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A Family Affair: The Bell-Knights and the Creation of the American Museum

26 June, 2014 | Kate Hebert

Nick and Beryl Bell-Knight were integral to the successful establishment of this Museum.

Beryl (1917-2007) was an accomplished seamstress working for the widow of the artist George Percy Jacomb-Hood on Tite Street, London. She met Nick (1918-94) in an air-raid shelter in 1941; he was a conscientious objector and worked for the Red Cross, also based at Tite Street. They married in 1943. Nick ran an antiques restoration business on Smith Street in Chelsea called ‘Studio Workshop’ with the slogan ‘Nothing too intricate’. Nick met John Judkyn (1913-63), one of this Museum’s founders, who had an antiques business – 222 Imports – in 1947.

In August 1956 John purchased Freshford Manor (about 4 miles from this Museum). It had been empty for 5 years and was overrun with ivy and needed extensive renovation. John asked Nick to move down and become his full-time restorer. Nick and Beryl contentedly left London in November with their two children, Christopher (aged 12) and Christine (3). This was far more than a business arrangement, it was a friendship too – the children calling John ‘Uncle John’.

In 1958 John and his partner, Dr. Dallas Pratt (1914-94), were in ‘a whirlwind of collecting’ to find objects for their ambitious museum project. Their aim was to showcase the vigour of American decorative arts and, in so doing, encourage a better understanding between the United States and Britain. It was Nick’s job to adapt the architectural elements that John and Dallas saved from properties earmarked for demolition in the U.S. and fit them to the rooms of Claverton Manor. Nick’s son Christopher, who often assisted his father, remembers watching in awe as Nick grained the panels for Perley Parlor, for instance. Nick often had to adjust the rooms by adding sections, or taking sections away. Any surplus would be re-configured and repainted to fit other rooms. As you will have appreciated as you toured the Period Rooms, Nick was an incredible and innovative craftsman.

Beryl worked on a number of the quilts and produced the majority of the soft furnishing for the rooms, such as the lace curtains in New Orleans and the intricate swag and tail curtains in Deer Park.

When the Museum opened, John Judkyn wrote to Nick:

“If it had not been for the knowledge that you would be available, we would never have attempted the museum project.”