A Sleeping Beauty: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire

The temptation when Country Life magazine arrives each week is to flick through the properties and make tabloid-esque comparisons about how a detached Regency villa in Dorset with space for a family, chickens, and an excitable spaniel, could be had for the price of a tatty flat in London. Yet sometimes these comparisons seem almost too unreal when faced with the exemplary beauty of a country house like Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, which, along with 39 beautifully wooded acres, has just been put up for sale for just £3.5m; the price of a 3-bed terrace house in Chelsea.

Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)
Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Worcestershire lies a house which, either through deliberate privacy or convenient obscurity, is little known to the world. Yet Grade-I listed Ombersley Court is one of the finest houses in Worcestershire, arguably even in the wider region, due not only to the sublime architecture and surrounding estate, but also the fine collection of paintings and artwork. The estate has long been the seat of the Sandys family who acquired the manor in the late sixteenth-century. The current house was originally built for the 1st Lord Sandys (b.1695 – d.1770) between 1723-26, replacing earlier monastic buildings on the site.  The house was designed by Francis Smith of Warwick (b.1672 – d.1738), one of the leading regional architects and, working with his brother William (b.1661- d.1724), ‘one of the most successful master builders in English architectural history’ (Colvin).

‘Smith of Warwick’, as Francis was more commonly known, was a clients ideal contractor due to his famous honesty and reliability, able to deliver buildings on time and on budget. His reputation spread amongst the Midlands gentry and aristocracy with almost all his work within a fifty-mile radius of Warwick.  Such was his standing that even the fractious Duchess of Marlborough (who had famously fallen out with Vanbrugh over Blenheim), demanded that for her house in Wimbledon, Surrey, ‘that Mr Smith of Warwickshire the Builder may be employed to make Contracts and to Measure the Work and to doe everything in his Way that is necessary to Compleat the Work as far as the Distance he is at will give him Leave to do’ (1732-33).

Smith’s solid reliability also manifested itself in his repetition of his well-developed plans and designs for houses, creating a distinctive style which is quite recognisable as his own. Broadly, this would be a three storey house with the centre section either projected or recessed, consistent fenestration, and relatively sparse external decoration, usually only decorative stone dressings such as keystones, quoins or balustraded parapets. This consistency was perhaps a double-edged sword, with the Hon. Daines Barrington stated in a letter in 1784, that although ‘all of them (are) convenient and handsome […] there is a great sameness in the plans, which proves he had little invention’.

Yet, this is to overlook that Smith was, at heart, a successful commercial builder whose understanding and appreciation for architectural ornament and variety was inevitably tempered by his determination to deliver the commission on time and on budget. As the architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin highlights, the core design is that of a standard seventeenth-century house such as Belton House, Lincolnshire, but with stylistic updates as fashions evolved.  ‘Smith’ houses such as Umberslade, Alfreton, and Wingerworth all share this readily accessible style, one which married domestic practicality with exterior grandeur.

Perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement was the tragically now-ruinous Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire; a house with a facade so stately as to rival Chatsworth. Built for the 4th Earl of Scarsdale in 1724, Sutton Scarsdale was one of the finest houses in the country. Although the form is familiar, the masterful control of a palisade of pilasters and columns topped with Corinthian capitals, gives it a gravitas, whilst the detailing such as the scrolled window surrounds to the projecting wings hint at Renaissance motifs; Fausto Rughesi (Santa Maria in Vallicella, 1605/06) filtered through William Talman (design for Thoresby House, 1685, – shown in Vitruvius Britannicus, C1, Pl.91) and James Gibbs (to whose designs Smith was building Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, 1722).

derbyshire-Sutton_Scarsdale_Hall_circa_1900

One regret with Ombersley Court is that although the form and plan of the house and much of the superb unaltered early-Georgian internal decoration is still Smith, the exterior is now not his. The original design featured a hipped roof, and what looks to be pilasters, giving it the recognisable ‘Smith’ characteristics.  This was lost when the existing brick was refaced with ashlar in 1809 by the architect John Webb for Mary Sandys, the Marchioness of Downshire. In fairness though, this was a lucky escape as John Nash prepared a much more ambitious scheme in 1808, which proposed adding a two-storey pavilion to each side, linked by a seven-bay screen of giant Ionic columns, though this seems to have been rejected on cost.

Ombersley Court - proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808
Ombersley Court – proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808

One of the glories of the house are the interiors and especially the plasterwork and carving. With a desire for privacy which was rarely breached, few had seen the exceptional decorative work, except through the lens of a Country Life profile by Arthur Oswald in 1953. This extolled the virtues of many aspects including The Chippendale Room which featured bamboo framed silk wall pieces, remarking that ‘it is uncommon to find a Regency example as complete as this or as charming’. The rest of the house struck a careful tone of stately refinement; enough decoration to proclaim wealth and taste, but never excessive.

Ombersley Court - Hallway (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Hallway (© Savills)
Ombersley Court - Drawing Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Drawing Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court - Morning Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Morning Room (© Savills)

With the death of Lord Sandys in 2013 the house passed to Lady Sandys but following her recent death, concerns were raised and rebutted via letters in Country Life that this wonderful house would be forced (for complicated reasons) to become a care home; a fate which would have despoiled this jewel of a house. Instead, for the first time since it was built in 1724, it has been placed on the market. This is a house created by one of the finest craftsmen of the early-Georgian period, with connections to a wider, distinct Midlands architectural tradition which epitomises all that one would hope to see in a country seat. As an important house which deserves respect, one hopes that the new owner will appreciate this remarkable situation and that perhaps the best approach would simply be to buy the house and contents and perhaps another couple hundred acres to truly secure an Arcadian ideal, one which would be hard to better anywhere in the country.


Sales particulars: Omblersley Court, Worcestershire [Savills] – £3.5m with 39 acres

Listing description: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire [British Listed Buildings]

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]

So, you made the 2016 Sunday Times Rich List – where to live?

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.

Hackwood Park, Hampshire (Image © Savills)
Hackwood Park, Hampshire (Image © Savills)

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.

Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)
Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © 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.

Corridor by Nicholas Revett, Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)
Corridor by Nicholas Revett, Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

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.

Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire (Image © Adrian Houston / SWNS.com)
Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire (Image © Adrian Houston / SWNS.com)

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]
Somerton Randle, Somerset (Image © Knight Frank)
Somerton Randle, Somerset (Image © Knight Frank)

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.

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.

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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]

A minor prodigy: Brereton Hall for sale

Brereton Hall, Cheshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)
Brereton Hall, Cheshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)

Advancement in Elizabethan society depended largely on being noticed by the Queen. In an age where the monarch wielded enormous powers of patronage and with so many others jostling for her attention, your house and the hospitality you could provide were effectively the biggest advert you could make.  As a result of this, the houses of courtiers became destinations for the monarch as she made her way around the kingdom, and these homes developed both architecturally and stylistically to not only accommodate, but to also impress.  Known as Prodigy houses, they are now some of the most beautiful in England, and a fine smaller example, Brereton Hall in Cheshire, is currently for sale.

Surprisingly, the genesis of the Prodigy house actually lies far from the bucolic charm of the countryside, and instead can be found on the banks of the Thames in central London. Built in 1547-1552 (dem. 1776), the old Somerset House was the home of Lord Protector Somerset, and was the first classical building in the UK – a remarkable symmetrical façade which proclaimed the dawn of a new architectural style.  Although the core of the building was late-medieval, the decoration was resolutely classical; the gateway on the Strand was a development of the Roman triumphal arch, combining the three orders with pedestals and the pairing of windows and pediments.

The influence of Somerset House began to spread with the style adopted by those in the Lord Protector’s circle.  In the 1540s, at Lacock Abbey, Sir William Sharington, who was close to the Lord Protectors brother, added Renaissance features to his newly acquired monastic home.  So although elements of the new language began to be used elsewhere first, Longleat, built in 1572-80 by the Lord Protectors steward, Sir John Thynne, was the first of Prodigy houses; a new, larger style of country house which embraced the classical and which were explicitly designed for show.

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)
Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)

Few can mistake the remarkable façades of Longleat, a glittering statement of confidence, wealth and architectural learning.  Thynne was part of the Lord Protectors circle and therefore out of favour under Queen Mary’s rule after 1553, so he wisely retired to Wiltshire to concentrate on applying what he had learned of classical architecture to the new house he was building. Sadly, the early results are unknown as the house burnt to the ground in 1567, forcing Thynne to start again. A new model was created in 1568 (this time in conjunction with that genius of the age Robert Smythson), the new façades were added in 1572, and when the Queen visited in 1575, it was complete up to the second floor.  Interestingly, the third floor may have only been completed after his death in 1580, Thynne having spent a lifetime and a fortune creating one of the greatest examples of Elizabethan architecture.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: stuartmcq84 via flickr)
Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: stuartmcq84 via flickr)

Smythson was to become one of the most accomplished of the new breed of specialist; the architect.  Officially his title was ‘Queen’s Master Mason’ but his influence, though the Royal Office of Works, was such that his architectural guidance was to become pre-eminent.  After the success of Longleat, Smythson’s next project was the grand extravaganza that is Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, built between 1580-88.  Sir Francis Willoughby, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, had entertained Her Majesty previously but now wished to create as great a statement as any member of Court.  Drawing on the traditional broad plan of a castle, with all its heraldic and chivalrous echoes, Smythson adapted it to accommodate the new classical language (though even this was inspired by the Poggio Reale in Naples, which Serlio mentions in his third book).  Although the plan of the house still followed the processional structure of royal apartments, the house radically dispensed with the central courtyard arrangement and instead created a huge central ‘keep’, but one without any pretence of defence. This was about glass, power, ornament and display.

Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire - burnt down 1761 (Image: Nottinghamshire History)
Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire – burnt down 1761 (Image: Nottinghamshire History)

Wollaton Hall was the last house with a documented link to Smythson but there is strong circumstantial and stylistic evidence that he was linked to two of the other great houses of the age; Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire, and Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, both seats of the Shrewsbury family.  Worksop Manor was another departure for Smythson; another variation of the castle plan but now much more loosely applied.  Completed by 1585, the design was a compressed and heightened version of Longleat and without clear precedent in earlier Italian work.  Hardwick Hall – famously ‘more glass than wall‘ – neatly fits into this narrative of Smythson and the nascent English Renaissance. Built between 1590-97, it is a simplified and reduced version of Worksop – and all the more elegant for it.  Built by Bess of Hardwick, it enjoys a prominent site (as with Longleat and Worksop), to better display its charms.  Where Hardwick can claim renown is as the first house to be built with a cross-hall, running from front-to-back in the centre, a derivation of Palladio‘s Villa Valmarana, and is therefore some of the earliest evidence of the use of Palladio’s teaching.

Palace of Theobalds, Hertfordshire - from an article in the Gentleman's Magazine, 1836
Palace of Theobalds, Hertfordshire – from an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1836

Influential though Longleat was, a wealthy man may always wish to find his own way of expressing conformity and so it proved with another group of the Prodigy houses built by William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley from 1571 (b.1520 – d.1598), the Queen’s Secretary of State and then Lord Treasurer.  Powerful and politically astute, Cecil became one of the most important men in the country and one very close to the Queen.  As such, her progresses often took advantage of his hospitality, leading to the creation of two of the great Prodigy houses.  The first was perhaps one of the largest and grandest non-royal residences ever built; Theobalds in Hertfordshire.  Originally a smaller house, as Burghley said, ‘[it] was begun by me with a mean measure but encreast by occasion of Her Majesty’s often coming‘, and then completely rebuilt in her honour.  It was a grandiose gesture which spread across five courtyards covering a quarter of a mile and anyone seeing it could not fail to be awed by the size and the statement it made of homage to the Queen, who visited 13 times in all, often treating it as one of her own palaces.  Sadly, the house became one of the many casualties of the Commonwealth; listed for disposal, it was largely demolished by 1650.

Burghley House, Lincolnshire (Image: xposurecreative.co.uk via flickr)
Burghley House, Lincolnshire (Image: xposurecreative.co.uk via flickr)

Cecil’s other house, Burghley in Lincolnshire, was more conservative and, in comparison, modest, though still on a grand scale.  Built between 1558-57, the house displayed all the typical Elizabethan swagger but in a compact form with an impressive entrance front which was one of the last to use the style of the high turreted gatehouse and towers at each end. One of the most innovative architectural feature of Burghley is the celebrated three-storey tower which dominates the inner courtyard.  Developed from the gateway at Somerset House, the Burghley tower features stacked arches, surmounted by a clock which acts as a plinth for a huge obelisk.  The house today survives as the seat of descendants of the Cecil family.

New Hall, Essex (Image: New Hall School)
New Hall, Essex (Image: New Hall School)

Though there are many other examples, two other houses are of particular note in this era of extravagant architecture.  One that can still be seen today, though is now enjoyed more by the pupils in its current use as a school, is New Hall in Essex, where the great stretch of the main lodgings is lavishly fenestrated.  Built by Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, around 1573, it was explicitly designed for the Queen’s use with a full suite of royal apartments: great chamber, presence chamber, privy chamber, withdrawing chamber, bed chamber and inner chamber.

Reconstruction of the South front of Holdenby Palace, Northamptonshire (Image: Holdenby Hall)
Reconstruction of the South front of Holdenby Palace, Northamptonshire (Image: Holdenby Hall)

The other, now sadly lost, is the vast palace of Holdenby Hall, Northamptonshire, a house which influenced those who later also wished to build to impress.  A late starter, Sir Christopher Hatton (b.1540 – d.1591), began the construction of his new house in 1571 as a direct, though amicable, challenge to William Cecil, though with an element of flattery in that it sought to mimic Theobalds.  Expressly designed to accommodate a Queen who never actually visited, by the time of its completion in 1583, Holdenby had few equals as possibly the largest house in the country; an enormous Renaissance palace with symmetrical façades stretching 380ft on the garden front, almost all of it glass. Hatton’s ambitions sadly ran far ahead of his wealth and his attempt at establishing himself as Cecil’s successor failed, partly due to being bankrupted by the enormous expense of building Holdenby, but also by his death less than ten years after completing the house.  Holdenby became a royal palace of James I in 1607 but was sold under the Commonwealth and demolished by 1651, with a smaller house later rebuilt as a new Holdenby Hall, one clearly linked architecturally to its more grand forebear.

The plan of the early prodigy houses still owed much to the traditional pattern of the Royal progress which required that courtiers accommodate the monarch and their retinue according to the strict rules of precedence and access practised in London.  This meant a series of courtyards and state apartments, each stepped back with a clear route of progress through them.  This naturally forced compromises in the early use of classical, leading to it being external decoration applied to an essentially medieval plan.  However, change was taking hold and in the now-for-sale Brereton Hall, it was reversed with a non-courtyard layout married to a distinctly historical feature, that of the grand gatehouse entrance.

Brereton Hall, Cheshire - 1819 - from George Ormerod's 'History of the County Palatine and the City of Cheshire'
Brereton Hall, Cheshire – 1819 – from George Ormerod’s ‘History of the County Palatine and the City of Cheshire

Whilst the courtiers were engaged with their vast and expensive projects, others also wished to show their allegiance through architecture, adopting the style of those close to the Queen, but scaled to their own circumstances.  Brereton was completed in 1577 but was in one way, curiously behind the times as it was one of the last to be built with a grand gatehouse (added in 1586) – though it was more impressive than it appears today.  The design was novel in that one tower was, in fact, a staircase leading to a small room in the domed turret (similar to Barlborough Hall, designed by Smythson) but with the addition of a bridge which crossed to a banqueting room in the other turret.

Gatehouse, Brereton Hall (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)
Gatehouse, Brereton Hall (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)

The rest of the house is typical of the smaller gentry Elizabethan houses, such as Cobham Manor in Kent (completed 1597), or Easton Lodge in Essex (burnt down 1847), which rejected the local vernacular and instead adopted that of the Court.  In doing so, Brereton was a fine example, decorated with the Queen’s coat of arms both inside and out.  The Brereton line died out in 1722, with the house passing to the Holtes of Aston Hall, before being sold in 1817 to John Howard of Hyde. He unsympathetically set about altering the house, radically changing the internal layout and removing the turrets of the gatehouse, adding instead what, in 1909, Country Life magazine called ‘battlements of outrageous proportions and cumbersome mouldings‘.  The house later became a school which closed in 1992 and then passed to the headmistress’ daughter who, with her husband, carefully and sensitively restored it as a home before it was sold in the late 1990s to a technology millionaire, who then sold it in 2002 for around £2.25m.  The house is now again for sale at £6.5m; certainly expensive, but by comparison with the illustrious and much grander architectural ancestors, not prodigiously so.

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Property details: ‘Brereton Hall, Cheshire‘ [Jackson-Stops & Staff]

Article: ‘Country Houses as Family Homes‘ [Country Life]

Photos of the house in 1909: ‘Brereton Hall‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

Further reading: ‘Prodigy house‘ [RIBA]

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

Welcome to the market: Lutyens’ The Salutation, Kent

The Salutation, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)
The Salutation, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)

The analogy between language and architecture is one that has often been made, particularly as fluency is the key measure of success in both fields.  An immature architect can make elementary mistakes with the grammar of a building style as much as any tourist abroad can when ordering dinner. In most cases, both novice architect and linguist can be understood but when compared to the more experienced practitioner, skill and mastery come sharply into relief.  Such a lesson by a master architectural linguist has just been launched on the market; The Salutation, in Sandwich, Kent; a beautiful piece of poetry which demonstrates the fluency of the architect in the language of Classicism.

Heathcote, Ilkley (Image: Thursday Dave via Flickr)
Heathcote, Ilkley (Image: Thursday Dave via Flickr)

Lutyens’ career can largely be seen in three phases; the early years of the ‘Surrey-Tudor’, which evolved into the middle ‘Arts & Crafts’, and then the divergence into the bold ‘Classical’, and its particular variant, ‘Edwardian Baroque’.  That last switch can be seen quite dramatically in the brilliant Heathcote, Yorkshire, built 1906, where Lutyens playfully adopted and adapted the Classical motifs and style of Palladio and Scammozzi to create a wonderfully detailed villa, rich in style and quite unlike his previous work.  After the exuberance of Heathcote (which annoyed Pevsner, who although he commented that it was ‘Only a villa, but how grand the treatment!‘, also dismissed features such as the pilasters which ‘disappear’ into the continuous rustication (see ground floor either side of the windows) as ‘silly tricks‘). On a side note; Heathcote recently sold having previously been bought by a developer/vandal who wished to split the house into two, thus ruining Lutyens’ interior planning – fingers crossed the new owner is sympathetic to this wonderful house.

Lutyens was, of course, part of a longer tradition starting with the first English classical architects practising around the time of Sir Christopher Wren in the mid-17th Century including Hugh May, William Samwell, and Roger Pratt. These pioneers displayed a similar skill in Anglo-Classicism producing buildings such as Cassiobury House (May), the first Eaton Hall (Samwell) and the revolutionary Coleshill (Pratt).  Classicism has long had a place in British architecture, despite other fashions, and has shown its versatility in being used for all sizes of house, from palaces to the smaller country retreat – and it was in this latter requirement that Lutyens was commissioned to build The Salutation.

Located on the site of an old inn of the same name, it was built in 1911-12 in the Queen Anne style as a retreat for Gaspard Farrer, a partner in Barings Bank, and his two bachelor brothers. Lutyens’ clients were typically those who had made money in the decades either side of 1900; that high-point of the country-house lifestyle when staff, materials and labour were relatively cheap. If there is a ‘criticism’ of Lutyens it’s his generosity with regards to space with hallways, alcoves, and large staircases, such as at The Salutation where an extended landing serves as an overflow from the library.  Yet, each space serves a purpose in the plan, typically framing views along axes or as part of a route to the principal rooms which Lutyens often incorporated into houses.

Great Maytham, Kent (Image: Stephen Nunney via Geograph)
Great Maytham, Kent (Image: Stephen Nunney via Geograph)

The exterior of the house is a smaller derivation of his earlier and much grander Great Maytham, built 1910, for the Liberal MP, H.J. Tennant.  Following the exuberance of Heathcote (which most commentators seem to think came very close to pomposity), Lutyens took a more restrained path through Classicism (compared say, to Richard Norman Shaw at Bryanston House for Viscount Portman) and Great Maytham can be seen as a larger version of Samwell’s Eaton Hall, built 1675, or the smaller Puslinch in Devon, built 1720, with the latter showing clear similarities with The Salutation.

East terrace, The Salutation, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
East terrace, The Salutation, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The plan of The Salutation is based on the Palladian 3×3 grid but, importantly, Lutyens is able to adapt and amend this without losing the beauty of the proportions.  Gavin Stamp comments that, for Lutyens, his houses were ‘essentially romantic creations; that is, their form is determined by a picture in the architect’s mind‘ and another writer H.S. Goodhart-Rendel compared his ability to that of Wren in that they both had ‘the sculptor’s capacity of making beautiful shapes‘.  Country Life magazine said that it was a ‘dazzlingly suave yet restrained reinterpretation of the old Georgian idiom‘. It was this ability to combine a profound understanding of the Classical rules of architecture with originality which marked Lutyens out as one of the great architects.

To be given a measure of the importance the house, in 1950, it was the first 20th-century building to be given a Grade-I listing.  However, The Salutation suffered in the later 20th-century with the 1980s a particularly difficult time. Repeated attempts by developers were made to either split those graceful internal spaces into apartments or simply demolish it entirely and build on the 3-acre site, over which Lutyens (and possibly his long-term collaborator Gertrude Jekyll) had spent so much time and care crafting.

The Salutation from the garden (Image: Knight Frank)
The Salutation from the garden (Image: Knight Frank)

Salvation for The Salutation came in the form of Dominic and Stephanie Parker who bought it in 2004 for £2.6m and have subsequently spent £3m on its restoration and who now run it as a luxury B&B. Now for sale at £4.5m, for someone with the budget, this could again be a superb home; combining the finest elements of the last boom of the country villa, designed by one of the greatest architects Britain has produced.  For the rest of us, if you’d like to see and experience staying in one of Lutyens finest small houses, I’d suggest booking soon.

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Sale particulars: ‘The Salutation‘ [Knight Frank]

If you’d like to stay; you can book through their website: ‘The Salutation

Video of Mr Parker talking about his decision to buy: ‘The Salutation was ‘like finding a diamond in a river‘ [2009, Kent Online]

Watch the Parker’s competing in a B&B TV competition: ‘Four in a bed‘ [Channel 4]

For more on Lutyens, I recommend Gavin Stamp’s ‘Edwin Lutyens Country Houses‘ [Amazon]

Support the legacy: ‘Lutyens Trust

Listing description: ‘The Salutation‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Houses of gods: country houses converted to religion and the sale of Hawkstone Hall

The 1920s and 30s may be remembered for many things, but it probably wouldn’t be for having any great public affection for the grand houses which had so dominated the landscape agriculturally, economically and politically.  Faced with the reality of the long slump in revenue from the land and wider economic difficulties, country house owners found themselves between the rock of their own financial situations and the hard place of a nation broadly unsympathetic to their difficulties.  Many an owner may have offered up a prayer for some form of divine intervention to alleviate their situation – and the miracle which appeared which saved their house, though not their lifestyles, was religious orders purchasing these grand piles for their ministries.  With the recent launch on the market of the impressive Hawkstone Hall in Shropshire, the cycle turns again, as it looks like the wealthy will rescue the religious.

Hawkstone Hall, Shropshire (Image: Gerard Carroll via flickr)
Hawkstone Hall, Shropshire (Image: Gerard Carroll via flickr)

A nobleman’s residence in the medieval period was often a castle but this dramatically changed following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536-41.  The aftermath created one of the greatest transfers of land (in the 1530s, they were estimated to hold approx 16% of England) and property as the riches of these institutions were either given to favoured courtiers or sold, creating instant country estates.  Yet, at that time, they were seen more as industrial units; great agricultural establishments which brought in great wealth, with the beautiful priory churches often stripped for their materials. However, for some owners, the buildings were a fine opportunity to create a house – and what better way of creating the impression of an ancient family than with an ancient seat, especially if it came with prized feudal rights.

Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Arnhel de Serra / National Trust)
Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Arnhel de Serra / National Trust)

The suppression of the monasteries and convents brought to an end many of the longest standing communities but did give a boost to the secular, non-defensive country house. Many older houses today, both large and small, can trace their origins back to monastic roots, including (a small sample, admittedly):

Mapledurham, Oxfordshire (Image: scoutjacobus via flickr)
Mapledurham, Oxfordshire (Image: scoutjacobus via flickr)

Of course, there is a long history of country houses being used for religious purposes as many recusant families continued practising their Catholic faith at great risk to themselves both financially and physically, such as at Mapledurham in Oxfordshire or Hintlesham Hall in Essex.  This secrecy led to the creation of many ingenious methods of hiding not only the chapels (either in attics such as at Ufton Court, Berkshire, or by being disguised as bedrooms) and items of their faith but also the priests themselves, usually in ‘priest holes‘ which could be concealed behind panelling and walls (e.g. at Harvington Hall – still owned by the Archdiocese of Birmingham), in chimneys, under fireplaces and so on.

Despite Catholic worship becoming legal again in 1791, there were still restrictions on Catholics in public office until 1829, and it was still viewed with some suspicion. A further influx in the 1790s was due to the French Revolution which forced many orders back across the Channel.  For any order seeking to establish itself, it was certainly easier to take over a country house as it would often meet their requirements in terms of seclusion and accommodation but without the challenges of trying to build a new convent or monastery. One of the earliest was the purchase of East Bergholt Old Hall, Suffolk which was bought in the 1850s but there have been many others since, including:

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: EPR Architects)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: EPR Architects)

Catholics may have had the longer history but others have also taken the same route. Perhaps the most famous of these was the spectacular Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire, designed by Joseph Paxton and built between 1852-54 for the Rothschilds, which was bought by the followers of the Marharishi Yogi to serve as the UK headquarters for the World Government of the Age of Enlightenment. This followed the scandalous refusal by the then Labour government to accept it for the nation with its incredible collections in lieu of just £2m inheritance tax and the subsequent sale which netted several times that. Others include:

There don’t appear to be any clear records of which houses have been used as convents/monasteries so it remains anecdotal (there’s probably a good PhD topic in there somewhere) but it’s possible that hundreds of houses have served in this use, especially if convent schools and retreats (e.g Capernwray Hall and Kinmel Hall) are included. For many of these, it’s likely that this alternative use saved them from joining the ranks of those demolished.

For the past 85 years, grade-I listed Hawkstone Hall has been a seminary and also a retreat for Catholic clergy.  The house was originally built in 1720 for Richard Hill (b.1655 – d.1727), a traveller and diplomat who had made a fortune through what was described as ‘lucrative arithmetick‘, and consisted of just the main block.  The design of this section is quite unique, certainly to the area, and pre-dates designs later shown in Campbell’s ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘ published in 1715-25.  Although it shares certain elements with other houses (Buckingham House, Chatsworth – east front), neither the listing description nor Colvin have details on the original architect so it is open to conjecture as to who designed it and where they got their inspiration (if anyone does know/have any suggestions, please do add a comment below or contact me).

Hawkstone Park, Shropshire (Image: Peter-snottycat via flickr)
Hawkstone Park, Shropshire (Image: Peter-snottycat via flickr)

Hawkstone was then inherited by his son Sir Rowland Hill, 1st Baronet (1705–1783), who added the wings as part of an enlargement in 1750, but who also, more importantly, started the landscaping for which the estate was to become famous.  Taking advantage of a natural rocky outcrop, Hill created a series of walkways on the cliffs, view points and follies which attracted many visitors.  This grew to such an extent that Sir Richard Hill, 2nd Baronet (b.1733 – d.1808) wrote the first guidebook for the park and also built the ‘Hawkstone Inn’ to cater for the visitors. Such was its reputation that Dr Samuel Johnson came to see and was duly impressed, remarking on “…the awfulness of its shades, the horror of its precipices….“. Johnson also commented that he thought there ought to be more water and so Sir Richard commissioned landscape designer William Emes, who created the Hawk River which still flows to the north-west of the house.  Hawkstone Park had become one of the most popular attractions in the country by the time of his death in  1808 and remained so under the care of his brother, Sir John Hill, 3rd Baronet (b.1740 – d.1824), who inherited.

Sadly, it was to be the next generation who sowed the seeds of the families financial troubles.  The house and park were inherited by Sir Rowland Hill, 4th Baronet Hill of Hawkstone, 2nd Viscount Hill (1800–1875) who, through extravagance or mismanagement, lost much of the family fortune. Inside, he commissioned, between 1832-4, various alterations including a new drawing room from Sir Matthew Wyatt, whilst in the grounds he carved a hugely expensive new drive through a cliff and built The Citadel, a strange castle-like dower house.  He even toyed with the idea of relocating the entire house to the other side of the river.

Such spending was always likely to lead to difficulties and the 3rd Viscount, Rowland Clegg-Hill, (b.1833 – d.1895), never managed to re-establish the fortune and was bankrupt by the time of his death.  This forced a sale of the contents and then the splitting up of the estate in 1906.  The park, with the many follies, tunnels and caves, was sold off and is now run as part of the Hawkstone Park hotel. The Hall was bought by George Whitely, later Baron Marchamley of Hawkstone, a wealthy mill and brewery owner and MP, who made minor alterations; reducing the height and length of the projecting wings and to the interior.

The house was then sold to the Roman Catholic Redemptorists who have remained there until a recent review of their activities prompted them to put the house, with its 7-acres of gardens and 81-acres of grounds, up for sale for £5m.  Any purchaser looking to make this a home again will need to demolish the ugly accommodation block tucked away behind the left wing and will also have to consider what they wish to do with the large chapel which was added in 1932; perhaps if bought by a non-religious family it would make a superb music room.  For a house which exhibits such architectural interest and grandeur, it seems like a fair price and one hopes it will attract someone willing to invest to recreate what could be one of the finest homes in Shropshire.

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Property details:

News story: ‘Hawkstone Hall goes up for sale with a £5m price‘ [Shropshire Star]

Official website: ‘Hawkstone Hall

Possibly for sale – a landmark for landowners: Crichel House, Dorset

Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)
Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)

When to believe the rumours? Occasionally one of the old families will decide that they no longer wish to hold onto the estate which has been the family seat for many years – sometimes centuries. When these estates come to market they usually attract a significant price-tag which truly reflects their beauty, significance and acreage.  If the unconfirmed rumours which feature very prominently on page 2 of the Sunday Times (26 June 2011) are to be believed, then the Marten family of Crichel House in Dorset have decided to sell – almost 60-years after the family won a decision against the government of the day which became a landmark in the rights of landowners against government.

Crichel House is widely regarded as one of the best houses in the county – indeed, John Julius Norwich states that it “…possesses the most spectacular series of state rooms in all Dorset.“.  Crichel started off as a modest house in 1743; hastily built to replace a charming Elizabethan house which was burnt down in 1742.  This smaller seat of a country squire – brick-built and just five bays by seven – was for Sir William Napier, who left it to his nephew, Humphry Sturt, in 1765.  Sturt had inherited not only his uncle’s house and wealth but had also married well. He didn’t feel the house was grand enough for a man of his fortune, and so embarked on an impressive rebuild, creating a house “…so immensely enlarged that it has the appearance of a mansion of a prince more than that of a country gentleman.” (Hutchin’s ‘History of Dorset‘ – 1774).

Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)
Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)

Sturt, using an unknown architect (though thought to be from nearby Blandford), effectively wrapped a new house around the old one to the east and the west, and linking the two on the south front with an impressive recessed portico and suite of rooms on the first floor.  However, the need to accommodate the dimensions of the old house created a slightly cramped feeling to the first floor elevations.  However, all is forgiven by the splendid interiors which are, in parts, a curious mix of early Georgian created late (e.g. the staircase, the library), and fashionable later Georgian, particularly in the stunning Hall, Dining Room and Drawing Room where Adam-style plasterwork reigns.  The latter rooms were probably designed by James Wyatt who was working nearby at Milton Abbey and at Bryanston.  The Dining Room is considered the finest room in the house; a coved ceiling framing delicate plasterwork and decorative panels in the style of Cipriani and Angelica Kauffmann.

So, how did part of the Crichel estate become so significant that it became immortalised as a set of planning procedures known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’? In part, it was due to the bureaucratic arrogance of the post-War era which meant the Civil Service felt able to deal rather high-handedly with anyone, and particularly landowners who were not popular under Attlee’s socialist government. In 1937, 742-acres of Crichel Down had been compulsorily bought as part of a larger area for use as a bombing range. Churchill had given a very public commitment in the House of Commons in 1942 that land purchased in this way would be offered back to the original owners once it was no longer required for the original purpose.

Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)
Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)

However, there was an even greater danger of compulsory purchase for houses which had been adapted for wartime use under the ‘Requisitioned Land and War Works Act (1945)’ (sections 8 & 9 Geo. 6 c.43 in case you were wondering!) which gave officials the right to buy, regardless of the wishes of the former owner or any previous assurances. At Hinton Ampner in Hampshire where Ralph Dutton (the 8th and last Lord Sherborne), having just finished an extensive remodelling in 1939 only to be turfed out by a girls school, received a letter saying that the Royal Observatory were interested as a new Royal Observatory.  Dutton took the day off work at the Foreign Office and was on the doorstep when the officials arrived and gave an impassioned speech about the importance of the house, how it had been in the family for generations and that losing it would be akin to an amputation. The officials apparently looked somewhat embarrassed but gave no sign of retreating until a short note arrived a little later confirming that they were taking Hurstmonceaux Castle instead.

At Crichel Down, the government had decided to retain the land as a new model farm.  Lt-Cdr George Marten (who had married Mary Sturt, the only child of the 3rd Lord Alington), began a vigorous one-man campaign to examine the conduct and procedures of the relevant departments.  In doing so, he exposed a series of administrative errors as officials tried to evade the requirement to offer back the land and retain it for the government’s use.  Eventually, in 1954, public and press criticism led to the minister in charge, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigning in one of the first examples of a minister taking responsibility even though he had not been involved in the earlier decisions and the land was sold back to the Martens.  To avoid a repeat of such failings, new planning rules regarding compulsory purchase were drawn up which are today known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’ and are a vital part of the framework protecting landowners from the sometimes autocratic decisions of officials.

The death of Mary Marten in 2010 (her husband pre-deceased her) led to the recent sale of some of the contents of the house including a small collection of Asian jade ornaments which raised some £12.5m.  However, if the rumours are right, the rest of the house and 5,000-acre estate are also quietly on the market with an estimated price tag of around £100m, which, if it sold as a whole estate, would make it the most expensive sale ever outside of London.  It’s always a regret when families no longer wish to keep an estate which has been in the family for centuries, however, with the demands of sibling equality it is understandable that each of the six children – five females, one male – should wish to share their inheritance.  It would be a wonderful outcome if it could be bought in its entirety and remain one of the most important estates in Dorset, with the glorious Crichel House at it’s heart.

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Update – 7 July 2013: Crichel House has been sold

Daily Mail confirms that the house plus 400-acres has been bought by Richard L. Chilton, a US hedge fund billionaire.  Initial reports indicate that he is a ‘conservationist’ having rescued other houses in the States so it seems promising that he is the right buyer; one with both the right attitude and pockets deep enough to do the house justice.  Though sadly it’s the end of an era for the Marten family, one hopes that this next phase will see the house restored to its former glory.

And if Mr Chilton happens to read this, it would be great to get your perspective – please do email me.

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More images – both interior and exterior: ‘Crichel House, Dorset‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

A bad omen: the spring country house relaunch

One rather unscientific barometer of the health of the country house market is the thickness of Country Life magazine as it comes through the letterbox each week.  After the thinning of the issue in the run-up to Christmas it’s always pleasing to feel the first weighty edition of the new year.  Yet, though this week’s issue (2 March) boasts ’70 pages of property for sale’ it’s remarkable that the estate agents have so few significant country houses to offer and of those that are there, it seems, along with last week’s issue, the largest houses are relaunches.

Pyrford Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Pyrford Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

One of the most interesting is grade-II listed Pyrford Court, Surrey.  Originally built in 1910 for the 2nd Lord Iveagh, of the Guinness brewing family, it was one of a group of houses built around that time on the profits of beer (along with Polesden Lacey, Elveden Hall, and Bailliffscourt). The land was sold to Lord Iveagh by his father-in-law, Lord Onslow, whose family had owned the area since the 17th-century.  The house was designed by Clyde Young who had also worked at Elveden, another seat of the Guinness family, though the sensitively designed wings were added in 1927-29 by J.A. Hale of Woking to designs by Lord Iveagh.  The stylish neo-Georgian house is an elegant red-brick composition which originally sat in a 1,000-acre estate – though sadly now reduced to just 21-acres.  Lord Iveagh died in 1967 and the house sat empty until sold in 1977 – apart from a brief burst of fame as a location in the 1965 film ‘The Omen’.  The house then became an old people’s home with all the attendant damage until the current owners started their seven-figure restoration.

Pyrford Court was originally launched on the market in January 2010 for an ambitious £20m, a staggering rise in valuation from the £3.25m paid in 2000 and from the £8m asking price when it was offered for sale in 2002 (reduced, a year later, to £6.5m).  Yet this proved too much for the market to take; even for a ‘super-prime’ house within 25 miles of central London, and despite the high-quality restoration of the impressive interiors.  It subsequently languished and has now been promoted with a double-page advert – though the price is ‘on application’ meaning we won’t yet know quite how far the price has dropped.  However, looking at the other houses Savills have for sale in the area this is by far the most interesting and attractive house.

Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staffs)
Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staffs)

Another impressive house is the classically elegant, red-brick Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire.  Although the architect hasn’t been confirmed, the fact that it is virtually identical to Hatton Grange in Shropshire by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, means it can probably be attributed to him.  The house was built in the late 1750s for Bartholomew Richard Barneby, probably using the £3,000 brought to him through his marriage in 1756 to one Betty Freeman. The Barneby family had owned the estate since the 15th-century and were to own it until 1946 when John Talbot Lutley (who was a descendent of the  Barneby family) left the house and 1,200-acre estate to the National Trust. Col. Lutley was a no-nonsense man who, on hearing of the NT country houses scheme, wrote them a short letter in 1938 saying that as he was a bachelor whose heirs were rather distant, would they be interested?

James Lees-Milne was duly dispatched – and almost rejected it on sight as it wasn’t pure Georgian due to some relatively small Victorian alterations.  However, after a tour of the estate and on seeing the beautiful Lower Brockhampton Manor, he felt that the latter two would be fine additions for the Trust – even if the big house would be a drain. It was duly left to the NT in 1946 following the Colonel’s death. Neither the house nor the contents were of sufficient quality to justify retaining or opening to the public so they sought to let it.  Unfortunately no private tenant wished to take it on, usually citing its remoteness, however in 1985 an insurance company let the house as offices and undertook a comprehensive restoration programme.  After they moved out in 1996 it was again restored as a private home and is now available with just 8-acres but surrounded by the rest of the NT-owned estate.  Interestingly the house is listed under the ‘Sales’ section of the Jackson-Stops & Staff website but I suspect this is due to it being leasehold – again ‘price on application’ so the price of the privilege is unknown, but the house has been advertised since last summer so it may be cheaper than before.

Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)
Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)

Perhaps the most surprising house to still be available is the grand Ebberly House, Devon.  Rather than the expected provincial house, this is a house which displays remarkable architectural sophistication. Described by Pevsner as ‘unusual and attractive’, whose distinctive rounded ends ‘hint at the variety of room shapes inside; a provisional echo of the interest of contemporary architects such as Nash and Soane’.  Designed by Thomas Lee of Barnstaple, a pupil of Sir John Soane, the grade-II* house compensates for it’s remoteness with a fantastic house set in a fine 250-acre estate.  Offers in excess of £4m on the back of a postcard to Savills in Exeter.

Perhaps there are some clever marketing plans being hatched at the estate agents which means that rather than pushing their best properties in the first big property edition of Country Life of 2011 they’re saving them for…when?  Bonuses have just been announced and those looking to buy are probably active so perhaps there is just a general scarcity of significant country houses coming to the market.  Does this indicate 2011 will be rather thin for the agents as uncertainty limits buyers to the super-rich looking for somewhere in London or will the market pick up and a slew of new houses soon be released to whet our appetites?