It is a very busy time at Parham, as our housekeepers Christine and Christine are continuing the big task of preparing for opening the House to visitors, which we hope be at the end of June.
This is careful and systematic work, as they take things out of their winter covers and wrappings, and dust and polish and check and put back in place after the long months of hibernation. Washing the many sets of “casement curtains” (the white cotton curtains that help protect the rooms from the light) is in itself a painstaking and time-consuming job, even before one piece of furniture is uncovered or a spider’s web dusted away.
Although slightly later than planned, it is still good to be able to start the tasks we normally associate with the start of a new open season.
Travel seems a distant prospect at the moment, but there are many objects in the House which come from or recall far-off lands, and it makes me happy to think that they have come to rest quietly in this particular corner of West Sussex, in this most English of houses.
A Spanish travelling chest
One of these is the Vargueño (or Bargueño), or travelling chest, which comes from Spain and dates from the mid 17th century. It is a fine example of its kind, made of Spanish walnut, with Toledo steel carrying handles. It sits on a carved stand, and nobody knows whether this, which would have been made at the same time, would have gone on the journey as well or would have been left at home.
The lock is a glorious thing in itself, and, once it’s undone, the front of the vargueño opens downwards to make a flat top supported by “lopers” – long pieces of wood which you pull outwards, with beautifully carved scallop shell ends. The interior is completely fitted with all manner of drawers and little cupboards, decorated with architectural details in ivory and giltwood, with little wooden scallop shell knobs. It is fun to imagine what might have been stored in them on a long journey. Jewels, prayer books, letters, seals, powders, keys and papers, perhaps. It would certainly have contained anything small that needed to be treasured and guarded closely.
Santiago di Compostela
The use of the scallop shells denotes that the vargueño has been on a pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela. I always wonder whether it might even have been specially commissioned for this, but, as we do not know who owned it, that will forever be a mystery. The vargueño is extremely heavy, even when it is empty, and presumably, it would have been only one of many pieces considered necessary by the wealthy person who had decided to undertake such an important penitential and spiritual exercise.
It must have taken many mules, horses and strong men to negotiate the very considerable physical challenges imposed by such a long and laborious journey in difficult conditions. The elaborate beauty of the vargueño’s decoration is itself an exercise in proclaiming the worth of both its owner and his or her sacred purpose.
Christine and Christine tell me that they put a little polish on each of the running surfaces of the drawers to keep them moving smoothly. They use soft brushes to remove any dust, and it is polished very carefully and not too often. Every piece of furniture at Parham has its own sturdy cotton or linen dust sheet or cover, sewn specially for it, to live in during the winter months. We don’t know exactly when these covers were made, but they go back a very long time, and they fit perfectly.
I like to think that the 17th-century owner, as well as the craftsmen who made the vargueño nearly four hundred years ago, would be pleased that it’s loved and looked after here at Parham.