Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire was, in my opinion, one of the most important houses Jane Austen ever visited. Instead of staying in a modest country gentleman’s seat, such as Godmersham, when she visited Stoneleigh in 1806, she was catapulted into a much higher sphere: Stoneleigh was and still is one of the architectural wonders of the 18th century. Even the stern Mrs Austen was wondering in her admiration of it:
The house is larger than I could have supposed. We can now find our way about it, I mean the best part; as to the offices (which were the old Abbey) Mr Leigh almost despairs of ever finding his way about them. I have proposed his setting up directing posts at the Angles. I expected to find everything about the place very fine and all that, but I had no idea of its being so beautiful.
(See : Letter to Mary Austen, James Austen’s wife, August 13th, 1806)
I think its influence onJane Austen and her writings was incalculable and very important. No longer lived in by the Leigh family- it has been converted into a series of separate dwellings – the state rooms are still on show to the public during the visiting season. The BBC show Bargain Hunt visited the Abbey last week, and I thought you might like to see some shots from its detailed description of the plaster decoration in the Saloon.
The theme for the plaster decoration was the Labours of Hercules, a fittingly neo-classical subject for the Hall, as it was then called, when it was being decorated in the 1760s.
The ceiling shows the infant Hercules strangling the snakes which Juno had sent into the room where Hercules and his twin brother, Iphicles were sleeping.
Over the six subsidiary doors in the Saloon
are roundels which
depict the individual labours of Hercules.
The decoration over the the North Fireplace( there are two in the room) depicts the theme of Choice.
It shows Hercules , standing against a tree in the garden of the Hesperides.
Will he decide to follow the difficult and craggy path to the Temple ?
Which is being indicated by the sternly helmeted figure of Virtue, or,
will he succumb to the easier path and seductive comforts offered by the voluptuous figure representing Sloth
who points to a Palladian mansion where all earthy pleasures are surely to be found…
The Herculean theme is continued in the fireplace itself.
The caryatid supports are figures of Hercules
wearing his lion skin. It is a wonderful room and I have always enjoyed visiting it. Being able to look at the magnificent plasterwork in detail like this, is a treat.
If you go here you have a few more days left in which to see the programme-on the BBC iPlayer, for mostly UK residents only, I fear. The Stoneleigh items appears approximately 20 minutes into the programme.