A theatre of innovation: Cragside, Northumberland

Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)
Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)

One hundred and fifty years ago, as 1863 drew to a close, the great industrialist Lord Armstrong may have reflected on a year in which innovation was sweeping across so many areas of life and, perhaps, his own future plans for his new country house at Cragside, Northumberland.  Country houses have often been at the nexus of innovation as they contain just the right mix of elements; namely a fashion for novelty, complex issues to be solved and a desire to impress others, along with the resources to experiment.  Cragside was to be a fine example of all these desires, a joint effort between an inventor owner and an inventive architect.

1863 was another year of great industrial developments as diverse as the running of the first Underground trains in London and the patenting of TNT, both of which would have far-reaching consequences.  That driving spirit of creativity spurred the Victorian engineer to look at many challenges, both large and small, seeking solutions which provided greater utility and comfort, though often tempered by the conservatism or financial reluctance of the owner.

Comfort and luxury are not always as synonymous as they are today and tales are legion of freezing country houses where one bathroom (used only for bathing naturally) served a whole house.  Owners of older aristocratic houses often felt little need to modernise; after all, if you had hot and cold running servants ferrying coal and water about the house this was often cheaper than a full refurbishment.  Worse, such improvements might be seen as nouveaux-riche (and therefore vulgar), unhealthy, or, worse, American. By contrast, the new money aristocrats in the Victorian era often had worked their way from less distinguished backgrounds and were keen to use anything which provided a better life – and also gave them the social bragging rights of novelty.

Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Open fires have been the mainstay of country houses for hundreds of years but central heating – either steam, hot air or hot water – started making a comeback in the late Georgian period (remember the Romans introduced it first). The library at Bowood House, Wiltshire was thought to be the first modern room to be centrally heated when it was introduced in the 1790s (although it wasn’t all that successful).  Other centrally heated single rooms were to be found at Pakenham Hall, Co. Westmeath in 1807 where ‘The immense hall so well-warmed by hot air that the children play in it from morning to night‘.  The first multi-room ducted hot-air arrangements could be found at Coleshill, Berkshire in 1814, and Abercairny, Perthshire in 1829. Steam proved difficult to control (though it was installed by Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in 1823) so other early examples were either hot air (Osmaston Manor – 1846-49, Flixton – 1847, or Tortworth Court – 1849-52) or hot water via radiators (Mentmore Towers – 1850-55).  These systems rarely extended beyond the entrance areas, hallways and main downstairs rooms.

Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Ventilation was always a challenge and the unpleasant accumulation of stale air and the smell of gas was exacerbated by the higher building standards of the Victorians which reduced drafts.  Many houses such as Kelham Hall, Mentmore, Dobroyd Castle and Wykehurst Place had ventilation shafts fitted in individual rooms but they were fairly inefficient.  One of the most advanced systems was created in 1846-49 for Francis Wright, a wealthy ironmaster, at his home Osmaston Manor in Derbyshire.  A single intake near the kitchen drew air from outside before heating it and distributing it around the house.  Coal fires in individual rooms then drew the stale air towards them but the flues all took the air downwards into a central extractor system which vented though a single huge 150-ft chimney in the kitchen garden, thus eliminating the need for huge chimneys in the main house (though it had smaller ones).  Sadly the house was demolished in 1965, thus denying us the chance to marvel at the ingenuity.

Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)
Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)

Bathrooms and indoor plumbing were often a great source of inconvenience. Even as late as 1873, such a grand house as Carlton Towers, Yorkshire, had no bathrooms with washing still undertaken via hand-filled basins and hip baths.  By contrast, Stoke Rochford Hall in 1839 had fifteen and by 1874 Wykehurst had the then radical innovation of each bedroom being a suite with its own bathroom.  A number of country houses were demolished for reasons of inconvenience with a  lack of bathrooms often cited, especially as the complexities of adding them to older houses was to prove insurmountable, either technically or financially.

Such challenges were often a catalyst for innovation – particularly if the owner was one of the industrial titans of the age, a man as comfortable in the workshop as the boardroom. Although William Armstrong (b.1810 – d.1900), 1st Baron Armstrong (after 1887), started his professional life as a solicitor he was able to turn his analytical mind to practical challenges as much as legal ones.  The genesis of his engineering career stemmed from his love of fishing where he noticed how inefficient waterwheels were and so designed a much more efficient water-powered engine. He successfully showed it could be used to hydraulically power cranes and thus improve the speed of cargo unloading at the docks.  This formed the basis for Armstrong’s engineering firm in 1847 and his first fortune.  The firm’s greatest fame/infamy came due to the later armaments work which Armstrong had turned to when he read that the British Army had difficulties with heavy field guns during the Crimean War. Success here with his revolutionary design and, later naval versions, led to the creation of a shipbuilding firm which won orders throughout the world, generating his second fortune.

The Lodge 'Cragside', dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw's editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)
The Lodge ‘Cragside’, dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw’s editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)

Armstrong’s obviously busy and productive life gave him great status in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and beyond and his main home in the city was a grand, if heavy, suburban creation called Jesmond Dene House.  As befitted any Victorian man of wealth and social stature and due to the pressures of running his businesses, Armstrong sought a country retreat.  Having visited the Rothbury area as a child, he looked there for a suitable estate, eventually buying in 1863 the then small shooting lodge and 20-acres of land which formed part of a steep-sided valley through which ran the Debdon Burn. Over the next few years, as Armstrong came to reduce his involvement in his businesses, Cragside became a passion; a place to retreat but also to enjoy more domestic challenges with the help of one of the most brilliant architects of the age, Richard Norman Shaw. Armstrong eventually came to own 16,000-acres of Northumberland, including Bamburgh Castle, of which 1,759-acres surrounded Cragside in which he had planted over 7m trees and innumerable rhododendrons.

View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

Between 1869-84, Cragside was transformed into a modern Victorian plutocrats palace, but one incorporating all conceivable innovations, powered by his own hydraulic engines. The first challenge was the location, which was ideal for a small lodge but cramped for the house which it eventually supported.  The steep hillside meant that space for expansion either had to be created through excavation or by building up the ground.  What it lost in convenience, it gained in views; spectacular vistas overlooking the remote Northumberland countryside.  Unfortunately, those views – both from and of the house – are now somewhat obscured by some of those same trees planted by Armstrong.

One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)
One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)

It was inside the house that the inventive mind of both owner and architect could really find effect.  For Shaw, Armstrong was an ideal patron, offering none of the conservative reticence he might have found in other clients, able to offer either his innovations or those of his friends. By December 1880, Cragside was the first private house in the UK (and Girouard thinks possibly in the world) to have electric light comprehensively installed, thanks to Armstrong’s friendship with Joseph Swan, with his eponymous filament bulbs throughout. Power for these innovations came from Armstrong’s own hydroelectric engines, running from the Burn below.

With the luxury of his own cheap and apparently limitless power supply, Armstrong and Shaw’s opportunities were myriad.  In addition to the lighting, the central heating system was also driven by a hydraulic engine.  That same power source also enabled the kitchen to boast a hydraulically-powered spit with the heavy pots in the conservatories moved by hydraulic machinery, with an electric sewing machine and electric communication throughout the house and even out to a shooting lodge on the moor.

View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

To his contemporaries, Cragside must have seemed beyond ingenious – a place grown from an inhospitable hillside, packed with innovations.  The house became a significant marketing tool for Armstrong as visits from his prospective customers, including the King of Siam, the Shah of Persia and the Crown Prince of Afghanistan, gave him the chance to demonstrate the advanced technology they could be buying into, a true theatre of innovation.  The Prince and Princess of Wales also visited in August 1884, thus giving the royal seal of approval to such a modern approach to the traditions of the country house.

Cragside passed to the National Trust in 1977, sadly missing the best of Armstrong’s picture collection (sold in 1910), but cared for and open so we can enjoy seeing the products of two great Victorian minds.  Despite being the genesis of domestic hydroelectric power, a gas turbine was installed in 1895 to provide more power before being connected to the National Grid in 1945.  However, in early 2014, the National Trust is again installing a modern hydroelectric screw to once more generate electricity for the house providing a welcome return of innovation.


Article: ‘Hydro-electricity restoration work starts at Cragside‘ [BBC News]

Official site: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust]

160+ images: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust Images]

The Country House Revealed – Kinross House, Kinross-shire

Kinross House, Kinross-shire (Image: The Daily Telegragh)
Kinross House, Kinross-shire (Image: The Daily Telegragh) - click for larger, but different, image from 'buildings_fan' on flickr

For houses which are owned by the same family for hundreds of years, the rhythm of their fortunes can often be read in the architecture of the house as it grows and shrinks accordingly.  This was certainly the case with South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire, featured last week in ‘The Country House Revealed – A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home‘.  Yet the object of our, and Dan Cruickshanks’, affections this week, Kinross House, Kinross-shire, is a more dramatic, and relatively short-term, reflection of the rise and fall in the fortunes of a key Scottish gentleman architect, Sir William Bruce.

Kinross was described in Country Life magazine (February 16, 1951) as ‘the complete expression in stone of the Renaissance in Scotland’ – a not inconsiderable accolade for a man who combined his passion for architecture with a sometimes turbulent career in politics.  ‘Sir William, the politician’, was certainly ambitious and profited from the fluctuations in the fortunes of Charles II.  Active in the Royalist cause prior to the Restoration, on the King’s return William Bruce, younger son of a small Perthshire laird, was knighted in 1668.  Basking in the King’s favour, and under the patronage of the Earl of Lauderdale, he secured a series of minor but lucrative political appointments, the most important as Surveyor-General of the royal works in Scotland.

His political career was matched with equal vigour by ‘Sir William, the architect’ with an enthusiasm for not only architecture but also horticulture, literature, and languages.  Yet Sir William’s importance is mainly founded on his country houses, approximately ten in total – two of which where built for his own use, which helped establish his position as one of the most important architects in Scotland by breaking away from the widespread practice for nobles to still live in castles.

His early building work was mainly with existing houses, with his involvement first recorded in the enlargement and remodelling of the once magnificent Leslie House, Fife, between 1667-72.  Sir William’s involvement was relatively minor as custodian of the working drawings but he also gave advice with regards to the interior.  Sadly, three of the four sides of this quadrangular house burnt down in a fire in 1763 leaving just one side which was later remodelled again to create the currently Leslie House – though this was also severely damaged in a blaze in 2009 whilst undergoing conversion into apartments.

Balcaskie House, Fife (Image: Morton Design) - click for more views
Balcaskie House, Fife (Image: Morton Design) - click for more views

Sir William’s next project is thankfully still visible today, almost unchanged from the day he  finished.  Balcaskie House, Fife, was bought by Bruce in 1665, and rather than demolish it, between 1668-71 he proceeded to enlarge and improve the existing house. It was here that his official role proved useful, employing some of the plasterers and painters he had also engaged in rebuilding Holyrood Palace, in Edinburgh between 1671-79.

Also in 1670, Sir William undertook several private commissions for his patron, the Duke of Lauderdale, including the remodelling of the Duke’s main Scottish seat at Thirlestane Castle.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work are the interiors which draw heavily on the designs, and indeed the workmen, from Ham House in Richmond, Surrey, owned by the Countess of Dysart, who married the Duke in 1671, bringing that fine and beautiful house into that family.

Moncreiffe House, Perthshire (Image: NMR) - burnt down, 1957
Moncreiffe House, Perthshire (Image: NMR) - burnt down, 1957

With so many projects it is unsurprising that Sir William’s next major commission wasn’t until 1676; the construction of a new house at Dunkeld for the 1st Marquess of Atholl, described by the Marquess’ son as ‘…extrodinarly convenient though not larg & and it will not cost much expences ether.‘ This house is important as not only was it his first chance to build on a fresh plot but which shows a clear style of design which was to flourish at Kinross.  Sadly the house was pulled down in 1830 as a much larger house had been built for the 4th Duke.  Sir William’s next commission in 1679 was Moncreiffe House, near Perth, which was also to display a very similar style.  This house has also now been lost; demolished after a devastating fire in November 1957, leaving no surviving house to mark the emergence of these new elements of classical architecture in Scotland.

Sir William’s political star continued to shine, providing a fortune which enabled him to purchase the Kinross estate in 1675, and his first opportunity to give full rein to his architectural skills with only himself as client.   Work first started to level the site in 1679 and by 1686 the main outline of the gardens and forecourt were in place, ready for the construction of the house which started in the autumn of that year.  What rose up was one of the finest houses in the country but also one of the most important in Scotland.

Sir William was able to introduce new ideas around the layout of a house, drawing on the same ideas that Sir Roger Pratt and Hugh May were also promoting in England to create the form of the country house we know today. Similarities can be seen between the works of these architects, particularly Pratt at Coleshill, Berkshire (tragically burnt down in 1952) and the use of the double-pile layout.  Another interesting aspect of the design of Kinross is that it is lined up axially with  the ruined island castle of Loch Leven, providing an ‘eye-catcher’ for anyone looking out of the house across the water.

Kinross was to be Sir William’s physical statement of his vision of the country house as the primary stage for the aristocracy to parade.  The house was to be part of a whole, made up of the estate, parkland, gardens, exterior and interiors; each playing their part to create a visible record of the owner’s standing and wealth.  To do so, Bruce took the architectural fashions of England and combined them with his own knowledge of the works of Palladio and Serlio, and some innovative ideas of his own with regards to the use of mezzanines to create extra rooms and corridors for privacy, to create a design which also reflected the new political realities; classicism being aligned with structure, order and symmetry in society.

Craighall, Fife (Image: A.J.B. Hope)
Craighall, Fife (Image: A.J.B. Hope)

Yet just as his costs mounted, his political career waned with the turmoil following the death of Charles II in 1685.  Having spent at least £10,000 (approx. £15m) with the house still unfinished,  he was forced to scale back the lavish interiors and his ambitions.  He now started taking on commissions again, working on Craighall between 1697-99 (ruined by 1793, demolished 1955), Craigiehall c1699, Hopetoun between 1699-1703, Mertoun c.1703-7, and his final contribution being to design the House of Nairne c.1710 (pulled down c.1760), though illness meant he wouldn’t have supervised the construction. Sir William had earlier made over Kinross to his son and moved back to the old Kinross house before moving to Edinburgh at the end of his life, dying there in 1710.

With limited family wealth the house declined until, in 1777, Kinross was bought by George Graham, a Scot merchant who had made a fortune in Jamaica, and since then had passed down through the family (latterly  Montgomery after a marriage in 1819).  Sadly the house was put up for sale in 2009 having been a family home since it was built and was sold in 2010 along with 75-acres with planning permission for conversion into a hotel – a rather depressing outcome for such an important house.

Book of the series: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Waterstones]

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

Note: having watched the first episode it seems that Dan is concentrating more on the family history aspect than the architectural so I hope these entries will balance this out.

After the fire, the difficult choices: Raasay House, Scotland

Raasay House, Scotland (Image: BBC News)
Raasay House, Scotland (Image: BBC News)

When Raasay House on the Isle of Skye Raasay was largely destroyed by a huge fire in January 2009 just days before it was due to reopen following a £4m refurbishment, the locals and owners vowed to quickly rebuild the house as it was.  Fire has always been one of the major threats to our country houses and when it strikes the responses to the destruction can vary greatly – particularly in the modern era.

For many country house owners in the 16th-19th-centuries immediate rebuilding was the favoured response if funds allowed – either to re-create the original house or sometimes to build an entirely new one.  Raasay House was built in 1746 for the clan Macleod after the previous house, built in the 1500s, was deliberately burnt down in 1745 in the wave of retribution which followed the Battle of Culloden.  The house, extended in the 1870s, was run as an outdoor pursuits centre and was an important part of the economy on the Isle of Skye Raasay.  This meant the response was largely on the basis of local economics which required the house to be rebuild to support the business, apparently not for its intrinsic architectural value.  However, the Scottish grade-A listing (equivalent to the English grade-I) means that the ‘new’ Raasay will be a faithful recreation of the original house as it was before the fire.

Although country house owners have long rebuilt, the principle that the house will be strictly rebuilt exactly as it was is, in some ways, a modern response as heritage legislation requires full salvage of any architectural fragments with the presumption of restoration.  Insurance companies also pay out for recreation of the old building, not the construction of a new one.  So responses now are sometimes based on the architectural or heritage value, and sometimes due to the constraints placed on the owners.  The wishes of the owners also play an important part with some looking to recreate whilst others follow the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who state:

Although no building can withstand decay, neglect and depredation entirely, neither can aesthetic judgement nor archaeological proof justify the reproduction of worn or missing parts. Only as a practical expedient on a small scale can a case for restoration be argued.

– SPAB manifesto

The 1992 fire at Windsor Castle destroyed large sections of the State Apartments including the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms, the Queen’s Private Chapel and St George’s Hall.  It was quickly decided by the Restoration Committee (headed by Prince Philip) that many of the rooms would be restored to as close as possible their original state with only a few modern rooms and the Queen’s Private Chapel to be restored in a modern style.

However, no lesser organisation than the National Trust also has firmly followed the faithful re-creation approach, particularly following the devastating 1989 fire at Uppark, Sussex.  Although the dramatic pictures of the fire would suggest total loss, brave efforts by staff saved the majority of the contents of the house and the fire was found to have only destroyed the attic and first floors whilst severely damaging the ground floor.  It was then announced by Martin Sekers, the National Trust’s Regional Director for the Southern Region, that “We feel that enough survives to justify total restoration.”.  So how much has to survive to warrant re-creation?  A spirited public debate at the time brought forward opposing views such as that expressed by the respected architecture critic Deyan Sudjic who argued in an article in the Sunday Correspondent (17 Sept 1989) that:

“…it won’t actually be Uppark no matter how skilful the work of the 20th Century craftsman who seek to recreate it. What tourists come to see will, in fact, be a replica, one which could be said to diminish those fragments which actually are authentic…”

However, other eminent architectural historians such as Dan Cruikshank came out strongly in favour of recreation principally from the point that it provided the opportunity to re-learn old techniques and provide a model in their use.  Andor Gomme argued that a recreated Uppark would be the only appropriate way to show the rescued contents in an appropriate setting.  Gomme also highlighted that in previous cases where a house owned by the National Trust had burnt down (the incomparable Coleshill, Berkshire in 1953 and Dunsland House, Devon in 1967) the decision at the time to demolish what remained was later deeply regretted.

So for public organisations the clear preference is strongly in favour of re-creation despite the claims of the modernist and the SPAB that such an approach is to miss an opportunity or is simply fake.  Yet, for private country house owners, their long-held preference has been to simply restore as much as possible – even if just the walls were left standing.

When Knepp Castle, Sussex was gutted by fire in 1904, work started in 1905 to recreate John Nash’s original design.  Similarly after fires at Bramham Park in 1828, Duncombe Park in 1879, Stourhead in 1902, Monzie Castle in 1903 and Sledmere in 1911, the owners all worked to faithfully recreate the houses to the state as they had been.  For houses such as Lees Court in Kent which was almost completely destroyed in 1911 (scroll to last image) the house was just rebuilt using what remained of the outer walls.

So is restoration the best approach?  Although there is danger that the new work might be a poor pastiche of the earlier work, to just discard what has been salvaged and what remains and to only allow modern work would seem to be overly dogmatic.  However, it will only work if any restoration is of the highest quality to avoid any chance that what is produced is merely a lifeless reproduction.  Owners over the last 400-years when faced with a greater or lesser degree of loss have often sought to restore and to continue that tradition today is to draw on a much longer history than to rely only on the intellectual restrictions of the later purists.

Full story: ‘Fire damaged Raasay House to rise from ashes‘ [BBC News]