diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 05, 2018

Location: Blackheath, London, SE10 8QX [map]
Open: 11am-5pm (closed Thu, Fri, Sat) (closed Oct-Mar)
Admission: £9.00
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/rangers-house-the-wernher-collection
Five word summary: a diamond geezer's art hoard
Time to allow: about an hour

Here's one from the "I can't believe I've never visited before" list. It's located at the back of Greenwich Park, facing Blackheath, so not exactly hard to get to. It's a mansion-slash-museum overlooking the Rose Garden, for heaven's sake, so not exactly easy to miss.

Although actually there are reasons. It's usually closed, opening only during a narrow definition of summer, and even then staying locked up three days a week, Saturdays included. And it used to be open for guided tours only, so every time I walked past I'd never booked on one, so I never went in. But following a major overhaul this year, the building's been reinterpreted for individual perusal rather than collective tours, so now you can simply turn up and take a look round for yourself. A lot of work has taken place over the winter to get things ready, hence the delayed opening this season, indeed the new set-up's only been operational for a fortnight.

Ranger's House is exactly what you think it is, i.e. the house where the ranger for Greenwich Park used to live, although before that it's been a naval officer's pad and home to the 4th Earl of Chesterfield. By the time it was given to the nation it was empty, hence not the most thrilling of prospects for a tourist attraction, so English Heritage have coupled it up with an otherwise 'homeless' collection of antiques to provide a raison d'être.

The Wehrner Collection was amassed over several decades by Julius Wernher, an extraordinarily rich Victorian businessman with a penchant for fine art. As a young man he moved from Germany to London to seek work, but after serving just six weeks as a lowly clerk was asked if he'd like to pop over to South Africa to help oversee some new diamond mines, and started on an inexorably upward entrepreneurial spiral. Ten years later he returned to London an inordinately wealthy man and began acquiring top-level art, focusing on artefacts displaying high-quality craftsmanship. These items were originally displayed around his London residence, then also at his out-of-town mansion at Luton Hoo, and over 700 of them are now on display in Greenwich. They pack a lot of wow.

Ranger's House is a "knock on the door and we'll let you in" kind of attraction. Once inside you'll be nudged towards the ticket desk and then given instructions on where to go, which roughly translate as "upstairs first, turn left and do a complete circuit, then do downstairs". Upstairs begins with a display offering some historical background, including a reminder that most of what you're about to see was ultimately paid for through the exploitation of the press-ganged indigenous population. Here too is the exploding desk which kickstarted Wehrner's collecting bug, with all its secret bits popped out and some fine marquetry on display. And then the proper stuff.

[Ranger's House has a no photography policy, so you'll have to imagine, or buy the guide book, or scan the website, or visit for yourself]

The first room's pretty typical, neatly rammed with over 50 objects in a central glass case and around the walls. You can immediately see that Julius had taste because these are impeccably crafted, in this room most likely carved to within a millimetre of their lives. A high proportion of the objects have a religious bent, because that's the 16th and 17th centuries for you, and most of it is from mainland Europe - there's never a lot of British stuff on show.

Each room has an approximate theme, from the Renaissance to fine jewellery to Dutch Old Masters to Italian ceramics, and essentially you never quite know what you're going to get next. Julius liked to collect the "splendidly ugly", which is why the bronze curio of Hercules shows him drunk and asleep, why many of the paintings show Christ's bloody suffering, and why if you twist round the ivory pendant of a young woman there's a rotting skeleton on her back. But it's by no means all dark - that silver Nautilus cup is exquisite, and I found the lead-glazed oval dish with moulded eel, fish and crab properly mesmerising.

Some exhibits are descriptively labelled, but most simply numbered, and to discover what they are you'll need to pick up the room guide. These are beautifully produced and bound, if a little hard to read in certain rooms where the lighting is deliberately low. Also there are only four books in each room, so if you're the fifth person through the door you may be left wondering. But each description is intelligently written, and as an alternative to being shepherded round on a guided tour it works well.

Downstairs is laid out more like the rooms of a great house, with items displayed in situ, as Julius might have had them on show. Everyone loves a nice bit of Sèvres, or a massive medieval tapestry, or a marble-topped occasional table, it's just that very few of us can ever hope to own them. One particularly striking statue in the long gallery depicts a life-size bare-breasted woman being snogged by an angel, and once stood at the bottom of the main staircase at Luton Hoo - the floor here has had to be strengthened to support it.

The staff are characters too. Stood singly they're helpful and informative, but get two of them together and they'll start discussing the ethics of the ivory trade, or gossiping about shift changes, or bemoaning the fact that English Heritage have run out of new uniforms so the old grey polo'll have to do until next year. But the real stars are the objects in the collection themselves, and the unseen craftspeople behind them, in this miniature privately-sourced V&A at the top of Greenwich Park.

» By coincidence, Ian Visits visited on the same day! Here's his report.

English Heritage 2018: Apsley House & Wellington Arch, Eltham Palace, Kenilworth Castle, Dover Castle, Wrest Park, Down House, Carisbrooke Castle, Osborne House, Battle Abbey, Pevensey Castle, Ranger's House

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