In 1943, during World War II Swindon Corporation took the pioneering decision to purchase Lydiard House and Park, rescuing it from ruin and almost certain demolition.
The empty property, which had been the private domain of the St. John family for over 500 years, became a public asset.
Thanks to Murray John’s efforts Lydiard House was one of the first stately homes in Great Britain to receive government funding for restoration – the majority of the work being undertaken by local craftsmen.
In 1955 the House was opened to the public by Lord Lansdown. Since then much of the original furnishings and virtually all of the St. John family portraits have been traced and returned to Swindon to be exhibited in the location they were originally intended.
Over the decades Lydiard House has benefited from substantial grant funding from national organisations such as the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, as well as bequests and private donations, and money raised by the Friends of Lydiard Park.
This has enabled Swindon Council to purchase and conserve numerous beautiful and fascinating Lydiard exhibits. Today the heritage status of the museum is recognised throughout Britain.
Virtually all of the museum objects are on permanent display and 99 per cent are owned by the Borough of Swindon on behalf of its citizens.
Highlights in the Lydiard collection. Ten items which tell how this historic building became a much-loved public heritage asset to the town
1. Portrait of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemain, by Sir Peter Lely, mid-17th Century – above. Said to be one of the most beautiful women of her day, Barbara was King Charles II’s favourite mistress, once called ‘the curse of the nation’ for her power and influence. It is part of a large collection of St. John family portraits which hang in Lydiard House and was purchased for Swindon by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.
2. The Grandison Book. This stunning manuscript volume was compiled in the early 17th Century by Sir Richard St. George, Clarenceaux King of Arms. It contains genealogical records of the St. John family, vividly painted with heraldic symbols and illustrations.
3. The Socchi Desk is a very rare mechanical desk with an intricate sliding mechanism. Made in the early 19th Century by Giovanni Socchi, it is one of only four known to exist in the world and the only one in Britain. This unique item is part of a group of important furnishings bequeathed to Lydiard House by the Ernest Cook Trust in 1955 and restored to working order with their support in 2001.
4. The State Bed – above – was refurbished with gorgeous embroidered silk draperies in 2006 thanks to a private donation. The Kennet branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS) designed and created the decorative panels inspired by the painted window in the nearby Dressing Room. Throughout the house you can see examples of beautiful needlework by NADFAS volunteers.
5. Silver Rose Bowl – presented to Vernon St. John 6th Viscount Bolingbroke by tenants on the Lydiard estate to mark his coming of age in 1917. Vernon was the last viscount to live in Lydiard House. The bowl was bequeathed by the 6th Viscount along with a large collection of original Lydiard furnishings, photographs, documents and pictures.
6 & 7. Lady Diana Spencer’s Painted Panels Detail from a set of floral wall panels by the talented society artist Lady Diana Spencer. Lady Di, as she was known, shares a common ancestry and a striking likeness with the late Princess Diana of Wales.
Lady of the manor at Lydiard in the 18th Century she was divorced by her husband through an Act of Parliament, which caused considerable scandal at the time.
8. 18th Century Sun Dial by J. Sisson of London, designer of the finest mathematical instruments. Made for the St. John’s of Lydiard Park, this dial was restored in 2004 with support from Upper Thames NADFAS and a replica made for the Walled Garden.
9. St. Mary’s Church by John Piper. One of Britain’s best known modern artists shows Lydiard’s famous Golden Cavalier statue. It is one of the more recently acquired pictures in the Lydiard collection thanks to the support of the Art Fund.
10. Swindon Hooter Petition. In 1873 Lord Bolingbroke forced the Swindon Great Western Railway Company to silence its factory hooter as he didn’t like the noise drifting across the fields from the railway works. 4,339 local people signed this petition to get it successfully reinstated!
Behind Closed Doors: A Programme of Special Events supported by the Friends of Lydiard Park
Swindon Council is closing Lydiard House during January, February and March 2016 to provide an opportunity to undertake intensive cleaning and care of the collections, prior to re-opening with a new exhibition in time for the Easter holidays.
During this closed period The Friends of Lydiard Park are partnering Lydiard House to offer a series of fascinating behind the scenes talks and tours.
Saturday 23 January, 2.30pm: The Ladies of Lydiard. An entertaining tour with local historian Frances Bevan revealing the secrets and talents of Lydiard ladies through the centuries.
Wednesday 3 February, 2.30pm: Wigs, Ruffs and Robes. Discover hidden stories behind the portraits of sumptuously dressed aristocrats with Lydiard House educationalist Nancy Heath.
Saturday 13 February, 2.30pm: Keeping up Appearances. Frances Yeo, Curator of Lydiard House shows how the Lydiard collection is cared for and demonstrates ways you can look after your own treasured possessions and furnishings.
Saturday 20 February, 2.30pm: Grand Designs. Architect Michael Gray explains how the St.John family tried to assert and maintain their aristocratic status by commissioning art, architecture and landscape at Lydiard Park between 1615 and 1748.
Wednesday 24 February, 7pm: The Ladies of Lydiard with local historian Frances Bevan (see 23 January)
Wednesday 16 March, 7pm: Uncovering History. Jane Rutherfoord talks about ancient wall paintings and her fascinating conservation work in St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze. Donations to the St. Mary’s Conservation Appeal are welcomed.