Weird Norfolk: Could a picture or a chair retain a haunting memory from its past?
- Credit: Archant Eastern Daily Press
A picture that was haunted by the woman it captured and a chair that summoned the spirit of a flame-haired ghost if placed close to a fireplace: one house in Norfolk boasted them both.
He was a curator of curios, a collector of oddities and some of the treasures he bought came with a spirit of their own - both a painting and a chair bought by Norfolk antiquarian Bryan Hall came complete with their own ghost.
Both items were sold in an auction held at Mr Hall's home at Banningham Rectory in 2004, eight months before he died.
In an article written in the Eastern Daily Press in March 2004, there were details of a grand auction by Bonhams of Mr Hall's collection.
"Step inside the billowing Bonhams marquee and laid out before you is a life. The forest of ancient umbrellas, armies of grandfather clocks, a life-size wooden Bishop, a stuffed terrier…The life belongs to Bryan Hall, bachelor, schoolmaster, picture restorer and prime example of what's known in the trade as 'an antiquarian'."
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There were bibles from as far back as 1682, 'Food for the Mind: or a New Riddle Book' by John the Giant-Killer, a woodcut-illustrated title published by Carnan and Newbery in 1788, English School paintings, Roman statuary, a child's tea service and, reputedly, the black and gold shoes worn by Charles I on his execution day…plus a haunted chair and a paranormal painting.
But let us begin at the beginning, drawing information from Betty Puttick's Norfolk Stories of the Supernatural, published in 2000, which weaves a strange story whose thread extends from Nottingham to Norwich and binds the two cities and a spectral painting together.
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Shortly after the end of the First World War, a lady was sheltering in the doorway of an old curiosity shop in Nottingham while a thunderstorm raged.
From the inside of the shop, she heard a voice crying out "save me! Save me!" and, peering into the dark shop, saw a woman with flame-red hair and a fine gown sitting in a chair - keen to help, she opened the shop door and heard a woman making the same plaintive cry.
At that moment, the owner of the shop appeared and - when she looked back at the chair - it was empty. The woman, Mary Hutt, the wife of a Rector in Nottinghamshire, covered her confusion by asking how much the chair, a George III armchair with a cane seat and flower decoration - would cost.
When she found that it would only cost a few shillings, she decided to buy it and - as she did so - the proprietor volunteered that it had come from Newstead Abbey.
The chair immediately made its presence known on Mrs Hutt's chauffeur-driven ride home: the car veered across the road as if the steering was faulty and, when she tasked a servant to clean the chair, the girl came to her later and said she was unable to continue with her task as she felt the chair was bewitched.
And so it was that if the chair was placed close to a fire grate, regardless of whether the fire was lit or not, the flame-haired spectre would appear.
After her husband's death, Mrs Hutt moved to Norfolk and, as she set about making her new house a home, her dog rushed to the window as if someone was approaching the house: when Mrs Hutt looked out of the window, the ghost was walking up her drive and she realised the removal men had placed the haunted chair by the fireplace.
The ghost walked in and took her place in her chair.
When she died in 1955, Mrs Hutt left the haunted chair to an old family friend, Bryan Hall of Banningham Rectory, making sure he realised to never place the chair close to a fireplace - he told Mrs Puttick: "I wouldn't dare risk it! I've kept it well away from the fire!" before noting that even on hot days, people standing close to the chair had told him that they felt cold.
Many ghosts are associated with Newstead Abbey, from the Rose Lady to the White Lady, the rooks that were the souls of the Black Monks who once lived at the abbey to the so-called Goblin Friar and the Black Friar.
Bought in 1540 following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Sir John Byron, according to superstition, people become cursed and have bad luck if a former house of God is then used as a private residence - it is said that as he left, the Abbot cursed the building and all who would go on to live there.
By the time Lord Byron, the famous poet, inherited the house, the building was in a perilous state after the family's fortunes had fallen - when he saw the ghost of the Goblin Friar on the evening of his marriage to Anne Milbanke in 1815, he was convinced the marriage would be unhappy: he was right, his new wife left him after a year.
Mr Hall's haunted chair joined a haunted portrait, which he had owned since the 1950s.
The portrait, of Henrietta Nelson, seated and wearing a blue gown and wide brimmed bonnet, showed the former inhabitant of Yaxley Hall in Eye, Suffolk.
Miss Nelson died at the hall in April 1816 at the age of 82 after tragically falling down the stairs and was buried in a mausoleum in the hall's grounds rather than at the family vault in the village church - she made it clear before her death that she wanted to stay at home and rested peacefully at Yaxley for many years.
But when new owners at Yaxley Hall moved in, they demolished the mausoleum and moved Miss Nelson's body to the church - from that moment on, her spirit is said to walk in the grounds, desperate to return home and find peace.
When her picture passed to different owners, it was said that her ghost would travel with it to its new home: not only did her face appear to change on the picture from time to time, she would be spotted dressed in the same outfit as she wore in the oil painting but her face and clothing are as pale as parchment.
There were reported sightings of Henrietta at Banningham Rectory after Mr Hall took ownership of the painting - she was seen walking in the grounds of his home.
"As a portrait it was fascinating, the face was very much alive," Mr Hall told Mrs Puttrick, shortly after painting was stolen (he was later reunited with it), explaining how after the robbery the house had seemed strangely empty and that he had felt as if Miss Nelson's spirit had left with the picture.
At the age of 82 and in ill health, Hall called in Bonhams to sell the exotic fruits of his lifelong labour of love buying the field next door to his home at Banningham Rectory in anticipation of the sale that would be held next door to his home. In all, 2,205 lots were listed.
Andrew Jones was the man who catalogued the finds at Hall's home, having met him 25 years previously when he worked as a Norwich-based valuer: "He came in and was just a delightful old man who had this strange aura about him," he said, "and his knowledge of paintings was unbelievable."
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