This Palladian style villa may have originated as a bolthole from London but there’s nothing provincial about it. While suburbia has crept round Danson Park over the last two and a half centuries, miraculously the house, stables and park have survived virtually intact. Now owned by Bexley Council, a registry office makes for a decent unobtrusive use for the historic building. And lunch in the courtyard of Danson Stables is a winning combination of good food and architecture.
Serendipity – and a £4.5 million restoration by Historic England – has saved Danson for the next two and a half centuries. In 1995 the house was falling to pieces. Jump a decade and the Queen is cutting the ribbon. “It’s smaller than I thought,” Her Majesty observes upon her arrival. Understandable – there are optical illusions at play. Two fenestration tricks make the building appear larger than it is: (internally) not expressing the architraves and (externally) shrinking window sizes on the upper floor.
“Very Miss Jane Austen!” declares John O’Connell, climbing the serene sweep of steps to the entrance door. Unusually there are two large panes of glass in the beautifully aged mahogany door. Good for catching northern light but also an 18th century display of wealth. The walls are equally blessed by the patina of age. Portland stone given a lime wash has a mellowed texture and, set high up on a ridge, the house turns golden yellow in the sun. If you’ve got it flaunt it. And Sir John Boyd had it. Before he lost it.
Freshly beknighted with a 19 year old bride to serenade, the 40 something client commissioned Sir Robert Taylor to design him a home worthy of his station in life. The 1st Baronet Boyd owned Caribbean sugar plantations and was Vice Chairman of the British East India Company. “It really is a most skilful plan,” observes John O’Connell, and as Ireland’s leading conservation architect, he should know. “With the summer sun Danson House could be a villa along the Brenta Canal!” A double blow of the American and French Revolutions wrecked Sir John’s businesses. He died in debt in 1800. His son chopped off the wings, reclaiming the building materials for stables designed by George Dance. Five years later, the house was sold.
The entrance hall, in Palladian terms, is really a closed loggia so relatively simple with a plain marble floor. Opulence follows. Why employ one starchitect when you can get two? Sir John Boyd got Sir William Chambers to jazz up Sir Robert Taylor’s design, adding fireplaces and doors and other decorative touches. A rare cycle of Georgian allegorical wall paintings by the French artist Charles Pavillon stimulate after dinner conversation in the dining room.
A Victorian daughter of the manor, Sarah Johnston, helpfully painted watercolours of the interiors. Historic England used her paintings as inspiration for the carpets. A painting by George Barret hanging in the Chinoserie wallpapered octagonal Ladies’ Sitting Room illustrates the house with its wings. Incidentally, an exhibition of this Irish born artist is planned for the newly reopened National Gallery of Ireland.
The plaster roundels in the Gentlemen’s Music Room cum Library were found in cupboards. Imprints on the walls for the surrounding swags allowed them to be accurately reinstalled. That ingenious layout – interlocking rectangles and polygons around a dream of an oval stairwell – adapts well. Modern services are tucked into servants’ corridors wedged between the reception room shapes. The butler’s pantry contains a lift.
The landscape has erroneously been attributed to Capability Brown. Where hasn’t? It’s like every church carving must be Grinling Gibbons. Capability may have visited Danson, but the setting is the work of his associate, Nathaniel Richmond. Danson House (tour) and Danson Stables (lunch) and Danson Park (stroll). “It really is a place apart and invokes the Veneto,” John O’Connell lyrically waxes. Danson with the stars. The day is so singular, a true joy.