A Salvin for sale: Mamhead House, Devon

Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Strutt & Parker)

One of the pleasures of running your own blog about country houses is that you get to play favourites.  I’m often asked which is my favourite but this is a difficult one to answer; is it the one I want to live in (currently Bragborough Hall, Northamptonshire), the one I most want to visit (Mereworth Castle, Kent), or one that I think is just stunning (Bruern Abbey, Oxfordshire)?  However, there are some which just hold a special affection – and that, for me, has to be Mamhead House in Devon, partly for its beauty and also for no better reason than it having been local to where I grew up.

Mamhead’s main claim to fame is that it was the project which established one of the best Victorian architects; Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881).  Described as a pioneer of Gothic Revival architecture, Salvin could be seen as the secular equivalent to the religiously driven Pugin. Both sought to restore Gothic as the traditional form of design most suited to the nation, but whereas Pugin saw this as a devotional mission to return Britain to how it might have been had the Reformation never occurred, Salvin saw Gothic as the form which was best suited to our landscape and aesthetics.  Salvin’s historically rigorous approach saw him create some of the most interesting country houses of the Victorian era – and Mamhead is a rare example which has now been restored to its former glory.

According to Mark Girouard, Salvin’s reputation appropriately rests on his country houses, dismissing his churches as ‘seldom interesting‘, and that it’s ‘hard to regret‘ that his designs for larger buildings such as the new Houses of Parliament and the Carlton Club were never built.  However, in the sphere of the country house; his success rested on his ability to combine three elements; “the domestic or castellated architecture of the Middle Ages and the Tudors; the design techniques of the Picturesque; and the needs of the Victorian upper classes“*.

The first Mamhead House, Devon shown c.1826, demolished c.1828
The first Mamhead House, Devon shown c.1826, demolished c.1828

Salvin specialised in the restoration and modernisation of ancient buildings, building on a precocious interest in medieval architecture which saw him elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1824, aged just 24.  His obvious scholarly talent marked him as someone to watch but it’s still unclear exactly how he secured his first commission at Mamhead – especially as he replaced a more experienced architect whose plans he then had to adapt.  The owner, a merchant called Robert Newman, had commissioned Charles Fowler, who had designed a classical house to replace the existing house (altered by Robert Adam for the Earl of Lisburne in 1774), which Newman appears to have decided not to proceed with, possibly seeing the winds of fashion shift towards the Gothic.  He may also have been influenced having seen Kitley (now a hotel), also in south Devon, which had been remodelled by George Stanley Repton between 1820-25, in one of the first attempts at authentic Elizabethan.  This change of heart gave Salvin his opportunity.

Moreby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Country House Picture Library)
Moreby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Country House Picture Library)

For Pevsner, Mamhead was the house which established Salvin as the chief Victorian architect for large country houses in the Tudor style. Salvin was constrained in that he was working from the existing symmetrical plan and denied the chance to introduce the projection and recession of elements so traditional with Gothic.  However, this plan does have tradition in that it has the feel of an Elizabethan E-plan house; though one where the main door has been moved to the corner rather than the expected middle. These minor quibbles were to be later offset by the masterly later additions.  Mamhead’s cost of £20,000 was financed from income, so although work started in 1827-8, the final interiors (strangely being the entrance hall) weren’t finished until seven years later.  During this time Salvin’s knowledge and experience grew – not least through his second commission for a new country house; Moreby Hall in Yorkshire, built between 1828-32. Here he enjoyed a freedom to create and developed his own arrangement of a central, two-storey hall off which came the main rooms and which also allowed warm air to circulate – not only visually impressive but also practical.

Conservatory - Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Devon Life)
Conservatory - Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Devon Life)

It was perhaps the later additions of stables and the conservatory at Mamhead where Salvin clearly demonstrated the flair which marked the original thinking of a great architect.  Rather than continue strictly in the same style, the stables were now to be housed in a mock, red sandstone castle, modelled on Belsay Castle in Northumberland, slightly above and behind the house, with the conservatory in a more correct Gothic design.  The conservatory is a beautifully elegant single-storey extending from the north-west of the main house featuring four Perpendicular windows leading to a two-storey pavilion leading to the garden.  The skyline features many pinnacles with an interior decorated with carved scrolls and verses, shields, and carved panels – all in stark contrast to the rather severe fortifications which Salvin chose for the stables at the other end of the house.

Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)
Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)

Mamhead is fascinating as it not only shows early brilliance in an architect’s career but unusually also is a house which shows all the styles in which he worked – both the Gothic and the fortified.  Salvin’s skill with the Gothic form and vocabulary perhaps found its greatest expression in his third country house commission: Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire; a fantastical composition which took full advantage of its location and the wealth of the owner.

Harlaxton must be seen to be believed and even when one has seen it, it is not always easy to believe it.” said Mark Girouard – and who can disagree?  Harlaxton takes the elements of Gothic and Elizabethan but then injects the visual flair to give it a skyline to rival Kirby Hall, Burghley or the lost Richmond Palace. The house is almost theatrical but coherent enough that the look isn’t overwhelmed by any element.  Inside, the most spectacular feature is the famous Cedar Staircase which seeks to match the outside with an unexpected Baroque interior.  The design demonstrates how quickly Salvin’s skills had developed, with the work at Harlaxton starting just three years after Mamhead.

Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)
Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)

By contrast, Peckforton Castle would be recognisable to a medieval knight as a useful fortification.  Rising prominently above the relatively flat Cheshire countryside, the imposing red sandstone castle is very much in the tradition of BurgesCastell Coch for the Marquess of Bute, and the later Castle Drogo by Lutyens.  However, a significant difference is the much greater degree of historical accuracy, perhaps appropriate considering it was visually challenging the truly medieval Beeston Castle on a neighbouring hilltop, but also to reflect the benevolent feudalism of the owner, John Tollemache who spent huge sums on buildings and homes for his workers.  However, the widespread public discontent at that time, with the risks of mobs and rioting, meant that it is also possible that Tollemache chose a castle with the intention that it be defensible.  So successful was Salvin’s design that even a critic (fellow architect George Gilbert Scott) called it a “…a perfect model of a Medieval fortress…“.  I think Salvin enjoyed the challenge of this design; a rare chance to build an uncompromising castle in a way which hadn’t been necessary for 500 years, fully taking advantage of his encyclopaedic knowledge of fortifications.  Today, despite being badly damaged in a recent arson attack, the castle is still a fascinating example of his work.

Apart from ecclesiastical work and alterations to existing houses such as Warwick, Alnwick and Dunster castles, he also designed a number of notable country houses including, in addition to those already mentioned: Cowesby Hall, Scotney Castle, Parham Park, Skutterskelfe Hall (one of Salvin’s rare Classical designs), Crossrigg Hall, Keele Hall, and Thoresby Hall, which still survive today.  Sadly, Flixton Hall, Campsea Ash High House, Congham High House, Stoke Holy Cross Hall and Hodnet Hall have all either been completely demolished or, in the case of the latter, significantly reduced.

Salvin was one of those rare Victorian architects whose work started strongly and just got better.  To have the opportunity to purchase the first major work at Mamhead is a rare privilege and one that I hope the new owner will recognise and appreciate.

Sales details: ‘Mamhead House‘ – £8m, 164-acres [Strutt & Parker]

Lovely article with many photos in ‘Devon Life’: ‘Mamhead House

More details:

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* source: foreward to ‘Anthony Salvin: Pioneer of Gothic Revival Architecture‘ by Dr Jill Allibone which I can highly recommend, and which was very helpful for this posting.

The Lost Rooms: the sale of architectural salvages to America

Having just spent two weeks touring the west coast of the United States, one great pleasure has been visiting the various art museums to see some of the wonderful paintings which the immensely wealthy collectors of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries acquired at a time when many of our country houses were in crisis. Sadly, in so many cases, the sales were a precursor to the complete loss of the house, with over 1,400 houses demolished since 1900.  However, it is still possible to see a fragment of these grand homes as the demolitions fuelled an impressive transatlantic trade in architectural salvage which included entire rooms. The whereabouts of many of these are now unknown – but they do sometimes reappear in surprising places…

Cannons, Middlesex (Image: Vitruvius Brittanicus / wikipedia) - engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739)
Cannons, Middlesex (Image: Vitruvius Brittanicus / wikipedia) - engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739)

This post and the entire subject of country house architectural salvage owes an immense debt to the historian John Harris who has been chronicling these losses since he first started exploring country houses in the grim era following World War II. Of course, the trade had been going for many years: Nonsuch Palace, in Surrey, was deliberately sold for its materials in 1682, Cannons, in Middlesex, the seat of the Duke of Chandos was stripped and sold in 1747 after his death, and the once impressive Wanstead House, Essex, was similarly dismembered and sold to pay the debts of the spendthrift husband of the heiress in 1824. The plundering of rooms as part of the spoils of war by a conquering army has also happened throughout history with perhaps the most famous room taken also one of the greatest mysteries; no-one has seen the famed Amber Room from the Catherine Palace, just outside St Petersburg, since the German army meticulously removed it in 1941.

The country house room salvage trade takes off when, just as Europe is facing an agricultural slump which disproportionately affected landowners, the immensely wealthy industrial titans in the US were flexing their wallets to acquire collections which would become their legacies.  In the UK, as the situation worsened, so the familiar pattern of contents sales started with pictures and other artworks being discreetly sold.  Often many of these works were acquired by US collectors such as Frick, Mellon, Carnegie, Kress, amongst others, often on the enthusiastic encouragement of dealers such as Joseph Duveen.  However, to display the art required the right setting, and so an industry grew up to satisfy a voracious demand for authentic rooms – even if the rooms weren’t identical by the time they arrived.  Later, museums were also looking for rooms in which to provide context for their collections of furniture and art.

The Lawrence Room, Boston Museum of Fine Arts - de-accessioned 1930 (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)
The Lawrence Room, Boston Museum of Fine Arts - de-accessioned 1930 (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)

John Harris identifies the first stirrings of the transatlantic trade with the sale in 1876 of a supposedly ‘Jacobethan’ room to a Mrs Timothy Lawrence, which was incorporated into the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Harris next highlights the reference, in November 1897, in the sales/stock records of the famous Duveen family of art and antiques dealers of a ‘large Louis 14 Style Brown & Gold Room‘ ‘delivered free New York‘ for Mrs William C. Whitney which cost $10,000.  By the early 1900s, adverts were appearing in Country Life magazine and the Connoisseur listing entire rooms or just the parts; chimneypieces being a popular offering.  Building on the still lingering Victorian fashion for anything Elizabethan and Jacobean, dealers competed to offer the most choice rooms from the houses being demolished at the time.  One of the largest dealers, Robersons, were boasting in 1906 of having ‘100 Old Marble Mantelpieces in Stock‘, whilst Druce & Co had 5,000 feet of old panelling.  Books such Charles Latham’s ‘In English Homes‘ fuelled the fascination with these periods – perhaps even spurring on the demolition of some houses by creating a demand for the materials, and making it easier for the owners to decide to demolish.  As the architect John Swarbrick, founder of the Ancient Monuments Society, argued in 1928, ‘history adds commercial value to buildings’.

This desire for ancient association led some dealers to be somewhat generous in their attributions of the architects or owners involved.  The dealers Robersons were particularly apt at indulging in this type of misattribution, often assigning provenance with little or no research.  Another firm, Gill & Reigate, were being quietly accused of fabricating rooms as early as 1926.

Advert for the Staircase from Cassiobury House with Edwards & Co (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)
Advert for the Staircase from Cassiobury (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)

However, the finest pieces were often were those with a clear provenance, usually from a celebrated dispersal or demolition auction such as that of Cassiobury House near Watford or Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire.  The urban growth of Watford has spoiled the estate at Cassiobury and so it was gutted in 1922, leading to the sale and dispersal, via French & Co, of one of the finest sets of Grinling Gibbons carvings in the country, including the impressive staircase.  Hamilton Palace, seats of the Dukes of Hamilton, was one of the most impressive houses in the country – and one of the greatest losses.  Built on coal wealth, it was also its literal undermining with subsidence (but also it’s vast size) leading to its demolition following huge sales in 1919 which not only released huge quantities of art and antiques but also of material.

Although there were many buyers, the most voracious – and possibly indiscriminate – was William Randolph Hearst; publishing magnate and heir to a mining fortune which reputedly gave him an annual income of $15m.  Although disliked by dealers for his lack of taste (something Joseph Duveen was particularly sensitive to), the value of his spending meant that they beat a path to his door despite his sometimes difficult behaviour.  In one case, having bought the staircase from Hamilton Palace via French & Co, he returned it to them no less than three times – but as he had spent $8m with them they were willing to be indulgent.  A network of agents throughout Europe sent him a daily stack of catalogues and flyers which he would eagerly read before dispatching orders for purchases.  These would then be shipped to his five-storey warehouse which occupied a whole New York block and was dedicated to his acquisitions and employed a staff of 30.  European purchases were mainly installed at San Simeon in California, but 50 English medieval salvages were installed at St Donat’s Castle in Wales which he bought without seeing and in which he only spent one night. In New York, he occupied five floors of a mansion block, creating a vast home which housed yet more salvage and art.  Almost inevitably, Hearst’s spending caused financial difficulties leading to a badly timed sale of many items in 1941 through the Gimbel Brothers department store in New York – though much remains even today in that warehouse which is still owned by the Hearst Corporation, who sadly refuse access to researchers (and if anyone knows someone who can get me in there I would happily make the trip to New York!). The scale of Hearst’s acquisitiveness is astounding and I’ll probably revisit it later in a separate post.

Inlaid Chamber, Sizergh Castle, Northumberland (Image: NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel)
Inlaid Chamber, Sizergh Castle, Northumberland (Image: NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel)

Sadly, like a tide coming in, which swept so many items and rooms into houses and museums in the States, so it also retreated and they also were removed, sometimes to vanish, their present whereabouts unknown.  Museums began quietly de-accessioning some rooms when they discovered that they perhaps weren’t as authentic and accurate as they had been led to believe.  Sometimes it was a positive thing; that sense of place being the greater concern leading to restitutions such as the Inlaid Chamber from Sizergh Castle (now National Trust) which was removed to the V&A Museum in 1891 and returned in 1999. One rare success for a Hearst purchase was that of the Dining Room from Gwydir Castle in Wales which was returned – having never been unpacked – in 1996 (the story is wonderfully told in ‘Castles in the Air‘ written by the then owner).

Perhaps it’s a little harsh to call the rooms lost if they have only been moved but to take a room from its original context is to lose something of the intrinsic value of it as part of an architectural whole. That said, it could also be argued that they were being rescued as, when the houses were demolished, fittings which couldn’t be sold were sometimes burnt – John Harris recalls seeing a beautiful staircase from Burwell Park in Lincolnshire being put on a bonfire in 1957.  Yet, so much of what was bought is still out there – particularly the items acquired by Hearst.  Which leads me to my own personal discovery in a bar in San Francisco; if you are ever in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, do visit ‘Jack’s Bar‘ in The Cannery where you will be standing in the former Long Gallery of Albyns, an elegant Jacobean house built c.1587.  It was demolished in 1954 but which had been gutted earlier with the gallery bought by Hearst but sold in the mid-1960s and given a new life – though not an elegant one.

Long Gallery, Albyns - now Jack's Bar, San Francisco (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Long Gallery, Albyns - now Jack's Bar, San Francisco (Image: Matthew Beckett)

So these rooms, once the centrepieces of some of our finest country houses, have been extracted and shipped around the world but particularly to America where, although they were initially often fully appreciated, now they may languish, unremarked and more worryingly unknown, vulnerable to just being dumped as though simple room decoration.  So, if you know of a Hearst room installed in a house or museum (and I’d be particularly grateful to my many American readers) then please do post a comment or email me and we’ll try and make sure that these wonderful expressions of the craftsman’s art are not forgotten and lost forever.

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If you would like to see some of the rooms and items then below is a small list of museums where these items are being exhibited (thanks to Andrew for help with the research):

New YorkMetropolitan Museum of Art

PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia Museum of Art

BostonMuseum of Fine Arts

MinneapolisInstitute of Arts

  • Tudor Room‘ – unconfirmed, possibly Higham Manor House, Suffolk

Louisville – J.B. Speed Art Museum

Amherst, Massachusetts – Mead Art Museum, Amherst College

Washington DC – Freer Gallery of Art

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Find out more – some recommended further reading