Let the traffic by, walk through the park and enjoy whatever takes your fancy in one of the most delightful small museums in England.
Christchurch Mansion was built in Tudor times, given an up-to-date facade in the Stuart period, changed hands a few times and was presented with its surrounding park to Ipswich in Victoria’s reign. The moment you leave one of the town’s busiest streets and walk through the gates that history encloses you in an atmosphere of peace. People are always to be seen in the park, walking dogs, jogging, sitting to enjoy flowers or refreshments and playing with children. The paths – once carriageways – sweep towards the mansion’s door where a simple sign announces free admission and the days and times of opening.
There’s always a welcome from staff inside the door, with an enquiry whether it’s your first visit and an offer of directions to particular displays. As befits what was a family home, the displays are eclectic. Period rooms are furnished and have mannequins in costume; there are displays of china with a “picnic” on the floor in fabrics to keep children amused while adults view the cabinets, or to engage both there is Martinware with grotesques and monsters.
For art lovers or those with local interests there are rooms devoted to historical Suffolk figures. Munnings and Harry Becker feature in one room while the Wolsey Art Gallery has a small but characteristic collection of works by Gainsborough and Constable.
For 2015 one of Constable’s largest canvases is on loan from the Tate. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, with its storm-finale sky and rainbow to locate his patron’s house, was the one Constable hoped would provide his crock of gold. Neither this nor any other did, unfortunately: his reputation was established in France and only posthumously here. Nonetheless, the opportunity to see it at close range is well worth taking.
On permanent display are two early works, his father’s gardens, some pencil sketches of great delicacy and a painting of Willy Lott’s house at Flatford that became the background of The Hay Wain. There is also a video of restoration work on this picture, offering a fascinating insight.
We were limited for time and, living near, can always look in on other rooms, so had made Constable our objective. Nonetheless, to spot the notorious Earl of Essex, an ancestor of the last private owners, was a bonus. Again, had there been a grandchild in tow, the stuffed bear in the case below was not to be missed.
From the park several of the medieval churches of Ipswich are visible and less than five minutes’ walk away are some of the old buildings, fortunately in pedestrian streets. There’s plenty to do and see in the town, with an efficient local bus service to take you about.