Friday, 7 March 2014

When Mozart’s friend
and a great artist lived
in a quiet corner of
Lichfield

Lyncroft House, now the Hedgehog on Stafford Road, was home to great composers, artists and clergy in Victorian Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By Patrick Comerford

During my many return visits to Lichfield, I sometimes stay at the Hedgehog on Stafford Road. It is just a stroll from the centre of Lichfield, yet has rural charm and rustic character.

Behind the imposing portico is a Georgian house that was once known as Lyncroft House, and throughout the 19th century it was home to some of the most interesting characters in Lichfield, including a friend of Mozart, a charitable vicar, a speculative doctor and once-famous painter.

Lyncroft House was built in 1797. A few decades later, the house was home to Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), a celebrated composer, piano-maker, conductor and music publisher.

Muzio Clementi, who lived at Lyncroft House in 1830, was a contemporary of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn (Portrait Alexander Orlowski, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Clementi was born in Rome, and in his day he was considered second only to Joseph Haydn as a composer. He was a friend of Mozart and it is said he had a notable influence on Beethoven. In pre-revolutionary Paris, he played with great success for Marie Antoinette, and later played for the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II in Vienna.

He played in a contest which Mozart won, but they later become friends, and the influence of Clementi’s sonatas is evident in the youthful Beethoven.

Critics in the 19th century enthusiastic praised Clementi as “the father of the pianoforte,” the “father of modern piano technique,” and the “father of Romantic pianistic virtuosity.” He also wrote four symphonies.

For much of this career, the Italian-born composer lived and worked in England. When he retired in 1830, he moved to Lyncroft House in Lichfield in 1830. However, he never performed publicly in Lichfield, and when he died two years later in Evesham, Worcestershire, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The grounds of the Hedgehog have commanding views across the city and across the countryside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After Clementi moved out, Lyncroft House became the home of the Revd Henry Gylby Lonsdale (1791-1851) when he became Vicar of Saint Mary’s in 1830 – at the time there was no vicarage for Saint Mary’s. Lonsdale came from a well-known clerical family that had Anglican clergy in at least four successive generations.

While he was Vicar of Saint Mary’s, his brother, John Lonsdale (1788-1867), was Bishop of Lichfield (1843-1867). Bishop Lonsdale was the founder of Lichfield Theological College, a supporter of the abolitionist Wilberforce and a friend of the radical theologian FD Maurice. It was said at the time of his death that he was the best bishop the Diocese of Lichfield had ever had, the “perfect model of justice, kindness, humility and shrewd sense.”

The former walled gardens of Lyncroft House at the Hedgehog (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

While he was living at Lyncroft House, Henry Lonsdale proposed rebuilding Saint Mary’s in a Victorian Gothic style. The new church would serve as his memorial, and when Henry Lonsdale died at Lyncroft House on 31 January 1851, he was buried beneath the west tower of Saint Mary’s.

Saint Mary’s Church … Henry Lonsdale was buried under the West Tower after he died at Lyncroft House in 1851 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His nephew, Canon John Gylby Lonsdale (1818-1907), later became Vicar of Saint Mary’s (1866-1878), and oversaw the completion of the building programme. He was the father of Sophia Lonsdale, one of Lichfield’s great Victorian social reformers. In the 1880s, she declared that Lichfield’s slums were worse than anything she had seen in London. She was an active in demands for poor law reforms and her outspoken criticism eventually led to a slum clearance programme in Lichfield from the 1890s on.

When she died in 1936 at the age of 82, Sophia Lonsdale was described in an obituary in The Times as “remarkable in her generation … She was absolutely fearless and disinterested.” It added: “Her strong sense of religion was the directing star of all her activities.”

The Lonsdale family is still remembered in the name of Lonsdale, a house on Beacon Street.

The name of Lonsdale on Beacon Street recalls a former vicar who lived in Lyncroft House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, in the 1850s, Dr Charles Holland lived in Lyncroft House. But he moved again when the Lichfield bank owned by Richard Greene collapsed in 1855. Dr Holland bought Stowe House in 1856, moved in, changed the name of the house to Saint Chad’s House and lived there until his death in 1876.

After Dr Holland moved out, the artist Henry Gastineau moved into Lyncroft House and lived there for a short time in 1863-1864.

Henry Gastineau (1791-1876) was an English engraver and water-colour painter. He was born in London in 1791 into a family descended from Huguenots who had fled from the Poitou region in France a century earlier. He studied at the Royal Academy, training first as an engraver but quickly changing to painting in oils and water-colours. He first exhibited in 1818, and he continued to exhibit for 58 years without a break, showing 11 paintings when 85.

Gastineau was very prolific, and went on several tours of the West Country and Wales, as well as Switzerland and Italy. He also spent time as a teacher. He died in Camberwell in 1876 at the age of 85.

In the art world, Gastineau is one of those famous artists whose paintings can attract substantial bids and prices at auction houses like Christie’s and Bonhams. He was strongly influenced by Turner. But how many buyers know that he once lived in Lichfield?

Lyncroft House has been beautifully restored in recent years at a cost of £1 million. It stands in its own grounds, with large gardens and commanding views across Lichfield and the Staffordshire countryside, and more hidden stories of its residents and guests behind its doors.

The Hedgehog is just a stroll from the centre of Lichfield, yet has rural charm and rustic character (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This essay and these photographs were published as a double-page feature in the March 2014 edition of the Lichfield Gazette, pp 44-45.

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