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Friar Park, Oxfordshire, England

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  • George Harrison (1943 - 2001)
    George Harrison was an English rock guitarist, singer-songwriter and film producer who achieved international fame as lead guitarist in The Beatles. Often referred to as "the quiet Beatle", Harrison em...

Friar Park, Oxfordshire, England

Friar Park is a 120-room Victorian neo-Gothic mansion in Henley-on-Thames once owned by eccentric lawyer Sir Frank Crisp and purchased in January 1970 by musician George Harrison.

Overview

Since the early 1970s, the property has become synonymous with the former Beatle's home studio, known as FPSHOT. Harrison biographer Alan Clayson has described the Friar Park estate as being "as synonymous with his name as the Queen's with Windsor Castle".

Harrison put the whole property up as collateral in order to fund the Monty Python comedy team's movie Life of Brian after their original backers, EMI, pulled out at the last minute. As a huge fan of the Pythons, Harrison simply wanted to get to see the film − something that his friend Eric Idle has often described as "the most expensive cinema ticket in movie history".

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Lodge at Friar Park

Brief History

The Friar Park estate was owned by Sir Frank Crisp from 1875 until his death in 1919. It then passed on to Roman Catholic nuns belonging to the Salesians of Don Bosco order. The nuns ran a local school in Henley, the Sacred Heart School, but by the late 1960s Friar Park was in a state of disrepair and due to be demolished.

George Harrison and FPSHOT

In early 1972, Harrison installed a 16-track tape-based recording studio in a guest suite, which at one stage was superior to the one at EMI's Abbey Road Studios. By 1974, the facility had become the recording headquarters for his company, Dark Horse Records. The album covers for projects Harrison recorded there usually mentioned "'F.P.S.H.O.T."' − or Friar Park Studio, Henley-on-Thames. These include the bulk of his own albums, from 1973's Living in the Material World onwards; among them, Dark Horse, Thirty Three & 1/3, George Harrison, Cloud Nine and Brainwashed. Overdubs for the two Traveling Wilburys releases, recording and filming of The Beatles' 1995 Anthology project, interviews with family and friends for posthumous documentaries such as 2003's Concert for George, the 2005 Concert for Bangladesh DVD release, and Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World in 2011 − all were carried out there at FPSHOT or just downstairs in the main part of the house.

Besides the records by Harrison or artists he produced, the studio was also used by Shakespears Sister to record their 1992 album Hormonally Yours.

The gardens

Writing in I, Me, Mine, Derek Taylor says of Harrison's purchase of Friar Park: "It is a dream on a hill and it came, not by chance, to the right man at the right time."

Friar Park has extensive gardens and water features designed by Henry Ernest Milner for Crisp, including a grotto, and stones just underneath the surface of the pond (providing a walking-on-water illusion). The park also includes a sandstone replica of the Matterhorn.] Reflecting Crisp's sense of humour, among the statuary is a monk holding a frying pan with holes in it, and a plaque reading "Two Holy Friars". The year Harrison and his first wife, Pattie Boyd, moved in, he was photographed among four garden gnomes located on the main lawn for the cover of All Things Must Pass, and again with his father Harry six years later, with the photo appearing inside the gatefold cover of Thirty Three & 1/3.

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Harrison immortalised the grand building and its surrounds in his 1976 song "Crackerbox Palace", which was his nickname for the mansion (after Lord Buckley's home in California). The All Things Must Pass track "Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)" was inspired by Friar Park's history, and the lyrics of later songs such as "Ding Dong, Ding Dong" and "The Answer's at the End" directly quote from the many carvings around the property. His humorous video clips for the likes of "Ding Dong, Ding Dong", "True Love" and "Crackerbox Palace" were all shot within the gardens and grounds of Friar Park, as were the album covers for some of his FPSHOT-recorded Dark Horse acts − Splinter's The Place I Love and the Ravi Shankar's Music Festival from India album being the most obvious.

Harrison and his second wife Olivia restored the gardens. Until his death in November 2001, he loved tending to them personally − an activity that a visiting Rolling Stone journalist in 1987 deemed a "decidedly un-rock-star-ish pastime" − and among the groundskeepers were his older brothers Peter and Harry. George's son Dhani would later recall for the Scorsese documentary: "He'd garden at night-time until midnight. He'd be out there squinting because he could see, at midnight, the moonlight and shadows, and that was his way of not seeing the weeds or imperfections that would plague him during the day ..." Talking of the tranquility he felt at Friar Park, Harrison once said: "Sometimes I feel like I'm actually on the wrong planet, and it's great when I'm in my garden. But the minute I go out the gate I think: 'What the hell am I doing here?'"

Security concerns

The mansion was largely open to the public, until the murder of John Lennon in December 1980. Shortly afterwards, the gates were locked and security features such as razor-wire fences and video cameras were installed. Despite these measures, an intruder broke into the residence in the early hours of 30 December 1999, attacking Harrison and his wife Olivia, leaving him suffering a punctured lung, more than 40 stab wounds, and head injuries. In 2009, Olivia Harrison won the right to put in a permanent fence for her protection, to which some of the neighbours objected, out of concern that their cats could be injured by the sharp edges of the razor-wire.

Olivia Harrison has continued to live in the mansion since Harrison's death from cancer on 29 November 2001

History

After a difficult period in the early-to-mid 19th century, Henley's fortunes revived in the late Victorian and Edwardian period, as the railway and the Regatta helped turn it into a fashionable social, leisure and commuting centre close to London. This resurrection in Henley's fortunes was reflected in renewed building and suburban expansion, as confidence and prosperity returned and local builders and developers recognised the opportunities. At a higher social level, the building of villas and larger houses spilled beyond the southern suburbs and the Fair Mile into the surrounding countryside. The most spectacular example is Friar Park on the town's western edge, built c.1890 as a luxurious weekend retreat for the London solicitor Frank Crisp. Designed by the little-known architect M. Clarke Edwards, the house is an architectural fantasy in red brick, stone and terracotta, mixing English, French and Flemish motifs in lavish, undisciplined profusion. But the house achieved its greatest fame (and even notoriety) on account of its 62-acre grounds, landscaped in fantastical style with topiary, 25 glasshouses, a gnome-filled grotto, and a rock garden overlooked by a miniature Matterhorn. The gardens reflected Crisp's scientific interest in horticulture as well as a more romantic medievalism. They also suggest a lively sense of fun, which is evident in the carved terracotta friars scattered around the house. The name Friar Park preceded Crisp's purchase, and derived from a local field-name before the area was built on: there is no historical connection with friars or any other religious group. (Read about the earlier house.) .

Philanthropic residents like Crisp at Friar Park or the Mairs at Phyllis Court engaged with the town in various ways, sometimes throwing their houses and gardens open on special occasions. In 1895, for instance, the Horticultural Society held its annual show in the grounds of Friar Park. Crisp also supported (and perhaps influenced the designs for) the new Congregationalist church of 1907, which is architecturally a cousin of Friar Park, its lantern-like tower still announcing the approach to the town from the Reading direction. When not in London, Crisp continued to live at Friar Park until his death in 1919. The next owner was the financier and Chinese art connoisseur Sir Percival David (1892-1964), who moved away following his divorce in 1953. His former wife stayed on at 'Friar Park End', remodelled from the coach house and stable courtyard. The main house was acquired by a religious order, the Salesian Sisters of St John Bosco, who were still there in 1969. Soon after, Friar Park was bought by the former Beatle George Harrison. Harrison took a close interest in Henley, involving himself in local conservation issues, and embarking on major restoration programmes at Friar Park. The Crisp connection was celebrated in Harrison's song 'The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)', on the 1970 album All Things Must Pass. The sleeve features a photograph of Harrison at Friar Park, surrounded by ornamental stone gnomes from the gardens. Books relevant to Friar Park include: F. Crisp, Guide to Friar Park (1914) Country Life, 5 Aug. 1905, 162-7 ('The Alpine Garden: Friar Park, Henley, the Residence of Mr Frank Crisp') B. Elliott, Victorian Gardens (1986) .