A Webb of intrigue: one hundred years on from Philip Webb (1831 – 1915)

Standen, West Sussex (Image: tadesco57 via flickr)
Standen, West Sussex (Image: tadesco57 via flickr)

To mark the centenary of someone’s death may seem morbid but to be worth noting a century later they must truly have been a significant influence.  Philip Speakman Webb, who died in January 1915, certainly can occupy that pantheon of those architects who not only embraced the existing trends of their time but also acted as the transitional midwife to a new stylistic era.  Though perhaps now slightly over-shadowed by his collaborators and successors, his influence can be seen throughout the UK in many fields; obviously in architecture, but also interiors and most significantly in conservation as a co-founder, with William Morris, of the Society for the Protection for Ancient Buildings.

Philip Speakman Webb (1831-1915) by Charles Fairfax Murray (Image: National Portrait Gallery)
Philip Speakman Webb (1831-1915) by Charles Fairfax Murray (Image: National Portrait Gallery)

Webb may perhaps unjustly now be seen as the quieter man of Victorian architecture; one who was avant-garde but who with little fanfare helped create a new mode of design, the influence of which can still be seen today. Considering his intellectual approach to architecture, his was more a philosophy of design that pre-dated the formal label of ‘Arts & Crafts‘. This was a symptom of his affinity for a more sympathetic approach to the care of ancient buildings combined with the adoption of an aesthetic which drew heavily on the natural world; bringing those designs which nature had already provided into a domestic context.

Born in 1831, on the turn of the Georgian period, Webb’s childhood was spent among the eclectic mix of buildings of Oxford; late Gothic next to Classical.  This both gave him an appreciation of how they could co-exist but also a reaction which led him to sometimes pursue an ‘astylar‘ approach, rejecting the grand statements of columns.  This inclusive approach was to prove hugely influential both his generation of architects but also their pupils who included W.R. Lethaby, George Washington Jack, and Ernest Gimson.  Webb’s meticulous method also meant that he was one of the few architects who produced a ‘total design’ for his commissions, not only drawing up the plans for the house itself, but also the fixtures and fittings.

Webb’s design philosophy was based on a set of principles which he applied to all his commissions; an avoidance of vulgar flashiness, a desire to integrate a building with its surroundings, a respect for local materials and traditions, and, above all, high quality workmanship.  When applied to country houses, this philosophy created a broad range of designs but were distinctively ‘Webb’ and also highly successful with owners making few changes to them.  Despite his reputation and skill, Webb’s country house commissions were rare – just ten completed designs, of which nine were built.  Of those, three have subsequently been completely lost, and all the others – bar one, Standen – have suffered varied changes, few of them beneficial.

Arisaig House, Inverness-shire, Scotland (Image: collection of the late Miss M.J. Belcher)
Arisaig House, Inverness-shire, Scotland (Image: collection of the late Miss M.J. Belcher)

Webb’s first country house was in remote Inverness-shire; Arisaig House was built for Francis Dukinfield Palmer Astley, an enlightened land- and colliery-owner. Designed in 1863 to replace an existing poorly-sited Gothick house by James Gillespie Graham, the new house was built in just 12 months despite challenges with the remoteness and the local labour.  Although the design draws on local building methods it rejected the contrived ‘Scots baronial’ features so beloved by other Victorian architects.  Instead, the house was, though large, a well-mannered collection of gables, recessions and projections, creating the overall effect of a house which was not seeking to dominate the spectacular location, and reflected the mountainous scenery.  As a first design, it was technologically clever and the internal plan was well-thought out and showed an understanding of both the practicalities and proprieties of a Victorian country house. Sadly, it burnt down in 1935 and was rebuilt as a smaller house.

As a second commission, Church Hill House (later Trevor Hall) was more of a suburban affair.  Built in 1868, it was the centrepiece to a 40-acre model estate farm in East Barnet, once rural but now absorbed into Greater London. The design showed Webb’s further exploration of the use of gables, symmetry and massing.  Although influential, both due to the connections of the owner and its proximity to London, the house was demolished c.1960.

An aborted commission for Lord Airlie in 1868-69 was the sizeable project, with a budget of £50,000, to rebuild Airlie Castle.  Financial pressures forced the scheme to be abandoned leading Webb to destroy all the drawings, leaving no known impressions of what would have been one of his most significant projects.

Joldwynds, Surrey (Image: from a photograph in Webb's collection)
Joldwynds, Surrey (Image: from a photograph in Webb’s collection)

Far more successful was Joldwynds, Holmbury St Mary, Surrey, which was designed in 1870-71 for William Bowman, a noted eye surgeon and scientist.  Replacing an existing, poor-quality 18th-century house, the new house took two years to build, starting in 1872.  The result was a a fine, smaller country house, tucked into a wooded hillside, sheltered from the west winds but fully exploiting the views to the south and north. Drawing in the ideas of the gabled English manor house, but applied to the villa plan, Joldwynds featured a dramatic central hall which rose the full height of the house. Again, the proximity of the house to London meant that it became very influential in the 1880s and 1890s as architects and students came to see it and other later local houses by Shaw, Champneys, Lutyens and Voysey – all of whom showed influences of having seen Webb’s elegant composition.  Fashion though was to condemn the house as it was demolished in 1930 – though it was replaced by one of the finest of houses of the Modern Movement, The Wilderness, designed by Oliver Hill.

Rounton Grange, Yorkshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Rounton Grange, Yorkshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Easily one of the most tragic of the losses is Webb’s Rounton Grange, Yorkshire, designed in 1871-72, which Webb’s respect for local architectural traditions and drew on the idea of the Pele tower. Originally asked by the owner of the estate, iron-master Sir (Issac) Lowthian Bell, to rework some estate offices (budget £800), Webb also produced a scheme to completely replace the existing house, a project which ended up costing £32,880. The tower-house idea meant that it could not only be seen in the well-wooded landscape but would also have views out as well.  The plan of the house suggested that of a castle with a core central hall with four ‘pavillions’ [sic] or towers at the corners. Again, monumental chimneys topped the design.  The design incorporated various modern comforts and the construction took advantage of whatever technical innovations Webb thought an improvement on an existing technique. Even decades after its demolition, those who had lived there remembered a beautiful but practical house, which was certainly a tribute to Webb’s skills. (Excellent history and photos here: The Rountons: Rounton Grange)

Smeaton Manor, Yorkshire (Image: Smiths Gore)
Smeaton Manor, Yorkshire (Image: Smiths Gore)

In 1876, Ada, one of Lowthian Bell’s daughters, and her husband commissioned a house which was to be the core of a horse-breeding estate.  Smeaton Manor was unsurprisingly on a much more modest scale that Ada’s father house at Rounton Grange but Webb produced what could be classed a ‘neo-Georgian’ design, a re-working of the traditional manor house but in a Classical style. The emphasis was on creating a bright interior so instead of heavy panelling, there was wallpaper (almost entirely Morris & Co, obviously) and all the woodwork (bar the staircase) was painted white. Smeaton Manor was again influential with other architects praising specific features or just admiring the overall effect of this light-filled house.  Subsequently, although some alterations have taken place, the house survives – and was offered for sale in 2014 for £2.5m.

Clouds, Wiltshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Clouds, Wiltshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Webb’s largest, grandest country house commission was also his most successful; Clouds, Wiltshire, designed 1877-80 for the aristocratic Honourable Percy Wyndham, younger son of Lord Leconfield of Petworth. The design took three years to agree due to the ambitions of the clients for a large house not quite being matched by an equivalent budget. This difficult start continued with difficulties finding a builder though construction finally started in 1881 and was completed in 1886. Sadly, in 1889 the central block of the house was completely gutted by fire and it took another three years to restore it – though it was compliment to Webb that this followed almost exactly his original plan.

Clouds, Wiltshire - central hall (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Clouds, Wiltshire – central hall (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Clouds became one of the most celebrated and innovative houses of its era.  This, in part, was due to the noted and aristocratic guests whom the Wyndhams regularly hosted so generously (who became known as the Souls), but also because the house successfully balanced the need for practicality with that of the now en vogue informal entertaining – Percy Wyndham described as it as the ‘house of the age‘. The exterior of stone on the first two storeys, with brick on the upper level, featured the now typically Webb-ian mix of gable, bold chimneys, and a pleasing rhythm of recession and projection. The interior could be thought to pre-figure the Modern movement of 20 years later – it was mostly white, with hints of decoration from Morris & Co products. Sadly, crippling death duties – Wyndham, his son, and his son’s heir all died within 3 years – eventually forced the sale of the house in 1936 after which it it suffered various truncations before settling into an institutional role as an addiction treatment centre which it still holds today.

Webb’s seventh country house was commissioned in 1886, back in Surrey. Willinghurst is an attractive, practical home which took various ideas Webb had explored in previous houses and concentrated them into a smaller plan.  The house is firmly in the tradition of ‘Surrey vernacular’ – gables, clay hung tiles, warm red bricks – but with an attention to detail in the beautiful plasterwork and fireplaces. Again, the house was subsequently dramatically altered with the central section demolished and the now separate principal part of the house and the offices becoming individual houses.

Standen, Sussex (Image: Paul F 36 via Flickr)
Standen, Sussex (Image: Paul F 36 via Flickr)

For what was to be a holiday home, Webb’s next commission was also to be one of his major houses.  The job of designing Standen, Sussex, was given to Webb in 1891 with the intention that the house was not to be grand, to instead be somewhere that the wealthy owner, solicitor J.S. Beale, could accommodate his large family plus guests. Webb’s first design was rejected as being too large but the house as built is still substantial – over 200ft wide on the south front. The styling is purely local and takes its cues from the original tile-hung farmhouse which was on the estate. The tower created a focal point to the design – a high-point when viewing the house, but also useful as an observation deck, rather than just being purely decorative.  By this point in his career Webb had largely abandoned decoration, the house achieves a pleasing contrast internally through the use of varied rooms with large windows flooding light into the white-painted interiors.

Standen, Sussex - covered walkway (Image: Kevin Blowe via Flickr)
Standen, Sussex – covered walkway (Image: Kevin Blowe via Flickr)

Standen, as a large country holiday home, was a success with the family remembering it as comfortable and delightful, requiring almost no changes. Certainly it was one of his most picturesque designs and continued to influence architects for decades after it was completed.  Considering the vicissitudes of Webb’s other country houses, it’s a relief that Standen has survived almost exactly as it was intended by Webb.  This is largely due to it remaining in the Beale family until 1972 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust in whose care it remains, making it one of the few Webb houses which can be visited.

Webb’s last country house, Hurlands, Surrey was designed in 1897 and built over the following two years.  To my view, the north entrance front is unfocused and lacks the unifying qualities shown in his earlier houses.  The large chimneys are still there but one is attached to the outer wall, giving the impression that it’s trying to escape. That said, the south front has a wonderful classical quality with the ground floor arcading being gently echoed in the window surrounds, whilst upstairs a typical Webb covered walkway gives a pleasing variety to the first floor.  The house survives but has been divided up.

This survey of Webb’s country houses provides a limited view of the broad skills and interests of someone who was at the forefront Victorian architecture.  His belief in the idea of ‘total design’ was rare but hugely influential. Similarly, was his passion for historic vernacular buildings and their conservation which led to his co-founding of the SPAB.  In looking back from the centenary of his death, we should appreciate not only his gifted development of an architectural style we now call ‘Arts & Crafts’. That said, Webb would, at the time, would simply recognise as good architecture which respected local traditions to create well-built houses which their owners loved. If only that could be adopted as a mission statement by modern mass house-builders we may be able to achieve a more harmonious solution to the challenge of designing houses for today – something Philip Webb would certainly support.

‘Floats like a butterfly’: the flights of the remarkable butterfly houses; Happisburgh Manor for sale

Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk (Image: The Beautiful House Company)
Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk (Image: The Beautiful House Company)

The design of country houses has been influenced by many things; politics, religion, the Greeks, the Romans, India, to name a few – but it’s rare for an insect to do so.  Yet for hundreds of years, the humble butterfly has inspired some remarkable houses, and for one lucky buyer, there is currently the rare chance to purchase Happisburgh Manor, one of the best of the Arts & Crafts versions of the ‘butterfly’ house.

Architects have long been inspired by nature, particularly in the decoration of the interiors.  Yet it would always be a greater challenge for the more organic forms to be accommodated by the hard-edges of brick and stone – but never underestimate the inventiveness of architects.  Although often thought of as a 19th-century/Arts & Crafts plan, the ‘butterfly’ actually has a single precedent dating from 1612-20.

Westwood Park, Worcestershire (Image: Knight Frank)
Westwood Park, Worcestershire (Image: Knight Frank)

The definition of a butterfly plan house is ‘…where two or four wings of a house are constructed at an angle to the core, usually at approximately 45 degrees to the wall of the core building.‘.  The house which was the first manifestation of this plan is Westwood Park, Worcestershire, which, it is thought, was originally built as a conventional rectangular, three-storey hunting lodge. Begun in 1612, and although probably not originally intended, sometime before 1620 four full-height wings were added at 45 degrees, creating the distinctive shape we now know.  The reason for this innovative design is lost but is quite likely to be a response to the elevated location.  The butterfly plan is also known as the double-suntrap as it increases the number of rooms which benefit from their orientation towards the sun  and increases the number with views – hence its popularity with any number of seaside hotels.

The Chesters, Northumberland (Image: The Journal)
The Chesters, Northumberland (Image: The Journal) – link to news story about when it was put up for sale in 2009

Despite these advantages, the butterfly wasn’t to make another appearance for nearly three centuries until it appeared in Northumberland in 1891. The butterfly in this case was a house called The Chesters, which had originally been built in 1771 but which the leading Victorian architect Richard Norman Shaw had been commissioned to dramatically enlarge. Shaw’s scheme was bold and grand, adding three wings to create the butterfly (the service quarters obstruct the construction of the fourth ‘wing’), and linking the two southern arms with a grand colonnade – although Shaw strangely omitted to include many windows on the sunniest aspect.

The Chesters was the first of a series of these houses which appeared over the next two decades as an idea explored by a small group of architects.  Where the butterfly plan found its best expression was in the hands of the Arts & Crafts movement whose love of natural forms perhaps gave them a greater sensitivity to the opportunities it offered – either in the country or an urban setting (see ‘Baillie-Scott Corner‘ in Hampstead – Google streetview).

The next appearance of a butterfly plan in the countryside was initially in imagination only and shown in a drawing by Edward Schroeder Prior (b.1857 – d.1932) which was exhibited at the 1895 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.  Prior had started his career in 1874, articled to Norman Shaw, which had a profound influence on the young architect as the older architect’s willingness to experiment with forms and materials probably helped give Prior the courage to follow his own determined views.  Prior became a leading light of the Arts & Crafts movement having had Philip Webb (regarded as one of the founding fathers of Arts & Crafts) as a mentor, as well as working with William Letherby, another leading thinker and friend of William Morris.

Drawing for The Barn, Exmouth, Devon by E.S. Prior - 1895 (Image: RIBA)
Drawing for The Barn, Exmouth, Devon by E.S. Prior – 1895 (Image: RIBA)

The drawing shown at the Royal Academy shares many similarities with the design Prior produced for a house known as The Barn, which was built in Exmouth, Devon in 1896-7.  The house was relatively modest in scale, and not quite a complete butterfly, but it demonstrated Prior’s commitment to the use of vernacular materials with the walls built of local sandstone and with stones from the beach and rivers embedded in the concrete.  One aspect of the butterfly plan is its ability to capture the sun and the break in the wings at the centre allows light to flood into the core of the house.  Sadly, the commitment to local materials included the use of traditional Devon thatch which, although treated to be incombustible, caught fire and gutted the house in 1906.  Although the house was rebuilt using the original walls, the interiors are not Prior’s.

Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk (Image: g7bmp via flickr)
Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk (Image: g7bmp via flickr)

The first “fully worked” four-wing butterfly was Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk, designed by  Detmar Blow in 1900.  Commissioned by the prominent local Cator family, the architectural writer Lawrence Weaver said, in 1909, that ‘[Blow] rightly determined that it should be characteristic of the locality, and he has succeeded so well that, …[if] any section were mixed up among a set depicting the village, it might be taken as belonging to any of the old houses nearby‘.  Interestingly, Blow credits inspiration for the design, not to Prior or Norman Shaw but to his friend, and also noted architect, Ernest Gimson who ‘…sent the little butterfly device on a postcard‘.  There is considerable ingenuity in the design and execution of the house, partially due to the tight £4,000 budget but also due to the local environment, with its blustery winds, sandy soil, and paucity of materials.  To create a house as brilliant as Happisburgh truly demonstrates the skill of an architect.

Papillon Hall, Leicestershire - demolished 1950 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Papillon Hall, Leicestershire – demolished 1950 (Image: Lost Heritage)

The next house was by the most famous of the architects of that period, Edwin Lutyens. In 1902, Lutyens was commissioned by Fred Bellville to remodel an existing house in Leicestershire called Papillon Hall, named after the original Huegenot family. Conveniently, ‘papillon’ is the French for ‘butterfly’ and Lutyens would have been aware of the architectural innovations going on elsewhere and obviously felt he would try his hand at this novel plan.  One of the challenges of the butterfly is that by placing the main rooms at angles this creates awkward spaces. However, Lutyens, as inventively as the other architects, used these spaces for staircases, and his particular innovation was to include the Basin Court as a single storey curved connection between the two ends of wings. As with The Barn, Papillon Hall was not to last long, being demolished in 1950 with only sparse rubble showing where was once one of Lutyens most interesting commissions. (Certainly not to be confused with this poor, modern ‘re-creation’ in Warwickshire which uses a very similar name!).

Voewood, Norfolk (Image: Voewood)
Voewood, Norfolk (Image: Voewood)

E.S. Prior’s next commission, Voewood, Norfolk (also known as Home Place and Holt Place) was perhaps his most successful use of the design.  Built between 1903-05 for the Rev. Percy Lloyd, this was a radical house; pulling together a fully developed butterfly plan, hyper-local materials, and great craftsmanship.  These together not only pushed the build cost from £12,000 to £60,000 but also created what Pevsner described as ‘a most violently idiosyncratic house‘; rich in local texture provided by a varied palate of materials mainly dug from the ground on which it stands.  The house unfortunately was tenanted almost as soon as it was built (apparently Lloyd’s wife didn’t like it!) before becoming a boys school from 1906-1914/15 and then a series of care and convalescence homes until it was bought around 10 years ago by rare book dealer Simon Finch who was exactly the right character to sensitively restore the house and make it a home again (though it can be rented).

Kelling Hall, Norfolk (Image: Albanpix via Daily Telegraph)
Kelling Hall, Norfolk (Image: Albanpix via Daily Telegraph)

The only other notable house of this plan to be built in this period, Kelling Hall, also appeared in Holt, literally just down the road from Voewood. Kelling truly was a country seat for an industrialist as the man who commissioned it was Henry Deterding, one of the founders of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company (which later became Shell). Deterding had seen and liked Voewood but commissioned another Arts & Crafts architect, Edward Maufe, to create a larger version of his neighbour.  The house certainly takes the concept of the butterfly too a larger scale but there’s no doubting the craft and innovation involved in creating one of the most interesting houses to lie at the centre of an estate. Proving its charm, the house was sold by Deterding’s grandson in 2008, along with its 1,600-acre estate, for £25m.

For all its charms and advantages, the butterfly house only enjoyed a relatively brief period of popularity.  By World War I, the relatively niche appeal of Arts & Crafts (at the time) and, afterwards, a post-war nation less tolerant of such quirky designs and more interested in the Modern, meant that architects moved away from suggesting it and instead largely headed back to the comfort of the classical or the more radical art deco, putting the butterfly into hibernation.

'Piddle' House, Hampshire - official name unknown (Image: Selway Joyce)
‘Piddle’ House, Hampshire – official name unknown (Image: Selway Joyce)

However, no good architectural idea is ever completely forgotten.  The most recent manifestation is Robert Adam’s response to the demanding requirements of a client who wished to maximise the views from a riverside site.  The architect’s website is sparse on details of both its name, the year that it was built or the exact location beyond saying it was near the River Piddle, Dorset, so we’ll call it ‘Piddle’ House, actually it’s called Hyde House (thanks Stephen – see comments), and it seems to have been built within the last 15 years.  Interestingly, it appears to blend elements of the Picturesque, with varied forms and heights whilst still adhering to the butterfly shape. Again, perhaps this shows the adaptability of this innovative plan.

The butterfly plan is complex and requires great skill to be manipulated correctly to achieve the correct balance internally and in the use of materials, which probably explains why it was never broadly adopted.  Short of commissioning your own, the chance to own a true ‘butterfly plan’ house is certainly a rare one, especially when the architect was one of the leading exponents of the idea who also ensured that the build quality was exemplary.  Happisburgh Manor has been for sale for several months and the price was recently cut from £975,000 to offers over £800,000.  This may reflect market weakness but also that, although freehold, Happisburgh is in danger from coastal erosion which may see the house become a beach-hut within the next century (but maybe longer, who knows!).  This would be a tragic end for this rare and special house and one can only hope that the next owners fully appreciate the beauty of their home and perhaps can find some way to save it.  And if the next owners ever read this, please can I visit before it does go?

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Property details: ‘Happisburgh Manor‘ [Strutt & Parker]

Brochure: ‘Happisburgh Manor‘ [PDF, Strutt & Parker]

Listing description: ‘Happisburgh Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

News story – Westwood Park: ‘My £1.2m taste of Tudor living: Country house apartment with 3,000sq ft – and most is in the drawing room‘ [Daily Mail – 2009]

Article on Simon Finch and Voewood: Lifestyle – for House & Garden [Dominic Bradbury]

Article: ‘Arts and Crafts houses stand the test of time‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Other examples:

If a moat floats your boat: for sale; Playford Hall and Giffords Hall, Suffolk

Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)
Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)

Moated houses are an architectural short cut to a more functional time when where a family lived had to be defensible and not simply a place of relaxation.  Today, of course, we admire them for their ancient charm, the weathered bricks reflected in gently rippling waters.  These houses are an older expression of our love of the natural, which found a more formal form in the later Picturesque movement, their more organic outlines in contrast with the more rigid classicism which followed.

Though once numerous, time has taken its toll and excellent examples are less common – and especially appealing when they come to market, as two have recently. The moated manor house was a result of many factors; the decline of the traditional castle, a more peaceful society, and increased wealth, but still with a need to provide some defence against thieves and attackers.  The latter category was increasingly rare but a moat with gatehouse and even drawbridge had a practical advantage.  However, for families which wished to visually bolster the perceptions of the grandeur of their lineage, a moated house was very evocative of permanence and status, drawing on their architectural ancestry with castles.  As each manor required somewhere for the local owner to stay (sometimes only occasionally if they owned many) each had a house of varying size and status depending on the wealth of the owner.  As each manor often covered a relatively small area this led to the building of thousands of these houses (though not all with moats), particularly in England.

Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)
Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)

The organic growth of a moated house often created a pleasing historical collage of styles, such as at Ightham Mote, Kent, though this was sometimes swept away to be replaced by a new house such as at Groombridge Place, also in Kent.  This beautiful house was build in 1662 though in a traditional Jacobean/Elizabethan ‘H’ plan on the footprint of the older, more fortified house – though the diarist John Evelyn thought, following his visit in August 1674, that “…a far better situation had been on the south of the wood, on a graceful ascent.” indicating not everyone found a moat romantic.

Yet not every grand family felt the need to abandon the old house.  The Lygon family (Earls Beauchamp between 1815-1979) have lived at the evocative Madresfield Court, Worcestershire for 28 generations.  At its core, a 15th-century moated manor house, the current building is largely the work of the architect Philip Hardwick in 1865 for the 6th Earl Beauchamp.  The house is a prime example of late Victorian taste; a clever blend of Anglo-Catholic Pugin gothick with extensive Arts-and-Crafts interiors including a wonderful library by C.R. Ashbee of the Cotswold Guild of Handicraft (to read more about this remarkable family and house I can recommend ‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead‘ by Jane Mulvagh).

Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The physical security of a moated house was also a factor in its decline as it limited the space available for expansion as either the family, wealth or ambition of the owner grew. Many a grand country house was constructed elsewhere to replace a smaller manor with the old house either being abandoned, demolished (sometimes for building materials), or used as a secondary or dower house.  Yet, as a harsher economic reality came to pass from the 1880s, and as these smaller houses were lauded in magazines such as Country Life, so their attractiveness grew with many rescued from neglect and sometimes reinstated as a principle house on the estate.

H. Avray Tipping, one of the most influential of the Country Life writers, was a prime supporter of the smaller houses as reflected in his choice of house for the weekly ‘Country Houses and Gardens’ section – nearly a fifth of them in 1910, for example.  This was also a time when John Ruskin was arguing for more honesty in architecture and against the over-enthusiastic renovations of the Victorians which he regarded as ‘ignorant’. This regret at the neglect of manor houses in general can be seen even in the earliest Country Life articles.  Writing in 1897 (the year it was founded), John Leyland writing about Swinford Old Manor, Oxfordshire, said;

“There are manor houses through the length and breadth of the land as charming, it may be, as this, but awaiting, like sleeping beauties, the kiss that is to arouse them to fresh and unsuspected charm, the needed touch of the loving hand invested with creative skill.”

Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

Perhaps one of the best examples of this loving restoration can be seen at Plumpton Place, Sussex for Country Life proprietor Edward Hudson by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.  When Hudson bought the it in 1928 the house was semi-derelict though with an intrinsic beauty from its setting on an island in the middle of the uppermost of three lakes.  Lutyens successfully restored and adapted the house to create one of the best current examples of a moated manor house – which was also offered for sale in July 2010 for £8m (and featured in another post: ‘For those who like their houses with pedigree: Plumpton Place, Sussex‘)

So having whetted our collective appetites, those with £3.5m to spare currently have a choice of two historic moated manor houses in Suffolk; Playford Hall, near Ipswich (£3.25m), and Giffords Hall, in Wickhambrook (£3.5m).

Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

Playford Hall has the beauty of the warm red-brick with two wings placed off-centre, hinting at the further wing demolished in the 1750s after a devastating storm in 1721 blew holes in the roof and following a long period of dereliction from 1709 following the death of the owner, Sir Thomas Felton, who had remodelled the house in its current style.  The house then passed by marriage into the estate of the Earls of Bristol, in which it remained until sold after WWII.  The house has been restored and updated – though whoever buys it will probably want to re-do the eye-wateringly pink dining room.

Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

No such concerns about the wonderful interiors of Giffords Hall – the house abounds with historic woodwork, from the masses of exposed beams to the extensive panelling.  The exterior, in contrast to Playford, is almost entirely timber-framed, with an Arts-and-Crafts style north wing added in 1908 by the owner Mr A. H. Fass who also carefully restored the house following a period of neglect.   Now cleverly brought up-to-date, in co-operation with English Heritage, the house now has a full suite of reception rooms, a new kitchen and a full quota of bathrooms.

So, proving the folly of those who allowed these romantic houses to decay and the wisdom of those who restored them – with thanks to the evangelism of Country Life – another important branch of the nation’s architectural history has been redeemed and now, once again, attracts high valuations which reflect the immediate attraction these houses can exert on us all.

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For further reading, the excellent ‘The English Manor House – from the archives of Country Life’ by Jeremy Musson – though unfortunately this appears to be out of print and surprisingly expensive. One for the second-hand bookshop search, I think.

For those looking to visit, a handy list: ‘Manors in England‘ [Britain Express]

When bling attacks: Ollerton Grange, Cheshire

Ollerton Grange, Cheshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Ollerton Grange, Cheshire (Image: Knight Frank)

A constant danger for smaller, less historic – but no less attractive – country houses is when the local area becomes more fashionable with an influx of newer, brasher ideas which can be unsympathetic to the original designs. Ollerton Grange in Cheshire, now for sale for an eye-watering £30m with Knight Frank, could be seen as a example of what happens when a small country house meets a large amount of money.

From the picture the house has echoes of the early East Anglian Prodigy houses such Blicking Hall with the neat gables and rambling roofline, built in 1619-27.  Yet Ollerton Grange is a fairly modern construction, built in 1901 by the Manchester architect John Brooke for Cyril Lowcock.  The neo-Tudor style was popular in the Arts & Crafts period with it’s evocation of ancient history which the newly rich were keen to adopt.  The octagonal tower with its ogee cap is the main feature of the entrance front with the gables, mullioned windows, and tall, diagonally-set chimneys following its lead.

The house, plus 141 acres, was bought in 2000 by the heir to the Matalan empire, Jamey Hargreaves for between £5m-10m and he has since spent an estimated £20m over the last ten years.  To his credit he has spared no expense on restoring the main house with fine quality Arts & Crafts panelling set off by some excellent quality antiques.  This reflects the fact that he confesses to having been a reader of Country Life magazine since the age of eight – despite the inevitable joking from his family in the terrace house where he grew up.

Plunge pool, Ollerton Grange, Cheshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Plunge pool, Ollerton Grange, Cheshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Yet if this was the only work to have taken place all would be well.  However, the house is situated in the area of Cheshire known as the ‘Golden Triangle’ inhabited by footballers and their girlfriends.  The prevailing interior style is brash and flashy with an emphasis on gadgets and gimmicks.  At Ollerton Grange this has manifested itself in a huge pleasure complex to the north of the house which more than doubles the original size of the house. This features a full spa, a pool with retractable roof, a red-tiled plunge pool with sculpted aluminium ceiling [pictured], sauna, steam room – with the ability to seal all this off from the main house with a steel shutter during the big house parties.

Credit to Mr Hargreaves for not butchering the original house to fit it in these facilities but is it right that now fully half the space of the new extended house is this modern ‘pleasure-dome’? The photos of the exterior of the house all focus on the original house because, I suspect, the exterior of the new wing will not match the careful architectural composition of John Brooke’s original.  This is not to be snobby but merely to highlight that although a house can be restored to within an inch of it’s life, that doesn’t mean that other alterations may not compromise the overall setting.  Planners have to tread a fine line between allowing necessary and hoped for alterations but perhaps there should be a greater emphasis on ensuring that any new extension continues using the architectural vocabulary of the original house to harmonise the overall look of the property.

Property details: ‘Ollerton Grange‘ [Knight Frank]

Source credit: original story ‘Tangerine Dream’ in the Home section of The Sunday Times – 27 June 2010.