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House used by first cabal to reopen

WHEN THE Dutch Old Master paintings at Ham House near Richmond were taken down recently, neat vellum labels were discovered on the backs valuing the pictures for the pawnbroker.

The Duke of Lauderdale, the 17th-century owner of the house in south-west London, was an extremely wealthy and powerful man, but after his death his widow became involved in an expensive lawsuit.

'The lawsuit lasted for 16 years and nearly ruined the duchess,' Nino Strachey, a historian working for the National Trust, which owns the house, said. 'The pictures went in and out of pawn so the Duchess could meet her bills.' After a gap of two years, Ham House, built about 1610, will open once more to the public on 30 March, following a restoration costing pounds 2.5m. It took nine months for all the pictures to be taken down and boxed before contractors were allowed in to strip and treat floors and repaint walls.

Nowhere else in England has 17th-century domestic history been preserved in such stunning detail. Once again visitors will be able to walk into the room where meetings of the first cabal, the kitchen cabinet of Charles II, were held in the 1670s.

The cabal - named after its members: Clifford, Ashley, Buckingham, Arlington and Lauderdale - fixed matters of state while they sat in heavy carved gilt chairs beside an elegant marble fireplace surrounded by twisted Baroque pillars.

When the cabal wearied of their deliberations they could walk in the long gallery next door where family portraits were hung. The pictures have been rehung above head height as they would have been in the 17th century.

At the end of the long gallery is the library, which houses about 4,000 17th- and 18th-century books bequeathed to the National Trust.

The Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale were extremely well connected. The duke was the King's viceroy in Scotland and the duchess was descended from Lord Dysart, a childhood friend of Charles II. The duchess made her reputation with the Royals during Cromwell's protectorate when, as a member of the secret society the Sealed Knot, she sent coded messages to France.

Information flowed in both directions. During a visit to France the Duchess discovered bathrooms and decided she must have one of her own. And so the first bathroom in England was built at Ham House.