Want to lease a Vanbrugh? Kings Weston House, Bristol for sale

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)

For some, the height of connoisseurship is to own a Picasso or a Rembrandt, and, in the same way, one can also aspire to live in a house designed by one of the great architects.  Yet, although some were prolific, the best were often to be found working on the largest projects, limiting their capacity to turn their hands to other projects, making their surviving buildings rare.  The damage and devastation which subsequent generations have wrought on our architectural heritage have also made these special houses all the rarer.  So it is always of particular interest when the opportunity to own one of these houses arises; such as Kings Weston House, Somerset, designed by the wonderful Sir John Vanbrugh.

Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726) was one of the most interesting architects this nation has ever produced.  Yet to think of Vanbrugh is inevitably to also think of Nicholas Hawksmoor (b.1661 – d.1736) who provided the technical support necessary to ensure that Vanbrugh’s flights of architectural fancy were realisable as solid buildings worthy of his aristocratic patrons. However, this was not a partnership which diminished one through association with the other – both were brilliant architects who each gained from their collaboration. As John Summerson put it in Architecture in Britain (1530-1839): ‘The truth can only be that both Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh were very exceptional men.

Vanbrugh was an intensely private person – the few hundred surviving letters in his hand betray few family details or about his early adventures as a soldier, spy, hostage, East India Company trader, or playwright.  His time in the Forces seems to have imbued his style with a tendency towards the militaristic, most clearly expressed in his work in landscapes where huge sham fortified ‘defenses’ march across parkland, defending nothing and fooling few.  Yet this bombastic nature is part of the flamboyant and theatrical nature of the man, part of what gave him the flair to succeed architecturally in an age when statements in stone were as important as any made in print or Parliament.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

In his grandest buildings, Vanbrugh appears to almost be designing monuments which happen to have living accommodation – but he was especially pleased that Castle Howard was as practical as it was impressive. Writing in 1713 to Edward Southall, his client at Kings Weston, he states:

“I am much pleased here (amongst other things) to find Lord Carlisle so thoroughly convinced of the Conveniencys of his new house, now he has had a years tryall of it.”

Proud of how draught-free the house was, which helped retain heat, Vanburgh stated;

“He likewise finds, that all his Rooms, with moderate fires Are Ovens.”

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Kings Weston (built between 1710-19) was to be Vanbrugh’s fourth commission (after Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and Kimbolton Castle) and was a house very much to Vanbrugh’s style, creating a ‘Noble and Masculine Shew‘.  The house, dramatically sited above the Bristol Channel, was built for Sir Edward Southall, a well-educated civil servant, well-versed in architecture who had spent considerable time travelling in Italy. Southall clearly had strong ideas as to the influences and design of his house; and Vanbrugh, with his long history of collaboration, was the ideal architect to work with this knowledgeable client.  That said, this is clearly a Vanbrugh house – the imposing giant pilasters, the strong Classical detailing, the almost military look which is reinforced by the unusual arcaded design of the chimneys which emphasised a castle-like quality of a central bastion.

(By the way, it’s interesting the close similarity between the entrance to Kings Weston and that of the smaller Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire (built 1722-24) by John James, who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren).

The house passed through several generations of Southalls including Edward’s great-grandson who employed Robert Mylne in 1763 to add stables and the Shirehampton Lodge and also remodel the principal rooms. Edward’s son, also Edward, lived there until his death in 1832 without issue. The house was then sold in 1833 to Philip John Miles for £210,000 (approx. £17m today) who became the local MP, as had the Southalls been before him.  Three generations of the Miles family lived there until the death of Philip Napier Miles in 1935, marking the last time the house was used as a home. The house was sold at auction for £9,800 (approx. £500,000) with the intention of using it as a school.  This was interrupted by the Second World War when it became a hospital – a role it has also fulfilled in the Great War.  Post-war, it became the Bristol College School of Architecture, before becoming a Police training centre from 1970-1995.

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects is how the setting of this fine house has been compromised: to the north, a road and housing estate, to the west, more houses, and to the south, a golf course.  This is often the outcome of houses which lack a determined owner with the need to keep a large estate, and particularly of houses which fall into the clutches of local authorities who are only too happy to build over the parkland, often with little sensitivity as to the overall setting.

With the departure of the Police, the house was boarded up, neglected and facing an uncertain future.  However, in 2000, it was bought by a local businessman, John Hardy, who converted the house in to a successful wedding and conference venue, apparently pouring significant funds into the project.  His commitment ultimately cost him his marriage and the remaining lease – probably 115-years – is now for sale for £2m (the freehold is still owned by Bristol City Council).  Although this would still make an ideal family home, Mr Hardy has expressed a desire that it remain open to the public.  Whoever buys Kings Weston will certainly be buying one of the finest houses in the country. Perhaps it will remain open to the public, but it would be equally exciting to see the house restored as a home, a private retreat overlooking the Bristol Channel where the owner can contemplate the genius of Vanbrugh and enjoy knowing that an architectural DNA links their domain with the palaces of Castle Howard and Blenheim, a smaller scale distillation of the grand flamboyance which came to define English Baroque.

————————————————————-

Original story: ‘Bristol’s Kings Weston House up for sale for £2 million to help pay for owner’s divorce‘ [Bristol Evening Post]

More details: ‘Love affair with a £2m mansion that ended in divorce… King Weston House’s owner was ‘totally consumed’ by major Georgian renovation‘ [Daily Mail]

Property details: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Knight Frank] – £2m

More images: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

History of the house: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [kingsweston.com]

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About Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat

An amateur architectural historian with a particular love of UK country houses in all their many varied and beautiful forms.
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25 Responses to Want to lease a Vanbrugh? Kings Weston House, Bristol for sale

  1. jeff Aldridge says:

    Thanks once again. This was a remarkably informative post and a joy to read. I wonder if, given the development of the grounds of many great houses, any have been moved to more suitable sites. I understand that the cost would be enormous but I doubt we will ever see the likes of these masterpieces ever again. Given the vast sums spent on new build McMansions, there has to be someone with great wealth and love of preservation, willing to undertake something like this. So often the land for sale in Country Life shows computer-generated houses to great effect. I can only imagine what some of these patinated treasures would look like away from the sad development you mention.

  2. countryhouses says:

    Thanks Jeff – glad you liked it. Writing about Vanbrugh is always a pleasure as he was such a varied and talented character. Sure I’ll find another angle for a future post.

    For anyone local (or international and would like to show support) there is a Kings Weston Action Group who are doing some sterling work to protect the house. Their Facebook group (http://en-gb.facebook.com/pages/Kings-Weston-Action-Group/142376342495500?sk=info) has details of research they have carried out and also various photos of the house and grounds and they can also be followed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/KWActionGroup. Well worth supporting!

    (Thanks to Sarah Whittingham – aka ‘DrFrond’ on Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/DrFrond) – for the tip-off).

  3. Paul says:

    This is a house that for all practical purposes has been destroyed as a private family home by the destruction of its setting. Comment from someone who looked at it recently “it’s just a big semi now”

  4. jeff Aldridge says:

    I hesitate to sully the august topics discussed here but one of my favorite blogs, “Realestalker” has a witty and thoroughly enjoyable post about the Irish bank foreclosure of Updown Court. That place is really grotesquely nauseating. I was horrified and ashamed to see that the architect was American. It should have been built in Vegas or Dubai.

  5. Paul says:

    On Updown court .It’s farworse then anything built in Vegas or Dubai recently. Updown courts problem is the house exterior style is one most commonly scene during the early 1990’s in the Central New Jersey mansion belt (Franklin Lakes, Saddle river) which is where the architect is from and where many of his houses are. These days houses such as Updown court are no longer fashionable even in that area. So you have a house in the Surrey countryside built in a style that was once common (but is now outdated) in New Jersey’s flashy new money belt and you have a exterior disaster. Combine that exterior with a interior that has possibly the worst floorplan designed for modern luxury living in the history of modern mansion development and a interior decoration scheme that is better suited to a budget hotel in Spain and you have a foreclosure just waiting to happen. The house and design are indeed hideous and its this rather then the concept which has caused the house to languish on the market. If it had of been a nice Robert Adam neo classical house with a decent interior it would have sold for full asking price within a few weeks of listing.

  6. jeff Aldridge says:

    Amen, Paul. Would that I could see that Robert Adam neo replace this eyesore. The idea of having spent three million for a heated marble driveway at Updown is at once ridiculous and offensive. At least someone would make a salary raking a traditional gravel drive. The thoughtlessness of this design and its execution is overwhelming. Seeking a more positive direction, I challenge my fellows to nominate the best new build country house in the last twenty years. This blog has referenced some great examples in the past.

  7. Paul says:

    Best new build? Hmmmm …for me it would be Icomb Grange situated in the idyllic Cotswold village of Icomb.
    Over 25000 square feet of living space designed and constructed of stone in the original Cotswold farmhouse manor style. Absolutely fabulous indoor pool complex with a beamed oak ceiling.
    Lovely house, simply wonderful.

  8. Paul says:

    Best new build? Hmmmm …for me it would be Icomb Grange situated in the idyllic Cotswold village of Icomb.
    Over 25000 square feet of living space designed and constructed of stone in the original Cotswold farmhouse manor style. Absolutely fabulous indoor pool complex with a beamed oak ceiling.
    Lovely house, simply wonderful.

  9. ldm says:

    Best new house?
    Any one by Quinlan Terry on this page could win:
    http://www.qftarchitects.com/projects/housesinengland.php

  10. Andrew says:

    The Updown Court bank repossession comes as no surprise, as forecast on this blog 9 months ago, although it may be better to continue this discussion on that article.

    Jeff, the best new build country house in the last 20 years would have to be Fort Brecqhou, on its own private island in the Channel Islands (near Guernsey), built in 1994-6 for the Barclay brothers by Quinlan Terry at a reputed cost of £90m. But if limiting the search to England, then it’s a closer race, and I would choose another Terry-designed house, Ferne Park in Dorset (featured here a year ago) for the 4th Viscount Rothermere family.

  11. jeff Aldridge says:

    This was the response I had hoped for………..great links to assuage the pangs of country house addiction. Thanks to all!

  12. countryhouses says:

    Hi all

    This is a particularly interesting question as I was wondering whether the views of the readers of the blog would differ from the experts picked by Country Life magazine to recently conduct a similar exercise of best country house which was won by Eyford House in Gloucestershire (http://bit.ly/gvyyjy) which as you probably know is a fairly modern house – though not within the last 20 years.

    For my own part I would find it difficult as, although an avowed Georgian-ista, I’m rather partial to quite a broad range – I would argue that the 1960s replacement for the sadly lost Eaton Hall was actually rather good. I agree with Andrew that Ferne Park is certainly in the top three but I would also add Tusmore Park for Wafic Said (http://bit.ly/o6oIMV). Again, a good design, great use of setting, incredible attention to detail; in short, all that we expect of the best country houses.

    And Jeff, I completely agree with your comments regarding Updown Court – a house I have poked fun at many times in various posts. It’s just a shame that it will be the Irish taxpayer who has to pay for this flight of ego and architectural hubris – and the architect should seriously question whether he is in the right profession. If you need a laugh do swing by his website for more of that vulgar excess that seems his stock-in-trade: http://www.scholz.us/

    Matthew

    • Andrew says:

      Matt, I agree with your inclusion of Tusmore Park, due to its size, interiors (which remind me of Wardour Castle) and garden front (source). But I excluded it as my top pick because of its entrance front, which added 2 columns and removed two window bays compared to the former house (source), which in my opinion has unbalanced the Palladian proportions (I would be interested to know what others think). And the basement wings don’t appeal to me either.

      • ldm says:

        The 18th century Tusmore does look beautiful. I love the way the main body of the house appears rest effortlessly above the extended base. It was senselessly torn down in 1960 and replaced with a house by Claud Phillimore which is illustrated in Robinson’s ‘The Latest Country Houses’. The 1960s version has been labeled ‘Neo-Regency’, and looks charming in its photo in the book. The latest version, while imposing and beautifully constructed, does not seem to me to be any better than either of the earlier versions.

  13. ldm says:

    Two more new country houses I like very much:

    http://www.adamarchitecture.com/residential/Palladian_Home.htm

    http://www.adamarchitecture.com/residential/Herstmonceaux.htm

    The principal facades of the 1st house are I think lovely; the fussy wings perhaps not so much.
    The 2nd house is a tour de force in miniature imho.

  14. ldm says:

    I think we all missed the boat on the best ‘new build’ because the winner surely is Henley Rotunda:

    http://www.julianbicknell.co.uk/view-henburyrotunda_cheshire.php

    • Andrew says:

      ldm, I also think that Henbury Hall in Cheshire is wonderful, but had excluded it because Jeff limited the selection to those built in the last 20 years, and Henbury Hall was completed about 24 years ago (built 1984-7).

  15. jeff Aldridge says:

    I am fortunate that you went “outside the box” and included Henbury Hall. It is exquisite in every way. Now I wish I had said the last 40 years.

    • ldm says:

      I did not take ‘the last 20 years’ as being ‘written in stone’.

      You might like to get a copy of John Martin Robinson’s book, ‘The Latest Country Houses’, which was published about 25 years ago, and was written in part to show that, notwithstanding all of the post-war destruction of country houses, that the English tradition of country house building never completely died.

      • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat says:

        I’d suggest also Clive Aslet’s ‘The Last Country Houses’ (to which John Martin’s book is a riposte I believe) and John Cornforth’s ‘The Country Houses of England 1948-1998’ as brilliant surveys of the evolution of the country house in this very difficult time.

        Matthew

      • ldm says:

        Matthew, You’re correct that it is a riposte to Aslet’s book. In the introduction Robinson writes:

        “The immediate impetus to get down to the job [of writing ‘The Latest Country Houses’] came with the recent publication of a book called ‘The Last Country Houses’, which ended in 1939!”

  16. jeff Aldridge says:

    Thanks Idm……….I’m on it!

  17. ldm says:

    Here’s another charming (and I think little known) country house built in the last 20 or so years:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/propertyadvice/propertymarket/3295021/A-modern-classic-or-just-an-8-million-fake.html

  18. It is sad that the setting of Kings Weston House has been so long neglected. The majority of the Home Park is in the ownership of the City Council though two other buildings by Vanbrugh adjacent to the main house are now in private ownership. The house suffers from it’s gardens having been de-formalised in the ‘Capability’ Brown Fashion in the mid C18th. Vanbrugh’s formal context for the building including the Great Court framing the entrance front, long avenues, and a vast and dramatic bulwark of viewing terrace were ironed-out in a fit of fashion leaving the building stranded like a “big semi” in the corner of a municipal playing field.

    The Kings Weston Action Group is focused on the promotion, conservation, and enhancement of the landscape setting to the House. Much has been lost beneath modern housing estates but there remains so great a quantity of unrecognised and unmaintained landscape features within the public-owned park that there is huge scope for repair and reinstatement the national importance of Kings Weston as both Vanbrugh masterpiece and Baroque landscape.

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