NOSTALGIA: Chilling tale of a haunted painting

Crowhurst Park today. Picture: Google Maps
Crowhurst Park today. Picture: Google Maps

Have you got an old painting hung on the wall? One of those where the eyes seem to follow you round the room?

This week’s Looking Back is a tale of a haunted portrait and the family of one of the most famous men in Sussex, writes Robert Slater.

Sir John Pelham rose rapidly through favour of Henry IV and became established as the most influential figure from Sussex in the private counsels of the King.

He was elected to five Parliaments and on the King’s death he was named as one of the executors of the Royal Will.

By the time he himself died his income was more than £800 a year and he owned lands all over the county and was Constable of Pevensey Castle.

The story began in the Midlands where the Papillon family built a hall in 1640 at Lubenham in Leicestershire where David Papillon allegedly had a Spanish mistress who he killed and bricked up. Dying, she left a curse on a pair of slippers which were to bring doom on anyone who took them out of the house.

In the centuries which followed tragedy occurred to anyone who took the slippers – hunting accidents, fires in the house and so on.

David Papillon also allegedly had ‘magical’ powers and could ‘fix’ people to the spot.

Once a poor hapless robber stole Papillon’s gold but was frozen where he stood by David until the servants were alerted and found the hapless robber still there and as the spell was broken, he fled leaving the bag of gold coins.

At some point the Pelham and Papillon families intermarried and in the 17th Century settled on part of Sir John Pelham’s land at Crowhurst Park near Battle bringing with them an oil painting of their ancestor “David” which hung on the wall with the other family portraits.

In 1908 Pelham Rawstorn Papillon was unmarried and decided to let the house and move to 53 Priory Avenue in Hastings with his uncle Arthur Garnier and sister Cicely.

One day a letter arrived about the painting of David Papillon’ still at Crowhurst Park, from his new tenants who begged:

“Dear Mr Papillon,

“I don’t know what you will say to the request I am going to make and I really hardly like to ask you.

“It is about the ghost picture in the Drawing Room. May we have it carefully packed and sent for safe keeping either to your bank or some furniture depository, endorsing the inventory with a note to that effect?

“I have been rather alarmed about its influence lately and should be much happier if it were out of the house.

R Bertha Tufnell.”

They knew nothing of the story but attested to the painting having a hypnotic influence on anyone looking at it.

Ms Tufnell’s sister actually had to be forcibly removed from its presence.

Then “David” started to materialise from his portrait and was often seen in the Drawing Room so not surprisingly the request to move the painting was sent.

The painting was duly sent to Hastings and lodged overnight with a Mr and Mrs Pettitt who lived on the Hastings to Battle road and Mr Pettitt, an employee of the estate that night walked to the well and drowned himself.

The painting though seemed to be at rest when hung over Pelham’s bed and eventually it was rehung at Crowhurst Park and remained there till Pelham’s death when finally the whole house was auctioned off in February 1942.

As for John Pelham, he was buried at the Cistercian Abbey in Robertsbridge – his grave now as one of the most important men in Sussex is unknown.

And as for the painting? Its whereabouts are unknown too – could it be on your wall?

Robert Slater leads Pevensey Castle Ghost Walks

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