During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, an unusually shaped castle was built on the banks of the River Avon, and 450 years later, it’s still a private home that’s a few years ago, started opening to the public, but only for a few days each year.

This is the rather remarkable Longford Castle, home of the Earl of Radnor, and apart from its unusual exterior, it’s packed full with enough grand master paintings to make most major galleries sigh in envy. It’s also a very odd-looking castle externally, and thanks to the centuries of changes, internally an eclectic mix of Elizabethan, Georgian and Victorian decoration.

The castle though owes its origins to Sir Thomas Gorges, who bought the manorial estate and a few years later, married Helena Snakenborg, the Swedish born dowager Marchioness of Northampton. They chose to demolish the old manor house and build a Swedish style triangular castle next to the River Avon. Probably too close to the river, as most of the budget was sunk, literally, into the foundations to deal with the soft soil, and it was only after QEI granted Sir Thomas the bounty from a sunken Spanish galleon that he had enough cash to finish his castle.

Although they included a grand bedroom for the Queen should she visit, there’s no record that she ever did. Grand houses often liked to entertain the Queen, as while her arrival, with most of the Court, could be financially ruinous, proximity to the Queen was often rewarded with lucrative monopolies on trades. The grand bedroom was an investment, albeit one that never paid off.

In 1717, the castle changed hands, when the fabulously wealthy Huguenot, Edward des Bouverie saw the house, and reputedly had enough cash on him to buy it outright on the spot. The castle was radically enlarged in the 17th-century to its current size and then refurbished again in the Victorian era.

The Bouverie family, now the Earls of Radnor, still own and live in the castle.

As it’s a private home within a large estate it’s not one of those grand mansions that were opened up to the public to visit, but a few years ago, as part of the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, it was agreed to let people inside so that we see the art collection in situ where it was intended to be seen. So, tours are offered in arrangement with the National Gallery on 28 days of the year. A visit is in effect a mix of the history of the building, lots of art, and some of the furniture and fittings that are notable.

Starting inside what seems to be a grand entrance hall, until you learn it used to be a courtyard until it was glazed over, and it’s very much a case of look at those Flemish tapestries, this modern art, that painting, this master, that master, more masters. So many paintings.

Most of them are of the family, painted by all the best painters at the time. They have many works by Reynolds, by Gainsborough, by Van Dyck, by Frans Hals, by Rubens, by Cobb, and oh so many others. The paintings were important status symbols, so if having a portrait commissioned, it had to be by the correct artists of the time, so show off to the neighbours how rich and fashionable a collector you are.

And the Earls were very rich and very fashionable.

Many of the works, as was often the case, are hybrids, with the named artist doing the best bits, and their studio doing the rest. Although it seems a portrait of the Countess of Chesterfield by Van Dyke was entirely his own work. He is thought to have had more than an artistic relationship with her.

The Radnors used to have another painting, but it was sold to raise money in 1890 — and you will almost certainly have heard of it… The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger — yes the one with the skull in it. That was privately owned by the Radors until they sold it to the National Gallery. Other works from the house are on long-term loan to the National Gallery as well. Quite a few works of art that are today famous, are only famous because they are on permanent loan (or sold) to the National Gallery, otherwise, they’d be hidden away in the castle.

There’s a grand gallery to show off the largest paintings, which used to be an indoor games room until one of the previous Earl’s decided to have it redecorated and filled with art instead. A former chapel was turned into a bedroom and is now a parlour room. There are lots of rooms here, some in large rectangular spaces, but most of them in the corner round towers that dominate the castle.

One of the grander rooms has Elizabethan wooden panels, later painted and gilt in lighter Georgian colours, and a Victorian ceiling added even later. In some places, furniture and paintings have been specially commissioned to curve so they fitted better into the rooms.

As guests, we could sit on some of the seats, but not the family sofas, as we wandered around their many living rooms. Also no photography inside the house.

Two tour guides alternated between each other, and reassuringly, although there’s an assumption that the audience is reasonably familiar with famous artists, the tour wasn’t confusing or baffling with facts. A small booklet was also handed out which helps if reading up later — or they can sell you a big book instead, and I added to my collection of mugs.

It was a relaxing tour, not pretentious or fussy, and very enjoyable.

Because it’s not a well photographed interior (I found just one photo online), and not really that well known outside art enthusiasts, it’s a castle you can visit and most people wouldn’t have heard of, let alone visited.

Visiting Longford Castle

For the general public, tickets are usually released in late January by the National Gallery – but are fully booked for this year. I’ll highlight the details on this website when the 2023 dates are announced.

The tour, including a walk around the gardens where photos are allowed, and the coach pick-up/drop off to get to the castle last around 4 hours. As it’s close to Salisbury, you can comfortably spend the morning around the Cathedral, and the afternoon in the Castle.

If you have a specific academic interest or are a member of a specialist group, then special tours can be arranged by appointment with the castle.

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