As with all things, down-sizing is a relative term. For those families in country houses, the process can take generations but still at each stage involving houses which by turns are grand, graceful and beautiful. The various branches of the de Lisle family have long had a succession of impressive houses, but as with many families, their home has varied as fortunes rose and declined or tastes changed. The news that their current seat, Quenby Hall in Leicestershire, is for sale, opens up another chapter in the family’s choice of home – a key question being; where will they end up next?
The de Lisle family of Leicestershire were originally the Phillipps from London but one Sir Ambrose Phillipps had acquired a sufficient fortune through his legal practice and place at court that, in 1684, he bought the Garendon estate near Loughborough for £28,000 (approx. £3.5m) and also the neighbouring one of Grace Dieu for good measure. It was Ambrose’s grandson, another Ambrose, who inherited the estate in 1729 and, more importantly, the wealth to embark on a Grand Tour of France and Italy and then, on his return, to create a Classical landscape at home, inspired by what he had seen.
The rebuilding of Garendon Hall according to Palladian principles was to be the final part of a grand plan which had seen Ambrose build an Obelisk, a Temple of Venus and a Triumphal Arch (all remain and are listed). Sadly though, Ambrose died in November 1737, aged just 30. It fell to his brother Samuel to successfully complete the vision of an elegant Classical house – though sadly it was not to last. As Samuel died without children, the house and estate were inherited by a cousin, Thomas March, who adopted the name Phillipps, who then married Susan de Lisles and their son, Charles, adopted the de Lisle crest and arms.
Charles died in 1862, and his son, another Ambrose, decided to adopt all the previous family names, becoming the impressively named Ambrose Charles Lisle March Phillipps de Lisle. He was also an early convert to Catholicism, switching when aged just 16 in 1825, which later led him to ask the leading Gothic architect E.W. Pugin, who had taken over from his famous architect father (and zealous Catholic), A.W.N. Pugin, to create a new house. Pugin usually remodelled or adapted houses so this commission was a blank slate and for which he created his ‘ideal’ design for a Gothic house. Unfortunately, the potentially generous budget turned out not to be available so what might have been one of the most interesting of the younger Pugin’s houses remained an aspiration on paper.
Instead, Ambrose commissioned a remodelling and enlargement of the existing house. Unfortunately, the marriage of Palladian and semi-Gothic was not successful; the new mansard roof unbalancing the proportions of the house (Pevsner described it as “…really rather horrible…”). On Ambrose’s death in 1883, his son and heir, Everard March Phillipps de Lisle, inherited a rather difficult financial situation and so embarked on the first de Lisle down-sizing, moving the family to their neighbouring estate, Grace Dieu in 1885, into the manor house built for his father in 1833-34 to designs by William Railton (who later also designed Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square).
The family were fortunate in that although E.W. Pugin’s grand plans for the main house hadn’t come to fruition, Grace Dieu Manor had been updated and was first altered, in 1837, and then enlarged, in 1847, by his father, A.W.N. Pugin – adding a wing and enlarging the chapel (Apparently the existing rood screen was so overwhelmingly to the elder Pugin’s taste that he fell into Phillipp’s arms on first seeing it!) . Pevsner described the house as ‘…fairly symmetrical with large, not at all picturesque, transomed windows with arched lights.‘. Grace Dieu Manor was to be the centre for a revival of the Catholic faith in England, with the Phillipp’s funding a new monastery and charitable school, and in Pugin they found a willing and ideologically agreeable architect. Yet, whether the house was really all that they would hoped it would be is debatable but with so much of Phillipp’s wealth and income tied up in his charitable and religious mission it was unlikely that Pugin would ever have had the chance to build them an entirely new house which truly expressed his vision of ‘true’ architecture.
A revival of the family fortunes in 1907 meant the de Lisles’ could up-size, once again moving back into Garendon Hall with the local paper reporting that up to 6,000 locals came to welcome them back after their ‘exile’. However, the two World Wars were to take a heavy toll on the house; forced to move out in both wars, the house became a training camp with the attendant neglect of basic maintenance and deliberate damage by the troops. Lt.-Col. Everard March Phillipps de Lisle died in 1947, and the estate passed to Ambrose Paul Jordan March Phillips de Lisle who faced the difficult choice as to whether to go back to Garendon. With the damage which needed to be repaired, the lack of sufficient compensation from the government, the restrictions on materials, and the death duties in 1963 from the death of the latest Ambrose, it was decided that the family would remain at Grace Dieu; a decision which was probably the death knell of Garendon. Uninhabited and uninhabitable, it became a millstone, and with the proposed M1 motorway to cut through the park, in 1964 it became one of the many demolished country houses.
In 1972, the de Lisles down-sized again; selling Grace Dieu to the Catholic Preparatory School which had occupied it for several years and buying the beautiful Quenby Hall. Described by Pevsner as ‘…the most important house in the Elizabethan-Jacobean style in the county.’ Though often misquoted without the stylistic qualifier, it does warrant a special mention as the exterior is almost completely unchanged from when it was completed for the Ashby family in 1621 and who owned it until 1904. The design of the house places it firmly with others starting in 1570s, such as Burton Agnes, Littlecote House, and Montacute, which were principally outward-looking, and where the main elevations were symmetrical and the arrangement of windows gave few, if any, clues as to the internal arrangement of rooms. The interior is also an equal to the exterior with fine rooms which feature remarkable panelling and some impressive fireplaces.
So another chapter in the architectural history of the de Lisle family comes to a close, especially as a house this good will almost certainly sell quickly. It’s not known why they are selling but their famous Stilton dairy being put into administration with debts of £250,000 can’t have helped. Currently being marketed at offers in excess of £12m for the house plus the entire 1,100-acre estate, the house with 938-acres is also available for offers of over £10m. The family have a good record of looking after the houses they own so one hopes they can find somewhere suitable for their next country seat.
Also of interest; an article from 2003 on how women are increasing taking on the management of country estates with their husbands, featuring Aubyn de Lisle: ‘Queen of the Castle‘ [Daily Telegraph]