Although Britain is a relatively small island it still has the capacity to hide some spectacular buildings which, unless opened to the public, can remain a secret. One such house, featured this week in Country Life magazine (February 17) is Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, thought to be the largest private residence in Europe and for Marcus Binney “unquestionably the finest Georgian house in England”.
Built over a 25 year period from 1724 for Thomas Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham, it is twice as wide as Buckingham Palace and boasts over a 1,000 windows, 365 rooms and five miles of underground passageways. The stable block appears to be a large country house but is merely the lodging for up to 100 horses. Inside the main house, the Earls FitzWilliam enjoyed a priceless art collection which included works by Titian, Van Dyck, Guido, and Raphael.
Yet this was a house to be blighted by the bitter class-war hatred of the post-war Labour government and questions of inheritance. In April 1946, heavy machinery moved into Wentworth Park to pointlessly mine low-grade coal right up to the back door of the house on the express instruction of Manny Shinwell, the minister of fuel and power. A old-school left-winger, Shinwell was given options to save the parkland and gardens but was determined to press on despite representations from the local miners who had been very well treated by successive generations of FitzWilliams.
Once mining finished the FitzWilliams leased the house as a training college and retreated to 40-rooms but even then lived mostly elsewhere. Questions about the legitimacy of the inheritance led the last Earl to order a vast bonfire in 1972 of 16 tons of family papers, some dating back to medieval times, which burnt for three weeks.
Yet, despite its size the house escaped the fate of so many large houses in England and merely languished in obscurity. Sold with just 30-acres in 1988 by the daughter of the last Earl it was bought by Wensley Haydon-Baillie who promised investment but in 1998 it was repossessed. It was then sold for the unbelievably low price of £1.5m (equivalent to just £7 per sq ft) to the architect Clifford Newbold whose careful restoration work has been praised and beautifully photographed in this weeks Country Life.
*Update* May 2011 – I have written a more extensive write-up on the architectural history of the house in response to the episode of ‘The Country House Revealed‘
More information: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse’ (Wikipedia)