Thursday, May 26, 2011
Compton Verney, Warwickshire
The ice man returneth
In 1626 the great writer and polymath Francis Bacon discovered that he could preserve a fowl by packing it with ice and snow. Tragically, the philosopher caught flu and died after his experiment with the fowl, but soon after this sad episode the use of ice caught on in the kitchens of the rich. Ice was used not just for food preservation, but also to make chilled desserts and to cool wine. If you had a country house with a lake (or special ice ponds), you had a ready source of ice in the winter. To keep the ice for use in the warmer months, you needed dedicated storage: enter the ice house.
Ice houses were small structures built to keep in the cold. A typical design consisted of a brick-lined chamber sunk partly into a hillside (or into an earth mound) and roofed with thick thatch. Some architects specified a double wall, for extra insulation; there was generally a drain to carry away surplus water; and there might also be a brick-vaulted entrance corridor with a door at either end, to cut off the ice chamber from the warm outdoors. Ice was packed carefully into the ice chamber, a job supervised by the head gardener, who would ensure that there were only the tiniest of gaps between the blocks of ice, to minimize air pockets and discourage thawing.
The ice house at Compton Verney, built in 1771–2, recently restored, and resplendent under its round thatched roof, is a beautiful example. It has a well constructed brick-lined interior and even though visitor access is to the entrance corridor not the ice chamber itself, it’s pleasantly cool in there. And one can see that, if Osbert Sitwell, comparing his family’s ice house at Renishaw to one of the vast stone-vaulted tombs at Mycenae, was laying it on a bit thick, he had a point – they really are very imposing interiors.
It was a bonus, when visiting Compton Verney to see their current exhibition of pictures by Ben Nicolson and Alfred Wallis, to find this ice house restored, a reminder of the time when Compton Verney was not an art gallery but a flourishing country house and an indication of the ingenuity of those who supplied its inhabitants with food and wine.
Above Entrance corridor, Compton Verney ice house
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There is more about the restoration of the Compton Verney ice house here, and more about Compton Verney itself here.