Danson House, the epitome of Georgian style, saved from ruin

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was built nearly 250 years ago by John Boyd, a rich and lonely widower, as he was preparing to wed his new young bride, and was decorated with lavish wall paintings inspired by their love.

It was built nearly 250 years ago by John Boyd, a rich and lonely widower, as he was preparing to wed his new young bride, and was decorated with lavish wall paintings inspired by their love.

Danson House in Bexley, south London, became a monument to the marriage between the 48-year-old City merchant and Catherine Chapone and was the epitome of style when it was finished in 1766, the year of the wedding.

The magnificent Palladian villa had historical resonances, too, a reminder of how, in the 18th century, entrepreneurs could live like aristocrats if they showed business acumen. Boyd's wealth was made by his father, Augustus, who had left Ireland decades earlier for St Kitts in the West Indies where the family became rich from sugar plantations using slave labour.

Yet 10 years ago, Danson House was on the point of being lost. After decades of neglect in the hands of the local authority, the villa was on English Heritage's register of buildings most at risk.

The fixtures and fittings which contributed to its Grade I listing had been stripped out and were saved from export only by the intervention of the police. Dry rot was crumbling the highly decorative dining room and the octagonal salon of the home where Boyd lived with his second wife and their two children until his death in 1800, aged 82.

Specialists warned that the building was just months away from being beyond repair. Faced with its collapse, English Heritage embarked on a 10-year, £4m restoration programme, which has saved the Georgian villa for the nation.

The official opening of Danson House yesterday showed how Boyd's former home has been returned to its 18th-century splendour, complete with its rare and original paintings.

Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, the television design celebrity and a local resident, said people had become used to seeing the villa derelict in the middle of the park but were delighted at the transformation.

"It's a celebration of the fact that things can change and we can revive a structure and make it work. The thing that really entices me is that it's not too big and you can see easily how people could live in it," he said.

"It's got a very nice family feel to it. It's not some remote and chilly aristocrat's house. It's what an 18th-century lottery winner would build for themselves. It's the kind of house I would love to build for myself."

Richard Lea, English Heritage's historic buildings analyst, admitted that the organisation knew little of Boyd beyond the facts outlined above.

The family history of Catherine Chapone and how she met Boyd was "a mystery", he said. However common sense dictated that she was younger than her groom as the couple went on to have two children, in addition to the five provided by Boyd's first wife, Mary, before she died in 1763.

Danson House was under construction by then, so could not have been conceived as a wedding present for Catherine. The death of Boyd's father at the same time may have provided the funds for completion.

What is certain is the strong component of romance in the decoration of the building. More than 20 wall paintings, restored and returned to the grand dining room, celebrate love and marriage in scenes decorated with fruit, vines and birds. They were painted by a French artist, Charles Pavillon, and seem to have been influenced by the royal tapestry workshops in his home town of Aix.

The restoration work was helped when seven detailed watercolours were found by Sarah Jane Johnson, whose family lived in the house from 1805 to 1863, and which capture the house in 1860 before refurbishing. Scientific examination of tiny shreds of silk and paint helped furnish further details of the original décor.

The results, Mr Lea said, were "very rewarding" for those who, like him, have been involved since 1995. "It's nice to see it reach completion."

Simon Thurley, English Heritage's chief executive, warned, however, that the project was likely to be the last of its kind. A dozen mansions stand in public parks in London alone, but after stand-still funding for a decade, there is no money to restore them. "Sadly, this is the last building of this sort we are going to be able to rescue," he said. "It's a tremendous triumph, but it's an end not a beginning of the way English Heritage is going to deal with these buildings. We do not have the resources any more to take them on."

Danson House opens to the public from Friday.