Restoration continues inside and out; Wilton House and others

Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)
Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)

Any time of economic difficulties can often lead to any expenditure being put on hold, including vital restoration projects.  So it’s encouraging to see projects still being completed – but as some of these were approved and started back in the heady days of government largesse, perhaps these are the last we’ll see for a while except where private money can fill the gap?

One of the most impressive has been the award-winning restoration of the family dining room at Wilton House, Wiltshire – and maybe all the more impressive as it was funded privately by the owner, the 18th Earl of Pembroke.  Although ranked as joint 574th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2010, with an estimated worth of £115m, most of this wealth is tied up in the value of the house, the contents (including superb paintings by Van Dyck and Rembrandt), and the estate.

Anyone undertaking an architectural project at Wilton is following in some fairly illustrious footsteps.  The main house, one of the finest still in private hands, is unusual in that the scale of the house was a response to the incredible gardens designed by Issac de Caus in 1632.  The design is sometimes attributed to Inigo Jones but a drawing found by Howard Colvin at Worcester College by de Caus showed he was responsible for the original plan for a much larger, 21-bay palace, with a grand central portico, running to a total length of 330-ft.  However, the untimely death of the newly-married Earl in 1636 and the subsequent return of the huge £25,000 marriage dowry (approx £40m today) to the bride’s father, the Duke of Buckingham, meant that the scheme was now too ambitious and so just one half of the original design was built; which is what we see today. The half-a-house was considered plain so Jones became involved, adding the one-storey corner towers to the design.

Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Wilton’s interior, in particular the celebrated set of seven state rooms in the southern facade which includes the famous Double Cube room, were largely the creation of Jones, assisted by his able deputy John Webb.  Yet there are other fine rooms which had become misused over the years and one has now been restored in sumptuous style as a private dining room.  Formerly cluttered with the normal ephemera of family life – CDs, books, old furniture etc – it was  fairly sorry sight.  The current Earl and Countess of Pembroke have spent an undisclosed, but undoubtedly substantial, sum on creating a glorious dining room but which will sadly not be included on the tourist trail.  Tapestries now cover the deep green walls, interspersed with family portraits by Reynolds, completing what James Stourton, chairman of Sotheby’s UK described as “…one of the outstanding country house renovations of the decade.” and winning the 2010 HHA/Sotheby’s Restoration Award.

One of the largest of the recent projects has been the £5.6m restoration of grade-II listed Bedwellty House in Tredegar, south Wales.  Built in 1818 for the owner of the first iron works in Tredegar, it was increasingly at risk of falling into dereliction.  Realising the importance of the building, the local council spent four years securing grants to fund the ambitious programme from organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Welsh Assembly, Blaenau Gwent council, and Cadw [Welsh equivalent to English Heritage] .  The works have included work on the ornate plaster ceilings, the sash windows and shutters, and the main structure.  Work will now continue on the parkland and gardens to bring them back to their former glory.

The grounds of our country houses were also not just a buffer to keep the world from intruding but also a stage on which to create idealised landscapes and views.  To this end they were often populated with follies or architectural creations to catch the eye of those looking out from the house but also those walking the grounds.  Sadly, the isolation of these buildings has often meant that in recent years they have been cut-off from the main house, forgotten, or neglected and vandalised.  Nowadays these wonderful architectural vignettes have been increasingly valued and urgent works undertaken to restore them.  One fine example is the grade-I listed Wentworth Castle Rotunda in Yorkshire.  Started in 1739 and finished in 1742, the design is based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli near Rome.  One of 26 listed buildings in the 500-acre parkland, the temple has now been restored following a grant of £300,000, which has enabled the removal of overgrowing shrubs, and the cleaning and repair of the stonework, roof, and floors.

Thankfully the official organisations don’t have a monopoly on generosity. Perhaps those selling a house in need of some restoration might take a lead from admirable seller of Newberry Hall, Ireland, Richard Robinson.  Realising that the elegant Palladian house with its wonderful flanking pavilions is in dire need of restoration, the elderly owner has put the house on the market but with the offer of a substantial contribution towards the costs of restoration to bring the house back to its former glory.  With such generosity, one hopes a suitably sympathetic buyer can be found who will be willing to take on the project and complete an appropriate restoration.

Restoration has always been expensive so in their straitened times we can only hope that funds for basic care and maintenance are found so that in a few years time we are not faced with a slew of houses and monuments suffering from any short-sighted desire to save a few pence today at the cost of many pounds tomorrow.  Long may the stories be of enhanced glories such as that at Wilton House rather than urgent appeals to save buildings at risk.

Full story: ‘Winner of Historic Houses Restoration Award 2010 Announced‘ [Art Daily]

Full story: ‘Tredegar’s Bedwellty House restoration work unveiled‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Restoration of Wentworth Castle Rotunda completed‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Rotunda is reopened to round of applause for works‘ [Yorkshire Post]

Full story: ‘Deal for buyer who will rescue Kildare demesne‘ [Irish Times]

Confirmed: Gwrych Castle is for sale again

Gwrych Castle, Wales (Image: geograph.co.uk)

Following earlier concerns, sources have confirmed that the grade-I listed former ‘showplace of Wales’, Gwrych Castle, is once again for sale.

After many years as a deteriorating ruin, it’s outlook improved when the castle was finally sold for £860,000 in 2007 to City Services Ltd (trading as Clayton Homes – a separate company to Clayton Hotels which is still trading). They soon announced ambitious plans to convert it into a luxury 5-star hotel using the original layout as the starting point.  Initial work on site has included the removal of over 1,900 tons of asbestos and debris from within the shell and the vegetation stripped from the exterior. The site was ready for restoration to start and Donald Insall architects were working on the designs for restoration.

Unfortunately 2007 was the height of the property market and the subsequent fall hit many companies including Clayton Homes which went into administration on 12 August 2009.  Deloitte (Leeds) were appointed as administrators and have been quietly marketing the assets including Gwrych Castle.  This was highlighted by the story of the businessman who was viewing the castle as a possible site for his ‘psychic school’ when he conveniently saw a ghost at a window.   Kevin Horkin has apparently submitted a bid for around £850,000 – which may secure him the site but to complete the project to the required standard will require at least another £6m-12m depending on his ambitions.  This is a significant level of investment if he is to restore this wonderful house to the appropriate standard.  Hopefully Cadw, the Welsh equivalent to English Heritage, will keep a very close eye on the project and ensure that any plans are at least to the same standard as those approved for Clayton Homes.

Many people have taken a keen interest in Gwyrch Castle and had hoped that the sale would lead to this once grand house again taking a key role in the local area and also to save this important part of their architectural heritage.  It would be tragedy if the work already done to create a secure and viable foundation for restoration was allowed to deteriorate again – the house must be sold to a sympathetic owner who has both the vision and funds to complete this project in a way which befits this beautiful house.

More details:

Drop added to ocean – grant to Hafodunos Hall

Hafodunos Hall, Denbighshire (Image: SnakeCorp on flickr)

When idiot arsonists set light to grade-I listed Hafodunos Hall in 2004 they largely destroyed one of not only North Wales’ best country houses but also one of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s finest works.  Built in 1861-6 at a cost of £30,000 for Henry R. Sandbach, son of Samuel Sandbach, a Liverpool merchant and shipowner who had bought the original, 17th-century house in 1831.  Hafodunos was also designed with Sandbach’s collection of sculpture including works by John Gibson (1790-1866) which were incorporated into the walls and left exposed after the fire (but now removed for safe-keeping).

So a glorious house by one of the greatest Victorian architects which featured some of his trademark interiors including decorated doors, ribbed ceilings and fine chimneypieces was reduced to a burnt out shell and has remained as such despite attempts to sell the house and begin restoration.  As the house continues to deteriorate efforts have been made to limit the damage through grants.  The latest from Cadw (the Welsh version of English Heritage) is for £21,000 to pay for emergency work to stabilise the structure – which if you look at this gallery on flickr you’ll see is a drop in the ocean compared to total required for full restoration.  However, any work is positive so hopefully this will help preserve what remains until a more secure future for the house can be found.

Full story: ‘Heritage cash boost for Denbighshire landmarks‘ [Denbighshire Visitor]