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]

School’s out: seats of learning for sale

One of the many uses to which our country houses have been successfully adapted to is that of schooling – from the grandest such as Stowe and Bryanston to the many smaller houses which have delighted and terrified children in equal measure for many years.  Even as recently as April 2010, Wispers in Sussex, was sold to a London primary school as a satellite to their main campus. Yet for all the fond memories held by generations of youngsters, private schools and educational colleges are facing their own periods of austerity, forcing some to close.  With closure comes a rare opportunity for a house to once again become a home – though such a move is fraught with practical, and sometimes political, challenges.

Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Augustus Photographic via flickr)
Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Augustus Photographic via flickr)

One of the bonuses of writing this blog is to discover houses so little known that, despite their obvious beauty, they seldom appear in books.  Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire is a classic example of this. Currently a residential college, this stunning smaller William and Mary country house was built around 1678 for William Pynsent, a wealthy London barrister, who would have been well-aware of the latest architectural fashions. The architect is unconfirmed but, with the hipped roof and projecting, pedimented centrepiece, it appears to draw inspiration from houses such as Horseheath Hall, Cambridgeshire (though 7-bays to Horseheath’s eleven) designed by Sir Roger Pratt in 1663-5 (dem.1777), and also clear stylistic similarities with houses such as  the north and south fronts of Fawley Court, Buckinghamshire (built 1684-5, by Sir Christopher Wren) and Puslinch, Devon (a late proponent of the style, being built c1720).  One curious anecdote, told to Sir John Julius Norwich, was that the house was substantially altered, creating the elegant east front, about twelve years after construction to designs by William Talman – but Colvin doesn’t mention it and no firm evidence has appeared to support this…so far.

Puslinch House, Devon (Image: Devon Rural Archive)
Puslinch House, Devon (Image: Devon Rural Archive)

Urchfont is a fascinating and enchanting smaller manor house which successfully plays the neat visual trick of looking larger than it is – at least from some angles. The two key views of the house are from the main road from the village, which gave a clear view of the east front and the road running below the south front (the house was once more visible; maps from 1880s show only a few clumps of trees, much fewer than there are now).  If one only saw these two fronts, one might think this a large, cube-shaped house – but move round to the north and the house is clearly only one room deep on the east front. A lovely piece of social aggrandisement.  The house passed through various families and was tenanted before being bought by another lawyer, Hamilton Rivers-Pollock, in 1928, who lived there until his death in 1941.  It then became a home for London children suffering from tuberculosis, and was then bought in 1945 by Wiltshire County Council as a residential college.  Now, faced with cutbacks,  the council have decided to sell up, amid much local controversy, giving this beautiful house an opportunity to once again become a home.

The Hill, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire (Image: Cooke & Arkwright)
The Hill, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire (Image: Cooke & Arkwright)

Across the country in Monmouthshire, The Hill, as the name implies, sits rather proudly on the edge of Abergavenny.  Built in the mid-18th century, the house sits in 20-acres of gardens (which are included on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic
Interest in Wales) from a once larger estate, the residential spread of the town having crept up towards it.  Sadly, poor planning has led to a small residential estate taking up the grounds to the east of the house, and further buildings associated with its time as a college now stand between them and the house.  This makes it exceptionally unlikely that the house would become a single-family home again but potentially a high-quality development, replacing the modern buildings and respecting the grounds, could offer a workable solution.

Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)
Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)

On a larger scale, the curse of the associated buildings also blights Bedgebury Park, Kent. The original house of the estate, seat of the influential Culpepper family, financed by a flourishing iron business based on the clay-ironstone on which it sits, was to the east of the current grand mansion (now a lake), and played host to Elizabeth I, who visited in August 1573.  The current house was built in 1688 for Sir James Hayes, a man who had become wealthy through  his wife’s inheritance and financing the recovery of jewels and gold from a sunken Spanish ship.  Sir John Cartier bought it in 1789 and added some impressive plasterwork and the chain of lakes on the estate.  Following Cartier’s death,  Bedgebury was bought by one of the Duke of Wellington’s most trusted men, Field Marshal Viscount Beresford.  He commissioned Alexander Roos c.1838 and the subsequent extensive alterations and the addition of the cross wings to create the H-shape, obscured the red-brick original behind an impressive cladding of warm, honey-coloured sandstone ashlar, creating a house which positively glows in the sun. Inherited by Alexander Beresford Hope in 1854, he made his mark on the house by adding the impressive Neo-Classical stairhall and the striking mansard roof.

Stairhall created c.1850s, Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)
Stairhall created c.1850s, Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)

The house was bought by the Church Education Corporation with 200-acres in 1919, opening as a school with just five pupils in 1920.  It quickly grew and new buildings were added in the grounds providing extra teaching and residential facilities, before closing in 2006.  Now offered at £7.5m, the grade-II* house sits in a 90-acre estate awaiting its future.  The brochure mentions that the local planning department are open to the idea of it becoming a single unit residence again – a possibly tempting prospect for a billionaire who needs an impressive house, a small estate, and doesn’t mind having to demolish the modern school buildings which have sprung up.  Considering the quality of the interiors, this must surely be a feasible prospect, especially in light of the recent sale of Park Place for £140m which proved that there are those willing to pay exceptional prices for the best quality properties.

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)
Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)

For those seeking to move into a former school which has been partially restored to the highest standards and now only requires the finishing touches (if you have a couple of million pounds available), then possibly the finest option would be Apethorpe, Northamptonshire.  This fascinating Tudor/Jacobean/Elizabethan house has played a supporting role in royal entertainments for 500 years and features some of the finest plaster ceilings in the country – and became a particularly grand school between the late 1940s and 1982, when it closed. Bought by an absentee owner, it languished for years, flirting with dereliction.  Finally, intervention by English Heritage brought it into their care and it’s currently for sale for offers around £5m (English Heritage reputedly spent £7m on the rescue so far), and would require another approximately £4m to complete the restoration.  On an remarkable side note; the fact that Apethorpe was saved from the usual vandalism, arson and theft which so often afflicts empty buildings, was largely due to the tireless efforts of the caretaker, George Kelley, who carried on even though he wasn’t being paid to do so.

The most recent closure (at least partially) is of St Michael’s in Tawstock, Devon.  Originally known as Tawstock Court, it was built in 1787 in a provincial Gothick style to replace an Elizabethan house which burnt down that same year.  Although the staff and parents have made heroic efforts to save it, the concern for them is that the house will fall into the hands of developers who will convert it into flats – and considering the poor job most do of such a task, their concerns are very valid.

In these straitened times, sadly a number of parents and councils will be forced to economise and schools, usually private, may well close.  Sad though this will inevitably be for the many current and former pupils, it does also offer a possibility that these houses may revert to their former role for which they were designed – and few would argue that the spectacular Marshcourt in Hampshire, designed by Lutyens, was better off as a school. However, as the roll call of struggling schools lengthens, it is important that the future of the often wonderful buildings, which gave each school their character, are given due priority to ensure an appropriate transition and restoration if the opportunity arises for them to return to being family homes.


Original story: ‘Urchfont Manor sale row erupts‘ [Gazette and Herald]

Listed building description: ‘Bedgebury Park, Kent‘ [British Listed Buildings]