Bramham Park, south of Wetherby and close to the Great North Road as it passes through Yorkshire, was built by Robert Benson, Lord Bingley, and completed in the early years of the 18th century. The estate has remained in the care of his descendants (with a couple of confusing name changes) ever since. In 1828, while the family were away at a funeral, fire broke out in the mansion causing serious damage to the fabric of the building. Happily, the quick actions of the servants and neighbours meant that some of the contents could be saved. Less fortunately, there was no money available to rebuild, so the house remained a ruin throughout the rest of the century.
Following the fire George Lane Fox, the then owner of Bramham Park, moved into the much smaller Bramham House in the nearby village of the same name. This remained his home until the grander Bowcliffe House, between the village and Bramham Park, came on the market following the death of its owner, John Smyth. He had died in 1840, and his executors were quick to announce that Bowcliffe House would come to the market ‘early in the spring’. The house was only a few decades old and the gardens, which had been laid out ‘with the utmost taste and judgement’, were home to thriving plantations as well as a Gothic hermitage and a Grecian temple (sadly lost). There were also rare trees and exotics ‘collected from all parts of the world’. By May 1841 George Lane Fox had become the owner and he moved the surviving furniture and paintings from Bramham Park into his new home – which was appropriate really as John Smyth had helped save the paintings from the fire.
The famed gardens at Bramham Park, created in the formal style popular in the early 18th century, were maintained during the family’s exile and continued to be used for fêtes champêtres ‘in a most magnificent style’, and for the annual agricultural show. In 1845 a new building joined the temples that decorated the park. This was The Museum, a curious structure combining classical and gothic elements, possibly using some masonry recycled from elsewhere*, and with a stone marked GLF 1845.
Although usually remembered as ‘The Gambler’ (for obvious reasons), George Lane Fox was also a cultured man. He had ‘with great taste’ and ‘immense outlay’ formed a collection which was to be housed in his new building. Sadly, he didn’t live to enjoy his museum as in 1848, soon after arranging the display of the collection, he died. His brief will left everything to his only son and there is no mention of the museum. In 1850 his heir offered the collection for sale with the household furniture (that is, the non-heirlooms) from Bramham House, which was to be let. The Museum was described in the sales particulars as ‘fitted up in compartments’ and ‘arranged and classified by a gentleman of eminent skill, from London’. The contents included ‘specimens of Birds, Fish, Reptiles, Fragments of Animals, Organic Remains, Minerals, Shells, Fossils, Coins, Armour, War Implements, and a great variety of Miscellaneous Articles, highly valuable to the Antiquarian’. The museum collection was offered for sale as one lot, and interested parties were requested to obtain a ticket from the auctioneer to allow access to view.
It seems a buyer was not found and Lane Fox’s son and heir, also George Lane Fox (‘The Squire’), initially decided to keep The Museum intact. Probably as a result of the publicity caused by the proposed auction, there was considerable interest in viewing the collection. In September 1851 The Squire agreed to open the ‘grounds at Bramham Park and the museum [on] Monday the 22nd of September’. The visitors, or ‘excursionists’, as they were called, were from ‘the industrious classes of York, Leeds, &c’ and the Midland Railway Company offered low terms to convey them to Thorp Arch station, which had opened only a few years earlier. Tickets were available from the wonderfully succinct address of ‘Trip-manager’s office, Leeds.’
Seeing the treasures enjoyed by a wider audience may have been the impetus for George Lane Fox’s ‘munificent donation’ of the collection to the museum of the Leeds Philosophical Society. Opened on Park Row in 1821, the museum was supported by the local aristocracy, gentry and the burgeoning professional class of Leeds, reflecting that age’s desire to study and understand the natural world. The society’s annual report for the 1858-59 session notes that George Lane Fox was ‘foremost amongst the Benefactors to the Museum’, and had donated not only his entire collection but also the bespoke cabinets in which it was displayed.
The museum and its contents passed to the city of Leeds, for the benefit of the wider public, in 1921. Sadly, a bomb destroyed much of the museum fabric, collection and archive in March 1941, and the surviving artefacts were largely in storage until the opening of the new Leeds City Museum in Cookridge Street in 2008.
In the first decade of the 20th century, newly enriched by judicious marriage, another George Lane Fox (grandson of The Squire), began the process of rebuilding the hall at Bramham as the family home it remains today. In 1911 The Museum was included in a book on gardens in the north of England, by which time the enclosure around it, surrounded by the famous high Bramham hedges, had become a rose garden with a central statue of a satyr playing a flute.
A later generation removed the statue and planting to create a tennis court, with The Museum as its perfect pavilion. The current custodian of Bramham, Nick Lane Fox, has recently restored the structure and is developing plans for its garden.
* A trawl of the archives for further information on the construction will be a winter project for The Folly Flâneuse. Watch this space…
The gardens and pleasure grounds at Bramham, in which The Museum stands, are open by appointment. See the website for details https://www.bramhampark.co.uk
Thanks to Val Corbett for the wonderful photo http://www.valcorbettphotography.com