The stated objective of Dan Cruickshank’s series ‘The Country House Revealed‘ is to “…explore Britain’s finest country houses” and after the relatively low-key start with South Wraxall Manor, it upped the ante with the elegant Kinross House, and now it truly reaches one of the finest houses in the country: Easton Neston, Northamptonshire. The only country house by one of the finest architects of his generation, when it was put up for sale in 2005, it marked the end of one of the great family estates.
Although many fine adjectives can be applied to Easton Neston, one seems to sum it up: noble. Sitting on a slight rise of ground, this beautifully proportioned house neither lords it over the area but neither does it shirk from elegantly dominating its environment. That the house looks as it does is due to a unique set of circumstances which gave the opportunity for Nicholas Hawksmoor (b. c.1662 – d.1736) to design his only country house – though he did help with others.
Hawksmoor was born in Nottinghamshire and, after finishing school, was employed as a clerk by a local landowner. Such was his ‘early skill and genius‘ that word of his talent reached the finest architect in the country, Sir Christopher Wren, who took him on as a clerk at the age of 18. This employment gave Hawksmoor a role in almost all Wren’s projects from c.1684 onwards, including Winchester Palace, the London City churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1689, thanks to Wren, Hawksmoor obtained the post of Clerk of Works at Kensington Palace – the first in a series of official state roles he was to hold throughout his life, which provided both opportunities and frustrations.
It was this close relationship with Wren which gave Hawksmoor the opportunity to design the house at Easton Neston for Sir William Fermor. Wren seemed not to display much of an interest in designing country houses but, as he was related by marriage to Sir William, he had originally been consulted about a new house in 1682 and had provided designs for two wings built in the early 1690s, of which one now survives (despite a serious fire in 2002). Importantly, these two facing wings were 125-feet apart, limiting the size of the main house which would site between them.
Due to the lack of virtually any drawings or documents relating to Hawksmoor and Easton Neston, there seems to be some debate between such distinguished historians as Howard Colvin, John Julius Norwich and Kerry Downes as to exactly what Hawksmoor designed. The couple of surviving letters relating to the build from Wren and others indicate that there was possibly a brick house, to Wren’s design, which looked similar but the house as it is today differs in several notable ways, not least the use of engaged columns and giant pilasters.
The first use of the giant pilaster order in English residential architecture can be seen in the south front of Chatsworth, designed by William Talman in 1687 and which also introduced the rectangular silhouette, the echoes of both of which can be seen in Easton Neston. If the house as modelled is what was proposed or built then it is Wren’s design as Talman’s influence was not yet to be felt.
Norwich argues that the form of the house was substantially Wren’s, as was the interior, though Downes argues that, on the evidence of Hawksmoor’s sophisticated alterations for the interior at Ingestre Hall in 1688, with its clever use of internal screens of columns and dramatic spaces, and similarly demonstrated with the original hall and the brilliant cantilevered, shallow-stepped staircase at Easton Neston, he comes down firmly on the side of Hawksmoor.
The overall look of the house as it stands today is clearly Hawksmoor – it’s exciting, erudite, and draws on his extensive knowledge of classical architecture to create bold fronts but with brilliant proportions which make perfect use of the form. Hawksmoor also had the advantage of the use of Helmdon stone which, due to its durability and exceptional crispness when carved, ensures the house looks as good today as when it was first built.
Hawksmoor never undertook the usual Grand Tour to Italy so his architectural style was essentially drawn from a close study from various books of earlier classical architects. This gives his work an intellectual quality which others lacked but also gave him the vocabulary to be inventive. Easton Neston appears as a much bigger house, including a huge forecourt, in Colen Campbell‘s ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘ though, thankfully they were never executed. However, the drawing clearly show a clear link between Hawksmoor’s country house and the six London churches (of the 12 built from the proposed 50) he designed: St Alfege’s Church, Greenwich, St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, Christ Church, Spitalfields, St George in the East, Wapping, St Mary Woolnoth, and St Anne’s, Limehouse.
Hawksmoor was also to work, from 1702, with that other genius architect of that age; Sir John Vanbrugh; the playwright turned architect who came to rely on Hawksmoor’s practical skills to translate his fanciful visions into a reality at Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace (even more so when he had to take over following Vanbrugh’s bitter falling out with the Duchess of Marlborough). Hawksmoor can therefore be seen as a link between Wren’s classicism and the exuberance of Vanbrugh’s particular brand of English Baroque.
Easton Neston remained essentially unchanged (except for some later flamboyant and slightly rampant interior plasterwork by a local artisan in the 18th-century) and in the Fermor-Hesketh family for nearly 500-years until in 2004 Lord Hesketh decided that he was not willing to burden his children with running a house and estate which “…in a good year it loses £500,000 and in a bad year it could lose £1.5m.” and risk seeing the family wealth slowly ebb away on maintenance. He was possibly also influenced by the likely cost of the restoration of Wren’s badly-damaged East wing which suffered a serious fire in 2002. Originally the house and 3,000-acres were put on the market for £50m in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to purchase one of the finest estates to come on the market for decades. Yet with no takers for the whole, Knight Frank sold over 2,200-acres for around £20m leaving just the house and 600-acres for £15m.
In July 2005 it was announced that Easton Neston had been sold to the American clothing retail tycoon Leon Max, the Russian-born owner of the California-based Maxstudio.com retail chain. For all the fear about overseas buyers, Mr Max appears to have taken his custodianship of this grade-I masterpiece very seriously; hiring the architect Ptolemy Dean to oversee the work and investing an estimated £5m on the restoration to update the services of the house but also to restore the damaged wing to create a European headquarters for his company. The interiors are equally splendid, overseen by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill (who grew up at Blenheim), with Max taking an ‘almost pedantically historicist approach‘ to sourcing furnishings and furniture which includes Aubusson tapestries from a chateau in France, Louis XVI chairs, and even a couple of the paintings sold by Lord Hesketh as he emptied the house of everything in a series of grand country house sales before moving out.
Easton Neston probably now looks better now than it has done since it was built, with the investment from the new owner likely to have secured the future of one of our greatest and most interesting country houses.
Book of the series: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Waterstones]
Official listing: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [BBC2]
Quotes, figures and details in final paragraph come from an interview with Leon Max in the Sunday Times ‘Home’ section – 3 October 2010.