Greeks bearing gifts: Nicholas Revett, Trafalgar Park and the Origins of UK Neo-Classicism

William Blake poetically argued that it was possible to ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand’; in the miniature is a reflection of something much greater.  With that in mind, to look upon the manifest beauties of a house such as Trafalgar Park in Wiltshire, it could seem strange to argue that one of the most important aspects of it is, in fact, a small hallway in the north wing. Yet, this hallway is one of the earliest architectural examples which form the genesis of neo-classicism; one of the most recognisable and prolific architectural styles which has proved to be enduringly influential in the design of country houses and also has come to dominate civic architecture.

Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

Neo-classical architecture permeates our built environment; banks, council and government buildings, and particularly country houses.  Drawing on the ancient monuments of Greece, the structured, hierarchical designs provided a convenient vocabulary that institutions, the state, and individuals could use to express their permanence and place in the natural order of society. Of course, this is the interpretation and not an objective set of laws but neo-classicism’s rationalist perspective, with its reliance on mathematical rigour, gave the impression that architecture and society both shared an underlying harmony in their precision and structure.

The Classical language of architecture had arrived in England through the widely admired and imitated Vitruvian principles as interpreted in Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura. Inigo Jones had adopted this language and had created the foothold for the new style with his the Queen’s House in Greenwich (1616) and Banqueting House in Westminster (1619). However, his sources were Italian; the great monuments of Rome as measured and shown by Palladio. For some, though, this was derivative as the earliest Classical monuments were in Greece.

It ought to remembered that the fashion for the neo-classical was one which swept across Europe, not just the UK. As a rejection of the seemingly frivolous Rococo movement, it sought to instil a more high-minded set of ideals across the arts. To do this, writers such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (regarded as one of the fathers of neo-classicism), stated that ‘The only way to become great is to imitate antiquity’. This required no mere slavish copying but a profound understanding obtained through study which enabled principled use of the Classical architectural language. Books such as Piranesi’s Le Antiquita Romane, a series of topographical views of Rome published in 1748, determined to prove the glory of Rome. However, others such as Richard Dalton (Museum Graecum et Aegyticum, 1751), le Comte de Caylus (Recueil d’Antiquities Eygyptiennes, Etrusques, Grecques et Romaines, 1752) and Julien David Le Roy (Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grece, 1758) argued for the superiority of the Hellenic originals.

Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grece (1758) - J.D. Le Roy

‘Ruines d’un Portique Dorique’ from Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grece (1758) – J.D. Le Roy

If true knowledge of Classical architecture required detailed study the options were limited unless fortunate enough to be able to undertake the arduous and expensive Grand Tour. The Society of Dilettanti, formed in the 1730s as a scholarly drinking club for aristocrats and others who had visited Italy, deliberately sought to influence fashion by sponsoring a more rigorous approach to the recording of the ancient ruins. Scholars had realised the value and fame which could be garnered from publishing books on the ruins they had visited but these were often the Roman versions of the Grecian originals and were often more decorative than accurate delineations.

Antiquities of Athens (Vol I) - James Stuart and Nicholas Revett (1762)

Antiquities of Athens (Vol I) – James Stuart and Nicholas Revett (1762)

In contrast, the most successful and influential of these publications was Antiquities of Athens by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and Nicholas Revett, published in three folios in 1762, 1787 and 1794. Sponsored by the Society of Dilettanti, their approach produced detailed, measured architectural drawings from which other architects could accurately reproduce Grecian details. Stuart and Revett were both better known as connoisseurs of painting rather than as architects, but having lived in Rome for ten years prior to their departure in 1751 for Athens, they had a thorough knowledge of Roman artefacts.  This was crucial in establishing the authority of Antiquities of Athens when the first folio was published in 1762.

James Stuart (1713-1788) became known as James ‘Athenian’ Stuart on the reputation he established. He originally started his artistic career as a painter of fans and he was to continue with this work even after becoming an architect – the large allegorical ceiling painting in the tapestry room at Hagley Hall, painted in 1758-59, is one notable example. However, having established his fame, his drinking and erratic work habits meant that although he had a steady stream of work, patrons were sometimes reluctant to commission him, leaving his reputation somewhat diminished.  This is in contrast to his early years when having arrived in Rome in 1742, he established himself as judge of pictures, acting as a guide to aristocrats on their Grand Tour. In this manner he met Revett when he accompanied him, along with Matthew Brettingham and Gavin Hamilton, to Naples in 1748. That same year, he and Revett drafted their first Proposals for publishing an Accurate Description of the Antiquities of Athens, which, once accepted by the Society who became their sponsors, enabled them to undertake their investigation.

Nicholas Revett (1721-1804) was the second son of minor Suffolk gentry, his father being John Revett of Brandeston Hall. At the age of 21, Nicholas left Suffolk and moved to Rome to study under Marco Benefial, an important early neo-classical painter. It’s unclear where Revett was tutored in the precise skill of architectural drawing but clearly as a man of some talent and training he was undoubtedly proficient and it was he, not Stuart, who was principally responsible for the measured drawings of the monuments. According to one account in the Gentleman’s Magazine of March 1778 ‘Mr Stuart first caught the ideas of that science, in which (quitting the painter’s art) he afterwards made so conspicuous a figure.’  So why is the pupil known better than the master?

One of the key reasons is that although Revett’s name appeared on the title page, before publication he had sold his interest to Stuart after editorial differences.  Secondly, Revett, as a gentleman with a private income, wasn’t under the same financial pressure to practice and so his executed architectural commissions are scarce, primarily working for his friends. One such in his circle was Henry Dawkins; owner of Standlynch, later renamed Trafalgar Park.

Portico (added in 1766), Trafalgar Park, designed by Nicholas Revett (Image © Matthew Beckett)

Portico (added in 1766), Trafalgar Park, designed by Nicholas Revett (Image © Matthew Beckett)

This commission, in 1766, was limited but Revett drew on his knowledge and the rich seam of material he had accumulated to produce a fine portico, based on the Temple of Apollo, Delos. Revett’s skill was in being able to take the elements of the temple and extend it to create a sophisticated composition. In addition to this, Revett was tasked with creating a vestibule at the junction of the north wing.  Within this limited space, Revett chose to create a miniature six-column temple apparently based on the Establishment of the Poseidoniasts, also at Delos, representing one of the (and possibly the) earliest interior use of Greek neo-classical architectural features.

North Vestibule, Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

North Vestibule , Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

Detail of Trafalgar Park floorplan showing north vestibule layout (Image © Savills)

Detail of Trafalgar Park floorplan showing north vestibule layout (Image © Savills)

Revett contributed few other architectural examples, working mainly for friends such as Dawkins at Standlynch. Other commissions including adding a grand Ionic portico to the west front of West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, for Sir Francis Dashwood in 1771, and later the Temple of Flora and the Island Temple between 1778-80.  Revett’s only other notable contribution is the church at Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, for Sir Lionel Lyde in 1778, which he designed as a temple with small, detached wings, linked with a columnar screen. James Lees-Milne thoroughly disliked it saying ‘It is stark, cold and foreign to its surroundings, in fact admittedly unsympathetic to its ostensible purpose as a christian conventicle in a small and humble parish. Quite frankly it was meant to be enjoyed as an ornamental temple of a nobleman’s park in a focal view from the mansion.’ Which is correct – and probably exactly what Revett had intended.

So if Revett has the garland for earliest neo-classical interior, who can claim the earliest exterior use? Although Antiquities of Athens was published in 1762, the drawings were at the disposal of Stuart and Revett.  The earliest Greek revival building is agreed to be the garden temple at Hagley Hall, built for Lord Lyttelton in 1758-59, which Stuart designed was based on The Hephaisteion in Athens. However, in 1985, Giles Worsley identified the earliest use of a Greek architectural element in a building as being two years earlier in 1756 when Earl Harcourt, a prominent member of the Society of Dilettanti, was rebuilding Nuneham House, Oxfordshire. Although the architect of the house is noted as Stiff Leadbetter, Lord Harcourt asserted such influence that the house can be regarded as more by the former than the latter.  Writing to a friend he stated that,

I have not placed my Venetian windows under an arch. Instead of springing the arch or compass point of the Venetian window from the cornish as other people have done, I have boldly adventured to follow a design of an old building which I have seen among Mr Stuart’s drawings of Athens, where the arch or circular part springs from the architrave itself, which, besides having a very good effect, obviates an objection which upon some occasions had been made to Venetian windows, that the light is too high in the room.

Harcourt’s inspiration for his variation on the standard Venetian window was Stuart’s drawing of the Aqueduct of Hadrian, a structure largely ruined when he visited and demolished by the end of that century. Stuart would go on to use this form of the window at only three other houses; once at The Belvedere, Kent, c.1775, once at the Prospect House, Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, c.1775, and once at Montagu House, London, c.1775-82, though unfortunately all these have now been demolished.

(left) Aqueduct of Hadrian from Antiquities of Athens (1794) (Image source: Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Library) | (right) Nuneham House, Oxfordshire (1754) (Image © Isisbridge on flickr)

(left) Aqueduct of Hadrian from Antiquities of Athens (1794) (Image source: Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Library) | (right) Nuneham House, Oxfordshire (1754) (Image © Isisbridge on flickr)

The 1750s and 1760s saw the idea of architecture drawn from classical sources, whether Greek or Roman, become more widespread.  The birth of Greek neo-classicism in the UK can, in part, be traced to these examples and the men behind them, the wider adoption of this stylistic source was relatively slow. Neither Stuart nor Revett appeared to wish to be the figureheads for a new fashion, simply content to work as much as they wished, with Stuart taking more but his delivery tempered by his dissolute habits. Different strands of neo-classicism were being picked up by more ambitious architects such as Robert Adam, who had undertaken his own Grand Tour to Italy and Croatia and whose publication in 1764 of the Ruins of the Palace of the Emporer Diocletian at Spalatro gave his a scholarly foundation from which to launch his own style of neo-classicism which soon supplanted the previous Burlingtonian standard.

The overlooked North Vestibule at Trafalgar Park represents the quiet experimentation which was to plant seeds of the Hellenic neo-classical movement. This would find its true expression in the late-Georgian era when evangelists such as Thomas Hope would create a resurgence in interest and further burnish the reputations of both Stuart and Revett; men whose unequal fame has obscured the contribution which Revett made in enabling architects, regardless of experience or first-hand exposure, to all claim antiquity as their source.


Sales particulars: Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire – 33 acres, £12m (Savills.com)

Introduction to neo-classicism: ‘Style Guide: Neo-classicism‘ [V&A Museum]

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A Hollandaise Source: Henry Holland’s Benham Park, Berkshire

As the costs of owning a country house mounted in the early-twentieth-century and eventually overwhelmed the finances of many families, so they sought alternative uses for their houses. Whether as a care home, school, or any of other myriad uses, few houses or their estates endured the experience unscathed. For those used as offices, the particular indignity of large, modern additions obliterated the immediate setting of a house, occasionally driving it into obscurity. Few who suffered this fate have ever escaped, yet a rare and beautiful survival – Benham Park in Berkshire – has not only escaped, but been wonderfully (partly) restored and is now offered for sale.  What is most remarkable though about this house are its connections to some of the most famous names of Georgian architecture, including Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, a young Henry Holland, and an even younger John Soane.

Benham Park, Berkshire (Image © Savills)

Benham Park, Berkshire (Image © Savills)

Nestled in a lush parkland, Benham Park is significant as a formative experience, in different ways, for both Holland and Soane; a house where the two would each contribute in different ways, each gaining experience which would serve them well in the future. The noted architectural historian Dorothy Stroud declared Holland ‘a designer of perception and originality’. Her tireless research underpins much of what is known about Holland and his work.

Detail of Henry Holland (1745-1806) Image © National Portrait Gallery

Detail of Henry Holland (1745-1806) Image © National Portrait Gallery

Henry Holland (b.1745 – d.1806) was one of the leading architects during the reign of George III. Today, his reputation has been overshadowed by his contemporaries who were more willing to engage in courting public notice, such as by exhibiting their work at the Royal Academy, which Holland never did. Chiding a friend in 1789, he stated ‘Pray no more public compliments to me. I began the world a very independent man and wish to hold it at arms length…I find myself already more the object of public notice than suits my disposition or plan of life’.

Henry Holland was the son of Henry Holland (1712-1785 – to avoid confusion, the father will be referred to as ‘the elder Holland’, any other mentions of Holland are the son) of Fulham. A successful master builder, he built many important houses in the middle years of the eighteenth-century and worked with architects such as Robert Adam, executing his alterations to Bowood in Wiltshire in 1761 and, in the same year, working at Ashridge House, Hertfordshire.  It was this latter commission which was to prove singularly important as it established a professional relationship between Holland senior and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (b.1716 – d.1783), a landscape architect still revered today for his skill and imaginativeness. Brown’s particular ability was to be able to envision a whole landscape as it would be after the planting had reached maturity – to see its ‘capabilities’.

He was also noted architect, with even his rival Humphrey Repton praising the ‘comfort, convenience, taste, and propriety of design in the several mansions and other buildings which he planned’. The houses include Croome Court, Worcestershire (though the design may have been provided by Sanderson Miller), Corsham Court in Wiltshire (1761-64), Broadlands in Hampshire (1766-68), Fisherwick Park in Staffordshire (1766-74 – dem. 1814-16), Redgrave Hall in Suffolk (c.1770 – dem. 1946), Claremont House in Surrey (1771-74), and Cadland in Hampshire (1775-78 – later much enlarged – dem. c.1955).

Fisherwick Park, Staffordshire, painted by John Spyders (1786)

Fisherwick Park, Staffordshire, painted by John Spyders (1786)

Although the initial connection was with the elder Holland, Brown would become central to both the professional and personal life of the younger Holland.  Although he never undertook a Grand Tour, his education was more practical, working with his father in the family business. Holland displayed aptitude and skill, taking on more responsibility but also his talent for design was becoming clear.  With his father’s connections, Holland was taken on as architectural assistant in 1771 by ‘Capability’ Brown who would, in time, hand over much of his design work to Holland, who would use these earlier designs as inspiration.  The closeness and respect between the two can be gauged by the marriage of Henry Holland to Brown’s daughter, Bridget, in 1773. Professionally, a measure of the level of joint enterprise between Colvin notes that Claremont and subsequent houses are jointly attributed to Holland.

Benham Park was an easy commission of Brown to secure, though it was likely that he was primarily thinking of his new partner when doing so. The probability that Brown would be commissioned was high as he was already working for the owner of the estate, William Craven, 6th Baron Craven (b. 1738 – d.1791), on another country house for him, Coombe Abbey, Warwickshire. Apparently under pressure from his wife, Elizabeth Berkeley, Lord Craven wrote to Brown saying ‘Lady Craven wishes to make some alterations here and to begin immediately’. Holland and Brown submitted their designs for a house in September 1773 using a similar pattern to Brown’s previous work with a neoclassical, two-storey main house with grand central portico.

Benham Park, Berkshire (Image © Savills)

Benham Park, Berkshire (Image © Savills)

The house was built between 1774-75, the final result a sympathetic marriage between an elegant yet imposing house and the Arcadian pleasures of a sculpted landscape.  Despite these fine attributes, Benham has been rather overlooked in the histories of both Brown and Holland with the latter clearly learning important lessons from one who designed with practicality in mind, but not to the exclusion of an element of drama. However, Holland was not without his own influence as Stroud notes that from the time he joined Brown’s office, the interior design evolved from a more robust Palladian character to the more restrained yet elegant style which was Holland’s hallmark. Claremont, Cadland, and Benham all display this style, indicating that although the shell of the house was more the work of Brown, the interiors were to Holland’s designs.

What’s remarkable about Holland was his almost precocious drive to build on a grand scale. Backed by his father’s capital and expertise, Holland leased in 1771, aged 26, eighty-nine acres of what is now Chelsea and Knightsbridge, including what is now Cadogan Place, and proceeded to speculatively design and build houses based around a miniature park or garden square. This high profile activity brought Holland his first major solo design for Brook’s club in Mayfair, London, a haunt of the Prince Regent and Whig aristocracy. This would lead to the Prince commissioning two major buildings from Holland; Carlton House and Brighton Pavilion. These two commissions plus Holland’s speculative building cemented his position within the highest social strata, creating future opportunities.

Undated print of Henry Holland's Brighton Marine Pavilion of 1786-87 (Image source Khan Academy)

Undated print of Henry Holland’s Brighton Marine Pavilion of 1786-87 (Image source Khan Academy)

Other significant commissions included the the refurbishment in 1787 of Althrop, Northamptonshire, for the 2nd Earl Spencer, including a full re-casing of the red-brick house in white mathematical tiles with stone dressings, a re-design of the gardens, and inside, a re-ordering of the accommodation including the creation of the noble triple libary, divided into sections by screens of Ionic columns. Another Whig patron was Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford, who had Holland complete some minor works to Bedford House before commissioning more extensive work, also in 1787, at his main house at Woburn Abbey. Holland was back at Broadlands in 1788 creating a new vestibule and inner hallway, the entrance marked by a new grand portico. In 1795, after a sojourn into theatres, Holland returned to grand country houses, with the rebuilding of Southill Park in Bedfordshire for Samuel Whitbread, of brewing fame. Again, as with Althorp, this was a refurbishment to the point of rebuild; the house encased, the accommodation extended and a new portico added. His last commission was again from Lord Spencer in 1801 to rebuilt his Wimbledon house, which had earlier burnt down, with a sophisticated villa in a severely plain style both inside and out. Sadly, this was demolished in 1949.

'Rebuilding of Southill' (1797) by George Garrard (Image © University of Texas)

‘Rebuilding of Southill’ (1797) by George Garrard (Image © University of Texas)

Benham Park was also important for another young, aspiring architect, Sir John Soane. As a young apprentice, Soane had joined Holland’s office in 1772 as a junior. At Benham, Soane was given the task of measuring up to create the final bills, a task he was to repeat at other locations, giving him a valuable insight into not only the process of building but also the business aspects. Although, sadly, almost all Holland’s papers and drawings were posthumously destroyed by his nephew, one of Holland’s account books is preserved in the Soane collection. Soane seems to have retained it as a valuable record and tool when setting up his independent practice. Benham therefore provided practical, aesthetic and business training to the young architect who no doubt admired Holland’s neo-classical approach before evolving his own distinctive response and style, which was to establish him as one of the leading architects of his age.

Benham Park in 1904 (detail) - note the large servants wing to the left, now demolished (Image source Stockcross History via Wikipedia)

Benham Park in 1904 (detail) – note the large servants wing to the left, now demolished (Image source Stockcross History via Wikipedia)

Benham survived largely unaltered into the twentieth-century until 1914 when the pediment was removed from the portico and replaced by a balustrade. This was echoed at the roof level where the pitch was lowered and obscured  by a pierced stone balustrade. The servants quarters were removed at the same time due to their poor condition. The house and estate remained with the Sutton baronets until 1982 when it as bought and converted into offices in 1983, with additional office blocks built next to the house. These were thankfully demolished as part of the latest restoration of the house and estate.

Benham Park - looking out over the lake (Image © Savills)

Benham Park – looking out over the lake (Image © Savills)

Benham Park, (Grade II*), is now offered for sale with 130 glorious acres for £26m. Inevitably for a house of such grandeur situated so close to London, there are approved plans for the house to become a ‘wellness’ centre with a huge (though thoughtfully designed) extension to the side and rear.  For me, as ever, this is a house which would be best served by being returned to it’s original purpose, that of a family home. For a new owner, they could revel in the knowledge that the house and landscape had been conceived by one of the great Georgian partnerships of Brown and Holland.  Standing under the portico today, much as where they and the young John Soane must have once stood, the latter on the cusp of his era-defining career, looking out at Brown’s landscape, they can appreciate this rare combination of architectural genius – truly a prize worth such a princely sum.


Estate agent particulars: ‘Benham Park, Berkshire‘ [Savills]

Brochure (PDF): ‘Benham Park, Berkshire‘ [Savills]

Listing description: ‘Benham Park‘ [Historic England]


Please note: Savills very kindly provided the images and brochure but had no input into the text.

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A Sleeping Beauty: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire

The temptation when Country Life magazine arrives each week is to flick through the properties and make tabloid-esque comparisons about how a detached Regency villa in Dorset with space for a family, chickens, and an excitable spaniel, could be had for the price of a tatty flat in London. Yet sometimes these comparisons seem almost too unreal when faced with the exemplary beauty of a country house like Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, which, along with 39 beautifully wooded acres, has just been put up for sale for just £3.5m; the price of a 3-bed terrace house in Chelsea.

Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)

Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Worcestershire lies a house which, either through deliberate privacy or convenient obscurity, is little known to the world. Yet Grade-I listed Ombersley Court is one of the finest houses in Worcestershire, arguably even in the wider region, due not only to the sublime architecture and surrounding estate, but also the fine collection of paintings and artwork. The estate has long been the seat of the Sandys family who acquired the manor in the late sixteenth-century. The current house was originally built for the 1st Lord Sandys (b.1695 – d.1770) between 1723-26, replacing earlier monastic buildings on the site.  The house was designed by Francis Smith of Warwick (b.1672 – d.1738), one of the leading regional architects and, working with his brother William (b.1661- d.1724), ‘one of the most successful master builders in English architectural history’ (Colvin).

‘Smith of Warwick’, as Francis was more commonly known, was a clients ideal contractor due to his famous honesty and reliability, able to deliver buildings on time and on budget. His reputation spread amongst the Midlands gentry and aristocracy with almost all his work within a fifty-mile radius of Warwick.  Such was his standing that even the fractious Duchess of Marlborough (who had famously fallen out with Vanbrugh over Blenheim), demanded that for her house in Wimbledon, Surrey, ‘that Mr Smith of Warwickshire the Builder may be employed to make Contracts and to Measure the Work and to doe everything in his Way that is necessary to Compleat the Work as far as the Distance he is at will give him Leave to do’ (1732-33).

Smith’s solid reliability also manifested itself in his repetition of his well-developed plans and designs for houses, creating a distinctive style which is quite recognisable as his own. Broadly, this would be a three storey house with the centre section either projected or recessed, consistent fenestration, and relatively sparse external decoration, usually only decorative stone dressings such as keystones, quoins or balustraded parapets. This consistency was perhaps a double-edged sword, with the Hon. Daines Barrington stated in a letter in 1784, that although ‘all of them (are) convenient and handsome […] there is a great sameness in the plans, which proves he had little invention’.

Yet, this is to overlook that Smith was, at heart, a successful commercial builder whose understanding and appreciation for architectural ornament and variety was inevitably tempered by his determination to deliver the commission on time and on budget. As the architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin highlights, the core design is that of a standard seventeenth-century house such as Belton House, Lincolnshire, but with stylistic updates as fashions evolved.  ‘Smith’ houses such as Umberslade, Alfreton, and Wingerworth all share this readily accessible style, one which married domestic practicality with exterior grandeur.

Perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement was the tragically now-ruinous Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire; a house with a facade so stately as to rival Chatsworth. Built for the 4th Earl of Scarsdale in 1724, Sutton Scarsdale was one of the finest houses in the country. Although the form is familiar, the masterful control of a palisade of pilasters and columns topped with Corinthian capitals, gives it a gravitas, whilst the detailing such as the scrolled window surrounds to the projecting wings hint at Renaissance motifs; Fausto Rughesi (Santa Maria in Vallicella, 1605/06) filtered through William Talman (design for Thoresby House, 1685, – shown in Vitruvius Britannicus, C1, Pl.91) and James Gibbs (to whose designs Smith was building Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, 1722).

derbyshire-Sutton_Scarsdale_Hall_circa_1900

One regret with Ombersley Court is that although the form and plan of the house and much of the superb unaltered early-Georgian internal decoration is still Smith, the exterior is now not his. The original design featured a hipped roof, and what looks to be pilasters, giving it the recognisable ‘Smith’ characteristics.  This was lost when the existing brick was refaced with ashlar in 1809 by the architect John Webb for Mary Sandys, the Marchioness of Downshire. In fairness though, this was a lucky escape as John Nash prepared a much more ambitious scheme in 1808, which proposed adding a two-storey pavilion to each side, linked by a seven-bay screen of giant Ionic columns, though this seems to have been rejected on cost.

Ombersley Court - proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808

Ombersley Court – proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808

One of the glories of the house are the interiors and especially the plasterwork and carving. With a desire for privacy which was rarely breached, few had seen the exceptional decorative work, except through the lens of a Country Life profile by Arthur Oswald in 1953. This extolled the virtues of many aspects including The Chippendale Room which featured bamboo framed silk wall pieces, remarking that ‘it is uncommon to find a Regency example as complete as this or as charming’. The rest of the house struck a careful tone of stately refinement; enough decoration to proclaim wealth and taste, but never excessive.

Ombersley Court - Hallway (© Savills)

Ombersley Court – Hallway (© Savills)

Ombersley Court - Drawing Room (© Savills)

Ombersley Court – Drawing Room (© Savills)

Ombersley Court - Morning Room (© Savills)

Ombersley Court – Morning Room (© Savills)

With the death of Lord Sandys in 2013 the house passed to Lady Sandys but following her recent death, concerns were raised and rebutted via letters in Country Life that this wonderful house would be forced (for complicated reasons) to become a care home; a fate which would have despoiled this jewel of a house. Instead, for the first time since it was built in 1724, it has been placed on the market. This is a house created by one of the finest craftsmen of the early-Georgian period, with connections to a wider, distinct Midlands architectural tradition which epitomises all that one would hope to see in a country seat. As an important house which deserves respect, one hopes that the new owner will appreciate this remarkable situation and that perhaps the best approach would simply be to buy the house and contents and perhaps another couple hundred acres to truly secure an Arcadian ideal, one which would be hard to better anywhere in the country.


Sales particulars: Omblersley Court, Worcestershire [Savills] – £3.5m with 39 acres

Listing description: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire [British Listed Buildings]

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Guided missel: the rise of the country house guide book

‘Dear Picture Editor for the 2017 National Trust Handbook

National Trust Guide Book 2017

National Trust Guide Book 2017

Yours is a challenging job. Faced with selecting one cover image to represent the National Trust for an entire year and with the myriad opportunities presented by having over two hundred country houses (unfortunately now minus Clandon), hundred of thousands of acres of countryside, and 775 miles of coastline, such a welter of natural and man-made beauty makes your task both enviable and daunting.

It’s therefore somewhat odd that the 2017 image is a close-up of a couple and their slightly disdainful-looking dog getting caught in a wave on a beach. The lady in the couple looks distinctly unhappy, the chap is possibly saying a swear word. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that the bloke is wearing a bowler hat. For a walk on a beach. Of course, you would know that the bowler was created in August 1849 by the famous London hat-maker, James Lock, for the Coke family at Holkham Hall to help protect their gamekeepers from branches; both those attached to trees and those wielded by poachers. Holkham Hall, awkwardly, is not one of the many country houses (minus Clandon) under NT care so this image is, on many levels, a bit silly.

For next year, may I personally suggest a country house. Though I fear that they, as a class, appear to somewhat out of favour in the upper echelons of the NT, hopefully by appearing on the cover of the handbook, it may remind them that they are custodians of one of the finest groups of country houses one could dream to care for in perpetuity (minus Clandon).’

Guide books have long been a source of fascination for those who visit country houses. Topographical guides have been written for hundred of years to help those of us fascinated by country houses to determine which we might be able to gain entry to and revel in, whether in splendour or shabbiness.

Country house tourism is not a modern phenomenon.  Whether pilgrim or royalty, the idea of visiting houses was an ingrained part of the tapestry of life in the Middle Ages for providing hospitality.  One key difference can be seen in the preferences of Henry VIII who largely visited his own houses compared to Elizabeth I who frequently visited those of her favoured courtiers. Thus the concept of the country house (or palace) being built as much for display and prestige as the more mundane practicalities of large scale domestic occupation became a core characteristic of aristocratic life.

An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen [1806]

An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen by John Brittan [1806]

In the Georgian era, the burgeoning wealth of the expanded upper classes afforded increased leisure opportunities for travel and cultural pursuits. Their desire to assimilate themselves into the attitudes of the existing aristocracy fuelled a natural curiosity about their lives and tastes.  With frequent wars on the Continent often thwarting the traditional Grand Tour destinations, travellers now looked more domestically to visit their extended families and their friends. Even without the wars, it’s likely that the opportunities for women to travel were more restricted and to visit other ‘good’ families in their homes would have been an acceptable way for them to broaden their knowledge and tastes, thus cross-pollinating ideas, styles and fashions.

However, a family’s immediate social circle might contain only a limited number of contemporaries with whom they would be comfortable lodging.  Therefore, when visiting an area, either as a family guest or staying in accommodation, for example during the Season in Bath, day trip visits to other country houses was a favoured activity.  Despite the expectation that an owner would, as part of their duty to better society, open their house, the key question was how to find them and to determine whether they would even be amenable to visitors, no matter how genteel. Much as today, in fact, and hence the birth of the country house guidebook.

Opening Times in 'An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen' by John Brittan [1806]

Opening Times in ‘An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen’ by John Brittan [1806]

By the latter part of the eighteenth-century, an infrequent stream of visitors had become something of a torrent, if not a flood. Houses near large conurbations were particularly susceptible as Horace Walpole found at his charming neo-Gothic villa at Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, described as ‘the prettiest bauble you ever saw’.  Writing to his friend Sir Horace Mann in July 1783, Walpole complained that ‘I am tormented all day and every day by people that come to see my house, and have no enjoyment of it in summer.’  Areas with a higher density of fine houses, which were within a day or two ride of a city or existing tourist destinations, such in as Norfolk, Derbyshire or Wiltshire, were soon part of an unofficial British Grand Tour. This was a natural progression for a society structured around the idea of circuits; domestically through suites of rooms and socially through visiting friend’s houses and at functions and balls.

Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire (J. Skelton, 1825)

Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire (J. Skelton, 1825)

As the idea of country house visiting grew, so did the need to manage the number of visitors and their conduct whilst in the houses. Some simply refused access – a galling experience for those who might have travelled long distances such John Byng, who despite being just a civil servant, toured widely.  On being refused access to Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire, he splenetically cried ‘Let people proclaim that their great houses are not to be view’d, and then travellers will not ride out of their way with false hopes.’ Owners increasingly favoured knowing when visitors may appear and so started having set days of admission. By 1760, Chatsworth was specifically open on two days per week. In 1774, Walpole, though ‘very ready to oblige any curious persons with the sight of his house and collection’ started personally issuing tickets and rules for good conduct.

The internal tours of country houses were usually conducted by the housekeeper who would provide rich accounts of the history of the building and family and details about the works of art – and sometimes the information was even true.  Unfortunately many myths about a family’s history and unwarranted artistic attributions for paintings are likely to have been started by the imagination of the unwitting guide. As the hobby of visiting grew in popularity so too did demand for more accurate accounts; giving birth to the new concept of the guidebook. The earliest from the 1730s-40s were more for reference at home rather than from a carriage and usually focused on individual houses, giving a history,  a catalogue of art works and sometimes a plan for the route to take through the house. These quickly spawned more democratic versions from competing booksellers, sometimes for the same property such as Benton Seeley’s ‘A Description of the House and Gardens…at Stow‘ (first published 1744, totalling twenty-two subsequent editions)

'Plan of the Library Story' from 'The Peak Guide; containing the topographical, statistical, and general history of Buxton, Chatsworth, Edensor, Castlteon [sic], Bakewell, Haddon, Matlock, and Cromford' by Stephen Glover of Derby [1830]

‘Plan of the Library Story’ from ‘The Peak Guide; containing the topographical, statistical, and general history of Buxton, Chatsworth, Edensor, Castlteon [sic], Bakewell, Haddon, Matlock, and Cromford’ by Stephen Glover of Derby [1830]

The guidebooks were both guide and tutor, ushering the visitor through an agreed route around a house but also providing sometimes detailed entries on each individual art work with the expectation that the visitor would view and gain a deeper understanding. This can be seen in ‘The Peak Guide‘ by Stephen Glover [1830] where the entry for the most significant house in the county, Chatsworth, runs to a generous thirty-seven pages. Starting with a description of the immediate vicinity, the bulk of the text runs to great detail on the Cavendish family, the architectural history (including the architects, painters, plasterers, even the plumber’), and the expected walking tour of the house.  A typical entry reads

The second Drawing-room is 36ft by 30ft hung with Gobelins’ tapestry, representing the Death of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter and John healing the cripple, and Paul and Barnabas at Lystra. In an oval compartment in the ceiling is painted the discovery of Mars and Venus. In this room are the following portraits, viz. William, first Earl of Devonshire, in his state robes, ascribed to Mytems; and declared by Mr. Walpole to be one of the finest single figures he had ever seen. Two fine whole-length portraits, said to be the Earls of Pembroke, with pointed beards, whiskers, vandyke sleeves and slashed hose; James, Duke of Ormond, and an Earl of Devonshire, in the costume of the seventeenth century

The level of detail created almost the sensation of a virtual tour, allowing those who could afford a copy of the book, or at least get access to one, the chance to imagine inhabiting the palaces and houses which may be socially or physically out of reach.

Guidebooks have evolved continuously as the requirements of owners and visitors have demanded. Early National Trust books were written by noted historians such as John Cornforth and maintained the seventeenth-century principle of guidance and education. However more recent editions have dispensed with much of the in-depth information in lieu of more pictures of daffodils or scones (and let’s not even get started on the paucity of information about the houses on the National Trust website *sigh*). Happily, other private owners have created lavish books very much in the form of those earlier versions – Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and Boughton, Northamptonshire, are notable examples.

Whatever their role, the guidebooks are an essential component to the experience of the country house. Without them, the rooms would simply be an anonymous store of gilded treasures, without context or understanding. The books remain the key which unlocks the secrets of the houses; the owners and their motivations, their collections and tastes.

Handbook reviews

Hudson's Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums & Heritage Sites 2017

Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums & Heritage Sites 2017

Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums and Heritage Sites 2017

Content (design/layout): Having now been published for 30 years, the Hudson’s guide is a unique oracle for identifying ‘historic houses & gardens, museums and heritage sites’ for your visiting pleasure. In slightly-larger-than-A4 format, this is a book to be enjoyed as much at home, with full-page entries for leading houses, enhanced by full-colour photos. Bonus features include interviews and number of interestingly varied articles (including location filming / James Paine / The Clive Collection / Indian influences on the Royal Pavilion) and thematic guides such as dog friendly sites, events venues, and which properties have guided tours. If there is any criticism it’s that some of the smaller entries for houses read as though it were copied from their usual leaflet and sounds a little off-key.  However, given the comparatively almost lavish space, most sites have an informative, rather than purely functional, write-up with history and details on the art and architectural features.

Comprehensiveness: Unrivalled – the guide is invaluable when in an unfamiliar area and need to plan days out. It includes private properties, National Trust, HHA, plus other heritage sites.

Convenience: The larger-than-A4 format and number of pages means this is not one for the pocket and would be a bit hefty to carry all day. That said, the design means that planning your itinerary is both practical and a pleasure.

Verdict: Even if you get other member handbooks for free, for those wanting more detail or looking to visit a broader range of heritage sites, the Hudson’s guide is unequalled and definitely worth the modest investment. (Available on Amazon or all good bookshops)

*Transparency notice: Hudson’s did send me free copy to review but had no editorial input to any part of this blog post and I’d buy a copy anyway.

National Trust Members Handbook 2017

Content (design/layout):  As the product of many years of refinement, the guide is an excellent way to plan your visits. Set out with listings by county, each property or location has a brief write-up though some properties eclectically get more space and further details. All the useful information is in there including opening times and facilities. Bonus content includes a clever themed index highlighting which properties tick boxes for ‘Adventure playground, boat hire, bicycle hire, camping and caravanning, gardens, ghosts, and industrial heritage’. Note that neither ‘art’ nor ‘architecture’ make the cut as categories. Ghosts though, do.

Comprehensiveness: Unsurprisingly, it only covers National Trust properties.

Convenience: About the dimensions of a paperback novel so easy to leave in the glove box of the car or add to a rucksack.

Verdict: A benchmark for member organisation guides – one that marries convenience to practical information to help plan visits. Just wish it felt able to give equal billing to the houses and their contents as much to the playgrounds and cafes.

Historic Houses Association Friend’s Handbook / English Heritage

Unfortunately I’m not a member (there are limits to funds and time, you see) so I haven’t seen a copy of the latest version – but if said organisations would like to send me this year’s edition, I’ll add details to this page.

Other suggestions

If anyone can suggest other guides (either members or general) then please do comment below.

Find out more

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The Inadvertent Innovation: Country Life and Property Advertising

Over the last four centuries, the marketing of property has seen relatively few innovations. Those with money and the desire to establish themselves in society would seek out those with knowledge on which estates might be available.  However, the launch of Country Life magazine 120 years ago this month heralded a sea change in the marketing of the landed lifestyle. No longer did the buyer have to rely solely on what they found; now Country Life, through advertising and market reports, brought a selection of the choicest properties right into the drawing rooms of the aspiring elite. The continuing success of the magazine suggests that our desire for the grandeur and leisure of rural society is undimmed over a century later.

Country Life was the idea of Edward Hudson (b.1854 – d.1936), a successful magazine printer, who recognised a gap in the market for a publication which reflected the rural lifestyle of a wealthy elite and, importantly, those who wished to join them.  Conveniently for Hudson, he already had one publication which catered to a significant traditional interest, Racing Illustrated, but lacklustre sales meant it was ripe to be incorporated as a component part of the new magazine. The first issue of Country Life was published on 8 January 1897 and from the outset it was noted for the high quality of the content and, importantly, of the production, with heavy paper and fine photographs.

Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

As with most magazines of the time, the front cover and first page were adverts for all manner of essentials such as ‘Cadbury’s Cocoa’ and slightly more obscure (‘Old Grans Special Toddy‘, ‘Vigor’s Horse-Action Saddle – A Perfect Substitute for the Live Horse‘). However, below the grand ‘Country Life Illustrated‘ masthead is a single full page, rich in some of the finest country houses in the land – and all for sale or to let. It’s also noteworthy that this innovative layout was the work of the single firm of land agents, Walton & Lee of Edinburgh, through whom these properties were available.

As today, properties were sold for a number of reasons but, in an age when the loss of the family seat was considered a serious failing in society, financial embarrassment was often the single strongest reason for a property to appear for sale.  Until the twentieth-century, the majority of property transactions for country houses were primarily about the land; the actual house was usually a secondary consideration as, if you felt it wasn’t suitable, you could always rebuild it in a style or scale until it was. Intelligence regarding which estates were for sale was passed around through social networks, partly to preserve privacy, but often as a way of discretely finding a buyer. Local solicitors also played an extensive and dominant role in the sale of property, often using their extensive and intimate knowledge of local families to know who might be open to offers or to find suitable investments, especially as, since 1804, they held the monopoly on conveyancing.

In 1897, the second Agricultural Depression was hitting the income of those landowners who were heavily dependent on income from their estates.  The financial crisis that this created was the catalyst which forced a number of estates to be put on the market. Equally, death dealt its usual cruel blow with estates being sold in part or in total to meet the stipulations of wills, particularly if the only offspring were daughters, often married to a gentleman with his own estate and little need for a part share in another.

'In the Grafton country...' Advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

‘In the Grafton country…’ Walton & Lee advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

The houses shown in that first edition are certainly varied. Ranging from the grandeur of Stowe House to ‘a charming, moderate-sized manorial estate’, each warranted a small but densely-worded description. In contrast to today where a house of the importance of Stowe would most likely be either sold off-market or launched with all the fanfare modern country house estate agency can muster with multi-page, glossy, full page photo adverts. Although, with the exception of Stowe, all were anonymous, of the nine houses advertised, it’s possible to identify six of them:

Column 1

  • SALE: Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, with 6,700 acres (demolished 1972)
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘moderate-sized Manorial Estate’, South Devon, with 600 acres
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘unique specimen of an early English country house’, Sussex or Surrey, with 42 acres

Column 2

  • TO LET: Maesllwch Castle, Radnorshire, with shooting over 20,000 acres
  • TO LET: Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, with 250 acres (now National Trust)
  • SALE: Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, with 5,000 acres (now a private home again)
'Stowe House, Buckingham', 'In the Grafton country...' Advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

‘Stowe House, Buckingham’, Walton & Lee advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

Column 3

  • TO LET or SALE: Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, with 1,100 acres (now a school)
  • TO LET: Addington Manor, Buckinghamshire, with ‘parks and grounds’ (demolished 1926)
  • TO LET: Rigmaden Park, YorkshireUnidentified ‘fine Mansion’, North of England with sporting rights over 4,000 acres (thanks to a reader for the identification)

This selection in one week is almost unimaginable now – to have one house such as Stowe or Charlecote advertised for sale would be remarkable; to have those plus other grand houses showed the scale of the crisis which was quietly afflicting the established rural order. As financial circumstances forced retrenchment for families from the larger houses to their smaller ones (or sometimes from the countryside altogether), so Country Life offered a new and effective route for marketing these properties to those who had risen in the heady world of Victorian industry and finance and who now sought to install themselves as the inheritors of the old social order through the possession of their estates.

The photos of the houses for sale also echoed that Country Life also emphasised a new stylistic aesthetic in the photographs which accompanied the articles on specific houses; one which departed from a common representation of country houses; notably by removing the people and all signs of daily life. Whether this was the choice of Edward Hudson or the photographers is unknown, but engravings and images of country houses from earlier periods often showed them as the hubs of rural and social activity. Outdoor views displayed workers in the fields, the aristocracy enjoying the pleasures of the house and parkland, and coaches riding down lanes, whilst interior views were full of noble pursuits.

The bucolic ideal was important in times of political and social turmoil.  Such scenes, although partly a simple tool for demonstrating scale, also promoted the idea of the paternal landowner to those within the landowning classes, those who wished to join them, and others who had simply obtained a copy, perhaps through a lending library.  Note how often the sky is calm, the lake waters placid, and the animals docile or obedient – there are no signs of disharmony. This can be seen in J.P. Neale‘s famous series of views of country seats published between 1819-1823, soon after the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars:

Detail from 'Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Detail from ‘Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

The compliant and dutifully grateful cows enjoying the benefits of the parkland at Langley Park, Buckinghamshire:

Detail from 'Langley Park, Buckinghamshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Detail from ‘Langley Park, Buckinghamshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Take the later scene presented in J.M. Gilbert’s image, drawn in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Bill which extended voting to all men who owned property worth ten pounds or more in yearly rent, of Newlands, Hampshire, which includes a vignette of rural husbandry with the men taking instructions from an agent with the house looking benignly down:

Detail from 'Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby' by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from 'Grove's Views of Lymington' (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Detail from ‘Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby’ by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from ‘Grove’s Views of Lymington’ (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Interior views often showed the aristocratic families at leisure. This was partly due to the romanticisation of the country house which can, in part, be attributed to the popular historical novels of Sir Walter Scott who, as noted by the writer Thomas Carlyle, that they

‘have taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled with living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men’.

For example, in Nash’s ‘The Mansions of England in the Old Time‘ published between 1839-49, the domestic scenes feature prominent groups of people going about their daily lives as imagined as an aristocratic set-piece where all the clothes were fine, the people good looking, and the activities noble.

'The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent'. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Museum no. 2996-1876)

‘The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent’. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London – Museum no. 2996-1876)

This is not to say that all followed such an approach. Many artists such as the Rev. F.A.O. Morris in his famous ‘Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland‘ published 1866 emphasised the houses, showing no signs of people.

Country Life therefore was both following the precedent of some earlier artists but also by so rigorously applying this view of the houses and the popularity of the magazine spreading this ideal far and wide, so the perception of country houses as denuded of evidence of life was one which was almost in contrast to the warm, sympathetic portrayal of the families in the accompanying text.

Walton & Lee maintained their tenacious grip on the important first page of advertising in Country Life from 1897 until 1912.  In that year, as a measure of the success of Country Life in establishing itself as one of the prime avenues for the sale of property, Howard Frank, of Knight, Frank & Rutley, bought Walton & Lee specifically to secure that  coveted advertising space. Though their reign at the forefront of advertising country estates had ended, their influence in the presentation of property was to remain and can be seen today. Evidence of this is in both the continued hold Knight Frank maintain on the first page of advertising, and the stylistic aesthetic which the estate agents and Country Life established as the standard for the photographic presentation of country houses for sale and exalted in numerous publications.


Country Life wrote their own retrospective on property advertising in 2007 for the 110th anniversary: ‘Wanted: Property for a Gentleman’ [Country Life]

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So, you made the 2016 Sunday Times Rich List – where to live?

The now annual round-up of the richest 1,000 people in the UK (whose wealth can be ascertained…!) has been published today in the Sunday Times (£). Although there are now a few less billionaires than last year in the UK, the minimum required to join the list has risen slightly to £103m. With 80% of the list members having made their own fortunes and having acquired the trappings of status along the way, it’s unsurprising that many will already own a country house. However, some may not and to help them out of this socially embarrassing predicament, below are some of the most interesting country houses for sale today (April 2016).

Ignoring any of the ‘new’ country houses which, unless by Craig Hamilton and a limited few others, are unlikely to be architecturally notable, this entirely subjective selection, focuses on those historic houses which can be regarded as such.

Hackwood Park, Hampshire (Image © Savills)

Hackwood Park, Hampshire (Image © Savills)

Many of the most impressive country estate sales are often conducted ‘off market’, offers and negotiations concluded in private; never receiving the splendour of an advert in Country Life. However, occasionally, one quietly appears which sets the pulses racing. What will probably be one of the most interesting houses to be offered publicly this year is Hackwood Park, Hampshire, a splendid Classical house (listed Grade-II*) with accompanying 260-acres.  Designed by Lewis William Wyatt (1777-1853), nephew to the more famous James Wyatt, Lewis developed a very successful country house practice, especially in Cheshire, including work at Lyme, Heaton and Tatton Parks, but has been rather sadly overlooked in the history of architecture (something I will try to address in another post). Looking through the photos of Hackwood House, his skill and ability in handling of the external form (which was a rebuilding of an earlier house) and the superb interiors demonstrates clearly why he enjoyed a productive career. No price is given for Hackwood House, but given the quality of the house, the location and the estate, I suspect that only those troubling the upper reaches of the Rich List need contact Savills.

Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

Another house which certainly has grandeur in Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire – but it also hides a surprisingly important architectural statement. Built as Standlynch Park in 1733 by John James of Greenwich as a ‘villa’ for Sir Peter Vandeput, it was acquired by the nation in 1814 as a gift to Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté to express England’s gratitude for doing his duty for his country and renamed ‘Trafalgar Park’. Unfortunately for Lord Nelson, as he had famously died in 1805, the house, titles and generous pension were given to his elder brother, the Rev. William Nelson and descended through the family until 1948 when they were no longer able to afford the upkeep when the Attlee government cancelled the Nelson Pension.

Corridor by Nicholas Revett, Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

Corridor by Nicholas Revett, Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

After a slightly choppy latter half of the 20th-century, the house was bought in 1997 by Michael Wade who over the years has lavished attention to restore the house in an exemplary fashion but now wishes to move on.  I was lucky enough to visit in April 2013 with the Georgian Group and can attest to the quality of the work, especially to the main block. And the surprising architectural statement; the North wing contains a ‘monumental’ hall designed in 1766 by Nicholas Revett who had published in 1762, with James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, ‘The Antiquities of Athens‘ which was the catalyst for the hugely popular Greek Revival style in England.  This house therefore contains the genesis for the Greek-influenced ‘Neoclassicism‘ of the Georgian period which is still much admired and copied today. So if your place on the Rich List means you have £12m (plus a few more to finish the restoration, including Revett’s incredibly important corridor and North wing), again, contact Savills.

Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire (Image © Adrian Houston / SWNS.com)

Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire (Image © Adrian Houston / SWNS.com)

The phrase ‘comprehensively renovated and extended‘, especially in relation to a grade-II* listed Georgian country house can sometimes send a chill down your spine, fearful that all that made it special has been smothered in the relentlessly, boringly bland ‘international hotel’ style. Thankfully although, Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire, has been restored to within an inch of its life and whilst perhaps too polished for some, overall, the essential charm of the country house and what could be called the Colefax-Fowler ‘look’ makes the main rooms look very elegant. Originally an 18th-century house, it was rebuilt between 1796-1802 for the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, and then again between 1821-3 to designs by C.R. Cockerell, who probably added the Greek Doric colonnade on the south front. Bought by the Earl and Countess of Strathmore in the 1920s, it was then sold to Arthur Smith in 1949 and became home to the Hertfordshire Polo Club before being sold in 1997.  Now for sale again with 232-acres, Knight Frank have given it a guide price of £30m (don’t forget the eye-watering £3.5m stamp duty), which reflects that this is a house to which very little will need to be done to enjoy a country lifestyle.

For those a little further down the Rich List, below are some less pricey options but still would give the country house style to which many aspire:

  • Hall Place, Tonbridge, Kent – an unusually large house for the county, Victorian, with up to 226-acres – £8m [Strutt & Parker]
  • Manor Hall, Gloucestershire – 15th-century but updated including by the current owner Peter De Savery – £7.95m [Knight Frank]
  • Guyzance Hall, Northumberland – rebuilt 1894, now with 323-acres – £6m [Knight Frank]
  • Chedington Court, Dorset – built 1840 and altered 1894 in Jacobean style, now with ~50-acres – £5.95m [Savills]
  • Brandsby Hall, Yorkshire – built 1760s and well-proportioned, it now has some ‘interesting’ decor and needs a lot of work to fix  – £4.25m [Knight Frank]
  • Howsham Hall, Yorkshire – built 1610, the dramatic facade is dominated by beautiful mullioned windows – £4.25m [Savills]
Somerton Randle, Somerset (Image © Knight Frank)

Somerton Randle, Somerset (Image © Knight Frank)

Personally, if I was in the fortunate position of troubling the Rich List, the house I would beating a path to is the bucolically named, Somerton Randle, Somerset (£5.75m – Knight Frank). A compact grade-II listed country house built in the late 1700s, and now with 88-acres, the interiors are a wonderful example of regional Georgian style and retain an exceptional elegance.

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An Indian takeaway: Sezincote, Gloucestershire

We long for an ‘Indian Summer’, whilst sitting in a bungalow drinking tea, eating curry followed by a sorbet and later having a toddy and going to bed in our khaki pyjamas. There are many words, phrases, foods and customs Britain has adopted from our interactions with India, but strangely, despite its strong and vibrant architectural history, the tide of architectural style has been largely one way; Western traditions flowing east, with only scant examples of the ebb bringing Indian influences back. Except, that is, in one small corner of Gloucestershire where the remarkable Sezincote stands as a unique monument to the influence of India – but also leaving the question as to why the Indian (also known as Hindoo or Mughal) style failed to find wider acceptance.

Sezincote House, Gloucestershire - entrance front

Sezincote House, Gloucestershire – East Front

UK country houses have always been a magnet for other influences, the interiors vying with each other to embody ‘fashion’ and be seen to reflect the culture and stature of the owners.  With the advent of travel, particularly what would become recognised as the Grand Tour, architectural styles from across Europe including Roccoco, Classical, Baroque and Palladianism would also find a ready home, being easily adaptable to the English physical and intellectual climate.  Further afield, imperial trade in the late 17th-century carried home Chinese, Persian and Indian influences and evidence of both can be widely found in porcelain, furnishing, fashion and art. Daniel Defoe noted Queen Mary’s ‘love of fine East India calicos‘ which led to an increased popularity for imported textiles, much to the chagrin of domestic mill workers.

"East India House" by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), (Wikipedia / Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

“East India House” by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), (Wikipedia / Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Behind this trade was a British firm which grew to wield power never equalled and with an ability generate wealth in a way few have; the East India Company (EIC).  On the strength of resurgent national confidence following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, merchants gained permission from Queen Elizabeth I to sail to explore the opportunities of the Indian Ocean, with the first ships sailing in 1591. After three abortive attempts, they succeeded in 1600 and the Queen granted the newly formed EIC a 15-year monopoly on trading with the East Indies. After besting their Dutch, French and Portuguese competition both militarily, diplomatically and eventually financially, by the mid-1700s, control of trade in India was under the control of the EIC.

This control was exercised through the EIC’s own staff and enforced by its private army creating a pseudo-state-like entity which offered the chance for rank, prestige and to create a fortune. Back in Britain, many looked at the usual prospects of joining the clergy, law or military service as a dim comparison against the possibilities of India.  As the financial opportunities of India became apparent, so the attractiveness of a position there increased amongst the aristocracy who came, saw, and administered, with the intention of taking their new fortunes home to establish themselves or boost their status in society.

Yet, from an architectural viewpoint, for all the interaction and extended immersion in the rich Indian culture, the complex and beautiful architecture was largely ignored as an appropriate style for country houses back in Britain. This was in stark contrast to the European styles which came back to Britain, like burrs on the coat-tails of the aristocratic Grand Tourists. This makes the domed, florid Sezincote, nestled deep in the Gloucestershire countryside all the more exceptional.

Originally a small 15th-century manor house, it was bought by the Earls of Guildford in 1692 and survived largely unchanged until bought by Colonel John Cockerell in 1775 – but he was not the author of the final version of the house. Sir John was a friend and had been part of the military staff of Warren Hastings, the former Governor-General of Bengal, who was building his own house at nearby Daylesford, and Cockerell probably had the help of his friend, or at least his agent, William Walford, in selecting the estate. In 1797, Cockerell wrote to Walford saying ‘I have many conceits and fancies in regard to Seasoncote [his spelling] for a residence…‘. In reality, the plans were a conventional Georgian remodelling with Sir John looking for someone to complete ‘the plain sort of work I shall mostly want‘. Building work was well under way by 1798 but at the end of the year came to a rather unexpected stop with the death of Sir John.

The half-finished house was inherited equally by his brothers, Charles and Samuel, and his sister. Charles had also made a fortune in India through a combination of official positions and private trading and, having bought out his sibling’s shares in the house for a total of £38,000, decided to embark on a much more radical vision. Seemingly unconstrained in his imagination, Charles decided (in collaboration with Thomas Daniell and his nephew William, the famous painters Indian topographical pictures), to clothe his Georgian house in full Indian robes.

Indian fireplace, Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image from 'Country Houses of Gloucestershire' by Nicholas Kingsley (1992, Phillimore & Co)

Indian fireplace, Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image from ‘Country Houses of Gloucestershire’ by Nicholas Kingsley (1992, Phillimore & Co)

The architect for this grand plan was S.P. Cockerell, his brother, whom Colvin described as ‘original and inventive‘ and this commission would certainly give free reign to both those attributes. Interestingly, this was not Cockerell’s first experience of designing with Indian motifs as he had been employed in 1789-93 to remodel the nearby unfinished Daylesford House, the newly acquired seat of the controversial former Governer-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings. Facing numerous charges of embezzlement, cruelty and abuse of power from 1788-95 (of which he was later cleared), perhaps unsurprisingly the exterior does not laud his Indian experiences, except for a hint in the west front which features a curved bay topped with a copper dome with a ball and spike decoration. Inside, although Hastings owned an exquisite set of gilt ivory Indian furniture, the decoration was restrained though it featured a remarkable fireplace, carved by Sir Thomas Banks in 1792, which depicts an Indian sacrificial scene and Indian female figures on either side.

Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image © altitudepix.co.uk)

Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image © altitudepix.co.uk)

At Sezincote, Cockerell had a much less restrained brief and so was able to fully embrace the Indian architectural language but whilst still firmly rooting it in the ideal of the Picturesque – that ability to surprise. The design though is not just collection of Indian forms and details; this is a house built at a time of great interest in this new culture and with a client both well versed in the country and its buildings and with a genuine respect for them. Drawing on both Muslim and Hindu motifs, it reflected such impressive buildings as Humayun’s mausoleum of Emperor Akbar’s mother in Delhi (especially the roof shape of the small turrets), and Sezincote’s entrance front bears some echoes of Akbar’s own mausoleum with the double-height arch.

East Front, Sezincote (Image © Cotswold Journeys)

East Front, Sezincote (Image © Cotswold Journeys)

The south facade is the most playful and graceful; a delicate blend of Anglo-Indian to create something unique in British architecture.  Dominated by a canted bay, the windows are shaped into peacock fantails such as seen in the Jaipur palaces, the chajja or wide over-hanging eaves create shade, with the corners punctuated by chattris, or small minarets, the green balcony railings imitating Indian jali work. The main dome is striking in both its shape and dominance whilst still being proportional to the overall design. The main house then joins the grand curved sweep of the Orangery (possibly to follow the landscape, possibly shaped like a scimitar), with its continuation of the peacock windows, terminating in an elegant pavilion.  It should be noted that the interior was pure Greek Revival, again emphasising the application of Indian design being in the Picturesque tradition of decoration, rather than slavish copying.

Orangery and Pavilion, Sezincote (Image © Sezincote Estate)

Orangery and Pavilion, Sezincote (Image © Sezincote Estate)

Fashion being what it is, news of the building of this extraordinary house travelled far, even reaching the Prince Regent.  The earlier popularity of William Hodges ‘Select Views in India’ (1783) and the six volumes of Daniell brothers ‘Oriental Scenery‘ watercolours (completed 1808), this helped created the brief flourishing of the Anglo-Indian style.  The Prince Regent, ever one for fashion, visited the still unfinished Sezincote in 1807 (probably at the suggestion of Humphrey Repton who was working there) and was so duly taken with this fantasy (supported by one of Repton’s famous Red Books), he resolved to indulge as well and so his new pleasure retreat in Brighton externally adopted the same, creating the iconic Brighton Pavilion.

Hindoo Temple, Melchet Park, Wiltshire c.1800 (Image © British Library)

Hindoo Temple, Melchet Park, Wiltshire c.1800 (Image © British Library)

However, the Anglo-Indian fashion failed to gain widespread popularity beyond the ephemeral (and hidden) interior decorations and fabrics. Architecturally, there were a few examples. In the City of London, George Dance the Younger created one of the early Indian-Gothic designs in 1788 with his entrance to the south front of the Guildhall. Dance also added unspecified Indian elements to Stratton Park, Hampshire (built 1803-06, dem. 1963) for Francis Baring (who made a fortune with the EIC) and at Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire (built 1804-08). It made appearances in various architectural pattern books (e.g. Robert Lugar and Edmund Aikin), leading to some quite isolated ancillary buildings appearing to be influenced by it; a Hindoo temple at Melchet Park, Hampshire, (c.1800) and further afield such as in Ireland with the Copper Lodge, Portlaw, (probably built 1820s, dismantled 1970s), and the Dromona Gate, Co. Waterford, built in 1861.  Back in England, perhaps the most impressive was the dramatic conservatory at Enville Hall, Staffordshire, built in 1854, which mixed Gothic and Indian, and which was sadly blown up for demolition practice during WWII.

Conservatory, Enville Hall, Staffordshire (Image © Historic England)

Conservatory, Enville Hall, Staffordshire (Image © Historic England)

So, despite the inventive opportunities, the widespread cultural exposure and even an element of Royal patronage, why did the Anglo-Indian style not become more popular for country houses?

Probably the most influential element was timing – but also a number of other more negative factors. Fashion is part inspiration, but also heavily dependent on there being a space in popular taste for it to expand into. Although Britain had been involved in India since 1600, achieving the dominant position had been a struggle with a heavy price paid by all participants; financially, militarily but also directly in the mortality rates of the colonial staff sent to this still largely unknown place.

Often, those who were sent to make their fortunes in India were second or third sons, who may have been in the shadow of their elder brother who stood to inherit.  Although the position of Viceroy was considered a significant honour, it was sometimes coveted for the financial advantages it offered to the incumbent: the substantial salary, the state-funded lavish lifestyle and the chance to rent out your own home back in the UK. Also, unless they made their own significant fortune, their time in India was perhaps considered an exotic distraction, possibly combined with ‘moral’ difficulties, considering the stories of the taking of local ‘wives’ and the adoption of local dress and customs, as reflected in the pejorative phrase of ‘going native‘. The ongoing military operations, the accusations of mismanagement, and the reports of massacres by both sides can only have added to the sense that Indian culture and British involvement was not one to be celebrated.

From an architectural perspective, just at the time that the EIC had established its dominance in the mid-18th century, the popularity of Chinoiserie was in ascendance, boosted by Thomas Chippendale’s ‘The gentleman and cabinet-maker’s director‘ (1754) and the architect William Chambers’ influential book ‘Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils‘ (PDF, 15mb) in 1757.  As mentioned before, this fashion culminated in the Prince Regent’s Oriental extravagance, the Brighton Pavilion, completed in 1823, inspired by Sezincote.  However, the unpopularity of the Prince may well have meant that what he favoured, was unfashionable. As fashion was swept along by Gothic Revival and Neo-Classicism, the Anglo-Indian style was politically difficult, architecturally challenging, and increasingly unattractive.

'Designs of Chinese buildings, furniture, dresses, machines, and utensils' - William Chambers (1757) (© Warburg Library)

‘Designs of Chinese buildings, furniture, dresses, machines, and utensils’ – William Chambers (1757) (Image © Warburg Library)

This makes Sezincote all the more remarkable; the determined vision of Charles Cockerell, an educated man who revelled in his experience in the beauty of India, realised with great care and skill. It is also a reminder that architecture is often a product of fashion and both are closely linked with wider society. Today though, thanks to the loving restoration of the Kleinwort family, who bought the estate in 1944, both the house and gardens have been restored back to their former glory; a vision of India, unique in the UK.


For a more in-depth history:

To see Indian influences in the UK:

  • Sezincote, Gloucestershire – gardens often open, house used for events.
  • Powis Castle, Wales – former home of a Viceroy with extensive collection of artifacts.
  • Elvedon Hall, Suffolk – if you can get in on a rare visit, Elevedon was once owned by the Maharaja Dulap Singh and has some impressive Indian rooms added in the 1890s.

Why the long gap between posts?

I last posted in May 2015 on the devastating fire at Clandon Park. In June, I then moved house with the expectation that after a couple of months I’d be unpacked and able to start again. Unfortunately, as with any house, the renovations took far longer than expected (and it’s only a small 1930s semi!) and I’ve had to be very hands-on. More significantly, my father, who had been ill for a while, deteriorated in January and sadly passed away. This blog, in part, exists because he fully supported my interests and enabled me to start collecting books to indulge my passion for country houses, so, for this and many other reasons, I will always be grateful to him.

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