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The Creation of a Country House Museum, Aston Hall, Birmingham

Martin Ellis

Wednesday 20th November 2019

The Creation of a Country House Museum: The Furnishing of Aston Hall

Looks at one of the finest Jacobean country houses in England. Built between 1618 and 1635, its public history is almost as long as its life as a private house. Aston was the first great house in Britain to be taken into public ownership – and the subject of the country's first major Heritage campaign. The Hall, full of outstanding interiors effectively unaltered since the middle of the 18th century, is now part of Birmingham’s museum service. After an introduction to the house, the talk considers the ideas, problems and excitement of interpreting a major house and collection for the public, and the series of furnishing programmes which, since the 1940s, have steadily brought the Hall back to life.


John Leith, Aston Hall, colour lithograph, 1862

Martin Ellis:

Martin has worked as a field archaeologist, art curator, broadcaster and art dealer. At Blackburn and Birmingham Museums, he curated collections of fine and applied art, exhibitions and historic buildings. His most recent project is the co-curation of the major exhibition Victorian Radicals, currently on an 8-venue tour of the USA. Martin was closely involved with the development of the BBC and British Museum project A History of the World in 100 Objects, and has written and presented a variety of programmes for BBC Radio 4 in association with Pier Productions. He currently works with his wife Julia in their art and antiques business. Martin is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an accredited lecturer for the Arts Society, a Freeman of the Goldsmiths’ Company and a Research Associate at the University of Birmingham.

Review by Ann Marriott of the November 2019 lecture on Aston Hall

Aston Hall, a very few miles north of Birmingham, was built for Sir James Holt in the first half of the seventeenth century. The house remained the home of the Holt family until 1770. James Stuart stayed here on his way from Scotland to claim the throne of England. At a later date King Charles I also spent a night here leaving a royalist garrison behind. This provoked an attack from parliamentarian Birmingham which damaged some walls.

The house is large and impressive, designed with many gables and chimneys. After the Holts, it became the property of Birmingham Museum. This was before the city centre museum existed, so Aston Hall was the Museum of Birmingham and was much visited in the nineteenth century. Most of the furniture had gone with the family leaving a largely empty house, but one room had a stuffed rhinoceros and a stuffed giraffe. These animals were very popular.

Two curators Cox and Woodall in the 1940s and 50s made a big effort to refurnish the house. They bought what antique wooden furniture they could. At the time prices were fairly low. Some of it was put together from two different periods eg a different top on a table. The lecturer made the point that intentions for the interiors of historic houses change over time.

In the 1980s the curators tried to create interiors as they were in the seventeenth century. Records were searched to establish what the original furniture looked like. The originals were acquired if possible, and near copies were found acceptable if not.

In the 2000s rooms were painted or wallpapered with materials which made the rooms look as they would have looked in the seventeenth century.

By a show of hands the lecturer established that about half of the audience had visited Aston Hall. After this excellent lecture, the other half would like to visit too.

Reviews by Members

The results from the Assessment Slips were as follows:

Outstanding:    10
Excellent :          30
Very Good :       13
Good :                  5
Fair :                      0