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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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‘.