by John Cogan ARPS
English Heritage’s Bessie Surtees House, on Newcastle’s Quayside, is a remarkable house and not only because it was built in the mid-1600s. Granted, it has all the necessary attributes: the half-timbering; the hidden jetty structure; the small mullion windows and heavy oak doors strengthened by a miscellany of hand-forged metal nails. What makes it extra remarkable is its size. This, by Jacobean standards, is a sky-scraper! There is a sense that its current position, so close to bars and past nights of inebriation, has given it a somewhat intoxicated tilt, but that’s not Newcastle Brown… it’s just the penalty of being old. Standing quayside for 400 plus years there is little wonder it’s settled into a comfortable shape but these houses were built to last, they were the apotheosis of wealth and stability, the mercantile class advertising their respectability and status.
Back to the photo shoot where we were made most welcome. Graham Saunders, the regional director, along with Nicola and Michelle, his assistants, patiently answered our questions. Initially, Graham stood by the window but the room is dominated by a fireplace that is so spectacular that it demands your attention. Ignore it at your peril. Drawn like a piece of metal to a magnet Graham drifts over to stand by the fireplace knowing that it is impossible to compete with its carvings and plasterwork.
Outside, with the vast bulk of the house as a backdrop, Graham generously posed in the bitter wind that assailed us. Gratefully, his short hair and lack of a reddening nose, made making those pictures easier than anticipated. We were able to spend nearly an hour, a somewhat magical hour, in these pleasant, post-medieval surroundings… There is a certain, subtle quality of light coming through the old, floated-glass windows. There is a mellow light emanating from deep within the highly polished floorboards. From the hand-crafted furniture comes the smell of oak.
Entry to the property is free and for an investment of time, say half an hour, you can experience a sense of times past and people whose lives have been lived. These sensations are palpable… Just look up and marvel at the plaster ceiling with its Tudor roses, Fleur de Lise and entwined flora. The walls are covered in oak panels. There are sections decorated with linen-fold carvings, where you can sense the hand of a craftsman. From the architrave, cherubs look down with their puffed-out cheeks and tight wings. It is a marvel! Yet, once you learn that the ceiling was not originally worked on site, though it is contemporary to Bessie’s house, but removed from a building further down the Quayside, the skill of, and care taken by, English Heritage is humbling.
Fortunately for us, groups like English Heritage and the National Trust work hard on our behalf. To afford us a wee segment of their busy day is an honour and a validation if the Portraits Project. We must be doing something right.
Pictured: Graham Saunders, Jacobean Cherub and date plaque in the fireplace. Photos John Cogan