The size of a country house was traditionally the physical embodiment of the wealth (or aspirations) of the owner. Yet as the role of the country house changed and the emblems of power altered, new, smaller forms of houses to emerge for both the aristocracy and minor gentry. The acceptability of a smaller house was to prove valuable in the financial crises of the 20th-century – though this is not to say that the later houses lacked anything in terms of quality of interiors or the richness of the architectural language used outside.
Wealth was obviously the most important consideration when deciding on the size of the house. However, the learned sophistication of many of the lesser aristocracy meant that although their funds may not be able to provide a palace, they were well-versed in the aesthetics of good (often Classical) architecture. This meant they were able to commission or design for themselves coherent and elegant smaller houses, giving us the much-coveted Queen Anne or Georgian smaller houses we see today up and down the country, such as Puslinch House in Devon.
The considerations in the 20th-century were also financial but driven by a different set of demands. The financial pressures of the early part of the century, particularly the agricultural slump and the Wall Street crash, naturally limited the size of the houses built (though not all e.g. Gledstone Hall by Sir Edwin Lutyens built in 1926). Yet, the changing social climate also meant that not only was it considered somewhat insensitive to build such large palaces, it was also unnecessary as the houses no longer required so many bedrooms to accommodate the now vanished armies of staff and house guests who used to turn up for the large weekend parties.
Yet smaller didn’t have to mean less interesting as architects faced up to the new challenges with intelligent interpretations of Georgian, whilst others sought to experiment with different styles, such as at the now grade-II listed Hurtwood Edge in Surrey, where the builder/architect Arthur Bolton created an Italian villa in the English countryside.
In the immediate period following World War II, many larger houses, having been requisitioned and mistreated, were demolished, but the families often retained the ancestral estate but now required a new seat. The tight restrictions on materials, particularly for ‘luxury building’ under the Socialist Attlee government, naturally limited the ambitions of the owners. Yet the election of Conservatives in 1951 ushered in the gradual lifting of the restrictions until their abolition in 1954 which allowed a new wave of construction. The war seemed to have had a lasting effect – or maybe fear of a future Socialist government enacting a tax based on house size – as many of the houses were significantly smaller than those in previous eras.
An example of this is Eaton Hall, seat of the Dukes of Westminster, where, following the demolition between 1961-63 of Sir Alfred Waterhouse’s high Gothic-Revival masterpiece, it was decided that a new house should be built. The commission went to John Dennys, who happened to be the Duke’s brother-in-law, for a starkly modern house which sat cross-wise on the main axis of the old house. Unfortunately in this case the new house was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the setting, appearing too small against the remaining buildings and the as the focus for the grand gardens. Worse, the house was unsuccessfully remodelled again in the late 1980s in an almost French chateau-style to create a larger house.
In recent years, planning restrictions have usually limited the size of new houses (though not always; see my recent post on large houses). The lack of architecturally educated clients has naturally led to a growth in crass, ugly smaller country houses, but all is not lost as determined clients are still able to demand and produce good designs, such as the one proposed for Harewood Park in Herefordshire, now mooted as the potential marital home for Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Ever since the Harewood Park estate was bought by the Duchy of Cornwall in 2000 as part of a larger purchase of 12,000 acres, rumours had been circulating that it would be for one of the Princes. The original house had been demolished in 1959 so the expectation was that another would have to be built if it was to have such a role. Considering the views of the Prince of Wales on modern architecture there was little surprise when a planning application was submitted in 2006 for a strongly Classical small country house by Craig Hamilton Architects.
Craig Hamilton originally prepared three designs but the final design (shown above) complements the existing stables and is perhaps the most interesting and the one successfully submitted for approval.
The house is based around the motif of the triumphal arch but, apparently drawing on the influence of Sir John Soane, it presents a simplified version rather than the more decorated versions often seen. Soane was schooled in the Classical style but re-invented the language to create a new direction for Neo-Classicalism; a much simpler version with an emphasis on the effective use of space and most importantly, light. Soane spent several years in Italy and was well-versed in Roman architecture and incorporated the three-arch motif into his designs, notably the entrance front to his own house at Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, west London, and in one of his most impressive commissions for the old Bank of England (scandalously demolished in the the 1920s) as seen in the internal Lothbury Court.
The new Harewood Park is an inventive extension of this Soanian language and it’s encouraging that the planners had the courage to approve what will surely be one of the most interesting smaller country houses built in the UK. Sadly, I suspect that for security reasons, we won’t see the house featured in Country Life but I keep my fingers crossed.
Competition: nominate your choice for ‘England’s Favourite House’
This seems a good moment to mention the competition to find the best smaller country house (i.e. with less than seven bedrooms). Most people have a favourite and usually it’s not so much the grand palaces of Chatsworth or Blenheim but the smaller houses of our local areas which form part of our local heritage. The competition is being run by Country Life magazine and Savills the estate agents and the house should be in private ownership and not currently for sale. The deadline is Wednesday 24 November 2010 so submit your suggestions as soon as possible.
More information: ‘England’s Favourite House‘ [Country Life]