A mansion tax is a pox on all our country houses

It’s a widely accepted principle that even if trying to achieve a noble goal, it is not a justification to do harm in doing so.  Whether one is trying to fund the NHS or provide kittens and puppies for all, if ever such an ill-thought out idea as a mansion tax is introduced, it is likely that the law of unintended consequences will find myriad ways to demonstrate itself.  In few sectors will the damage be greater than in that of our nation’s cultural and architectural heritage where decades of hard work and conservation of our country houses will be sacrificed to play a short-term political game.

Beaudesert Hall, Staffordshire - demolished 1935 due to demands of heavy taxation (Image: Lost Heritage)
Beaudesert Hall, Staffordshire – demolished 1935 due to demands of heavy taxation (Image: Lost Heritage)

Let me make clear that this objection is not party political – I would object as vigorously regardless of whoever tried to propose it. Obviously the devil is in the detail but if we assume a tax levied on homes valued at £2m or more at 1% of the property value to be paid annually there are many obvious and profound flaws with the idea – below are a few of them:

  • Fallacy of numbers: there are more expensive houses than there are rich people who could afford the tax. Many houses which would be affected have been inherited thus exchanging the large liquid capital requirements of purchase for the more manageable (though not insubstantial) cost of on-going maintenance.
  • Value suppression: a house valued at £2m will immediately not be worth £2m when a mansion tax is introduced (thus reducing the projected tax receipts).  This will lead to a very hard ceiling on house prices, stagnating the market far below that level as it will prevent others trading up by imposing a disproportionate penalty on anyone purchasing over that price level. Think of all the disadvantages of the current crude banding of Stamp Duty, but magnified.
  • Incentive to neglect: if your house is worth just over £2m, there is a benefit to allowing your property to deteriorate so that it can be assessed at being below the threshold. But how often will they be valued? Will it lead to a cycle of neglect and repair to coincide with this? Who will wish to improve their property for fear that it will push it over the punitive threshold?

Perhaps the greatest threat is to the contents of country houses; the art, sculpture, books, tapestries which combine in such an intangible emotive way to create that atmosphere unique to each.  When the financial effects of the 1870-80s agricultural depression began to be felt, the first items to be sold were the contents – the Titians, Rubens, Caxtons, Shakespeares, Nollekens, Canovas were taken from their pride of place and sent to auction or dealers, the resulting funds merely delaying the inevitable sale of the house.  If we thought the National Lottery Fund was sorely stretched at the moment to acquire for the nation the occasional fine work which appears at auction, there is little chance of them being saved if the volume increases, meaning they will, in many cases, go overseas. Additionally, if the best works have already been sold, then death duties will be a final hammer blow to shatter the cultural and historical unity of the country house, with nothing left to sell or offer in lieu.

This type of crude taxation has been tried before and it is always heritage which pays the price.  The many gaunt shells of Scottish country houses, such as Dalquharran Castle or New Slains Castle, which were un-roofed to avoid punitive taxes are sad testament to the folly of this approach.  Supporting a mansion tax is to accept a probable return to an era where empty country houses become derelict – ironically coming so soon after the 40th anniversary of the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition. The National Trust will not be able to take them on without an endowment and English Heritage are sorely underfunded already – leaving either neglect or a hope for an influx of foreign wealth to purchase these houses. Without a local owner living there full time, there are likely to be fewer jobs reducing tax revenues and, with the dearth of rural jobs, leading to higher numbers relying on the State for assistance or an exodus to larger urban areas, further damaging the rural environment.

Dalquharran Castle, Ayrshire - built by Robert Adam c1785-1790, un-roofed 1967 (Image: RCAHMS)
Dalquharran Castle, Ayrshire – built by Robert Adam c1785-1790, un-roofed 1967 (Image: RCAHMS)

Perhaps there could be exemptions for houses which are open a certain number of days a year or which support useful charitable activities but the danger is that these would be used to justify an idea that is inherently wrong.

This article is deliberately painting a rather bleak picture, partially because there is a real likelihood of any of these outcomes, but also to emphasise just how badly-thought out this crude idea is.  It offers no benefits except as a bone to be thrown to a few class warriors but it should seriously worry anyone who cares about the UK’s cultural, artistic and architectural heritage.  Owning a country house is a responsibility, not only as a home for the owner and their family, but one owed to society as a whole.  It is inevitable and right that tax should be raised to pay for the society we hope to live in, but to wilfully sacrifice four centuries of heritage is an immoral and culturally destructive way to do so, no matter how noble the intended reason.

40 years on from the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition

Many was the time I stood in that exhibition watching the tears stream down the visitors’ faces as they battled to come to terms with all that had gone.’ – Sir Roy Strong [Diaries, 1974]

'Destruction of the Country House' exhibition, 1975 - V&A
‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition, 1975 – V&A

In October 1974, one of the most influential exhibitions ever staged by a UK museum opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  The ‘Destruction of the Country House‘ laid bare the scale and depth of the losses the UK had suffered, showing how four centuries of architectural tradition and achievement in country houses had been severely damaged by the depredations of the 20th-Century. It was conceived as a dramatic display to waken the nation to the threat faced by country houses and the danger faced by all aspects of heritage.  This was in an age with weak legal protection and which seemed to be growing ever more apathetic, or even hostile, to the idea of preserving what represented the cultural character of the UK.  The exhibition was a huge success, not only in terms of the impact on the public, but also in being the catalyst for a long-term shift in how we seek to save and manage our heritage.  From 13-21 September, a new exhibition at the V&A, ‘Country House – Past, Present & Future‘, seeks to revisit this ground-breaking event and look at the future of the country house.

Thorington Hall, Suffolk - demolished 1949 (Image: Lost Heritage / Tiger Aspect Productions)
Thorington Hall, Suffolk – demolished 1949 (Image: Lost Heritage / Tiger Aspect Productions)

By the 1970s, relatively few people would have been aware of the parlous state of a significant number of country houses and how many had been lost in the demolition binges of the 1930s and the 1950s.  However, that there was a crisis was recognised not only by the owners of the houses, but also by the government which in 1948 had created a committee to look at ‘Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest’ and tasked it:

To consider and report what arrangements might be made by the Government for the preservation, maintenance and use of houses of outstanding historic or architectural interest which might otherwise not be preserved, including, where desirable, the preservation of a house and its contents as a unity.

The committee’s conclusions, which became known as the Gowers Report, were published in 1950 and the tone could be determined from the first paragraph which stated that ‘What our terms of reference require us to consider is not whether houses…should be preserved, but how this is to be done‘. The report made a number of recommendations including the creation of the Grade listing system we are so familiar with today, combined with tax concessions to which owners would be entitled, and also financial assistance for which they may be eligible. The aim to create a legal framework where restrictions on the rights of the private owner were compensated by financial incentives to ensure the preservation of these houses.

Trentham Hall, Staffordshire - in its heyday and during demolition in 1912 after being polluted by nearby industry  (Images: Lost Heritage)
Trentham Hall, Staffordshire – in its heyday and during demolition in 1912 after being polluted by nearby industry  (Images: Lost Heritage)

Yet, by the early 1970s it was clear that the crisis had not been solved, as demonstrated by the title of a report published in 1972: ‘Country Houses of Britain – can they survive?‘. Written by noted architectural historian John Cornforth, he sought to explore why the issues surrounding the sustainability of the country house had not yet been resolved, but also to cast the debate in a new era of soaring inflation, economic malaise, and with threatened punitive taxes on the asset rich (though cash poor).

In was at this time that Sir Roy Strong had conversations with Christopher Gibbs but the core of the idea came from John Harris, now noted architectural historian, but also a keen fisherman who, in his youth in the 1950s, had surveyed many an abandoned parkland and empty country house whilst fishing the ornamental lakes (adventures later recounted in his book No Voice from the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper). Combined with Marcus Binney, then at Country Life, they conceived and created this most remarkable exhibition, quite unlike any before or since.

Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition at the V&A

Designed by Robin Wade, the layout took visitors through a short display showing the glories of the country house, but then, as they turned a physical and symbolic corner, were faced with an almost full-height portico tumbling to the ground.  On the pillars and walls were photos of some of the hundreds already lost, whilst in the background, John Harris sombrely intoned a roll-call of their names.

Original poster advertising the Destruction of the Country House exhibition - 1974 (Image: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Original poster advertising the Destruction of the Country House exhibition – 1974 (Image: Victoria & Albert Museum)

The exhibition captured the public imagination, with queues forming to see it at the weekends and the catalogue becoming a best-seller.  Yet, it wasn’t just the public who were captivated by it; in the last week, the Queen, Princess Margaret, Lord Mountbatten, and various government ministers all visited too.  1975 was designated the European Architectural Heritage Year and so focused minds on how to help ensure the survival of the nation’s heritage. This resulted in further legislation which strengthened the legal protection afforded to buildings.   The exhibition also led Marcus Binney to form SAVE Britain’s Heritage, a campaigning charity which took a far more pro-active approach than had traditionally been the case, achieving many notable successes, as it continues to do so today.

Politically, the exhibition could not have opened at a more awkward time – just two days before a general election which brought in a Labour government whose proposed ‘wealth tax’ would have made private ownership of most of these houses unsustainable, probably leading to further wholesale demolition.  Yet, the exhibition also has been identified as ‘…a pivotal moment in the history of country house preservation and heritage politics more generally.’ (Ruth Adams). In truth, a shift had started, as shown by the strong reaction to the proposals by John Baring to demolish The Grange in Hampshire in 1972 which prompted angry exchanges of letters via The Times. However, after the exhibition, no longer were country houses an elite interest for just the owners or art historians, but now the public started to identify with them as part of their national heritage, as something which embodied characteristics and history which they wished to be saved. That broad public sense of attachment to heritage has grown and become almost a natural part of the national psyche (apart from, it seems, in the minds of developers and their occasionally pocket planning committees).

For me personally, the lost country houses were the subject which were the catalyst for my own passion for country houses, leading to the creation of the Lost Heritage website in 2005. The aim is to create the most comprehensive list of all notable lost English country houses – and as far as I’m aware, is the only current ongoing research into the topic. Having seen the ruin of Guy’s Cliffe House about ten years ago, I then started trying to find out more, with two of the most important sources being the superb Catalogue of the exhibition and Giles Worsley‘s later book, the beautiful and elegiac ‘England’s Lost Houses‘.  These contained a gazetteer of known losses – the version in the Catalogue compiled by John Harris and Peter Reid, with Giles’ list building on theirs to take the total to 1,169.  John had estimated that as many as 2,000 had been lost since 1800 and after nearly a decade, sadly my Lost Heritage research has a total of 1,925 (as at Sept 2014), largely proving him correct.

The ‘Destruction of the Country House’ was as much a platform as an exhibition. Although aimed at the public, it was also a touchstone for a wide variety of heritage interests to coalesce and focus their energies and arguments. This helped to create a society which increasingly understood and appreciated heritage but also one which felt there was some collective responsibility towards its defence.  One can only hope that, as a nation, we can continue to recognise the importance of the country house, as well as heritage more broadly, to ensure that those in the future can continue to appreciate their beauty and the rich cultural history they represent.


Events – 2014


Further reading

An academic assessment of the impact of the exhibition: ‘The V&A, The Destruction of the Country House and the Creation of ‘English Heritage‘ – Ruth Adams [Museums & Society]

An architectural adventurer: Richard Norman Shaw

What hideous drawings! Did anyone ever see such Vulgar looking things
– I am quite ashamed of them!

Richard Norman Shaw‘s vehement criticism, annotating a set of drawings created by a clerk in his own office, shows the passion and perfection with which this exacting architect imbued his work and that of his office.  One of the greatest of the Victorian architects, Shaw exemplified the ideals of the age; the ability to create beauty in many architectural forms, but also in the high standards of production and construction. His work helped shape the modern concept of what the Victorian age created, not only through his many urban projects but through the creativity he brought to his country house commissions, including new builds such as Leyswood, East Sussex, or grand additions such as at Chesters, Northumberland.

Adcote House, Shropshire (Image: Gary Wright / wikipedia)
Adcote House, Shropshire (Image: Gary Wright / wikipedia)

Despite his lofty reputation during his lifetime, Shaw’s eclectic use of styles, combined with his own resolute disinterest in letting anyone produce books on his work, meant that by the 1950s, the man and his work had been somewhat forgotten in the then prevailing Modernist fervour.  Thankfully, other architects recognised the singular influence he’d had through his practice and which deserved to be better remembered and appreciated. Shaw was born in 1831, an exciting time at the cusp of the Georgian period as it moved into the variety of the Victorian age.

It has been said that there is no ‘Victorian’ style as what we think of from that age was often derived from earlier forms. For a versatile and thoughtful architect such as Shaw, it was this flexibility which was to give him the scope to develop a skilled yet playful understanding of architectural vocabulary.  Shaw’s work can be broadly categorised as working in ‘Old English’, ‘Gothic, ‘Queen Anne’ and the reformed classicism of his later works.

What Shaw offered his clients was all part of an intelligent English Vernacular, a distinct style which flourished in the Victorian era, which combined local building traditions with skilful use of earlier traditions of English architecture, though primarily influenced by Gothic Revival. Although this movement dominated the latter half of the 19th-century and the first decades of the 20th-century, it was largely ended by the domestic impact of the First World War.  After that, the influence of the Continental movements such as the Bauhaus heralded the ascendancy of Modernism.

Glen Andred, Sussex - designed 1867 (Image: Courtauld Institute of Art)
Glen Andred, Sussex – designed 1867 (Image: Courtauld Institute of Art)

His first new house was a development of the local Sussex vernacular with an intelligent and thoughtful response to the dramatic hilltop site.  Glen Andred, Groombridge, East Sussex (designed 1866-68) was an important influence for the ‘Old English’ Arts & Crafts style, as later practised and developed further by Voysey and Lutyens, in Sussex and Surrey.  One house does not a movement make and it was two related houses nearby which helped push the aesthetic which was to become so widely adopted not only within these counties but across south east England.

Leyswood, Sussex (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Leyswood, Sussex (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Leyswood was designed and built contemporaneously with Glen Andred for a related site in Groombridge, close to Shaw’s first project.  Taking the ideas he had started to develop, Shaw took full advantage of the prominent hill-side site and created a bold re-imagination of the Elizabethan courtyard house, tailored for the needs of the modern Victorian gentleman.  Perched over a rocky incline, Leyswood combined vernacular elements of the English castle, such as the gatehouse, with more domestic features such as the full-height, half-timbered entrance front.  Shaw also indulged what was to be a trademark (and one that can be seen in Lutyens’ work too), that of multiple, tall, finely executed brick chimneys.  These chimneys punctuated the roofline, creating a clear rhythm and emphasis to the house.

Cloverley Hall, Shropshire - demolished 1950s (Image: Lost Heritage)
Cloverley Hall, Shropshire – demolished 1950s (Image: Lost Heritage)

Shaw had clearly been sharing ideas with his fellow student and partner, William Eden Nesfield, who was building Cloverley Hall, Shropshire, between 1866-68, and which was architecturally kin.  Sadly, both Leyswood and Cloverley were both dramatically reduced in size, both losing the principal sections of the house, leaving only the entrance towers and service wings to suggest what was there before.

Still standing in all its glory, thanks to the National Trust, is Shaw’s next commission, Cragside, Northumberland, built 1869-85.  Although technically a rebuilding of an existing lodge, this house was to give Shaw the scope to work at a larger scale for an ambitious and very wealthy client.  For more on this remarkable house, see my earlier article: ‘A theatre of innovation: Cragside, Northumberland

Further houses in this now well developed ‘Old English’ style followed, including Preen Manor, Preen, Shropshire (1869), Hillside, Groombridge, Shropshire (1870-71), and Grims Dyke, Harrow Weald, Middlesex (1870-72).  The latter was praised by John Betjeman in ‘Metroland’ (1972) as ‘a prototype of all suburban houses in southern England‘ – it’s now a hotel so you can appreciate Shaw’s work over a drink.

Grim's Dyke, Middlesex (Image: Grim's Dyke Hotel)
Grim’s Dyke, Middlesex (Image: Grim’s Dyke Hotel)

Other houses in the ‘Old English’ style:

  • Boldre Grange, Boldre, Hampshire (1872)
  • Wispers, Stedham, West Sussex (1874-76)
  • Pierrepont, Frensham, Surrey (1875)
  • Piccards Rough, Guildford, Surrey (1877)
  • Allerton Beeches, Allerton, Liverpool (1883-84)
  • The Hallams, Shamley Green, Surrey (1894-95)

As Shaw explored the use of vernacular, one variation was a more ‘manorial’ interpretation of the ‘Old English’; designs which used a more austere style, primarily of plainer brick elevations, omitting the tile-hanging and half-timbers. These houses took what his biographer Andrew Saint described as drawing on ‘Haddon Hall‘, to create a more castellated, almost defensive style. An early version of this can be seen at Adcote, Shropshire, designed in 1875.  Buttressed walls, punctuated with mullioned windows of various sizes, created the impression of a more medieval property which had grown into a modern country house.

Flete, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Flete, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Perhaps the closest to visually look related to Haddon was Flete House, Devon.  Designed in 1877, the house was commissioned by the wealthiest of Shaw’s clients, H.B. Mildmay, a partner in Barings bank who was determined to emphasise his long Devonian family heritage with a suitably historic house.  Although constrained by having to work with the original 1620s house along with various other restrictions (including the use of battlements, thwarting his usual gables), Shaw was partially successful, though it lacks the assured handling and confidence of equivalent castles by Anthony Salvin such as Peckforton.  Interestingly, Shaw’s pupil, Lutyens, achieved far greater success with Castle Drogo, built four decades later.

In the same vein, Dawpool, Cheshire (1882-86) was built on an exposed site on the Wirral, overlooking the River Dee.  Again, the exterior suffers from Shaw’s attempt to create a gabled castle, but as large sections were in his more familiar style, this felt more effective – though it was the interiors which were the greater success with the impressive picture gallery. Sadly, the house was to last just over 40 years, being demolished in 1927 – a history of the house is on my Lost Heritage website: ‘Dawpool

Dawpool, Cheshire - demolished 1927 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Dawpool, Cheshire – demolished 1927 (Image: Lost Heritage)

The 1870s was a decade in which the fashion for Gothic Revival started to wane with clients looking for a new style.  Shaw’s versatility meant that although he continued to use and develop his ‘Old English’ style, he also explored the use of a more Classical or ‘Queen Anne’ style (aka ‘free-classic’, ‘Re-Renaissance’ or ‘classical freestyle’ – Dr Simon Thurley). Although other architects used it specifically for smaller-scale domestic houses, Shaw adopted and adapted it for both his larger public buildings but also some of the larger private country house commissions.

Shavington Hall, Shropshire (1885-86) shows how quickly the clients taste can change.  The owner, A.P. Heywood-Lonsdale, already owned Cloverley Hall, designed by Shaw’s partner William Eden Nesfield in 1866, and yet just 20-years later, was asking Shaw to rebuild Shavington as a main seat but in the new ‘Queen Anne’ style.  Sadly, again the larger Victorian houses suffered in the austerity of the mid-20th-century and Shavington was demolished c.1960.

Bryanston, Dorset (Image: Bryanston School)
Bryanston, Dorset (Image: Bryanston School)

Another significant commission was a monumental new house, Bryanston, Dorset (1889-94), for Viscount Portman, to replace an existing fine house by James Wyatt at the then vast cost of £200,000 (approx £20m).  In some ways, this was an odd brief from the client; to build a house twice the size of the existing one and in a fashion which was as much about public statement as domestic practicalities. The new Bryanston would not have looked out of place on the Continent, taking on the aspect of a grand French château or German palace, despite the age of aristocratic living on this scale already fraying at the edges.  For all this, Shaw certainly met the challenge, delivering a house that stands as testament to his skill, even if in 1928 the 4th Viscount Portman was forced by death duties to sell the house and 450-acres for just £35,000 for use as a school, which it has successfully done since then.

Other large Classical commissions include Chesters, Northumberland (1890) and Haggerston Castle, Northumberland (1892-97, demolished 1933).

At the core of the success of Shaw’s architectural style was not only his bold imagination and understanding of internal planning but also his keen understanding of self-promotion.  In the days before the internet and Twitter could furnish images of an architect’s work, Shaw ensured that his designs where regularly published in The Building News, the hugely influential weekly magazine which featured plans, layouts and beautiful woodcut impressions of the houses now springing up at that time.  This constant publicity, both in the UK, and internationally, ensured that Shaw’s trademark ‘Old English’ style became almost a standard for the southern home counties and popular even further afield.

Shaw’s fame and reputation were based on a profoundly inventive handling and development of the English Vernacular styles combined with a very astute understanding of how to ensure the widest publicity for his work. Although his fame may have dimmed for a time, it is right that his work be brought firmly into the light.

 


Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London:

Dream, Draw, Work
Architectural Drawings by Norman Shaw RA
30 May — 14 September 2014


The RIBA hold a notable collection of Shaw’s drawings which can be seen online: ‘Richard Norman Shaw‘ [RIBA]


Other major commissions (chronological order):

  • Jesmond Dene House, Newcastle, Northumberland (1870-85)
  • Bannow, St Leonards, Sussex (1877-79)
  • Greenham Lodge, Greenham, Berkshire (1878)
  • Alderbrook, Cranleigh, Surrey (1879)
  • Baldslow Place, Baldslow, East Sussex (1879-82)
  • Holme Grange, Holme Green, Berkshire (1882-8)
  • The Rookery, Bromley Common, Kent (1882)
  • Didlington Hall, Didlington, Norfolk (1882)
  • Walhampton House, Lymington, Hampshire (1883)
  • Banstead Wood, Banstead, Surrey (1884-86)
  • Overbury Court, Overbury, Worcestershire (1887-1900)
  • Addington Park, Addington, Surrey (1898-1900)

Further reading