Window into Christchurch Park's past

Christchurch Mansion is hosting a new photographic exhibition which shows the mansion and its grounds during its Victorian heyday. These pictures recently uncovered in the Suffolk Record Office have never been on public display before.

By Andrew Clarke

Christchurch Mansion is hosting a new photographic exhibition which shows the mansion and its grounds during its Victorian heyday. These pictures recently uncovered in the Suffolk Record Office have never been on public display before. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to exhibition curator Stuart Grimwade.

One of the great joys of central Ipswich is Christchurch Park and its accompanying mansion. The 70 acre park and two arboretums seem to have changed little over the years but like most parts of the town have evolved because of use and because of the two world wars.

The park is currently undergoing an extensive restoration project which is being supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund. The object of the exercise is to restore the park to its Victorian heyday, reinstate and repair footpaths which have started to crumble and build new visitors facilities by the Bolton Road entrance. The fund have made a grant of £3.2 million towards the restoration which will ultimately cost a total of £4.4 million and is expected to be complete next summer.

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The look of the mansion has also changed over the years. A new exhibition featuring the earliest photographs taken in Ipswich, show the mansion in the mid-1850s being almost engulfed with greenery - its doors and windows half hidden beneath what appears to be a beard of ivy - whereas today it is architecturally clean shaven.

Lady Tollemache, landscape designer, has been commissioned to redesign the Wolsey Garden at the back of the mansion and turn it into a sensory garden, filled with scented plants such as lavender.

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This exhibition Christchurch Park - A Victorian Album has been curated by Stuart Grimwade, of Friends of Christchurch Park, to accompany the restoration work in the park. The exhibition is the result of four years research in the Suffolk Record Office and accompanying picture restoration.

The pictures date from the mid-1850s and most of them come from a local artist called Robert Burrows who was an early photographic enthusiast. He said that although the park had always been associated with the mansion and formed its grounds and a private deer park when it was a private home, the fact that it became public property and had its first municipal make-over during the Victorian era has given it a very Victorian feel - which the heritage lottery funders were keen to preserve.

The exhibition of photographs runs from the earliest views of the park and the mansion taken in 1855 and run up to the turn of the century. The photographs serve not only as a window onto Ipswich life in the past but also serve as a means to see how the park has changed - or how little it has changed.

One of the great aspects of the exhibition is spotting recognisable landmarks and putting yourself in that spot 150 years ago. The round pond has always been there - originally part of the deer park behind the mansion and its exciting to see it without its municipal safety railings and footpaths which were installed very shortly after the park was handed over the borough in 1895.

Stuart Grimwade said: “It's a fascinating glimpse into the past. I happened to see one of the pictures in a magazine or newsletter several years ago and it was credited to the Suffolk Record Office, so I suspected that they might have more.

“I started digging around and I uncovered this entire collection of pictures by Robert Burrows which I don't think have ever been publicly displayed before. To these I have added extra pictures taken just before the turn of the century and were found in the Suitall Collection.”

He said that the pictures prove that the public were allowed access to the park while it was still a family home. The Fonnereau Family were the last people to use the mansion as a family home. The mansion was then sold to the brewer and banker Felix Cobbold in 1892 who immediately offered it to the borough on the condition that the council opened the building to the public and ran it as a museum.

This offer was not welcomed with unanimous glee because it would have been a hugely expensive project and a fierce debate and vote was taken before the council agreed to take over the running of the mansion in 1895. The negotiations to hand over the park and the mansion had become so protracted that developers had already nibbled away at the edges of the park forcing the council take over the land before it was built on. Fonnereau Road, Bolton Lane and Park Road are all areas that once would have formed part of the land that went with the mansion.

The park now includes 70 acres but before it was handed over for the benefit of Ipswich people it encompassed a colossal 83 acres.

Stuart Grimwade said: “Felix Cobbold was quite a philanthropist. Life had been good to him. He was a prominent businessman - a brewer and a banker - and he felt it was his duty to give something back to the town. It was quite a considerable donation and one which influenced the whole look of the centre of the town.

“If the land had been sold off and not deeded to the Corporation then it would almost have certainly been built on and the whole character of the area would have changed.”

He said that once the Corporation had decided to run the park and mansion they took their duties very seriously and commissioned top local architect John Shewell Corder to design the gates, gatehouses and layout of the park. This was to be a very expensive undertaking and new public shelters, fountains and statues were brought into the park including one of Queen Victoria which stood in front of the mansion until it was removed for war weapons during World War II.

Mr Grimwade added that plans for the park dating back to 1674, show how the grounds have changed over the years. The round pond was first recorded on those initial plans but a nearby square pond is believed to date back to medieval times. It is filled by spring water which feeds the adjacent wildlife ponds but in the past formed an important part of the town's water supply.

This medieval pond is clearly visible in one of the photographs dating from the 1860s.

He said that the population of Ipswich were well used to the park when it eventually opened officially to the public in 1896. Successive owners of the mansion had allowed the public access to their private grounds since 1724.

In 1808 Captain George Elers observed: “... the inhabitants enter Mr Fonnereau's grounds at any time and at all seasons, passing close to the mansion house on their way to the park, and on a fine summer's evening, and particularly of a Sunday, it is crowded like Kensington Gardens.” From 1847 the Upper Arboretum was leased to the Corporation of Ipswich to be converted into pleasure grounds for the poorer classes.

It is these scenes which Robert Burrows, artist turned photographer, captured on his early collection of cameras. The images show ordinary people - as well as the good and the great - enjoying themselves in the grounds. The majority of the photographs, taken before the days of the great plate cameras, show the park as it was when it was still in private ownership.

“You can see the park evolve over the years - it is very easy to recognise areas because many of the trees are not only still there, they still have the same basic shape. Also there are newly planted saplings in several of the pictures and now they have grown into mature trees.”

Among the photographs is a stunning series charting the changing face of the round pond, the celebration of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, the arrival of the Brett Fountain in the park, the original John Shewell Corder designed entrance to Bolton Lane and a 1896 visit by The Odd Volumes - a literary group from Chelmsford, organised by Frank Woolnough, the mansion's first curator.

Stuart Grimwade said it has taken nearly two years to restore the pictures and blow them up to exhibition size but he remains amazed at the quality of Burrows work and the quality of those early cameras.

“Robert Burrows was born in Ipswich in 1810. He worked in the family silversmith business in Silent Street and was a keen amateur artist. He painted local views around Ipswich and along the river banks of the Orwell and Gipping, regularly sending paintings along to the Ipswich Art Club exhibitions.

“From 1857 Burrows became interested in photography and was responsible for the earliest known photographic records of Ipswich scenes and people. He would have artificially posed his subjects who would have been required to remain still during the long exposure period required. These park images survive as small sepia prints and because of the years that have passed are now starting to degrade. My job was to re-photograph them and digitally restore them.”

He said most of the small pictures had a green tint to them as a result of the passage of time. Also the prints were too small to be properly displayed. He had to restore the pictures and increase the size.

“I didn't want to enhance them or doctor them in any way. All I wanted to do was return them to the state they would have been in when Burrows first printed the negatives. Then having got the balance right, the right contrast between the highlights and the shadows, I then blew up the pictures as much as I dared without compromising them so they could be put on public display.”

He said that he found this secret cache of photographs endlessly fascinating - charting a bygone world - and the early days of a public space that still remains at the heart of Ipswich public life.

“The picture of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations is particularly apt because it shows Christchurch Park being used for a public celebration. Today it still used for outdoor concerts, the annual town firework display and in the past was home of the Suffolk Show. It's a park which lies at the heart of Ipswich.”

The Christchurch Park - A Victorian Album photographic exhibition runs until February 2007.

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