The decision follows an eventful year for the 400 year-old manor house, with the loss of financial support from erstwhile benefactor, American multi-millionaire, Sandy Lerner, leaving a massive shortfall in day-to-day running costs and triggering the launch, in July last year, of an urgent, large-scale fundraising campaign - the challenge this year is to raise £300,000.
The co-founder of Cisco Systems, Dr Lerner is said to have sunk some £20m of her fortune into renovating the Elizabethan manor house that once belonged to Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, who inherited the property from childless relatives and was able to offer his mother and two sisters the nearby cottage on the estate - now Jane Austen’s House Museum.
In 1992, Dr Sandy Lerner OBE saved the manor house from disrepair through purchasing the leasehold and embarking on a major restoration programme. It has since enjoyed a world-renowned reputation in academia as Chawton House Library, a research centre for early women’s writing, in collaboration with the University of Southampton and other institutions. It has also developed a modest income as a visitor attraction with increasing numbers of individuals and families coming to enjoy the house and grounds, alongside the Austen-related heirlooms and library.
The need for a renewed vision, securing Chawton House for the future, became critical in late 2016, following the cessation of generous annual funding by Dr Lerner, which made up 65 per cent of the organisation’s income.
It was a driver for the launch, during the bicentenary year of Austen’s death (2017), of the campaign to “reimagine and enhance” the building referred to by the author as the ‘Great House’ but known by the Knight family as ‘Chawton House’.
While the collection of early women’s writing will remain, the aim is to expand the facility, enabling it to reach its full potential as a historic literary landmark, and to ensure its long-term financial sustainability.
Louise Ansdell, chair of Trustees, explained: “The library collection, which features many treasures, including a unique manuscript in Jane Austen’s own hand, will still remain at the core of what we do. However, we’ve had feedback that potential visitors to the house and gardens are confused and, in some cases, put off by having ‘Library’ in the name.
“This could suggest that the property is only open to library users, when this is certainly not the case – we want all to come and enjoy what we have to offer.”
She added: “Chawton House offers an immensely satisfying visitor experience for a wide range of people. This is demonstrated by our Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence, and the glowing visitor feedback we regularly receive.
“The house, which dates back to Elizabethan times, is itself a fascinating building full of Knight and Austen family alterations and heirlooms. From lunching in the old kitchen tearoom to strolling in the walled garden and exploring the ‘Wilderness’, there is much to see and do, and this of course includes – but is not limited to – learning about our collection of some 10,000 volumes of early women’s writing: the women who were Jane Austen’s contemporaries and foremothers.”
The renamed Chawton House has seen its visitor business grow dramatically in recent years; having only opened to the general public via ticketed admissions in 2015, numbers of annual visitors have grown by more than 400 per cent.
As part of its ongoing plans to grow as a visitor attraction, the house and grounds will be open to visitors seven days a week for the first time ever from March 1 through to December 7.
The charity’s most recent fundraising initiative is a ‘Brick by Brick’ campaign whereby supporters can ‘Buy a Brick’ for £25 or more to help save Jane Austen’s ‘Great House’ one brick at a time. The programme, launched in November, has raised over £15,000 in its first three months.
The charity also recently announced it had received a £100,000 grant to be awarded over two years by the Garfield Weston Foundation.
Jane Lillystone, director of fundraising, said: “Our fundraising efforts have got off to a great start but there is still a long way to go. We know that Jane Austen’s ‘Great House’ has tremendous potential as a heritage landmark and we continue our campaign to enhance and reimagine this national treasure for all to enjoy.”
The charity also continues its varied and popular events programme, starting with a snowdrop day this Sunday (February 25), an exhibition ‘Pens, Paintbrushes and Pioneers’ which opens on March 5, and a number of horticultural workshops taking place throughout the spring.
While the house is to revert back to ‘Chawton House’, the charity itself will retain the legal registered name of Chawton House Library and will continue its commitment to maintaining its outstanding collection of women’s writing.
* The charity has confirmed that a request was recently received from the Save our Shires campaign – a group of people who were opposed to the charity’s decision to re-home its four heavy horses last year – to lease the stable block and two fields on the Chawton House grounds.
Louise Ansdell, chair of Trustees, has confirmed this offer will not be taken up: “No-one doubts how special shire horses are, and we appreciate the strength of feeling people have on this issue, however, we are satisfied that we have made the right decision for the organisation, and we will not be pursuing this further.
“We look forward to welcoming many more visitors to see the treasures we have on offer both inside and outside Chawton House in the year ahead.”