Looking out from the top of Richmond Hill in south west London, towards Windsor Castle, is to take in one of the most famous and admired views of the Thames, one that includes glimpses of at least four significant country houses. One of those, the beautiful Marble Hill House, was also the site of a ‘battlefield’; but this is a heritage one, a battle to protect one country house in particular and that spectacular view. The fight to protect the views surrounding country houses has been fought many times, but two from the modern era in particular, at Witley Park and Marble Hill House, are worth a closer look for the impact they had.
In earlier centuries, landowners had far greater power to determine what they saw from their drawing room windows. With the rise of the landscape architect, mere history was an insufficient reason for a tree, stream, building or even an entire village, to be left alone where they interfered with the sight-lines. With the new emphasis on a view terminating in some object of interest, ever grander follies, bastions, and sham ruins sprang from the ground; from a distance giving an air of ancient decay, but betrayed up close by the drying cement. Yet, ancient buildings also could be pressed into service as ‘eye-catchers’ – but only if they met with the approval of the landscaper and/or the owner.
The first ‘battle’ to be fought to protect a heritage asset which formed part of a view was between a duchess and her husband’s architect, and involved one of grandest houses in the country. Ironically, the battleground was a house built to celebrate a military victory, Blenheim Palace, but a fight almost as vicious was being waged between Sarah, 1st Duchess of Marlborough, and the architect, Sir John Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726), one of the most remarkable men of that era. Vanbrugh’s design for Blenheim was a tour-de-force of contemporary architecture; a spectacular palace which drew on the Continental Baroque style to create a house which was a set-piece of country house theatre.
The battle was fought over the ruins of the original Woodstock Manor, a house where King Henry II had romanced ‘fair Rosamund’ de Clifford, and which formed the original palace on the estate. Having suffered under bombardment in the Civil War, large parts were in ruins. However, Vanbrugh saw them not only as a historical artefact, but also as part of the grand conception of the landscaping; a precocious attempt at the Picturesque twenty-five years before William Gilpin conceived it. Vanbrugh wrote to the Duchess, explaining:
That Part of the Park which is Seen from the North Front of the New Building, has Little Variety of Objects Nor dos the Country beyond it Afford any of Vallue, It therefore Stands in Need of all the helps that can be given, which are only Two; Buildings and Plantations. These rightly dispos’d will indeed Supply all the wants of Nature in that Place: And the Most agreable Disposition is to Mix them: in which this Old Manour gives so happy an Occasion for…So that all the Building left, (which is only the Habitable part and the Chappel) might Appear in Two Risings amongst ’em, it wou’d make One of the Most agreable Objects that the Best of Landskip Painters can invent. And if on the Contrary this Building is taken away; there then remains nothing but an Irregular, Ragged, Ungovernable Hill.
His appeals were in vain and the house razed to the ground in 1720. The Duchess of Marlborough had a famously low opinion of architects and her dealings with Vanbrugh seemed to entrench this; his own case not helped by secretly making the Manor habitable again for his use but funded by the Duke’s money. She was also devoted to the Duke and intended Blenheim to be his monument in life and for all time, and so she may not have wished to see another competing memorial to love from her windows.
Little changed in the following two centuries; if a landowner wished to reshape the view of his estate from his dining room, then so he shall. Perhaps the ultimate expression of that was the occasional removal of an inconveniently sited village such as for Lord Cobham at Stowe c.1730, and Lord Harcourt at Nuneham Courtenay c.1750.
Some of the earliest effective challenges to this power only came much later from Victorian social activism which provided a platform for ideas to be confronted from the perspective of what was good for the people. A landmark in the campaign for heritage protection of landscape centred around the now-lost mansion of Witley Park in Surrey.
The man responsible for raising the ire of the locals was one Whitaker Wright. A controversial financier who made a fortune, lost a fortune, made another fortune and then bought the Witley Park estate and also the neighbouring South Park Farm estate from the Earl of Derby which included Hindhead Common and the famous Devil’s Punch Bowl. To ‘improve’ the views from the house, Wright set 600 men to work, creating lakes and parkland but more worryingly, raising or levelling hills. Without the legal frameworks we now rely on to protect the countryside and other areas of outstanding beauty for the common good, there was a real concern that Wright’s grandiose schemes would irreparably alter the local landscape.
Fortunately Wright’s other fanciful plans were his undoing; following the collapse of his companies in 1900 he was charged with fraud, found guilty, and dramatically committed suicide in court just after his sentencing hearing. With his death the estate was put up for auction, and the locals who had been concerned about his landscaping efforts banded together and bought the sections of the estate which included the Devil’s Punch Bowl and Hindhead Common at auction in 1905. The locals then donated the land to the National Trust in 1906, becoming, in the process, the first Trust property to be managed by a local committee.
The idea that heritage was a national issue for the public good strengthened as organisations such as the National Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who took up the cause. At the heart of the heritage debate was a widespread concern about the threat to heritage from development – and Marble Hill House was a prime example.
Regarded as one of the finest Palladian villas in the country, the house was built between 1724-29 for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk and former mistress of George II. On her retirement from court, Lady Suffolk created a new one, centred around her and her villa. Her friendship with the writer Alexander Pope and the ‘man of taste’ Horace Walpole (whose own house, Strawberry Hill is nearby), created a wide ranging literary, political, and artistic circle which only enhanced the reputation of that corner of the Thames. The bright-white villa was an obvious reference point for those looking down from Richmond Hill and formed ‘this Earthly Elysium‘, appreciated by those without and within.
As Richmond and Twickenham grew as one of the most fashionable places to visit, so too did the number of artists who recorded the view in paintings, engravings, books and pamphlets. Yet, the rural nature of the suburb which had so impressed those who gazed upon it became increasingly threatened as Victorian London moved west. With the death of the last owner, the widow of General Peel, in 1887, the house was increasingly viewed with avaricious eyes by developers. In 1901, a local newspaper quoted Jonathan Swift’s 1727 poem ‘Pastoral Dialogue between Richmond Lodge and Marble Hill‘:
Some South Sea broker from the City
Will purchase me, and more’s the pity,
Lay all my fine plantations waste
To fit them to his vulgar taste.
The article carried on to warn that ‘It is the demon builder who will in all probability destroy this historical desmesne with his exhibition of latter day villadom‘. That threat took a more concrete form that same year when, having been empty for ten years, it was finally sold to William Cunard (of the shipping family) who lived in nearby Orleans House (dem. 1926). His plans involved the villa becoming the centrepiece to a suburban development (oh, how depressingly familiar this all sounds!), and so trees were felled and roads laid. However, the prospect of this view being lost galvanised public opinion, causing Cunard to pause. The Architectural Review highlighted that with regards to the view:
…it is evident that the deep wedge of woodland formed by Marble Hill is its most necessary and indispensable part; that spoiled, the view tumbles to pieces, with an eyesore for its focus.
In July 1901, the Richmond Hill View Executive Committee was formed and, with continued interest from the press, kept up the pressure until in June 1902, following an Act of Parliament, the house was saved. The (slightly over-the-top) speeches on the day it opened to the public reflected a mood and an understanding of the value of heritage and why many fight to save it. As the press reports stated:
They felt that a national view was at stake; that a historic view was at stake, nay, that a view that was necessary to the whole world was at stake… It is not only the glory of London, but the glory of the British Empire; and it is one of those things which struck foreigners visiting this country with amazement and delight.
Looking beyond such giddy prose, those same core beliefs in the value and wonder of heritage can still be seen today. Following the Marble Hill victory, further action such as in the Tattershall Castle controversy in 1910 showed that it was possible to mount an effective opposition. Although not strong enough to prevent the worst excesses of the mass destruction of the country houses in the 1920s, 30s and 50s, these victories were critical in providing a cultural foundation, bolstered by wider appreciation through magazines such as Country Life, for the heritage protection movement which, despite many successes, continues to fight those battles today.