The now annual round-up of the richest 1,000 people in the UK (whose wealth can be ascertained…!) has been published today in the Sunday Times (£). Although there are now a few less billionaires than last year in the UK, the minimum required to join the list has risen slightly to £103m. With 80% of the list members having made their own fortunes and having acquired the trappings of status along the way, it’s unsurprising that many will already own a country house. However, some may not and to help them out of this socially embarrassing predicament, below are some of the most interesting country houses for sale today (April 2016).
Ignoring any of the ‘new’ country houses which, unless by Craig Hamilton and a limited few others, are unlikely to be architecturally notable, this entirely subjective selection, focuses on those historic houses which can be regarded as such.
Many of the most impressive country estate sales are often conducted ‘off market’, offers and negotiations concluded in private; never receiving the splendour of an advert in Country Life. However, occasionally, one quietly appears which sets the pulses racing. What will probably be one of the most interesting houses to be offered publicly this year is Hackwood Park, Hampshire, a splendid Classical house (listed Grade-II*) with accompanying 260-acres. Designed by Lewis William Wyatt (1777-1853), nephew to the more famous James Wyatt, Lewis developed a very successful country house practice, especially in Cheshire, including work at Lyme, Heaton and Tatton Parks, but has been rather sadly overlooked in the history of architecture (something I will try to address in another post). Looking through the photos of Hackwood House, his skill and ability in handling of the external form (which was a rebuilding of an earlier house) and the superb interiors demonstrates clearly why he enjoyed a productive career. No price is given for Hackwood House, but given the quality of the house, the location and the estate, I suspect that only those troubling the upper reaches of the Rich List need contact Savills.
Another house which certainly has grandeur in Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire – but it also hides a surprisingly important architectural statement. Built as Standlynch Park in 1733 by John James of Greenwich as a ‘villa’ for Sir Peter Vandeput, it was acquired by the nation in 1814 as a gift to Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté to express England’s gratitude for doing his duty for his country and renamed ‘Trafalgar Park’. Unfortunately for Lord Nelson, as he had famously died in 1805, the house, titles and generous pension were given to his elder brother, the Rev. William Nelson and descended through the family until 1948 when they were no longer able to afford the upkeep when the Attlee government cancelled the Nelson Pension.
After a slightly choppy latter half of the 20th-century, the house was bought in 1997 by Michael Wade who over the years has lavished attention to restore the house in an exemplary fashion but now wishes to move on. I was lucky enough to visit in April 2013 with the Georgian Group and can attest to the quality of the work, especially to the main block. And the surprising architectural statement; the North wing contains a ‘monumental’ hall designed in 1766 by Nicholas Revett who had published in 1762, with James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, ‘The Antiquities of Athens‘ which was the catalyst for the hugely popular Greek Revival style in England. This house therefore contains the genesis for the Greek-influenced ‘Neoclassicism‘ of the Georgian period which is still much admired and copied today. So if your place on the Rich List means you have £12m (plus a few more to finish the restoration, including Revett’s incredibly important corridor and North wing), again, contact Savills.
The phrase ‘comprehensively renovated and extended‘, especially in relation to a grade-II* listed Georgian country house can sometimes send a chill down your spine, fearful that all that made it special has been smothered in the relentlessly, boringly bland ‘international hotel’ style. Thankfully although, Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire, has been restored to within an inch of its life and whilst perhaps too polished for some, overall, the essential charm of the country house and what could be called the Colefax-Fowler ‘look’ makes the main rooms look very elegant. Originally an 18th-century house, it was rebuilt between 1796-1802 for the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, and then again between 1821-3 to designs by C.R. Cockerell, who probably added the Greek Doric colonnade on the south front. Bought by the Earl and Countess of Strathmore in the 1920s, it was then sold to Arthur Smith in 1949 and became home to the Hertfordshire Polo Club before being sold in 1997. Now for sale again with 232-acres, Knight Frank have given it a guide price of £30m (don’t forget the eye-watering £3.5m stamp duty), which reflects that this is a house to which very little will need to be done to enjoy a country lifestyle.
For those a little further down the Rich List, below are some less pricey options but still would give the country house style to which many aspire:
Hall Place, Tonbridge, Kent – an unusually large house for the county, Victorian, with up to 226-acres – £8m [Strutt & Parker]
Manor Hall, Gloucestershire – 15th-century but updated including by the current owner Peter De Savery – £7.95m [Knight Frank]
Guyzance Hall, Northumberland – rebuilt 1894, now with 323-acres – £6m [Knight Frank]
Chedington Court, Dorset – built 1840 and altered 1894 in Jacobean style, now with ~50-acres – £5.95m [Savills]
Brandsby Hall, Yorkshire – built 1760s and well-proportioned, it now has some ‘interesting’ decor and needs a lot of work to fix – £4.25m [Knight Frank]
Howsham Hall, Yorkshire – built 1610, the dramatic facade is dominated by beautiful mullioned windows – £4.25m [Savills]
Personally, if I was in the fortunate position of troubling the Rich List, the house I would beating a path to is the bucolically named, Somerton Randle, Somerset (£5.75m – Knight Frank). A compact grade-II listed country house built in the late 1700s, and now with 88-acres, the interiors are a wonderful example of regional Georgian style and retain an exceptional elegance.
We long for an ‘Indian Summer’, whilst sitting in a bungalow drinking tea, eating curry followed by a sorbet and later having a toddy and going to bed in our khaki pyjamas. There are many words, phrases, foods and customs Britain has adopted from our interactions with India, but strangely, despite its strong and vibrant architectural history, the tide of architectural style has been largely one way; Western traditions flowing east, with only scant examples of the ebb bringing Indian influences back. Except, that is, in one small corner of Gloucestershire where the remarkable Sezincote stands as a unique monument to the influence of India – but also leaving the question as to why the Indian (also known as Hindoo or Mughal) style failed to find wider acceptance.
UK country houses have always been a magnet for other influences, the interiors vying with each other to embody ‘fashion’ and be seen to reflect the culture and stature of the owners. With the advent of travel, particularly what would become recognised as the Grand Tour, architectural styles from across Europe including Roccoco, Classical, Baroque and Palladianism would also find a ready home, being easily adaptable to the English physical and intellectual climate. Further afield, imperial trade in the late 17th-century carried home Chinese, Persian and Indian influences and evidence of both can be widely found in porcelain, furnishing, fashion and art. Daniel Defoe noted Queen Mary’s ‘love of fine East India calicos‘ which led to an increased popularity for imported textiles, much to the chagrin of domestic mill workers.
Behind this trade was a British firm which grew to wield power never equalled and with an ability generate wealth in a way few have; the East India Company (EIC). On the strength of resurgent national confidence following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, merchants gained permission from Queen Elizabeth I to sail to explore the opportunities of the Indian Ocean, with the first ships sailing in 1591. After three abortive attempts, they succeeded in 1600 and the Queen granted the newly formed EIC a 15-year monopoly on trading with the East Indies. After besting their Dutch, French and Portuguese competition both militarily, diplomatically and eventually financially, by the mid-1700s, control of trade in India was under the control of the EIC.
This control was exercised through the EIC’s own staff and enforced by its private army creating a pseudo-state-like entity which offered the chance for rank, prestige and to create a fortune. Back in Britain, many looked at the usual prospects of joining the clergy, law or military service as a dim comparison against the possibilities of India. As the financial opportunities of India became apparent, so the attractiveness of a position there increased amongst the aristocracy who came, saw, and administered, with the intention of taking their new fortunes home to establish themselves or boost their status in society.
Yet, from an architectural viewpoint, for all the interaction and extended immersion in the rich Indian culture, the complex and beautiful architecture was largely ignored as an appropriate style for country houses back in Britain. This was in stark contrast to the European styles which came back to Britain, like burrs on the coat-tails of the aristocratic Grand Tourists. This makes the domed, florid Sezincote, nestled deep in the Gloucestershire countryside all the more exceptional.
Originally a small 15th-century manor house, it was bought by the Earls of Guildford in 1692 and survived largely unchanged until bought by Colonel John Cockerell in 1775 – but he was not the author of the final version of the house. Sir John was a friend and had been part of the military staff of Warren Hastings, the former Governor-General of Bengal, who was building his own house at nearby Daylesford, and Cockerell probably had the help of his friend, or at least his agent, William Walford, in selecting the estate. In 1797, Cockerell wrote to Walford saying ‘I have many conceits and fancies in regard to Seasoncote [his spelling] for a residence…‘. In reality, the plans were a conventional Georgian remodelling with Sir John looking for someone to complete ‘the plain sort of work I shall mostly want‘. Building work was well under way by 1798 but at the end of the year came to a rather unexpected stop with the death of Sir John.
The half-finished house was inherited equally by his brothers, Charles and Samuel, and his sister. Charles had also made a fortune in India through a combination of official positions and private trading and, having bought out his sibling’s shares in the house for a total of £38,000, decided to embark on a much more radical vision. Seemingly unconstrained in his imagination, Charles decided (in collaboration with Thomas Daniell and his nephew William, the famous painters Indian topographical pictures), to clothe his Georgian house in full Indian robes.
The architect for this grand plan was S.P. Cockerell, his brother, whom Colvin described as ‘original and inventive‘ and this commission would certainly give free reign to both those attributes. Interestingly, this was not Cockerell’s first experience of designing with Indian motifs as he had been employed in 1789-93 to remodel the nearby unfinished Daylesford House, the newly acquired seat of the controversial former Governer-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings. Facing numerous charges of embezzlement, cruelty and abuse of power from 1788-95 (of which he was later cleared), perhaps unsurprisingly the exterior does not laud his Indian experiences, except for a hint in the west front which features a curved bay topped with a copper dome with a ball and spike decoration. Inside, although Hastings owned an exquisite set of gilt ivory Indian furniture, the decoration was restrained though it featured a remarkable fireplace, carved by Sir Thomas Banks in 1792, which depicts an Indian sacrificial scene and Indian female figures on either side.
At Sezincote, Cockerell had a much less restrained brief and so was able to fully embrace the Indian architectural language but whilst still firmly rooting it in the ideal of the Picturesque – that ability to surprise. The design though is not just collection of Indian forms and details; this is a house built at a time of great interest in this new culture and with a client both well versed in the country and its buildings and with a genuine respect for them. Drawing on both Muslim and Hindu motifs, it reflected such impressive buildings as Humayun’s mausoleum of Emperor Akbar’s mother in Delhi (especially the roof shape of the small turrets), and Sezincote’s entrance front bears some echoes of Akbar’s own mausoleum with the double-height arch.
The south facade is the most playful and graceful; a delicate blend of Anglo-Indian to create something unique in British architecture. Dominated by a canted bay, the windows are shaped into peacock fantails such as seen in the Jaipur palaces, the chajja or wide over-hanging eaves create shade, with the corners punctuated by chattris, or small minarets, the green balcony railings imitating Indian jali work. The main dome is striking in both its shape and dominance whilst still being proportional to the overall design. The main house then joins the grand curved sweep of the Orangery (possibly to follow the landscape, possibly shaped like a scimitar), with its continuation of the peacock windows, terminating in an elegant pavilion. It should be noted that the interior was pure Greek Revival, again emphasising the application of Indian design being in the Picturesque tradition of decoration, rather than slavish copying.
Fashion being what it is, news of the building of this extraordinary house travelled far, even reaching the Prince Regent. The earlier popularity of William Hodges ‘Select Viewsin India’ (1783) and the six volumes of Daniell brothers ‘Oriental Scenery‘ watercolours (completed 1808), this helped created the brief flourishing of the Anglo-Indian style. The Prince Regent, ever one for fashion, visited the still unfinished Sezincote in 1807 (probably at the suggestion of Humphrey Repton who was working there) and was so duly taken with this fantasy (supported by one of Repton’s famous Red Books), he resolved to indulge as well and so his new pleasure retreat in Brighton externally adopted the same, creating the iconic Brighton Pavilion.
However, the Anglo-Indian fashion failed to gain widespread popularity beyond the ephemeral (and hidden) interior decorations and fabrics. Architecturally, there were a few examples. In the City of London, George Dance the Younger created one of the early Indian-Gothic designs in 1788 with his entrance to the south front of the Guildhall. Dance also added unspecified Indian elements to Stratton Park, Hampshire (built 1803-06, dem. 1963) for Francis Baring (who made a fortune with the EIC) and at Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire (built 1804-08). It made appearances in various architectural pattern books (e.g. Robert Lugar and Edmund Aikin), leading to some quite isolated ancillary buildings appearing to be influenced by it; a Hindoo temple at Melchet Park, Hampshire, (c.1800) and further afield such as in Ireland with the Copper Lodge, Portlaw, (probably built 1820s, dismantled 1970s), and the Dromona Gate, Co. Waterford, built in 1861. Back in England, perhaps the most impressive was the dramatic conservatory at Enville Hall, Staffordshire, built in 1854, which mixed Gothic and Indian, and which was sadly blown up for demolition practice during WWII.
So, despite the inventive opportunities, the widespread cultural exposure and even an element of Royal patronage, why did the Anglo-Indian style not become more popular for country houses?
Probably the most influential element was timing – but also a number of other more negative factors. Fashion is part inspiration, but also heavily dependent on there being a space in popular taste for it to expand into. Although Britain had been involved in India since 1600, achieving the dominant position had been a struggle with a heavy price paid by all participants; financially, militarily but also directly in the mortality rates of the colonial staff sent to this still largely unknown place.
Often, those who were sent to make their fortunes in India were second or third sons, who may have been in the shadow of their elder brother who stood to inherit. Although the position of Viceroy was considered a significant honour, it was sometimes coveted for the financial advantages it offered to the incumbent: the substantial salary, the state-funded lavish lifestyle and the chance to rent out your own home back in the UK. Also, unless they made their own significant fortune, their time in India was perhaps considered an exotic distraction, possibly combined with ‘moral’ difficulties, considering the stories of the taking of local ‘wives’ and the adoption of local dress and customs, as reflected in the pejorative phrase of ‘going native‘. The ongoing military operations, the accusations of mismanagement, and the reports of massacres by both sides can only have added to the sense that Indian culture and British involvement was not one to be celebrated.
From an architectural perspective, just at the time that the EIC had established its dominance in the mid-18th century, the popularity of Chinoiserie was in ascendance, boosted by Thomas Chippendale’s ‘The gentleman and cabinet-maker’s director‘ (1754) and the architect William Chambers’ influential book ‘Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils‘ (PDF, 15mb) in 1757. As mentioned before, this fashion culminated in the Prince Regent’s Oriental extravagance, the Brighton Pavilion, completed in 1823, inspired by Sezincote. However, the unpopularity of the Prince may well have meant that what he favoured, was unfashionable. As fashion was swept along by Gothic Revival and Neo-Classicism, the Anglo-Indian style was politically difficult, architecturally challenging, and increasingly unattractive.
This makes Sezincote all the more remarkable; the determined vision of Charles Cockerell, an educated man who revelled in his experience in the beauty of India, realised with great care and skill. It is also a reminder that architecture is often a product of fashion and both are closely linked with wider society. Today though, thanks to the loving restoration of the Kleinwort family, who bought the estate in 1944, both the house and gardens have been restored back to their former glory; a vision of India, unique in the UK.
I last posted in May 2015 on the devastating fire at Clandon Park. In June, I then moved house with the expectation that after a couple of months I’d be unpacked and able to start again. Unfortunately, as with any house, the renovations took far longer than expected (and it’s only a small 1930s semi!) and I’ve had to be very hands-on. More significantly, my father, who had been ill for a while, deteriorated in January and sadly passed away. This blog, in part, exists because he fully supported my interests and enabled me to start collecting books to indulge my passion for country houses, so, for this and many other reasons, I will always be grateful to him.
Loss is mainly regret that we will never see something, or that we have known it and will never see it again. Where the loss is of something of beauty, which embodied ideas, history, culture, it takes on many facets. Fire is a destructive, cruel enemy, consuming all in its path; caring not for the value – either great or small – simply taking whatever it can as fuel for its avaricious need to grow. On 29 April 2015, as the fire at Clandon Park took hold we hoped for the best – yet sadly, less than twelve hours later, all that remained was a gaunt, blackened shell. The loss was not just the building and its beautiful interiors and contents, but also what it represented to UK architectural history.
News breaks now on social media, the first photos and reports of huge plumes of smoke spreading much as the flames did; slowly at first, rapidly growing. Quickly it became clear that the fire had reached the roof and that the rooms on the ground floor of the south side had already gone – the Green Drawing, Palladio, Hunting, Prince Regent. Each a small gem in themselves, their contents the result of decades of collecting and curation. As the floors above collapsed, it became clear that this was a very serious situation and thoughts immediately are to hope that, first, everyone is safe, but, secondly, how far would the fire go? Sadly, it soon became clear that the entire house was to be consumed in the inferno.
Why was Clandon Park important? It wasn’t just the history and collections. Most importantly, the design of the house was a key transitional link between two defining periods of British architectural history; the Anglo-Baroque and the Palladian. The house, both interior and exterior, was designed by a Venetian architect, Giacomo Leoni, and built between 1723-29. Both the architect and the dates are key to understanding why the house was so significant.
Giacomo Leoni (b.1686 – d.1746) played a key role in bringing the ideas of Palladio to the UK through the publication of that architects’ ‘I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura‘ (which he called ‘The Architecture of A. Palladio, in Four Books’). Although not an entirely accurate recreation (Leoni wasn’t above adding his own improvements) the instalments (published between 1715-20) were a huge success, casting the ideas of the Palladian ideal deep into the aspirational hearts of the British aristocracy. Leoni’s edition remained the primary source of the nascent Georgian Palladianism until (prompted by Lord Burlington) Issac Ware produced a more accurate translation in 1738.
For all his intellectual influence, Leoni’s physical output was relatively meagre for a 45-year career – his earliest designs were for an unexecuted rebuilding of Wrest Park in August 1715 for the 1st Duke of Kent. His first completed work was in London in 1721, Queensberry House, 7 Burlington Gardens, for John Bligh, Lord Clifton, which featured an antique temple front, a reduced version of which appears on the south front of Clandon Park. Leoni’s output was mainly country houses; he designed eleven but only nine were completed (the two unfinished houses being Carshalton Park and Thorndon Hall) of which four have been lost already (Moulsham Hall – dem. 1809, Bold Hall – dem. 1901, Burton (or Bodecton) Park – fire 1826, and Lathom House – dem. 1929/1955).
The brilliance of Leoni’s design for Clandon had survived almost unchanged as it had remained in the Onslow family until being handed to the National Trust in 1956. Where Clandon excelled was that the exterior was early-Anglo-Palladian; chaste, restrained decoration, subtle temple motif, but this was married with one of the greatest of the Anglo-Baroque rooms, the Marble Hall (the plasterwork of which Sir Simon Jenkins thought better than the similar room at Houghton Hall), and other rooms rich in beauty. This contrast between the quiet exterior and the exuberant interior is what made Clandon so important as the link between two of the most significant trends in British architectural history.
So, what next? The incredible staff and volunteers of the National Trust swiftly put into place the plans they never hoped to have to use and clearly, the efforts are being directed to the care of the salvaged contents and an examination of what can be recovered from the debris. Investigations will be undertaken and conclusions reached as to the cause but looking to the future the options are the same as ever; rebuild, re-use, or ruin.
As a nation, we have fetishised ruins for centuries with castles, abbeys, fortifications and now factories celebrated for their managed decay. We have enough derelict country houses (far too many, truth be told), so to consign another to that sad, lonely fate would miss the chance to grasp a recoverable beauty and miss the opportunity to demonstrate and inspire through an educational process around the reconstruction.
The Landmark Trust’s inspired recent work at Astley Castle, Warwickshire, to create a modern living space in a shell created by a fire in 1978, shows that ruins can be re-used intelligently and with great aesthetic success. However, Astley Castle was a smaller house and also without the spectacular interiors which once graced Clandon Park.
So the remaining option is rebuilding and restoration. As has been shown at Uppark, Sussex, which also suffered a serious (though not quite as devastating) fire in August 1989, it is possible to restore the house back to as it was before. This is not pastiche as it’s not conjectural – we have extensive, detailed records of the interiors and, combined with salvaged fabric, it is possible to recreate what was there. As Sir Simon Jenkins argued in the Sunday Times (03/05/2015), it would be unthinkable not the reinstate the great Marble Hall – because we can.
Modern care and conservation means that the rate of losses of country houses has dropped from the hundreds each year in the 1950s to barely a handful and these are almost always due to fire. All those we have – that which survived this far – are fragile and it’s an uncomfortable truth to understand that they will not last forever. As the painter Salvator Rosa once wrote:
All our works is fallen and sicken
Nothing is eternal
The Colossei die, the Baths
The worlds are dust, their pomp a nothing…
Rather than despair, we should celebrate and enjoy the architectural heritage which is still available to us and care for it for future generations. The original Clandon Park is lost; that patina of age, the individual details which only it knew are no more. Although the contents have been largely lost, resurrection is the most appropriate option as the main shell of the house has survived – the sterling work of the fire service has saved at least one half of Leoni’s vision. Modern craftsmen with ancient crafts, honed at Uppark, Hampton Court, and Windsor Castle, can recreate the beauty of the interior. It won’t be the original but from our shock at the loss can come awe at the artistic skills that can recreate such wonders as the Marble Hall.
Since the earliest days of the country house, one of their primary roles has been display; conveying meaning through designs, devices and decoration. Through the generations this role remained, though each age had their own influence, mostly evolutionary or occasionally a more dramatic change. The clearest messages were to be found in the houses which had remained in the family with their collections but as this became a rarer combination in private hands, the National Trust became one of the most important custodians of this legacy.
However, in an interview with Dame Helen Ghosh, the Director General of the National Trust, surprised many by saying:
People were also put off because there is “so much stuff” in some of the stately homes. The Trust was now looking at featuring only a handful of interesting artworks in some homes to see if it increased their appeal. Dame Helen said: “We just make people work fantastically hard, and we can make them work much less hard.” [Daily Telegraph – 23/03/15]
Cue much consternation – in his article ‘What’s wrong with the National Trust?‘, eminent art historian Bendor Grosvenor asked ‘Has the National Trust lost interest in art?‘. Mr Grosvenor then visited Ickworth and his follow-up article contained photos of the library, formerly full of contextually appropriate furniture, which now had bean bags. I shared this via Twitter, prompting a spirited debate which raised the obvious curatorial and aesthetic concerns – who were these visitors who struggled, what about those who visit specifically to see the glorious contents? I confess to being firmly in the latter camp and have stated as much.
In the spirit of an honest debate about this important topic and to put the National Trust’s position, I offered Dr Cowell a guest blog post which he has taken up and is below.
After reading it, I understand why the National Trust feels it has a role to play in developing the interpretation of the country house. Almost inevitably, these activities are going to be criticised. This is especially true where they conflict with the strongly held views of why most of the National Trust’s members visit these houses, namely, to see their unparalleled collections, married to the interiors for which they were intended.
The controversy is perhaps less about the experimentation and more about the less than transparent way that it has taken place. One always fears that any action is the thin end of a wedge which permanently compromises what many would accept is the best way of displaying this historic collections. This is unfortunately compounded by Dame Helen’s frustratingly disrespectful description of the matchless art and furniture as mere ‘stuff‘, implying a rather disposable attitude.
Handled differently, I suspect that there would be much less outcry and reputational damage if they were less opaque and perhaps:
Shared, before changes were made, the proposed alterations and the research which led to them
Gave a clear indication of whether these changes were permanent or temporary (and, if the latter, for how long)
Indicated where the contents had been moved to if within the same building or that it was not available
I would also suggest that the National Trust facilitated a more formal feedback mechanism so that experts – both internal and external – can debate the merits of the changes along with contributions from their 4m members who care so deeply about the houses. This would enable a more quantifiable response which could then feed into future proposals. Simply changing things is not sustainable if the National Trust wishes to retain the support and trust of their members and the wider heritage community.
Valiantly defending the position of the National Trust online is Dr Ben Cowell FSA, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England. Dr Cowell is also Deputy Chairman of The Heritage Alliance. He worked formerly for English Heritage and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and has published widely on aspects of history and heritage.
Below is his specially commissioned response to the debate and the controversy, putting the other side to the argument about how the country house can be presented today.
‘Re-presenting the Country House’ – Dr Ben Cowell
Visitors to Dunham Massey this year, as last, are shown a different version of a house they might know well. The saloon, a masterpiece of Edwardian country house design, has been stripped bare. In place of the fine furniture are metal beds, medical cabinets and hospital screens.
Dunham Massey has been returned to the time when it was Stamford Military Hospital, a place of repair and recuperation for soldiers from the Western front during the First World War. The effect is electrifying. A team of actors has been engaged to re-enact imagined scenes from the lives of those – both soldiers and nurses – who were known to have been at Dunham during this time. The details of their lives have been carefully researched, even if the dramas are fictions, albeit highly engaging ones.
Not everyone has appreciated what the National Trust has done with Dunham Massey during its temporary ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ re-fit. But huge numbers have. The property has had its most successful year by far, and recorded levels of visitor satisfaction have rocketed. People love the sense of connection with lives as they were lived a century ago in the midst of unparalleled global conflict.
Does this inevitably point the way for every National Trust country house? Of course not. Has ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ been such a success that we are now wondering where else we might make other temporary, experimental interventions? Of course. And there is nothing new here, since we have perpetually made changes to the way the rooms of our mansions are shown, whether to draw out a particular theme or highlight a particular age in a house’s history.
The National Trust is committed to offering ‘experiences that move, teach and inspire’ by raising the standard of presentation and interpretation across our historic mansions. That is apparent from our recent strategy document, Playing Our Part. There is no single policy or approach. Curatorial decisions are made in situ, respecting the genius loci. The curatorial eye needs to be constantly on the move, seeking out new ways to display or experience things, in order to delight or otherwise engage visitors.
Two examples from my patch exemplify this. At Ickworth, following the highly successful recreation of the basement rooms, our attention has turned to the grand display rooms above them in the Rotunda. These rooms were conceived by Ickworth’s creator, the 4th Earl Bristol, as a gallery for his impressive collection. In the same spirit of wanting to show off the artworks to best effect, we are trying out some new approaches, confined to just a few rooms on the ground floor.
In the Library we’ve temporarily left the room bare (following cleaning work on the electrolier chandelier) in order to focus attention on the pictures and the chandelier itself.
Informal seating has been provided in order better to allow visitors the chance to stop and pause. When the project is complete (we’re only part way through the re-presentation at present), lighting elsewhere in the Rotunda will be enhanced, allowing works such as Titian’s portrait of an unknown man to be seen wholly afresh.
Up at Felbrigg, on the North Norfolk coast, another experiment is about to begin. Here, the grounds of the house are the venue for Wolf’s Child, part of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Wolf’s Child is a perambulatory work of drama, experienced at nightfall. Visitors will move on a pre-determined walk through the woods. The story is drawn from Ovid; the tales explore all manner of human-animal transformations.
Is this the ‘right’ way to experience the Felbrigg landscape? Ought we not to have moved a single piece of furniture in the Earl Bishop’s palace? There are those who are steadfastly certain of the answers to these questions. I am not one of them. All I know is that there can be no progress in the field of country house interpretation unless we are open-minded to the possibility of experiment.
We must do so in a way that is respectful of the spirit of the place, and we must never make permanent changes that would damage the inheritance that we hold in trust. We will make mistakes from time to time, and will be rightly chided for them. But to not explore different ways of seeing is surely to blinker us to the possibility of greater glories.
I very much thank Dr Cowell for his contribution to the debate and hope that it has helped provide an alternative viewpoint. Comments can be left below but please remain respectful and on-topic. The views expressed in the introduction are mine alone and have not been vetted or approved by the National Trust.
To paraphrase: ‘all that is required for heritage to be lost, is for good people to do nothing‘. Sometimes this can be through deliberately ignoring a situation or through lack of awareness that a situation even exists. So, this is a quick post to highlight the shamefully poor justification that Syngenta Ltd have proposed as reason to demolish the mistreated but ‘hugely characterful’ Dalton Grange in Huddersfield.
Syngenta Ltd is a Swiss-based, global agri-business with revenues of over $14bn and profits of over $1.6bn (2013) – and I have no problem with that at all; big business provides jobs but it also creates local responsibilities. The corporate website is bathed in the language of sustainability and waste reduction – noble, certainly, but sadly in Huddersfield, they appear to not be interested in following these aims.
A recent application was made by Syngenta to Kirklees Council to demolish Dalton Grange; a building the Victorian Society have identified in their response as being locally significant, both historically and architecturally. They note that it was built in 1870 by prominent local industrialist Henry Brook, of J.H. Brook & Sons of Bradley Mills (both north and south mills at Bradley Mills are listed Grade II). Sited on a hill, the house is:
…a sturdy and handsome essay in baronial Gothic, with a prominent castellated turret providing dramatic views of the building at the end of its drive. It is a hugely characterful building and is set in large terraced gardens that in recent years have been restored in order to provide the beautiful landscaped setting that it once enjoyed.
Consultee Responses: Victorian Society
Care for a local area should be integral to how a company operates, respecting the traditions and heritage which surround their sites. In both local terms and in relation to national guidelines, the bar needs to be set high to justify the loss of heritage – so how do Syngenta address this:
Reason for demolition: No foreseeable future use for the building. In addition there are anticipated excessive costs associated with ongoing maintenance & refurbishment Source: Application 2014/68/91888/W
Allow me to paraphrase: ‘Syngenta can’t be bothered to use this heritage asset which is in their care and it’s looking a bit expensive to look after in the way we are supposed to, so we would prefer it if we could just get rid of it.‘ In some meeting, this must have seemed like a quick solution. Hold on though, we’d better think of something we can usefully use this space for once we’ve cleared it. What inspiring solution can we find? What might conceivably justify this lost of a building which has been part of the Huddersfield landscape for nearly 150 years – let’s look at their application again, specifically section 5:
Please describe details of the proposed restoration of the site: A possible outcome is that parking provision for a number of cars will be made available to help ease traffic problems during stadium events.
A car park. Well done, Syngenta. Speaking to the Huddersfield Examiner, Syngenta community relations manager (ha ha!), Carl Sykes said “This is a private building on private industrial land.” Which I think is his way of saying ‘It’s none of your business’. He continues:
“Times have changed and now they don’t want to run a social club and we no longer have a use for the building. [Or ‘if we can’t have it, no-one can have it’]
“We’re looking to keep skilled manufacturing jobs in Huddersfield for future generations, we cannot continue to subsidise a tired and decaying building that is becoming beyond economic repair.
“We know there is asbestos in the building and attempts to renovate or modify the building would run into tens of thousands of pounds.” [Asbestos is now the new dry rot – used to justify any sort of historic demolition]
“When the demolition is completed, we shall explore how we might use the land to give some real value to the area, rather than becoming a shuttered up, rotting, old building. [Of course, if you sold it to someone who cared about Huddersfield’s heritage it would avoid the fate you are clearly planning for it]
“For example, the land could be used for allotments or maybe stadium match day parking.” [Oh yes, that’s definitely better. What a fine swap].
This is symptomatic of the casual way in which heritage is being treated up and down the country. Although there are some great examples of sensitive corporate care for heritage assets, there are many others – from small developers to global multi-national agri-businesses – who fail to recognise that heritage is to be cared for and respected.
Kirklees Council also need to take the role expected of them and reject (forcefully) this casual destruction of historic buildings which are an integral part of the character of their local area. Syngenta may be a major local employer but that’s all the more reason to stand firm and provide a precedent that will ensure that the local residents know that the Council cares about protecting a local environment, rich in character and heritage. The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, should also be leading a campaign to save their heritage, giving voice to those who live in the area who, if asked, would almost certainly prefer to retain a fine old historic house – an article published on 21 March 2015 does start this with a suitably sceptical headline: ‘Proposed demolition of Dalton Grange sparks outrage‘.
Of course, perhaps Dalton Grange isn’t the most spectacular building or in the best condition or in the best position, on the edge of a huge Syngenta production plant but it is separated by a pleasant band of woodland so it would not impact the integrity of their site if they sold it. And perhaps that plant won’t always be there but during their tenure they should ensure that they show respect to local architectural heritage which has been there since long before them. To demolish the house on such flimsy grounds as ‘maintenance is a bit expensive’ and ‘we fancy a car park’ would be a shameful episode. Syngenta should immediately withdraw the application, explain how they are going to restore Dalton Grange or sell it, and help find a sustainable long-term use (in line with their professed corporate philosophy) for this small but locally important part of Huddersfield’s heritage.
To mark the centenary of someone’s death may seem morbid but to be worth noting a century later they must truly have been a significant influence. Philip Speakman Webb, who died in January 1915, certainly can occupy that pantheon of those architects who not only embraced the existing trends of their time but also acted as the transitional midwife to a new stylistic era. Though perhaps now slightly over-shadowed by his collaborators and successors, his influence can be seen throughout the UK in many fields; obviously in architecture, but also interiors and most significantly in conservation as a co-founder, with William Morris, of the Society for the Protection for Ancient Buildings.
Webb may perhaps unjustly now be seen as the quieter man of Victorian architecture; one who was avant-garde but who with little fanfare helped create a new mode of design, the influence of which can still be seen today. Considering his intellectual approach to architecture, his was more a philosophy of design that pre-dated the formal label of ‘Arts & Crafts‘. This was a symptom of his affinity for a more sympathetic approach to the care of ancient buildings combined with the adoption of an aesthetic which drew heavily on the natural world; bringing those designs which nature had already provided into a domestic context.
Born in 1831, on the turn of the Georgian period, Webb’s childhood was spent among the eclectic mix of buildings of Oxford; late Gothic next to Classical. This both gave him an appreciation of how they could co-exist but also a reaction which led him to sometimes pursue an ‘astylar‘ approach, rejecting the grand statements of columns. This inclusive approach was to prove hugely influential both his generation of architects but also their pupils who included W.R. Lethaby, George Washington Jack, and Ernest Gimson. Webb’s meticulous method also meant that he was one of the few architects who produced a ‘total design’ for his commissions, not only drawing up the plans for the house itself, but also the fixtures and fittings.
Webb’s design philosophy was based on a set of principles which he applied to all his commissions; an avoidance of vulgar flashiness, a desire to integrate a building with its surroundings, a respect for local materials and traditions, and, above all, high quality workmanship. When applied to country houses, this philosophy created a broad range of designs but were distinctively ‘Webb’ and also highly successful with owners making few changes to them. Despite his reputation and skill, Webb’s country house commissions were rare – just ten completed designs, of which nine were built. Of those, three have subsequently been completely lost, and all the others – bar one, Standen – have suffered varied changes, few of them beneficial.
Webb’s first country house was in remote Inverness-shire; Arisaig House was built for Francis Dukinfield Palmer Astley, an enlightened land- and colliery-owner. Designed in 1863 to replace an existing poorly-sited Gothick house by James Gillespie Graham, the new house was built in just 12 months despite challenges with the remoteness and the local labour. Although the design draws on local building methods it rejected the contrived ‘Scots baronial’ features so beloved by other Victorian architects. Instead, the house was, though large, a well-mannered collection of gables, recessions and projections, creating the overall effect of a house which was not seeking to dominate the spectacular location, and reflected the mountainous scenery. As a first design, it was technologically clever and the internal plan was well-thought out and showed an understanding of both the practicalities and proprieties of a Victorian country house. Sadly, it burnt down in 1935 and was rebuilt as a smaller house.
As a second commission, Church Hill House (later Trevor Hall) was more of a suburban affair. Built in 1868, it was the centrepiece to a 40-acre model estate farm in East Barnet, once rural but now absorbed into Greater London. The design showed Webb’s further exploration of the use of gables, symmetry and massing. Although influential, both due to the connections of the owner and its proximity to London, the house was demolished c.1960.
An aborted commission for Lord Airlie in 1868-69 was the sizeable project, with a budget of £50,000, to rebuild Airlie Castle. Financial pressures forced the scheme to be abandoned leading Webb to destroy all the drawings, leaving no known impressions of what would have been one of his most significant projects.
Far more successful was Joldwynds, Holmbury St Mary, Surrey, which was designed in 1870-71 for William Bowman, a noted eye surgeon and scientist. Replacing an existing, poor-quality 18th-century house, the new house took two years to build, starting in 1872. The result was a a fine, smaller country house, tucked into a wooded hillside, sheltered from the west winds but fully exploiting the views to the south and north. Drawing in the ideas of the gabled English manor house, but applied to the villa plan, Joldwynds featured a dramatic central hall which rose the full height of the house. Again, the proximity of the house to London meant that it became very influential in the 1880s and 1890s as architects and students came to see it and other later local houses by Shaw, Champneys, Lutyens and Voysey – all of whom showed influences of having seen Webb’s elegant composition. Fashion though was to condemn the house as it was demolished in 1930 – though it was replaced by one of the finest of houses of the Modern Movement, The Wilderness, designed by Oliver Hill.
Easily one of the most tragic of the losses is Webb’s Rounton Grange, Yorkshire, designed in 1871-72, which Webb’s respect for local architectural traditions and drew on the idea of the Pele tower. Originally asked by the owner of the estate, iron-master Sir (Issac) Lowthian Bell, to rework some estate offices (budget £800), Webb also produced a scheme to completely replace the existing house, a project which ended up costing £32,880. The tower-house idea meant that it could not only be seen in the well-wooded landscape but would also have views out as well. The plan of the house suggested that of a castle with a core central hall with four ‘pavillions’ [sic] or towers at the corners. Again, monumental chimneys topped the design. The design incorporated various modern comforts and the construction took advantage of whatever technical innovations Webb thought an improvement on an existing technique. Even decades after its demolition, those who had lived there remembered a beautiful but practical house, which was certainly a tribute to Webb’s skills. (Excellent history and photos here: The Rountons: Rounton Grange)
In 1876, Ada, one of Lowthian Bell’s daughters, and her husband commissioned a house which was to be the core of a horse-breeding estate. Smeaton Manor was unsurprisingly on a much more modest scale that Ada’s father house at Rounton Grange but Webb produced what could be classed a ‘neo-Georgian’ design, a re-working of the traditional manor house but in a Classical style. The emphasis was on creating a bright interior so instead of heavy panelling, there was wallpaper (almost entirely Morris & Co, obviously) and all the woodwork (bar the staircase) was painted white. Smeaton Manor was again influential with other architects praising specific features or just admiring the overall effect of this light-filled house. Subsequently, although some alterations have taken place, the house survives – and was offered for sale in 2014 for £2.5m.
Webb’s largest, grandest country house commission was also his most successful; Clouds, Wiltshire, designed 1877-80 for the aristocratic Honourable Percy Wyndham, younger son of Lord Leconfield of Petworth. The design took three years to agree due to the ambitions of the clients for a large house not quite being matched by an equivalent budget. This difficult start continued with difficulties finding a builder though construction finally started in 1881 and was completed in 1886. Sadly, in 1889 the central block of the house was completely gutted by fire and it took another three years to restore it – though it was compliment to Webb that this followed almost exactly his original plan.
Clouds became one of the most celebrated and innovative houses of its era. This, in part, was due to the noted and aristocratic guests whom the Wyndhams regularly hosted so generously (who became known as the Souls), but also because the house successfully balanced the need for practicality with that of the now en vogue informal entertaining – Percy Wyndham described as it as the ‘house of the age‘. The exterior of stone on the first two storeys, with brick on the upper level, featured the now typically Webb-ian mix of gable, bold chimneys, and a pleasing rhythm of recession and projection. The interior could be thought to pre-figure the Modern movement of 20 years later – it was mostly white, with hints of decoration from Morris & Co products. Sadly, crippling death duties – Wyndham, his son, and his son’s heir all died within 3 years – eventually forced the sale of the house in 1936 after which it it suffered various truncations before settling into an institutional role as an addiction treatment centre which it still holds today.
Webb’s seventh country house was commissioned in 1886, back in Surrey. Willinghurst is an attractive, practical home which took various ideas Webb had explored in previous houses and concentrated them into a smaller plan. The house is firmly in the tradition of ‘Surrey vernacular’ – gables, clay hung tiles, warm red bricks – but with an attention to detail in the beautiful plasterwork and fireplaces. Again, the house was subsequently dramatically altered with the central section demolished and the now separate principal part of the house and the offices becoming individual houses.
For what was to be a holiday home, Webb’s next commission was also to be one of his major houses. The job of designing Standen, Sussex, was given to Webb in 1891 with the intention that the house was not to be grand, to instead be somewhere that the wealthy owner, solicitor J.S. Beale, could accommodate his large family plus guests. Webb’s first design was rejected as being too large but the house as built is still substantial – over 200ft wide on the south front. The styling is purely local and takes its cues from the original tile-hung farmhouse which was on the estate. The tower created a focal point to the design – a high-point when viewing the house, but also useful as an observation deck, rather than just being purely decorative. By this point in his career Webb had largely abandoned decoration, the house achieves a pleasing contrast internally through the use of varied rooms with large windows flooding light into the white-painted interiors.
Standen, as a large country holiday home, was a success with the family remembering it as comfortable and delightful, requiring almost no changes. Certainly it was one of his most picturesque designs and continued to influence architects for decades after it was completed. Considering the vicissitudes of Webb’s other country houses, it’s a relief that Standen has survived almost exactly as it was intended by Webb. This is largely due to it remaining in the Beale family until 1972 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust in whose care it remains, making it one of the few Webb houses which can be visited.
Webb’s last country house, Hurlands, Surrey was designed in 1897 and built over the following two years. To my view, the north entrance front is unfocused and lacks the unifying qualities shown in his earlier houses. The large chimneys are still there but one is attached to the outer wall, giving the impression that it’s trying to escape. That said, the south front has a wonderful classical quality with the ground floor arcading being gently echoed in the window surrounds, whilst upstairs a typical Webb covered walkway gives a pleasing variety to the first floor. The house survives but has been divided up.
This survey of Webb’s country houses provides a limited view of the broad skills and interests of someone who was at the forefront Victorian architecture. His belief in the idea of ‘total design’ was rare but hugely influential. Similarly, was his passion for historic vernacular buildings and their conservation which led to his co-founding of the SPAB. In looking back from the centenary of his death, we should appreciate not only his gifted development of an architectural style we now call ‘Arts & Crafts’. That said, Webb would, at the time, would simply recognise as good architecture which respected local traditions to create well-built houses which their owners loved. If only that could be adopted as a mission statement by modern mass house-builders we may be able to achieve a more harmonious solution to the challenge of designing houses for today – something Philip Webb would certainly support.
The efforts of those who choose, or inherit, the responsibility for the care of our nation’s heritage are often unacknowledged – and yet the custodians continue regardless. Their dedication is such that they will make significant sacrifices in terms of time, personal comfort, and money to not only rescue buildings at risk but also just to keep others in good repair. Now in its 12th year, the Georgian Group Architectural Awards (hosted by Christie’s, sponsored by Savills) take the opportunity to assess and recognise those who have done such sterling work, primarily in the restoration and re-use of Georgian buildings but also new buildings built in a sympathetic style.
The first category awarded is the main prize – Restoration of a Georgian Country House – which this year was jointly won by Hendre House, Carnarvonshire and St Giles House, Dorset. These two projects are both remarkable as each house was in a parlous state and only through the dogged efforts of each owner have they been rescued and are now beautiful homes again.
Hendre House enjoys an enviable position on the side of the Conwy valley, yet by the mid-20th century it had become a ruin after being abandoned in 1932. In 2001, the derelict house was bought by Michael Tree, a man who had done much to raise awareness of the threats to Welsh architectural heritage and also on a practical level with the restoration of Trevor Hall. Hendre is a Regency gem which had been built in 1802 as a compact villa, orientated to take advantage of the stunning views. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the project is that Mr Tree decided to do much of the work himself, working with a local builder. The sensitive interior restoration involved the re-instatement of various elements which had been stripped out and were still on-site or recreated from existing fabric. The shade of green used in the dining room is based on a paint fragment obtained from the ruined Edwinsford Hall and then used by Patrick Baty to create a new shade called ‘Edwinsford Green‘. Overall, this is a remarkable achievement both in terms of the scale but also the sensitivity brought to the restoration, allowing Hendre to re-join the sadly depleted ranks of Welsh country houses. (Country Life have a great gallery of photos of Hendre)
Considering the competition, one can appreciate why the committee decided that joint winners was the only way to recognise both Hendre and St Giles House, Dorset. Now the seat of the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the restoration is one not only of the physical fabric of the house but also of the family in the life of the area. The core of St Giles House dates from 1660, but with later additions, some of which were removed by the current Earl’s father in the 1970s. This programme of work was not completed, and although it reduced the house to a more manageable size, left unresolved the scars of where the additions had been removed. The house was put into hibernation for a number of years before the current Earl moved back after unexpectedly inheriting both the title and the estate.
Faced with the scale of work, others may have sold up and moved on, but all credit to Lord Shaftesbury (working with architect Philip Hughes), he has enthusiastically embraced the project which has comprised a complete restoration, to create not only living accommodation for the family but also to enable the rest of the house to function as a wedding and events venue. Today, the quality of the interior and sensitive exterior works belies the challenging state in which he took it on and enables the estate to once again become part of the fabric of local life.
Also on the shortlist in this category was the restoration of Corngreaves Hall, West Midlands by the private developer, Gr8space. As regular readers of this blog will know that I’m very critical of developers who purchase ‘at risk’ country houses then submit huge ‘enabling development’ schemes far in excess of what’s required to restore the house, then build an estate, often unsympathetically, and then ‘forget’ to restore the house. Thankfully, in this case, although they didn’t win, the developer should be commended for their restoration of Corngreaves Hall.
The winner of the next category – Restoration of a Georgian Interior – was rightly awarded for the exemplary work carried out at Kenwood House, north London. The house is one of Robert Adam’s best works, the marriage of a wonderfully proportioned and detailed country house, with a series of elegant interiors. Now in the care of English Heritage, the restoration took a rigorous approach to the investigation of the original decoration and having determined the scheme implemented by Adam, then sought to replace the more garish 19th-century decoration. The replacement of the extensive gilt work with the more historically accurate scheme, particularly in the Library, has created a dramatic interior space which brings home just how bold and creative Adam was in his designs.
Llanelly House justifiably won the Restoration of a Georgian Building in an Urban Setting category. An important townhouse, built in 1714, it had become a much misused building, hemmed in by busy town-centre roads and cut off from the parish church opposite. Under the inspired guidance of Craig Hamilton Architects and with some thankfully enlightened support from the local council, not only has the house been restored and found a use as a genealogy centre, but wider townscape changes have re-routed the roads and created a delightful urban space with this historic building proudly taking pride of place.
The category of Reuse of a Georgian Building was won by St George’s Church, Great Yarmouth, which has found a new life as a theatre.
Painshill Landscape Garden, Surrey, has long been recognised as a fine example of a Georgian ‘country house’ parkland, even if it was created without a house at the centre. Winning the Restoration of a Georgian Garden or Landscape category recognises the exceptional work of the Painshill Trust in preserving what remains and the restoration of the many important garden buildings it contains.
One of the most exciting categories is the New Building in the Classical Tradition which was also awarded to joint winners. This category is the one which should demonstrate that the language of Classical architecture is still as relevant today and that its use does not automatically mean pastiche or unthinking decoration. Chitcombe House, Dorset, designed by Stuart Martin Architects, won (in my humble opinion) on the strength and style of the entrance front. Displaying a Dutch influence, with shades of Lutyens, it certainly creates the sense of arrival one would wish to have at a country house. However, the other side (for which I can’t find an imageone now found [PDF] – thanks Tom) has two projecting bays connected by a loggia which seems almost an anti-climax after the interest created by the entrance.
The other winner is a superb design which marries both elegant proportions with fine and thoughtful detailing. Crucis Park, Gloucestershire by Yiangou Architects, replaced a 1960s house with a compact house which draws on the traditions of local architecture but within the broader context of Queen Anne styling. Although the two main fronts share the same historical form (a square with projecting centre – see Puslinch), the variations of the bold broken pediment above the front door, and the engaged colonnade on the other, create distinctive styling which subtly elevates the quality of the house. The interiors also feature some beautiful fireplaces and staircase. This is the type of smaller country house architecture which should be encouraged as the correct continuation of the Classical tradition.
Overall, a very successful evening and credit should be given to the Georgian Group who have created awards that have established themselves as a benchmark by which Georgian restoration can be judged. The annual event – made possible through the vital sponsorship of Savills (who had kindly invited me – thanks!) – not only rightly give praise and recognition to those directly engaged, but also generally raise the standard and awareness of architectural heritage and the huge efforts required to maintain it. If there were space for one more award, I would like to see one to recognise ‘Restoration of Georgian Building by a Public Body’ to encourage the care of heritage within the public sector where it can sadly be all too often lacking.
Successive governments have retreated from their duties to help support the owners as custodians, not only by withdrawing grant support but equally with hostile measures such as applying full-rate VAT to repairs. Consequently, the Georgian Group play a key role in acting as a ‘cheerleader’ for this vital part of the nation’s history, economy and, most importantly, our common heritage, which although mostly privately owned, enriches us all.
To be regarded as the first architect is quite an accolade and, in the UK, Robert Smythson is widely viewed as holding this title – but as with many things, this is not quite the whole story. With competition from others interested in developing the idea of architecture, Smythson might have lost the crown of being first – though with buildings such as Wollaton Hall and Hardwick Hall he would have undoubtedly still been regarded as one of the finest architects the nation has produced. October 2014 is the 400th anniversary of his death, an apt opportunity to look at both his career and the house which launched him, Longleat.
Little is known of Smythson’s early life – even his date of birth is only narrowed down to either 1534 or 1535. There is some suspicion that his ancestors may have been masons but his level of schooling or training is a mystery. The first documented mention of Robert Smythson is his arrival at Longleat, Wiltshire in March 1568 to work as Chief Mason for Sir John Thynne. He bore a letter from Humphrey Lovell, the Queen’s Master Mason, stating that he was ‘not doubting him but to be a man fit for your worship‘. Smythson had previously been working at the now distantly lost house of Sir Francis Knollys at Caversham, Berkshire, built in the 1550s-60s, but described as ruinous by the diarist John Evelyn in 1654.
Although Smythson was a master, leading his own team of masons, Longleat was to prove to be his education and a spring-board for his own genius for design. The house was an architectural onion; layers of building, wrapping each phase around the earlier one. The core was formed of the original monastery buildings which had been bought by Sir John Thynne, in 1540, using wealth accumulated in his job as Secretary to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who, as Lord Protector (albeit briefly), was one of the most powerful men in the country.
The first changes to Longleat took place between 1547-53, followed by a more extensive programme between 1553-67, which including adding a grand suite of rooms. The original building was firmly in the existing Gothic tradition, whilst the second phase added a layer of Classical ornament. This evolving house was an experiment in merging the existing English tradition with Italian and French influences which would have been somewhat confusing to those who saw it – or as Mark Girouard described it; ‘a kind of degenerate Gothic cake, enriched with occasional classical cherries‘. We shall never know quite how successful this look was as on 21 April 1567 almost the entire house was destroyed in a fire which burned for 17 hours, leaving just the blackened walls.
Although clearly a serious blow to Sir John, work immediately started to rebuild the house, creating the third Longleat. It was this project which Robert Smythson joined in March 1658 as a master mason – though not yet as an architect. The design for the new Longleat is credited to Adrian Gaunt, a French joiner who, in December 1567, was paid for ‘making ye modell for ye house of Longleate‘ – a wooden mock-up (now sadly lost), and the first recorded instance of this in the UK.
So what was Smythson’s involvement in the design of Longleat? If looking at the third Longleat, it would be very little as both the layout and external appearance had been decided and was built as a two-storey house in the style of the previous one. However, in 1572, Sir John decided that his new house needed to be grander still and so embarked on a fourth distinct phase – this was a chance to create a more unified appearance, more in keeping with his classical ideas.
Over the next eight years, the new building wrapped itself around Longleat, enclosing the two-storey Gothic house in a three-storey Classical cloak. Most dramatically, the new fronts featured impressive pilastered bay windows which incorporated the Ancient Greek classical orders; Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Throughout all this work, Sir John had remained closely involved, with hundreds of letters passing between him and the workforce with his instructions. This was a man who had decided that although his status prevented him adopting the trade of architect, it was certainly not going to stop him acting like one.
However, the documentary evidence of both letters and drawings indicates that it was largely Smythson and a French sculptor, Alan Maynard, who had been working at Longleat since 1563, as the principal designers of the new house. Girouard believes the division of labour to be that whilst the decoration of the house is Maynard’s, the overall plan and elevations are Smythson’s, who developed the possibilities of the existing compact courtyard house; to turn it outward, and present a most dramatic façade to the world. What Thynne brought to the mix was his passion and critical eye (and huge wealth) which drove and inspired his architects to create a house which matched his ambitions. Despite all this effort, Thynne barely saw the house complete before he died in May 1580.
Whilst working at Longleat, Smythson was already developing his architectural career with a commission nearby at Corsham Court, started in the mid-1570s. Lacking both the budget and passion of the work at Longleat, it is, nonetheless, an interesting and successful fusing of Tudor and Classical.
Around the same time as he was working at Longleat, Smythson had also taken on a substantial side-project; working for Sir Matthew Arundell at Wardour Castle. Although now a ruin after suffering during the Civil War, Smythson had been employed to refurbish the 14th-century castle, creating a modern house. Taking what he had learned at Longleat, Wardour’s walls were punctured with windows and classical decoration added to the gateway and doorcases – though the windows were Gothic to keep in style.
If an architect was to wish for a monument to their work, few could hope for one even half-as-fine as Smythson has in his next commission at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire. Work started in 1580 for Sir Francis Willoughby, Arundell’s cousin and brother-in-law, and although Smythson’s name first appears in the accounts in March 1582, it is highly likely that he was involved from the beginning – and was still working there when he died in 1614.
Wollaton is almost a topographical expression of the Elizabethan idea of the internal progression which determined the layout of their houses. As one of the first houses sited on a prominent hilltop for aesthetic rather than military reasons, it would have been highly visible to all around. Yet, as visitors moved closer they would have been delighted by the gardens and pavilions, before arriving at the highly-decorated Renaissance jewel at the heart of the scheme.
Wollaton is an exceptional house mainly due to the extravagance, but also for having survived. The layout of the house – square with four corner towers and the unusual tall central hall with clerestory windows – had been seen before at Michelgrove in Sussex and Mount Edgcumbe, Cornwall. What was innovative was the bold play of Renaissance architectural motifs into such dramatic overall impression, creating an almost overwhelming effect – teetering on the verge of being just a bit too much. Little wonder that after Smythson’s death the inscription on his monument in the parish church reads ‘Architecter and Surveyor unto the most worthy house of Wollaton with divers others of great account‘.
Although Smythson continued to be employed at Wollaton, he was also engaged elsewhere. One of his most successful projects was the remodelling of the hunting lodge of the Earl of Shrewsbury in the 1580s. Built as a show of Elizabethan machismo in riposte to Wollaton, Worksop Manor would have been one of the most glorious of the houses of that age, but was consumed by fire in 1761. Again, this was a house set on a prominent site and heavily glazed, catching the sun to dazzling effect.
The house which did survive and is rightly considered the high-point of Elizabethan architecture is Hardwick Hall, built between 1590-97. Tantalisingly, there is no documentary evidence to link Smythson (or by this point, his son John who had also joined the family business) to being paid for the design of Hardwick. However, a series of designs in the Smythson archive which are similar to the executed details of Hardwick, combined with a 1597 accounts book listing a ‘gift’ to Robert and his son John, do suggest that they were closely involved. Most of all, the design of Hardwick Hall is a distilled version of the ideas and experience that Robert Smythson had accumulated over the course of his career. Hardwick is a house with the thoughtful layout of Worksop, combined with technical flair of Wollaton but now moderated and toned down to an elegant finish.
After reaching such sublime heights with Hardwick many an architect would have considered their work done and retired. However, for Robert Smythson, the 1590s were a fertile period where he started developing another form of country house, one which combined a compact form but much of the style of Hardwick. The best example was Pontefract New Hall, built in 1591 and again paid for by Bess of Hardwick, but for her stepson, Edward Talbot. This house took the form of the central core with projecting corner towers but added further recession to the façade to create a complex movement, anticipating designs such as Holland House and Hatfield. New Hall was derelict by the 20th-century before being sadly demolished in the late 1950s, with the rubble reputedly becoming the A1 motorway.
Smythson was also involved in designing houses at Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Owlcotes in Derbyshire, an un-executed design for a house at Slingsby for Charles Cavendish (a form of which was created at Caverswall Castle, Staffordshire), who then implemented a small part of a grand rebuilding plan Smythson produced for Welbeck Abbey. Girouard also claims that Burton Agnes Hall is also by Robert Smythson. Other houses linked stylistically or conjecturally include Chastleton House, Gawthorpe Hall, Fountains Hall and possibly Howsham Hall.
Smythson can certainly be regarded as the parent to the style we would now call ‘Elizabethan’, with buildings which delighted in their inventiveness. Although the early buildings may have owed a debt to the direction of others, as Smythson became more confident in his mastery of the forms and language, so to do his designs become more skilful, even if he wasn’t always able to restrain the extravagance. Certainly there were others who were also looking to develop the idea of a professional designer of buildings, but Smythson was the first who we can securely say created a coherent and recognisable style, each house showing the evolution of his skill, each contributing to his claim as the first architect.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.