Furnishings and Decor at Highbury 1880 – 1914

In the period when Highbury was the Chamberlain’s family home the furnishings and decor were of high quality and complimented the rich architectural detailing of the interiors.

Joseph Chamberlain was a widower when he moved into Highbury in 1880, and it was he who decided on the decor and furnishings, probably in conjunction with the architect, John Henry Chamberlain. Whilst furniture and paintings were brought from his previous house of Southbourne in Edgbaston, new furniture was needed for this larger house. When Chamberlain married Mary Endicott in 1888 she found everything to her taste, and initially made few changes but gradually in certain rooms she rearranged the furniture, got rid of some pieces and added others. The most radical change was in her bedroom which was furnished with a suite of furniture the gift of her parents. In her boudoir the decor was completely changed in 1896 and she had added furniture that she had brought from the United States.

Joseph Chamberlain’s Library

The elaborately carved oak bookcases designed by the architect J. H. Chamberlain were originally made for Southbourne but were reinstalled at Highbury, supplemented by additional bays. The shelves held ‘books of reference on every subject: history, biography, poetry and general literature, English and French.’ The adjustable shelves had leather dust falls (flaps covering the gap between the books and the shelves above).   The furniture was a large partner’s desk placed in front of the white marble fireplace, a side table and a writing table with a reading lamp and which was ‘generally covered with Parliamentary and official papers.’ There was a study chair and six further chairs covered in red morocco leather stamped with the Chamberlain family crest of a lion’s head above a key.  Chamberlain often convened meetings in his library and the guests would use these chairs.

On the desk there was a blotting pad with a brocade cover; a pencil case; a paper knife, a cigar box, a pen with which the Treaty of Washington was signed in February 15 1888 together with a silver cigarette case inscribed to ‘JC Xmas 1888, let us smoke the pipe of peace, Yours WV Harcourt’. On the mantelpiece there were photographs of William Gladstone and other politicians, together with  a Dutch silver casket, a gift of  William Endicott, Mary Chamberlain’s brother,  and an inlaid Japanese ivory tobacco jar  a gift of Mrs Chamberlain,  together with two Chinese vases and a Wedgwood basalt vase.

The niches in the fireplace over-mantel  held small items of oriental porcelain and there were porcelain plates and vases above the bookcases. An oriental rug with a formal pattern  of roses harmonised with the marquetry ceiling  with its regular panels of leaves of horse chestnut and ivy.

The adjoining Secretary’s room (now toilets) was lined from floor to ceiling with book shelves. The books included 220 volumes of The Parliamentary Debates, 110 volumes of Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, Reports of Royal Commissions,  55 vols of State Intelligence and wooden letter files.

The corridor displayed many of the presentation addresses made to Chamberlain from political associations.

Joseph Chamberlain’s Library
Joseph Chamberlain’s Library, courtesy of Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham, C9/20 Photograph [1888]