A restoration or a recreation: Knightshayes Court, Devon

Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)

For all the wonderful work the National Trust has done over the last hundred years saving numerous country houses from demolition, one criticism that has been levelled at it is the almost artificial atmosphere it has created inside.  A recent visit to Knightshayes Court in Devon has also highlighted an interesting series of judgements as to how far an interior should be restored, even to the point of creating a room which was planned but never executed.

Knightshayes Court sits in an elevated and enviable position above the market town of Tiverton where the Heathcoat Amory family had the factory which generated their wealth.  The family fortune was created by the Loughborough-based John Heathcoat (b.1783 – d.1861) inventor of a revolutionary industrial lace-making machine who moved to Tiverton in 1816 after all 55 machines were smashed by drunken Luddites.  A caring man, he ensured the workers were well-housed and the children educated, and the factory became the largest lace-making factory in the world, employing 1,100 workers.

Knightshayes Court, however, was built by his grandson, John Heathcoat Amory (b.1829 – d.1914), whose father had married the only daughter of John Heathcoat, and had added his father-in-laws surname on inheriting. Although politically active, being knighted in 1874, he had sufficient time to indulge the usual pastimes of the wealthy Victorian aristocrat, particularly hunting.   So why would a provincial hunting gent commission a house from an eccentric medievalist, such as William Burges?

Burges (b.1827 – d.1881) has been described by Mark Girouard as ‘one of the most Gothic of the Gothicists‘.  His spectacular remodelling of Cardiff Castle, and the creation of the fantastical Castell Coch, both for the immensely wealthy 3rd Marquess of Bute, allowed him free reign to indulge his bold and imaginative decorative schemes.  Burges worked to a relatively simple philosophy that “No rule can be deduced except the golden one; whatever looks best is best‘ which combined with his other aphorism ‘Money is only a secondary concern in the production of first rate works…There are no bargains in art‘, meant that his work was never going to be cheap.  Yet Heathcoat Amory chose him – but the suspicion is that it was his wife Henrietta who made the choice, perhaps on the back of family connections which included the 2nd Lord Carrington for whom Burges had remodelled Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire (now flats), in the late 1850s-early 1860s.

Perhaps John Heathcoat Amory had only given broad instructions as to what he wanted and had left his wife to chose the aesthetics – either way, as paymaster, Sir John would later regret not taking perhaps a closer interest in the choice of architect.   Construction of the house started in 1869 and the exterior of the house was built almost exactly to Burges’ original design, with the exception of the reduced height of the great tower and a re-orientation of the billiard room.  With the shell completed in July 1870, at a cost of £14,080 (approx. £1m today), the Architect magazine observed that for completion ‘…the actual cost will be something more.‘ – a classic in the canon of architectural understatements as Burges had reserved his most incredible work for the interior.

In 1873, Burges presented the family with a 57-page album of detailed drawings which depicted everything from floor to ceiling.  Faced with such a grand and lavish scheme the Heathcoat Amorys abandoned Burges’ scheme, apart from the stone and wood carving, and, in 1874, brought in the cheaper but very talented John Diblee Crace.  Crace was the fifth generation of architectural decorators and between 1875 and 1882 he completed the interior of the house in his own more restrained but still colourful designs. The last additions to the house were an extra floor to the service wing in 1885 and a Smoking Room in 1902.

However, in the 1930s and 1950s, when appreciation for Victorian exuberance was at its lowest, the Heathcoat Amorys retreated from the bold colour schemes, removing fireplaces, screen and bookcases and covering or repainting ceilings and walls.  So when the National Trust took over in 1973 the house was very different, and less architecturally interesting, than the one of a century earlier.  The guide book, to its credit, does an admirable job of spelling out what is original, what was originally planned, what Burges executed, what Crace did, and what the National Trust has restored – and, perhaps more controversially, has recreated.

The obvious question when deciding on restoration is what particular period you pick as the ‘authentic’ period.  The National Trust took over Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire in 1987, easily one of the finest Adam houses in the country, but by 1994 the then Lord Scarsdale was complaining that the NT had decided that anything post-1760 had to go.  This led to the emptying of rooms, the repainting of others to how they thought Adam had painted them, and the removal in the grounds of anything not thought to have been put there by the first Lord Scarsdale and Robert Adam.

This is in contrast to the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) who state: “In the architectural context “restoration” means work intended to return an old building to a perfect state. It can be the unnecessary renewal of worn features or the hypothetical reconstruction of whole or missing elements; in either case tidy reproduction is achieved at the expense of genuine but imperfect work.“[source].

The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)
The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)

So was the National Trust wrong to strip back the layers of changes?  In view of the fascinating end result and the relative rarity of Burges country houses it can be argued that this work rescued what remained and cleverly exposed the earlier work.  But whose earlier work?  The guidebook explains that most of the interior is by Crace, and it’s his work which has been restored.  Yet upstairs in ‘The Burges Room’, the National Trust took it a step further and took Burges unexecuted plan for that room and created it as it imagined it would have looked.

So is this mere architectural theme park-ism?  Perhaps as it has be made clear what has been created from scratch there is less risk of confusion, but considering how few read the guidebook in detail (or at all), the National Trust has the unenviable choice between respecting all the changes or presenting a more visually interesting house but with necessary compromises in architectural integrity. On balance, there has to be a very strong case to take such a course of action otherwise we risk seeing recreations of idealised or imagined versions of houses rather than the rich and varied buildings which have honestly adapted and changed as family homes over time.

Visitor information: ‘Knightshayes Court, Devon‘ [National Trust]

Is Mentmore Towers finally for sale?

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

After various legal battles it seems that Mentmore Towers, one of the finest country houses in the UK may be for sale.  Part of the property empire of Simon Halabi, who was declared bankrupt in April 2010, it was bought with the intention of turning it into six-star country hotel with the ‘In and Out Club’ as the London clubhouse.  The plans were thwarted by the global financial crisis which not only reduced the market for such a venture but also the financing.  Now with the recent £150m sale of Halabi’s prime London West End estate, which included the ‘In and Out Club’, putting Mentmore on the market is the next logical stage of the disposals.

The only source for this story is a blog post by Christian Metcalfe who writes the Legal blog on the Estates Gazette website which has enough details to make it sound very plausible.

The grade-I listed Mentmore Towers was built between 1852-54 for Baron Mayer de Rothschild as one of several country houses built for the Rothschild family in the area.  Designed by Joseph Paxton, architect of Crystal Palace, the neo-Renaissance house was inspired by the Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses such as Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire.  Inherited by the Baron’s wife and then his daughter, it then passed to her husband, the Earl of Rosebery, following her early death.  It remained in the Rosebery family until the death of the sixth Earl in 1973 when the then Government stupidly turned down the offer of the house and world-class collections in lieu of death duties, triggering one of the finest country house sales of the 20th-century.  The house plus 81-acres was then sold in 1977 for £220,000 to the Transcendental Meditation foundation as a meditation centre, who cared for the house until it was sold in 1997 to Simon Halabi.  Since then little work has been done on the house and there have long been fears for its condition with English Heritage placing it on the ‘At Risk’ register.

The house is now apparently being quietly offered for sale, by as yet unknown estate agents, for around £16m – but no details on how much land would be included.  At that price, the house would be a bargain on square footage basis alone – but it would require a huge financial commitment from the new owner to not only restore the house but maintain it in the future, ideally as a family home.  The Rothschild’s have remained very much involved with the estate so perhaps this is their opportunity to bring it back into the family – although with Sir Evelyn de Rothschild living at nearby Ascott House perhaps Nat Rothschild, the incredibly successful hedge fund manager said to be worth around £300m, might like to take a look?

Original blog story published June 7, 2010 3:35 PM: ‘Will the real estate agent please stand up, please stand up‘ [Estates Gazette] – @Christian: if I do find out who the estate agent is, I’ll be sure to let you know.

What’s to happen to Mentmore Towers?

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

Running  a country house is always going to require a certain level of wealth with larger houses easily costing six figures a year in basic running costs and maintenance.  When funds are lacking it can be the house which shows the physical consequences as it becomes difficult to fund the ongoing care. Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire is one of the largest and impressive houses in the UK and the latest reports that its owner, Simon Halabi, has been declared bankrupt raise some worrying concerns about the future of this grand house.

The grade-I listed Mentmore Towers (known locally and to staff as just ‘Mentmore’) was originally built between 1852-54 by Baron Mayer de Rothschild of the famous banking family.  Designed by Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame) the neo-Renaissance style echoed houses as Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire and following Sir Charles Barry’s work at Highclere Castle in 1838.  The interiors are considered to be some of the finest Victorian designs and workmanship in the country.

Mr Halabi’s original plan was to convert Mentmore into a six-star country club with a London equivalent based at the ‘In and Out’ Club on Piccadilly which was also part of his property empire.  The global financial crises appeared to put these plans on hold before the collapse in property values caused a default on the bond secured on these properties which led to the bankruptcy.  Both properties are on the English Heritage ‘Buildings at Risk’ Register – indeed, Mentmore has been on for over 8 years with particular concern about the elegant stonework and the roofs with the danger of serious leaks increasing with each month goes by.  An earlier story on this blog (‘Simon Halabi and Mentmore Towers‘) produced a series of comments that indicated that a lack of maintenance was already taking it’s toll on the house.

So what’s to happen next?  Although Mr Halabi’s fortune is much reduced it is expected that the sale of various properties from his White Tower property empire will cover the £56m required to clear the debt which led to bankruptcy.  Ownership of Mentmore is also thought to be obscured through a web of companies but, if the report in The Times is correct, it is likely to be last property Mr Halabi would want to sell as his young son Samuel who tragically drowned in France is buried on the estate.  Hopefully, the bankruptcy will provide the opportunity for Mr Halabi to re-organise his empire, free up some capital and undertake not only the urgent basic repairs but also secure the long-term future of one of the most important country houses in the UK.

More details: ‘Hunt for Simon Halabi after tycoon is made bankrupt‘ [The Times]

An architectural gem – but still slow to sell: Iver Grove

Iver Grove, Buckinghamshire (Image: The Listed Property Owners Club)

When it was completed in 1724, Iver Grove was one of the first houses in Britain built using the then radical Palladian styling; pre-dating even Lord Burlington’s famous Chiswick House.  Iver Grove is a beautiful and compact red brick essay in the use of the Classical elements with a Doric portico and topped with an elegant pediment.  Although originally attributed to either Sir Christopher Wren or Nicholas Hawksmoor, it’s now more widely accepted to be the work of John James who worked with Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral and succeeded him as the surveyor of the Commissioners’ Churches.  The front steps lead into a spacious and light entrance hall featuring the original oak staircase.

That the house is here today is remarkable in itself as after WWII it was in a parlous state and at risk of becoming one of the many hundreds of country houses demolished in the 1950s.  The house was smothered in ivy, riddled with dry rot and had been subject to various thefts of lead and fixtures and vandals who had smashed all but one of the Wedgewood stained-glass panels in window over the staircase.  The house was one of the first to be bought by the Government in an effort to save it – although this led to angry questions in the House of Commons from philistine MPs who demanded to know why we had spent more saving an “extremely beautiful house” (Lord John Hope) than we had sent to aid the Congo.  Such amazing short-sightedness still prevails today with those asking why we spend any money on heritage with similarly spurious justifications.

Anyway, thanks to the Government, the house was rescued through a programme of works which included demolishing the collapsed Victorian wing – and in so doing bring the house back to it original scale, and conveniently making it more manageable.  So when the this grade-I listed house was first launched in 2007 with much press coverage including a glowing write-up by Marcus Binney in The Times (‘A fast track to perfection‘) and later in Country Life (‘Georgian estate for sale‘) it was thought it would sell quickly.  However, £6.5m price tag was probably boosted by its architectural importance above the fact that it was a six-bedroom house with just 17-acres near to the M25.  The price was probably quickly identified as the issue as in The Times article in May the price is £6.5m, by the time the Country Life article was published in December the price was given as ‘offers over £5m’.  Now, two and half years later the price has dropped to a more reasonable £4.25m, and hopefully this will entice a new sympathetic purchaser with a desire to live in an important country house with manageable grounds but who will appreciate being just 17 miles from Hyde Park corner.  Actually, if I win the lottery, I’ll probably go for it.

Full details: ‘Iver Grove, Buckinghamshire‘ [Knight Frank]

West Wycombe House at risk from high-speed rail link?

West Wycombe House

Concerns have been raised that the proposed route of the £34bn Network Rail project to provide a high-speed link to Scotland will severely compromise many areas of natural beauty and a large number of listed buildings including the setting of the Grade-I listed West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire.

The main problem lies in the fact that to achieve high speeds, the 1,500 miles of railway lines would need to be laid in the most direct line between two locations.  This would mean that the line would simply carve through the landscape, destroying areas of Special Scientific Interest and unspoilt countryside in the heart of the Chilterns such as the Misbourne valley.

One proposal of particular concern is to build tunnels beneath High Wycombe but the Chilterns Conservation Board (CCB) fear that the tunnel would surface near the historic village of West Wycombe – threatening the  stunning setting of the architecturally important West Wycombe House.  The Italianate-style house with it’s rococo gardens were built by Sir Francis Dashwood – of Hellfire Club fame – over a period of 60 years from 1740. The defining exterior feature is the rare double colonnade (see picture) which was certainly inspired by Palladio’s work in Italy such as the Palazzo Chiericati which Dashwood would have seen on his Grand Tour.  Further Palladian and neo-Classical flourishes in both the house and parkland make this house worthy of protection from crude spoilation by the planners.

More details: ‘High speed rail line will blight Chilterns‘ [Chilterns AONB]

Mentmore’s London sibling for sale

Mentmore Towers
Mentmore Towers

Simon Halabi’s original plan was to develop a super-luxury, six-star club experience with members enjoying country facilities at Mentmore Towers, in Buckinghamshire, with a London base at the In and Out Club on Piccadilly.  However, the recent global crisis seemed to put the plans on hold and concerns had been raised (including in comments on earlier blog post: ‘Simon Halabi and Mentmore Towers’ – 17 July) as to whether sufficient maintenence was being undertaken at both locations.

The master plan appears to have now been changed with the news that the In and Out Club has been put up for sale.  Included in the deal are various neighbouring buildings which give the potential for the sale to raise up to £250m. It’s not known what Mr Halabi’s plans are but one can only hope that the money raised will benefit Mentmore Towers, preserving and protecting this important country house.

Full story: ‘Mayfair’s In and Out Club on market‘ [Financial Times]

Some new country houses to visit?

Dorneywood, Buckinghamshire
Dorneywood, Buckinghamshire

One interesting proposal to come out of the Conservative Conference this week is that the grace-and-favour country houses, currently used by ministers, would be open to view and for use by the public.

At the moment Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire – where John Prescott was famously snapped playing croquet instead of ruining running the country – and Chevening House in Kent, would be available for the first time.

Francis Maude, the shadow cabinet office minister, has indicated that he would like to see them being used for events and by local charities rather than just as retreats for ministers. 

So, anyone who has exhausted their National Trust book in the south east might be able to add two more to their itineraries.

Full story: ‘John Prescott croquet estate Dorneywood will be opened to public by Tories‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Simon Halabi and Mentmore Towers

The Times (‘Halabi may have to sell-up to pay loan‘ – 16 July 2009) is reporting that Simon Halabi, the multi-millionare businessman, may have to sell part of his London property portfolio to satisfy bond holders after the value of the properties dropped by nearly half, breaching the loan-to-value ratio of the bond secured against it.  In 1997, Halabi bought the Grade-I listed Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire, formerly one of the Rothschild banking family’s most famous and impressive houses,  with the intention of converting it into a luxury hotel.  It’s not known how far work on that project has progressed but the grand chateau-style house, which also starred in the film ‘Batman Begins’ as Bruce Wayne’s house, is just too important to be forgotten so I hope that his other issues don’t impact on the work being undertaken as part of that project.