Purchasing the picturesque: Hampton Court and Lasborough Park for sale

Hampton Court, Herefordshire - £12m, 935-acres (Image: Knight Frank)
Hampton Court, Herefordshire – £12m, 935-acres (Image: Knight Frank)

What is beauty? Though it is often in the eye of the beholder, some have attempted to define just what it is. In architecture, this can be seen in the development of the Picturesque ideal which sought to combine natural and man-made elements to compose a vision which would delight the eye and uplift the soul. Hampton Court in Herefordshire, and another house launched this week, Lasborough Park in Gloucestershire, can both be considered part of the Picturesque movement, even though the former took shape before the theory of the sublime and beautiful was brought to life and the latter was built just before the revival took hold.

'Landscape with Narcissus and Echo' - Claude Lorrain, 1644 (Image: National Gallery)
‘Landscape with Narcissus and Echo’ – Claude Lorrain, 1644 (Image: National Gallery)

The origin of the Picturesque movement can, in part, be found in the philosophical writings of a much under-rated figure of the 17th-century, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury.  To him, nature ought to be imperfect and that, in turn, we ought to celebrate the untamed trees and serpentine rivers, those dark glades and tumbling crags. Unsurprisingly, the Earl found that the early Italian landscape paintings by Nicolas Poussin, Gaspard DughetClaude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, reflected best this vision of a wilder natural world.  Landscapes had been unfashionable when Lord Shaftesbury first arrived in Italy in 1686, but by the turn of the century, they were in high demand amongst the grand tourists who carried these canvases back to the UK and into the popular taste of the nation.  These views married with Vanbrugh‘s early call in 1705 for a more natural approach to landscaping at Blenheim Palace, but found its true champion in William Kent in the 1730s, especially in his work at Rousham, Claremont and Stowe. The ideas were then developed further in 1757 in Edmund Burke’s ‘The Origin of our Ideas about the Sublime and the Beautiful‘ which, in its musing on aesthetics, distinguished between the latter, which was all about smooth lines and bold colours, whereas the former is about an awesome beauty on an almost fearful scale.

The death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783 created a vacuum which led to the revival of the debate as to the most tasteful approach to landscaping.  The arguments were largely between Humphry Repton (who defended Brown’s ‘contrived natural’ approach of smooth curved borders and sweeping lawns which ran right up to the house) versus Sir Uvedale Price, 1st Baronet (b.1747 – d.1829), author of the ‘Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared with the Sublime and The Beautiful’ (1794), who, along with Richard Payne Knight, sought to create a more ‘robustly natural’ approach, where blasted tree stumps and ruins were also important.  This mirrored the first wave of the Picturesque to some extent, but this later flourish created a new passion to rediscover the beauty of the same painters whom Lord Shaftesbury had admired decades earlier.  Although neither Price or Knight worked on any gardens other than their own, their ideas were to have a dramatic impact on the settings of country houses, which were now considered as part of the overall composition rather than separate from it; formal gardens were swept away and snaking carriage drives now swept visitors through glades and past vistas before their arrival.

Detail from 'The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire' by Leonard Knyff, c1699 (Image: Wikimedia)
Detail from ‘The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire’ by Leonard Knyff, c1699 (Image: Wikimedia)

The grand formalism of the gardens of Hampton Court c1699 (above) contrasted with the asymmetrical grouping of the house. ‘The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire‘ by Leonard Knyff, shows how the grounds were a vision of control; of formal avenues and canals (see also the companion North prospect view). The house was, at this time, owned by the Coningsby family, having been bought by Sir Humphrey Coningsby in 1510 from a fellow courtier. His son became the first Earl of Coningsby and it remained in their family for 300 years.  Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), who famously made his fortune from bringing the industrial revolution to the cotton industry, bought the house and 6,220-acres in 1810 for £226,325 (approx. £6.2m). His son, also Richard (1755-1843), made another fortune, before inheriting from his father in 1792, and invested in significant country houses, one for each of his five sons. However, the most significant changes came under his (fourth) son, John, who decided that ‘…of all the situations I know, there is none which suits my taste so well as Hampton Court‘ (funny that). After John’s marriage, the requirements of a growing family persuaded his father that the house needed to be enlarged.

The man chosen to design the work was Charles Hanbury-Tracy, a gentleman architect who had built his own home, Toddington Manor, between 1819-40, in his favoured ‘gothic collegiate’ style at a cost of £150,000 .  Though the style was sympathetic to Hampton Court, the relationship between architect and client became difficult. Another architect, John Atkinson, had pleaded with Hanbury-Tracy not to ‘make Hampton Court a cell to the Abbey of Toddington‘ but his determined views were at odds with Arkwright’s wife, who fell out with Hanbury-Tracy over the nursery arrangements, which led to nearly a decade of alterations and disagreements, especially as the costs mounted to eventually total over £30,000. John certainly preferred working with Joseph Paxton, who created the new conservatory, which was added in 1845-46. That said, the end result is one which successfully married old and new, creating a successful interpretation of domestic gothic and the picturesque.

Lasborough Park, Gloucestershire - £12m, 55-acres (Image: Savills)
Lasborough Park, Gloucestershire – £12m, 55-acres (Image: Savills)

The Picturesque was a constant presence throughout the 18th-century but enjoyed a revival of interest in the 1790s and Lasborough Park represented the style just at the cusp of this.  Built in 1794 for Edmund Estcourt, his architect was James Wyatt, who enjoyed a rare skill in being able to master a number of different architectural styles – something which led later to his being unjustifiably underrated.  At Lasborough, Wyatt provided a continuation of the theme which John Martin Robinson in his book on the architect called a ‘toy-fort model‘; that is, a symmetrical house with battlements and corner turrets.  Wyatt had been using this pattern when working on various schemes for remodelling the interiors of Slane Castle since 1773 but it was only over ten years later that he was able to remodel the exterior, taking an irregular L-shape and bringing symmetry by adding matching towers.

Slane Castle, Co. Meath (Image: Slane Castle)
Slane Castle, Co. Meath (Image: Slane Castle)

Wyatt’s design developed the tradition of the castellated residence; houses which had been either adapted from an older fortification or made to look like they might have done. Six decades before Wyatts’ work at Slane Castle, earlier versions, such as Howth Castle, Co. Dublin, which was altered significantly in 1738, are evidence that the style was already favoured and also incorporated an effort to create symmetry with the original keep on the left, mirrored in a new tower on the right.

The Picturesque style was popular in Ireland but initially as an import of the Protestant aristocracy and was viewed by some as an attempt to import a ‘little England’, a form of architectural and landscape colonialism. However, Ireland was particularly suited to the forms of the Picturesque which often worked in harmony with its natural beauty to form a unified creation which led the eye of the visitor from the grounds near the house, towards the middle distance, and then out to the wider landscape – much as a painter would structure their picture.

Hampton Court from south west (Image: Knight Frank)
Hampton Court from south west (Image: Knight Frank)

Hampton Court is one of the most important and impressive country houses to come to the market this year.  As part of our heritage, it embodies architectural developments which brought the country house from fortification to domestication, with a landscape which started with formal terraces but finished with flowing lawns.  The genesis of the more structured medieval revival form of Lasborough Park can be seen in the core of Hampton Court and in each of the subsequent alterations.  Both houses are valuable pieces of the nation’s architectural record and deserve owners who will appreciate them and hopefully both will remain as single family homes, enjoyed as they have for generations, for their Picturesque beauty.

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For a more in-depth history of the Arkwrights and their time at Hampton Court, I recommend: ‘Champagne & Shambles – The Arkwrights and the Country House in Crisis‘ by Catherine Beale [Amazon]

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The ‘artocracy’ expands: West Acre High House, Norfolk

West Acre High House, Norfolk (Image: Strutt & Parker)
West Acre High House, Norfolk (Image: Strutt & Parker)

In any age, once someone is successful they often seek the traditional status symbols – with a country house being high on the list.  For footballers it seems that the modern, bling-laden mansions are the favoured style but for an increasing number of modern artists it’s the historic houses which are finding favour.  The news that Anthony Gormley has bought West Acre High House in Norfolk adds him to a distinguished roll-call of artists who are forming what has been glibly named, the ‘artocracy’.

Artists moving to the country to help their work has a long history including  Peter Paul Rubens buying the Castle of Steen Manor House in the Netherlands in 1635 which led to some of his finest landscape paintings. West Acre High House was regarded as one of the prize estates when it came up for sale in 2008 for £9.5m with 1,000-acres.  Yet, it languished on the market despite the nearby 1,600-acre Kelling estate being sold which was listed at the same time.

West Acre High House was built in 1756 by Edward Spelman (d. 1767), a writer and translator and known eccentric, who had inherited the estate from the Barkhams.  The design raised eyebrows, particularly for that part of the world, with its novel piano nobile arrangement which was also being used around that time in the construction of Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall.  A visitor in that year, Caroline Girle, reported:

“I paid a droll visit to see an odd house, of a still odder Mr Spelman, a most strange bachelor of vaste fortune but indeed I’ll not fall in love with him.  We were introduced to him in the library where he seemed deep in study (for they say he’s really clever) sitting in a Jockey Cap in stiff white Dog’s Gloves. On seeing Mr Spelman one no longer wonders at the oddity of the edifice he has just finished.”

The house is also unusual in that the south front is 7 bays with the central 5 deeply recessed, but the north front is 13 bays due to the flanking wings being built level with the main block.  The wings were built by Anthony Hamond (b.1742 – d. 1822), a nephew of Richard Hamond who had bought the estate from Spelman in 1761.  The next major change was put in effect by Anthony’s second son, another Anthony, who, in c.1829, employed the well-known country house architect, W.J. Donthorn, who refaced the whole house in pale oatmeal Holkham brick, crenellated it and created the spectacular internal double-flight staircase.  The staircase leads to a picture gallery modelled on the one in Buckingham Palace and is formed of five perfect cubes of 18ft.

The house was bought by Henry Birkbeck in 1897 who might have inherited it having  married Anthony Hamond’s daughter in 1849 but, for reasons unknown, purchased it instead.  It remained in the Birkbeck family until the sale to Gormley, who has bought the house plus 100-acres for just £3m having had the price reduced by wanting less land and after factoring in the £1.5m cost of restoration.

Toddington Manor, Gloucestershire (Image: Images of England/Heritage Gateway)
Toddington Manor, Gloucestershire (Image: Images of England/Heritage Gateway)

The restoration costs may well turn out to be much higher – as Damien Hirst, another of the ‘artocrats’, has found out.  He has admitted recently that he has been affected by the recent economic turmoil and in addition to closing down his studios, he has paused the vast, £10m restoration programme he is undertaking at his equally vast country house, Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire, which he bought in 2005 for £3m.  Built in 1819-35 for Charles Hanbury-Tracy, later 1st Baron Sudeley, using his own very accomplished designs. He drew his inspiration from the Perpendicular architecture of Oxford and Pugin‘s work, to create an important Gothic-revival building at a cost of £150,000 (equivalent to £15m in today terms).  The design clearly influenced Sir Charles Barry in his design for Highclere Castle in Berkshire (built between 1838-78) and the Houses of Parliament (started in 1840) – but perhaps Barry was playing to the audience with the latter as Hanbury-Tracy was also on the committee which chose the design for the new Parliament.  After being empty for 20 years until Hirst bought it, the house was a cause for serious concern with outbreaks of dry-rot and a pressing need to replace the acres of roof.  After being saved from becoming a hotel, Hirst bought the grade-I listed house as both a home but also to eventually become a gallery for his work.

Another artist seeking the country life is Anish Kapoor who was apparently interested in taking the lease on Ashdown House in Berkshire – though it eventually went to Pete Townshend of The Who.  One of our prettiest country houses, and now owned by the National Trust, leasing it would have given him the status without the huge restoration costs.

One of the most encouraging aspects of both Gormley and Hirst’s purchases has been the willingness and ability to finance the necessary huge restoration projects.  For Hirst, this has involved covering the whole of Toddington Manor in some ‘Christo’-esque scaffolding with the expectation that the restoration will be a lifetime’s work.  Any restoration has an element of being a labour of love but, in exchange, their houses will give them status, but most importantly, a home – these are houses to be lived in, albeit on a much grander scale than most.

Property listing: ‘West Acre High House‘ [Strutt & Parker] – marked as ‘Sold’ so may not be on the website for long.

Detailed architectural listing: ‘West Acre High House‘ [British Listed Buildings]

More images: ‘Toddington Manor‘ [aerial-cam photography]