South Coast Journal – interview with Lady Emma Barnard

Lady Emma, chatelaine of Parham House & Gardens, talks to Manfreda Cavazza about her love for this Elizabethan home. Photos by Jonathan James Wilson.


Anyone who has visited Parham House & Gardens, the Elizabethan house in West Sussex, will agree there is something wonderfully enigmatic about the place.

It’s a historic house that doesn’t feel like a museum. It’s a building that has been meticulously preserved and looked after for generations, but it is very much a family home. It’s a place that has stood still while many others like it have forged ahead, and yet it lives and breathes. People go there to discover its fascinating collection of paintings, furniture and needlework, but they also like to simply stroll around the gardens or sit on a bench to enjoy the views of the rolling South Downs whilst eating ice cream.

It’s quirky, quintessentially English, and throughout 2020 it became the haven of Lady Emma Barnard and her family.

“I’ve never spent this long at Parham,” explains Lady Emma. “It was a huge privilege to have been here throughout lockdown. It’s certainly made me appreciate how special this place is and how very unusual it is. The call to preserve its spirit is as strong as ever.”

PRESERVING THE PAST

Lady Emma has been the chatelaine of Parham since 1994. Like Parham’s previous chatelains – her great-aunt Veronica Tritton and her great-grandmother Alicia Pearson before her – Lady Emma incredibly passionate about maintaining the historic environment of the place. A Charitable Trust now owns Parham, its beautiful gardens and its 875-acre estate, but Lady Emma and her family are closely involved with every aspect of its care.

Her mission is to preserve Parham to the highest possible standard and to share it with the public in a sustainable fashion so that the buildings, collections and grounds continue to “educate and delight future generations”.

Whilst 2020 was certainly not easy – Parham was closed to visitors last season due to the pandemic – Lady Emma sees this period as but a blip in the House’s long history.

“This is not the first time that Parham has experienced hardship,” explains Lady Emma. “In 1948, when Britain was coming out of the dark days of the Second World War, my great-grandparents Clive and Alicia Pearson decided to open the House to visitors. They felt very strongly that places like Parham could be emblems of hope, of continuity and the quiet triumph of the human spirit.”

Indeed, Parham was one of the first private houses in England to open formally to the public, paving the way for an activity that attracts people from around the world and centres on that great jewel in the crown of Britain’s glory, its heritage.

Lady Emma sees Parham as a great survivor. It has weathered two world wars, the Civil War and all the tumult thrown up by the nearly four centuries it has lived through since its foundation stone was laid in 1577. She derives great comfort from the thought of living within a continuum of history and believes that visitors today can also find solace in the timeless beauty of Parham.

As John Ruskin said in his work The Seven Lamps of Architecture: “The greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age.”

HUNTING FOR TREASURES          

Lady Emma has been slowly adding to the sensitively chosen collection of furniture, paintings, books, textiles and clocks that her great-grandparents gathered over 40 years. Each room in the House has been carefully curated. The order in which you wander through these light-filled spaces is chronological: it begins with the Elizabethan Great Hall and ends with the eclectic Long Gallery at the top of the House, which at 48 metres (158ft) long, is the third-longest in a private house in England and runs the entire length of the House. The experience has been designed to be delightful and educational but never didactic.

She explains: “We’ve resisted too much labelling, signs or leaflets. But everything you see in the House is there for a reason. They are either items that had once been at Parham or had a historical or family association with the House. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle.”

Large-scale portraits abound, and there are many excellent rugs, carpets and one of the finest and most important collections of early needlework in the country. The great botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks (1744-1820), an ancestor of Mrs Pearson and Lady Emma Barnard, is celebrated in the Green Room. One of the most treasured possessions is a magnificent narwhal tusk – in its painted case – displayed in the Great Hall.

Next year also marks 100 years since the Pearsons first bought Parham and there are plans to celebrate this occasion, although nothing has been decided as yet.

RENOVATING THE GARDEN

In recent months, most of the family’s energies have been focussed on the Garden, which consists of seven acres of Pleasure Grounds, laid out in the 18th century, with a lake, spring bulbs, a brick and turf maze and many specimen trees.

The old four-acre Walled Garden contains romantic wide herbaceous borders, a rose garden, a cut flower garden, a vegetable garden, an orchard and a 1920s Wendy House. The greenhouse, also dating from the 1920s, has a fine display of pelargoniums and other tender plants.

“We are hugely excited about our plans for the garden. Our new Head Gardener Andrew Humprhis is leading a major horticultural renovation programme,” says Lady Emma.

Indeed, the forced closure last year gave the garden team an unprecedented opportunity to tackle a long-standing issue with perennial weed (bindweed and ground elder in particular). “The Garden had come to the point where the problem needed to be gripped, and bold decisions had to be made. We’ve never had the time to do this sort of work. We realised there was no point planting in beds that were so infested, so we decided to clear those beds completely. Lockdown, in the end, turned into a positive for us.” 

Lady Emma is working closely with Andrew to recreate what she calls the “wild and woolly” nature of the romantic gardens she recalls from her childhood visits to Parham. “It was such a magical place, filled with roses and clematis. I remember being given a pair of scissors and taught how to prune. There was endless dead-heading to do!”

In 2003 Lady Emma and then Head Gardener, the late Ray Gibbs, characterised the Walled Garden as a series of ‘interlocking pictures’ exemplifying the best of the English romantic tradition. With the help of Andrew and his team, the family aim to restore Parham’s Walled Garden to this effect whilst maintaining its unique nature and distinctive sense of place.

Parham’s garden team is also researching climate change, taking this into account when making plant choices. Rising temperatures will have an impact on any garden, especially when it comes to watering requirements. A major lockdown project was the digging of a borehole, as deep as the house is wide, which will provide plenty of water and reduce the need for treated mains water.

The Gardens at Parham are very much seen as part of the House. In the 1940s, Alicia Pearson insisted on having cut flowers from the gardens displayed throughout the House for visitors to enjoy and this tradition continues to this day, bringing the outside in.

One thing is clear: everything at Parham is carefully and soberly considered. There is nothing flashy or grand about it. As Lady Emma puts it, it is a place that is “very comfortable in its skin”. It sits, quietly and rather majestically, as it has for many centuries, at the foot of the South Downs, waiting for you to discover it and be spellbound.

Discover more: www.parhaminsussex.co.uk