Fairfax House

The city of York is one of England’s most historic cities, everywhere you go you will find echoes of the past. You might find this feeling in the medieval streets or striking churches. But consider the museums, York is full of unique museums that you will not find elsewhere. One of my personal favourites is the extraordinary Fairfax House. 

Fairfax House is a stunning example of 18th Architecture, originally having been the winter home of Viscount Charles Gregory Fairfax and his daughter Anne. Their family home, Gilling Castle was only 20 miles from York itself, but winters made large homes tricky to keep warm. Therefore, smaller winter homes in towns where common among the wealthy- it was far more economical. Moreover, the house would offer them a chance to involve themselves in York’s bustling social scene. But just because this was a winter home it need not be any less grand. Viscount himself sought to have “The finest townhouse in England’. A title the museum still proudly wares on its sleeves today.

How do you go about creating the finest townhouse? The building, 27 Castlegate, was purchased in 1759 for Anne. Fairfax was a widower and Anne was his only surviving child, he sought to invest in her future. No half measures were taken with the renovations. The famed Yorkshire architect, John Carr was commissioned to help with the ambitious project. John Carr was a Yorkshire man himself and was well respected in the community, having designed numerous public buildings and homes before this. His work married fashion and function, always making the best design with budget in mind. When you enter Fairfax house, you’ll notice how precise and well fitted each room is, almost like a life size dolls house.

Stucco ceiling by Giuseppe Cortese
PHOTOGRAPH BY http://www.fairfaxhouse.co.uk

While visiting, look up and take note of the ceiling. You’ll find the stunning stucco work of Giuseppe Cortese. He was a rising Italian-Swiss designer who was heavily influenced by nature and the rococo style. But the designs are even more elaborate when you take a more mindful look. Each is a work of art bespoke to the nature of the room. For example, the dining room depicts a cornucopia, spilling with fruits and the library depicts the likeness of four famous writers, Milton, Pope, Addison and Locke. You may also enjoy decoding the hidden messages in the ceiling above the grand staircase. See if you can find the symbols of the Viscounts Catholic faith (At a time where it was discriminated against!) and references to the Seven Years war.

Dining Room
PHOTOGRAPH BY http://www.fairfaxhouse.co.uk

The paintings on display will also capture your attention. Firstly, the notable presence of Dutch artists, Such as Pieter van Host and Jacob Marel. But also, the privet commissions of art such as the portraits of Anne by Philippe Mercier.

Anyone interested in antiques and historic furniture will also be glad to visit. Although they are not all original to the house, they are era appropriate, with their own special history. Most of the furniture comes from Noel Terry’s (Grandson of the founder of The Terry’s confectionary company) collection. Who could not marvel at these painstakingly hand made works? Many of which are tribute to some of England’s most well-regarded furniture designers. Thomas Chippendale, William Vile and John Gordon all feature in the vast catalogue. Each piece comes with its own charm and stresses the core values of a museum: collecting, preserving, and sharing.

Fairfax house has admirable dedication to its work in educating the community and preserving the house. Unfortunately, the house fell into disrepair over the years following the deaths of Anne and the Viscount. It briefly found life as a gentleman’s club and later a dance hall and cinema. But in 1980 the city council agreed to a restoration project, recognising its importance as a historic building. This was not without its hardships. During its time as a cinema, many areas of the beautiful stucco ceilings where painted a garish red and some areas where cracked. The woodwork, staircase and much of the brickwork had also been ruined, leading to their replacement. But this was a labour of love. It took £750,000 and 20,000 hours of labour to restore the house to its previous splendour. Finally opening to the public again in 1984. This strong dedication continues to this day as Fairfax house continues to become more and more ambitious with its exhibits and education. Specialist exhibits come on an annual basis, most concerning the Georgian period. You may find feature on Georgian entertainment, such as 2016’s “In pursuit of pleasure: The Polite & Impolite World of Georgian Entertainment” or 2019’s exhibit on fashion,” The Georgian Edit: Cutting-Edge Fashion of the Eighteenth Century”. Maybe you’d like to attend the annual ‘Georgian’ symposiums’? These events allow you to book seats for lectures held by academics on matters relating to the era’s history or culture. So, there is certainly something to cater to everybody’s taste. The effort of the volunteers and staff can not be understated either. As you walk around the house you will find a host in each room, ready to talk to you about the history of the space and its key features. In the last few years an effort has been made to get children more involved with the museum, by introducing an interactive game. The new mascots, a beautifully illustrated family of mice dressed in Georgian regalia have a series of mysteries for young visitors to solve- with a reward at the end.

Georgian shoes from 2016's 'Century of shoes' exhibit
PHOTOGRAPH BY http://www.fairfaxhouse.co.uk

Fairfax house welcomes visitors every day from 10am- 5pm from late March through to late December, apart from the Sunday hours of 11am-4pm. As Fairfax house is located in the centre of York its easily accessible by the park and ride system. Children between 6 and 16 are £3 while adults only need pay £7.50, over 60s and students pay £6 and family tickets are £17.50 (2 adults and up to 3 children). But these prices gain you a whole year’s admission!

You can find more details to plan your visit on their official site, including educational material for teachers and all the dates relating to up and coming exhibits. So, next time you find yourselves in York don’t hesitate to take the time to enjoy England’s finest Georgian townhouse!

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Millie Castleton

History has always been a deep passion of mine. I’m fascinated by the stories of the people and events that shaped the past. Having chased this interest to degree level, earning my Bachelors degree in 2017 I have come to view history as a anything but a linear progression of time. Its a collection of endless paths. Each one offering a unique perspective, some requiring that you open your mind to ideas and worlds that are alien to our modern sensibilities.

This is the core aim of this blog: The paths that lead to us To explore the many journeys that mankind has lived and changed to form this modern world.