James Stewart Henderson (d.1933)
The son of a wealthy Australian banker and master of Abbotsford, St Helens Park, Hastings, James Stewart Henderson swore visitors to secrecy and little is know about his reclusive life. A major collector of arms and armour, coins and medals, manuscripts and printed books, as well as paintings, he was also a gifted musician and the owner of several valuable violins, including a Guadagnini, Guarnerius and Stradivarius. Ill for nearly all his life and without family, Henderson bequeathed his collection less the musical instruments and paintings to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1933. He also left funds to properly display his treasures, the result of which is the Henderson Gallery of Arms & Armour, designed by Sir Sydney Cockerell and James Gow Mann and opened in 1936. Referred to as ‘of Trinity College, Cambridge’ at the time of the bequest, the college denies all knowledge of Henderson today.
Remembered by friends as most eccentric and most kind, they described their visits to Abbotsford, or the ‘House of Silence’, as Henderson’s secretive mansion came to be known, as true adventures. Invited to one of his musical afternoons, they would be admitted into the great hall, overseen by a suit of armour worn by Charles I, fitted to a figure mounted on a horse, and then led past other suits of armour into the music room. Overheated and full of cigar smoke, it also accommodated Joey, Henderson’s pet parrot, who not only advised the musicians to ‘Play up’, but also shouted ‘Close the door!’ and ‘Shut the Window!’ whenever a guest attempted to let some fresh air in. The garden was the only escape and Henderson took great pleasure in seeing his friends disappear in the large maze. Located between donkey sanctuary and goldfish pond, it invariably took them some time to reappear. Henderson would then serve dinner, usually macaroni, and demonstrate how to eat these in true ‘Italian style’. Only the light of oil lamps left, he would accompany his guests back to the front door, past the suits of armour and their ever long shadows. The ‘House of Silence’: special as much as spooky.
Musical afternoons aside, Henderson lived in two rooms, ate the simplest of meals and enjoyed the company of Joey. Passionate about arms and armour, he spent his fortune with S. J. Whawell and W. H. Fenton & Sons in London, studied his treasures at home, but also used his flint-lock pistols to discipline his gardener!
I. Eaves, Catalogue of European Armour at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Boydell Press, 2002
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