to make some of these things next Christmas.

On another table there were some pies, cheese and an attractive looking hedge hog cake.

In the dining room the mahogany table is set for a formal meal with Royal Worcester "Blue Dragon" reproduction dinner service. At the head of the table sits "Mrs Taylor". Above hangs an 1820's brass candle lamp.

Over the fireplace is a painting of the eruption of Vesuvius in 1794 which Joshua Taylor brought back from Italy. The painting was described in Charlotte Bronte's "Shirley".

In the study downstairs sits "Joshua Taylor", a cultured gentleman who loved books and art.

A detail in the study to the right of the Joshua Taylor sitting figure. By now it was getting very dark in the house, the low lighting a real test for my camera. I must say it did better than I thought it would. I like the exposure in this shot.

This was taken from the landing upstairs. Near the entrance there was an elderly gentleman selling greeting cards and postcards featuring artwork by local people.

This is the school room part of the Governess's room, the sitting room part being shown underneath. There is a globe, a history jigsaw and an old wooden board game of Fox and Geese. The easel is a copy from an 1830s design. Many women of the time enjoyed watercolour painting.

Staff areas often had older and shabbier furniture than family rooms. Among other things there are an 18th century mirror and oak table. The governess could make tea and toast by the fire.

From the large and elegant main bedchamber. I loved the wallpaper and all the mahogany and oak furniture from the 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly the washstand, tallboy and the old leather travelling trunk.

A detail from the girl's bedroom.

In the grounds, outside the barn Yorkshire Traction Honely Band were performing Christmas songs.

This lady, a member of the museum staff, wearing a period outfit for the event, kindly agreed to come out of the house for a quick snap.

It is with irony that this place immortalized by Charlotte in one of her novels closed in the year of her 200th birthday. It's future is now very much uncertain, and its national heritage sadly at serious threat. With a heavy heart, I dearly hope it will be taken and preserved as it is by someone...anyone?!. Groups and organizations have till March to come forward and express their interest in community asset transfer. The decision is then expected in the spring, otherwise the building will be put up for sale.

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