In any age, once someone is successful they often seek the traditional status symbols – with a country house being high on the list. For footballers it seems that the modern, bling-laden mansions are the favoured style but for an increasing number of modern artists it’s the historic houses which are finding favour. The news that Anthony Gormley has bought West Acre High House in Norfolk adds him to a distinguished roll-call of artists who are forming what has been glibly named, the ‘artocracy’.
Artists moving to the country to help their work has a long history including Peter Paul Rubens buying the Castle of Steen Manor House in the Netherlands in 1635 which led to some of his finest landscape paintings. West Acre High House was regarded as one of the prize estates when it came up for sale in 2008 for £9.5m with 1,000-acres. Yet, it languished on the market despite the nearby 1,600-acre Kelling estate being sold which was listed at the same time.
West Acre High House was built in 1756 by Edward Spelman (d. 1767), a writer and translator and known eccentric, who had inherited the estate from the Barkhams. The design raised eyebrows, particularly for that part of the world, with its novel piano nobile arrangement which was also being used around that time in the construction of Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall. A visitor in that year, Caroline Girle, reported:
“I paid a droll visit to see an odd house, of a still odder Mr Spelman, a most strange bachelor of vaste fortune but indeed I’ll not fall in love with him. We were introduced to him in the library where he seemed deep in study (for they say he’s really clever) sitting in a Jockey Cap in stiff white Dog’s Gloves. On seeing Mr Spelman one no longer wonders at the oddity of the edifice he has just finished.”
The house is also unusual in that the south front is 7 bays with the central 5 deeply recessed, but the north front is 13 bays due to the flanking wings being built level with the main block. The wings were built by Anthony Hamond (b.1742 – d. 1822), a nephew of Richard Hamond who had bought the estate from Spelman in 1761. The next major change was put in effect by Anthony’s second son, another Anthony, who, in c.1829, employed the well-known country house architect, W.J. Donthorn, who refaced the whole house in pale oatmeal Holkham brick, crenellated it and created the spectacular internal double-flight staircase. The staircase leads to a picture gallery modelled on the one in Buckingham Palace and is formed of five perfect cubes of 18ft.
The house was bought by Henry Birkbeck in 1897 who might have inherited it having married Anthony Hamond’s daughter in 1849 but, for reasons unknown, purchased it instead. It remained in the Birkbeck family until the sale to Gormley, who has bought the house plus 100-acres for just £3m having had the price reduced by wanting less land and after factoring in the £1.5m cost of restoration.
The restoration costs may well turn out to be much higher – as Damien Hirst, another of the ‘artocrats’, has found out. He has admitted recently that he has been affected by the recent economic turmoil and in addition to closing down his studios, he has paused the vast, £10m restoration programme he is undertaking at his equally vast country house, Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire, which he bought in 2005 for £3m. Built in 1819-35 for Charles Hanbury-Tracy, later 1st Baron Sudeley, using his own very accomplished designs. He drew his inspiration from the Perpendicular architecture of Oxford and Pugin‘s work, to create an important Gothic-revival building at a cost of £150,000 (equivalent to £15m in today terms). The design clearly influenced Sir Charles Barry in his design for Highclere Castle in Berkshire (built between 1838-78) and the Houses of Parliament (started in 1840) – but perhaps Barry was playing to the audience with the latter as Hanbury-Tracy was also on the committee which chose the design for the new Parliament. After being empty for 20 years until Hirst bought it, the house was a cause for serious concern with outbreaks of dry-rot and a pressing need to replace the acres of roof. After being saved from becoming a hotel, Hirst bought the grade-I listed house as both a home but also to eventually become a gallery for his work.
Another artist seeking the country life is Anish Kapoor who was apparently interested in taking the lease on Ashdown House in Berkshire – though it eventually went to Pete Townshend of The Who. One of our prettiest country houses, and now owned by the National Trust, leasing it would have given him the status without the huge restoration costs.
One of the most encouraging aspects of both Gormley and Hirst’s purchases has been the willingness and ability to finance the necessary huge restoration projects. For Hirst, this has involved covering the whole of Toddington Manor in some ‘Christo’-esque scaffolding with the expectation that the restoration will be a lifetime’s work. Any restoration has an element of being a labour of love but, in exchange, their houses will give them status, but most importantly, a home – these are houses to be lived in, albeit on a much grander scale than most.
Property listing: ‘West Acre High House‘ [Strutt & Parker] – marked as ‘Sold’ so may not be on the website for long.
Detailed architectural listing: ‘West Acre High House‘ [British Listed Buildings]
More images: ‘Toddington Manor‘ [aerial-cam photography]