‘Floats like a butterfly’: the flights of the remarkable butterfly houses; Happisburgh Manor for sale

Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk (Image: The Beautiful House Company)
Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk (Image: The Beautiful House Company)

The design of country houses has been influenced by many things; politics, religion, the Greeks, the Romans, India, to name a few – but it’s rare for an insect to do so.  Yet for hundreds of years, the humble butterfly has inspired some remarkable houses, and for one lucky buyer, there is currently the rare chance to purchase Happisburgh Manor, one of the best of the Arts & Crafts versions of the ‘butterfly’ house.

Architects have long been inspired by nature, particularly in the decoration of the interiors.  Yet it would always be a greater challenge for the more organic forms to be accommodated by the hard-edges of brick and stone – but never underestimate the inventiveness of architects.  Although often thought of as a 19th-century/Arts & Crafts plan, the ‘butterfly’ actually has a single precedent dating from 1612-20.

Westwood Park, Worcestershire (Image: Knight Frank)
Westwood Park, Worcestershire (Image: Knight Frank)

The definition of a butterfly plan house is ‘…where two or four wings of a house are constructed at an angle to the core, usually at approximately 45 degrees to the wall of the core building.‘.  The house which was the first manifestation of this plan is Westwood Park, Worcestershire, which, it is thought, was originally built as a conventional rectangular, three-storey hunting lodge. Begun in 1612, and although probably not originally intended, sometime before 1620 four full-height wings were added at 45 degrees, creating the distinctive shape we now know.  The reason for this innovative design is lost but is quite likely to be a response to the elevated location.  The butterfly plan is also known as the double-suntrap as it increases the number of rooms which benefit from their orientation towards the sun  and increases the number with views – hence its popularity with any number of seaside hotels.

The Chesters, Northumberland (Image: The Journal)
The Chesters, Northumberland (Image: The Journal) – link to news story about when it was put up for sale in 2009

Despite these advantages, the butterfly wasn’t to make another appearance for nearly three centuries until it appeared in Northumberland in 1891. The butterfly in this case was a house called The Chesters, which had originally been built in 1771 but which the leading Victorian architect Richard Norman Shaw had been commissioned to dramatically enlarge. Shaw’s scheme was bold and grand, adding three wings to create the butterfly (the service quarters obstruct the construction of the fourth ‘wing’), and linking the two southern arms with a grand colonnade – although Shaw strangely omitted to include many windows on the sunniest aspect.

The Chesters was the first of a series of these houses which appeared over the next two decades as an idea explored by a small group of architects.  Where the butterfly plan found its best expression was in the hands of the Arts & Crafts movement whose love of natural forms perhaps gave them a greater sensitivity to the opportunities it offered – either in the country or an urban setting (see ‘Baillie-Scott Corner‘ in Hampstead – Google streetview).

The next appearance of a butterfly plan in the countryside was initially in imagination only and shown in a drawing by Edward Schroeder Prior (b.1857 – d.1932) which was exhibited at the 1895 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.  Prior had started his career in 1874, articled to Norman Shaw, which had a profound influence on the young architect as the older architect’s willingness to experiment with forms and materials probably helped give Prior the courage to follow his own determined views.  Prior became a leading light of the Arts & Crafts movement having had Philip Webb (regarded as one of the founding fathers of Arts & Crafts) as a mentor, as well as working with William Letherby, another leading thinker and friend of William Morris.

Drawing for The Barn, Exmouth, Devon by E.S. Prior - 1895 (Image: RIBA)
Drawing for The Barn, Exmouth, Devon by E.S. Prior – 1895 (Image: RIBA)

The drawing shown at the Royal Academy shares many similarities with the design Prior produced for a house known as The Barn, which was built in Exmouth, Devon in 1896-7.  The house was relatively modest in scale, and not quite a complete butterfly, but it demonstrated Prior’s commitment to the use of vernacular materials with the walls built of local sandstone and with stones from the beach and rivers embedded in the concrete.  One aspect of the butterfly plan is its ability to capture the sun and the break in the wings at the centre allows light to flood into the core of the house.  Sadly, the commitment to local materials included the use of traditional Devon thatch which, although treated to be incombustible, caught fire and gutted the house in 1906.  Although the house was rebuilt using the original walls, the interiors are not Prior’s.

Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk (Image: g7bmp via flickr)
Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk (Image: g7bmp via flickr)

The first “fully worked” four-wing butterfly was Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk, designed by  Detmar Blow in 1900.  Commissioned by the prominent local Cator family, the architectural writer Lawrence Weaver said, in 1909, that ‘[Blow] rightly determined that it should be characteristic of the locality, and he has succeeded so well that, …[if] any section were mixed up among a set depicting the village, it might be taken as belonging to any of the old houses nearby‘.  Interestingly, Blow credits inspiration for the design, not to Prior or Norman Shaw but to his friend, and also noted architect, Ernest Gimson who ‘…sent the little butterfly device on a postcard‘.  There is considerable ingenuity in the design and execution of the house, partially due to the tight £4,000 budget but also due to the local environment, with its blustery winds, sandy soil, and paucity of materials.  To create a house as brilliant as Happisburgh truly demonstrates the skill of an architect.

Papillon Hall, Leicestershire - demolished 1950 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Papillon Hall, Leicestershire – demolished 1950 (Image: Lost Heritage)

The next house was by the most famous of the architects of that period, Edwin Lutyens. In 1902, Lutyens was commissioned by Fred Bellville to remodel an existing house in Leicestershire called Papillon Hall, named after the original Huegenot family. Conveniently, ‘papillon’ is the French for ‘butterfly’ and Lutyens would have been aware of the architectural innovations going on elsewhere and obviously felt he would try his hand at this novel plan.  One of the challenges of the butterfly is that by placing the main rooms at angles this creates awkward spaces. However, Lutyens, as inventively as the other architects, used these spaces for staircases, and his particular innovation was to include the Basin Court as a single storey curved connection between the two ends of wings. As with The Barn, Papillon Hall was not to last long, being demolished in 1950 with only sparse rubble showing where was once one of Lutyens most interesting commissions. (Certainly not to be confused with this poor, modern ‘re-creation’ in Warwickshire which uses a very similar name!).

Voewood, Norfolk (Image: Voewood)
Voewood, Norfolk (Image: Voewood)

E.S. Prior’s next commission, Voewood, Norfolk (also known as Home Place and Holt Place) was perhaps his most successful use of the design.  Built between 1903-05 for the Rev. Percy Lloyd, this was a radical house; pulling together a fully developed butterfly plan, hyper-local materials, and great craftsmanship.  These together not only pushed the build cost from £12,000 to £60,000 but also created what Pevsner described as ‘a most violently idiosyncratic house‘; rich in local texture provided by a varied palate of materials mainly dug from the ground on which it stands.  The house unfortunately was tenanted almost as soon as it was built (apparently Lloyd’s wife didn’t like it!) before becoming a boys school from 1906-1914/15 and then a series of care and convalescence homes until it was bought around 10 years ago by rare book dealer Simon Finch who was exactly the right character to sensitively restore the house and make it a home again (though it can be rented).

Kelling Hall, Norfolk (Image: Albanpix via Daily Telegraph)
Kelling Hall, Norfolk (Image: Albanpix via Daily Telegraph)

The only other notable house of this plan to be built in this period, Kelling Hall, also appeared in Holt, literally just down the road from Voewood. Kelling truly was a country seat for an industrialist as the man who commissioned it was Henry Deterding, one of the founders of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company (which later became Shell). Deterding had seen and liked Voewood but commissioned another Arts & Crafts architect, Edward Maufe, to create a larger version of his neighbour.  The house certainly takes the concept of the butterfly too a larger scale but there’s no doubting the craft and innovation involved in creating one of the most interesting houses to lie at the centre of an estate. Proving its charm, the house was sold by Deterding’s grandson in 2008, along with its 1,600-acre estate, for £25m.

For all its charms and advantages, the butterfly house only enjoyed a relatively brief period of popularity.  By World War I, the relatively niche appeal of Arts & Crafts (at the time) and, afterwards, a post-war nation less tolerant of such quirky designs and more interested in the Modern, meant that architects moved away from suggesting it and instead largely headed back to the comfort of the classical or the more radical art deco, putting the butterfly into hibernation.

'Piddle' House, Hampshire - official name unknown (Image: Selway Joyce)
‘Piddle’ House, Hampshire – official name unknown (Image: Selway Joyce)

However, no good architectural idea is ever completely forgotten.  The most recent manifestation is Robert Adam’s response to the demanding requirements of a client who wished to maximise the views from a riverside site.  The architect’s website is sparse on details of both its name, the year that it was built or the exact location beyond saying it was near the River Piddle, Dorset, so we’ll call it ‘Piddle’ House, actually it’s called Hyde House (thanks Stephen – see comments), and it seems to have been built within the last 15 years.  Interestingly, it appears to blend elements of the Picturesque, with varied forms and heights whilst still adhering to the butterfly shape. Again, perhaps this shows the adaptability of this innovative plan.

The butterfly plan is complex and requires great skill to be manipulated correctly to achieve the correct balance internally and in the use of materials, which probably explains why it was never broadly adopted.  Short of commissioning your own, the chance to own a true ‘butterfly plan’ house is certainly a rare one, especially when the architect was one of the leading exponents of the idea who also ensured that the build quality was exemplary.  Happisburgh Manor has been for sale for several months and the price was recently cut from £975,000 to offers over £800,000.  This may reflect market weakness but also that, although freehold, Happisburgh is in danger from coastal erosion which may see the house become a beach-hut within the next century (but maybe longer, who knows!).  This would be a tragic end for this rare and special house and one can only hope that the next owners fully appreciate the beauty of their home and perhaps can find some way to save it.  And if the next owners ever read this, please can I visit before it does go?

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Property details: ‘Happisburgh Manor‘ [Strutt & Parker]

Brochure: ‘Happisburgh Manor‘ [PDF, Strutt & Parker]

Listing description: ‘Happisburgh Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

News story – Westwood Park: ‘My £1.2m taste of Tudor living: Country house apartment with 3,000sq ft – and most is in the drawing room‘ [Daily Mail – 2009]

Article on Simon Finch and Voewood: Lifestyle – for House & Garden [Dominic Bradbury]

Article: ‘Arts and Crafts houses stand the test of time‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Other examples:

A country house at risk of demolition: Winstanley Hall – and how you can help save it

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

That the headline above is even possible today is shocking; that it almost came with the acquiescence of English Heritage is even worse.  The wealth of Britain allowed the creation of thousands of wonderful country houses; stores of learning, art, literature, music and much more.  Yet hundreds have been lost, the contents scattered, the fixtures and fittings sold for a fraction of their worth and the history and visual value of these beautiful buildings lost to the demolisher’s pickaxe.  Many a country house has been restored from a serious state of dereliction, so for demolition to even be proposed is to be deplored. Winstanley Hall, near Wigan, has long been a cause for concern but a new campaign, run by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, hopes to quickly raise the funds needed to rescue this fascinating house.

The Country Seat blog is an off-shoot of my earlier interest and research into the lost country houses of England.  Initially sparked by the ruins of Guys Cliffe House in Warwickshire, I have been building on the remarkable work of Peter Reid, John Harris and Marcus Binney who produced an initial list of nearly 1,200 houses which had been lost since 1800.  This list formed the backbone of the ground-breaking 1974 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which dramatically brought home the shock that so much of our architectural heritage had been lost already and the then legal constraints were insufficient to stop it continuing. My list now totals over 1,800 houses which have been lost since 1800 – every county has been affected and each has their own sad roll-call of losses.

Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Uppark House, Sussex - on fire, 30 August 1989 (Image: National Trust)
Result of a bad workman and his tools: Uppark House, Sussex – on fire, 30 August 1989 (Image: National Trust)

Houses can be lost for a number of reasons but two of the main causes are fire and finances. Country houses are unfortunately particularly susceptible to fire; the wooden construction, the flammable contents, the open fires and the restoration work which often brings careless workmen with their blowtorches.  Beyond mitigating the risk, preventing these devastating blazes has always been a challenge.  Yet, diminishing or insufficient finances are equally pernicious but harder to combat as the decay can quietly take place over generations, with the realisation of the seriousness only coming too late.

Many houses were traditionally supported by their estates but the agricultural crisis of the 1880s led to a reduction in income which was largely staved off through the sale of contents, until, in the early 20th century, this was no longer sufficient and the houses themselves were demolished – at a stroke removing the running costs and raising funds through the sale of the materials.  This continued through that century, spiking in the 1920-30s and again in the 1950s, reaching a nadir in 1955 when a significant house was being demolished every five days.  This fascinating video below shows rare footage of a country house in Kent, Pickhurst Manor, as it was destroyed in the 1930s:

The impact of the ‘The Destruction of the Country House‘ exhibition cannot be over-stated in heritage terms. It can be said to have jump-started the heritage movement, creating the current mass interest in country houses which can still be seen today in the popularity of the National Trust and the many individual owners who open their houses to the public. It also led to the formation of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has since then been one of the countries most effective campaigning charities; saving not just country houses, but working to find viable uses for a broad range of historic buildings including factories, churches, offices, and, most recently, terraced housing threatened by the wasteful and pointless Pathfinder Scheme. In the interests of transparency: I am involved with SAVE as a member of the Committee which is consulted about current cases, but this post was not written at their request and the views expressed are my own.

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire - print
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire – print showing the original Elizabethan house

Which brings us to the Grade-II* Winstanley Hall. One of only three surviving Tudor buildings in that borough, the house was built shortly after James Bankes, a London goldsmith, bought the estate in 1595.  The core of the Elizabethan house, with its two projecting wings, can still be seen on the garden front of the house, thought the original gables were replaced by parapets during alterations designed by Lewis Wyatt in 1818-19.  It was Wyatt who created the new entrance tower to the west with its Ionic portico and his work can still be seen inside with some surviving plasterwork and the fine cantilevered staircase.  What makes Winstanley particularly interesting is that it contains layers of work but with each grafted onto the last making the house quite ‘readable’.  A new wing to the south-west was added in 1780, with further changes, marked by keystones, in 1843 and 1889.

The stable court is especially fascinating architecturally as it contains a range of different styles, chosen at the whim of the owner; Meyrick Bankes II.  This delightfully eccentric but still functional range of buildings reflect his life as a well travelled, well educated man and includes Norman, Tudor, and Baroque motifs (and even his own likeness) in the masonry which creates a varied design which adds to the charm of the setting.  The visual interest of the courtyard, combined with the house, really does set Winstanley apart as many houses have lost one or the other of these core elements which make up an estate.

The house started declining in the 1930s and was last occupied in the early 1980s, with the parkland being open-cast mined during the post-war period and later the M6 being built along the edge of the parkland.  However, the parkland has now been restored and the road, which is some distance to the west of the house, is hidden in a cutting and by banks of trees, resulting in the Winstanley estate forming a precious rural space on the edge of Wigan, still approached from the east along a long, secluded drive which dips in between romantically landscaped woodland.

When the family sold up, the house and 10-acres were bought by a local developer who submitted a scheme which proposed enabling development, even though, as Green Belt land, it was unlikely to succeed.  With the failure of this scheme, the house remained unused, sliding further into dereliction to the point where another scheme was suggested which would have involved the conversion of the buildings in the courtyard but would have resulted in the demolition of the main house – and it’s this shocking scheme which English Heritage almost approved in 2011 (though EH, to be fair, also cannot be praised highly enough for their saving of Danson House and Apethorpe Hall – which is still for sale, by the way).

Proposed restoration of Winstanley Hall (Image: Huw Thomas / SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Proposed restoration of Winstanley Hall (Image: Huw Thomas / SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

SAVE stepped in and prevented the demolition and has been working with leading consultants to draw up plans for emergency repairs but also to find a long-term, sustainable solution which not only preserves the house through re-use but also brings the other buildings in the complex to life.  The leading country house conversion architect Kit Martin along with the Morton Partnership, a leading firm of heritage surveyors, have been working with Roger Tempest of Broughton Hall (who has a track record of creating business space in estate buildings), in conjunction with the Landmark Trust, and the Heritage Trust for the North West, who have been consulted about creating heritage training skills opportunities.  The overall aim is to create a community which is not just residential but also hosts businesses and events, with public access via an exhibition space and café.

How you can help: English Heritage have agreed a major grant of £217,000 for the emergency works but SAVE urgently needs to raise a £50,000 contribution.  Any donation, large or small, will help rescue this wonderful house and estate and help prevent the loss of yet more of our heritage.  Since 1974 no house of this size or quality has been lost, so, if you can, please do help.

Ways to donate:

  • Online via the SAVE website
  • Phone: donate £3 or £5 by texting RESTORE3 (for £3) or RESTORE5 (for £5) to 70500. (This will cost £3 or £5 plus your standard message rate and 100% of your donation will go to SAVE Britain’s Heritage.)
  • Cheque: made payable to ‘SAVE Britain’s Heritage’ and sent to SAVE Britain’s Heritage, 70 Cowcross Street, London, EC1M 6EJ.

Thank you!

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Full SAVE campaign brochure: ‘Help us Save Winstanley Hall‘ [PDF – SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

Photos of the house in better days ‘Winstanley Hall: gallery‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

A very unofficial tour: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [YouTube]

A view of the interior: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [WiganWorld]

Aerial view of the house and outbuildings: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [Bing]

Listing description: ‘Winstanley Hall