An exciting aspect of cataloging furniture at Stair is the discovery of a handwritten label. To open a drawer and discover a yellowed paper label is like opening a window into the past. This lovely calamander sofa table has such a label which reads:
‘Sir Hudson Low brought the wood for this table from India, calamander wood & had the table made for my grandfather, John Newbery (born at Heathfield Park 1774, died 1854). F.G. Newbery’
Is it fact or is it fiction?
We know as fact Heathfield Park is a privately owned English country house and a bucolic walled park in East Sussex built in 1677. It was purchased by George Augustus Elliot in 1762 who became Lord Heathfield in 1787. By 1790, after Elliot had passed, the house was renamed Heathfield Park in his honor by the new owner, Francis Newbery. Francis Newbery’s father was the famed John Newbery, known as the ‘Father of Children’s Literature’ and later for The Newbery Medal. In this we have the Newbery family solidly connected to Heathfield Park. However, when further checked the proposed timeline and lineage for the label do not appear to match. What about Sir Hudson Lowe?
We know as fact Sir Hudson Lowe was best known as the Governor of St. Helena and the custodian of Emperor Napoleon during his exile. Lowe was born in 1769 into an Irish military family and would spend his childhood moving frequently to far flung locations like the West Indies. He entered his father’s regiment ,the 50th Foo , at age 18 and over the span of his career rose through the ranks seeing action in the Napoleonic Wars. He was eventually knighted and promoted to major-general before his complex assignment on St. Helena with Napoleon. Napoleon campaigned directly against Lowe’s efforts to enforce punishment and in some circles Lowe was blamed for Napoleon’s death. After St. Helena,he commanded forces in Ceylon but never quite recovered. Lowe was eventually transferred back to England to serve as Colonel of the 50th Foot before succumbing to paralysis in 1844.
The label presents two intriguing characters and the beginnings of a great story, but could it be true? The dates suggest that Lowe and a member of the Newbery family could have certainly been contemporaries, although the timing for the Newbery family at Heathfield is off. The suggestion of the calamander coming from India is also plausible considering Lowe’s background. The label could be the result of family lore handed down where the details were reshaped in retelling. What remains to be discovered is how , and if , the two men’s lives intersected and if the table ever graced the grand interior of Heathfield. Whether the label turns out to be fact or fiction it is certainly intriguing and adds to the allure of a beautiful piece of furniture.