Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Transport has now announced the final route for the HS2 rail line which will carve its way through some of our most beautiful countryside and require the demolition of many homes so that we can get to Birmingham 15 whole minutes quicker! And it will only cost £32bn – honest. Despite claims of popular support, when faced with loud opposition from those living in its path or near enough to be blighted by it, those who care about our heritage and the environment, rail users, road users, opposition politicians, coalition politicians, Cabinet members, and MPs from their own parties, some important improvements have been wrung out as to the route – some of which have significantly enhanced the prospects for some of our country houses previously affected.
One of the most significant houses to be affected by the initial route was Edgcote House, a glorious, grade-I, Georgian gem, which faced having the main view from the house out over the lake terminated by a not inconsiderable viaduct. However, the new route has moved the line to the east, leaving the lake, and the view, largely preserved. I wonder how much this change was influenced by the prospect of having to pay compensation for ‘statutory blight’ on a multi-million pound house and estate – a possibly more forceful reason, sadly, than just ruining the setting of a fine country house.
More broadly, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, has cautiously welcomed the alteration to the route, though, there are still concerns. Having seen off very early proposals which would have had the route disturb the stunning West Wycombe Park, the later revisions did propose to run the line, with inadequate measures to minimise the impact, rather close to the National Trust’s grade-I Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire. It seems that the powerful voice of the NT has succeeded in increasing the mitigation measures with extended deep cuttings to minimise the visual and sound impact – but it’s certainly not the tunnel they were hoping for.
Another house which has definitely escaped the blight is Shardeloes, also in Buckinghamshire. The route originally ran across the other side of the shallow valley in front of the house on the other side of a main road (which already cuts through the parkland). Although this section was to be in a cutting, under the new plans, the extended tunnelling completely removes the above ground elements near the house.
Of the other houses, Waddesdon Manor was never really going to be affected, the route past Stoneleigh Abbey hasn’t changed, still slicing through the agricultural showground which had already blighted the setting of that fascinating house, nor have there been any changes to the situation for Chetwode Manor. On the positive side, The Vache benefits from the extended tunnel at Chalfont St Giles, and that same tunnel means that the route now sweeps well to the south of Pollard Park House. Grade-II* Doddershall Hall has also gained further protection.
Although it is easy to be sceptical about HS2, I am, in principle, a strong supporter of railways, particularly over domestic flights and more roads. However, where projects of this scale and expense are proposed, it is even more important that the full costs – financial, social, material, and environmental – are fully understood, especially where irreplaceable built heritage will be compromised. Commenting on the changes, Justine Greening said: “The changes mean that more than half the route will now be mitigated by tunnel or cutting and there will also be a reduction in the impacts on people and communities, ancient woodlands and important heritage sites. The revised route offers considerable improvements to communities, with the number of dwellings at risk of land take almost halving and the number experiencing increased noise levels reducing by a third.“.
So, overall, the effects on the country houses nearest the line have largely been removed or minimised. But what seems a shame is that so much energy and expense had to be deployed to achieve this – why were these considerations not taken into account as a matter of course when the initial plans were drawn up? Sadly, it seems that cost pressures demand that civil servants start with the most damaging option and then must be forced to not spoil the nation they are supposed to be looking after. Perhaps, one day, heritage will be valued so highly that such proposals are not even considered. One can always hope.
Although country houses were built primarily as homes, an integral and important function was their use for entertaining. However, one dramatic change has been the nature of the guests and how they paid for their visits – and the birth of the refined country house holiday now regarded as the best the hospitality industry can offer. That said, running such a hotel is no guaranteed path to the wealth suggested by the lifestyle; with huge initial costs, large ongoing expenses and the elusive need for profitability leading to the recent troubles for the Von Essen hotel chain which had dominated this niche, including running the finest country house hotel – Cliveden, before collapsing under their own ambition. The chase for profitability has also led to some shocking schemes for building further accommodation which can be seen in the recent proposals for Wyreside Hall in Lancashire.
Country houses have long been used as accommodation for travellers, be they friends of the owning family or, more spectacularly in medieval and Renaissance periods, for the monarch. Often considered a great honour (supposedly there are more beds in which Queen Elizabeth I has apparently slept than nights she was alive), the occasion of a royal visit – or the possibility of one – would cause local aristocrats, or those aspiring, to refurbish suites of rooms such as at Burghley, Hatfield House, and Kirby Hall (even though Elizabeth I never came to the latter). Sometimes, the ruinous expense of hosting the royal retinue would sometimes leave the owner with a title but also debts they’d be paying off for decades.
The heights of country house entertaining were reached by the Victorians and Edwardians who popularised, amongst the aristocracy, the vast weekend house party. This led to houses being built or extended to create, in effect, large hotels. The key difference was the guests were pre-selected from a narrow social strata and were expected to ‘pay’ for the hospitality with reciprocal entertainment or with business or political favours. The greater the social elevation of the guests, so the number of staff required increased, leading to some houses, particularly at the cream of society, such as Eaton Hall and Clumber House, being greatly extended. Eaton Hall eventually numbered around 150 bedrooms ranging from those for the honoured guests down to the lowliest servants who would share dormitories. Sadly, it was these sizeable extensions and aggrandisements which were largely the reason for their demolition in the 20th-century in their hundreds as austerity hit home and these huge palaces became unaffordable.
Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, was the longest serving Regent and developed a highly cultivated habit of ‘weekending’ at country houses, especially his own at Sandringham, Norfolk. His preferences have been said to have laid the foundations for not only the practice of weekend visits but also for indulging with grand breakfasts followed by country activities such as shooting, followed by convivial dinners. Such was his reputation that some owners would fear a visit for the expense involved with one family, the Gurneys of Northrepps Hall in Norfolk, allegedly burning down a wing to forestall such a visit. By contrast, in 1902, when Edward VII visited Burton in Staffordshire an entire wing was built and named after him in his honour at Rangemore Hall.
Country house visiting had been a common activity for the travelling aristocrat in the Georgian era (a topic explored in a previous article ‘How tourism split a house from the estate‘). Often calling on those they knew, they would also call on the notable houses in an area (an acceptable enough practice to be included by Jane Austen in ‘Pride and Prejudice‘) – and the owners of these ‘show houses’ were happy to parade their good taste. By the beginning of the 18th-century, Blenheim, Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Wilton and Burghley had become the ‘must-see’ houses for the country house tourist – later joined by Houghton, Holkham, Eaton Hall and Kedleston. Sadly, visitors weren’t always there for the educational opportunities of seeing some of the finest art in the world – as Horace Walpole lamented regarding the visitors to his father’s Houghton Hall, where he was a guide, the worst were the seers:
…they come, ask what such a room is called, in which Sir Robert lay, write it down, admire a lobster or a cabbage in a market-piece, dispute whether the last room was green or purple, and then back to the inn for fear the fish should be overdressed.
It’s the last line which is of particular interest – even the well-to-do Georgian guest would be staying in a nearby coaching inn unless they had family nearby. By the Victorian era, the nature and number of the guests had changed, but still the houses were private residences – until 1878 when the first country house became a hotel; Tregenna Castle near St Ives, Cornwall. The catalyst was the extension of the railway, and the purchasers of a initial lease on Tregenna, before buying the freehold in 1895, was the Great Western Railway who could not only provide the destination, but the means to get there.
The growth of a paying middle class in the Victorian and Edwardian eras created demand – but most importantly, both eras were about aspiration. The middle class may not have had the wealth to run a country house (and in the 1930s and 1950s, many owners didn’t either) but they certainly wanted to experience it. The glut of country houses which became available in the first half of the 20th-century presented many opportunities for the hospitality industry to cater for these new markets. For the upper classes, although many had been forced to sell up or move out, they still wanted to continue the lifestyle – though not necessarily alongside the nouveau riche. This created another market for the exclusive country club with clear social stratification driving the finest hotels to become bywords for extravagant elegance – something still clear today (though entry is more socially open) when one looks at hotels such as Cliveden or Stoke Park.
Though initially slow to take-off, the first half of the 20th-century saw a number of houses become hotels; in 1929, Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire and North Bovey Manor, Devon (another for the Great Western Railway), Welcombe Manor, Warwickshire in 1931, Otterburn Tower, Northumberland and Studley Priory, Oxfordshire, both in 1947 and Greywalls in Scotland in 1948, to name but a few. Gravetye Manor was sold to Peter Herbert in 1957, when he paid £57,000 and charged £2 per night. One author reported that the 1995 Egon Ronay guide listed 220 country house hotels, and the Historic Houses Association estimated that a quarter of the country houses sold between 1972-1990 were converted into hotels. Though some have inevitably failed, the trend continues with one of the most recent being Coworth Park, built in 1776, opening in September 2010.
This potential re-use of the houses has not always been benign. The nature of hotels is that the bedrooms generate the income so the more you have the better for them – though usually not for the architectural cohesion of the house. In hotel terms, many houses would not be economic which has led to the building of large, and not necessarily sensitive, additions. Considering the original intentions of country house owners were to demonstrate their wealth and taste and to build a house to last, rarely are the modern extensions designed with anything approaching the same care and expense so there is an inevitable mismatch. Many a country house hotel is scarred with poor quality and visually flawed wings which are almost designed to detract from the main house – but then buildings designed by accountants never win prizes for beauty.
Although there is evidence of a greater sensitivity in recent years where new wings are tucked away from the main house and linked by corridors, it seems that there are still some owners who see the house as merely an ornament to put on the front cover of the brochure whilst they ruin the setting. It was hoped that the worst schemes were behind us but sometimes one is proposed which is so bad that it would be laughable if it didn’t threaten a fine (though currently not in the best condition) house – Wyreside Hall in Lancashire (hat-tip to Matthew Steeples for flagging this one up).
The house was originally built in the 17th-century but was remodelled in 1790 by the then owner, John Fenton Crawthorne, MP, to a design by the gifted architect, Robert Adam. Though the full scheme wasn’t implemented, the exterior benefited from a graceful symmetry with the drawing room, dining room and library also completed to his plans (though apparently no evidence of their decoration now remains). The now Grade-II house remained in the Garrett family until 1936 after which it became a school and then home for a local motorsport legend. The scheme that has now been proposed learns none of the lessons of sensitive hotel development (or any work involving heritage) over the last 50 years.
Yes, it really is that ugly. The design effectively doubles the size of the house and, as can be seen from the plan (scroll to page 44 – no direct link, sorry), the associated access roads, parking and ‘landscaping’ ruin the immediate setting of the house. The usual arguments have been made about this bringing jobs to the area but if we must sacrifice the very heritage which gives an area a distinct identity, which attracts tourists or the wealthy (who usually also spend money locally) then it’s a poor bargain. Wyre Council should throw out this and any subsequent plan which displays equally limited thinking and such an arrogant disregard for the architectural heritage of the area. As we’ve seen, country house hotels can work – but not when they are at the expense of the original building.
This is the last post for 2011 – 43 posts in total, now over 350 subscribers to the blog, nearly 210,000 pages served up; and 850 followers of @thecountryseat on Twitter, so all-in-all, a fairly impressive level of interest; thank you! Matthew
Many of the houses featured in this blog are shown as a celebration of the brilliance of our architects and craftsmen in creating one of the finest bodies of buildings of their type in the world. Yet, in abundance is, perhaps inevitably, failure; where an interesting house becomes a victim of circumstance, policy, incompetence or, sometimes, all of the above. Great Barr Hall, once outside Birmingham, now encircled by advancing urbanisation, is a sad example of where a house can languish and deteriorate whilst deliberate vandalism and institutional lethargy condemn it to its fate – and unless something is done soon, Great Barr Hall will join the already far-too-long list of the lost country houses of England.
Despite its current sorry state, Great Barr Hall was once a sizable house – though precisely how large is unclear. An early print in 1798 Stebbing Shaw’s ‘History and Antiquities of Staffordshire‘ shows a 11-bay castellated house with four corner turrets but the present house is 9-bays. For comparison, it’s interesting to note the stylistic similarities with Syon House in west London, a seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, though it is also 9-bays wide and has an imposing porte cochere.
What is known is in the 1760s, Sir Joseph Scott, then head of a family line which had been in the area for 600 years, built a new house in a ‘gothick’ style. The original architect is unknown but Stebbing Shaw describes how ‘The present possessor [Joseph Scott], about the year 1767, began to exercise his well known taste and ingenuity upon the old fabric, giving it the pleasing monastic appearance it now exhibits – and has since much improved it by the addition of a spacious dining room at the east end, and other rooms and conveniences‘. If Scott was his own architect, perhaps he was, in part, inspired by the remodelling of Syon House by Robert Adam which started in that same year.
Sir Joseph Scott’s original extensive works led to some financial difficulties and so, from 1785, he moved to the Continent and rented the house out. The lease was taken by Samual Galton junior, a controversial Birmingham Quaker, banker, gun manufacturer, and intellectual who hosted meetings of the Lunar Society at Great Barr Hall leading to it becoming a noted crossroads for industrial ideas, a crucible for the Midlands industrial growth and the wider Industrial Revolution.
Where Great Barr becomes particularly interesting from our point of view is with the arrival of the young architect John Nash and his business collaborator and famous landscaper, Humphrey Repton. Nash was there to provide the buildings which Repton needed to complete his gardening visions. This worked well for both men; Nash was to pay Repton 2.5% for any work the latter passed his way so Nash charged his clients the then rather high fee of 7%, giving him a 4.5% fee. There is no record of Nash ever putting any work towards Repton – but Nash benefited with work on over one hundred estates. There seems to be some uncertainty as to exactly when Nash started working there but John Summerson gives the date as 1800 for the construction of a gothic archway to the adjacent chapel, but other works such as the gate lodges, an icehouse and a new steeple for the chapel started in 1797 and were probably also by Nash and Repton.
About this time, the house was also updated to create the appearance we can just make out today – but it hasn’t been confirmed that Nash was the architect. However, there are tantalising clues that it could well be by him. Nash had been developing his particular style of Picturesque gothic during his time in Wales and had been applying it with varying degrees of success since then during alterations at Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire, (1795) and at Corsham House, Wiltshire (1797 – a disaster due to poor workmanship with Nash’s work later demolished). Yet, some of the architectural fingerprints of each of these can be seen in Great Barr. Externally, one such feature is the crenellations applied to both the roof and the tops of the projecting towers, another is the hooded Elizabethan-style windows. Another interesting piece of the jigsaw is a house which Nash was working on in 1800 in Buckinghamshire, Chalfont Park, which bears not only a superficial stylistic similarity but also one of form – a long rectangular main body with a projecting 3-bay centre. However, Chalfont Park was also altered by Anthony Salvin in 1840 so it’s not possible to tell how much of the gothic detailing is Nash’s.
The Scott’s return in 1797 prompted the works of Repton and Nash before further work in 1830 and 1848 which included moving the entrance from the west side to the north. In 1863, a chapel was built to a design thought to be by Sir George Gilbert Scott, though it was never consecrated and so became a billiard room.
The house remained with the Scotts until the house became a hospital for the mentally ill in 1918 following the death of Lady Bateman-Scott in 1909. As is usual, the institutional nature of hospital use was not kind to the house. Beyond the extensive network of buildings which marched across Repton’s parkland (and the south eastern corner of the estate being carved up by the M6 motorway), the house itself had a modern two-storey extension added in 1925 and in 1955 the clock tower, stables and much of the east wing were demolished. In the 1960s, some sensitive architectural ‘genius’ removed the two splendid first-floor oriel windows which flanked the main entrance and inserted a pair of non-matching government-issue casement windows.
The current plight of Great Barr Hall can largely be laid at the door of Bovis Homes and John Prescott, formerly the Deputy Prime Minister, and the one who eventually signed off on the architectural blight that now affects the house. Considering that the hospital buildings were in two distinct campuses, one to the north west and another to the north east, if there had to be development, replacing the buildings to the NW would have placed them furthest from the house, with the advantage of creating a more complete parkland around the house, with the possibility of re-instating, to some extent, the earlier Picturesque drive. To hope that someone of Prescott’s aesthetic insensibilities would see such a solution was always forlorn but one might hope that someone on the local council or in English Heritage might have proposed a more sensitive outcome. Sadly it was not to be and now a large development of 445 executive-style homes has been built, the closest being scarcely a hundred metres from the back of the house. Worse, following the sale of the house to a building preservation trust, little progress has been made, with questions now being asked about the trust’s failure to restore it as promised earlier. It was again put up for sale in May 2011 by the Trust at the unrealistic price of £2.2m with the option to buy a further 100-acres of parkland – with the threat of even more development.
Despite some architectural uncertainties, what is clear is that those charged with its care in the recent decades have failed. Perhaps this is a broader failure of policy, that without an explicit mandate to determine that the architectural heritage must be managed, maintained and preserved as far as is possible, it will fall to all-to-fallible councillors to look beyond their own short-term interests; sadly, an unlikely prospect. The NHS generally has a poor record of managing historical assets once it has no further use for them e.g Sandhill Park, and Stallington Hall are just two examples and don’t forget that Soane’s Moggerhanger survived despite the NHS, not because of it. A strong national policy should provide a clear strategy for preservation of heritage assets taken over by the state rather than just relying on existing listed buildings legislation. In Great Barr Hall’s sad circumstance, one can only hope that someone will be able to extract the money owed as part of the enabling development, which can then be devoted to restoring this interesting and significant house so that it once again can be something for the local residents to be proud of, rather than the monument to NHS, central government and local council incompetence which it is today.
Still for sale? (thanks to Andrew for spotting this): Great Barr Hall might still be for sale – there is a page with details but it’s not listed on the agent’s website: ‘Great Barr Hall‘. Now listed for £3m but with 150-acres but with another 100-acres of parkland by separate negotiation. Considering the Building Preservation Trust paid just £900,000 for the entire site this seems a little odd – perhaps someone will enlighten us.
To describe a country seat as a ‘power house’ was usually to allude to its status economically, politically, certainly as a local employer, usually even in matters of style. Yet, these houses also indirectly, and sometimes very directly, played an important part in the provision of the electricity which has grown to power our everyday lives. Power stations play an obvious central role and their expansion has often been controversial. In earlier decades, a local power house was sometimes sacrificed to the demands of industry and the needs for power stations, but now, for some, particularly Fairfield House in Somerset, they have proven to be a windfall.
Country estates have a long history of being the beneficiaries of the need for power. In medieval times, the natural resources of an estate, such as a fast-flowing river or extensive woodland would be harnessed or harvested to drive local industry. The most productive land could prove especially valuable if it could support the entire production cycle such as for bread, with corn grown on the estate, being ground in the windmill or mill on the river, before being sold in the market in a town owned by the local lord, who, at each stage would profit. As the Industrial Revolution flourished, so the need for power grew, leading landowners to fully exploit the natural resources which lay beneath their land as well, with coal becoming a leading creator of Victorian fortunes.
Yet, the almost insatiable need for power, and the coal which generated it, has also consumed some of our country houses, including one of the grandest, and threatens some even today. One of the greatest threats from mining is subsidence caused by extensive mine workings which simply followed the coal seam – wherever it may lead. Given the choice between a loss of income or the loss of the family seat, it was rarely the house which won. It was, of course, the northern counties which were worst affected; Methley Hall, seat of the Earls of Mexborough, was eventually ruined by the coal workings which surrounded it (an issue even when Country Life visited in 1907) and demolished in 1963. Kippax Park, once the second longest country house in the country, stood in the way of an open-cast coal mine which eventually consumed it in the late 1950s. In County Durham, Coxhoe Hall, was eventually bought by the local coal board who proceeded to demolished it in 1956 to avoid having to fix the structural issues they had created.
This is, inevitably, just a small selection of some of the many losses but easily the most spectacular casualty of coal mining would be Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire. Built for the Dukes of Hamilton, the Palace was the epitome of aristocratic wealth, creating both a home and a collection which would rival the best in Europe. Built on the incredible wealth generated by the Lanarkshire coalfields they owned, the 10th Duke, Alexander, enclosed the existing house in a grand Classical embrace. The one-room deep extension of the house, in 1819, accommodated not only the many works of art he had acquired on his Grand Tour but also many of the treasures inherited from the fabulous collection of William Beckford which came via the Duke’s wife, who was Beckford’s youngest daughter. Yet those same coalfields eventually fatally undermined the house, and faced with such a substantial problem, and not lacking other houses to move to, the decision was taken in 1919 to demolish the Palace – the most serious loss to Scottish country house architecture in the last 200 years.
Others houses were even more directly affected by the need for power stations which, ironically, shared similar requirements with the aristocracy for their homes; a level site with good access to roads (and later rail), a ready water supply and space to expand. In the dark days of the mid-twentieth century, for an impoverished owner, the offer to be bought out by the local power company must have been very attractive – and perhaps may have helped their guilt by feeling that it was contributing to national infrastructure; though often the house had already gone.
One house which certainly matched these criteria was Drakelow Hall, Staffordshire, seat of 28 generations of the Gresley family and which, declared Country Life in 1902, “…is one of those seats of ancient eminence which win the regard of all Englishmen.“. Situated above the River Trent, the house was perhaps best known for the Painted Dining Room by Paul Sandby which was completed in 1793. Sadly, declining family fortunes led to its sale in 1933, followed by ill-fated ventures such as a country club and motor racing circuit before the house was demolished in 1938, though, fortunately, a section of the Dining Room was saved by the V&A. In 1948, the huge Drakelow Power Station rose on the site, attracted by the sizable 707-acre estate and its proximity to the river, and railways, road and, most importantly, the East Midlands coalfields. Hams Hall in Warwickshire similarly vanished under the same demands. One house which was rescued was Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire, a wonderful small villa by Sir Robert Taylor, which was bought for £1 by SAVE Britain’s Heritage to prove that it was possible to restore it. The house is now again a home as a result of their valiant efforts. However, even today, subsidence from old coal workings threatens other houses such as at Wentworth Woodhouse, where the owner, Clifford Newbold, has lodged a claim for £100m in compensation to fund the stabilisation and restoration of this magnificent house.
The requirements for nuclear power stations were different in that they were obviously less dependent on proximity to the raw fuel but they did require vast quantities of water for cooling so were often sited on the coast – which thankfully also meant fewer houses would be affected. Of those, the small manor house at Calder Hall had already gone by the time the decision was taken to built the UK’s first nuclear reactor on the site in 1947. So although the opportunities for landowners are now primarily around wind turbines, a report in the Sunday Times (13 Nov 2011) highlights the windfalls from owning the land adjacent to a nuclear power station scheduled for expansion.
Lady Elizabeth Gass, Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, and current owner of the 6,000-acre family estate, recently accepted a £50m offer from EDF to purchase 230-acres of farmland which will become the proposed Hinckley C power station. The Fairfield House estate (a prime candidate for the Handed On blog of lesser-known seats) has descended through the Palmer-Acland-Wood-Fuller families for 800 years and has never been sold. The current part-Elizabethan house was begun in about 1580, but with later changes in 1633 to change it from a medieval courtyard layout to the more familiar E-plan which we see today. Excitingly, traces of the old house are still embedded in the fabric today, with a cell for those awaiting the justice of the local magistrate and, once revealed behind some 19th-century plasterwork in the attics, the original finely-carved late-medieval roof timbers of a first floor hall.
The future of this wonderful estate is now secure and stands as a testament to how changing patterns of land use which once threatened and toppled grand houses can also enrich a country estate. That it is going to support a rare survivor of familial descent is an added bonus and I hope Lady Gass feels rightly proud of her success.
An apology: you may have noticed that I haven’t been able to publish as frequently as I’d like but just to reassure you that this is definitely not due to any slackening of interest on my part but simply due to my day job requiring a greater commitment at the moment. This hopefully will be temporary and as we go into the Spring I can pick up the pace again – but in the meantime, please do take time to re-read some of the old posts you may not have seen, and hopefully discover something new amongst the archives.
For any architect starting out, the early commissions are perhaps the most important; establishing them both in terms of not only their designs but also how they operate in the execution. In architectural terms, the early buildings of some architects are sometimes less prized, and therefore protected, than their later works which benefit from the full measure of their developed skill and experience. In that light, Burnham Westgate Hall deserves to be cherished as not only a fine house but also the first substantial country house project of Sir John Soane. It provided the springboard for one of our finest architects and is important for the promise shown but also for securing one of the most important prizes in the Georgian era: patronage.
For someone who ended up a knight of the realm, with fame and a noble client list, Sir John Soane (b.1753 – d.1837) had a very ordinary start in life as the son of a bricklayer from Goring-on-Thames, near Reading. Patronage and connections were to define Soane’s personal and professional life, providing opportunities to establish himself in a way that his competitors, often connected from birth, already enjoyed. Almost nothing is known of his early life but his obvious talent must have been spotted as he entered the office of George Dance the Younger in 1768, though only starting as errand boy, via an introduction by James Peacock, an employee of Dance who knew Soane’s older brother.
His talent and work ethic propelled Soane to join the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, where he quickly won the silver medal for a measured drawing of the facade of Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House. What was particularly clear during Soane’s time at the Royal Academy was his ambition and an industriousness that was to serve him well in later periods, combined with an attention to detail which proved to be a blessing in his professional life. In 1776, he won the Academy gold medal, which made him eligible to compete for the highly coveted King’s travelling scholarship which, for someone of Soane’s limited financial means, would be his only chance to see Italy first-hand. Soane had heard that George III thought him a suitable candidate and so he rashly gave up his position with Henry Holland (where Soane was known to have assisted on three country house commissions: Claremont in Surrey, Benham Park in Berkshire, and Cadland in Hampshire (dem. 1953)) only to find out that Sir Joshua Reynolds had intervened to demand the winner of the scholarship be by vote from the Academicians. This delayed his departure by a year but it was put to good use completing smaller tasks for Henry Holland such as estimating bills and measuring work which exposed him to clients such as Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford; a man of noted taste and an amateur architect who was to prove particularly important in Soane’s career. Though delayed, in 1777 Soane set off on the single most important trip of his life to Italy; one which was to establish him professionally and socially.
The Grand Tour had become an institution amongst the younger aristocrats as a way of experiencing the glories of classical art and architecture in their native environments. It was also a fine opportunity for the wealthy to indulge their passion for art collecting but, for novice architects, days were largely spent measuring and recording the wonders of Roman architecture. On a more practical level, Soane would have seen and experienced during his time with Dance and Holland how useful family and professional networks were in securing commissions. In Italy, Soane worked assiduously to develop his own connections; travelling with his friend Robert Furze Brettingham (nephew of the famous architect Matthew Brettingham the Elder who had designed the original Burnham Westgate Hall, then called Polstede Hall) and visiting the English Coffee House; a central meeting point for the English nobility abroad, whom Soane courted as clients.
Patronage could also be a double-edged sword, with the ambitions of the client giving what could turn out to be false hope to an architect. Of all those Soane met in Italy, Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry, later the 4th Earl of Bristol, was a prime example of the capricious client – though despite the Earl’s failure to deliver, he did introduce Soane, once again, to Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford, and cousin of William Pitt the younger, and who became a lifelong friend, supporter, mentor and patron. Soane had fallen under the influence of the Earl, a charming, witty aristocrat who had a growing reputation for being a difficult client. How much Soane knew of this is unclear but after travelling through Naples and Sicily for many weeks together discussing architecture, Soane believed he would be given a handsome commission to improve Downhill (now a ruin), the Earl’s rather bleak seat, set in the coastal hills of County Derry, Northern Ireland. However, after persuading Soane to cut short his travels by a year and luring him over to Ireland in 1780, after six fruitless and frustrating weeks with the disagreeable Earl not committing to any of Soane’s designs, he left Ireland in despair, seriously out of pocket, and with the hopes of his first significant commission of his architectural career in tatters.
Back in London, Soane’s wealthy and well-connected friends, particularly those he had made in Italy, and especially Pitt, sought to ease his plight by asking for his designs for smaller estate buildings or their own houses, such as for his friend John Stuart at Allanbank, Berwickshire. Again, although the smaller projects were built, the larger plans failed to materialise – the only one of significance being some limited alterations to Petersham Lodge, one of Lord Camelford’s homes. After this, Soane took on a few smaller commissions from other clients which allowed him to develop his skills as an architect, not just in designing but the delivery of the projects, including the elegant dairy in the fashionable rustique, Rousseau-esque style at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire for the Hon. Philip Yorke, later 3rd Earl of Hardwick – another of his Italy contacts.
However, it was his main supporter, Lord Camelford, who provided the largest commission in 1783, the one which elevated Soane from dreamer of grand plans but only executor of small estate buildings. Camelford’s wife had inherited Burnham Westgate Hall and now her husband wished to create a seat of suitable standing near to that other fulcrum of political influence in north Norfolk, Holkham Hall, home of the Earl of Leicester. Burnham Westgate is curious in that it is one of the early examples of Soane’s practice of reusing his designs. Compare Burham Westgate Hall today with the unexecuted design illustrated right which Soane completed for John Stuart at Allenbank – the overall form of the house is similar, differing only in the striking chimneys and the size of the flanking wings. Soane seemed to do this less as he grew as an architect but it can be seen in his bow-fronted design for Saxlingham Rectory and enlarged version seen on the south front of Tendring Hall (dem. 1955), and even more directly between Shotesham Hall in Norfolk and Piercefield near Chepstow.
Burnham Westgate Hall has perhaps been a little overlooked in the literature, perhaps suffering from being overshadowed by Soane’s next project: his first solo, entirely new-build house; Letton Hall, which was started in the following year in 1784. However, the innovation of Letton could only be created on a sound architectural foundation which Soane had spent years building; the smaller commissions of temples, kennels and interiors, before Burnham Westgate gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that he was capable of working on a project of that size. Bar the limited and hotly contested public works, private country houses were some of the most significant commissions available to any architect and Burnham Westgate was Soane’s calling card; his proof of his ability, imagination and practical ability to deliver a fine house suitable for those in upper society. That it is a close variation on a earlier design can be forgiven considering the nascent stage of his career; this sale offers a new owner the chance to own the project which gave Sir John Soane the springboard which helped establish this most brilliant of architects.
One of the pleasures of running your own blog about country houses is that you get to play favourites. I’m often asked which is my favourite but this is a difficult one to answer; is it the one I want to live in (currently Bragborough Hall, Northamptonshire), the one I most want to visit (Mereworth Castle, Kent), or one that I think is just stunning (Bruern Abbey, Oxfordshire)? However, there are some which just hold a special affection – and that, for me, has to be Mamhead House in Devon, partly for its beauty and also for no better reason than it having been local to where I grew up.
Mamhead’s main claim to fame is that it was the project which established one of the best Victorian architects; Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881). Described as a pioneer of Gothic Revival architecture, Salvin could be seen as the secular equivalent to the religiously driven Pugin. Both sought to restore Gothic as the traditional form of design most suited to the nation, but whereas Pugin saw this as a devotional mission to return Britain to how it might have been had the Reformation never occurred, Salvin saw Gothic as the form which was best suited to our landscape and aesthetics. Salvin’s historically rigorous approach saw him create some of the most interesting country houses of the Victorian era – and Mamhead is a rare example which has now been restored to its former glory.
According to Mark Girouard, Salvin’s reputation appropriately rests on his country houses, dismissing his churches as ‘seldom interesting‘, and that it’s ‘hard to regret‘ that his designs for larger buildings such as the new Houses of Parliament and the Carlton Club were never built. However, in the sphere of the country house; his success rested on his ability to combine three elements; “the domestic or castellated architecture of the Middle Ages and the Tudors; the design techniques of the Picturesque; and the needs of the Victorian upper classes“*.
Salvin specialised in the restoration and modernisation of ancient buildings, building on a precocious interest in medieval architecture which saw him elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1824, aged just 24. His obvious scholarly talent marked him as someone to watch but it’s still unclear exactly how he secured his first commission at Mamhead – especially as he replaced a more experienced architect whose plans he then had to adapt. The owner, a merchant called Robert Newman, had commissioned Charles Fowler, who had designed a classical house to replace the existing house (altered by Robert Adam for the Earl of Lisburne in 1774), which Newman appears to have decided not to proceed with, possibly seeing the winds of fashion shift towards the Gothic. He may also have been influenced having seen Kitley (now a hotel), also in south Devon, which had been remodelled by George Stanley Repton between 1820-25, in one of the first attempts at authentic Elizabethan. This change of heart gave Salvin his opportunity.
For Pevsner, Mamhead was the house which established Salvin as the chief Victorian architect for large country houses in the Tudor style. Salvin was constrained in that he was working from the existing symmetrical plan and denied the chance to introduce the projection and recession of elements so traditional with Gothic. However, this plan does have tradition in that it has the feel of an Elizabethan E-plan house; though one where the main door has been moved to the corner rather than the expected middle. These minor quibbles were to be later offset by the masterly later additions. Mamhead’s cost of £20,000 was financed from income, so although work started in 1827-8, the final interiors (strangely being the entrance hall) weren’t finished until seven years later. During this time Salvin’s knowledge and experience grew – not least through his second commission for a new country house; Moreby Hall in Yorkshire, built between 1828-32. Here he enjoyed a freedom to create and developed his own arrangement of a central, two-storey hall off which came the main rooms and which also allowed warm air to circulate – not only visually impressive but also practical.
It was perhaps the later additions of stables and the conservatory at Mamhead where Salvin clearly demonstrated the flair which marked the original thinking of a great architect. Rather than continue strictly in the same style, the stables were now to be housed in a mock, red sandstone castle, modelled on Belsay Castle in Northumberland, slightly above and behind the house, with the conservatory in a more correct Gothic design. The conservatory is a beautifully elegant single-storey extending from the north-west of the main house featuring four Perpendicular windows leading to a two-storey pavilion leading to the garden. The skyline features many pinnacles with an interior decorated with carved scrolls and verses, shields, and carved panels – all in stark contrast to the rather severe fortifications which Salvin chose for the stables at the other end of the house.
Mamhead is fascinating as it not only shows early brilliance in an architect’s career but unusually also is a house which shows all the styles in which he worked – both the Gothic and the fortified. Salvin’s skill with the Gothic form and vocabulary perhaps found its greatest expression in his third country house commission: Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire; a fantastical composition which took full advantage of its location and the wealth of the owner.
“Harlaxton must be seen to be believed and even when one has seen it, it is not always easy to believe it.” said Mark Girouard – and who can disagree? Harlaxton takes the elements of Gothic and Elizabethan but then injects the visual flair to give it a skyline to rival Kirby Hall, Burghley or the lost Richmond Palace. The house is almost theatrical but coherent enough that the look isn’t overwhelmed by any element. Inside, the most spectacular feature is the famous Cedar Staircase which seeks to match the outside with an unexpected Baroque interior. The design demonstrates how quickly Salvin’s skills had developed, with the work at Harlaxton starting just three years after Mamhead.
By contrast, Peckforton Castle would be recognisable to a medieval knight as a useful fortification. Rising prominently above the relatively flat Cheshire countryside, the imposing red sandstone castle is very much in the tradition of Burges‘ Castell Coch for the Marquess of Bute, and the later Castle Drogo by Lutyens. However, a significant difference is the much greater degree of historical accuracy, perhaps appropriate considering it was visually challenging the truly medieval Beeston Castle on a neighbouring hilltop, but also to reflect the benevolent feudalism of the owner, John Tollemache who spent huge sums on buildings and homes for his workers. However, the widespread public discontent at that time, with the risks of mobs and rioting, meant that it is also possible that Tollemache chose a castle with the intention that it be defensible. So successful was Salvin’s design that even a critic (fellow architect George Gilbert Scott) called it a “…a perfect model of a Medieval fortress…“. I think Salvin enjoyed the challenge of this design; a rare chance to build an uncompromising castle in a way which hadn’t been necessary for 500 years, fully taking advantage of his encyclopaedic knowledge of fortifications. Today, despite being badly damaged in a recent arson attack, the castle is still a fascinating example of his work.
Salvin was one of those rare Victorian architects whose work started strongly and just got better. To have the opportunity to purchase the first major work at Mamhead is a rare privilege and one that I hope the new owner will recognise and appreciate.
Having just spent two weeks touring the west coast of the United States, one great pleasure has been visiting the various art museums to see some of the wonderful paintings which the immensely wealthy collectors of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries acquired at a time when many of our country houses were in crisis. Sadly, in so many cases, the sales were a precursor to the complete loss of the house, with over 1,400 houses demolished since 1900. However, it is still possible to see a fragment of these grand homes as the demolitions fuelled an impressive transatlantic trade in architectural salvage which included entire rooms. The whereabouts of many of these are now unknown – but they do sometimes reappear in surprising places…
This post and the entire subject of country house architectural salvage owes an immense debt to the historian John Harris who has been chronicling these losses since he first started exploring country houses in the grim era following World War II. Of course, the trade had been going for many years: Nonsuch Palace, in Surrey, was deliberately sold for its materials in 1682, Cannons, in Middlesex, the seat of the Duke of Chandos was stripped and sold in 1747 after his death, and the once impressive Wanstead House, Essex, was similarly dismembered and sold to pay the debts of the spendthrift husband of the heiress in 1824. The plundering of rooms as part of the spoils of war by a conquering army has also happened throughout history with perhaps the most famous room taken also one of the greatest mysteries; no-one has seen the famed Amber Room from the Catherine Palace, just outside St Petersburg, since the German army meticulously removed it in 1941.
The country house room salvage trade takes off when, just as Europe is facing an agricultural slump which disproportionately affected landowners, the immensely wealthy industrial titans in the US were flexing their wallets to acquire collections which would become their legacies. In the UK, as the situation worsened, so the familiar pattern of contents sales started with pictures and other artworks being discreetly sold. Often many of these works were acquired by US collectors such as Frick, Mellon, Carnegie, Kress, amongst others, often on the enthusiastic encouragement of dealers such as Joseph Duveen. However, to display the art required the right setting, and so an industry grew up to satisfy a voracious demand for authentic rooms – even if the rooms weren’t identical by the time they arrived. Later, museums were also looking for rooms in which to provide context for their collections of furniture and art.
John Harris identifies the first stirrings of the transatlantic trade with the sale in 1876 of a supposedly ‘Jacobethan’ room to a Mrs Timothy Lawrence, which was incorporated into the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Harris next highlights the reference, in November 1897, in the sales/stock records of the famous Duveen family of art and antiques dealers of a ‘large Louis 14 Style Brown & Gold Room‘ ‘delivered free New York‘ for Mrs William C. Whitney which cost $10,000. By the early 1900s, adverts were appearing in Country Life magazine and the Connoisseur listing entire rooms or just the parts; chimneypieces being a popular offering. Building on the still lingering Victorian fashion for anything Elizabethan and Jacobean, dealers competed to offer the most choice rooms from the houses being demolished at the time. One of the largest dealers, Robersons, were boasting in 1906 of having ‘100 Old Marble Mantelpieces in Stock‘, whilst Druce & Co had 5,000 feet of old panelling. Books such Charles Latham’s ‘In English Homes‘ fuelled the fascination with these periods – perhaps even spurring on the demolition of some houses by creating a demand for the materials, and making it easier for the owners to decide to demolish. As the architect John Swarbrick, founder of the Ancient Monuments Society, argued in 1928, ‘history adds commercial value to buildings’.
This desire for ancient association led some dealers to be somewhat generous in their attributions of the architects or owners involved. The dealers Robersons were particularly apt at indulging in this type of misattribution, often assigning provenance with little or no research. Another firm, Gill & Reigate, were being quietly accused of fabricating rooms as early as 1926.
However, the finest pieces were often were those with a clear provenance, usually from a celebrated dispersal or demolition auction such as that of Cassiobury House near Watford or Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire. The urban growth of Watford has spoiled the estate at Cassiobury and so it was gutted in 1922, leading to the sale and dispersal, via French & Co, of one of the finest sets of Grinling Gibbons carvings in the country, including the impressive staircase. Hamilton Palace, seats of the Dukes of Hamilton, was one of the most impressive houses in the country – and one of the greatest losses. Built on coal wealth, it was also its literal undermining with subsidence (but also it’s vast size) leading to its demolition following huge sales in 1919 which not only released huge quantities of art and antiques but also of material.
Although there were many buyers, the most voracious – and possibly indiscriminate – was William Randolph Hearst; publishing magnate and heir to a mining fortune which reputedly gave him an annual income of $15m. Although disliked by dealers for his lack of taste (something Joseph Duveen was particularly sensitive to), the value of his spending meant that they beat a path to his door despite his sometimes difficult behaviour. In one case, having bought the staircase from Hamilton Palace via French & Co, he returned it to them no less than three times – but as he had spent $8m with them they were willing to be indulgent. A network of agents throughout Europe sent him a daily stack of catalogues and flyers which he would eagerly read before dispatching orders for purchases. These would then be shipped to his five-storey warehouse which occupied a whole New York block and was dedicated to his acquisitions and employed a staff of 30. European purchases were mainly installed at San Simeon in California, but 50 English medieval salvages were installed at St Donat’s Castle in Wales which he bought without seeing and in which he only spent one night. In New York, he occupied five floors of a mansion block, creating a vast home which housed yet more salvage and art. Almost inevitably, Hearst’s spending caused financial difficulties leading to a badly timed sale of many items in 1941 through the Gimbel Brothers department store in New York – though much remains even today in that warehouse which is still owned by the Hearst Corporation, who sadly refuse access to researchers (and if anyone knows someone who can get me in there I would happily make the trip to New York!). The scale of Hearst’s acquisitiveness is astounding and I’ll probably revisit it later in a separate post.
Sadly, like a tide coming in, which swept so many items and rooms into houses and museums in the States, so it also retreated and they also were removed, sometimes to vanish, their present whereabouts unknown. Museums began quietly de-accessioning some rooms when they discovered that they perhaps weren’t as authentic and accurate as they had been led to believe. Sometimes it was a positive thing; that sense of place being the greater concern leading to restitutions such as the Inlaid Chamber from Sizergh Castle (now National Trust) which was removed to the V&A Museum in 1891 and returned in 1999. One rare success for a Hearst purchase was that of the Dining Room from Gwydir Castle in Wales which was returned – having never been unpacked – in 1996 (the story is wonderfully told in ‘Castles in the Air‘ written by the then owner).
Perhaps it’s a little harsh to call the rooms lost if they have only been moved but to take a room from its original context is to lose something of the intrinsic value of it as part of an architectural whole. That said, it could also be argued that they were being rescued as, when the houses were demolished, fittings which couldn’t be sold were sometimes burnt – John Harris recalls seeing a beautiful staircase from Burwell Park in Lincolnshire being put on a bonfire in 1957. Yet, so much of what was bought is still out there – particularly the items acquired by Hearst. Which leads me to my own personal discovery in a bar in San Francisco; if you are ever in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, do visit ‘Jack’s Bar‘ in The Cannery where you will be standing in the former Long Gallery of Albyns, an elegant Jacobean house built c.1587. It was demolished in 1954 but which had been gutted earlier with the gallery bought by Hearst but sold in the mid-1960s and given a new life – though not an elegant one.
So these rooms, once the centrepieces of some of our finest country houses, have been extracted and shipped around the world but particularly to America where, although they were initially often fully appreciated, now they may languish, unremarked and more worryingly unknown, vulnerable to just being dumped as though simple room decoration. So, if you know of a Hearst room installed in a house or museum (and I’d be particularly grateful to my many American readers) then please do post a comment or email me and we’ll try and make sure that these wonderful expressions of the craftsman’s art are not forgotten and lost forever.
If you would like to see some of the rooms and items then below is a small list of museums where these items are being exhibited (thanks to Andrew for help with the research):
The recent restoration and sale of Park Place was certainly on an epic scale – £42m to buy, a further £100m to complete – but thankfully not all projects need be so expensive (though they’ll never be cheap). The story of the country house has, for many, featured a cycle of ascendency, enlargement, and enjoyment, followed by neglect but – hopefully – rescue. As the annual SAVE Britain’s Heritage ‘Building’s at Risk’ Register sadly makes all too clear there are any number of country houses which have reached quite a serious state of disrepair, even dereliction. Yet even for these there may be someone who is willing to step up and rescue part of the nation’s architectural heritage. Houses in need of a saviour are often for sale, their forlorn state in Country Life magazine a stark contrast to their better loved brethren.
The UK generally has a much more positive attitude towards restoration than many other countries. The Victorians would often be tempted to restore an ancient seat due to the contemporary popularity of the romantic notions of ‘Ye Olde England’. Living in an Elizabethan or Jacobean house gave the owner associations with older family lines (not necessarily their own) and was a short-cut to perceived greater respectability. Today, those who take on a restoration of one of our beautiful older houses are rightly lauded over those who simply buy a super-sized Barrett home. Yet, restoration requires sensitivity and a willingness to submit an individual’s grand designs to work within the boundaries of the listed building regulations and the character of the house.
One house with hidden character and which will require careful planning is Maerske Hall, Yorkshire. Originally built by the Hutton family in 1597, they were still in residence in 1730 when the house was rebuilt and extended in a Classical style. The grade-II* house was mainly used for shooting parties by the family in the 19th-century saving it from alteration but in the 20th it was threatened with requisition by the Army in WWII. Luckily the family were able to arrange for pupils from Scarborough College to take up residence instead which saved it from the worst damage. After the war, it again came near to destruction, as it was sold in 1947 to local builders George Shaw and his son George William who intended to demolish it for the materials. However, they baulked at taking down such a lovely house and so sympathetically converted it into 10 apartments. Still divided but now empty it is for sale at £2.5m with 19-acres of beautiful, mature gardens, and presents a fascinating opportunity to recreate a single family home. For more on the history, there’s a brochure: ‘Marske Hall‘ PDF [Carter Jonas].
For those wanting a more straight-forward restoration, Walton Hall, Derbyshire perhaps offers a more appealing option. This fine and elegant grade-II* house, prominently sited above Walton on Trent, was built between 1724 -1729 to designs by the architect Richard Jackson. The most striking feature are the full-height pilasters, giving dignity to a slowly deteriorating house which has become such a concern as to be listed on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register. Inside, the most impressive feature is the grand staircase, reputedly copied from a building in The Hague. The house is basically habitable but requires significant sensitive restoration, hence the price; £1.5m for the house plus just 7.5-acres. That said, once restored this will be a quintessential Georgian house to be enjoyed for generations.
For those who prefer a real challenge then the next two houses could be ideal. The first is Felix Hall, situated just outside Kelvedon, Essex – the picture (right) immediately showing the scale of the challenge. At its core, this house is firmly in the tradition of the Palladian villa with a compact footprint but featuring wonderful architectural flourishes such a fine portico (added in 1825) and, to the rear, four engaged columns and a pediment. Originally built between 1760-2, it was purchased by the Weston family of Rivenhall Place in 1793 and was significantly extended with flanking wings in the early 19th-century, possibly on the occasion of Charles Callis Weston’s ennoblement as Lord Weston of Rivenhall in 1833. However, as with many larger houses, a reduction in size was thought prudent and so in 1939 the two wings were removed, leaving just a 7-bay central section. Sadly, during the course of renovations it caught fire, completely gutting the fine interiors leaving the gaunt shell with the proud Ionic columns we can see today. The remains were bought in 1953 and the basement rooms restored as an occasional country retreat but this is a house crying out for a full restoration (for which there is planning permission). However, the estate buildings such as the nearby stables have been separately converted and there is only a small amount of land – it would be lovely if the new owner could also purchase the buildings and gardens and if they could also acquire the field in front, they could create a superb small parkland in which to truly display the house.
Another shell available is the one I would be heading for: Piercefield, near Chepstow, Wales. Designed by the peerless Sir John Soane in 1785 for George Smith, the actual completion of the house was delayed until 1793. Of particular interest here is that the design is not entirely unique – Soane appears to have used very similar plans for Shotesham Park in Norfolk which was also built in 1785, although that house was brick with stone dressings, whilst Piercefield is faced entirely with stone. The house was sold 1794 as Mr Smith had run into some financial difficulties and it was bought by Sir Mark Wood who employed Joseph Bonomi to add a saloon and a winding staircase – though not the two pavilions as has been suggested. The house was sold in 1926 by the Clay family, who had bought it in 1861, to Chepstow Racecourse who abandoned it, leaving it become increasingly derelict, apparently helped by American troops stationed nearby in WWII who used the house for target practice. After 90 years of neglect, the house still has the power to impress with its refined façade and elegant temple pavilions. Although on the market for over six years the price has remained at a rather ambitious £2m (although it does include 129 grade-I listed acres of parkland). However, recent comments by the director of the race course have indicated that they might entertain offers of around £1m; though, of course, the restoration bill would be many times that – but what a prize at the end!
Even further down the scale of dereliction is another important house, also in Wales, which has been stubbornly mis-priced. Ruperra Castle near Newport is one of the few ‘mock’ castles designed for pleasure and not as defensive installations – a subject examined in more detail in an earlier blog post related to Ruperra: ‘Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale‘ (Sept 2010). Few of these style of houses were built and Ruperra’s importance derives from it being one of the earliest of the country houses of this type, having been built in 1626. Sadly, many of the other examples have been lost (most recently, fire gutting the interior of Lulworth Castle in 1929) so for someone Ruperra offers the opportunity to not only restore an architectural gem but also to be able to enjoy the same stunning views which attracted Thomas Morgan to build there in the first place. Unfortunately, although the owner has now switched agents, the price is still ambitious at £1.5m – especially considering the immense challenges and costs of restoration and the location. Hopefully, as with Piercefield, the owner ought to be willing to entertain realistic offers and allow the house to be saved before it is lost forever.
Perhaps the last is stretching it to call it a restoration opportunity as Bellamour Hall, Staffordshire now exists only as two walls and a few piles of stones!
Restoration is never a cheap or easy approach but the satisfaction and pride in knowing that the work has saved another part of our architectural heritage must be immense. For too long our country houses have been under threat from neglect, vandalism and poor maintenance and the selection above (and there are more) show that the degrees of restoration and commitment required can vary dramatically. That said, I can only hope someone is out there with the wealth and sensitivity to take on these houses and bring them back to life.
A new record price for a UK country house has just been achieved with the sale of Park Place, near Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire. One of three most notable estates on that stretch of the Thames, it was also the most expensive country house ever sold in its unrestored state in 2007. Now, after five years and many millions of pounds, the house again has set the record having been sold to an unknown Russian billionaire for £140m.
Park Place is, at its core, a more modest Georgian house built in 1719 for Lord Archibald Hamilton, son of the Duke of Hamilton. The proximity to London and the beautiful setting has long attracted the wealthy to the area as a convenient escape from the city, with several riverside estates featuring a series of impressive houses. Starting at Marlow, the first house is Bisham Abbey (now the national sports centre), then the now lost Temple House (dem. 1910), Harleyford Manor (beautiful small villa restored in 1989), Whittington House [pdf] (rebuilt by Reginald Blomfield c1897, now HQ of SAS Ltd), Danesfield House (now a hotel), Medmenham Abbey (now two houses), Culham Court (sold for £38m in 2006), Greenlands (now Henley Management College), Fawley Court (sold for £13m in 2008, possibly for conversion back to a private house), and then finally, just past Henley, lies Park Place. Of particular interest are the architectural similarities between Fawley Court (built 1684 – reputedly to a design by Sir Christopher Wren), the original Park Place (built c1718), Culham Court (built 1771), and Reginal Blomfield’s 1897 rebuilding of Whittington House, all of which are on based on a red-brick 5- or 7-bay, two storey villa with bulls-eye window inserted into a projecting pediment.
Sadly, Park Place is no longer part of this architectural brethren having undergone a series of substantial changes. The house was sold by Lord Hamilton in 1738 to Prince Frederick, then Prince of Wales and eldest son of King George II, who split his time between there and Cliveden. After Frederick’s death, the house was then bought by General Henry Seymour Conway in 1752 and it was he who made the first significant changes both to the house (including a library by Sanderson Miller in 1757) and, perhaps more importantly to the grounds, which are now grade-II*. His works, to designs by Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford, included the installation of an ancient stone henge given as a gift from the people of Jersey where he was Governor, the lightning-damaged steeple from St Bride’s Church as an obelisk, four more obelisks as gateposts, an underground cavern, and a bridge, using stones from Reading Abbey, which was subsequently admired by Horace Walpole. There was also an artificial classical ruin designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart.
The house was sold to John Noble in 1871 but was largely gutted by fire a year later, giving Noble the opportunity to indulge something of an architectural whim. The pattern and style of the Victorian country house was much admired around Europe and our expertise was exported widely around the continent – but it rarely flowed back (a topic already covered in an earlier post ‘The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses‘). Park Place is one of the few houses in the country build using the French Renaissance style, creating an impressive château in the heart of England.
The design of the rebuilt house is widely attributed to Thomas Cundy [III], the son and grandson of two previous Thomas’ who had also been country house architects. Although the latter two are given sizeable entries in Howard Colvin’s ‘Biographical Dictionary of British Architects‘, the grandson is given only a paragraph as part of his father’s, leaving us somewhat in the dark as to what, bar some London churches, he may have been involved with. However, considering his father had good form with the chateau style having built Grosvenor Gardens in London, so Thomas III would have been schooled in the style before his father’s death in 1867.
The house remained with the Noble family until 1947 when it and the 670-acre estate was parcelled up into 22 lots and sold off. The main house was bought by Middlesex County Council who converted it into a special school, which it remained until 1988 when it closed. The house was then bought by John Latsis, the Greek shipping tycoon, but it seems unlikely that he lived there as it remained unrestored, with the vestiges of the school – gymnasium, classrooms, a woodwork studio etc – all still in situ, along with various outbuildings, as can be seen from these images of the house.
Those who had a chance to look around the house when it was for sale in 2006 all noted that beneath the shabby institutional veneer, the potential of the house was clear; glimpses of fine tiles, the original stone fireplaces, stained glass, and grand spaces with impressive views. The house was then sold to a consortium who intended to create a superior country club – until Wokingham council said ‘no’. Put on the market for £45m, it was finally sold for £42m to Mike Spink, a property developer who specialised in high-end houses in central London. With this experience, Spink transformed this once dilapidated house into a palace fit for a billionaire with all the requisite features such as a helipad, swimming pool, panic room etc. Somewhat disappointingly, the house now only comes with 200-acres, with the remaining 300 with which it was sold retained by Spink for as yet unspecified ‘development’ – a phrase which will no doubt spark local concerns.
Even when it was first sold, those in the property business were predicting that Park Place would sell for possibly up to £100m, and the rising ‘super prime’ market has proven even those estimates conservative. Sadly, this record is not for a spectacular historic house at the centre of a large estate but instead one where the location (location, location!) has elevated the price to such a stratospheric level. Nevertheless, many country houses were built as retreats for wealthy industrialists and financiers and this house is proof that the lure of the trophy country estate is as strong as ever – which can only be a good thing for those seeking to prove their desirability in modern times.
The country house has long been at a nexus of art, display and tourism with the treasures, mainly statues, collected by the owner shown in a grand gallery which often formed one of the main staterooms. Whereas the house provided the setting for the art, outdoors, the gardens and parkland provided a setting not only for the house but also for the many sculptural works they had acquired – a trend which continues today, though often with a necessarily more commercial edge.
The first country house owners to place statues in their English gardens were the Romans. However, as homes became castles, gardens fell from favour and with them, the ornaments to decorate them. The trend for statuary only really returned with the Tudors and their love of the outdoor space as an extension of the symbolism they incorporated into the architecture of their houses. One of the earliest collectors, and most acquisitive, was Thomas Howard Arundel, 2nd Earl of Arundel, who, as a youth, had been at the excavation of the Roman Forum, which had sparked a live-long passion for antiquities. Arundel amassed one of the greatest collections of the age, rivalling that of the King, including a famed selection of Graeco-Roman statues found in Turkey, which became known as the ‘Arundel Marbles‘. These statues were then displayed at both their town and country seats, both indoors and out – though later, by the mid-17th-century, as a result of the uncertainties of the Civil War, John Evelyn found the Marbles “…miserably neglected, & scattred up & downe about the Gardens & other places of Arundell-house.”. The statues were later donated to the Ashmolean Museum where they remain today.
The later rise and popularity of the Georgian grand tour firmly embedded the desire to purchase statues along with the requisite paintings. They provided a visual clue as to both the learning and wealth of the owner and so were displayed prominently, especially indoors where they might be shown in the entrance hall where guests would inevitably look at them as they waited. Some of the most famous dedicated indoor galleries include those at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire (though sadly now not as shown in previous link as it’s now a wedding venue). Other notable galleries, though now lost due to dispersal or demolition, were those at Clumber Park, Ickworth House and Hamilton Palace, the latter described as “…peopled with bronze statuary on Irish black marble bases polished to such a gloss that they reflected the pavement like a mirror.“.
Outside, the display was no less formal – symmetry and structure dominated. However, by the 1730s, the more formal display of statues outdoors gave way to a more naturalistic style whereby they became almost secreted amongst a more informal – but no less planned – landscape. One thing often forgotten now is that we see gardens after over 250 years of growth, but when first planted they would have been much sparser giving the ornaments greater prominence. The return of the Roman influence can be closely linked with the rise of Palladianism and the influence of Lord Burlington and his circle; most notably, the brilliant designer William Kent. Other notable influences include Batty Langley, who published his ‘New Principles of Gardening‘ in 1728 and Stephen Switzer’s ‘Ichnographica Rustica‘, published in 1718 – the latter of which was the first to show serpentine walks and streams. Life also imitated art, with the popularity of the Arcadian visions of painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicholas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa also inspiring those who collected the paintings to attempt to bring them to life.
The more secure and rising wealth of the 1730s enabled owners to create larger estates and so giving them more space to indulge their plans. However, no stream will rival a raging river so to create a sense of theatre, the landscape was used and moulded to create a series of views which took advantage or distant landmarks or by introducing elements such as statues, temples and obelisks. Often these gardens were designed to entertain the knowledgeable visitor with allusions to myths and noble virtues – though in one lesser known example, the owner of the famous Vauxhall Gardens in London, built a darker ‘memento mori‘ garden at Denbies, his home in Surrey.
However, the main aim was to delight and to stimulate emotions. One of the most famous Georgian gardeners, Philip Miller, wrote in his 1739 edition of his ‘Gardener’s Dictionary’:
“In laying out these walks through woods there should be a great regard had to the neighbouring country, so as whenever there are any distant objects which appear to the sight, there should be openings to which the serpentine walks should lead, from whence objects may be viewed, which will be an agreeable surprise to strangers…”
These principles were translated according to the whims and finances of owners across the country, leading from the sublime creations of Stowe, Stourhead and Studley Royal to many lesser known and private gardens.
The statuary could sometimes cause the odd drama. Dallam Towers, Cumbria was archly described by Pevsner as “…undoubtedly the finest Georgian facade in the county; but what the visitor may not realise is that, behind all the stucco, there’s the finest Queen Anne facade in the county.“. Between the facade and the landscape once stood (or perhaps still stands) a line of statues standing guard between the garden and the ha-ha. Yet this line is slightly marred by one of the statues being headless – the unfortunate outcome of a 1820s dinner which led to a very ‘well-refreshed’ Lord Milthorpe. Thinking he had seen a poacher, he grabbed a rifle, and despite the protests of his guests, he duly dispatched the ‘poacher’/statue; a loss for the world of garden ornaments but perhaps a gain for the forces of law and order.
With such vast quantities of marble scattered out the gardens, occasionally a prized statue may slip slowly into obscurity. This can lead to discoveries in the same way that an Old Master may be found in the attic, so they can also be found in the shrubbery, such as this rare Chinese Ming tomb horse or the lucky owner of a castle somewhere in northern Europe who had a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Adriaen de Vries.
The tradition of sculpture in the gardens of country houses is certainly alive and well today and has developed beyond the more formal Roman statuary towards a decidedly more contemporary ethos – though perhaps more commercial than for simple pleasure.
At the beautiful Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, Christies are holding their selling exhibition of contemporary sculpture from luminaries such as Marcel Wanders, Marc Quinn and Pablo Reinoso. Over in Sussex, the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood, hosts a regularly changing line-up with a focus on supporting emerging talent along with the more established artists such as Lynn Chadwick and Anish Kapoor. One more recent venue is the Jupiter Artland at Bonnington House in Scotland, just outside Edinburgh. The vision the Wilsons, who own the house, Jupiter Artland features large-scale works such as the monumental ‘Life Mounds’ by Charles Jencks’ who specialises in landscape art that I suspect would appeal to the likes of ‘Capability’ Brown if he were around today.
These are just some of the examples of contemporary schemes which are taking place across the country. Each is enlivening the grounds of a house and again maintaining that artistic thread which has been spun out over hundreds of years, linking country houses, an owners’ taste and some of the best art in the country.