For followers of the country house market, for pleasure or profession, the spring launch period is always of great interest as an indicator of the how it may go for the rest of the year. In previous years, the trophy houses often started making their débuts via glossy double-page adverts in the bible of country house property, Country Life magazine, around Easter. However, this year, the chocolate eggs came and vanished with few of the expected houses appearing. And so we waited, ticking off the houses being re-launched at a slightly lower price, along with a few ‘minors’. Thankfully, the 2013 launch has finally happened, starting with The Salutation and then Tyringham Hall, and now others join the throng.
Estate agents usually say that the most common reasons for houses coming to market are ‘death, divorce, and down-sizing’ and for Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire, although the latter two reasons are there, ‘death’ has been replaced by – ‘opera’.
Kingston Lisle, according to John Julius Norwich, is an ‘…absolutely fascinating house…[which]…got itself into a muddle‘ – though this makes it all the more interesting. With a core dating from 1677, the wonderfully attractive Palladian entrance front was added around c.1720 – so far, so good. However, the later additions create a hybrid of styles which, taken individually, you may think belong to separate houses. The garden front still retains an Elizabethan look, even though it dates from between c.1820-25 when significant changes were made for the then owner, Edwin Martin-Atkins, whom Marcus Binney has also suggested might have been his own architect (which may explain a few things). The remarkable interior also dates mainly from then and has two eye-catching features. The first is as you enter, as once inside, you are in a strikingly bold corridor featuring carytids and fan vaulting, which then leads to the second feature: the dramatic flying staircase.
The current owner, Jamie Lonsdale, has made frequent use of the setting when giving his opera recitals. The house was bought by Lonsdale’s grandfather, Leo (founder of Lonsdale Investment Trust), for £26,000 in 1943, and his wife spent a lifetime and a fortune on filling it with the finest quality antiques. Set in 1,000-acres, the house has been passed through the family but now Jamie Lonsdale has decided that he would rather pursue his singing ambitions and so, for a ‘telephone figure sum‘ – approximately £35m, he would trade the life of a squire for that of a singer.
Another house where the staircase, in this case an impressive space rising through the full height of the house, is the principle interest is Sholebroke Lodge, Northamptonshire. Designed by James Morgan, a pupil of John Nash in 1807 who was later better known as a canal engineer, the exterior lacks coherence but with refurbishment it could be an elegant home – even just a coat of white paint would bring back a certain Regency air.
Fine interior decorative plasterwork is something of a lost art in modern country houses – in fact, if anyone knows of examples I’d be very interested to hear about them. However, the modern dearth also throws into sharp relief the exceptional quality and craftsmanship which previous generations lavished on their houses and which we can sometimes be seen today. For the lucky future owner of The Mynde, Herefordshire, (OIEO £15m, Knight Frank) that includes the King’s Hall, so beautiful that Pevsner described it as ‘the finest room in Herefordshire‘. The work which created it was at the behest of the owner from 1709, the 1st Duke of Chandos. A controversial figure, his own house at Cannons, Middlesex, was an exuberant display of wealth but mocked by Alexander Pope and later demolished in 1747, with the church sold and moved to Witley Court. Yet, hidden within the restrained yet imposing façade of The Mynde, this hall is a careful balance of elements to create a magnificent room. Set in a 1,180-acre estate, this is the quintessential country house and fine estate, a rare combination where so often today one fails to live up to the other.
For those seeking a more coastal air, it would be difficult to beat the spectacular waters-edge setting of Tavy Hall, Devon. With houses usually built in more protected sites inland, the location chosen nearly 900 years ago was certainly unusual. The house itself was largely rebuilt around the 12th- and 13th-century core between 1825-32, creating a larger, symmetrical front. The house is surrounded by 32-acres of gardens, including a stretch of the foreshore, with a further 20-acres of woodland, which the new owner would be strongly advised to buy to ensure a reasonable estate.
Some houses seem to be a contradiction; grand but small, spacious but manageable – and the impressive Brent Eleigh Hall, Suffolk falls into that category. The early history of the house is unclear, at its heart may be an Elizabethan E-plan building, but one which has now been wholly encased in a fine Georgian cloak. The garden front features two projecting three-bay wings but which supports between them a much grander Tuscan portico. The entrance front is a more subtle arrangement but with variety to enliven; two shallow pilasters, a 4-bay stepped-forward projection, and a rather flamboyant shield in the pediment – but of most interest is a wonderfully elegant doorcase, the work of one Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1933-34 when commissioned for some minor alterations. Inside, the most dramatic feature is the grand staircase with its oval ceiling painting and stucco surround.
The house is offered at £3m with 39-acres but the photos show that this is a house which probably needs a substantial amount spent (probably at least £500k-£1m) to bring it to a modern standard. That said, I hope the new owners tread lightly in their restoration; the temptation will be to scrub it to a high-shine but in doing so it may lose something of that patina of character that has been built up over time. Hotel chic is fine in a hotel but one hopes for a more human touch in the end result for this wonderfully attractive house.
Still, for me, the enduring allure of a Classical house, with it’s beguiling symmetry, is where I would head with my as-yet-elusive lottery win. With those criteria, at the moment, I would be straight off to Painswick in Gloucestershire to rescue the sadly neglected Grade-II* Brownshill Court (£2m with 18-acres). Completed c.1760, the brochure photos now show in clear detail the scale of the work involved in bringing this gem back to life, with masonry missing, degraded stonework and a lifeless interior. Yet, underneath that is clearly the original, very fine house, designed by Anthony Keck (who was also responsible for Highgrove), struggling to shake off its recent mistreatment. With deep pockets, architectural sensitivity and vision, Brownshill Court could again stand as one of the finest houses in the Cotswolds.
Estate agents and the specialist buying agencies will be hoping that 2013 continues the ascent from the doldrums of 2008/9 (though a surprising number of houses are launched and also fail to sell before being quietly withdrawn). For country house watchers, the spring launch again shows what fine and varied houses are available, tucked away in quiet valleys and parks, sometimes little known even to those living closest – but what a delight to see them when they do appear. Who knows what the rest of the year might bring?
For a listing of the top 100 homes for sale, do check out the BISH100 on the British and Irish Stately Homes blog
Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire
- Listing description: ‘Kingston Lisle‘ [British Listed Buildings]
- Sale particulars: ‘Kingston Lisle‘ [Strutt & Parker] – or with Knight Frank
Other sales particulars: