Purchasing the picturesque: Hampton Court and Lasborough Park for sale

Hampton Court, Herefordshire - £12m, 935-acres (Image: Knight Frank)
Hampton Court, Herefordshire – £12m, 935-acres (Image: Knight Frank)

What is beauty? Though it is often in the eye of the beholder, some have attempted to define just what it is. In architecture, this can be seen in the development of the Picturesque ideal which sought to combine natural and man-made elements to compose a vision which would delight the eye and uplift the soul. Hampton Court in Herefordshire, and another house launched this week, Lasborough Park in Gloucestershire, can both be considered part of the Picturesque movement, even though the former took shape before the theory of the sublime and beautiful was brought to life and the latter was built just before the revival took hold.

'Landscape with Narcissus and Echo' - Claude Lorrain, 1644 (Image: National Gallery)
‘Landscape with Narcissus and Echo’ – Claude Lorrain, 1644 (Image: National Gallery)

The origin of the Picturesque movement can, in part, be found in the philosophical writings of a much under-rated figure of the 17th-century, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury.  To him, nature ought to be imperfect and that, in turn, we ought to celebrate the untamed trees and serpentine rivers, those dark glades and tumbling crags. Unsurprisingly, the Earl found that the early Italian landscape paintings by Nicolas Poussin, Gaspard DughetClaude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, reflected best this vision of a wilder natural world.  Landscapes had been unfashionable when Lord Shaftesbury first arrived in Italy in 1686, but by the turn of the century, they were in high demand amongst the grand tourists who carried these canvases back to the UK and into the popular taste of the nation.  These views married with Vanbrugh‘s early call in 1705 for a more natural approach to landscaping at Blenheim Palace, but found its true champion in William Kent in the 1730s, especially in his work at Rousham, Claremont and Stowe. The ideas were then developed further in 1757 in Edmund Burke’s ‘The Origin of our Ideas about the Sublime and the Beautiful‘ which, in its musing on aesthetics, distinguished between the latter, which was all about smooth lines and bold colours, whereas the former is about an awesome beauty on an almost fearful scale.

The death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783 created a vacuum which led to the revival of the debate as to the most tasteful approach to landscaping.  The arguments were largely between Humphry Repton (who defended Brown’s ‘contrived natural’ approach of smooth curved borders and sweeping lawns which ran right up to the house) versus Sir Uvedale Price, 1st Baronet (b.1747 – d.1829), author of the ‘Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared with the Sublime and The Beautiful’ (1794), who, along with Richard Payne Knight, sought to create a more ‘robustly natural’ approach, where blasted tree stumps and ruins were also important.  This mirrored the first wave of the Picturesque to some extent, but this later flourish created a new passion to rediscover the beauty of the same painters whom Lord Shaftesbury had admired decades earlier.  Although neither Price or Knight worked on any gardens other than their own, their ideas were to have a dramatic impact on the settings of country houses, which were now considered as part of the overall composition rather than separate from it; formal gardens were swept away and snaking carriage drives now swept visitors through glades and past vistas before their arrival.

Detail from 'The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire' by Leonard Knyff, c1699 (Image: Wikimedia)
Detail from ‘The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire’ by Leonard Knyff, c1699 (Image: Wikimedia)

The grand formalism of the gardens of Hampton Court c1699 (above) contrasted with the asymmetrical grouping of the house. ‘The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire‘ by Leonard Knyff, shows how the grounds were a vision of control; of formal avenues and canals (see also the companion North prospect view). The house was, at this time, owned by the Coningsby family, having been bought by Sir Humphrey Coningsby in 1510 from a fellow courtier. His son became the first Earl of Coningsby and it remained in their family for 300 years.  Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), who famously made his fortune from bringing the industrial revolution to the cotton industry, bought the house and 6,220-acres in 1810 for £226,325 (approx. £6.2m). His son, also Richard (1755-1843), made another fortune, before inheriting from his father in 1792, and invested in significant country houses, one for each of his five sons. However, the most significant changes came under his (fourth) son, John, who decided that ‘…of all the situations I know, there is none which suits my taste so well as Hampton Court‘ (funny that). After John’s marriage, the requirements of a growing family persuaded his father that the house needed to be enlarged.

The man chosen to design the work was Charles Hanbury-Tracy, a gentleman architect who had built his own home, Toddington Manor, between 1819-40, in his favoured ‘gothic collegiate’ style at a cost of £150,000 .  Though the style was sympathetic to Hampton Court, the relationship between architect and client became difficult. Another architect, John Atkinson, had pleaded with Hanbury-Tracy not to ‘make Hampton Court a cell to the Abbey of Toddington‘ but his determined views were at odds with Arkwright’s wife, who fell out with Hanbury-Tracy over the nursery arrangements, which led to nearly a decade of alterations and disagreements, especially as the costs mounted to eventually total over £30,000. John certainly preferred working with Joseph Paxton, who created the new conservatory, which was added in 1845-46. That said, the end result is one which successfully married old and new, creating a successful interpretation of domestic gothic and the picturesque.

Lasborough Park, Gloucestershire - £12m, 55-acres (Image: Savills)
Lasborough Park, Gloucestershire – £12m, 55-acres (Image: Savills)

The Picturesque was a constant presence throughout the 18th-century but enjoyed a revival of interest in the 1790s and Lasborough Park represented the style just at the cusp of this.  Built in 1794 for Edmund Estcourt, his architect was James Wyatt, who enjoyed a rare skill in being able to master a number of different architectural styles – something which led later to his being unjustifiably underrated.  At Lasborough, Wyatt provided a continuation of the theme which John Martin Robinson in his book on the architect called a ‘toy-fort model‘; that is, a symmetrical house with battlements and corner turrets.  Wyatt had been using this pattern when working on various schemes for remodelling the interiors of Slane Castle since 1773 but it was only over ten years later that he was able to remodel the exterior, taking an irregular L-shape and bringing symmetry by adding matching towers.

Slane Castle, Co. Meath (Image: Slane Castle)
Slane Castle, Co. Meath (Image: Slane Castle)

Wyatt’s design developed the tradition of the castellated residence; houses which had been either adapted from an older fortification or made to look like they might have done. Six decades before Wyatts’ work at Slane Castle, earlier versions, such as Howth Castle, Co. Dublin, which was altered significantly in 1738, are evidence that the style was already favoured and also incorporated an effort to create symmetry with the original keep on the left, mirrored in a new tower on the right.

The Picturesque style was popular in Ireland but initially as an import of the Protestant aristocracy and was viewed by some as an attempt to import a ‘little England’, a form of architectural and landscape colonialism. However, Ireland was particularly suited to the forms of the Picturesque which often worked in harmony with its natural beauty to form a unified creation which led the eye of the visitor from the grounds near the house, towards the middle distance, and then out to the wider landscape – much as a painter would structure their picture.

Hampton Court from south west (Image: Knight Frank)
Hampton Court from south west (Image: Knight Frank)

Hampton Court is one of the most important and impressive country houses to come to the market this year.  As part of our heritage, it embodies architectural developments which brought the country house from fortification to domestication, with a landscape which started with formal terraces but finished with flowing lawns.  The genesis of the more structured medieval revival form of Lasborough Park can be seen in the core of Hampton Court and in each of the subsequent alterations.  Both houses are valuable pieces of the nation’s architectural record and deserve owners who will appreciate them and hopefully both will remain as single family homes, enjoyed as they have for generations, for their Picturesque beauty.

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For a more in-depth history of the Arkwrights and their time at Hampton Court, I recommend: ‘Champagne & Shambles – The Arkwrights and the Country House in Crisis‘ by Catherine Beale [Amazon]

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The finest SAVE, now for sale: Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

The wholesale destruction of UK country houses in the 1930s and 1950s was undoubtedly a tragic waste; not only of materials but also the embodied beauty and history of the hundreds of houses lost. Barlaston Hall, recently launched on the market for sale, and which was so valiantly fought for by SAVE Britain’s Heritage who famously bought it for £1, provides a case study which shows what might have been possible if circumstances had been different. How many more of our country houses might have survived to still be found nestled at the end of a tree-lined drive?

Collapse of Hague Hall, Yorkshire, due to mining subsidence, 1910 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Collapse of Hague Hall, Yorkshire, due to mining subsidence, 1910 (Image: Lost Heritage)

The plight of the country house in the 20th-century struck at both the large and the small, the grand and the intimate.  A financial crisis could, in a generation, take a family from a secure status enjoying thousands of acres to one of ruin and a forced retreat from the family seat.  For some houses the demise was swift – for sale intact one year but the following year could see sales of contents, then fixtures and fittings, and finally the materials. The alternative fate for a number of houses was a lingering demise – abandoned, at risk from thieves and the weather, to an increasingly hostile environment with threats coming from every angle, even from below.

The elegant Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire was one house which fell firmly into the latter category. A remarkable house, it represented an important development of the Palladian tradition; the moment it moved from ‘copying’ to evolving.  The house was built c.1756-58 for Thomas Mills, a local lawyer, with the design convincingly attributed to Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714-1788).

Architecture was not his first choice of career. Taylor was the son of a master mason and sculptor, also called Robert, who was successful enough to build a villa in Woodford, Essex, but who was also rather profligate.  The father managed to get his son apprenticed to the sculptor Henry Cheere and on completing his time, found his father had just enough to send him on to Rome to study.  Whilst there, his father died so he came back to find his inheritance was no more than debts, but friends enabled him to set up as a sculptor and by 1744 he was sufficiently accomplished to be commissioned by Parliament and to carve the pediment of the Mansion House in the City of London.  It became clear that he paled in the shadow of his contemporaries – Roubiliac, Rysbrack and Scheemakers – so at the age of 40 he turned to architecture.

Outside influences often act as catalysts for development. In the same way that Blenheim Palace was enriched by Vanbrugh‘s theatrical experience, so Taylor had the advantage of his earlier, if unsuccessful, sculptural career which brought a more developed sense of shape, form, and movement to his architecture.  Colvin praises him as an architect of ‘considerable originality‘ and that ‘his villas…represented a new departure in country-house architecture‘. What Taylor provided was an evolution of the strict Palladian designs of the previous generation, marrying them to a more tolerant approach that allowed the interiors to be more Rococo, with decorative plasterwork and patterns, drawing on his knowledge of the original sources in Italy. Taylor created wonderfully elegant villas for his clientèle of bankers and merchants, who needed smaller houses for entertaining rather than seats for a rural family empire.

Braxted Park, Essex - note the octagonal window frames (Image: Braxted Park)
Braxted Park, Essex – note the octagonal window frames (Image: Braxted Park)

Although Taylor undoubtedly designed many buildings, he seems to have almost conspired to make it impossible to attribute them as he left no record of his practice and also apparently never signed his drawings.  There are, therefore, large gaps in both his chronological and stylistic history but starting with his first country house, Braxted Park, Essex in 1753-6, it is clear that his skill and legendary capacity for hard graft meant a sizeable output.

Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stephen Richards via Geograph)
Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stephen Richards via Geograph)

Of particular note, in relation to Barlaston Hall, is Taylor’s design for Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire, in 1755. Part of a group of second-generation Palladians – along with Flitcroft, Keene, Paine, Ware, and Wright – Taylor saw Palladio as an inspiration but was not a slavish disciple.  The core principles relating to proportion and preserving a necessary elegance were respected but it was in the interpretation that they introduced variety.  At Harleyford, Taylor took a more vernacular style to the idea of the Villa Rotonda (a standalone villa with four equal fronts, allied with its landscape) but also combined with a sculptors appreciation that it should be attractive from all angles.

Asgill House, Richmond, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Asgill House, Richmond, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Built between 1756-58, the layout and style of Barlaston Hall clearly shows the kinship with Harleyford. The elegant simplicity of the ground floor layout with the four principal rooms pushing out into the arms of the cross with a double-height central hall clearly can be derived from the Villa Rotonda but rotated on the axis to create more interior space, as opposed to the Rotonda’s open loggias.  One of the most distinctive features is the pleasing ‘chinese’-style woodwork, with octagonal window tracery on the exterior, a pattern mirrored in the library in the bookcase doors.  For one so early in his career, Taylor was showing remarkable invention, elegance and practicality, all of which served to launch his practice, which continued for 35 years. After Barlaston, further commissions such as Asgill House (1761-64) on the riverside at Richmond, Surrey, for his friend Sir Charles Asgill, also helped establish Taylor’s reputation.

Not that any of this innovation and elegance mattered to the Wedgwood company who applied twice in the early 1980s to demolish Barlaston Hall.  The house and estate had been bought by the famous pottery firm in 1937 as part of a scheme to create a new factory and model village for their workers.  These were built some distance away but the now grade-I listed house was badly neglected with serious water damage causing it to become increasingly derelict, with ceilings and the staircase collapsing, and the structure affected by subsidence caused by coal-mining.  The house also sat across a geological fault and future mining plans risked the whole area sinking by about 40 feet.  Clearly, this was a house very much at risk.

Entrance front, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Entrance front, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

In 1981, the second application to demolish was called to public inquiry, due to the importance of the house, where the architectural conservation charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage argued the case for the preservation and restoration of the house. As Barlaston Hall had been designated as ‘outstanding’ this placed certain obligations on the National Coal Board who would be required to pay for not only repairs but also preventative measures, such as the huge concrete raft they devised to prevent further movement.  After a few days of arguments, Wedgwood decided that they would make a bold move and offer the house to SAVE for £1 on the condition that it was restored within five years or they could buy it back for £1 (after which the house would no doubt be swiftly demolished).  The then Secretary of SAVE, Sophie Andreae, immediately phoned the President, Marcus Binney (who was in the USA) with the news.  Conscious that he had to make a decision there and then, Marcus called Wedgwood’s bluff and bought Barlaston Hall.

Dining Room, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire - 1981 (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Dining Room, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire – 1981 (Image: SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

A few days later when Marcus was able to visit the house for the first time, the scale of the challenge became starkly apparent.  Stepping into the debris-strewn hallways, light shone through all three floors from gaping holes in the collapsed roof and 4″ cracks indicated where the subsidence was taking hold.  Although most of the fireplaces had been stolen, the good news was that much of the original plasterwork on the walls and the distinctive woodwork had survived.  SAVE immediately organised a temporary roof, after which, the house took nearly 2 years to fully dry out.  Specialist heritage builders and professionals swiftly set to work on both the structural and conservation issues.

East front, Barlaston Hall - 1981 / 2014 (Images: SAVE Britain's Heritage / Knight Frank)
East front, Barlaston Hall – 1981 / 2014 (Images: SAVE Britain’s Heritage / Knight Frank)

Although work had started well, delays in securing the necessary certificates from the Secretary of State meant that the National Coal Board then decided to try and renege on their agreement to fund the work.  SAVE sought leave for a judicial review which prompted the Secretary of State to immediately fulfil his promises, which ultimately forced the National Coal Board to capitulate from their shameful position and fund the repair and preventative works – and SAVE’s legal fees too.  With immediate funding secured, which was followed by further grants, the conservation work continued.  It was put up for sale in 1992 and bought by the current owners who have sensitively completed the restoration of this captivating and fascinating house.

That the value of a house can go from £1 to £2.3m in the space of 30 years shows that the fortunes of country houses can rise as swiftly as they fall.  Barlaston Hall not only represents an important link in our understanding of the domestic Anglo-Palladian tradition, but is also a testament to how determined action can succeed even against larger opponents.  Today, the house still stands proudly displayed from the road, a bold statement of hope and preserved beauty.

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If you would like to support the fight to preserve our architectural heritage, please do become a Friend of SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  You will receive a regular newsletter plus access to the online database of ‘buildings at risk’.  You can also follow them on Twitter: ‘@SAVEBrit‘.  I am on the Committee of SAVE.

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The sale was announced in Country Life magazine: ‘A Country House Reborn‘ [16 April 2014]

Sales particulars: ‘Barlaston Hall‘ [Knight Frank]

A more detailed account of SAVE’s fight: ‘Barlaston Hall‘ – the Wedgwood Museum also has a brief history of the house on their website but which skips over the bit where Wedgwood tried to have it demolished. For historical images, see ‘Neville Melkin’s Grand Tour of the Potteries‘.