William Kent, the reluctant Gothick

If asked what style of architecture one would associate with William Kent, one of the leading designers of the Georgian era, most would say Palladian and, if pushed, they might argue that his interiors are distinctly Baroque.  Yet Kent is also regarded as the creator of the ‘Gothick’ style of architecture; a blend of historical Gothic elements but applied, initially, within the structure of classical rules. This quickly evolved to have greater historical rigour, laying the groundwork for the more zealous interpretation by Victorians such as A.W.N. Pugin.  However, it could be argued that Kent was merely satisfying the stylistic whims of a patron and in his use of ‘Gothic’ elements, was actually continuing the Elizabethan practice of creating ‘symmetrical Gothic’, a visually impressive approach built on Renaissance principles.

Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)
Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)

William Kent was born in 1685 in Bridlington, North Yorkshire, and displayed an early talent for drawing. Despite his parent’s modest means, he ‘had the good fortune to find some Gentlemen…to promote his studyes‘ who paid for him to travel to Italy in 1709, along with another talented young artist, John Talman.  Whilst there, Kent developed his skills in painting, but also in business as an agent for various young aristocrats on the Grand Tour, including Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, and Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, for whom Kent would help purchase paintings and other works of art. The latter connection with Lord Burlington, first professional, then as a friend, was to launch Kent’s career when they both returned to London in 1719, with Kent as the draughtsman of Burlington’s dream of a Palladian Britain.

It was the need for patronage which kept Kent in the thrall of Burlington and the circle of Palladians. Where Kent was given greater freedom, particularly in designing interiors and furniture, his natural inclination seems to have been towards a more Baroque style; a rich, florid escape from the strictures of the pure and elegant Roman style which Burlington so enthusiastically promoted.  So how did Kent become the father of ‘Gothick’, an architectural style characterised by the playful, historically-inaccurate application of medieval Gothic, the language of the cathedrals?

Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court - detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)
Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court – detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)

Kent’s first documented use of Gothick was in 1732-34 at Hampton Court Palace where he was commissioned to rebuild the east front of the Clock Court as accommodation for the Duke of Cumberland.  As a good Palladian, Kent originally proposed a classical scheme but Sir Robert Walpole, who had final approval over the design as First Lord of the Treasury, required that it be in keeping with the existing Tudor Gothic. Although originally there was only a much simpler door, Kent developed this and created a full gatehouse as a central focus of the front. Though now altered, Kent’s design drew on the existing architectural features, using ogee-domed octagonal turrets and a Gothick Venetian window. The interiors were also remodelled but here Kent’s enthusiasm for Gothick waned and he reverted to a more classical style of decoration.

On a side note, there is a suggestion that Kent’s actual first Gothick design was for a church tower at St Martin’s, Houghton in 1727.  Although the drawings in the Houghton archives are by Thomas Ripley, Kent had been involved with designs at Houghton since 1725 for the owner, Sir Robert Walpole, who, as previously mentioned, also instigated the use of Gothick at Hampton Court.

The most complete early use of this novel Gothick for a country house was at Esher Place, Surrey.  Having bought a 14th-century gatehouse, Wayneflete Tower (the only surviving part of a much larger quadrangular mansion) Henry Pelham, Prime Minister from 1743-54, lacked a house on his estate. Again, Kent proposed a Palladian solution – a compact villa which (minus dome and projecting portico) bears similarities with Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House, completed in 1729. Again, Kent was to be over-ruled by the client who wished for Wayneflete Tower to be more than a grand garden ornament – it had to be the centrepiece of the new house and this dictated the style.

Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)

One can imagine Kent sitting down with pen and paper and, much as if learning a new language, started drawing out his new vocabulary.  Though the initial sketches show two classical wings grafted onto the tower, he also, importantly, was experimenting with a more varied facade, one which pushed forward and receded with canted windows and recessed bays. This movement was to be a key influence in the future, breaking down the more formal, flatter approaches which had previously dominated.  This experimentation also extended to the interiors with rooms taking on greater variety; octagons or rectangular rooms ending in canted bays.

Esher Place, Surrey - John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)
Esher Place, Surrey – John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)

Kent’s final design (see at the top of the article) was an elegant solution and created a charming composition of a symmetrical house with the wings dominated by full-height canted bays and grand ogee-capped domes on the central tower. Unfortunately the scheme was watered-down in the execution – John Vardy‘s c.1744 engravings showing more austere wings without the bays and the tower without the domes. Even these were not to last as the new owner of the estate in 1805 pulled down the wings, leaving just the historic tower, before building a new house (the 1805 house is the south wing of the 1895 house) on the hill above – just as Kent had originally proposed to Pelham.

Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)
Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)

After Esher Place, in the next of Kent’s Gothick experiments, in 1737 he produced a design for the remodelling of Honingham Hall, Norfolk, for the second son of Viscount Townshend. A year later, Kent came back with a more detailed plan which removed much of the Jacobean character of the house, which had originally been build c.1605, to dramatically alter the front with a mixture of the bays and recessions. Sadly neither of the designs where executed and the house itself was demolished in 1966.  However, this exercise gave Kent an opportunity to gain greater familiarity with Gothick detailing and elevations.

Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The only other significant house Kent was to design in this style was Rousham House, Oxfordshire, for Lieutenant General James Dormer in 1737 (note the same year as the first proposed design for Honingham Hall). This was a remodelling of a small, H-plan house built in the 1630s and so Kent’s design had to accommodate the inevitable compromises of an existing building.  This he did by taking elements of the Honingham design, including the crenellations and a central ogee-capped dome, and combining them with classical elements such as the two pavilions which flanked each side. The interiors were a mix of styles; the parlour was purely classical but the library (a drawing room since 1764) was Gothick (or oriental, or Moorish, depending on who you ask). The gardens are the celebrated delight of Rousham and the buildings were designed by Kent at the same time as the house but are almost all classical, bar a Gothick Corn Mill.

North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)
North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)

Other Gothick projects by Kent such as the screens for Westminster and Gloucester Cathedrals, the Choir Fittings at York Minster, and various garden buildings all show a facility but not a fluency with the Gothic language. The same elements are used repeatedly within a variety of layouts and plans but without the detailed study of the original source buildings Kent seemed bound to his limitations.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon - print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830
Mount Edgcumbe, Devon – print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830

Did Kent ‘create’ Gothick? Yes – and no.  The Elizabethans had long been creating houses which deployed the language of historical Gothic to their houses.  An article by Mark Girouard on ‘Elizabethan Architecture and the Gothic Tradition‘ (SAHGB, 1963) cites Burghley, Lincolnshire, where the house features a west front (built 1577-78) of towers and a turreted gatehouse, a north front (1585) dominated by Tudor-Gothic windows with a Gothic parapet, and the clock tower (1587) has an almost Gothic spire.  The Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses featured an emphasis on the vertical with towers and squared-off bay windows such as Robert Smythson’s Worksop Manor.  Finally, the symmetry that underlies Kent’s work, can be seen in the Renaissance-influenced Elizabethan houses such as Longleat or Mount Edgcumbe.

What Kent did do was apply his natural love of a more lively baroque interpretation of Gothic design to create a style which, although it mainly influenced those he worked with, was an inspiration to a later group of designers such as John Vardy and Batty Langley.  Overall, Kent’s Gothick houses and interiors lack the commitment and historical rigour he displayed to the Palladian style or the verve and passion which characterised his Baroque efforts. Certainly a measure of his success is that Kent did create a new architectural language which fed the wider Georgian passion for the Picturesque. Here, at last, was a style which could break strict Classical regularity and substitute it with a rambling vision of finials and tracery.


This article was clearly inspired by the superb exhibition: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ (22 March – 13 July 2014). Definitely worth a visit if you are in London.

A brilliant tome (it’s huge) has been produced to coincide with the exhibition but easily works as a standalone reference: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ by Susan Weber.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has an extensive collection of William Kent drawings

Thomas Archer: the unsung master of English Baroque, and the revival of Roehampton House

Roehampton House, SW London - Thomas Archer, 1712 (Image: St James)
Roehampton House, SW London – Thomas Archer, 1712 (Image: St James)

Thomas Archer is described as the most European, and certainly one of the most accomplished, of the English Baroque architects.  His later relative obscurity was mainly due to the misfortune that his contemporaries were some of the greatest British architects of any era.  However, looking at the examples we do have of his work, we can clearly see his virtuoso skill and creative talent written into the fabric of the buildings.  The recent restoration of Roehampton House, London, and its conversion into apartments, is a rare chance to live in an example of his work.

Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Fine & Country estate agents)
Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Fine & Country estate agents) – a house not designed by Thomas Archer.

In many ways, Thomas Archer (b.1668 – d.1743) was the quintessential ‘gentleman architect’. The youngest son of Thomas Archer M.P. of Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire, he studied at Trinity College, Oxford, but clearly had broader horizons as, after graduating in 1689, he immediately undertook a four-year Grand Tour, heading to Italy via Germany and Austria.  Almost nothing is known of his time in Italy, yet he must have studied the architecture and been influenced so heavily that this became his chosen profession.  However, as a man of independent means, for Archer, this was less about earning a living and more about the translation of a recognisably ‘European’ form of Baroque to his native country. His architectural career was to be one of successive highlights; broadly, each commission was for a notable patron and the work produced of exceptional quality.

North front, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: bronndave via flickr)
North front, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: bronndave via flickr)

Archer’s gentry origins and Whig affiliations secured him a place at Court where he came to know one of the most powerful aristocrats, William Cavendish, the 4th Earl (1st Duke from 1694) of Devonshire.  Retiring to his estates during the reign of James II, in 1686 the Earl embarked on a programme to rebuild Chatsworth.  In doing so, he elevated the status and grandeur of the private country house to a level not seen since the Elizabethan Prodigy houses – but with the key difference that this was explicitly for non-Royal appreciation. The Duke found in Thomas Archer an enthusiastic collaborator, but one with the advantage of direct experience of the style of grand Italian architecture he so admired.  Chatsworth grew in phases, with the majestic south front begun in 1686, the east front in 1693 (both designed by William Talman), the west front in 1696 (possibly designed by the Duke), with Archer finally being given his opportunity, the north front, in 1705.  As the final phase, Archer had to unite the mismatched lengths of the east and west fronts, which he brilliantly achieved though the use of a visual distraction; a bowed central projection. The use of curves was to become a stylistic hallmark of Archer, one used repeatedly and almost uniquely in the work of the English Baroque architects.

No sooner had Archer secured his first commission than he simultaneously acquired his second; Heythrop House, Oxfordshire, for Charles Talbot, 1st Duke of Shrewsbury.  Unusually for a Talbot, the 1st (and only) Duke of Shrewsbury had converted from his Roman Catholic upbringing to Church of England, and had found favour at Court under Charles II, but he was required to live abroad between 1700-1706 and spent time in Italy.  Whilst there, his diary in 1704 records that he was given a draft plan for a house by Paolo Falconieri, Chamberlain to Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany, and occasional amateur architect. Marcus Whiffen believes that it was this draft which was given to Archer and on which he based his design for Heythrop.  One piece of evidence for the Italian origins of the designs were the very large rooms (e.g. the hall being 32ft x 27ft, a drawing room of 47ft x 25ft) which take little account of the colder English climate.

Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire - Thomas Archer, 1706 (Image: Heythrop Park Hotel)
Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire – Thomas Archer, 1706 (Image: Heythrop Park Hotel)

Heythrop is a confident work which clearly draws its inspiration from the Italian Baroque, with an energetically decorated façade, showing stylistic connections to Bernini’s rejected design for the Louvre.  The grand Oxfordshire palazzo was probably completed by the early 1720s – though sadly the Duke did not live to see this, having died in 1718.  The interiors were designed by James Gibbs but were tragically lost in the huge fire which completely gutted the house in 1831. It remained a shell until 1870 when it was bought by Thomas Brassey as a wedding present for his third son and commissioned Alfred Waterhouse to rebuild the interior. Sold in 1926, it became a Jesuit college until 1969, when it then became the Natwest Bank training college (the latter two uses leading to the construction of extensive ancillary buildings), and then in 1999, it was sold again to become the hotel it remains today.

Top: Pavilion at Wrest Park - plan from Colen Campbell (Vitruvius Britannicus)  Bottom: S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome - plan by Michelanglo, from J. von Sandrart (Insignum Romae Templorum Prospectus)
Top: Pavilion at Wrest Park – plan from Colen Campbell (Vitruvius Britannicus)
Bottom: S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome – plan by Michelanglo, from J. von Sandrart (Insignum Romae Templorum Prospectus)

Although Thomas Archer was not responsible for the design of the main house at Wrest Park (the later house we see today was designed by the then owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey), he did create one of the finest garden pavilions in the country.  In 1711, Archer was commissioned by Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent, to build an elaborate pavilion to terminate the axial view, looking down the Long Canal, from the main house.  Again, Archer demonstrated his familiarity with Rome, using a version of Michelanglo’s unexecuted plan for the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. This is still one of the most exciting buildings in the country; a distillation of Michelanglo, filtered through the English Baroque.

Continuing what must have been a busy period by Archer’s standards, in 1712 he also designed Roehampton House, south-west London, for Thomas Cary. To call the original design ‘dramatic’ is something of an understatement as the plate in Vitruvius Britannicus shows it with a grand, full-width broken pediment – though whether this was actually built or was, but later removed, is unclear.  The plan of the house itself was double-pile with flanking wings, though these were not built originally.  The house then passed through a number of aristocratic owners before being bought in 1910 by Canadian banker Arthur Morton Grenfell. It was Grenfell who commissioned Lutyens to extend the house – though the efforts were not to benefit him as he was declared bankrupt in 1914, before the interiors could be fully completed.

Archer’s next commission, also in 1712, was for Hurstbourne Priors [Park], Hampshire, though, intriguingly, the plan does not match the house that was built – two surviving pictures by John Griffier show a much plainer design.  Proving just what Archer intended and any differences to what was built would be almost impossible as the house was rebuilt by James Wyatt in c. 1780-85, then again by Beeston & Burmester after a fire in 1894 and finally demolished in 1965.  Intriguingly, Tim Mowl suggested that the ‘Bee House’ aka Andover Lodge, was also by Archer and represents an experiment with architectural forms.

Having achieved such success in his life, in 1715, Archer turned to designing his own home. The result was Hale Park, Hampshire, though the house which survives today is much altered following work by Henry Holland Junior in 1770, and further changes in the early and late 19th-century, which covered the brick in (a now unfortunately peachy) render, added a portico and raised the level of the forecourt. Also of note was Archer’s redesign of Hale Church, creating a slice of a Roman church in Hampshire.

After 1715, Archer seems to have curtailed his architectural work as he was given the lucrative post of ‘Controller of Customs’ at Newcastle and largely retired.  He is known to have designed Harcourt House for Robert Benson, Baron Bingley, which stood on the south side of Cavendish Square, London, until it was demolished in 1906.

Chettle House, Dorset (Image: Chettle House)
Chettle House, Dorset (Image: Chettle House)

One of Archer’s last commissions, Chettle House in Dorset, could be argued to be his finest. Built c.1730, for George Chafin, who was a neighbour of Archer’s after he bought the nearby Hale Park, the house is a striking summary of the various elements which Archer had used so well in other buildings, but which here achieve a perfect balance.  The curved corners of the exterior (though raised later), along with the projection on the entrance front combine to make the house truly sculptural.

However, there are a number of other intriguing attributions, which Archer may have worked on during his career, with varying degrees of certainty.

  • Welford Park, Berkshire – Thomas married into the Archer family (no relation) and was asked to re-model the house; adding an extra storey and grand Ionic pilasters.
  • Chicheley Hall, Buckinghamshire – c.1703 – suggested by Arthur Oswald in Country Life but not given in Colvin.  Various elements such as the materials and certain details used on other Archer houses strongly indicate his involvement. Interiors now terribly ‘bland-ified’ as a conference venue.
  • Aynhoe Park, Northamptonshire – between 1707-11 – on stylistic grounds and the evidence of a payment to him from Hoare’s Bank of £39 15s. 6d. by Thomas Cartwright.  This work included the addition of a library, conservatory, stables, and a coach-house – though the first two were later altered by Soane in 1800-1.
  • Bramham Park, Yorkshire – c.1710 – no evidence but stylistically possible. Designed for Robert Benson, who we know commissioned Harcourt House in London.
  • Kingston Maurward, Dorset – c.1717-20 – suggested by Howard Colvin.
  • Marlow House, Buckinghamshire, built c.1720, is now largely agreed to have been by Archer due to the use of particular elements and that it was commissioned by John Wallop, 1st Earl of Portsmouth, for whom he had designed Hurstbourne Priors.
  • Serle’s House, Hampshire – built in 1730, this house has clear stylistic similarities with Archer’s earlier work. Now the Royal Hampshire Regiment museum.
  • Addiscombe House, Surrey – Marcus Whiffen argues that it is undoubtedly Archer, and it could well be, but unfortunately further inspection is frustrated by its demolition in the early 1860s. Images are shown on pages 42 & 44 of a PDF of a local book [note: 10mb download].

The challenge with looking at Archer’s work is that there is relatively little of it.  Without the financial pressures to work, he was able to be very selective in what he chose to do, and due to that scarcity, his work was under-appreciated and occasionally altered or demolished.  In what we do have we can see an exceptionally talented architect who, although living in the shadow of the more productive Wren, Vanbrugh, and Hawksmoor, nevertheless developed a distinctive and influential blend of English and continental Baroque architecture.

Roehampton House, Surrey (Image: St James)
Roehampton House, Surrey (Image: St James)

Roehampton House offers a rare chance to experience both the genius of Archer and Lutyens – though here, clearly, the latter is happy to defer to the work of former and sympathetically embraces and extends it.  Though this is a house which has been ill-used in the past and suffered some damage in WWII, the latest phase has created what appears to be a fine restoration and conversion with a careful re-use of the interior features which have survived.  Although there are too many other buildings built too close to it, the quality of the original architecture has been allowed to shine to ensure that we can again see the work of Thomas Archer, one of the finest English architects we have heard too little about.


Disclosure: neither the developers, St James, nor their PR company, Luchford APM, have had any editorial input or control over this article, nor have I received anything. However, they have provided some details about the current project and the exterior photos. As always, topics and text on the blog are my choice and discretion.


A more detailed history can be found on historic paint consultant Patrick Baty’s page on Roehampton House

If you do fancy living there, prices start from £1.35m: Roehampton House [St James]

The Country House Revealed – Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire - east front (Image: dykwia / flickr)
Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire – east front (Image: dykwia / flickr)

If asked to name the largest and grandest country houses in Britain, many would list obvious candidates; Chatsworth, Belvoir, Castle Howard, Petworth, but few would name Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, the house featured in the next episode of Dan Cruickshank’s ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Tuesday 31 May – 21:00 – BBC2]. One of the largest private homes in Europe, this leviathan slowly slipped into obscurity since family feuds and a vindictive Socialist minister caused the house to decline from being the greatest to being neglected.  Now, after ten years of hard work by the current owner, the house makes its first steps back towards the public stage – but is the price of the resurrection perhaps too high?

Wentworth Woodhouse - west front (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Wentworth Woodhouse - west front (Image: Matthew Beckett)

One of the triumphs of Wentworth Woodhouse is that the design of the house is coherent and powerful despite its size – extending to 606ft from tower-to-tower, to create the longest front in the country*.  Yet, the house is also one of two sides, the grand Classical east front, and the earlier, Baroque west front.  To have a house of such contrasting styles might indicate very separate plans of construction, yet a plan of proposed works dating from before 1725 and possibly as early as 1716, shows that the Earls Fitzwilliam had every intention to build on such a scale, with just the design itself changing.  The west side, the luxurious, decorated Baroque face, was raised between 1724-28 was long thought to be to a design by Ralph Tunnicliffe, a local architect who had worked on Wortley Hall and Calke Abbey, Derbyshire (1722). Yet, his work bears more familiarity with the Classical east front – so who designed the first stage?

Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: nickrick90 / flickr)
Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: nickrick90 / flickr)

Richard Hewlings in an article in Country Life magazine (17 February 2010) makes a solid case for the work being by the very well-regarded York architect, William Thornton (b. c.1670 – d.1721), who had previously worked on the joinery at Castle Howard, and designed Beningborough Hall. The latter of these (according to Colvin) showed a familiarity with Roman Baroque architecture as shown in Rossi’s ‘Studio d’architecttura civile‘ (pub. 1702-21).  Hewlings argues that because Beningbrough can be attributed to Thornton and that the same Rossi-inspired architectural elements can be seen in both houses, it makes Thornton (having definitely owned a copy of Rossi) the one most likely to have designed Wentworth Woodhouse – with his early death contributing towards his obscurity.

Wanstead House III, Essex - proposed design by Colen Campbell as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus'
Wanstead House III, Essex - proposed design by Colen Campbell as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus'

So Tunnicliffe designed the east front. Well, mostly. His 1734 design can very clearly be seen as derived from that most important of Palladian houses, Wanstead House, in Essex (built 1715 – dem. 1822).  The original architect of Wanstead, Colen Campbell, produced three designs (known as I, II, and III) which drew on the form of Castle Howard but stripped of much of the architectural verbosity which so offended the more austere Palladians. This design was to form the backbone for several generations of large country houses particularly in the boom years of the 1730s and -40s.  Yet, even though work started in 1731, in 1735 the Earl of Malton thought it best to have Tunnicliffe’s design reviewed by a greater authority, that of Lord Burlington, the ‘chief’ Palladian.  This proved timely as Tunnicliffe died in 1736 and so responsibility passed to Henry Flitcroft, a Burlington protege.  Flitcroft’s external alterations were relatively minor; adding pedestals to the portico columns, changing the shape of the attic windows, (he also provided designs for several rooms) but his engagement there was to last until work finished in 1770.

One obvious question is just why the house was so large? Beyond the usual demonstration of the scale of the family’s wealth and status, the house also had to be of such a size to accommodate the vast entertainments which the Watson-Wentworth’s needed to hold occasionally as part of their seduction of such a large and sparsely populated county.  Up to a 1,000 locals – nobles, gentry and simple gentleman alike – might be invited, with each given a ticket indicating which room they were to go to (and, by implication, their social status).  Another, seemingly more petty, reason was that Lord Malton’s father had inherited the estate in 1695; much to the shock and annoyance of another (politically opposed) relative, Thomas Wentworth, who lived nearby at Stainborough.  He responded by enlarging his own seat, Wentworth Castle (now a sadly much altered training college), in a grand style, ensuring that Lord Malton couldn’t be seen to ‘lose’.

The Marble Hall, Wentworth Woodhouse (Image: (c) Country Life Picture Library)
The Marble Hall, Wentworth Woodhouse (Image: (c) Country Life Picture Library)

One of the most breath-taking aspects of this need to impress are the interiors; boasting 25 ‘fine’ rooms of the highest quality, whereas by comparison, Buckingham Palace has 20 of a similar standard, Blenheim around eight, Castle Howard perhaps three or four.  These rooms are centred around the glorious central Marble Hall; 60ft square, 40ft high, with rooms leading off to the left and right including the Great Dining Room, the Van Dyck Room, the State Dressing Room and the Long Gallery.

That the Fitzwilliam family no longer live in Wentworth Woodhouse is one of the great sadnesses of the many families forced from their ancestral homes.   At one point this grand house boasted some of the finest furniture, a priceless collection of art including statues  and many paintings by such artists as Van Dyck, Reynolds, Mytens, Hoppner, Lawrence, Claude Lorraine, and a major collection of Stubbs’s work.  Yet, for all the wealth and power, it was founded on primogeniture and coal – both of which undermined the house in their own way.

The births of previous Earls Fitzwilliam had usually taken place in Wentworth Woodhouse and had been witnessed.  However the birth of the 7th Earl in the 1890s took place in the wilds of Canada for reasons which have never been fully explained, leading to members of the family levelling allegations that a settlers son had been swapped at birth for the daughter the Countess was thought to have really given birth to.  This eventually led to a split in the family as to where the title and the vast inheritance should descend.  With primogeniture determining it must go to the eldest legitimate male heir, this was only settled with a court case in 1952 between two brothers.  The ‘winner’ was the younger son who subsequently married an older lady, and therefore never producing an heir. On his death in 1979, the long title of the Earls Fitzwilliam died out – though not before the last Earl had a huge bonfire of 16 tonnes of family papers to permanently cloak their history.  The estate is now held by Lady Juliet Tadgell nee Wentworth-Fitzwilliam with the family still owning 80,000-acres of Yorkshire and 50,000-acres of Cambridgeshire – and the art collection.

Mining at Wentworth Woodhouse (house circled)
Mining at Wentworth Woodhouse (house circled)

It was the coal that physically undermined the house – both above ground and below. The post-war Socialist government was determined to break-up what it saw as the privileged elite.  One particularly bigoted ideologue was Manny Shinwell, then the Minister for Fuel and Power, decided that as part of his campaign of class warfare he would mine the coal under the park and house – even when told it was low-grade and not worth the effort.  He also ignored the pleas of the local miners and their representatives who had always enjoyed excellent relations with the Fitzwilliams who were widely regarded as one of the best mine owners in the country.  Shinwell’s workers destroyed the park which the miners had enjoyed for years and also dumped the spoil to within yards of the house.  Rather than live there the family moved out – though not before securing the use of the house as a teacher training college which no doubt saved the house from demolition.

However, the mining might yet save the house – though the proposed solution contains considerable risk.  Part of the mining deep underground left a column to support the house – but it wasn’t large enough leading to subsidence which has caused parts of the house to sink by up to 3ft. The house was bought for just £1.5m (£7 per sq ft!) by London architect Clifford Newbold in 1999 and he and his family have spent the last decade carefully restoring the house in conjunction with the conservation architects Purcell Triton Miller and engineers Arup.  Now the family are ready to launch legal action to secure £100m in compensation for the negligent mining under the house.  Using this money, they will obtain further funding to develop the huge stables (built by John Carr in 1768) as office space and also “...two new contemporary buildings that replace the former college accommodation and will support the Stables office building through provision of further office accommodation. These sunken ‘green roofed’ buildings will be designed so that they do not have any detrimental visual impact on the open spaces of the landscape of Wentworth Woodhouse.” (from the official press release).  This can be understood and can be supported so long as the commitment to the minimise the impact to the estate (which is now just 90-acres) is successful.

What gives some concern are the plans for the main house as a “…publicly accessible restored museum to the central and grandest rooms, as well as a 70 suite luxury hotel and spa to the remainder.“. This will necessarily have a significant impact on the structure of the house – and I’m not convinced it’s the entirely right plan.  This house should be the Chatsworth of Yorkshire – a grand house, filled with art and life – and though the plans for the museum will be put into action, there is no word as to whether the rooms will be furnished?  If so, by who?  Will the V&A have an outpost? Perhaps I miss the idea of a family living there, using these rooms – though where to find a family able to take on such a monumental task? Just imagine if the Fitzwilliams had been able to move back in? I do wish the Newbold family every possible success but only if the plans respect the history and importance of the house and it’s not just used as an architectural prop for a multi-use residential, hotel and office space development.


* – that it was the longest was the subject of an amusing bet in 1750 between Sir John Bland of Kippax Park and Lord Rockingham (as the Watson-Wentworths had now become) as to whose house was longest – Sir John lost by just 6ft.  Kippax Park was later demolished and the area open-cast mined.

Many more images of the house, grounds and stables can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse‘ [countrylifeimages]

More about the house and estate: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse‘ [wikipedia]

Official website: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [BBC2]

More about life in Wentworth Woodhouse: Part 1 and Part 2 [countryhousereader]

Local news report: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse: Newbold family bagged mansion for just £1.5m‘ [thestar]

Rent a doll’s house: Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire

Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)
Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)

Sitting on a small rise, just off the A158 on the road to Skegness in Lincolnshire sits one of the prettiest of the National Trust’s many country houses; Gunby Hall. However, unlike the others, where we can only ever dream of moving in, Gunby is currently available to rent for the bargain rate of £10,000 per year – but do remember to add an estimated £100,000 for the annual running costs.

Gunby Hall was built in 1700 (commemorated with the date on the rainwater heads) for Sir William Massingberd by an unknown architect but one who was obviously familiar with the work of Sir Christopher Wren.  Built of warm plum-red bricks the sophisticated 3-storey exterior shows the elegant use of stone dressings which elevates this grade-I listed house to being one of the finest of the smaller country houses.  Although showing stylistic links with Wren it was almost certainly by a skilled provincial imitator or local builder.  Wren designed very few country houses – Tring Park in Hertfordshire, Winslow Hall and, according to John Harris, contributed designs for Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, and Houghton Hall in Norfolk – all for patrons who were somehow connected to Wren.  So unless someone discovers a link between Sir William and Sir Christopher it is likely that the local ‘architect’ had only been shown Wren’s designs.

Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)
Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)

When Gunby Hall was built it would have been regarded as very fashionable as Baroque style houses had only become popular in the 1680s.  Newby Hall in Yorkshire is one of the best examples and was rated as the finest house in Yorkshire when it was completed c.1690 (remember the houses we regard as the finest today in Yorkshire such as Castle Howard, Wentworth Castle, and Wentworth Woodhouse amongst others hadn’t yet been built).  In many ways, Gunby Hall and Newby Hall are architectural ‘cousins’ – closely stylistically related but distinct, particularly in size; reflecting the relative wealth of the owners .  Similarities can also be seen with other Yorkshire houses such as the earlier Ribston Hall, built in 1674, and the wonderful but now sadly demolished Wheatley Hall built in 1680, and the later Bolton Hall.

Gunby Hall was later altered c.1730 and extended in 1873 and 1900 to very successfully add a Dining Room, Servants’ Hall and Service Wing.  The later additions blend very neatly with the existing building creating the harmonious look which is so attractive today.  Gunby has long been admired with the famous poet Lord Alfred Tennyson reputedly using it as his inspiration when he wrote during one visit:

. . . an English home – gray twilight

On dewy pastures, dewy trees

Softer than sleep – all things in order stored,

A haunt of ancient peace.

The house was also admired by James Lees-Milne who described it as ‘an Augustan squire’s domain, robust, unostentatious, dignified and a little prim.’.  Lees-Milne was a regular visitor and was instrumental in not only bringing the house to the National Trust, as he did many other houses, but also saving it from outright demolition during WWII.  This terrible prospect came about in 1943 when the Air Ministry wished to extend the airfield they had built at Great Steeping only later discovering that Gunby Hall inconveniently blocked the proposed path of the longer runway.  Luckily the combined forces of James Lees-Milne and the impressively named owner, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, persuaded them to re-route the runway thus saving the house.  In thanks, the family immediately made over the house to the National Trust becoming one of the few houses to be taken on during the war.

So if you fancy living in one of the prettiest stately homes in the country and don’t mind a few tourists having a look round occasionally, get in contact with the Savills Lincoln office.

More details: ‘Stately home can be yours for just £10k a year… plus another £100k for the staff‘ [This is Lincolnshire]

Property details: ‘Gunby Hall‘ [Savills]