#Repton200: Humphry Repton, landscape gardener – and architect?

Although principally known as a ‘landscape gardener’ – a job title he invented even if the role was already well-defined – Humphry Repton was clearly a man who understood that an estate was a composition of many parts and that architecture had a vital role to play in the success of his schemes. The challenge in assessing Repton’s contribution to architecture is that of his collaborations; what sprang from his inventive and knowledgeable mind, and what came from those he worked with, including his sons, John and George, and also that leading proponent of the Picturesque, John Nash.

Detail from Humphry Repton by Henry Bryan Hall, published by Longman & Co, after Samuel Shelley (1839) (NPG D5801 © National Portrait Gallery)
Detail from Humphry Repton by Henry Bryan Hall, published by Longman & Co, after Samuel Shelley (1839)
(NPG D5801 © National Portrait Gallery)

Humphry Repton (b.1752 – d.1818) had a lifelong passion for gardening, but it was not his first career.  After starting in business as a general merchant in Norwich, which failed, Repton decided to retire to the countryside and live with his sister and husband in Sustead, near Aylsham, in Norfolk.  With his father’s prosperity and sister’s indulgence, he developed his interest in botany and gardening.  After a brief period in 1783 as private secretary in Ireland to his neighbour William Windham of Felbrigg (he resigned after a month), Repton took a cottage near Romford, Essex, and decided to focus on turning his interest into a career.  Fortunately, circumstances meant that he was well placed to do so with his deep horticultural knowledge, his superlative skills as a watercolourist, which he used to create his visions in his beautifully produced Red Books, plus opportune timing, with the death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783 creating a gap for someone with Repton’s grand ideas.

Although the setting of a house was a key consideration for any architect of the era, few  thought of themselves as landscape gardeners (Decimus Burton (b.1800 – d.1881) was something of an exception).  However, those who were of that profession seemed to not only have an opinion on architecture but also apparently felt confident that they could also practice in this as well as their primary domain. For Repton, although not trained as an architect, he saw architecture as ‘an inseparable and indispensable auxiliary‘ to his efforts. Repton was usually brought in after the house was complete and his plans would be presented in one of his famous Red Books, leather-bound volumes of his ideas for a specific property, in which he set out his vision of the landscape as it was, including the current house.  In it, Repton would often include his criticisms of what was there and include his suggestions for sympathetic alterations which would better enable the house to fit within his vision.

Detail showing example of possible changes to example house - Plate III of Repton's 'Sketches and hints on landscape gardening' (1794)
Detail showing possible changes to example house – Plate III, State B from Repton’s ‘Sketches and hints on landscape gardening‘ (1794) – source: copy held by University of Wisconsin and kindly shared online

A measure of Repton’s boundless confidence in his own abilities can be seen in whom he felt able to criticise for their architectural efforts, including Sir John Soane, probably the leading architect of his era.  Repton was commissioned to create a landscape at several of Soane’s commissions, usually appearing a year or two after completion, including at Mulgrave Castle, Moggerhanger House, Aynhoe Park, Holwood House and Honing Hall. In the case of the latter house, Soane had made extensive alterations in 1788, and in Repton’s Red Book, produced in 1792, he criticised Soane’s work saying:

The proportions of the house are not pleasing, it appears too high for its width, even where seen at any angle presenting two fronts; and the heaviness of a dripping roof always takes away from the elegance of any building above the degree of a farm house; it would not be attended with great expence to add a blocking course to the cornice, and this with a white string course under the windows, would produce such horizontal lines as might in some measure counteract the too great height of the house. There are few cases where I should prefer a red house to a white one, but that at Honing is so evidently disproportioned, that we can only correct the defects by difference of colour, while in good Architecture all lines should depend on depths of shadow produced by proper projections in the original design. (1)

In the illustrations in the Red Book for Honing Hall, Repton boldly showed the house, not as it was, but with his suggested improvements. Repton had form for his criticisms of Soane, having been asked, in 1790, to review the newly completed Tendring Hall, Suffolk, (demolished 1955) where he wrote:

…had I been previously consulted the house would neither have been so lofty in its construction nor so exposed in its situation.

For a man with no formal architectural training to be so forthright in his judgements gives a sense of Repton’s confidence in his own abilities.  Luckily (for Repton), it’s likely that the notoriously sensitive Soane never saw these criticisms and they maintained cordial relations for many years. Repton’s comment about rarely preferring a red house to a white one is also corroborated by other Red Books, including the designs for Stansted Hall, and Rivenhall Place, in Essex and Hatchlands Park, Surrey.

Images showing proposed exterior changes from H. Repton's Red Book for Hatchlands Park, Surrey (1800)
Images showing proposed exterior changes from H. Repton’s Red Book for Hatchlands Park, Surrey (1800) – source: The Morgan Library & Museum

Repton’s architectural contributions are often overlooked as he was never enough of an architect to be considered as one, and, in general, those primarily interested in his landscapes are insufficiently interested in his architecture.  A prime example of this (not mentioned in Colvin, or Stephen Daniels’ book, except buried in an endnote) is Repton’s vision for Port Eliot, Cornwall, the seat of Lord Eliot.  In 1792, in one of his earlier commissions, he was brought in for his advice on the estate. Repton assumed the role of architect and provided, in the Port Eliot Red Book, a broader set of broadly Gothic proposals which brought house, church, estate and even the nearby town into his remit. This expansive approach to his brief was a challenge for Sir John Soane who was asked in 1794 to contribute his ideas – but now within a Gothic framework set by Repton (a style to which Soane was hostile), whose designs had found a level of favour with Lord Eliot, and which he adapted.

One of the key questions when considering the architectural improvements suggested by Repton is to what degree they were his and what had been conceived by his eldest son John Adey Repton (b.1775 – d.1860). J.A. Repton had been a pupil to William Wilkins where he developed a profound understanding of Gothic architecture.  He had then moved in 1796 to the office of John Nash, with whom the elder Repton had established an arrangement to pass on any architectural commissions in exchange for 2.5% of the cost of the work – an agreement which Nash failed to honour, leading to the partnership being terminated in 1800.

Nash has a chequered reputation professionally and this extended to those in his office, including J.A. Repton but left to become his father’s assistant when the agreement between Nash and his father ended.  Nash was unfortunately a champion of the Picturesque but not of his assistants; he never acknowledged J.A. Repton’s significant contribution in various schemes. Unfortunately, John was to suffer the same issue to a certain extent with his father, though he was later clearly credited for his assistance ‘in the architectural department‘ for designs for a number of houses including Stratton Park, Scarisbrick, Panshanger, and others.

Detail from Port Eliot Red Book showing the house as found (© Eliots of Port Eliot)
Detail from Port Eliot Red Book showing the house as found (© Eliots of Port Eliot)
Detail from Port Eliot Red Book showing the proposed changes to the house (© Eliots of Port Eliot)
Detail from Port Eliot Red Book showing the proposed changes to the house (© Eliots of Port Eliot)

In the Port Eliot Red Book, eighteen of the drawings are signed by the son and are probably his designs, however the scheme as a whole is attributed to the elder Repton, though he may have been angling for this to be a major commission for his son. Unfortunately for the Reptons, their grand vision for Port Eliot was never going to be realised, mainly due to financial constraints, though Soane was to provide an alternative scheme which he diplomatically managed to agree with Lord Eliot – much to Repton’s chagrin, later writing:

my beautiful plan for Port Eliot…my design for bringing together the house and the Abbey did not suit the fancy of my fanciful friend [Soane] (who knows but little about Gothic) so the plan was totally changed.

Repton’s architectural work was significant enough to merit inclusion in Howard Colvin’s seminal reference work, ‘A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840’.  The most important was the work at Welbeck Abbey in 1790 to remodel the east and west fronts (and the Red Book contains designs for an entirely new house) but the other entries are relatively insignificant – minor works in 1792 at Honing Hall, the enclosing of the courtyard at Sarsden House in 1795 to create a domed ‘hall of communication’, and a new entrance to Uppark in 1805. Beyond that, his association with John Nash meant he had an insight into the ‘cottage orne’ style and which Repton used in his design for a new ‘lodge of a new and singular description‘ comprising two thatched cottages on the Isle of Wight, one either side of the road.

Lodges at the entrance to Mr Simeon's grounds on the Isle of Wight, designed by H. Repton (Image from 'A New Picture of the Isle of Wight' by W. Cooke (1808)
Lodges at the entrance to Mr Simeon’s grounds on the Isle of Wight, designed by H. Repton (Image from ‘A New Picture of the Isle of Wight‘ by W. Cooke (1808)

Beyond that, his architectural contributions were mainly the designs within the books on landscape gardening.  The most important of these were ‘Sketches and hints on landscape gardening : collected from designs and observations now in the possession of the different noblemen and gentlemen, for whose use they were originally made : the whole tending to establish fixed principles in the art of laying out ground’, published early in his career in 1794, and the posthumous collection published in 1840, ‘The Landscape Gardening and Landscape Architecture of the late Humphry Repton’.

So, can Repton be considered an architect as well as a landscape gardener? On balance, his position seems to be more that of ‘frustrated architect but successful critic’. Repton doesn’t seem to have been able to establish a reputation as an expert on architecture, possibly because his commentary was often only available in the Red Books, with their naturally limited circulation. Also, his work was usually after the house was already built and often only recently finished, meaning the owner was unlikely to consider making significant changes very quickly, leaving few opportunities for him to showcase the talents he clearly thought he had.

However, his work was influential on the practices of contemporary and later architects, forcing them to acknowledge that their buildings did not exist in splendid isolation and had to be considered as whole; a three-dimensional, interactive, ever-changing landscape painting. Open, expansive parklands had the effect of placing the building on a visual plinth, majestic but with an aloof air. Repton firmly brought all the elements together, blending both Gothic with greenery and the Palladian with the planting.  His architectural contributions reflect this sensitivity and with more opportunities he may have been even more influential in the field of architecture, much as he dominated the landscapes represented so beautifully in his famous Red Books.


Further reading:


Sources:

(1) – Humphry Repton, Red Book for Honing Hall [1792], quoted in ‘The Surprising Discretion of Soane and Repton’ by Gillian Darley, in the Georgian Group Journal vol. XII 2002


Apologies for the long gap between articles – happily, just after I posted the last one in September 2017, our beautiful son was born. Mother and baby were, and remain, fine and his sister clearly loves him. However, as anyone with experience of small children knows, they’re justifiably demanding and, combined with having a day job, it’s meant I haven’t had the time to write, but as he gets a little older hopefully I should now be able to again…at least in some capacity, though they’ll remain sporadic.  Tweeting is easier to do regularly, so please do follow @thecountryseat and @lostheritage.  OK, on with the show…


The Inadvertent Innovation: Country Life and Property Advertising

Over the last four centuries, the marketing of property has seen relatively few innovations. Those with money and the desire to establish themselves in society would seek out those with knowledge on which estates might be available.  However, the launch of Country Life magazine 120 years ago this month heralded a sea change in the marketing of the landed lifestyle. No longer did the buyer have to rely solely on what they found; now Country Life, through advertising and market reports, brought a selection of the choicest properties right into the drawing rooms of the aspiring elite. The continuing success of the magazine suggests that our desire for the grandeur and leisure of rural society is undimmed over a century later.

Country Life was the idea of Edward Hudson (b.1854 – d.1936), a successful magazine printer, who recognised a gap in the market for a publication which reflected the rural lifestyle of a wealthy elite and, importantly, those who wished to join them.  Conveniently for Hudson, he already had one publication which catered to a significant traditional interest, Racing Illustrated, but lacklustre sales meant it was ripe to be incorporated as a component part of the new magazine. The first issue of Country Life was published on 8 January 1897 and from the outset it was noted for the high quality of the content and, importantly, of the production, with heavy paper and fine photographs.

Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

As with most magazines of the time, the front cover and first page were adverts for all manner of essentials such as ‘Cadbury’s Cocoa’ and slightly more obscure (‘Old Grans Special Toddy‘, ‘Vigor’s Horse-Action Saddle – A Perfect Substitute for the Live Horse‘). However, below the grand ‘Country Life Illustrated‘ masthead is a single full page, rich in some of the finest country houses in the land – and all for sale or to let. It’s also noteworthy that this innovative layout was the work of the single firm of land agents, Walton & Lee of Edinburgh, through whom these properties were available.

As today, properties were sold for a number of reasons but, in an age when the loss of the family seat was considered a serious failing in society, financial embarrassment was often the single strongest reason for a property to appear for sale.  Until the twentieth-century, the majority of property transactions for country houses were primarily about the land; the actual house was usually a secondary consideration as, if you felt it wasn’t suitable, you could always rebuild it in a style or scale until it was. Intelligence regarding which estates were for sale was passed around through social networks, partly to preserve privacy, but often as a way of discretely finding a buyer. Local solicitors also played an extensive and dominant role in the sale of property, often using their extensive and intimate knowledge of local families to know who might be open to offers or to find suitable investments, especially as, since 1804, they held the monopoly on conveyancing.

In 1897, the second Agricultural Depression was hitting the income of those landowners who were heavily dependent on income from their estates.  The financial crisis that this created was the catalyst which forced a number of estates to be put on the market. Equally, death dealt its usual cruel blow with estates being sold in part or in total to meet the stipulations of wills, particularly if the only offspring were daughters, often married to a gentleman with his own estate and little need for a part share in another.

'In the Grafton country...' Advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘In the Grafton country…’ Walton & Lee advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

The houses shown in that first edition are certainly varied. Ranging from the grandeur of Stowe House to ‘a charming, moderate-sized manorial estate’, each warranted a small but densely-worded description. In contrast to today where a house of the importance of Stowe would most likely be either sold off-market or launched with all the fanfare modern country house estate agency can muster with multi-page, glossy, full page photo adverts. Although, with the exception of Stowe, all were anonymous, of the nine houses advertised, it’s possible to identify six of them:

Column 1

  • SALE: Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, with 6,700 acres (demolished 1972)
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘moderate-sized Manorial Estate’, South Devon, with 600 acres
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘unique specimen of an early English country house’, Sussex or Surrey, with 42 acres

Column 2

  • TO LET: Maesllwch Castle, Radnorshire, with shooting over 20,000 acres
  • TO LET: Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, with 250 acres (now National Trust)
  • SALE: Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, with 5,000 acres (now a private home again)
'Stowe House, Buckingham', 'In the Grafton country...' Advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘Stowe House, Buckingham’, Walton & Lee advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

Column 3

  • TO LET or SALE: Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, with 1,100 acres (now a school)
  • TO LET: Addington Manor, Buckinghamshire, with ‘parks and grounds’ (demolished 1926)
  • TO LET: Rigmaden Park, YorkshireUnidentified ‘fine Mansion’, North of England with sporting rights over 4,000 acres (thanks to a reader for the identification)

This selection in one week is almost unimaginable now – to have one house such as Stowe or Charlecote advertised for sale would be remarkable; to have those plus other grand houses showed the scale of the crisis which was quietly afflicting the established rural order. As financial circumstances forced retrenchment for families from the larger houses to their smaller ones (or sometimes from the countryside altogether), so Country Life offered a new and effective route for marketing these properties to those who had risen in the heady world of Victorian industry and finance and who now sought to install themselves as the inheritors of the old social order through the possession of their estates.

The photos of the houses for sale also echoed that Country Life also emphasised a new stylistic aesthetic in the photographs which accompanied the articles on specific houses; one which departed from a common representation of country houses; notably by removing the people and all signs of daily life. Whether this was the choice of Edward Hudson or the photographers is unknown, but engravings and images of country houses from earlier periods often showed them as the hubs of rural and social activity. Outdoor views displayed workers in the fields, the aristocracy enjoying the pleasures of the house and parkland, and coaches riding down lanes, whilst interior views were full of noble pursuits.

The bucolic ideal was important in times of political and social turmoil.  Such scenes, although partly a simple tool for demonstrating scale, also promoted the idea of the paternal landowner to those within the landowning classes, those who wished to join them, and others who had simply obtained a copy, perhaps through a lending library.  Note how often the sky is calm, the lake waters placid, and the animals docile or obedient – there are no signs of disharmony. This can be seen in J.P. Neale‘s famous series of views of country seats published between 1819-1823, soon after the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars:

Detail from 'Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

The compliant and dutifully grateful cows enjoying the benefits of the parkland at Langley Park, Buckinghamshire:

Detail from 'Langley Park, Buckinghamshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Langley Park, Buckinghamshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Take the later scene presented in J.M. Gilbert’s image, drawn in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Bill which extended voting to all men who owned property worth ten pounds or more in yearly rent, of Newlands, Hampshire, which includes a vignette of rural husbandry with the men taking instructions from an agent with the house looking benignly down:

Detail from 'Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby' by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from 'Grove's Views of Lymington' (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby’ by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from ‘Grove’s Views of Lymington’ (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Interior views often showed the aristocratic families at leisure. This was partly due to the romanticisation of the country house which can, in part, be attributed to the popular historical novels of Sir Walter Scott who, as noted by the writer Thomas Carlyle, that they

‘have taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled with living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men’.

For example, in Nash’s ‘The Mansions of England in the Old Time‘ published between 1839-49, the domestic scenes feature prominent groups of people going about their daily lives as imagined as an aristocratic set-piece where all the clothes were fine, the people good looking, and the activities noble.

'The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent'. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Museum no. 2996-1876)
‘The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent’. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London – Museum no. 2996-1876)

This is not to say that all followed such an approach. Many artists such as the Rev. F.A.O. Morris in his famous ‘Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland‘ published 1866 emphasised the houses, showing no signs of people.

Country Life therefore was both following the precedent of some earlier artists but also by so rigorously applying this view of the houses and the popularity of the magazine spreading this ideal far and wide, so the perception of country houses as denuded of evidence of life was one which was almost in contrast to the warm, sympathetic portrayal of the families in the accompanying text.

Walton & Lee maintained their tenacious grip on the important first page of advertising in Country Life from 1897 until 1912.  In that year, as a measure of the success of Country Life in establishing itself as one of the prime avenues for the sale of property, Howard Frank, of Knight, Frank & Rutley, bought Walton & Lee specifically to secure that  coveted advertising space. Though their reign at the forefront of advertising country estates had ended, their influence in the presentation of property was to remain and can be seen today. Evidence of this is in both the continued hold Knight Frank maintain on the first page of advertising, and the stylistic aesthetic which the estate agents and Country Life established as the standard for the photographic presentation of country houses for sale and exalted in numerous publications.


Country Life wrote their own retrospective on property advertising in 2007 for the 110th anniversary: ‘Wanted: Property for a Gentleman’ [Country Life]

A deceptive bargain: Halswell House, Somerset

Halswell House, Somerset (Image: Clive Emson Auctioneers)
Halswell House, Somerset (Image: Clive Emson Auctioneers)

When newspaper stories appear with headlines such as ‘One of Britain’s ‘finest’ mansions for sale with guide price of £250,000‘, it guarantees that many will immediately start dreaming of exchanging their current home for the life of a country squire.  The auction of Halswell House, Somerset, is the latest chapter in a blighted recent history of the house and the absurdly low guide price should be a warning. This is a house which will require equally deep reserves of money and heritage sensitivity for anyone wishing to take on this important house, a beautiful example of early English Baroque, described by Sir Nikolas Pevsner as ‘the most important house of its date in the country‘.

The Halswell family had been resident in the part of Somerset which took their name since the early 14th-century.  Though no trace of the early building can be seen in Halswell House today, the core – consisting of two rambling gabled wings around a courtyard – dates from the early 16th-century, specifically 1536, when Nicholas Halswell used some of his inheritance to build a new home.  The house and estate passed through the Halswells until 1667, when the then owner, Hugh Halswell, settled the inheritance on his daughter’s 18-year old son, who became, in due course, Sir Halswell Tynte – his daughter having married Sir John Tynte and wisely passing on the family surname as a first name.

It was Sir Halswell who was responsible for the building of the imposing great North wing, completed in 1689; a bold, three-storey addition which was placed so as to hide the older buildings from the view of visitors arriving along the main carriage drive.  As to the identity of the architect; in a letter, dated March 1683, among the Thynne papers at Longleat, a surveyor called William Taylor, states that before he can return to London he needed to visit Sir William Portman at Orchard Portman and then Sir Halswell. In his famous dictionary of architects, Sir Howard Colvin states that Taylor was almost certainly responsible for the rebuilding of Halswell. Taylor had several commissions in the south-west in the 1680s, including Chipley House, Somerset (built 1681-3, rebuilt 1840, later dem.), and in Devon; Wembury House (dem. 1803) and Escot House, which was destroyed in a fire in 1808, but was illustrated in Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus.

Escot House, Devon as shown in Vitruvius Britannicus (vol i, plate 78) - burnt down 1808
Escot House, Devon as shown in Vitruvius Britannicus (vol i, plate 78) – burnt down 1808

The design of Escot has been attributed to Sir Robert Hooke but Colvin quotes that in 1684 Taylor was contracted to ‘contrive, designe, and draw out in paper‘ and supervise the building of the house, for which he was paid £200.  Looking at the design of Escot House, especially the engaged pillars beside the door, the recessed doorway (inspired by Wren’s St Mary-le-Bow, London), surmounted window with pediment,  it’s clear to see the similarities in Taylor’s work at the two houses.  A similar style can be seen at nearby Ston Easton Park, a grand and beautiful house built in 1739, but designed by an unknown architect who appears to have taken inspiration from Halswell.

The importance of Halswell House stems from its very early use of the architectural language of the baroque – some five to ten years before the wider movement took hold in the country.  Sir Christopher Wren had been the midwife to the use of the style but it was only once he had handed over his responsibilities as the Queen’s Surveyor in 1692 that others such as Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh were able to develop their designs into a distinctive school of English Baroque which reached its peak with the grand palaces such as Castle Howard (built 1699-1712) and Blenheim (built 1705-24).  William Taylor was innovative in his use of the style although he was probably copying elements from French pattern books as he lacked the genius of Vanbrugh to bring it to its full expression.

Robin Hood's Hut, Halswell, Somerset (Image: Ian Sumner / Landmark Trust)
Robin Hood’s Hut, Halswell, Somerset (Image: Ian Sumner / Landmark Trust)

After Sir Halswell’s death in 1702, the house continued down the Tynte family line, with his son John’s marriage bringing Welsh wealth into the estate.  It was Sir John’s third son, Sir Charles, who looked beyond the house (completing only minor works there) and instead concentrated his energies on beautifying the parkland.  A series of new lakes, canals and ponds, avenues of trees all grew under his watch, but his best commissions were the hermit’s house on the hill, Robin Hood’s Hut (now restored by the Landmark Trust) and the Temple of Harmony, derived by Thomas Prowse from a Robert Adam design.  Extensive gardens and greenhouses ensured that the table at Halswell was as exotic as it was plentiful.

Sadly, the 19th-century was a time of neglect and disuse for Halswell as, although it was still owned by the family, it had passed to a niece and was regarded as old-fashioned.  It came back into use when Charles Theodore Halswell Kemeys-Tynte succeeded as Lord Wharton in 1916 and the house again became a home.  Any hope that this upward trend in the fortunes of the house could continue were dealt a cruel blow early on 27 October 1923 when Lord Wharton’s valet awoke to smoke seeping under the door to his room at the top of the house.  Despite the efforts of estate staff to both fight the fire and rescue the contents, by breakfast time the grand North wing was gutted, destroying ten bedrooms, the drawing room, reception hall and the dining room.  The local paper reported mournfully that ‘Practically all that remained of the front part of the building were blackened outside walls, the interior being a mass of smouldering debris‘.

The cause of the fire was eventually judged to be a newly-installed electricity supply.  Despite the estate being heavily mortgaged, the house was rebuilt at a cost of £41,534 with the work to such a standard that it was confused for being original.  During WWII, the house became a girls school and the grounds were used as a prisoner of war camp. Halswell House finally passed out of family ownership when it was sold in 1950, after which it was divided into flats (badly) and also used as a furniture store.  The house had a brief respite when it was bought by a businessman in 2004 who lived there and used it as an events venue (sometimes with unexpected results).  However, with the house and estate being repossessed Halswell is again looking for a new owner.

East and North wings, Halswell House (Image: RCHME in 'Some Somerset Country Houses' by David Dunning')
East and North wings, Halswell House (Image: RCHME in ‘Some Somerset Country Houses‘ by David Dunning’)

The auction guide price is simply that – and in this case feels more like a marketing ploy to attract the greatest interest.  It’s likely that bidding will be keen and the final price for the house alone will be multiples of the original guide price, probably nearer £1m, though ideally they will be able to start putting this fractured estate back together, reuniting the parts to create the surroundings that this grade-I listed house deserves.  Beyond the sale price, will also be the certainty that the new owner – if they are the right owner – will need to be willing and able to spend large sums to restore the house, especially the Tudor ranges, to the state it deserves. So, rather than £250,000, this house will easily require £2-4m – and possibly more. Not such a bargain after all.

That said, Halswell House is not simply a home – it’s an important milestone in the development of the English country house and a source of wonder at the beauty and composition of the exterior, married to an equally impressive interior.  Hopefully the house will sell for a price which reflects its value and ideally to someone who will appreciate it and is willing to pour money almost beyond reason into restoring it.  In return, they will be the custodians of one of the finest houses in the country and proud owners of a piece of architectural history.

———————————————————————

Full auction details: ‘HALSWELL HOUSE & THE TUDOR BUILDINGS, HALSWELL PARK‘ [Clive Emson] – auction to be held on 17 December 2013 in Saltash, Cornwall. Halswell House and its five other outbuildings lots will firstly be offered as one lot, then separately if not sold.

Official website: ‘Halswell House

Listing description: ‘Halswell House‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further history: ‘Halswell House‘ [Wikipedia]

Further reading: ‘The bargain-basement mansion: Historic house which has been a school, a PoW camp and even the site of an ORGY goes on sale for just £250,000 after owner went bust‘ [Daily Mail]

Soane’s happy commission: Tyringham Hall for sale

Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire (Image: Savills)
Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire (Image: Savills)

Six of the most happy years of my life‘ is how Sir John Soane described his commission to build what is regarded as one of his finest works: Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire.  Although altered, the house forms an important link in the development of both Soane’s architectural and professional skill; an ideal commission which gave full scope to his genius.  It also has the rare distinction of benefiting from another British architectural giant, Sir Edwin Lutyens, who created some of his best but also smallest work there. Now having been restored, the house is for sale; an early and clear candidate for the most important house to be sold in 2013.

Letton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Chris & Angela Pye via Flickr)
Letton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Chris & Angela Pye via Flickr)

Sir John Soane built only eighteen complete country houses, mainly between 1780-1800, so each house is an important step in tracing the evolution of his distinctive style.  Burnham Westgate was Soane’s first major remodelling (covered in an earlier blog post: ‘For sale: a Soanian springboard‘ Oct 2011) but his first entirely new house was Letton Hall, Norfolk. Built between 1784-92 for B.G. Dillingham, Soane had convinced Dillingham to demolish, rather than alter, the existing Old Hall which he had inherited that year.  Soane’s early working practices, honed through smaller commissions, emphasised extensive discussions with the client at the early stages, and the creation of a wooden model to help them visualise the proposed scheme (created in 1785 – after work had started – at the cost of £6 11s).  Letton also demonstrated several of what we regard as ‘Soanian’ architectural traits: the compact villa design, pale bricks, beautiful proportions and the cantilevered, top-lit staircase.

Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)
Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)

Soane’s practice now progressed steadily with commissions for new houses at Tendring Hall and Shotesham, along with other works on varying scales.  His growing reputation for not only excellent designs but also for completing work on time and within budget led to his name being circulated amongst the right type of clients who could provide the opportunities Soane hoped for. Drawn by his friend, Lord Camelford, into increasingly political circles, he became friends with the powerful Marquis of Buckingham, who owned two great estates at Stowe and Wotton.  In August 1792, it was Buckingham who took Soane to visit the banker William Praed at his property, Tyringham, which his wife had inherited and which was conveniently close to the Marquis, in whom rested his political and business ambitions.  Needing a house to match his intended status, Praed initially commissioned Soane to remodel the existing Elizabethan manor house. However, after some Soanian persuasion, in June 1793 he decided that an entirely new house would best serve his needs – much to the architect’s undoubted relief.

Soane displayed a particular flair when designing an entirely new house.  Although at the  core of his houses was a Palladian villa, as John Summerson notes, Soane was able to ‘…twist it into something much more complicated with sequences of shaped rooms ingeniously interlocked, and lobbies introduced to effect harmonious transitions‘.  It was this imagination which Soane brought to the Tyringham commission and which created one of his early masterpieces, with flashes of brilliance, both inside and out.

One of the first is the now Grade-I listed monumental arch gateway leading from the main road; a building of such elegance and novelty that it had Pevsner in raptures, describing it as ‘a monument of European importance…it is entirely independent of period precendent, a sign of daring only matched at that moment by what Ledoux was designing in France [e.g. Hôtel Thellusson] and Gilly in Germany‘.  Leading to the house, the drive curves gently away, allowing the house to slowly come into view.  Soane designed the approach, incorporating an elegant humpbacked bridge with balustrades which curve at each end, away from the road, creating a delicate curl.  Arriving at the house, the exterior can also immediately be identified as by Soane, with typical details including the bow-front, the beautiful proportions and the superb detailing, such as the giant Ionic columns and Greek-key frieze.

The interior was to be the finest conception of the whole scheme; a dramatic, exciting series of spaces which would have delighted the visitor.  At the core of the plan was a device which Soane would re-use in later projects but on a monumental scale; the ‘tribune’, a top-lit inner hall.  To look at the plan is to understand the level of trust that William Praed displayed in Soane as, on entering the house, the first space encountered was dramatic as it was domestically redundant: a windowless ante-chamber lit only by the front door and flanking windows behind you, and through another doorway at the far end.  Passing through the room, flanked by four columns supporting a typical Soane shallow dome, you then stepped through the doorway and into the brightly lit central tribune; a Damascene moment of drama.  Forming the top of the T to the dark antechamber, the tribune then led to either the library, the drawing room or the stairs; each decorated in a typical Soane style. Though compact, the house and estate are both impressive and manageable, the perfect combination for a rising, ambitious banker who mixed in aristocratic company.

However, the house and estate today is not the same one Soane created.  Between 1907-19, a series of unfortunate changes were made to designs by the architect Ernst Eberhard von Ihne, his decorator Florian Kulikowski and another architect, Charles Rees, who implemented Von Ihne’s plans which swept away much of Soane’s interior decoration.  They also added an ill-proportioned copper dome, a tea cosy on a champagne bottle, which has the strange visual effect of elongating the columns.  With an estate of only 59-acres, it’s unfortunate that a series of 9 or 10 houses were built to the immediate north-east of the main house. Equally sad, the most important section of Soane’s considered drive to the house is now in separate ownership; the humpbacked bridge part of the public highway and worse, the road then continues down through that wonderful arch which so delighted Pevesner (how long before some careless driver seriously damages one or the other?) – follow the drive via Google StreetView.

Bathing and Music Pavilions, Tyringham Hall (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Bathing and Music Pavilions, Tyringham Hall (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Thankfully what is still intact is one of Sir Edwin Lutyens‘ finest garden schemes.  Between 1924-28, Lutyens was commissioned by the then owners, the Koenigs, a family of Silesian bankers, to create a garden ‘for the recreation of spirit and body‘.  Standing each side of a huge 72m pool, once thought to be the largest of its type in Europe, are two temples; one a bathing pavilion, the other of Music.  Reminiscent of Thomas Archer‘s sublime Pavilion at Wrest Park (1709-11), Lutyens’ interpretation is pared back, less ornamented, but equally impressive – indeed, he himself thought it faultless and would apparently sit in there on his own.

The current vendor, Anton Bilton and family, has lavished millions on restoring the house and grounds (though, he confirms not as much as the £10m previously reported) since buying it for £2.5m in 2001.  However, the £18m asking price quoted in The Sunday Times Home section (28/04/13) seems ambitious; £10m-12m feels more appropriate considering the way the house and estate have been compromised with the now non-private approach, the small housing estate to the east of the main house and the loss of Soane’s original interiors.  Make no mistake, this is still a superb house and sets the bar high for any other house offered for sale this year to be considered as attractive or as interesting.

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Property details: ‘Tyringham Hall‘ – £18m, 59-acres [Savills] Strangely, there is no brochure yet and the launch, through double fold-out spread in Country Life (1 May 2013), feels a touch late.  One wonders whether the Bilton’s were offered a chance to do the Sunday Times piece before Savills were ready and took it anyway?

Excellent selection of photos:

If you wish to find out more about Sir John Soane and are in London, visit his house at Lincolns Inn Fields, which is a museum to his life and work: ‘Sir John Soane’s Museum

‘A brighter, richer landscape lies display’d’; the battles for the views of country houses

'View of the Thames from Richmond Hill' by Peter Tillemans c.1720-1723 (Image: Government Art Collection)
‘View of the Thames from Richmond Hill’ by Peter Tillemans c.1720-1723 (Image: Government Art Collection)

Looking out from the top of Richmond Hill in south west London,  towards Windsor Castle, is to take in one of the most famous and admired views of the Thames, one that includes glimpses of at least four significant country houses. One of those, the beautiful Marble Hill House, was also the site of a ‘battlefield’; but this is a heritage one, a battle to protect one country house in particular and that spectacular view.  The fight to protect the views surrounding country houses has been fought many times, but two from the modern era in particular, at Witley Park and Marble Hill House, are worth a closer look for the impact they had.

Folly castle in Hagley Park, built c.1747, designed by Sanderson Miller (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Folly castle in Hagley Park, built c.1747, designed by Sanderson Miller (Image: Matthew Beckett)

In earlier centuries, landowners had far greater power to determine what they saw from their drawing room windows.  With the rise of the landscape architect, mere history was an insufficient reason for a tree, stream, building or even an entire village, to be left alone where they interfered with the sight-lines.  With the new emphasis on a view terminating in some object of interest, ever grander follies, bastions, and sham ruins sprang from the ground; from a distance giving an air of ancient decay, but betrayed up close by the drying cement. Yet, ancient buildings also could be pressed into service as ‘eye-catchers’ – but only if they met with the approval of the landscaper and/or the owner.

The first ‘battle’ to be fought to protect a heritage asset which formed part of a view was between a duchess and her husband’s architect, and involved one of grandest houses in the country. Ironically, the battleground was a house built to celebrate a military victory, Blenheim Palace, but a fight almost as vicious was being waged between Sarah, 1st Duchess of Marlborough, and the architect, Sir John Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726), one of the most remarkable men of that era.  Vanbrugh’s design for Blenheim was a tour-de-force of contemporary architecture; a spectacular palace which drew on the Continental Baroque style to create a house which was a set-piece of country house theatre.

Woodstock Manor, Oxfordshire (dem. 1720) (Image: courtesy of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough and Jarrold Publishing via Smithsonian Magazine)
Woodstock Manor, Oxfordshire (dem. 1720) (Image: courtesy of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough and Jarrold Publishing via Smithsonian Magazine)

The battle was fought over the ruins of the original Woodstock Manor, a house where King Henry II had romanced ‘fair Rosamund’ de Clifford, and which formed the original palace on the estate.  Having suffered under bombardment in the Civil War, large parts were in ruins.  However, Vanbrugh saw them not only as a historical artefact, but also as part of the grand conception of the landscaping; a precocious attempt at the Picturesque twenty-five years before William Gilpin conceived it.  Vanbrugh wrote to the Duchess, explaining:

That Part of the Park which is Seen from the North Front of the New Building, has Little Variety of Objects Nor dos the Country beyond it Afford any of Vallue, It therefore Stands in Need of all the helps that can be given, which are only Two; Buildings and Plantations. These rightly dispos’d will indeed Supply all the wants of Nature in that Place: And the Most agreable Disposition is to Mix them: in which this Old Manour gives so happy an Occasion for…So that all the Building left, (which is only the Habitable part and the Chappel) might Appear in Two Risings amongst ’em, it wou’d make One of the Most agreable Objects that the Best of Landskip Painters can invent. And if on the Contrary this Building is taken away; there then remains nothing but an Irregular, Ragged, Ungovernable Hill.

His appeals were in vain and the house razed to the ground in 1720.  The Duchess of Marlborough had a famously low opinion of architects and her dealings with Vanbrugh seemed to entrench this; his own case not helped by secretly making the Manor habitable again for his use but funded by the Duke’s money.  She was also devoted to the Duke and intended Blenheim to be his monument in life and for all time, and so she may not have wished to see another competing memorial to love from her windows.

Little changed in the following two centuries; if a landowner wished to reshape the view of his estate from his dining room, then so he shall.  Perhaps the ultimate expression of that was the occasional removal of an inconveniently sited village such as for Lord Cobham at Stowe c.1730, and Lord Harcourt at Nuneham Courtenay c.1750.

Some of the earliest effective challenges to this power only came much later from Victorian social activism which provided a platform for ideas to be confronted from the perspective of what was good for the people.  A landmark in the campaign for heritage protection of landscape centred around the now-lost mansion of Witley Park in Surrey.

Witley Park, Surrey (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Lost Country Houses)
Witley Park, Surrey (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Lost Country Houses) – click for more images of the house

The man responsible for raising the ire of the locals was one Whitaker Wright. A controversial financier who  made a fortune, lost a fortune, made another fortune and then bought the Witley Park estate and also the neighbouring South Park Farm estate from the Earl of Derby which included Hindhead Common and the famous Devil’s Punch Bowl.  To ‘improve’ the views from the house, Wright set 600 men to work, creating lakes and parkland but more worryingly, raising or levelling hills.  Without the legal frameworks we now rely on to protect the countryside and other areas of outstanding beauty for the common good, there was a real concern that Wright’s grandiose schemes would irreparably alter the local landscape.

Fortunately Wright’s other fanciful plans were his undoing; following the collapse of his companies in 1900 he was charged with fraud, found guilty, and dramatically committed suicide in court just after his sentencing hearing.  With his death the estate was put up for auction, and the locals who had been concerned about his landscaping efforts banded together and bought the sections of the estate which included the Devil’s Punch Bowl and Hindhead Common at auction in 1905. The locals then donated the land to the National Trust in 1906, becoming, in the process, the first Trust property to be managed by a local committee.

The idea that heritage was a national issue for the public good strengthened as organisations such as the National Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who took up the cause.  At the heart of the heritage debate was a widespread concern about the threat to heritage from development – and Marble Hill House was a prime example.

Marble Hill House, Surrey (Image: Maxwell Hamilton via Flickr)
Marble Hill House, Surrey (Image: Maxwell Hamilton via Flickr)

Regarded as one of the finest Palladian villas in the country, the house was built between 1724-29 for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk and former mistress of George II. On her retirement from court, Lady Suffolk created a new one, centred around her and her villa.  Her friendship with the writer Alexander Pope and the ‘man of taste’ Horace Walpole (whose own house, Strawberry Hill is nearby), created a wide ranging literary, political, and artistic circle which only enhanced the reputation of that corner of the Thames.  The bright-white villa was an obvious reference point for those looking down from Richmond Hill and formed ‘this Earthly Elysium‘, appreciated by those without and within.

As Richmond and Twickenham grew as one of the most fashionable places to visit, so too did the number of artists who recorded the view in paintings, engravings, books and pamphlets. Yet, the rural nature of the suburb which had so impressed those who gazed upon it became increasingly threatened as Victorian London moved west.  With the death of the last owner, the widow of General Peel, in 1887, the house was increasingly viewed with avaricious eyes by developers. In 1901, a local newspaper quoted Jonathan Swift’s 1727 poem ‘Pastoral Dialogue between Richmond Lodge and Marble Hill‘:

Some South Sea broker from the City
Will purchase me, and more’s the pity,
Lay all my fine plantations waste
To fit them to his vulgar taste.

The article carried on to warn that ‘It is the demon builder who will in all probability destroy this historical desmesne with his exhibition of latter day villadom‘. That threat took a more concrete form that same year when, having been empty for ten years, it was finally sold to William Cunard (of the shipping family) who lived in nearby Orleans House (dem. 1926).  His plans involved the villa becoming the centrepiece to a suburban development (oh, how depressingly familiar this all sounds!), and so trees were felled and roads laid. However, the prospect of this view being lost galvanised public opinion, causing Cunard to pause.  The Architectural Review highlighted that with regards to the view:

…it is evident that the deep wedge of woodland formed by Marble Hill is its most necessary and indispensable part; that spoiled, the view tumbles to pieces, with an eyesore for its focus.

View from Richmond Hill, 2012 - Ham House can still be seen on the left, the only one now not obscured by trees. (Image: Kam Sanghera via Flickr)
View from Richmond Hill, 2012 – Ham House can still be seen on the left, the only one now not obscured by trees. (Image: Kam Sanghera via Flickr)

In July 1901, the Richmond Hill View Executive Committee was formed and, with continued interest from the press, kept up the pressure until in June 1902, following an Act of Parliament, the house was saved. The (slightly over-the-top) speeches on the day it opened to the public reflected a mood and an understanding of the value of heritage and why many fight to save it.  As the press reports stated:

They felt that a national view was at stake; that a historic view was at stake, nay, that a view that was necessary to the whole world was at stake…  It is not only the glory of London, but the glory of the British Empire; and it is one of those things which struck foreigners visiting this country with amazement and delight.

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Richard Croft via geograph)
Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Richard Croft via geograph)

Looking beyond such giddy prose, those same core beliefs in the value and wonder of heritage can still be seen today.  Following the Marble Hill victory, further action such as in the Tattershall Castle controversy in 1910 showed that it was possible to mount an effective opposition.  Although not strong enough to prevent the worst excesses of the mass destruction of the country houses in the 1920s, 30s and 50s, these victories were critical in providing a cultural foundation, bolstered by wider appreciation through magazines such as Country Life, for the heritage protection movement which, despite many successes, continues to fight those battles today.