The delight of a country house is the beautiful meeting of house, setting and contents to create a complete picture. Yet, for some houses, they never make that stage – finances or death of the instigator usually being the main obstacle to completion. For some, these half-built aspirations are demolished, others left as a shell which can tantalise us today as to why they failed to achieve their purpose.
In previous generations, the simplicity of construction methods would necessarily mean that in some cases a decade could pass from plans being drawn up to actually moving in. As now, families can go from great wealth to poverty in a short time so to build a substantial country house was a commitment and a statement of the aspirations of the owners as to their future good fortune and health – though sometimes it was not to be.
Many a mansion has been started with grand ambitions which will forever remain unfulfilled (how impressive would Goodwood House in Sussex be if they’d completed the other five sides of the intended octogon?). However this post is focussed on those which were started and ended only as frustrated shells.
One of the most impressive of these is Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire. Originally built for William Leigh, a wealthy trader, who, inspired by his conversion to Catholicism, sought to create a religious community in the Cotswolds on his estate. As any good Catholic was inclined to do at the time, he consulted A.W. Pugin, a devout Catholic who believed that Gothic architecture was the only true Christian style. He produced plans for a grand new house (after naturally condemning the existing house as “…a more hopeless case of repairs I never saw.“) and a church and monastery, and sent his new design for the house with his estimate of £7,118. Anyone familiar with Pugin’s career will know that he never saw an estimate he couldn’t exceed so Leigh probably had a lucky escape when Pugin resigned the commission in 1846. Leigh instead turned to another Catholic architect Charles Hansom (b.1817 – d.1888). Leigh’s religious zeal took priority so the church was completed in 1849 and the monastery in 1853 after which work started on the new house.
However, progress was slow; the workers were occasionally given tasks elsewhere on the estate, funds were inadequate, and Leigh was also a perfectionist who took a close interest which can only have delayed things. The architect had also changed, with the young and inexperienced Benjamin Bucknall taking over and revising the designs to a combination of Pugin and the French architect Viollet-le-Duc, giving the house a distinctly French influence. However, Leigh’s declining health overtook the build and he died in 1873 with only the shell complete. A profligate son, declining family fortunes, the World Wars, and its isolation meant that despite various plans, including completion for use as mental hospital offices, it simply sat in its parkland. Now grade-I listed, the house gives a unique insight into the construction methods of the time.
Perhaps the grandest house never to be completed was the Worksop Manor in Nottinghamshire for the Dukes of Norfolk. Part of the ‘Dukeries‘, that area of the county formerly rich in ducal seats, the original 500-room Elizabethan Worksop Manor, designed by Robert Smythson, burnt down in 1761 during renovations, destroying £100,000 (approx. £143m) of works of art from the famous Arundel collection. Although childless, the 9th Duke decided to rebuild for the benefit of his eventual heir.
The plans were colossal and would have been the largest house in the county and maybe the country – if it had been completed. Even Horace Walpole, who had developed a discerning eye for country houses during his many tours, thought the Duke’s schemes “…so vast and expensive that it is scarcely possible they can be completed.“. Designed by James Paine (b.1717 – d.1789), the aim was to mark the status and learning of the Duke’s family, building only one side, however it alone was 23-bays, 318ft long and featured a fine Corinthian column supported by six columns, with a 37ft x 25ft entrance hall, decorated by Flemish artist Theodore de Bruyn, and a grand drawing room of 50ft x 30ft.
However, following the death of the heir, Edward Howard, the grief-stricken Norfolks abandoned the project and concentrated on their Sussex seat Arundel Castle. The 10th and 11th Dukes never completed it so it was therefore unsurprising that the 12th Duke decided to sell the house and estate in 1838 to the neighbouring Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyme for £375,000. With his own palatial house at the nearby Clumber House, the Duke was not interested in the house, just in adding the land to his own. Rather than pay for the upkeep, the Duke sold the fabric of the building before demolishing the rest in June 1841 leaving just the stables and part of the service wing. It was these that were later restored to make a rather awkward looking new Worksop Manor.
Altogether more mysterious is Lyveden New Beild in Northamptonshire. Built for the remarkable if oft persecuted Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham (b.? – d.1605), a well-educated and wealthy man who moved in the highest social circles. Never intended as a main residence (Lyveden Old Bield), this was apparently a summer house, a retreat for the owner during the annual spring clean of his main house. That said, this is a house with many meanings. Designed by Robert Stickells (b.? – d.1620) to indulge Tresham’s interest in antiquity and religious symbolism, the house was built in the shape of a cross and other elements aligned or organised according to mystical numbers, often alluding to the Holy Trinity. Tresham also used the same ideas in his construction of the famous Rushton Triangular Lodge, a small folly also on the estate.
However, the same ardent Catholicism which drove the design of the New Bield and the Lodge also meant that he was regularly persecuted for his faith, frequently being fined huge amounts. With borrowing his only option, funds were scarce and his estate heavily indebted. Perhaps surprisingly, this half-finished house, set in fine gardens and parkland, was never bought and completed and so remains an architectural enigma to this day.
Woodchester Mansion holds regular open days more details available on their website. The surrounding Park is owned by the National Trust.
Worksop Manor is still very much a private residence and is not open to the public.
Lyveden New Beild is owned by the National Trust and is regularly open.