A Sleeping Beauty: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire

The temptation when Country Life magazine arrives each week is to flick through the properties and make tabloid-esque comparisons about how a detached Regency villa in Dorset with space for a family, chickens, and an excitable spaniel, could be had for the price of a tatty flat in London. Yet sometimes these comparisons seem almost too unreal when faced with the exemplary beauty of a country house like Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, which, along with 39 beautifully wooded acres, has just been put up for sale for just £3.5m; the price of a 3-bed terrace house in Chelsea.

Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)
Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Worcestershire lies a house which, either through deliberate privacy or convenient obscurity, is little known to the world. Yet Grade-I listed Ombersley Court is one of the finest houses in Worcestershire, arguably even in the wider region, due not only to the sublime architecture and surrounding estate, but also the fine collection of paintings and artwork. The estate has long been the seat of the Sandys family who acquired the manor in the late sixteenth-century. The current house was originally built for the 1st Lord Sandys (b.1695 – d.1770) between 1723-26, replacing earlier monastic buildings on the site.  The house was designed by Francis Smith of Warwick (b.1672 – d.1738), one of the leading regional architects and, working with his brother William (b.1661- d.1724), ‘one of the most successful master builders in English architectural history’ (Colvin).

‘Smith of Warwick’, as Francis was more commonly known, was a clients ideal contractor due to his famous honesty and reliability, able to deliver buildings on time and on budget. His reputation spread amongst the Midlands gentry and aristocracy with almost all his work within a fifty-mile radius of Warwick.  Such was his standing that even the fractious Duchess of Marlborough (who had famously fallen out with Vanbrugh over Blenheim), demanded that for her house in Wimbledon, Surrey, ‘that Mr Smith of Warwickshire the Builder may be employed to make Contracts and to Measure the Work and to doe everything in his Way that is necessary to Compleat the Work as far as the Distance he is at will give him Leave to do’ (1732-33).

Smith’s solid reliability also manifested itself in his repetition of his well-developed plans and designs for houses, creating a distinctive style which is quite recognisable as his own. Broadly, this would be a three storey house with the centre section either projected or recessed, consistent fenestration, and relatively sparse external decoration, usually only decorative stone dressings such as keystones, quoins or balustraded parapets. This consistency was perhaps a double-edged sword, with the Hon. Daines Barrington stated in a letter in 1784, that although ‘all of them (are) convenient and handsome […] there is a great sameness in the plans, which proves he had little invention’.

Yet, this is to overlook that Smith was, at heart, a successful commercial builder whose understanding and appreciation for architectural ornament and variety was inevitably tempered by his determination to deliver the commission on time and on budget. As the architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin highlights, the core design is that of a standard seventeenth-century house such as Belton House, Lincolnshire, but with stylistic updates as fashions evolved.  ‘Smith’ houses such as Umberslade, Alfreton, and Wingerworth all share this readily accessible style, one which married domestic practicality with exterior grandeur.

Perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement was the tragically now-ruinous Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire; a house with a facade so stately as to rival Chatsworth. Built for the 4th Earl of Scarsdale in 1724, Sutton Scarsdale was one of the finest houses in the country. Although the form is familiar, the masterful control of a palisade of pilasters and columns topped with Corinthian capitals, gives it a gravitas, whilst the detailing such as the scrolled window surrounds to the projecting wings hint at Renaissance motifs; Fausto Rughesi (Santa Maria in Vallicella, 1605/06) filtered through William Talman (design for Thoresby House, 1685, – shown in Vitruvius Britannicus, C1, Pl.91) and James Gibbs (to whose designs Smith was building Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, 1722).

derbyshire-Sutton_Scarsdale_Hall_circa_1900

One regret with Ombersley Court is that although the form and plan of the house and much of the superb unaltered early-Georgian internal decoration is still Smith, the exterior is now not his. The original design featured a hipped roof, and what looks to be pilasters, giving it the recognisable ‘Smith’ characteristics.  This was lost when the existing brick was refaced with ashlar in 1809 by the architect John Webb for Mary Sandys, the Marchioness of Downshire. In fairness though, this was a lucky escape as John Nash prepared a much more ambitious scheme in 1808, which proposed adding a two-storey pavilion to each side, linked by a seven-bay screen of giant Ionic columns, though this seems to have been rejected on cost.

Ombersley Court - proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808
Ombersley Court – proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808

One of the glories of the house are the interiors and especially the plasterwork and carving. With a desire for privacy which was rarely breached, few had seen the exceptional decorative work, except through the lens of a Country Life profile by Arthur Oswald in 1953. This extolled the virtues of many aspects including The Chippendale Room which featured bamboo framed silk wall pieces, remarking that ‘it is uncommon to find a Regency example as complete as this or as charming’. The rest of the house struck a careful tone of stately refinement; enough decoration to proclaim wealth and taste, but never excessive.

Ombersley Court - Hallway (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Hallway (© Savills)
Ombersley Court - Drawing Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Drawing Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court - Morning Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Morning Room (© Savills)

With the death of Lord Sandys in 2013 the house passed to Lady Sandys but following her recent death, concerns were raised and rebutted via letters in Country Life that this wonderful house would be forced (for complicated reasons) to become a care home; a fate which would have despoiled this jewel of a house. Instead, for the first time since it was built in 1724, it has been placed on the market. This is a house created by one of the finest craftsmen of the early-Georgian period, with connections to a wider, distinct Midlands architectural tradition which epitomises all that one would hope to see in a country seat. As an important house which deserves respect, one hopes that the new owner will appreciate this remarkable situation and that perhaps the best approach would simply be to buy the house and contents and perhaps another couple hundred acres to truly secure an Arcadian ideal, one which would be hard to better anywhere in the country.


Sales particulars: Omblersley Court, Worcestershire [Savills] – £3.5m with 39 acres

Listing description: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire [British Listed Buildings]

The Inadvertent Innovation: Country Life and Property Advertising

Over the last four centuries, the marketing of property has seen relatively few innovations. Those with money and the desire to establish themselves in society would seek out those with knowledge on which estates might be available.  However, the launch of Country Life magazine 120 years ago this month heralded a sea change in the marketing of the landed lifestyle. No longer did the buyer have to rely solely on what they found; now Country Life, through advertising and market reports, brought a selection of the choicest properties right into the drawing rooms of the aspiring elite. The continuing success of the magazine suggests that our desire for the grandeur and leisure of rural society is undimmed over a century later.

Country Life was the idea of Edward Hudson (b.1854 – d.1936), a successful magazine printer, who recognised a gap in the market for a publication which reflected the rural lifestyle of a wealthy elite and, importantly, those who wished to join them.  Conveniently for Hudson, he already had one publication which catered to a significant traditional interest, Racing Illustrated, but lacklustre sales meant it was ripe to be incorporated as a component part of the new magazine. The first issue of Country Life was published on 8 January 1897 and from the outset it was noted for the high quality of the content and, importantly, of the production, with heavy paper and fine photographs.

Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

As with most magazines of the time, the front cover and first page were adverts for all manner of essentials such as ‘Cadbury’s Cocoa’ and slightly more obscure (‘Old Grans Special Toddy‘, ‘Vigor’s Horse-Action Saddle – A Perfect Substitute for the Live Horse‘). However, below the grand ‘Country Life Illustrated‘ masthead is a single full page, rich in some of the finest country houses in the land – and all for sale or to let. It’s also noteworthy that this innovative layout was the work of the single firm of land agents, Walton & Lee of Edinburgh, through whom these properties were available.

As today, properties were sold for a number of reasons but, in an age when the loss of the family seat was considered a serious failing in society, financial embarrassment was often the single strongest reason for a property to appear for sale.  Until the twentieth-century, the majority of property transactions for country houses were primarily about the land; the actual house was usually a secondary consideration as, if you felt it wasn’t suitable, you could always rebuild it in a style or scale until it was. Intelligence regarding which estates were for sale was passed around through social networks, partly to preserve privacy, but often as a way of discretely finding a buyer. Local solicitors also played an extensive and dominant role in the sale of property, often using their extensive and intimate knowledge of local families to know who might be open to offers or to find suitable investments, especially as, since 1804, they held the monopoly on conveyancing.

In 1897, the second Agricultural Depression was hitting the income of those landowners who were heavily dependent on income from their estates.  The financial crisis that this created was the catalyst which forced a number of estates to be put on the market. Equally, death dealt its usual cruel blow with estates being sold in part or in total to meet the stipulations of wills, particularly if the only offspring were daughters, often married to a gentleman with his own estate and little need for a part share in another.

'In the Grafton country...' Advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘In the Grafton country…’ Walton & Lee advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

The houses shown in that first edition are certainly varied. Ranging from the grandeur of Stowe House to ‘a charming, moderate-sized manorial estate’, each warranted a small but densely-worded description. In contrast to today where a house of the importance of Stowe would most likely be either sold off-market or launched with all the fanfare modern country house estate agency can muster with multi-page, glossy, full page photo adverts. Although, with the exception of Stowe, all were anonymous, of the nine houses advertised, it’s possible to identify six of them:

Column 1

  • SALE: Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, with 6,700 acres (demolished 1972)
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘moderate-sized Manorial Estate’, South Devon, with 600 acres
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘unique specimen of an early English country house’, Sussex or Surrey, with 42 acres

Column 2

  • TO LET: Maesllwch Castle, Radnorshire, with shooting over 20,000 acres
  • TO LET: Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, with 250 acres (now National Trust)
  • SALE: Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, with 5,000 acres (now a private home again)
'Stowe House, Buckingham', 'In the Grafton country...' Advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘Stowe House, Buckingham’, Walton & Lee advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

Column 3

  • TO LET or SALE: Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, with 1,100 acres (now a school)
  • TO LET: Addington Manor, Buckinghamshire, with ‘parks and grounds’ (demolished 1926)
  • TO LET: Rigmaden Park, YorkshireUnidentified ‘fine Mansion’, North of England with sporting rights over 4,000 acres (thanks to a reader for the identification)

This selection in one week is almost unimaginable now – to have one house such as Stowe or Charlecote advertised for sale would be remarkable; to have those plus other grand houses showed the scale of the crisis which was quietly afflicting the established rural order. As financial circumstances forced retrenchment for families from the larger houses to their smaller ones (or sometimes from the countryside altogether), so Country Life offered a new and effective route for marketing these properties to those who had risen in the heady world of Victorian industry and finance and who now sought to install themselves as the inheritors of the old social order through the possession of their estates.

The photos of the houses for sale also echoed that Country Life also emphasised a new stylistic aesthetic in the photographs which accompanied the articles on specific houses; one which departed from a common representation of country houses; notably by removing the people and all signs of daily life. Whether this was the choice of Edward Hudson or the photographers is unknown, but engravings and images of country houses from earlier periods often showed them as the hubs of rural and social activity. Outdoor views displayed workers in the fields, the aristocracy enjoying the pleasures of the house and parkland, and coaches riding down lanes, whilst interior views were full of noble pursuits.

The bucolic ideal was important in times of political and social turmoil.  Such scenes, although partly a simple tool for demonstrating scale, also promoted the idea of the paternal landowner to those within the landowning classes, those who wished to join them, and others who had simply obtained a copy, perhaps through a lending library.  Note how often the sky is calm, the lake waters placid, and the animals docile or obedient – there are no signs of disharmony. This can be seen in J.P. Neale‘s famous series of views of country seats published between 1819-1823, soon after the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars:

Detail from 'Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

The compliant and dutifully grateful cows enjoying the benefits of the parkland at Langley Park, Buckinghamshire:

Detail from 'Langley Park, Buckinghamshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Langley Park, Buckinghamshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Take the later scene presented in J.M. Gilbert’s image, drawn in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Bill which extended voting to all men who owned property worth ten pounds or more in yearly rent, of Newlands, Hampshire, which includes a vignette of rural husbandry with the men taking instructions from an agent with the house looking benignly down:

Detail from 'Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby' by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from 'Grove's Views of Lymington' (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby’ by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from ‘Grove’s Views of Lymington’ (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Interior views often showed the aristocratic families at leisure. This was partly due to the romanticisation of the country house which can, in part, be attributed to the popular historical novels of Sir Walter Scott who, as noted by the writer Thomas Carlyle, that they

‘have taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled with living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men’.

For example, in Nash’s ‘The Mansions of England in the Old Time‘ published between 1839-49, the domestic scenes feature prominent groups of people going about their daily lives as imagined as an aristocratic set-piece where all the clothes were fine, the people good looking, and the activities noble.

'The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent'. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Museum no. 2996-1876)
‘The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent’. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London – Museum no. 2996-1876)

This is not to say that all followed such an approach. Many artists such as the Rev. F.A.O. Morris in his famous ‘Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland‘ published 1866 emphasised the houses, showing no signs of people.

Country Life therefore was both following the precedent of some earlier artists but also by so rigorously applying this view of the houses and the popularity of the magazine spreading this ideal far and wide, so the perception of country houses as denuded of evidence of life was one which was almost in contrast to the warm, sympathetic portrayal of the families in the accompanying text.

Walton & Lee maintained their tenacious grip on the important first page of advertising in Country Life from 1897 until 1912.  In that year, as a measure of the success of Country Life in establishing itself as one of the prime avenues for the sale of property, Howard Frank, of Knight, Frank & Rutley, bought Walton & Lee specifically to secure that  coveted advertising space. Though their reign at the forefront of advertising country estates had ended, their influence in the presentation of property was to remain and can be seen today. Evidence of this is in both the continued hold Knight Frank maintain on the first page of advertising, and the stylistic aesthetic which the estate agents and Country Life established as the standard for the photographic presentation of country houses for sale and exalted in numerous publications.


Country Life wrote their own retrospective on property advertising in 2007 for the 110th anniversary: ‘Wanted: Property for a Gentleman’ [Country Life]

Welcome to the market: Lutyens’ The Salutation, Kent

The Salutation, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)
The Salutation, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)

The analogy between language and architecture is one that has often been made, particularly as fluency is the key measure of success in both fields.  An immature architect can make elementary mistakes with the grammar of a building style as much as any tourist abroad can when ordering dinner. In most cases, both novice architect and linguist can be understood but when compared to the more experienced practitioner, skill and mastery come sharply into relief.  Such a lesson by a master architectural linguist has just been launched on the market; The Salutation, in Sandwich, Kent; a beautiful piece of poetry which demonstrates the fluency of the architect in the language of Classicism.

Heathcote, Ilkley (Image: Thursday Dave via Flickr)
Heathcote, Ilkley (Image: Thursday Dave via Flickr)

Lutyens’ career can largely be seen in three phases; the early years of the ‘Surrey-Tudor’, which evolved into the middle ‘Arts & Crafts’, and then the divergence into the bold ‘Classical’, and its particular variant, ‘Edwardian Baroque’.  That last switch can be seen quite dramatically in the brilliant Heathcote, Yorkshire, built 1906, where Lutyens playfully adopted and adapted the Classical motifs and style of Palladio and Scammozzi to create a wonderfully detailed villa, rich in style and quite unlike his previous work.  After the exuberance of Heathcote (which annoyed Pevsner, who although he commented that it was ‘Only a villa, but how grand the treatment!‘, also dismissed features such as the pilasters which ‘disappear’ into the continuous rustication (see ground floor either side of the windows) as ‘silly tricks‘). On a side note; Heathcote recently sold having previously been bought by a developer/vandal who wished to split the house into two, thus ruining Lutyens’ interior planning – fingers crossed the new owner is sympathetic to this wonderful house.

Lutyens was, of course, part of a longer tradition starting with the first English classical architects practising around the time of Sir Christopher Wren in the mid-17th Century including Hugh May, William Samwell, and Roger Pratt. These pioneers displayed a similar skill in Anglo-Classicism producing buildings such as Cassiobury House (May), the first Eaton Hall (Samwell) and the revolutionary Coleshill (Pratt).  Classicism has long had a place in British architecture, despite other fashions, and has shown its versatility in being used for all sizes of house, from palaces to the smaller country retreat – and it was in this latter requirement that Lutyens was commissioned to build The Salutation.

Located on the site of an old inn of the same name, it was built in 1911-12 in the Queen Anne style as a retreat for Gaspard Farrer, a partner in Barings Bank, and his two bachelor brothers. Lutyens’ clients were typically those who had made money in the decades either side of 1900; that high-point of the country-house lifestyle when staff, materials and labour were relatively cheap. If there is a ‘criticism’ of Lutyens it’s his generosity with regards to space with hallways, alcoves, and large staircases, such as at The Salutation where an extended landing serves as an overflow from the library.  Yet, each space serves a purpose in the plan, typically framing views along axes or as part of a route to the principal rooms which Lutyens often incorporated into houses.

Great Maytham, Kent (Image: Stephen Nunney via Geograph)
Great Maytham, Kent (Image: Stephen Nunney via Geograph)

The exterior of the house is a smaller derivation of his earlier and much grander Great Maytham, built 1910, for the Liberal MP, H.J. Tennant.  Following the exuberance of Heathcote (which most commentators seem to think came very close to pomposity), Lutyens took a more restrained path through Classicism (compared say, to Richard Norman Shaw at Bryanston House for Viscount Portman) and Great Maytham can be seen as a larger version of Samwell’s Eaton Hall, built 1675, or the smaller Puslinch in Devon, built 1720, with the latter showing clear similarities with The Salutation.

East terrace, The Salutation, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
East terrace, The Salutation, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The plan of The Salutation is based on the Palladian 3×3 grid but, importantly, Lutyens is able to adapt and amend this without losing the beauty of the proportions.  Gavin Stamp comments that, for Lutyens, his houses were ‘essentially romantic creations; that is, their form is determined by a picture in the architect’s mind‘ and another writer H.S. Goodhart-Rendel compared his ability to that of Wren in that they both had ‘the sculptor’s capacity of making beautiful shapes‘.  Country Life magazine said that it was a ‘dazzlingly suave yet restrained reinterpretation of the old Georgian idiom‘. It was this ability to combine a profound understanding of the Classical rules of architecture with originality which marked Lutyens out as one of the great architects.

To be given a measure of the importance the house, in 1950, it was the first 20th-century building to be given a Grade-I listing.  However, The Salutation suffered in the later 20th-century with the 1980s a particularly difficult time. Repeated attempts by developers were made to either split those graceful internal spaces into apartments or simply demolish it entirely and build on the 3-acre site, over which Lutyens (and possibly his long-term collaborator Gertrude Jekyll) had spent so much time and care crafting.

The Salutation from the garden (Image: Knight Frank)
The Salutation from the garden (Image: Knight Frank)

Salvation for The Salutation came in the form of Dominic and Stephanie Parker who bought it in 2004 for £2.6m and have subsequently spent £3m on its restoration and who now run it as a luxury B&B. Now for sale at £4.5m, for someone with the budget, this could again be a superb home; combining the finest elements of the last boom of the country villa, designed by one of the greatest architects Britain has produced.  For the rest of us, if you’d like to see and experience staying in one of Lutyens finest small houses, I’d suggest booking soon.

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Sale particulars: ‘The Salutation‘ [Knight Frank]

If you’d like to stay; you can book through their website: ‘The Salutation

Video of Mr Parker talking about his decision to buy: ‘The Salutation was ‘like finding a diamond in a river‘ [2009, Kent Online]

Watch the Parker’s competing in a B&B TV competition: ‘Four in a bed‘ [Channel 4]

For more on Lutyens, I recommend Gavin Stamp’s ‘Edwin Lutyens Country Houses‘ [Amazon]

Support the legacy: ‘Lutyens Trust

Listing description: ‘The Salutation‘ [British Listed Buildings]

‘So you made the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List…’ – a selection of country houses for sale

Spring is upon us: the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, the drizzle is almost incessant – *sigh*. One bright spot is each week’s increasingly heavy Country Life magazine; the extra weight from the greater number of property adverts which signal the launch of the late spring/early summer (hah!) country house sales push. Below is a round-up of some of the most interesting and beautiful properties currently for sale, all entirely and subjectively chosen by me.

Bletchingdon Park, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Bletchingdon Park, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

The most impressive house to be offered for sale this year so far has to be the beautiful Bletchingdon Park, Oxfordshire [Knight Frank]. One of the relatively few Palladian villas in the county, it can easily hold its own with the others such as Kirtlington Park (completed in 1746) and Nuneham Courtenay (built 1756).  Bletchingdon Park was slightly late to the Palladian party, being built in 1782 for Arthur Annesley, Viscount Valentia, to the designs of James Lewis (b. c1751 – d.1820).  Lewis was mostly employed as surveyor of various charitable hospitals in London and near counties but he also completed a clutch of excellent country houses including Eydon Hall, Hackthorn Hall, and Lavington Park (now Seaford College). Owned since 1993 by Dr Michael Peagram, a philanthropist and chemicals industrialist, the grade-II* house has been obviously well cared for and offers the highly desirable combination of an imposing facade, superb views, 127-acres and elegant interiors which includes a wonderful sweeping, top-lit staircase – if you have £20m.

Cockfield Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Cockfield Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

For those who prefer an alternative to the architectural austerity of Palladianism, then Suffolk offers a wealth of brick houses; statements just as bold, but in a different language. Cockfield Hall, Suffolk [£5m, 74-acres, Savills] has a grand façade, galleried great hall, a wealth of rich plasterwork ceilings, and a range of estate buildings in the same style.  Although mainly built in 1613, the windows were sashed c1770 and the overall look is largely due to later Victorian enhancements, including the upper storey, gables, the great hall and various Tudor motifs.  That said, it is undeniably attractive as the changes work well together.

Highfields Park, East Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Highfields Park, East Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

There is often something just so elegant about Regency houses, particularly the smaller country villas which echoed the style and features of much larger and grander houses. Highfields Park, East Sussex,  [£5.75m, Knight Frank] is set in 191-acres, and overlooks its own lake and out to the countryside.  The house has grown as the ambitions and wealth of the owners allowed; a ballroom being added to the east and a swimming pool beyond that. Awkwardly, access to latter is through the former so just be careful not to schedule a pool party at the same time as your formal dances; though, on the upside, it will be easy to tell which guest is supposed to be at which party.

Ayton Castle, Scotland (Image: Knight Frank)
Ayton Castle, Scotland (Image: Knight Frank)

Previously offered for sale in May 2011 for £3m and now re-listed, Ayton Castle, Scotland [offers over £2.2m / Knight Frank] is a sprawling confection of Scots Baronial motifs; the design the work of two of the best architects working in Scotland at the time, now set in 159-acres.  The house was originally built in 1851 for William Mitchell-Innes who commissioned the talented James Gillespie Graham. Graham was known for his work in the Scots Baronial style which became so popular in the Victorian era, notably on the praise of Sir Walter Scott and the Queen’s remodelling of Balmoral.  Yet, Graham was a rare architect comfortable working in various styles; neo-classical at Blythswood House or semi-ecclesiastical Gothic at Cumbusnethan Priory (now tragically a ruined shell).  Ayton was later extended in 1860, with the addition of a billiard room and an enlarged drawing room by David Bryce.  Bryce, perhaps, more than any other architect, can be argued to be responsible for the legacy of Scots Baronial, if only through his prolific output of more than 230 buildings including many country houses such as Craigends (dem. 1971), Panmure House (dem. 1955), Torosay Castle and Dalmore House (burnt out 1969). Considering the tragic swathe cut through his work, it’s a shame that legacy wasn’t appreciated.

Honourable Mentions

There are, of course, many other good houses featured in Country Life but some would not be regarded as the seat of an estate – but they are still wonderful country houses; albeit ones with very large gardens and worth a mention.  A couple here are proper country seats but just haven’t made it to the list above:

Bradwell Lodge, Essex (Image: Matthew Beckett) - for sale: £2.25m through Jackson-Stops & Staff
Bradwell Lodge, Essex (Image: Matthew Beckett) – for sale: £2.25m through Jackson-Stops & Staff

Bradwell Lodge, Essex – a house of contrasts and a mixture of architecture; a Tudor core, latter additions by Robert Adam, Robert Smirke the elder, and Quinlan Terry, with decoration by Angelica Kauffman. The library/small dining room in the projecting bay on the ground floor is particularly elegant with twisted-wire screens to the bookcases. Grade-II*, 26-acres, £2.25m [Jackson-Stops & Staff]

Broadwell Manor, Gloucestershire – grade-II*, 35-acres, excess £8m [Knight Frank]

Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk – a fascinating early house by Sir John Soane which has previously featured on this blog (‘For sale: a Soanian springboard‘). Grade-II*, 38-acres, £6.5m (down from £7m) [Knight Frank]

Glansevern Hall, Powys – an apparently unique property in that it is the only complete house designed and build by the architect Joseph Bromfield and which also features some impressive gardens. Grade-II*, 80-acres, £4.5m [Balfours]

Rainthorpe Hall, Norfolk – grade-I, 18.7-acres, excess £2.95m [Strutt & Parker]

Roundhill Manor, Somerset – grade-II, 280-acres, £6m [Savills]

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For other updates on country houses for sale do sign up for the excellent British and Irish Stately Homes blog, which is written by Andrew Triggs who frequently contributes comments on this blog.

A rural power house; literally – Fairfield House, Somerset

Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)
Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)

To describe a country seat as a ‘power house’ was usually to allude to its status economically, politically, certainly as a local employer, usually even in matters of style. Yet, these houses also indirectly, and sometimes very directly, played an important part in the provision of the electricity which has grown to power our everyday lives.  Power stations play an obvious central role and their expansion has often been controversial.  In earlier decades, a local power house was sometimes sacrificed to the demands of industry and the needs for power stations, but now, for some, particularly Fairfield House in Somerset, they have proven to be a windfall.

Country estates have a long history of being the beneficiaries of the need for power. In medieval times, the natural resources of an estate, such as a fast-flowing river or extensive woodland would be harnessed or harvested to drive local industry.  The most productive land could prove especially valuable if it could support the entire production cycle such as for bread, with corn grown on the estate, being ground in the windmill or mill on the river, before being sold in the market in a town owned by the local lord, who, at each stage would profit.  As the Industrial Revolution flourished, so the need for power grew, leading landowners to fully exploit the natural resources which lay beneath their land as well, with coal becoming a leading creator of Victorian fortunes.

Methley Hall, Yorkshire - demolished 1963 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Methley Hall, Yorkshire - demolished 1963 (Image: Lost Heritage)

Yet, the almost insatiable need for power, and the coal which generated it, has also consumed some of our country houses, including one of the grandest, and threatens some even today.  One of the greatest threats from mining is subsidence caused by extensive mine workings which simply followed the coal seam – wherever it may lead.  Given the choice between a loss of income or the loss of the family seat, it was rarely the house which won.  It was, of course, the northern counties which were worst affected; Methley Hall, seat of the Earls of Mexborough, was eventually ruined by the coal workings which surrounded it (an issue even when Country Life visited in 1907) and demolished in 1963.  Kippax Park, once the second longest country house in the country, stood in the way of an open-cast coal mine which eventually consumed it in the late 1950s.  In County Durham, Coxhoe Hall, was eventually bought by the local coal board who proceeded to demolished it in 1956 to avoid having to fix the structural issues they had created.

Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, Scotland - demolished 1919 (Image: Wikipedia) - more info from Virtual Reconstruction website
Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, Scotland - demolished 1919 (Image: Wikipedia) - more info from Virtual Reconstruction website

This is, inevitably, just a small selection of some of the many losses but easily the most spectacular casualty of coal mining would be Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire. Built for the Dukes of Hamilton, the Palace was the epitome of aristocratic wealth, creating both a home and a collection which would rival the best in Europe.  Built on the incredible wealth generated by the Lanarkshire coalfields they owned, the 10th Duke, Alexander, enclosed the existing house in a grand Classical embrace. The one-room deep extension of the house, in 1819, accommodated not only the many works of art he had acquired on his Grand Tour but also many of the treasures inherited from the fabulous collection of William Beckford which came via the Duke’s wife, who was Beckford’s youngest daughter.  Yet those same coalfields eventually fatally undermined the house, and faced with such a substantial problem, and not lacking other houses to move to, the decision was taken in 1919 to demolish the Palace – the most serious loss to Scottish country house architecture in the last 200 years.

Others houses were even more directly affected by the need for power stations which, ironically, shared similar requirements with the aristocracy for their homes; a level site with good access to roads (and later rail), a ready water supply and space to expand.  In the dark days of the mid-twentieth century, for an impoverished owner, the offer to be bought out by the local power company must have been very attractive – and perhaps may have helped their guilt by feeling that it was contributing to national infrastructure; though often the house had already gone.

Drakelow Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Drakelow Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

One house which certainly matched these criteria was Drakelow Hall, Staffordshire, seat of 28 generations of the Gresley family and which, declared Country Life in 1902, “…is one of those seats of ancient eminence which win the regard of all Englishmen.“. Situated above the River Trent, the house was perhaps best known for the Painted Dining Room by Paul Sandby which was completed in 1793.  Sadly, declining family fortunes led to its sale in 1933, followed by ill-fated ventures such as a country club and motor racing circuit before the house was demolished in 1938, though, fortunately, a section of the Dining Room was saved by the V&A.  In 1948, the huge Drakelow Power Station rose on the site, attracted by the sizable 707-acre estate and its proximity to the river, and railways, road and, most importantly, the East Midlands coalfields. Hams Hall in Warwickshire similarly vanished under the same demands. One house which was rescued was Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire, a wonderful small villa by Sir Robert Taylor, which was bought for £1 by SAVE Britain’s Heritage to prove that it was possible to restore it.  The house is now again a home as a result of their valiant efforts. However, even today, subsidence from old coal workings threatens other houses such as at Wentworth Woodhouse, where the owner, Clifford Newbold, has lodged a claim for £100m in compensation to fund the stabilisation and restoration of this magnificent house.

The requirements for nuclear power stations were different in that they were obviously less dependent on proximity to the raw fuel but they did require vast quantities of water for cooling so were often sited on the coast – which thankfully also meant fewer houses would be affected. Of those, the small manor house at Calder Hall had already gone by the time the decision was taken to built the UK’s first nuclear reactor on the site in 1947. So although the opportunities for landowners are now primarily around wind turbines, a report in the Sunday Times (13 Nov 2011) highlights the windfalls from owning the land adjacent to a nuclear power station scheduled for expansion.

Main entrance - Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)
Main entrance - Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)

Lady Elizabeth Gass, Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, and current owner of the 6,000-acre family estate, recently accepted a £50m offer from EDF to purchase 230-acres of farmland which will become the proposed Hinckley C power station.  The Fairfield House estate (a prime candidate for the Handed On blog of lesser-known seats) has descended through the Palmer-Acland-Wood-Fuller families for 800 years and has never been sold. The current part-Elizabethan house was begun in about 1580, but with later changes in 1633 to change it from a medieval courtyard layout to the more familiar E-plan which we see today.  Excitingly, traces of the old house are still embedded in the fabric today, with a cell for those awaiting the justice of the local magistrate and, once revealed behind some 19th-century plasterwork in the attics, the original finely-carved late-medieval roof timbers of a first floor hall.

The future of this wonderful estate is now secure and stands as a testament to how changing patterns of land use which once threatened and toppled grand houses can also enrich a country estate.  That it is going to support a rare survivor of familial descent is an added bonus and I hope Lady Gass feels rightly proud of her success.

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More details: ‘£50m deal as Somerset wind turbine land goes to nuclear plant‘ [This is Somerset]

Listing description: ‘Fairfield House, Somerset‘ [British Listed Buildings]

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An apology: you may have noticed that I haven’t been able to publish as frequently as I’d like but just to reassure you that this is definitely not due to any slackening of interest on my part but simply due to my day job requiring a greater commitment at the moment.  This hopefully will be temporary and as we go into the Spring I can pick up the pace again – but in the meantime, please do take time to re-read some of the old posts you may not have seen, and hopefully discover something new amongst the archives.

Thanks for your patience.

Matthew

Inspired by Park Place? Other country houses for sale to restore

The recent restoration and sale of Park Place was certainly on an epic scale – £42m to buy, a further £100m to complete – but thankfully not all projects need be so expensive (though they’ll never be cheap).  The story of the country house has, for many, featured a cycle of ascendency, enlargement, and enjoyment, followed by neglect but – hopefully – rescue. As the annual SAVE Britain’s Heritage ‘Building’s at Risk’ Register sadly makes all too clear there are any number of country houses which have reached quite a serious state of disrepair, even dereliction. Yet even for these there may be someone who is willing to step up and rescue part of the nation’s architectural heritage. Houses in need of a saviour are often for sale, their forlorn state in Country Life magazine a stark contrast to their better loved brethren.

The UK generally has a much more positive attitude towards restoration than many other countries.  The Victorians would often be tempted to restore an ancient seat due to the contemporary popularity of the romantic notions of ‘Ye Olde England’.  Living in an Elizabethan or Jacobean house gave the owner associations with older family lines (not necessarily their own) and was a short-cut to perceived greater respectability.  Today, those who take on a restoration of one of our beautiful older houses are rightly lauded over those who simply buy a super-sized Barrett home.  Yet, restoration requires sensitivity and a willingness to submit an individual’s grand designs to work within the boundaries of the listed building regulations and the character of the house.

Marske Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)
Marske Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)

One house with hidden character and which will require careful planning is Maerske Hall, Yorkshire.  Originally built by the Hutton family in 1597, they were still in residence in 1730 when the house was rebuilt and extended in a Classical style. The grade-II* house was mainly used for shooting parties by the family in the 19th-century saving it from alteration but in the 20th it was threatened with requisition by the Army in WWII.  Luckily the family were able to arrange for pupils from Scarborough College to take up residence instead which saved it from the worst damage.  After the war, it again came near to destruction, as it was sold in 1947 to local builders George Shaw and his son George William who intended to demolish it for the materials.  However, they baulked at taking down such a lovely house and so sympathetically converted it into 10 apartments.  Still divided but now empty it is for sale at £2.5m with 19-acres of beautiful, mature gardens, and presents a fascinating opportunity to recreate a single family home. For more on the history, there’s a brochure: ‘Marske Hall‘ PDF [Carter Jonas].

Walton Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Walton Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Knight Frank)

For those wanting a more straight-forward restoration, Walton Hall, Derbyshire perhaps offers a more appealing option.  This fine and elegant grade-II* house, prominently sited above Walton on Trent, was built between 1724 -1729 to designs by the architect Richard Jackson. The most striking feature are the full-height pilasters, giving dignity to a slowly deteriorating house which has become such a concern as to be listed on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register.  Inside, the most impressive feature is the grand staircase, reputedly copied from a building in The Hague.  The house is basically habitable but requires significant sensitive restoration, hence the price; £1.5m for the house plus just 7.5-acres.  That said, once restored this will be a quintessential Georgian  house to be enjoyed for generations.

Felix Hall, Essex (Image: Savills)
Felix Hall, Essex (Image: Savills)

For those who prefer a real challenge then the next two houses could be ideal.  The first is Felix Hall, situated just outside Kelvedon, Essex – the picture (right) immediately showing the scale of the challenge.  At its core, this house is firmly in the tradition of the Palladian villa with a compact footprint but featuring wonderful architectural flourishes such a fine portico (added in 1825) and, to the rear, four engaged columns and a pediment.  Originally built between 1760-2, it was purchased by the Weston family of Rivenhall Place in 1793 and was significantly extended with flanking wings in the early 19th-century, possibly on the occasion of Charles Callis Weston’s  ennoblement as Lord Weston of Rivenhall in 1833.  However, as with many larger houses, a reduction in  size was thought prudent and so in 1939 the two wings were removed, leaving just a 7-bay central section.  Sadly, during the course of renovations it caught fire, completely gutting the fine interiors leaving the gaunt shell with the proud Ionic columns we can see today.  The remains were bought in 1953 and the basement rooms restored as an occasional country retreat but this is a house crying out for a full restoration (for which there is planning permission).  However, the estate buildings such as the nearby stables have been separately converted and there is only a small amount of land – it would be lovely if the new owner could also purchase the buildings and gardens and if they could also acquire the field in front, they could create a superb small parkland in which to truly display the house.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)

Another shell available is the one I would be heading for: Piercefield, near Chepstow, Wales.  Designed by the peerless Sir John Soane in 1785 for George Smith, the actual completion of the house was delayed until 1793.  Of particular interest  here is that the design is not entirely unique – Soane appears to have used very similar plans for Shotesham Park in Norfolk which was also built in 1785, although that house was brick with stone dressings, whilst Piercefield is faced entirely with stone. The house was sold 1794 as Mr Smith had run into some financial difficulties and it was bought by Sir Mark Wood who employed Joseph Bonomi to add a saloon and a winding staircase – though not the two pavilions as has been suggested.  The house was sold in 1926 by the Clay family, who had bought it in 1861, to Chepstow Racecourse who abandoned it, leaving it become increasingly derelict, apparently helped by American troops stationed nearby in WWII who used the house for target practice.  After 90 years of neglect, the house still has the power to impress with its refined façade and elegant temple pavilions.  Although on the market for over six years the price has remained at a rather ambitious £2m (although it does include 129 grade-I listed acres of parkland). However, recent comments by the director of the race course have indicated that they might entertain offers of around £1m; though, of course, the restoration bill would be many times that – but what a prize at the end!

Ruperra Castle, Wales (Image: Jeffrey Ross - Estate Agent)
Ruperra Castle, Wales (Image: Jeffrey Ross - Estate Agent)

Even further down the scale of dereliction is another important house, also in Wales, which has been stubbornly mis-priced.  Ruperra Castle near Newport is one of the few ‘mock’ castles designed for pleasure and not as defensive installations – a subject examined in more detail in an earlier blog post related to Ruperra: ‘Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale‘ (Sept 2010).  Few of these style of houses were built and Ruperra’s importance derives from it being one of the earliest of the country houses of this type, having been built in 1626.  Sadly, many of the other examples have been lost (most recently, fire gutting the interior of Lulworth Castle in 1929) so for someone Ruperra offers the opportunity to not only restore an architectural gem but also to be able to enjoy the same stunning views which attracted Thomas Morgan to build there in the first place.  Unfortunately, although the owner has now switched agents, the price is still ambitious at £1.5m – especially considering the immense challenges and costs of restoration and the location.  Hopefully, as with Piercefield, the owner ought to be willing to entertain realistic offers and allow the house to be saved before it is lost forever.

Perhaps the last is stretching it to call it a restoration opportunity as Bellamour Hall, Staffordshire now exists only as two walls and a few piles of stones!

Restoration is never a cheap or easy approach but the satisfaction and pride in knowing that the work has saved another part of our architectural heritage must be immense.  For too long our country houses have been under threat from neglect, vandalism and poor maintenance and the selection above (and there are more) show that the degrees of restoration and commitment required can vary dramatically.  That said, I can only hope someone is out there with the wealth and sensitivity to take on these houses and bring them back to life.

Finest prospects: the artist and the country house (and a challenge)

The country house has always been a trophy to be admired and enjoyed.  Yet, in the age before mass media and transportation made it easier to see these fine houses, often the only way to remind yourself and, more importantly, guests to your London townhouse, of your rural wealth and power was through the rather special branch of art that is the country house portrait.  Though originally European, it found new and invigorating life once it had crossed the Channel, creating an important and fascinating record of the lives, tastes and architecture of the landed classes. We also have a mystery house in a painting to find…

The country house first started appearing in paintings in France, with one of the very earliest depictions being that of the Duc de Berry’s houses and estates in 1416 by Pol de Limbourg.  These paintings served not only as reminders of wealth but also as practical tools for the running of extensive estates. The earliest English contemporary of these paintings is a 15th-century portrait of John of Kentchurch with a view of Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire in the background.  Although the depiction of the country house was a primarily European feature, it was still a relatively niche pursuit until the late 1500s, with painters more usually employed to portray the religious, historical or mythological.

Detail of 'An Aerial View of Tottenham Park, Wiltshire' by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack (after 1737) - this picture hung for many years in the estate office.
Detail of 'An Aerial View of Tottenham Park, Wiltshire' by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack (after 1737) - this picture hung for many years in the estate office.

The trade in country house views was particularly popular in the Netherlands, where a demand for topographical engravings combined with many estates created a ready market.  The genesis of the English tradition is also to be found here as the Royalist aristocracy fled to the region during the Civil War. The connections made at this time were to prove fruitful for the many painters who followed their current and prospective patrons back across the Channel after the the Restoration in 1660. Before then, views of a country house were usually part of an estate survey, bar a few exceptions such as those of Conway Castle in c.1600, Nonsuch Palace and Richmond Palace c.1620, and the ‘King’s houses’ by Alexander Kierincx in 1639-40.  It was the famous engraver Wenceslas Hollar who completed the first significant set; five views of Albury House in Surrey in the late 1630s. Hollar was also significant in establishing the new fashion for these views once confidence was restored in the late 1650s.

The Restoration of Charles II gave new life to the art, with Dutch artists eager to record the newly invigorated estates of the aristocracy.  Without the artistic constraints often found in Europe, the style of the art in England was largely determined by the owner rather than royal preference.  By the 1680s, the country house portrait was as well established, as well  as those of the family, and reflected both pride and change.  Views were often painted to record the old house before it was swept away or remodelled or after the work had finished to showcase their new seat.

One of the finest artists of this period was Leonard Knyff who had arrived in England in around 1676 but whose first country house painting, completed in 1696, is of Dunham Massey, Cheshire.  A few more paintings followed, but his master work was a collection of eighty engraved views published (by Johannes Kip) in 1707 under the title ‘Britannia Illustrata: Or Views of Several of the Queen’s Palaces, also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain…’.  It remains one of the finest records of the country houses of the period – today, even individual prints can sell for hundreds of pounds and full copies of the book for tens of thousands.

Detail of 'Westwood, Worcestershire' published 1709 for "Britannia Illustrata: Or Views of Several of the Queen's Palaces, also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain...." by Johannes Kip & Leonard Knyff
Detail of 'Westwood, Worcestershire' published 1709 for "Britannia Illustrata" by Johannes Kip & Leonard Knyff

From the 1700s, the composition of the paintings shifts to include, and give greater prominence to, sporting activities and also the setting of the house, particularly the gardens. With sports such as riding and hunting being such a key part of the enjoyment and reputation of an estate, it was natural that these should feature in any artistic celebration.   As the fashions for landscaping and elaborate gardens took hold, so to did a desire for these to also be included in such detail that the house became a much smaller element, subsumed into a wider bucolic vision.  The more ‘survey’-like paintings showed in almost cartographic detail the layout of the gardens with the tree-lined rides radiating away from the house.

'Lowther Castle, Westmorland, Seen from a Distance by 'Day' in 1810' - J.M.W. Turner
'Lowther Castle, Westmorland, Seen from a Distance by 'Day' in 1810' - J.M.W. Turner

This trend was not only driven by the owners who were very proud of their new environment but also because it was a natural continuation of the earlier work of these artists, as recorders of landscapes. John Harris argues that it would be difficult to confirm the exact influence which art exerted over landscaping but the popularity of landscape painters such as Claude Lorrain, coincided with the popularity of advocates of the more natural landscape such as Humphrey Repton and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1760s.  Parkland now moved from the more formal ‘boxes’ which Knyff had so accurately portrayed, and was now shown as a more rural, naturalistic form, the landscape now dominating the picture.  How far this style departed from formal country house portraiture can be seen in the works of J.M.W. Turner who frequently reduced the house to a mere smudge in the distance – and even when the house featured clearly, it was subordinate to the overall setting and atmosphere.  That’s not to say that the ‘Claudian’ view was the only one – the preferences of the owners for clear visions of their seats kept artists such as William Hodges, James Barret, William Marlow, and Theodore de Bruyn busy too.

By the mid-1800s there had been a marked decline in the demand for these type of paintings. Improved communications meant that houses were no longer so remote, and with the advent of mass printing, publishing filled the demand for images of the houses as typified by the eleven volumes of J.P. Neale’s ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen‘ (1818-1829).  Owners of houses were also now increasingly from the new wealthy who had their powerbases in cities and the country house was merely a retreat. By 1880, photography was also firmly supplanting oil paint as the medium of choice, as shown by the success of photographers such as Bedford Lemere, and, by the 1900s, the success of magazines such as Country Life which placed a high priority on using only the best photos.

Detail of 'Carclew, Cornwall' by Algernon Newton (house built 1720s, burnt out in 1934) - painting commissioned for the family which owned it at the time of the fire
Detail of 'Carclew, Cornwall' by Algernon Newton (house built 1720s, burnt out in 1934) - painting commissioned for the family which owned it at the time of the fire

However, in the last twenty years, a resurgent interest amongst country house owners has again created a demand for the country house portrait.  Artists such as Algernon Newton, Julian Barrow, James Hart Dyke, Jonathan Warrender, and Marcus May have led the way in continuing the tradition.  One artist has even been responsible for creating a country house which only existed in one of his paintings. Felix Kelly had painted an imaginary scene of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda within an English landscape; inspired by this, Sebastian de Ferranti then commissioned the architect Julian Bicknell to translate this art into reality, completing the house in 1986.

These important paintings are now, for some houses, the only record of how they were before later changes obscured or obliterated them forever. For many others, they are a wonderful reminder of the beauties of architecture and are a unique and invaluable record of our country houses.

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Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken
Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken - click for full painting

The Challenge: can you identify the mystery house in this painting?

Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken
Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken

The catalyst for this post about country houses in paintings was an email I received from Wendy & Gordon Hawksley who are working to re-establish the reputation of William Bruce Ellis Ranken (1881-1941). A famous artist in his day, he socialised with the great and good and painted many of them before fading into obscurity after his death.  This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1936 (this is also the year it was painted) under the title of ‘Portrait Group’ but as yet it has not been possible to identify either the sitters or the house. And so to the challenge: simply, can we identify the house – almost certainly English or Irish, Palladian, engaged columns to the front (a la Kedleston Hall) with flanking curved colonnaded wings facing a large reflecting pool.  Obviously there may be some degree of artistic licence but it seems likely that this was the home of the subjects of the portrait. Suggestions either via the comments below or via email to me.  No prizes I’m afraid beyond a credit here and the happy thought that art history is slightly richer for your efforts.

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For a more in-depth history and many images (and to which this post is much indebted)  I recommend ‘The Artist and the Country House: from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day‘ by the ever-brilliant John Harris – unfortunately now out of print.

The Country House Revealed – Marsh Court, Hampshire

Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

As with artists, some architects start well and then just get better, culminating in masterpieces which are rightly praised.  With buildings, and particularly the usually distant country house, it can be difficult to truly appreciate them; their beauty a pleasure reserved for those invited.  Thus one of the delights of ‘The Country House Revealed‘ series has been to elevate us mere viewers into guests of some lesser known, but wonderful houses – and Dan Cruickshanks’ visit to Marsh Court in Hampshire proves just what gems are nestled in the countryside.

The house is the work of one of the best architects to have been produced by this country; Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens.  A master at the re-interpretation of traditional building forms and styles, his work is, in many cases, instantly recognisable. Yet, in others, his sensitive updating of existing historic buildings blends so seamlessly it’s hard to distinguish between old and new (one of the best examples of this is Great Dixter, Sussex).  Lutyens was working at the end of the Victorian era and his work grew into the perfect response to the glory days of the Edwardian period; those long summers of country house entertaining from the turn of the 19th-century which were so firmly ended by the horrors of WWI.  Yet this was also a time of a confident nation, with fortunes being made (and lost) in an increasingly mercantile world, in which wealth was not related to the land. This fact was reflected in a new style of country house which required the trappings of the traditional entertainments and accommodation but which didn’t require a vast estate to support it.

Deanery Garden, Berkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Deanery Garden, Berkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Lutyens was the right man at the right time – and with the right connections.  His rise coincided with a new interest in the countryside, which was now being opened up to the new middle class with their leisure time and the rail network.  Spotting an opportunity, Edward Hudson started ‘Country Life‘ magazine in 1897, which quickly became the publication of the country set – and, more importantly, those who aspired to join them.  Hudson had been impressed with Lutyens’ work, to the extent that he had him design his own house, the brilliant Deanery Garden in Berkshire.  The distinguished architectural writer (and Country Life writer) Christopher Hussey said that it:

“…may be called without overstatement a perfect architectural sonnet, compounded of brick and tile and timber forms, in which his handling of the masses and spaces serve as a rhythm: it’s theme, a romantic bachelor’s idyllic afternoons beside a Thames backwater.”

Replace ‘Thames’ with ‘Hampshire’ and this praise might equally, and perhaps more so, be applied to Marsh Court. However, one other key difference would be the material used in the construction of Marsh Court; clunch, the local hard chalk stone; used for centuries in churches and cottages but never for an entire country house.  It’s a mark of Lutyens’ mastery of materials and style that he would even consider it – and the effect is what helps elevate this house to being one of the finest in the country.

Marsh Court echoes something of the character of the client, Herbert Johnson, who was as an “adventurer, stockjobber, and sportsman” who made a fortune, lost it, and made another.  Lutyens came to the attention of Johnson through the regular articles in Country Life featuring his various commissions which Hudson was only to happy to publicise.  In many ways, Johnson was an ideal Lutyens client – willing to think big, with a suitable budget and, although wishing to join the country life, not excessively bound by tradition.  This suited Lutyens as he was able to develop his ideas around the ‘Tudor’ style house, but marry them with a modern take which dramatically elevated the design to ensure no-one could ever call it ‘pastiche’.

West front - Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
West front - Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The house, built between 1901 and 1904 with later additions also by Lutyens, is essentially an ‘H-plan’, though without the south-east leg, and goes back to his earlier interest in historic English architecture.  As the architectural writer Lawrence Weaver highlights, this house only works because Lutyens has perfected the balance of local materials through clever groupings of shapes and elevations, combined with contrasts in size and stone.  But even a good design might become too dominant in such an exposed location, sitting on a rise above the river Test.  Again, Lutyens has the ideal answer in his use of the sloped site to create terraces which ease the house into the landscape – note the change from two-storey on the north front to three on the south.  The stark white stone is also softened through the introduction of slates, flint and red-brick into the walls to create a mix of regular and irregular patterns, such as on the west front which gives the impression of tiles sliding down the walls like rain to pool at the bottom.  Only someone of Lutyens’ skill could attempt and succeed with such an architectural fancy.  The interiors are similarly impressive, with grand, almost Baroque, plasterwork in the hallway, combined with the fine panelling elsewhere.

Herbert Johnson moved out in sometime after 1940 and the house became home to evacuated children, and then, in 1948, a prep school.  It remained in this role for nearly 50 years before it was bought, for £800,000, in 1994, by Sir Geoffrey Robinson; industrialist, Labour MP but, most importantly, a heritage-minded multi-millionaire. Working with Michael Edwards, Sir Geoffrey and his wife Marie Elena undertook a comprehensive, yet sensitive, restoration of the house; removing partitions, restoring the ceiling plasterwork and updating the services. It was then sold for £6m in 1999 and then offered at £13m in 2007, before being relaunched in June 2008 at £10m before selling at £11m later that year.

Lutyens’ brilliant output was somewhat overlooked by the wider contemporary architectural world which was more interested in the developing Modern movement. Hudson’s constant championing of this visionary architect ensured that Lutyens’ work and reputation were assured even if he had never gone on to his later, much grander, projects designing the Viceroy’s Palace in New Dehli. In 1909, G. Lloyd Morris, although talking specifically about Marsh Court, provided an elegant summary of the essence of Lutyens’ skill in that the;

‘ unity’ which ‘…is the pre-eminent quality underlying the orderly and tranquil beauty manifest in [his] houses.  He never fails in this respect; one may cavil at certain details, or question the use and treatment of a material, but in the handling of the general conception there is always a breadth and a certainty in the composition that remains in the memory long after the details may have been forgotten.’

Certainly, Marsh Court succeeds overwhelmingly in this respect and is a worthy inclusion in any series looking at the finest country houses in the UK.

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

Superb photos of the house and gardens: ‘Marsh Court, Hampshire‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

More on the house and Lutyens:

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.

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* – 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]

Country House Rescue: spectacular spats – Hill Place, Hampshire

Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)

The challenges of inheritance have been a recurring theme throughout Country House Rescue.  The obvious challenges are perhaps more tangible; taking on the new house, contents, gardens and the related discoveries – for good or ill.  Yet part of the nature of inheritance is often the bequeathing of disappointment to others who expected to benefit or who disagree with the choices of the new owners.  Country House Rescue this week (17 April) visits Hill Place in Hampshire where Ruth Watson’s skills seem to be in demand to placate some disgruntled aunts rather than to simply identify business opportunities.

Hill Place is an elegant, grade-II listed Georgian villa, built in 1791 on the back of wealth made in India.  The architect is unknown but there is a beautiful simplicity to it, with each side five bays wide with a canted three-bay projection on the entrance front and a graceful three-bay bow front to the south.  The style is in the fine traditions of Sir John Soane and there are even suggestions that it may have been by the man himself.   At some stage, a mansard roof was added and then later removed, leaving an unfortunate flat roof with the stub end of the staircase still rising to a small access extension.  Overall, this is a particularly neat example of the smaller country villa which was to prove so popular at that time.  However, what is of particular interest that the current owner, Will Dobson, inherited the house due to his grandparent’s commitment to the tradition of primogeniture – that of the eldest male inheriting, which, in Will’s case, meant the bypassing of his grandparent’s four daughters, which is the cause of the strife in the programme.

The rules of inheritance in the UK have ensured that ownership of country houses, estates and contents can be passed down as a unified possession.  This has ensured a multi-generational continuity which has benefited the country by embedding a very long-term perspective to plans and that a culture of paternalism was fostered; the spirit of noblesse oblige. Ironically, in France, the Napoleonic code demands equal shares for all potential inheritors, forcing the break-up and sale of large estates, preventing the same depth of connection between the nobility and society.  Yet, for this culture to be preserved it is important that the estate is kept together – especially as it usually has to fulfil its traditional role of funding the main house.

Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)
Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)

Yet inheritance has caused incredible friction for hundreds of years between those favoured by those who inherit and those who do not, leading to extreme outcomes and court cases.  One example of the former was Knighton Gorges, a manor house on the Isle of Wight, where, in 1821, the owner George Maurice Bisset had the entire ancient house demolished to ensure that his heir (his daughter or nephew – accounts vary) wouldn’t be able to cross his threshold even after his death, their having angered him through an unauthorised marriage.  In Kent, Lynsted Park was originally a huge Elizabethan E-plan house built for Sir John Roper, later Lord Teynham, in 1599, but an inheritance dispute between two Roper brothers in the 1800s led to the one living there demolishing all but the entrance porch (later Georgian additions created the current house) as he thought he would lose the case and have to give the house to his brother.

Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous litigation from inheritance was that surrounding William ‘the Rich’ Jennens which reputedly took nearly 120 years before the cases finished being heard and was also thought to be the inspiration for Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House – though recent scholarly opinion now discounts that. The Jennens family had created a huge family fortune as ‘ironmasters’ in Birmingham but due to a lack of heirs and, more importantly, a will, when William died intestate in 1798, his fortune (including houses such as Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire and Acton Place, Suffolk) was passed to three distant – though very aristocratic – relatives.  This was the catalyst for a small cottage industry of claimants who all thought themselves related and therefore due a share of the inheritance.  This was partly due to a popular fad at the time for novels to feature an unexpected inheritance – though, in real life, it was usually just the lawyers who became richer.

So, inheritance can often be a mixed blessing, laden with expectations and complications.  A recent survey by Country Life magazine (6 April 2011) found that 61% of current owners were concerned that estates stay in the family – with only 25% not bothered if their heir were to sell (it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between whether those in the latter group were also those whose family had owned for the least time).  For some, it’s particularly important to ensure that the family name is preserved. In the same Country Life article, David Fursdon, whose family have been on the Fursdon estate in Devon since 1289, highlights that after 750 years in single ownership the pressure is on to ensure that a male heir is produced to provide that continuity (though with three sons he should be OK).

Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)
Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)

Primogeniture, or full inheritance by the eldest son, has been the rule for hundreds of years.  It was expected that all other children either had to marry or make their own fortune or living with the second son often going into the Army and the third to the clergy.  The strict rules may now be relaxing with parents choosing the child most inclined and best equipped to take on the inheritance – the Country Life article highlights how Holker Hall in Cumbria will be inherited by the middle child, Lucy Cavendish, who has moved back to the estate to learn the ropes before her parents ‘retire’ and move out in a few years time.

The challenge for families such as the Dobson’s is ensuring that the one who inherits feels they have complete ownership and is able to take decisions for the good of the house and estate without sniping from other quarters.  It is no light responsibility to be the owner of a country house and the Dobson’s should be thanked for taking on such a lovely home when others might have simply sold up and enjoyed the spoils.  Here’s hoping they can truly make a success of the house as a business to ensure that they can also pass it on to future generations.

Country House Rescue: ‘Hill Place‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Official website: ‘Hill Place