lady emma
Monday, 30 November -0001

A COUNTRY LIVING

Enraptured by the magic of Parham House since early childhood, Lady Emma Barnard talks to Jeremy Musson about the importance of preserving the things that make her home so special

Written by Jeremy Musson
Lady Emma Barnard is as passionate about her home as it is possible to be. It is certainly a rather special place, a late-16th century house in a breathtaking spot in West Sussex, restored and furnished with extraordinary sensitivity and tact by her great-grandparents, the Hon Clive and Alicia Pearson, between the 1920s and 1950s. What is perhaps so remarkable about Lady Emma is that she hardly wants to change a thing – quite a rarity among the country-house chatelaines of today.

'Parham is remarkable because it epitomises a collection made by people who had wonderful taste,' says Lady Emma. 'They took infinite care in the collection they formed and I don't want to change anything – part of the importance is the setting and how they saw fit to display the collection to visitors.'

Her fondness for the house goes back to her childhood. Lady Emma used to come and stay here with her mother Miranda, Countess of Iveagh, who spent the early part of her childhood here during the war (and who herself carried out an award-winning restoration of Wilbury House in Wiltshire).

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'I have the funniest early memories of Parham... of being given small pieces of Wensleydale cheese as a treat by my great-grandmother, of coming down to a grand dinner party and saying: "Excuse me, I have a bee in my room", and desperately wanting to sleep in the Wendy house that my great grandfather made in the 1920s in the Walled Garden.'

So deep did this wish go that she and her husband James make a point of camping overnight with their two boys in the Wendy house once a year, lighting the fire and cooking sausages in the hearth. It was a difficult and life-changing decision to take on the family house: 'I was asked if I would take over Parham when I was about 30... and decided that the only way I would know was to go and sleep in the house alone and see how I felt in the morning. I felt completely at home and I knew I should say yes. No question. I never feel alone here and was never scared when staying here as a child.'

She was only stepping out then with barrister James Barnard, whom she subsequently married. Living between Sussex and London they have raised two boys who love the house and their Sussex life: 'James was marvellous and said that he would support me whatever I decided to do.'

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There were some challenging moments: 'Our private quarters are approached by a very slippery oak staircase, a bit alarming when I was pregnant – I used to say a prayer both at the top and at the bottom.'

Parham was one of the …first country houses to open to the public after the Second World War, and not from necessity – Clive Pearson, second son of the 1st Viscount Cowdray, was an engineer and had played an important role in the vast family business – building, among other things, the Blackwall Tunnel and railways across the Americas. 'They were persuaded to open the house by their friend Rupert Gunnis, an art expert, and they opened Parham because they wanted to share it and its treasures with others.' She adds: 'I have taken a conscious decision not to change the decor, in so far as is possible.'

The secret of Parham's perfection is that the Pearsons and their daughter, Veronica Tritton, Emma's great aunt, spent an infinite amount of time choosing the furniture and trying to find the right place for things. 'Veronica always told me that it often wasn't them who chose things, but the house itself. They would get loads of beautiful things from London and then try to fit them in. Sometimes the things they thought would be perfect, simply didn't work. They felt that the house itself rejected them. Inevitably, one wants to move a chair, or change something around, but more often than not I have to change it back again after a few days because you realise why it was put there in the first place.

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'The challenge for me is to get the right delicate balance between conservation and change. Parham is a living house and absolutely not a museum. We do put fresh flowers in every room. We do open the windows. Not for me a place swathed in darkness with temperature-controlled machines because this would make Parham sterile. People come and remark on the fact that the house is so alive and so vibrant. But obviously we take steps to conserve what's here by drawing curtains and shutting shutters when the rooms are not in use.' Lady Emma cherishes the jokes that her great-grandparents wove into their picture hanging: 'I love the fact that Charles II hangs in a small room with two of his mistresses and his very disgruntled wife is over the door.

'When I had to make the decision some years ago to change the Great Hall curtains (vast and very expensive), I decided that the best thing to do would be to source a fabric that was as close as possible to the old faded one that was falling to bits. The new ones were duly installed and I nervously awaited the opinion of our late head gardener, Ray Gibbs – he was enormously knowledgeable and had strong opinions on everything artistic and historical. He said nothing. After three weeks I could wait no more and asked him what he thought. He looked at me in amazement and said, "What new curtains?" That is the effect I want to achieve at Parham.

'We've done a huge amount of work on the central heating and insulation, and we're looking into green energy too. I'm going to re-create a bedroom and bathroom off the Long Gallery, called the Priest's Room. It will be a very Parham room, very simple, but it will echo the ones we have in the family side.' Lady Emma is very happy to share the house with the public, as were her great aunt and great-grandmother: 'The house loves people. Visitors often say that, and it really is true.

Parham House and Gardens, Storrington, near Pulborough, West Sussex RH20 4HS, are open April to October. For further information: 01903-742021, www.parhaminsussex.co.uk



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