… is this Birmingham’s best kept secret? …
Aston Hall is an astonishing Jacobean mansion that practically nobody’s heard of. A c17th contemporary described it as: “A noble fabric which for its beauty and state much exceedeth anything in these parts.”* It has some of the finest
strapwork ceilings in the country and displays a fair collection of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s excellent portraiture in situ.
Decorative strapwork ceilings were very popular in England in the late 16th and 17th centuries and this prodigy house has a series of ceilings bristling with all manner of grotesques, animals and faces, including the extraordinary Nine Worthies plaster statues sprouting from the ceiling frieze in the Great Dining Room. Here’s Geoffrey de Bouillon, a Frankish knight and one of the leaders of the First Crusade …
And no Jacobean house would be complete without a Long Gallery.
Some of the rooms have been dressed with period furniture and household items, as well as the paintings, which does add to the experience … but can sometimes veer towards the teaching aid end of the spectrum. School visits are enlivened with chamber pots and two stuffed rats called Baskerville and Gainsborough. I didn’t mind because I was distracted by the intriguing painting collection.
So why isn’t it better known?
The short answer is because it’s not owned by the two big beasts in the historic properties jungle: National Trust or English Heritage with well staffed publicity departments. A longer answer probably a lot of do with city council budgets, the difficulty of marketing a disparate set of sites, and being in a suburb of Birmingham (which is crowded every other Saturday in football season).
Aston Hall is part of Birmingham Museums Trust, a charity set up in 2012 responsible for managing all of the museums owned by Birmingham City Council. For further information about Aston Hall’s opening times etc. their website is here. The National Trust has a partnership offer which gives 50% off the entry price to Aston Hall with a National Trust membership card.
- William Dugdale. Quoted in Pevsner & Wedgwood,Warwickshire, The Buildings of England.
- Geoffrey de Bouillon image from the Aston Hall guidebook.