Lewes District Council

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The story of Lewes House

One of our offices in the centre of Lewes has an interesting past which we explain, giving background to its former owners.

From the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) frequent references are found to a piece of land in Lewes known as “Bugates”. This land, comprising some two acres, lay between the present-day High Street and Friars Walk, flanked on its eastern side by Broomans Lane and on its west by Walwers Lane.

“Bugates” did not, however, extend so far northwards as the present-day carriageway of the High Street, but lay behind an earlier building on the site of Lewes House, references to which can be traced back to 1620.

We know that, in 1705, “Bugates” (the land at the rear of the house) belonged to one John Tabor, a “Doctor of Physick”, and that, in 1710, a widow, Mrs Elizabeth Board, purchased the house which then fronted the High Street. Tabor and Mrs Board had already established a business relationship which became firmly cemented by their subsequent marriage as did their mutual interest in the ancient landholding “Bugates” and the site of Lewes House. In 1733, following the death of Dr Tabor, his widow sold her house to one William Kempe, who married Philadelphia, a daughter of Dr Tabor’s first marriage, and then owner of “Bugates”.

We can say, therefore, that the early Georgian features of the property we now know as Lewes House probably date from 1733 and speculate that the earlier two-storey part of the present house was built, or remodelled, around the late mediaeval core, either by Dr Tabor or his son-in-law, William Kempe.

At the close of the 18th Century, the property was in the ownership of Henry Humphrey. It was during his occupation that the building was sketched in 1783 by James Lambert. A copy of the drawing hangs in Lewes House and shows the house at that time to be of its original two storeys with a gabled roof and entrance porch with living accommodation over, supported by Ionic columns. A garden occupied the site of the front and western parts of the present house. It was enclosed by a high flint wall and entered by an imposing gateway on its High Street frontage.

By 1812 the property had passed to Humphrey’s nephew, Henry Jackson, who was responsible for the addition of the west wing, rebuilding the front of the house and extending the property northwards to the High Street. Jackson’s new structure was of three storeys and incorporated the more fashionable high ceilings in the newly-created rooms. The work also included the construction of the present Doric porch and the flight of stone steps to pavement level, bringing the house to the appearance which it has today.

By 1836 Lewes House was in the ownership of Edward Shewell, who died in 1838. Edward fathered no fewer than 20 children by two wives, the second of whom, having borne him six of those children, outlived her husband by 45 years. She died in the house on 22 March 1883 aged 80 years.

The property then descended to Edward’s grandsons of his first marriage, Edward Louis Shewell and Henry Shewell. E L Shewell was drowned at sea on 5 May 1887, during a voyage from Barcelona to Marseilles, in a collision between the two steamships “Asic” and “Ajaccio”. This left the property in the sole ownership of Henry, a Major General in the British Army, who sold the property in August 1887 to his distant aunt, Elizabeth Cooper.

By 1890 we find a new occupant in residence, an American, Edward Perry Warren. Warren was the third son of Samuel Denis Warren of Massachusetts who founded the Cumberland Paper Mills at Maine. Edward Perry Warren was born in 1860, educated at Harvard (Class of 1883) and later entered Oxford to read Classics where he gained his MA degree.

From an early age Warren’s interest was antiquities – particularly Grecian – and, like his father and mother, he became a great collector of pictures, fine arts and china. Edward had little interest in the family business and, following his father’s death in 1888 (at which time he was in England) he was happy to leave those affairs in the hands of a trust so that he was free to follow his own pursuits of travel and collecting on his recently acquired income of £10,000 a year.

Warren needed a spacious and secluded private residence somewhere in Surrey or Sussex where he could satisfy his love for horses and dogs and which would provide a centre for his activities and a showplace for his collection of fine arts.

He began his search for such a residence in 1889 and, on 22 October, wrote to his friend Marshall from the White Hart Hotel, Lewes:
“The house that may do here is huge, old and not cheap. It has only three or four sunny rooms (this number might be just sufficient), and then a goodly number of large north rooms. It is in the centre of Lewes and yet has a quiet garden, a big kitchen garden, paddock, a greenhouse and stables ad lib. You can also have a walk by the seaside. I am much inclined to it.”
 
Inclination led to his decision that Lewes House would be ideal for his purposes and, on 25 April 1890, he received an Assignment of the Lease. In May 1910, Warren obtained a further Lease of the premises for a period of 21 years at a rental of £150 per annum and effected the outright purchase of the property on 25 March 1913 for the sum of £3,750.

Warren did not enjoy good health and was plagued with eye problems which necessitated early withdrawal from his studies at Oxford. However, he found the lifestyle at Lewes House very much to his liking and, as his health improved, he began the serious collection of fine arts, not only for his own satisfaction, but also, for a time, on behalf of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in America.

Following a dispute with his brother as to the management of the family business and the income which he drew from it, Warren’s life became more and more centred upon Lewes.

He furnished the house with fine examples of antique furniture. Oriental carpets and rugs. He hung the walls with tapestries and primitive paintings, filled the bookcases with rare books and displayed his vast collection of vases, bronzes, ivories and other priceless antiquities throughout the house.

His extensive circle of friends reflected his interest in the arts and he entertained regularly. Large parties were common and included numerous members of the Bloomsbury Group, one of whom, the artist Roger Fry, painted a water colour of the house and garden in 1910 which was presented to the Council and is now on display in the house.

Warren, his lifelong friend and resident assistant John Marshall, the constant stream of visitors, whose lifestyles were quite alien to the average Lewesian, the Arab horses and the six St Bernard dogs gave the house a reputation of eccentricity and few local people, except for his household staff, ever saw it from the inside

Perhaps Warren’s most notable friend and a frequent visitor was the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), best known in England for his life-size group “Les Bourgeois de Calais” (The Burgesses of Calais). The study which he undertook for Warren, however, is now a national treasure and displayed in the Tate Gallery in London. It is the larger than life-size group “Le Baiser” (The Kiss).

Rodin had already sculpted such a group which he called “La Foi” (The Troth). Warren was very much taken with this study and commissioned Rodin to execute a further example, but to be completed to his particular specification, which differed in several respects from “La Foi” and a third example which Rodin had undertaken.

Warren’s piece, generally regarded today as being the finest of the three examples, was completed in 1906 and brought to Lewes when, because of its size and weight, it was placed in the coach-house. In 1914 Warren offered it to the town for display and for just over two years it occupied pride of place in the Town Hall.

It seems incredible today that in the year of Rodin’s death (1917) the Borough Council, fearing that the subject of the statue might have an undesirable effect upon the local inhabitants, asked Warren to take it back. It was returned to its home in the coach-house where it remained until Warren died and any hope of this beautiful work of art remaining in local hands was lost.

The statue changed hands several times between 1928 and 1939 in which year it was loaned to the Tate Gallery and was purchased by them in 1955 for the token sum of £7,500. Today it is, of course, regarded as priceless.

In 1928 Warren had made a gift of this house (and also School Hill House, an adjoining Georgian property) to the man who began his association with Warren as Private Secretary but who was to become one of Warren’s most trusted and highly valued business associates and friend. H Asa Thomas Esq –the Deed being signed in Rome on 13 March. Warren returned homer later that year, became very ill and, following a surgical operation, died in a London nursing home on 28 December 1928.

Mr Godfrey used the High Street frontage rooms as offices whilst the family lived on the south side of the house. It is, perhaps, of interest to note that, during his residence here, Walter Godfrey’s book “Our Building Inheritance” was published. This book was a plea for sympathy in the incorporation of buildings of architectural merit into townscape redevelopment proposals and, in it, he uses the properties fronting the High Street in Lewes as an illustration for his arguments.

Whilst Mr Godfrey gives generous credit to a number of owners for their efforts to retain the interesting architectural features of their own properties, he, in characteristic style, says nothing about the considerable service which he rendered to the community in saving this lovely house from redevelopment.

At that time, the Chailey Rural District Council was housed at number 31 High Street (the much smaller adjoining property down School Hill). This building had, until 1932, been in the ownership of George Justice, the old established Lewes firm of furniture restorers. Mr Justice enjoyed a long professional association with E P Warren and is credited with having installed the present staircase, panelling and fixtures in Thebes, the annexe to this house and former stables used by Warren as a retreat and study. The firm of George Justice is still in business today from its premises in Market Street.

However, the Chailey Rural District Council were then looking for larger premises and, in May 1945, the house was sold to that Council for office purposes. In 1952, Mr Godfrey’s beliefs in the value of historic townscape architecture and the importance of this property to the local street scene were fully vindicated when Lewes House was listed by H M Government as being of Architectural or Historic Interest and placed in Grade II.

On 1 April 1974, following the reorganisation of local government, the house came into the ownership of the present occupant and custodian, Lewes District Council, whose principal offices are located here.

Pressure for office space in Lewes has led to a large part of the former kitchen gardens, tennis courts and paddocks being used for office accommodation and car parking, although the enclosed ornamental flower garden remains much as the Shewell family knew it, despite the loss of its finest Mulberry tree and considerable damage to the evergreen copse of Japanese Oak during the storm of 1987. The house itself is virtually unaltered except for the conversion of the domestic quarters into offices and storage accommodation.

The principal rooms, known to Warren as the Business Room, the Red Drawing Room, the Hepplewhite Bedroom and the Dining Room, remain as originally constructed and require only the return of some of their former furnishings to recreate the grace and elegance of a typical 18th Century country gentleman’s retreat.

Photographs used in this article form part of the Lewes House Archive