New Series: The Country House Revealed – South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire

South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Traumahawk / flickr)
South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Traumahawk / flickr)

In contrast to the weekly dramas of Country House Rescue, a new series starting on the BBC, presented by the excitable Dan Cruickshank, looks at some of the finest homes in ‘The Country House Revealed – A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home‘.  The series promises a look behind the estate wall at some homes which have never been open to the public, giving us a rare chance to glimpse houses which enjoy secure, well-funded ownership and demonstrating that the fears of those who thought these houses would never be sustainable have been thankfully proved wrong.

The first in the series (broadcast 10 May on BBC2 at 21:00) visits South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire; a house which matches a beautiful exterior with impressive interiors dominated by some of the finest chimneypieces and period rooms in the country.  The house was originally built for Robert Long who made a fortune in cloth in the early 15th-century before becoming an MP in 1433, around which time it is thought the core of the house was started.  As was befitting a rich MP, he was keen to show his status and as was often the case with the gentry, his home was the main platform with which to show off his wealth and erudition, creating one of the finest houses in the country today.

England, at the time work started at South Wraxall Manor, was feeling the influence of the Italian Renaissance and elements of the new fashions were often incorporated into the best homes, though often adapted for our native traditions and styles.  This use of wider influences was also a symptom of the gradual shift in power as major building projects were increasingly commissioned by wealthy gentry rather than the Church or Royal Court.  Maurice Howard also highlights that although the Court was highly competitive which might have led to a single architectural style being favoured, in fact, the houses we still have show how tenacious local styles were.

Chimneypiece c.1600, South Wraxall Manor (Image: (c) Nicholas Cooper)
Chimneypiece c.1600, South Wraxall Manor (Image: (c) Nicholas Cooper)

This continuation of the vernacular can be seen in the architectural vocabulary used by those commissioning the houses, drawing still strongly on ecclesiastical traditions.  Reading the full listing description for South Wraxall one might almost believe it to be a local church or monastery – windows with Perpendicular tracery, buttresses, even gargoyles.  The house was significantly remodelled around 1600, creating what John Julius Norwich calls ‘one of the major Jacobean rooms in all England‘.  A vast west window floods the room with light and is matched by one at the other end of the room, providing the illumination to highlight a most impressive fireplaces – a colossal, florid statement of importance.

Each generation of the Long family added to the house, with additional wings and chimneypieces, and extending the estate.  As with other such early houses which have survived subsequent centuries without ‘modernisation’, this was due to a small element of luck in that it was inherited by a branch of the Long family in 1814 who were already well established at Rood Ashton House, Wiltshire (largely demolished c.1950) meaning the house was often rented out.  The house let between 1820-26 and served time as a boys school, before the 1st Viscount Long took over c.1880 following his election as a local MP.  Viscount Long undid much of the damage caused during its time as a school when the linenfold panelling had been painted over and the ornate ceilings plastered over, however he never really took up residence there.  The house was let for the rest of the 19th-century and the early 20th, before the 2nd Viscount Long moved in in 1935.  Used to house refugees in WWII, the family again lived there before finally selling up in 1966, ending over 500-years of family ownership.

South Wraxall then entered a rather uncertain period, until it was bought by a businessman with plans to turn it into a country house hotel but who had some issues with the local planning authority over unauthorised changes (for example, I think he glassed in the loggia without permission).  The house was up for sale again in 2003 for £6.5m after the businessman abandoned his plans.  After languishing on the market for a couple of years – probably due to the extent of the restoration required – it was bought by the current owners: John Taylor (bass player with the band Duran Duran) and his wife Gela Nash (founder of the fashion house Juicy Couture) who apparently have done an excellent and sympathetic job of the repairs, thus rescuing a house that is a quintessential example of an English manor house.

Full listing description: ‘South Wraxall Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further information: ‘South Wraxall Manor‘ [Wikipedia]

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

Rest of the series

This looks to be a fascinating set of programmes – for reference the other houses featured are:

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]