Inspired by Park Place? Other country houses for sale to restore

The recent restoration and sale of Park Place was certainly on an epic scale – £42m to buy, a further £100m to complete – but thankfully not all projects need be so expensive (though they’ll never be cheap).  The story of the country house has, for many, featured a cycle of ascendency, enlargement, and enjoyment, followed by neglect but – hopefully – rescue. As the annual SAVE Britain’s Heritage ‘Building’s at Risk’ Register sadly makes all too clear there are any number of country houses which have reached quite a serious state of disrepair, even dereliction. Yet even for these there may be someone who is willing to step up and rescue part of the nation’s architectural heritage. Houses in need of a saviour are often for sale, their forlorn state in Country Life magazine a stark contrast to their better loved brethren.

The UK generally has a much more positive attitude towards restoration than many other countries.  The Victorians would often be tempted to restore an ancient seat due to the contemporary popularity of the romantic notions of ‘Ye Olde England’.  Living in an Elizabethan or Jacobean house gave the owner associations with older family lines (not necessarily their own) and was a short-cut to perceived greater respectability.  Today, those who take on a restoration of one of our beautiful older houses are rightly lauded over those who simply buy a super-sized Barrett home.  Yet, restoration requires sensitivity and a willingness to submit an individual’s grand designs to work within the boundaries of the listed building regulations and the character of the house.

Marske Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)
Marske Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)

One house with hidden character and which will require careful planning is Maerske Hall, Yorkshire.  Originally built by the Hutton family in 1597, they were still in residence in 1730 when the house was rebuilt and extended in a Classical style. The grade-II* house was mainly used for shooting parties by the family in the 19th-century saving it from alteration but in the 20th it was threatened with requisition by the Army in WWII.  Luckily the family were able to arrange for pupils from Scarborough College to take up residence instead which saved it from the worst damage.  After the war, it again came near to destruction, as it was sold in 1947 to local builders George Shaw and his son George William who intended to demolish it for the materials.  However, they baulked at taking down such a lovely house and so sympathetically converted it into 10 apartments.  Still divided but now empty it is for sale at £2.5m with 19-acres of beautiful, mature gardens, and presents a fascinating opportunity to recreate a single family home. For more on the history, there’s a brochure: ‘Marske Hall‘ PDF [Carter Jonas].

Walton Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Walton Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Knight Frank)

For those wanting a more straight-forward restoration, Walton Hall, Derbyshire perhaps offers a more appealing option.  This fine and elegant grade-II* house, prominently sited above Walton on Trent, was built between 1724 -1729 to designs by the architect Richard Jackson. The most striking feature are the full-height pilasters, giving dignity to a slowly deteriorating house which has become such a concern as to be listed on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register.  Inside, the most impressive feature is the grand staircase, reputedly copied from a building in The Hague.  The house is basically habitable but requires significant sensitive restoration, hence the price; £1.5m for the house plus just 7.5-acres.  That said, once restored this will be a quintessential Georgian  house to be enjoyed for generations.

Felix Hall, Essex (Image: Savills)
Felix Hall, Essex (Image: Savills)

For those who prefer a real challenge then the next two houses could be ideal.  The first is Felix Hall, situated just outside Kelvedon, Essex – the picture (right) immediately showing the scale of the challenge.  At its core, this house is firmly in the tradition of the Palladian villa with a compact footprint but featuring wonderful architectural flourishes such a fine portico (added in 1825) and, to the rear, four engaged columns and a pediment.  Originally built between 1760-2, it was purchased by the Weston family of Rivenhall Place in 1793 and was significantly extended with flanking wings in the early 19th-century, possibly on the occasion of Charles Callis Weston’s  ennoblement as Lord Weston of Rivenhall in 1833.  However, as with many larger houses, a reduction in  size was thought prudent and so in 1939 the two wings were removed, leaving just a 7-bay central section.  Sadly, during the course of renovations it caught fire, completely gutting the fine interiors leaving the gaunt shell with the proud Ionic columns we can see today.  The remains were bought in 1953 and the basement rooms restored as an occasional country retreat but this is a house crying out for a full restoration (for which there is planning permission).  However, the estate buildings such as the nearby stables have been separately converted and there is only a small amount of land – it would be lovely if the new owner could also purchase the buildings and gardens and if they could also acquire the field in front, they could create a superb small parkland in which to truly display the house.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)

Another shell available is the one I would be heading for: Piercefield, near Chepstow, Wales.  Designed by the peerless Sir John Soane in 1785 for George Smith, the actual completion of the house was delayed until 1793.  Of particular interest  here is that the design is not entirely unique – Soane appears to have used very similar plans for Shotesham Park in Norfolk which was also built in 1785, although that house was brick with stone dressings, whilst Piercefield is faced entirely with stone. The house was sold 1794 as Mr Smith had run into some financial difficulties and it was bought by Sir Mark Wood who employed Joseph Bonomi to add a saloon and a winding staircase – though not the two pavilions as has been suggested.  The house was sold in 1926 by the Clay family, who had bought it in 1861, to Chepstow Racecourse who abandoned it, leaving it become increasingly derelict, apparently helped by American troops stationed nearby in WWII who used the house for target practice.  After 90 years of neglect, the house still has the power to impress with its refined façade and elegant temple pavilions.  Although on the market for over six years the price has remained at a rather ambitious £2m (although it does include 129 grade-I listed acres of parkland). However, recent comments by the director of the race course have indicated that they might entertain offers of around £1m; though, of course, the restoration bill would be many times that – but what a prize at the end!

Ruperra Castle, Wales (Image: Jeffrey Ross - Estate Agent)
Ruperra Castle, Wales (Image: Jeffrey Ross - Estate Agent)

Even further down the scale of dereliction is another important house, also in Wales, which has been stubbornly mis-priced.  Ruperra Castle near Newport is one of the few ‘mock’ castles designed for pleasure and not as defensive installations – a subject examined in more detail in an earlier blog post related to Ruperra: ‘Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale‘ (Sept 2010).  Few of these style of houses were built and Ruperra’s importance derives from it being one of the earliest of the country houses of this type, having been built in 1626.  Sadly, many of the other examples have been lost (most recently, fire gutting the interior of Lulworth Castle in 1929) so for someone Ruperra offers the opportunity to not only restore an architectural gem but also to be able to enjoy the same stunning views which attracted Thomas Morgan to build there in the first place.  Unfortunately, although the owner has now switched agents, the price is still ambitious at £1.5m – especially considering the immense challenges and costs of restoration and the location.  Hopefully, as with Piercefield, the owner ought to be willing to entertain realistic offers and allow the house to be saved before it is lost forever.

Perhaps the last is stretching it to call it a restoration opportunity as Bellamour Hall, Staffordshire now exists only as two walls and a few piles of stones!

Restoration is never a cheap or easy approach but the satisfaction and pride in knowing that the work has saved another part of our architectural heritage must be immense.  For too long our country houses have been under threat from neglect, vandalism and poor maintenance and the selection above (and there are more) show that the degrees of restoration and commitment required can vary dramatically.  That said, I can only hope someone is out there with the wealth and sensitivity to take on these houses and bring them back to life.

The most expensive UK country house: Park Place, Oxfordshire

A new record price for a UK country house has just been achieved with the sale of Park Place, near Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire.  One of three most notable estates on that stretch of the Thames, it was also the most expensive country house ever sold in its unrestored state in 2007.  Now, after five years and many millions of pounds, the house again has set the record having been sold to an unknown Russian billionaire for £140m.

'A view of Park Place, Henley' - artist unknown - c.1742-3 (Image: Royal Collection) - click to see full image
'A view of Park Place, Henley' - artist unknown - c.1742-3 (Image: Royal Collection) - click to see full image

Park Place is, at its core, a more modest Georgian house built in 1719 for Lord Archibald Hamilton, son of the Duke of Hamilton.  The proximity to London and the beautiful setting has long attracted the wealthy to the area as a convenient escape from the city, with several riverside estates featuring a series of impressive houses.  Starting at Marlow, the first house is Bisham Abbey (now the national sports centre), then the now lost Temple House (dem. 1910), Harleyford Manor (beautiful small villa restored in 1989), Whittington House [pdf] (rebuilt by Reginald Blomfield c1897, now HQ of SAS Ltd), Danesfield House (now a hotel), Medmenham Abbey (now two houses), Culham Court (sold for £38m in 2006), Greenlands (now Henley Management College), Fawley Court (sold for £13m in 2008, possibly for conversion back to a private house), and then finally, just past Henley, lies Park Place.  Of particular interest are the architectural similarities between Fawley Court (built 1684 – reputedly to a design by Sir Christopher Wren), the original Park Place (built c1718), Culham Court (built 1771), and Reginal Blomfield’s 1897 rebuilding of Whittington House, all of which are on based on a red-brick 5- or 7-bay, two storey villa with bulls-eye window inserted into a projecting pediment.

Park Place, Henley - c1810 (Image: Thames Pilot) - click for the full image
Park Place, Henley - c1810 (Image: Thames Pilot) - click for the full image

Sadly, Park Place is no longer part of this architectural brethren having undergone a series of substantial changes.  The house was sold by Lord Hamilton in 1738 to Prince Frederick, then Prince of Wales and eldest son of King George II, who split his time between there and Cliveden. After Frederick’s death, the house was then bought by General Henry Seymour Conway in 1752 and it was he who made the first significant changes both to the house (including a library by Sanderson Miller in 1757) and, perhaps more importantly to the grounds, which are now grade-II*. His works, to designs by Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford, included the installation of an ancient stone henge given as a gift from the people of Jersey where he was Governor, the lightning-damaged steeple from St Bride’s Church as an obelisk, four more obelisks as gateposts, an underground cavern, and a bridge, using stones from Reading Abbey, which was subsequently admired by Horace Walpole.  There was also an artificial classical ruin designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart.

Park Place, Oxfordshire - c.1900 (Image: henleyonthames.org)
Park Place, Oxfordshire - c.1900 (Image: henleyonthames.org)

The house was sold to John Noble in 1871 but was largely gutted by fire a year later, giving Noble the opportunity to indulge something of an architectural whim.  The pattern and style of the Victorian country house was much admired around Europe and our expertise was exported widely around the continent – but it rarely flowed back (a topic already covered in an earlier post ‘The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses‘).  Park Place is one of the few houses in the country build using the French Renaissance style, creating an impressive château in the heart of England.

The design of the rebuilt house is widely attributed to Thomas Cundy [III], the son and grandson of two previous Thomas’ who had also been country house architects. Although the latter two are given sizeable entries in Howard Colvin’s ‘Biographical Dictionary of British Architects‘, the grandson is given only a paragraph as part of his father’s, leaving us somewhat in the dark as to what, bar some London churches, he may have been involved with. However, considering his father had good form with the chateau style having built Grosvenor Gardens in London, so Thomas III would have been schooled in the style before his father’s death in 1867.

The house remained with the Noble family until 1947 when it and the 670-acre estate was parcelled up into 22 lots and sold off.  The main house was bought by Middlesex County Council who converted it into a special school, which it remained until 1988 when it closed. The house was then bought by John Latsis, the Greek shipping tycoon, but it seems unlikely that he lived there as it remained unrestored, with the vestiges of the school – gymnasium, classrooms, a woodwork studio etc – all still in situ, along with various outbuildings, as can be seen from these images of the house.

Those who had a chance to look around the house when it was for sale in 2006 all noted that beneath the shabby institutional veneer, the potential of the house was clear; glimpses of fine tiles, the original stone fireplaces, stained glass, and grand spaces with impressive views.  The house was then sold to a consortium who intended to create a superior country club – until Wokingham council said ‘no’.  Put on the market for £45m, it was finally sold for £42m to Mike Spink, a property developer who specialised in high-end houses in central London. With this experience, Spink transformed this once dilapidated house into a palace fit for a billionaire with all the requisite features such as a helipad, swimming pool, panic room etc.  Somewhat disappointingly, the house now only comes with 200-acres, with the remaining 300 with which it was sold retained by Spink for as yet unspecified ‘development’ – a phrase which will no doubt spark local concerns.

Even when it was first sold, those in the property business were predicting that Park Place would sell for possibly up to £100m, and the rising ‘super prime’ market has proven even those estimates conservative.  Sadly, this record is not for a spectacular historic house at the centre of a large estate but instead one where the location (location, location!) has elevated the price to such a stratospheric level. Nevertheless, many country houses were built as retreats for wealthy industrialists and financiers and this house is proof that the lure of the trophy country estate is as strong as ever – which can only be a good thing for those seeking to prove their desirability in modern times.

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Story about the original sale: ‘Sold for £42m… still in need of renovation‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Latest sale: ‘Park Place: Britain’s most expensive home sold for record £140m‘ [Daily Telegraph]

‘An agreeable surprise’ – the country house and garden sculpture

Statue - Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Statue – Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

The country house has long been at a nexus of art, display and tourism with the treasures, mainly statues, collected by the owner shown in a grand gallery which often formed one of the main staterooms.  Whereas the house provided the setting for the art, outdoors, the gardens and parkland provided a setting not only for the house but also for the many sculptural works they had acquired – a trend which continues today, though often with a necessarily more commercial edge.

The first country house owners to place statues in their English gardens were the Romans.  However, as homes became castles, gardens fell from favour and with them, the ornaments to decorate them.   The trend for statuary only really returned with the Tudors and their love of the outdoor space as an extension of the symbolism they incorporated into the architecture of their houses.  One of the earliest collectors, and most acquisitive, was Thomas Howard Arundel, 2nd Earl of Arundel, who, as a youth, had been at the excavation of the Roman Forum, which had sparked a live-long passion for antiquities.  Arundel amassed one of the greatest collections of the age, rivalling that of the King, including a famed selection of Graeco-Roman statues found in Turkey, which became known as the ‘Arundel Marbles‘. These statues were then displayed at both their town and country seats, both indoors and out – though later, by the mid-17th-century, as a result of the uncertainties of the Civil War, John Evelyn found the Marbles “…miserably neglected, & scattred up & downe about the Gardens & other places of Arundell-house.”.  The statues were later donated to the Ashmolean Museum where they remain today.

The later rise and popularity of the Georgian grand tour firmly embedded the desire to purchase statues along with the requisite paintings. They provided a visual clue as to both the learning and wealth of the owner and so were displayed prominently, especially indoors where they might be shown in the entrance hall where guests would inevitably look at them as they waited. Some of the most famous dedicated indoor galleries include those at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire (though sadly now not as shown in previous link as it’s now a wedding venue).  Other notable galleries, though now lost due to dispersal or demolition, were those at Clumber Park, Ickworth House and Hamilton Palace, the latter described as “…peopled with bronze statuary on Irish black marble bases polished to such a gloss that they reflected the pavement like a mirror.“.

Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)
Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)

Outside, the display was no less formal – symmetry and structure dominated.  However, by the 1730s, the more formal display of statues outdoors gave way to a more naturalistic style whereby they became almost secreted amongst a more informal – but no less planned – landscape.  One thing often forgotten now is that we see gardens after over 250 years of growth, but when first planted they would have been much sparser giving the ornaments greater prominence.  The return of the Roman influence can be closely linked with the rise of Palladianism and the influence of Lord Burlington and his circle; most notably, the brilliant designer William Kent. Other notable influences include Batty Langley, who published his ‘New Principles of Gardening‘ in 1728 and Stephen Switzer’s ‘Ichnographica Rustica‘, published in 1718 – the latter of which was the first to show serpentine walks and streams. Life also imitated art, with the popularity of the Arcadian visions of painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicholas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa also inspiring those who collected the paintings to attempt to bring them to life.

Temple - Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Temple – Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The more secure and rising wealth of the 1730s enabled owners to create larger estates and so giving them more space to indulge their plans.  However, no stream will rival a raging river so to create a sense of theatre, the landscape was used and moulded to create a series of views which took advantage or distant landmarks or by introducing elements such as statues, temples and obelisks.  Often these gardens were designed to entertain the knowledgeable visitor with allusions to myths and noble virtues – though in one lesser known example, the owner of the famous Vauxhall Gardens in London, built a darker memento mori‘ garden at Denbies, his home in Surrey.

However, the main aim was to delight and to stimulate emotions. One of the most famous Georgian gardeners, Philip Miller, wrote in his 1739 edition of his ‘Gardener’s Dictionary’:

“In laying out these walks through woods there should be a great regard had to the neighbouring country, so as whenever there are any distant objects which appear to the sight, there should be openings to which the serpentine walks should lead, from whence objects may be viewed, which will be an agreeable surprise to strangers…”

Bridge - Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)
Bridge – Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)

These principles were translated according to the whims and finances of owners across the country, leading from the sublime creations of Stowe, Stourhead and Studley Royal to many lesser known and private gardens.

The statuary could sometimes cause the odd drama. Dallam Towers, Cumbria was archly described by Pevsner as “…undoubtedly the finest Georgian facade in the county; but what the visitor may not realise is that, behind all the stucco, there’s the finest Queen Anne facade in the county.“. Between the facade and the landscape once stood (or perhaps still stands) a line of statues standing guard between the garden and the ha-ha. Yet this line is slightly marred by one of the statues being headless – the unfortunate outcome of a 1820s dinner which led to a very ‘well-refreshed’ Lord Milthorpe.  Thinking he had seen a poacher, he grabbed a rifle, and despite the protests of his guests, he duly dispatched the ‘poacher’/statue; a loss for the world of garden ornaments but perhaps a gain for the forces of law and order.

With such vast quantities of marble scattered out the gardens, occasionally a prized statue may slip slowly into obscurity. This can lead to discoveries in the same way that an Old Master may be found in the attic, so they can also be found in the shrubbery, such as this rare Chinese Ming tomb horse or the lucky owner of a castle somewhere in northern Europe who had a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Adriaen de Vries.

The tradition of sculpture in the gardens of country houses is certainly alive and well today and has developed beyond the more formal Roman statuary towards a decidedly more contemporary ethos – though perhaps more commercial than for simple pleasure.

'Huge Sudeley Bench' by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)
‘Huge Sudeley Bench’ by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)

At the beautiful Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, Christies are holding their selling exhibition of contemporary sculpture from luminaries such as Marcel Wanders, Marc Quinn and Pablo Reinoso.  Over in Sussex, the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood, hosts a regularly changing line-up with a focus on supporting emerging talent along with the more established artists such as Lynn Chadwick and Anish Kapoor.  One more recent venue is the Jupiter Artland at Bonnington House in Scotland, just outside Edinburgh.  The vision the Wilsons, who own the house, Jupiter Artland features large-scale works such as the monumental ‘Life Mounds’ by Charles Jencks’ who specialises in landscape art that I suspect would appeal to the likes of ‘Capability’ Brown if he were around today.

These are just some of the examples of contemporary schemes which are taking place across the country. Each is enlivening the grounds of a house and again maintaining that artistic thread which has been spun out over hundreds of years, linking country houses, an owners’ taste and some of the best art in the country.

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More wonderful examples of works available outdoors can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library collection.

This blog post is a little off my usual patch so I’m grateful for the research of David Stuart in ‘Georgian Gardens