History of Ranger’s House
Ranger’s House was begun in the 1720s by Francis Hosier, a naval officer who had made his fortune selling ship’s cargoes. It was later home to the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, best known for his letters to his son and godson, and later still became the residence of the Ranger (keeper) of Greenwich Park.
Today Ranger’s houses a world-class art collection amassed by diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher around 1900.
Andrew Snape’s House
Ranger’s House stands along the west boundary wall of Greenwich Park, with the expanse of Blackheath to the south. Before the present Ranger’s House was begun, this land was built on by Andrew Snape, Serjeant Farrier to Charles II. Snape was also a developer and a published expert on equine anatomy. As the diarist Sir John Evelyn wrote, he was ‘a man full of projects’.
In the 1670s, without consent, Snape occupied a strip of wasteland between Greenwich Park and Blackheath. Initially he appears to have built stalls for horses grazing on Blackheath, but by about 1688 he had constructed three houses. This included one on the Ranger’s House site.
In 1700 part of this house was occupied by Captain Francis Hosier, who built the core of Ranger’s House as we know it today.
On Hosier’s death a drawn-out legal dispute ensued between his wife and his mother’s relations until, in 1740, the lease was sold to John Stanhope. In turn, on his death in 1748, this passed to his elder brother, the politician and diplomat Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773). Earlier that year Chesterfield had resigned as Secretary of State, marking his gradual withdrawal from politics and effectively ending his long public career.
Lord Chesterfield was initially unenthused about his new home. No doubt he would have preferred somewhere upstream in fashionable Richmond or Twickenham, near his friend Henrietta Howard at Marble Hill. None the less, he soon came to embrace life at Blackheath.
His home became a place to indulge his interests. As an avid collector of paintings, he invested in a new gallery to the south of the house, nearly doubling the building’s size and encroaching, illegally, through the park wall. He also remodelled the central dining room.
Ranger’s House was also a retreat for Lord Chesterfield, even more so when from 1752 he began to lose his hearing. Here, in the summer months, he read, wrote and tended to his garden, of which he jokingly wrote in 1754, ’I converse with my equals, my vegetables, which I found in a flourishing condition’.
It was also from Ranger’s that Chesterfield wrote many of the hundreds of letters for which he has since become well known.
Princess Sophia Matilda
The first Ranger to live at the present Ranger’s House was Princess Sophia Matilda, niece of George III. Before her arrival in 1815 extensive repairs were required. Woodwork was replaced or made good, stonework, glass and ironwork repaired, and the whole house repainted. As well as this, a covered walkway was added to the house entrance and new water closets were installed.
Chesterfield’s wing was divided into three reception rooms and, like the rest of the house, richly decorated. The sales catalogue after Sophia Matilda's death describes the rooms as having ‘fawn damask’ curtains, elegant furnishings, and an abundance of ornaments and ‘objects of taste’, from high quality china to intricately carved timepieces.
Sophia Matilda lived in her newly refitted and refurnished home with her lady-in-waiting, Lady Alicia Gordon, and, as the 1841 census records, 17 servants. She became the longest serving resident of Ranger’s House, living there until her death in November 1844.
Although we know little of her life at Ranger’s, she seems to have become immensely popular in the local community. The newspapers reported on the crowds of people who paid their respects as her body lay in state at Ranger’s House. Later, a ‘large concourse of people’ gathered at the start of her funeral procession ‘to witness the funeral obsequies of one so generally respected, and, locally so much endeared by acts of private beneficence’.
The Last Resident of Ranger’s House
The last Ranger to occupy Ranger’s House was Field-Marshal Lord Wolseley, who lived there after retiring from active service with his wife, Louisa, and daughter. Their tenure was short. In 1890 Wolseley was made Commander-in-Chief in Ireland and moved to Dublin. Louisa and their daughter joined him the following year.
Despite their short stay at Ranger’s, Lady Wolseley, a collector of 18th-century furniture and applied art, redecorated the house. Correspondence suggests that the Gothic Revival architect GF Bodley advised her in this. Among the interior alterations was the fitting of new bookcases, which evidently housed Wolseley's large book collection. Objects in the Hall referenced Wolseley’s career and interests through the display of a ‘large collection of military and sporting trophies’.
Collections at Ranger’s
Ranger’s House was restored in 1959–60 and again in 1973–4. During this period it was put to varied uses. Initially the gallery was used for events and local history exhibitions, the dining room as a restaurant and the upper floors as offices. The rose garden at Ranger’s today was laid out around 1960. In 1986 the house passed from the Greater London Council into the care of English Heritage.
With changes of ownership over time, Ranger’s House has no collection of its own. However, it has housed a number of collections over the years. It was home from 1974 to the Suffolk Collection (now at Kenwood) and from 1985 to the Dolmetsch collection of musical instruments.
Ranger’s now houses the world-class collection of fine and decorative art amassed by Julius Wernher. A German-born businessman, Wernher made a fortune from dealing in South African gold and diamonds at the turn of the 20th century. This enabled him to buy many outstanding artworks to fill the rooms of his London home, Bath House, and country estate, Luton Hoo, in Bedfordshire. Today over 700 objects from his collection, ranging from ancient Greece to the 19th century, are on display at Ranger’s House.