The Elizabethan house was dominated by the Great Hall, which rose the full height of the building and was originally top-lit by a lantern. However, by the close of the sixteenth century the upper windows had been blanked off and the ceiling lowered to allow for the creation of attic rooms. The Great Hall had an elaborate carved stone screen at its south end, beyond which was the entrance passage, the kitchen, buttery and pantry together with stairways to cellars and upper lodging rooms.
By the eighteenth century, the Great Hall must have appeared old fashioned, and a surviving design of c.1730 suggests that Cuthbert Constable intended to completely remodel the interior. However, it appears that remodelling was not undertaken until the 1760s when his son William commissioned a number of leading architects to furnish him with designs. These included John Carr (1723-1807), ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-83) and Timothy Lightoler (1727-69). The commission was awarded to Lightoler who favoured a ‘jacobethan’ scheme (albeit with a rococo flavour). A surviving drawing suggests that Lightoler hoped to recreate a mock Jacobean screen at the south end of the Great Hall. Evidently, this idea did not find favour with William Constable, as there is no evidence to suggest it was ever executed. During the process of alteration, expensive building materials were not wasted, as stonework from the original Elizabethan entrance doorway and screen was used to support the floor joists in a number of ground-floor rooms and in building extensions to the cellars.
The new front door to the house was designed to harmonise with the existing Elizabethan windows. The decorative plasterwork was executed by James Henderson (fl.1755-87) of York who had been contracted for the work by Lightoler. The bill of £252.17.0 1/2 was settled by William in February 1767. Incorporated into the decorative scheme was a series of heraldic shields of the Constable lineage, for which William provided a hand-held visitor’s guide - all testament to his sense of ancestry. Although the life-size family portraits were initially hung in the Long Gallery and were not transferred to the Great Hall until the nineteenth century, they too were very much part of William’s statement of his ancestral legitimacy. He attempted to assemble a complete series of full-length portraits of all the Constables beginning with Sir John who had been responsible for building the Elizabethan house. The full-length portrait on canvas of Sir John Constable is an eighteenth-century copy taken from a sixteenth-century half-length portrait on panel, presently hung in the Long Gallery. The portraits of the 1st, 3rd and 4th Viscounts Dunbar are seventeenth-century works. However, the portraits of Sir Henry Constable and that of John, 2nd Viscount Dunbar, formerly showed only head and shoulders. The canvases were later sewn into larger canvases in order to extend the portraits to full-length. Amusingly, the artist took insufficient care with his portrait of the 2nd Viscount Dunbar, and this seventeenth-century figure is depicted standing alongside an eighteenth-century table!
The grand-tour portrait of William Constable and his sister Winifred, painted by Anton von Maron (1733-1808) in 1772, dominates the south wall. William is depicted as a citizen of the Roman Republic in the guise of Marcus Porcius Cato (95-54 BC) with Winifred as Cato’s wife Marcia. William’s seated position and overall pose is modelled on an antique statue, a plaster copy of which sits on the chest below the portrait. The painting alludes to Cato receiving a letter informing him of the downfall of the Republic - as a result of which, in an act of defiance, Cato commits suicide. Typical of his time, William wished to be seen as a man of the Enlightenment and allies himself to the ideals of Republican Rome.
As part of the overall decorative scheme, William acquired the plaster figures of Demosthenes and Hercules with Cerebus for the niches on either side of the fireplace. These, and the plaster busts of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and the Greek poetess Sappho on the overmantel, are amongst a number of works supplied by the sculptor John Cheere (1709-87), who had initially submitted a series of sketches. Unusually, the sketches also survive at Burton Constable.
Above the fireplace is a carving of oak boughs and garlands of laurel leaves, crowned by the Garter Star. It surrounds the armourial shield of the Constable family executed in scagliola by Domenico Bartoli. For ‘Carving the Ornament Round the Achievement in the Hall’ the Fisher workshop of York charged the princely sum of £42 in 1767.
Domenico Bartoli was also responsible for the four scagliola table tops in the Great Hall. One pair of tables imitate porphyry marble whilst the other two imitate pietra dura. The table depicting Britannia is signed Dom Bartoli Fecit and is a notable early work by Bartoli who lived at Burton Constable between 1763 and 1766 and was salaried at £54.12.0 per year. The table nearest the entrance door depicts Classical ruins, possible inspired by the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The design also incorporates the family motto Sans Mal Desir (Intending No Evil). The four Doric-columned table frames were the work of John Lowry (fl.1740-93), who was apprenticed at Burton Constable to Thomas Higham, the estate joiner, before moving to London.
The London lamp manufacturer, William Collins (c.1803-1852), supplied the central lantern in the Great Hall along with other oil lamps and lanterns in the house in the 1830s. The wall lights were installed in 1860 and were powered from the gasworks on the estate until 1903, when they were converted to electricity.
The painting of c.1690 situated on the north wall of the Hall is the earliest known view of the house and park. In the mid-eighteenth century the Elizabethan stables beside the house were demolished and replaced by a new double stable block. The fish ponds, visible in the distance, were enlarged to form the present lakes in the 1770s to the designs of ‘Capability’ Brown. On the left of the picture a herd of white park cattle can be seen roaming - they were killed-off by a ‘distemper’ in 1747. The pair of horns adorning the wall of the Hall give some indication of the size of these fearsome beasts. There are also several ‘unicorn horns’ (actually narwhal tusks - perhaps a product of Hull’s whaling trade).