Raynham Hall is one of the most splendid of the great houses of Norfolk. For nearly 400 years it has been the seat of the Townshend family. It is also reported to be haunted and has provided the scene for possibly the most famous ghost photograph of all time, the famous Brown Lady descending the staircase.
The house is now believed to have been designed by Sir Roger Townshend, the first baronet, in 1622. By the time of his death in 1637 it was substantially complete, though apparently some rooms had not been fitted out.
Perhaps because of the three-year Grand Tour of Europe which Sir Roger had undertaken, accompanied by his mason, William Edge of Raynham, whom he paid in 1620 for twenty-eight weeks accompanying him “in England and out of England”. Raynham was built in an entirely new style, abandoning native tradition and following the Italian form and plan. Except for its hipped roof and Dutch gables, Raynham could easily be mistaken for a house built nearly a century later.
Later extensions and interiors were designed for the 2nd Viscount Townshend1 by William Kent, who brought details of its frontispiece on the North Front more closely in line with the manner of Inigo Jones, whose style formed the pattern for Palladianism in Britain. Working at Raynham from 1725 to 1732, Kent added the north wing to Raynham and decorated the interior, where much of Kent’s finest work can be seen, especially in the elaborately carved architectural chimneypieces, the architectural doorcases and the painted staircase imitating niches and sculpture in trompe l’oeil and the painted ceiling imitating mosaic in the Belisarius Room.
The other significant change made by Kent was to the Marble Hall which was newly paved with black and white marble and fitted out with Ionic pilasters, entablature and attic story. The west front had been built with two entrances, one at each end of the hall, and Kent probably created the new central door and removed the hall screens.
The hall ceiling, devoted to the ancestral arms in plasterwork, cannot be earlier than 1724, as it features the Garter awarded to Townshend that year. Kent improved internal circulation by replacing the original chimneypiece, opposite the entrance, with a door leading directly into the saloon, the former chapel in the middle of the garden front. In reframing Townshend’s set of seventeenth century full-length portraits (of the volunteer captains who served under Lord Vere at Tilbury) to hang beneath a frieze of helmets and laurel branches, Kent highlighted the worthy, ancestral value of his patron’s art collection, in contrast to the newly purchased old masters covering the walls at Houghton Hall.
Remodelling the exterior and interiors at Raynham Hall helped to qualify Kent as a conservation architect, one ready to tackle seventeenth-century buildings then admired as the work of Inigo Jones. This may have been what Horace Walpole had in mind when he claimed that as an architect Kent ‘was a restorer of the science’.
I was employed to examine the decoration of the Marble Hall.
The Brown Lady
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is a ghost, which reportedly haunts Raynham Hall. It became one of the most famous hauntings in Great Britain when photographers from Country Life magazine claimed to have captured its image.2 The “Brown Lady” is so named because of the brown brocade dress it is claimed she wears.
The ghost seen in the photo is reportedly that of Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686–1726), who once lived at Raynham Hall. Her brother was Sir Robert Walpole, of nearby Houghton Hall and who is considered England’s first Prime Minister. She married Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, also a statesman and business partner to Sir Robert.
Her father had originally refused consent for her to marry her first love, the Second Viscount, however they were married much later on after the death of Townshend’s first wife, the Hon. Elizabeth Pelham. However by this stage Dorothy had been deeply embroiled in an affair with the Marquess of Wharton.
Upon learning of the affair it is rumoured that Lord Townshend ordered that she be kept locked in her apartments at Raynham Hall. She died at the age of 40, on 29th March, 1726. Her death was officially reported being of smallpox but many believe she died of either a broken heart or a broken neck after being pushed down the grand staircase.
Fortunately I only learnt of the Brown Lady having spent a very comfortable night in the house.
1 He was often known as Turnip Townshend because of his strong interest in farming turnips and his role in the British agricultural revolution.
2 In September, 1936, the now world-famous picture of the Brown Lady was taken by Captain Provand, whilst he was on a photographic assignment for Country Life. He had taken one photograph of the old staircase when his assistant, Indre Shira, called out that he could see a form on the stairs and asked Captain Provand to take another shot. Although the figure did not appear in the viewfinder, it appeared on the photographic plate, and after the negative had been examined by experts it was confirmed that it had not been touched up or faked in any way. The picture was subsequently published in Country Life on 6th December, 1936. (Extract From Ghosts of East Anglia by Tony Ellis).
Compiled from various sources