The hall is a very much lived in as a private home but the principal rooms and The Gatehouse are open to the public.
In a cover article in Country Life, Upton Cressett was described as ‘one of the finest Tudor manor houses in Shropshire’. The house is both medieval and Elizabethan. It was originally a fourteenth century timber framed manor whose upper part of the great hall is now a working library with massive timbers stretching across a fourteen foot span in a decorated crown post.
But such was the rising wealth and influence of the Cressett family that by 1580 Richard Cressett (whose initials are carved into the original oak panelling in the master bedroom) not only encased the entire manor in brick and erected spectacular twisted chimneystacks, he also built one of England’s most splendid gatehouses. Richard Cressett still had enough resources left to make the second largest private contribution in the county to the Armada fund in 1588.
The principal rooms of the house contain original furniture and paintings of the house, including the Cressett Cradle and a 1677 portrait of Sir Francis Cressett – Treasurer to Charles I – by Wissing. There is original panelling, tapestries, rare crewel work curtains, royalist portraits and a vast stone fireplace that Simon Jenkins described as ‘one of the largest I know, 13 ft across and more appropriate to the hall of a medieval palace’.
Of particular note are the hand painted dining room walls and ceilings and the decoration of the main newel staircase (with finials carved with the Cressett Tudor sea-dragon) which has been completed by acclaimed British artist Adam Dant, winner of the Jerwood Prize, whose work is held by the V&A, Tate, MOMA and the private collection of HRH Prince of Wales. Dant hand mixed all the casein paints in the original fashion and has created a remarkable interpretration of sixteenth century cartouche work inspired by the staircase at Knole and the Dutch artist Hans Vredeman de Vries.
Artist Adam Dant spent nearly a year on the commission, living in the Gatehouse, and mixing his own paints as he went about his work in all conditions. The use of lime plaster in the fabric of the interior at Upton Cressett demanded the employment of sympathetic painting materials and techniques as non porous modern paints were inappropriate for use on the breathable lime plaster. ‘I decided, instead of lime, to use less caustic casein as a medium for natural pigments’ Dant says. ‘This allowed me to work in the more fluid and intuitive fashion. Casein paint uses skimmed milk solids mixed with ammonium carbonate as a base for natural pigments such as the red oxides burnt umbers and ochres of my paintings’.
In preparing a visual scheme for the Great Hall Dining Room Dant consulted the libraries and collections of the Victoria and Albert museum, the Geoffrey Museum and various wall paintings contemporaneous with Upton Cressett Hall (Knole, the Tower of London, Homerton Hall, Cambridge/Oxford colleges and the British Museum collection of popular prints and handbills).
The painting scheme in the dining room ceiling features alternating red and blue tracery design adapted from Kentish Tudor wall painting and imitates a coffered ceiling with timber lattice. Each coffer design incorporates 24 carat gold leaf alternating six motifs taken from plaster stuccowork in the original Gatehouse ceiling. The red oxide frieze at the cornice is based on an interpretation of the original wall frieze fragments found in the house and a wall painting from the Upton Cressett’s Norman church.
‘The Tudor painters/decorators would most likely have executed their design freehand’ adds Dant. ‘They would freely mix available pigments with soot, sheep piss and earth into the casein to bind their designs which would include forms recognisable in the local landscape (plants, birds, fruits etc). So I used plants from the Upton Cressett garden as the basis for the cursive and fluid designs on faux panelling low on the wall by the mullion window’.
The design over the huge Hall fireplace extends these local foliage/ fruit designs to incorporate an intertwined pair of Tudor sea-dragons copied from a 16th century carving in low relief on a panelled bedroom frieze original to the house. This rare and striking Upton Cressett motif was repeated extensively throughout the restoration scheme by both Dant and other local craftsmen, including the Ludlow wood carver Andrew Pearson.
A 1677 portrait of Sir Francis Cressett by William Wissing, original to the house. now hangs in the dining room across from a Flemish tapestry.
The main newel staircase was also decorated by Adam Dant. As with Knole, which he visited specially, the paintings employ a Verdigris palette and symmetrical late Tudor style cartouches. These are used to frame devices, inscriptions, and family history relating to Upton Cressett, such as the Upton Cressett sea-dragon motif and a stanza from Andrew Marvell’s country house poem, Upon Appleton House, composed in 1651. Four handsome new hand-carved oak finials in the Upton Cressett dragon motif were also commissioned from Ludlow wood carver Andrew Pearson.