Fairfax House

York, England

Over the years Fairfax House, once at the height of York’s polite society, slipped between roles until being secured as a Georgian townhouse museum.

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- David M. Gray

Discover Fairfax House in York

Fairfax House, located at No. 27 Castlegate in York, is considered to be one of the finest Georgian townhouses in Britain. It was purchased by Charles Gregory Fairfax, the Viscount Fairfax of Emley in 1759, for his beloved daughter Anne – the only remaining child of nine. Anne and her father would then use the house as their winter home. Upon Lord Fairfax’s death in 1772, the house was sold and went on to experience a full and varied life as a gentlemen's club, cinema, and dance hall. By 1980 it was vacant.

Rather than let Fairfax slip into history, the Chairman of York Civic Trust, John Shannon, wrote to the City Council to ask permission for the Trust to assume management of the building. After extensive restoration efforts costing a grand total of £750,000 (in 1980) the red brick and stone townhouse was opened to the public as a museum, by the Duchess of Kent, on 31 October 1984.

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- Jo's Days Out

Today, richly decorated with Georgian furniture donated by the famous York chocolatier Noel Terry, and magnificent stucco ceilings, stepping inside is like stepping back in time to experience Fairfax House as Anne and her father would have, in the 18th century.

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- Jo's Days Out

The History of Fairfax House

It has been determined that Fairfax House was built in the 1940s. After Lord Fairfax purchased it he hired the North’s leading Georgian architect, John Carr, to perform a remodel. Restorations were carried out from 1761-65, after which Anne and her father came to split their time between Fairfax and their principal home, Gilling Castle, in the countryside, 20 miles north of York.

Fairfax House

At the heart of the city’s polite society, Fairfax was the perfect base from which to admire York’s social scene. Over the years elegant balls, parties, and entertaining would have occurred within the period rooms of Fairfax. Where rooms once spilled over with classical music and twirling, finely dressed gentry, today they silently burst with secret tales from that time. To have been a fly on the wall at Fairfax House would have been a very enlightening, and historically interesting experience.

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- Allan Harris

Creating Fairfax House

Thanks to John Carr’s striking remodel, Fairfax House is a true example of Palladian architecture. With an interior design that is truly breathtaking, the townhouse has some of York’s finest mid-18th century plasterwork and carpentry details.

Joseph Cortese: The Italian Stuccoist

In his quest to fashion one of Britain’s most impressive Georgian townhouses, Carr enlisted the talents of the famous Swiss-Italian Stuccoist, Giuseppe (Joseph) Cortese. The result was an elaborate showcasing of visually complex ceilings, in a Rococo style.

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- Jo's Days Out

Each of the rooms was created to express some aspect of the Fairfax family’s interests and values. For example, the Library's ceiling, a Rococo masterpiece, intertwines exquisite foliage and scrolls with portraits of literary giants like Milton, Pope, Addison, and Locke, reflecting the literary interests of Lord Fairfax himself. Similarly, the Dining Room's ceiling, adorned with the resplendent figure of Abundantia, symbolises the Fairfax family's generosity through a cornucopia overflowing with fruits. In the Drawing Room, the theme shifts to friendship, represented by a figure holding a heart and a flourishing elm tree.

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- Jo's Days Out

The pièce de résistance lies in the Grand Staircase's ceiling, a complex and challenging scene laden with allegory and metaphor. Here, Cortese's creativity flourishes with eagles, dragons, and animated putti intricately woven into its design. Potential references include Britain's supremacy in the Seven Years War and, more covertly, hints at the Fairfax family's unwavering commitment to Catholicism, amidst religious and political turmoil.

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- Jo's Days Out

Noel Terry: Furnishing Fairfax House

Fairfax House is not merely a paragon of architectural brilliance; it boasts a meticulously curated collection of artwork, furniture, and clocks. The majority of this ensemble was donated to the York Civic Trust, upon the passing of Noel Terry in 1980. Terry had an endearing passion for York, which manifested in the co-creation of the Trust in 1946. The posthumous donation of his remarkable collection has allowed for the exhibition at Fairfax of remarkable cabinet-makers like Thomas Chippendale, William Vile, and John Gordon.

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- Jo's Days Out

Terry’s initial collection laid the foundation for what has evolved into a comprehensive showcase of 18th-century opulence. The museum has continued to grow through subsequent acquisitions and donations, encompassing significant additions such as a rediscovered Grinling Gibbons wooden panel, a testament to his early years in York, and a poignant 2023 acquisition featuring a portrait of Elizabeth Clifford, the last Viscount Fairfax's wife.

To discover more about Terry's ancestors and York's connections with the chocolate industry read our article on York's Chocolate Story.

Musical Instruments and Other Treasures

Alongside the furniture, the collection boasts rare examples of early musical instruments, including a walnut and mahogany spinet by John Kirsham and an inlaid mahogany square piano by Thomas Haxby. These instruments, integral to Georgian domestic music-making, showcase the cultural significance of music within a high society household.

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- Bill Johnston

With regards to horology, Fairfax contains 13 of the earliest and rarest examples of Georgian English clocks. The collection includes works by leading horologists such as Thomas Tompion, Edward East, George Graham and Daniel Quare – making the collection of national significance.

Our Thoughts…

Visiting the extensive collections and glorious expression of Georgian architecture at Fairfax House allows visitors to explore the refined world of 18th-century York. The knowledgeable guides offer valuable insights into the history and significance of each room, enriching the visitor's understanding of the Georgian lifestyle.

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- Tim Green

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Fairfax House Questions


What you need to know

Fairfax House
Castlegate, York YO1 9RN
53.956799, -1.080183
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