Danson House in Bexleyheath epitomises everything you could wish for in a Georgian house. Surrounded by 200 acres of parkland, its beautifully furnished and well appointed rooms ooze glamour and provide a real insight into the social climbing aspirations of John Boyd, the son of a West Indies Sugar Cane Merchant. Yet beneath the carefully preserved surface lies a whole other story.

Danson House in Bexleyheath epitomises everything you could wish for in a Georgian house. Surrounded by 200 acres of parkland, its beautifully furnished and well appointed rooms ooze glamour and provide a real insight into the social climbing aspirations of John Boyd, the son of a West Indies Sugar Cane Merchant.  Yet beneath the carefully preserved surface lies a whole other story. 

In 1761 John Boyd commissioned Robert Taylor, the man responsible for designing the Bank of England, to build him a family home that would demonstrate his aspirations, classical education and project an image of refinement far deeper than he had claim to.  No expense was spared; Nathaniel Richmond, a student of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, was commissioned to landscape the original 600 acre estate and over the next forty years the building was filled with work created by the fashionable artists of the day. 

The building of Danson falls into two distinct periods and it is thought that the initial period of construction was brought to a standstill by the death of John Boyd’s first wife, Mary, in 1763.  The second phase, responsible for much of the sumptuous decoration that we can see today, probably started around 1765 following a substantial inheritance from his father and spurred on by his forthcoming second marriage to Catherine Chapone, an event which is reflected, together with many other personal references, in the Dining Room paintings created by Charles Pavillon and dated to 1766.

It was a prosperity that wasn’t to last over the centuries, however, and in 1995 English Heritage made the dramatic statement that Danson House was the ‘building most at risk’ in London.  What followed very nearly spelled disaster.  In an attempt to rectify some of the decay, the house was leased to a plasterer on the condition that he began remedial work on the building.  But a tip-off a few years later revealed that he had in fact stripped the house of everything valuable and fled to Antigua.  A full-scale manhunt eventually led to a shipping container filled with the house’s architectural treasures but without their recovery it is unlikely that Danson House would still be standing today.  Over 4.5 million pounds was spent on the restoration of the house and English Heritage has said that it will not complete a project like it again.  

The restoration task undertaken by English Heritage must, at times, have seemed overwhelming but the surprise discovery of a series of watercolours gave them vital insight into the house’s hidden history.  During 1860 Sarah Johnston, whose family had lived at Danson for nearly 60 years, produced seven meticulously observed paintings that would shape the entire restoration project and allow it to recreate the splendour of its Georgian era.  

They also collaborated with the physical evidence revealed during the early stages of restoration, such as the outline of the original Georgian mirrors found in the plaster and paint behind their Victorian replacements in the Dining Room.  In other areas of the building clues were taken from the traces left behind and the Chinoiserie wallpaper in the Salon was hand blocked in America to replicate the design revealed on the fireplace wall. The dome above the oval cantilevered staircase also concealed a surprise for, underneath the duck egg blue paint, a Georgian trompe l’oeil existed, making the area beneath the glass dome look as if it is made from stone when in fact the structure of the house could not have supported the weight.  But it wasn’t just the architectural features that were keeping secrets. 

There is only one known painting of John Boyd that survives to this day and it now hangs above the door to the Library.  The original was painted by George Barrett but restoration has revealed a ‘new figure’ standing in the foreground of the picture.   It is thought that this may be a younger version of John Boyd and that once his social position altered, perhaps upon receipt of his knighthood, he had this figure obscured and replaced with another of himself on his horse.  Other changes, such as updates to the ladies’ dresses have also been made and it is estimated, from the differing styles and proportions that up to eight artists may have worked on the canvas.    

Once more the house, as in the painting, now stands proudly, a testament to John Boyd and the efforts of the English Heritage and the Bexley Heritage Trust.  But this time it is for the public and not the minority to enjoy and following its official re-opening by the Queen in 2005 it is now a popular venue both in its own right and as stunning backdrop for historical lectures, lunches, exhibitions and functions.  A full programme of events can be found at www.dansonhouse.org.uk

Further Details 

Danson House can be found within Danson Park on the Danson Road between Bexleyheath and Welling.  The full postal address is Danson House, Danson Park, Danson Road, Bexley, Kent DA6 8HL.  General Enquiries can be made on 020 8303 6699, the Booking Line for Events is 01322 621238 and further information can be found at www.dansonhouse.org.uk

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Sarah Fosker, the Marketing and Events Manager, for allowing me to experience a lecture and for generously sharing her time, expertise and house history with me.  Her permission to reproduce images upon the Kent Life Website is also greatly appreciated.