Bringing the Outside In at Parham

Designer Elin Steele with theatrical artists Aleks Carlyon and Lizzie Calvert

It is always a joy to return to Parham with its beautiful house and gardens.

When I was last here there was great excitement about a series of murals being painted in what was called the “old cow byre” in old Parham plans. This is now a lovely space for visitors to sit in and enjoy tea and cake. The design of these new murals draws inspiration from the famous theatrical set and costume designer Oliver Messel’s ceiling in the Long Gallery, commissioned by the Pearsons in the 1960s. The pre- and post-war years witnessed a renaissance in mural and wall painting, and the Long Gallery ceiling is an eloquent example of the genre.

The joyous new murals at Parham have been designed by the young set and costume designer, Elin Steele. James Barnard, who together with his family calls Parham home, was introduced to Elin through his work as a trustee of the Linbury Trust, the grant-making foundation started by Lord and Lady (John and Anya) Sainsbury. In 2019 Elin won the prestigious Linbury Prize, the only nationwide prize for stage design in the UK, created by Lady Sainsbury (herself a former ballerina) in 1987. Sir Nicholas Hytner (former Director of the National Theatre) said that the prize “has become indispensable to the British theatre and is invariably a source of undiluted optimism about the future of stage design”.

Elin works predominately in theatre and ballet, producing the designs and then collaborating with a team in the theatre to deliver them.

At Parham, Elin worked closely over many weeks with her friends, scenic artists Aleks Carlyon and Lizzie Calvert. The design was arrived at after much consultation on themes and details with the Barnards, then marked up and painstakingly painted freehand by Aleks and Lizzie, employing a mixed-method including watercolour overlaid with pencil and gouache.

The design in the room gives you the impression that you are sitting an orangery, as though the outside has been brought in. It’s engaging and fun, drawing inspiration from the Garden and the colours of Parham’s remarkable collection of textiles and needlework.

Parham’s celebrated Blue Border

Outside in the Walled Garden, I visit the newly re-planted Blue Border with its Salvias, Nicotiana, Eryngium, Nepeta and Selinum playing in the breeze, their palette echoed in the summer sky with its flashes of blue and scudding clouds.

Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning, Parham never fails to captivate and delight anew. For more information go to

75 Years of Welcoming the Public to Parham

The famous Long Gallery at Parham, its ceiling decoration by Oliver Messel

I am always delighted to return to Parham House which re-opens on Easter Sunday celebrating 75 years of welcoming the public.

For me, Parham is one of the most beautiful houses in all England. I admire this special and hopeful place and its current custodian, Lady Emma Barnard, who, with her husband James, has made this a family home and continues to steward it for us all.

Everyone has been busy preparing for the Easter opening. “I love it when the visitor season and first opening approaches,” Lady Emma declares. “It’s always exciting as the house’s treasures emerge from their winter covers – but there’s always so much to do.” This delight in sharing the joys of Parham is something Lady Emma has in common with her great-grandparents, Clive and Alicia Pearson. They opened Parham to the public in 1948, not out of need but out of a genuine desire to share their home with others, a tradition which was continued by Emma’s great-aunt, Veronica Tritton.

Lady Emma Barnard at home at Parham

The pre and post-war years witnessed a renaissance in mural and wall painting with many of Britain’s leading modern artists including Stanley Spencer, Eric Ravilious, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant contributing to this movement. Oliver Messel’s ceiling at Parham is an eloquent example of the genre. The famous Long Gallery’s wonderful ceiling was put in by the Pearsons in the 1960s. There were no historical records of the original Elizabethan ceiling so they commissioned the theatrical set and costume designer, Oliver Messel, to decorate it. The painted design depicts an array of birds, wildlife and foliage inspired by the English countryside.

This optimistic place provides a window onto our past and our future, an historical narrative from the Elizabethan Age to today. It speaks to us of our own place in the extraordinary procession of human history. Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning, Parham never fails to captivate and delight anew.

The covers are off! Parham House and Gardens open on Easter Sunday 9th April 2023 at 2pm and 12pm respectively, closing at 5pm. For more information go to

It has been a joy to revisit Parham where my column began 10 years ago. My thanks goes to all those who steward and share the unique cultural gems our county has to offer, and to our readers who continue to express delight and are always so encouraging.

Contemporary Objects add to the Rich Tapestry of Parham House

Kate Malone’s crystalline-glazed stoneware Waddesdon Sprigged Big Mother Pumpkin, 2016, at Parham.

Parham House is one of the most beautiful stately homes in England. This fine Elizabethan house was saved and carefully restored by the Hon. Clive Pearson and his wife Alicia during the 1920s and ʼ30s. The collections give voice to their passion for the house and collecting.

The Great Hall at Parham is a remarkable space at the heart of the house. It bridges the ancient and contemporary with its lightly limed pale oak panelling.

The immensely long curtains hang like becalmed sails. As they hinge back against the window recesses the space is filled with light which playfully draws our eye to the familiar array of fine portraits and furniture and then to a series of visitors, objects arranged in a series of vignettes – compositions of the very finest contemporary decorative art. Colin Reid’s kiln cast, polished optical glass Colour Saturation; Open Eye works in concert with the texture and hue of the panelling and the blues in the flanking tapestries with a lyrical quality.

Colin Reid’s kiln cast polished optical glass Colour Saturation; Open Eye, 2021, at Parham

These objects represent a collaboration between the international art dealer and gallery owner Adrian Sassoon and Parham House. It was initially born out of a desire to create a virtual exhibition to share new works during lockdown which resulted in a series of beautifully conceived short films by Freddie Leyden. But with the house just reopened many of these objects have returned to delight connoisseurs and visitors to Parham.

English Country House Taste is textural and eclectic always reflecting the taste and interests of a family and often the patchwork quilt of a family’s stories and interests over generations. It is unpretentious, layered and evolving. These contemporary objects are fleetingly adding to the rich tapestry of the house and its collections.

In the third of the films the celebrated ceramicist Kate Malone is clearly moved to see her work away from the studio and in the context of Parham. She reflects on the embroideries and Parham’s collections and how they speak to her “…there’s so many loving hours in everything that’s here. The makers of these things, it’s as if they’re speaking through their craft – it’s very emotional actually.”
Kate explains “My objective is touching you in the heart not in the mind. When I’m making my work nothing else matters you lose track of time, you just want that feeling where you’re at one with the material.”

Her magnificent crystalline-glazed stoneware Sprigged Big Mother Pumpkin seems to be in conversation with Oliver Messel’s painted ceiling, the tapestries and objects in the long gallery. It allows the visitor to see this remarkable interior anew.

Parham is an optimistic place which provides a window onto our past and our future, an historical narrative from the first to the second great Elizabethan Age. It speaks to us of our own place in the extraordinary procession of human history. Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning Parham never fails to captivate and delight. To find out more about the house and exhibition and to book your tickets visit, and

Stewardship and Renewal in the Gardens at Parham

Lady Emma and James Barnard in the greenhouse at Parham

This week I am returning to Parham to meet Lady Emma and her husband James Barnard as they embark on a major restoration of their celebrated walled gardens at Parham.

The history of the garden has only been recorded since the 1920s when Lady Emma’s great-grandparents came to Parham.

James is keen to show me a series of old framed sketches and plans for the clematis in the gardens drawn by Lady Emma’s great aunt, Mrs Tritton, during her time at Parham. He remarks “Amongst my most striking memories of my first encounter with the gardens at Parham were the clematis.” He continues enthusiastically “Gardens have to change and evolve to have life. We are so glad that Andrew Humphris has joined us as Head Gardener with his wife Jo. Collaborating with them and the garden team on this restoration is very exciting.”

We find Andrew working in the borders and I ask him how it is going. He replies “Well, we’ve had the rain, it will all take off as soon as the sun comes.”
Lady Emma says “The gardens here have been worked for hundreds of years. Our only ‘rule’ has been to work with and not against this ancient place sensitively accepting and preserving its spirit.” Andrew agrees “We’re enhancing what is a fantastic place already.”

I remark that we are a processional people – that we have an ability to confidently embrace change and the new but always with one eye fixed on the past. Lady Emma responds “It’s so nice that long process with a generosity of spirit, like the changing seasons. I love the changing seasons in the garden, there is always something to look forward to whether it’s the spring tulips or the seed heads in winter.”

Parham’s Head Gardener, Andrew Humphris, and his team working on the restoration of the gardens

To me this bodes well. Parham has always given voice to our nation’s quintessential celebration and passion for gardening. All gardens, like nature and the seasons, have a cycle to them and evolve. There is a real sense of renewal, a gardening renaissance at Parham as the restoration gets underway.
At the heart of the generous and outward facing spirit which pervades all that Parham does are Lady Emma and her husband James who, together with their sons, bring such life and vitality to this timeless place. The family’s long-term, generous stewardship blesses us all.

The 18th century garden walls, the paths and borders still enfold you against the backdrop of the house and Sussex Downs. We are all in need of a fresh horizon and a generous place to gather us as we begin to meet and walk in conversation with friends and loved ones. Parham, with its new, delicious Naked Food Company café, is the perfect place for a day’s holiday! Visit to book your visit to the gardens.

Restoration and Renewal at Parham

Parham’s Head Gardener, Andrew Humphris in the greenhouse

In the first of two articles I am returning to Parham visiting Lady Emma and her husband James Barnard as they embark on a major restoration of their celebrated walled gardens at Parham.

It is some 28 years since Lady Emma and James came to Parham with their young family. Their time here has been marked by renewal and long-term stewardship in this ancient, processional place.

Emma explains “My great-grandparents, Clive and Alicia Pearson, fell in love with Parham as soon as they saw it. The house was in a poor state when they bought it in 1922.”

Lady Emma and James have a similar sense of long-term stewardship and the importance of ongoing renewal so I am excited to hear about the plans for the restoration of the walled gardens as we set off to find their recently appointed Head Gardener, Andrew Humphris.

I ask Andrew how he is settling in to his new role at Parham and the ongoing restoration of the gardens, he replies “This place is just fantastic there is so much potential. Restoring and maintaining a garden has to be a collaborative thing otherwise it never works. It needs a long-term relationship with the garden and the family.” He turns to Lady Emma and James and says “I want to make it special for you – and the team.”

Parham’s gardens in the crisp spring weather

There is a generosity, humility and rootedness apparent in the way Andrew speaks about a lifetime in horticulture, accompanying and following in his father’s footsteps with his wife, Jo.

I ask Andrew how he would describe himself, a horticulturalist or a garden designer perhaps. He pauses, smiles and replies “I’m a gardener.”
Andrew begins to speak about his work “In the garden I’m thinking about what I’m doing [and] in the moment inspiration comes at unexpected times. There has to be a whole to it but the detail matters, lifting a plant to weed – a love for a plant.” He continues “It’s important to pass things on too. You have to keep momentum, constantly being critical to keep it going forward and fresh.”

I comment on how Parham is famous for its borders and Andrew says “I love border colours” reflecting wryly he continues “striving for perfection in a border though with the weather and variables – still it’s the aim.”

The garden is full of activity and a sense of renewal as the garden team is clearing borders to deal with the bind weed. Other newly planted areas like the white border provide hopeful windows onto the future of this beautiful place. It is exciting to see the restoration in process.

Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning to an old friend, as I often do, Parham never fails to delight with its gardens and sense of history. Check out Parham’s new website and book your visit to the gardens.