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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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).
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.
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?
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]