Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ []

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ []

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ []

16 thoughts on “Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

  1. Andrew October 19, 2010 / 13:27

    I find it very hard to believe the Updown sales spin that it is “larger in area than both the royal residences of Hampton Court Palace or Buckingham Palace”. A simple viewing of photos of the exteriors of these three buildings would seriously bring this claim into question.

    Fort Brecqhou is worth mentioning, billed as the largest house built in Britain in the last 200 years, it is the billionaire Barclay brothers quite stylish castellated Gothic home on the Channel Island of Brecqhou, designed by Quinlan Terry and built in 1994-6 at a reputed cost of £90m:
    an englishmans home is his castle

  2. Oliver Chettle October 19, 2010 / 16:29

    As I have pointed out on several other forums, the claim that it is larger than Hampton Court and Buckingham Palace is complete and utter poppycock, as should be obvious to anyone with eyes in their head, or access to the plans (which have been posted on estate agent’s websites in the past) or google earth. It is very disappointing that journalists continue to swallow this blatant untruth, and I really didn’t expect you to do so. It is of course an appalling mess architecturally. It is rather unfair to compare it to contemporary American mansions, many of which are actually quite good.

    • countryhouses October 21, 2010 / 00:50

      @Oliver – thanks for your comments. You are absolutely right – and that’ll teach me to rely on anything a developer might say. A quick bit of measuring shows that Updown Court at it’s widest point about 85m whereas the longest front of Hampton Court Palace is over 210m, and Buckingham Palace is over 120m. I can believe that Updown is 50k sq ft but why the developer would think that either HCP or Buckingham Palace would be smaller is remarkable. No excuses from me though – will now be checking whatever a developer says very closely.

      With regards to the American mansions, I’ve not yet seen a good modern Classical mansion – the requirements of the wealthy who have the opportunity to build such houses mean that they automatically specify a long list of ‘must haves’ which automatically make them ungainly. The ones I do admire are those built in the Gilded Age such as the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina ( which are huge (135,000 sq ft – 250 rooms) but at least architecturally pleasing. I’ve not seen a good Classical mansion in the US built since then – but I also haven’t seen them all so I’m happy to be proved wrong.

      • countryhouses October 22, 2010 / 01:49

        @ldm – thanks for the link as they are indeed lovely houses, just the sort that I would hope the wealthy in America would be commissioning, and I’m happy to stand corrected. One interesting thought is that they chose to use a British architect – I wonder if this was due to his reputation and they simply wanted the best or if they couldn’t find a suitable architect in the US. Although this blog is dedicated to UK country houses, I’d be very interested to hear about any US architects who might be considered peers to Quinlan Terry and Robert Adam.

  3. Oliver Chettle October 19, 2010 / 16:36

    Ceausescu’s palace (which was never really a residential palace, as the misleading interpretation implies, the word palace being applied freely to large non-residential buildings in Eastern Europe) is actually quite good architecture. I watched a report a year or so ago about how Romanian’s are beginning to become proud of it. It isn’t the only example of “Stalinist” architecture that is far better than most buildings from its era built by democrats in the West.

    Of course the process by which it was built, with the demolition of old neighbourhoods etc, was reprehensible, but the same applies to many historic buildings all over the world, even in England, e.g. the uncompensated removal of slum tenants to make way for St. Pancras station. One should never confuse the justice of the way the construction of a building was organised, with its architectural merit, or allow one’s appraisal of architectural merit to be clouded by opinions on the politics of the patron who commissioned it.

  4. Oliver Chettle October 19, 2010 / 16:42

    The “local critic” of the new Athlone House makes one of the mistakes I referred to in my previous post. Someone should tell him that the Seven Sisters of Moscow are now rightly admired by Muscovites as architectural classics. Stalin’s politics are irrelevant. The Taj Mahal was built by a tyrant too.

  5. Oliver Chettle October 19, 2010 / 16:47

    In my opinion the proposed Grafton House is an ugly lump with an exceptionally poor floorplan. The new Athlone House is probably rather better. But there was never a time when every building was beautiful. If we want to produce a generation of architects capable of doing excellent work in pre-modernist styles, we must give them lots of work, lots of commissions, and the latitude to make some mistakes. Heavens, modernist architects get thousands of commissions, and make a mess of nearly all of them.

  6. Jeff October 20, 2010 / 03:22

    As a long time English Country House fetishist, I was horrified and disappointed to view the Updown Court photos and the EuroMcMansions here discussed. For years, I have travelled to the UK solely to visit your greater and smaller country houses and gardens. The possibility of encountering one of these contemporary monstrosities makes staying home with my Country Life Archive books sadly more appealing.

    • countryhouses October 21, 2010 / 00:58

      @Jeff – Updown Court is probably the worst example; and deliberately picked for that reason but rest assured there are still thousands of wonderful English country houses out there well worth visiting. Just to be on the safe side though I’d recommend staying away from places like the Wentworth Estate in Surrey, Alderley Edge in Cheshire to avoid some hideous, lumpen, tacky mistakes – and, of course, Windlesham (in Surrey), to avoid Updown Court.

      • Jeff October 21, 2010 / 14:01

        Thanks for the response. Of course I could never forego visiting these wonderful houses. A recent visit to Harewood and Cragside reinforced my faith in what there is to be seen. As a foreigner, I have been impressed with what the owners must do, even stoop to, save their family homes. The integrity of Harewood as a home, compared to Cragside as a repository for NT design and display, was a striking contrast. I can only hope that more funding for the preservation of these treasures comes about through fees for ventures like the production of Downton Abbey.
        Your blog is candy for this midwest Yankee! Thank you.

  7. Andrew October 21, 2010 / 11:57

    Savills wisely did not mention anything on their website so ridiculous as the headline statement on the developer’s website about Updown being larger than Hampton Court Palace or Buckingham Palace, as they would incur the discipline of the Real Estate Agents’ regulators. I wonder if anyone has made a formal complaint to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) regarding the potentially false and misleading statement made on the advertising website? The developer is Mr Leslie Allen-Vercoe, who bought Updown in 2002 from receivers for £20m, then completed construction for apparently £30m, with £40m bank debt, and placed it on the market in March 2005 at “in excess of £70m”. That price has not been reduced in the past 5 years, regardless of one of the world’s worst recessions in history, so we have to wonder how long he can keep the price-bluff going, and how long the bank’s patience continues, with possibly £15m in accumulated interest over 5 years, before they foreclose and sell at a realistic price? Other than its excessive price, the other reason why it may not be selling is that it looks like a modern city hotel, rather than an English country house, which is what most foreign buyers want when living in England. Also, having a swimming pool above the main entrance hall area has great potential for future damp problems:

  8. Andrew January 6, 2011 / 08:33

    A brief update on proposed new house builds designed by Robert Adam Architects:
    * Grafton Hall in Cheshire with 180 acres is still for sale for £7.5m (brochure), and
    * Athlone House with 5 acres in Hampstead, London, owned by Kuwaiti billionaire Nasser al-Kharafi (one of the 100 richest people in the world), will appeal the new house’s rejection at the Planning Inspectorate in February, with even David Chipperfield, the architect of the Kenwood Place three blocks of flats built in Athlone’s gardens (approved in 2005 on the condition that the existing 1872 Athlone House was restored and preserved), has now come out in favour of keeping the original house. This battle seems to be more about residents and Council not wanting to be cheated by developers’ broken promises, than the new house’s design per se.

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