The finest SAVE, now for sale: Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

The wholesale destruction of UK country houses in the 1930s and 1950s was undoubtedly a tragic waste; not only of materials but also the embodied beauty and history of the hundreds of houses lost. Barlaston Hall, recently launched on the market for sale, and which was so valiantly fought for by SAVE Britain’s Heritage who famously bought it for £1, provides a case study which shows what might have been possible if circumstances had been different. How many more of our country houses might have survived to still be found nestled at the end of a tree-lined drive?

Collapse of Hague Hall, Yorkshire, due to mining subsidence, 1910 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Collapse of Hague Hall, Yorkshire, due to mining subsidence, 1910 (Image: Lost Heritage)

The plight of the country house in the 20th-century struck at both the large and the small, the grand and the intimate.  A financial crisis could, in a generation, take a family from a secure status enjoying thousands of acres to one of ruin and a forced retreat from the family seat.  For some houses the demise was swift – for sale intact one year but the following year could see sales of contents, then fixtures and fittings, and finally the materials. The alternative fate for a number of houses was a lingering demise – abandoned, at risk from thieves and the weather, to an increasingly hostile environment with threats coming from every angle, even from below.

The elegant Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire was one house which fell firmly into the latter category. A remarkable house, it represented an important development of the Palladian tradition; the moment it moved from ‘copying’ to evolving.  The house was built c.1756-58 for Thomas Mills, a local lawyer, with the design convincingly attributed to Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714-1788).

Architecture was not his first choice of career. Taylor was the son of a master mason and sculptor, also called Robert, who was successful enough to build a villa in Woodford, Essex, but who was also rather profligate.  The father managed to get his son apprenticed to the sculptor Henry Cheere and on completing his time, found his father had just enough to send him on to Rome to study.  Whilst there, his father died so he came back to find his inheritance was no more than debts, but friends enabled him to set up as a sculptor and by 1744 he was sufficiently accomplished to be commissioned by Parliament and to carve the pediment of the Mansion House in the City of London.  It became clear that he paled in the shadow of his contemporaries – Roubiliac, Rysbrack and Scheemakers – so at the age of 40 he turned to architecture.

Outside influences often act as catalysts for development. In the same way that Blenheim Palace was enriched by Vanbrugh‘s theatrical experience, so Taylor had the advantage of his earlier, if unsuccessful, sculptural career which brought a more developed sense of shape, form, and movement to his architecture.  Colvin praises him as an architect of ‘considerable originality‘ and that ‘his villas…represented a new departure in country-house architecture‘. What Taylor provided was an evolution of the strict Palladian designs of the previous generation, marrying them to a more tolerant approach that allowed the interiors to be more Rococo, with decorative plasterwork and patterns, drawing on his knowledge of the original sources in Italy. Taylor created wonderfully elegant villas for his clientèle of bankers and merchants, who needed smaller houses for entertaining rather than seats for a rural family empire.

Braxted Park, Essex - note the octagonal window frames (Image: Braxted Park)
Braxted Park, Essex – note the octagonal window frames (Image: Braxted Park)

Although Taylor undoubtedly designed many buildings, he seems to have almost conspired to make it impossible to attribute them as he left no record of his practice and also apparently never signed his drawings.  There are, therefore, large gaps in both his chronological and stylistic history but starting with his first country house, Braxted Park, Essex in 1753-6, it is clear that his skill and legendary capacity for hard graft meant a sizeable output.

Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stephen Richards via Geograph)
Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stephen Richards via Geograph)

Of particular note, in relation to Barlaston Hall, is Taylor’s design for Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire, in 1755. Part of a group of second-generation Palladians – along with Flitcroft, Keene, Paine, Ware, and Wright – Taylor saw Palladio as an inspiration but was not a slavish disciple.  The core principles relating to proportion and preserving a necessary elegance were respected but it was in the interpretation that they introduced variety.  At Harleyford, Taylor took a more vernacular style to the idea of the Villa Rotonda (a standalone villa with four equal fronts, allied with its landscape) but also combined with a sculptors appreciation that it should be attractive from all angles.

Asgill House, Richmond, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Asgill House, Richmond, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Built between 1756-58, the layout and style of Barlaston Hall clearly shows the kinship with Harleyford. The elegant simplicity of the ground floor layout with the four principal rooms pushing out into the arms of the cross with a double-height central hall clearly can be derived from the Villa Rotonda but rotated on the axis to create more interior space, as opposed to the Rotonda’s open loggias.  One of the most distinctive features is the pleasing ‘chinese’-style woodwork, with octagonal window tracery on the exterior, a pattern mirrored in the library in the bookcase doors.  For one so early in his career, Taylor was showing remarkable invention, elegance and practicality, all of which served to launch his practice, which continued for 35 years. After Barlaston, further commissions such as Asgill House (1761-64) on the riverside at Richmond, Surrey, for his friend Sir Charles Asgill, also helped establish Taylor’s reputation.

Not that any of this innovation and elegance mattered to the Wedgwood company who applied twice in the early 1980s to demolish Barlaston Hall.  The house and estate had been bought by the famous pottery firm in 1937 as part of a scheme to create a new factory and model village for their workers.  These were built some distance away but the now grade-I listed house was badly neglected with serious water damage causing it to become increasingly derelict, with ceilings and the staircase collapsing, and the structure affected by subsidence caused by coal-mining.  The house also sat across a geological fault and future mining plans risked the whole area sinking by about 40 feet.  Clearly, this was a house very much at risk.

Entrance front, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Entrance front, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

In 1981, the second application to demolish was called to public inquiry, due to the importance of the house, where the architectural conservation charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage argued the case for the preservation and restoration of the house. As Barlaston Hall had been designated as ‘outstanding’ this placed certain obligations on the National Coal Board who would be required to pay for not only repairs but also preventative measures, such as the huge concrete raft they devised to prevent further movement.  After a few days of arguments, Wedgwood decided that they would make a bold move and offer the house to SAVE for £1 on the condition that it was restored within five years or they could buy it back for £1 (after which the house would no doubt be swiftly demolished).  The then Secretary of SAVE, Sophie Andreae, immediately phoned the President, Marcus Binney (who was in the USA) with the news.  Conscious that he had to make a decision there and then, Marcus called Wedgwood’s bluff and bought Barlaston Hall.

Dining Room, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire - 1981 (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Dining Room, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire – 1981 (Image: SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

A few days later when Marcus was able to visit the house for the first time, the scale of the challenge became starkly apparent.  Stepping into the debris-strewn hallways, light shone through all three floors from gaping holes in the collapsed roof and 4″ cracks indicated where the subsidence was taking hold.  Although most of the fireplaces had been stolen, the good news was that much of the original plasterwork on the walls and the distinctive woodwork had survived.  SAVE immediately organised a temporary roof, after which, the house took nearly 2 years to fully dry out.  Specialist heritage builders and professionals swiftly set to work on both the structural and conservation issues.

East front, Barlaston Hall - 1981 / 2014 (Images: SAVE Britain's Heritage / Knight Frank)
East front, Barlaston Hall – 1981 / 2014 (Images: SAVE Britain’s Heritage / Knight Frank)

Although work had started well, delays in securing the necessary certificates from the Secretary of State meant that the National Coal Board then decided to try and renege on their agreement to fund the work.  SAVE sought leave for a judicial review which prompted the Secretary of State to immediately fulfil his promises, which ultimately forced the National Coal Board to capitulate from their shameful position and fund the repair and preventative works – and SAVE’s legal fees too.  With immediate funding secured, which was followed by further grants, the conservation work continued.  It was put up for sale in 1992 and bought by the current owners who have sensitively completed the restoration of this captivating and fascinating house.

That the value of a house can go from £1 to £2.3m in the space of 30 years shows that the fortunes of country houses can rise as swiftly as they fall.  Barlaston Hall not only represents an important link in our understanding of the domestic Anglo-Palladian tradition, but is also a testament to how determined action can succeed even against larger opponents.  Today, the house still stands proudly displayed from the road, a bold statement of hope and preserved beauty.

——————————————————————

If you would like to support the fight to preserve our architectural heritage, please do become a Friend of SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  You will receive a regular newsletter plus access to the online database of ‘buildings at risk’.  You can also follow them on Twitter: ‘@SAVEBrit‘.  I am on the Committee of SAVE.

——————————————————————

The sale was announced in Country Life magazine: ‘A Country House Reborn‘ [16 April 2014]

Sales particulars: ‘Barlaston Hall‘ [Knight Frank]

A more detailed account of SAVE’s fight: ‘Barlaston Hall‘ – the Wedgwood Museum also has a brief history of the house on their website but which skips over the bit where Wedgwood tried to have it demolished. For historical images, see ‘Neville Melkin’s Grand Tour of the Potteries‘.

The front line: the campaigners for country houses

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

Despite the image of wealth and power a country house might create, in reality their existence is far more precarious – as can be seen with nearly 1,800 houses lost over the last two centuries.  A house facing the threats of being uninhabited without a concerned, well-funded owner with an inclination to keep it in good repair can quickly deteriorate leaving another gap in the tapestry of the countryside.  Sometimes it requires someone other than concerned locals and architectural historians to highlight and campaign on behalf of those ‘at risk’ so here’s a quick round-up of the main English organisations fighting on behalf of country houses and who are very worthy of support.

English Heritage inhabits a prime position in view of its role in defining and, in conjunction with local authorities, implementing the statutory protection of our built heritage.  Its role can be traced back to the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 – though the legislation specifically excluded privately owned houses. The responsibilities were exercised through various government departments until it became a quango in 1984.  As well as being responsible for the listing system and the annual production of the various ‘at risk’ registers (focussing mainly on grade-I and -II* properties), EH is also directly responsible for various country houses including Brodsworth Hall (Yorkshire), Rufford Abbey (Nottinghamshire), Hill Hall and Audley End (Essex), Kirby Hall (Northamptonshire), Witley Court (Worcestershire), Stokesay Castle (Shropshire), and Apethorpe Hall (Northamptonshire).   It’s at the grade-I listed Apethorpe where EH has done some of it’s most interesting work; taking a direct role in the restoration of one of the finest Elizabethan/Jacobean houses in the country following a long period of neglect. Since 2008, the house has been for sale for around £5m – though there is a compulsory £4m list of renovations, and if you want complete privacy expect to pay another £8m to fully reimburse EH otherwise you have to open it for 28 days a year; so a nice round £20m to restore, furnish and keep as your own. However, this is a role that I fully support them in taking on – they should be there as owner and restorer of last resort for threatened grade-I houses.  Now perhaps we can interest them in the sadly deriorating Melton Constable Hall in Norfolk…?

Another important group of campaigners are recognised in the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act which formalised the role of what are known as ‘amenity societies‘; that is, well-established voluntary societies who are experts in their areas, who must, by law, be informed of any applications for listed building consent to demolish listed buildings in whole or in part in England and Wales.

One of the best known is the Georgian Group who cover a period broadly from 1700-1837.  The society was established in 1937 and has long campaigned for the sensitive restoration and retention of not only the buildings but the many important, and sometimes sadly overlooked, internal features which are a key part of the character of a building.  Current active campaigns and cases they are involved in include Bank Hall in Lancashire and Trewarthenick House in Cornwall and many others. They also produce a scholarly annual research journal which provides a much more in-depth view of aspects of Georgian architecture.  Access for the wonderful trips to houses not normally open to the public are worth joining for alone.

Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)
Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)

The Victorian Society (which also covers Edwardian buildings too) was formed in 1958 at a time when almost all things Victorian were disliked and an easy target for demolition.  Founded at the suggestion of Anne, Lady Rosse, along with her influential friends such as Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nicklaus Pevsner, the Society has fought some notable battles; losing some such as Euston Station but winning others, such as the soon-to-reopen St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel building.  Victorian country houses have suffered badly as, although designed by eminent architects such as Richard Norman Shaw and Alfred Waterhouse, they were often built on a much grander and therefore less economically sustainable scale and at the times of greatest threat (the 1930s and 1950s) had few friends to argue on their behalf.  Luckily though this has changed – but with the predominant ‘gothic-revival’ style being quite polarising, threats to houses from this period will always be present. Again, well worth joining.

Perhaps more controversially for this blog, it’s also worth bearing in mind the Twentieth Century Society.  Although the focus of the houses usually covered is before 1900, there has been a growing recognition that some of the country houses built in the 20th-century were well-planned and architecturally pleasing, even if they sometimes replaced a much more attractive Georgian or Victorian house.  It does seem to take about 50 years after a style has passed from being fashionable for it to be appreciated, so I suspect there will be a growing realisation that we need to protect the work of those such as Francis Johnson, Craig Hamilton, Quinlan Terry, and Robert Adam (amongst many others) in the future.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is, as its name makes clear, not usually concerned with country houses as they are relatively ‘modern’ in terms of its remit.  However, they do immensely important work in promoting good repair practice to all buildings and their courses have taught generations of owners and craftsmen to respect the country houses and to approach any work required with a more ‘heritage’ mindset.

Although not ‘amenity societies’, two other organisations deserve a mention. The first is the Historic Houses Association which acts on behalf of the private owners of country houses and often lobby government to make them aware of the immense work done by the individual owners to maintain their slice of the national architectural heritage.  It may seem unfashionable in wider society to support the wealthy but they are the ones not only maintaining their homes to the exacting standards of English Heritage, but also restoring and rescuing houses and converting them back into homes again – and for that they deserve our thanks.

The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)
The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)

The other organisation is one in which I have an interest having worked with them for several years: SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  Founded in 1974, SAVE have taken a very active stance on campaigning, willing to create media interest at short notice, but also to take time to produce some excellent research on houses at risk with thoughtful proposals for their re-use.  These campaigns have saved houses such as Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, The Grange in Hampshire, Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire (where SAVE bravely took on the house for £1!), and, working with Kit Martin, have acted as a catalyst for the saving of other houses through conversion into apartments.  Supporting SAVE’s work and becoming a Friend also gives access to their extensive ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ which features over 800 properties, including several country houses, which are in need of rescue – could it be you?

It is also worth keeping an eye out for local activists and campaigns which can also be remarkably successful at highlighting buildings at risk but can also sometimes take a more direct role; see the wonderful work at Poltimore, Devon, Bank Hall, Lancashire, and Copped Hall, Essex.  These are just three examples where concerned locals have organised themselves and presented a credible alternative and prevented the complete loss of the house.

All of these organisations are worth joining but economics being what they are it can be best to join a national organisation and then another to focus on the period which you prefer.  Joining up means that you are helping to support research but also active campaigns to ensure that as much of our built heritage is passed on to future generations.

———————————————————

I realise this selection is not comprehensive and is quite national in focus and deficient in regional organisations but this will be remedied in another post once I’ve had time to learn a bit more about who’s out there.

– Matthew

———————————————————

Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)
Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)

One often forgotten aspect of local newspapers is their ability to draw on their archives and provide reminders of local history. The local paper frequently played an important part in publicising the goings on at the ‘big house’, reporting the successes and scandals with usually equal vigour.  A recent article in the Northamptonshire ‘Evening Telegraph‘ reflects not only on the collapse of the Volta tower, built by the owner of Finedon Hall as a memorial to his drowned son, but also the later dereliction and near loss of the house itself as it slipped from dereliction ever closer to demolition.  Yet, unlike so many hundreds of other country houses which were lost, Finedon Hall was one of the many which have been saved.

c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)
c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)

Finedon Hall has 17th-century origins but its current style is the result of what Mark Girouard called “eccentric chunky” alterations by E.F. Law for the owner, William Mackworth-Dolben, in the 1850s.  Built in a Tudor-Gothic style in the local ironstone (which was quarried on their land) the house passed through the family until the last of the family, the spinster Ellen Mackworth-Dolben died in 1912.  With no heirs, the estate was sold off in parcels with the house passing through a number of owners before being bought by developers in 1971.  For over a decade they allowed the house to deteriorate until just ten years later parts of the roof had gone and the exterior was in serious danger of collapse.  Luckily, more enlightened developers stepped in and during the 1990s the house (and estate buildings) were converted into apartments.

One of the largest houses to be converted in this way was Thorndon Hall in Essex.  One of James Paine‘s largest commissions, this Palladian mansion was originally built for the 9th Lord Petre in 1764-7 but was gutted by fire in 1876, leaving only the eastern end of the main block and the eastern pavilion intact.  The Petre family lived in the reduced house until 1919 when they leased it and the estate to a golf club and they moved back to the original family home, Ingatestone Hall.  The house remained a largely ruined shell until it was sold for development in 1976 but was then bought in 1978 by a local builder who created a total of 84 apartments in the house, pavilions and estate buildings.

Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)
Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)

One of the most accomplished and intelligent of the developers to convert country houses is Kit Martin who has saved several houses and including Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  The house was largely remodelled by Ambrose Isted in 1755 in the then relatively new ‘Gothic-Revival‘ style (Horace Walpole had only started his work at Strawberry Hill in the early 1750s and it’s considered one of the earliest houses in the new style).  The house was filled with fine art, books and furniture and passed through the Isteds and then, by marriage, to the Sothebys who owned it until the last died, childless, in 1952. At this point the rot set in; builders called in to remove a large kitchen extension also, apparently, stole the valuable lead from the roof leading to dry and wet rot. Alexander Creswell, visiting in the 1980s, described the scene:

“The rich ochre stone of the garden front is engulfed in Virginia creeper, and sparkles of broken glass litter the terrace.  Inside the house, the drawing room fireplace rises above a heap of plaster that the roof has brought down…At one end of the house the winter storms have toppled a gable, which in falling has crushed the fragile camellia-house below; one surviving camellia blooms among the rubble of ironstone – the only flourishing vestige of Ecton’s former glory” – ‘The Silent Houses of Britain

However, by 1989 Kit Martin had finished his work and the new apartments were advertised for sale in Country Life; a remarkable rescue for this almost lost house.

Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)
Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)

Perhaps Kit’s finest work is Gunton Park in Norfolk.  The house was originally the work of Matthew Brettingham, a competent, if sometimes unimaginative, Palladian who had first achieved recognition with his work executing William Kent and Lord Burlington‘s designs for Holkham Hall.  This work brought him to the attention of other aristocratic clients, particularly in Norfolk, including Sir William Harbord who commissioned him in 1745 to design a replacement at Gunton for an earlier house which had burnt down three years earlier.  Brettingham’s house was to be significantly enlarged c.1785 to designs by James Wyatt.

Sadly, fire struck again; in 1882 the Brettingham portion of the house, including the fine rooms, was almost completely gutted and remained a forlorn shell for the next 100 years.  Kit Martin bought the house in 1981 and sensitively created well-proportioned apartments in the remaining wings. The front of the Brettingham wing (pictured above) become one large house separated from the main block by a large void created by the fire but still linked by the retained façades.  It’s not just the house which has been rejuvenated; the parkland – nearly 1,000 acres – has also been bought or, through agreements, reunited (and in the process winning an award from Country Life magazine) to restore the setting of this elegant house.

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)

It’s rare for a house, once in a state of dereliction, to be restored as a single family home, yet thankfully it does happen. Barlaston Hall is one example of this – and it’s rescue was down to some bold decisions by the campaigning charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and their President, the architectural writer Marcus Binney, who was offered this elegant house for £1!  Barlaston Hall is, according to Binney, almost certainly the work of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714 – d.1788).   The house is a relatively unadorned but sophisticated house, enlivened with unusual octagonal and diamond glazing bars in the sash windows; Taylor’s response to the popularity of Chinese Chippendale furniture and a general fashion for the Rococo.

Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)
Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)

However, the house had been built on several coal seams which threatened the house when they were mined in the 20th-century.  Structurally unsound, it had been abandoned and vandalised but SAVE stepped in to challenge Wedgewood’s application to demolish.  At the subsequent public inquiry, the National Coal Board threw down the challenge that SAVE could buy the house for £1 provided it completed restoration and repairs within six years.  SAVE swung into action, raising money through grants and by forcing the NCB to meet its obligations (which it did after some shameful attempts to avoid doing so), and the house was stabilised, restored, and subsequently sold to a couple who completed the interior and it remains a family home.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr) - click to see large version

Sadly there are many country houses still at risk today – though the rescues also continue. Pell Well Hall in Shropshire, a wonderful house by Sir John Soane built in 1822-28, has been restored as a shell after decades of neglect, vandalism and fire, and now requires someone with vision to complete the process.  Bank Hall in Lancashire was featured in the original ‘Restoration’ TV series but has continued to deteriorate with sections collapsing.  However, planning permission is being sought to convert the house into apartments which will enable restoration of the house. One house however has, inexplicably (well, to me), remained unrestored; Piercefield House in Monmouthshire.  This beautiful house, again by Sir John Soane, became uninhabited and was mistreated during WWII by the American troops stationed nearby who used the façade for target practice.  The house, set in 129 acres, has been for sale for several years but despite the architectural provenance and the wonderful setting it remains unsold.

The story of the country house has always been one of changing fortunes, which sadly led to many being demolished. The difference now we have heritage legislation is that whereas before houses were often simply demolished, now their plight is likely to drag on for many years.  Restoration is often the best course of action, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible, and ideally as a single family home, though the less palatable options of conversion are always to be preferred to the complete loss of another of our historic houses.

News story: ‘Fascinating history of Hall‘ [Evening Telegraph]