‘A land where it is always afternoon’; the life and talents of Philip Tilden

Port Lympne, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Port Lympne, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

One of the finest skills an architect can possess and cultivate is that of charm; the art of turning an encounter into an acquaintance into a client – and sometimes even a friend.  Such a skill can offer a balance to such flaws as he may have, whilst also being his most effective sales technique.  One such architect was Philip Tilden, a man whose own assessment of his talent and skills usually surpassed that bestowed by his peers.  Yet, Tilden was a sensitive man, attuned to how people wished to live in their houses and who developed a rapport within high society leading to an almost bewildering array of commissions; from the most domestic to the breathtakingly grandiose and who, along the way, managed to design houses for two UK Prime Ministers.

Philip Tilden (b.1887 – d.1956) was an avowed traditionalist.  His memoirs – ‘True Remembrances‘ (though others doubt this!) – which were published in 1954, are full of repeated laments of lost skills, modern taste, and the lack of style. Not that he was ‘anti’ modern materials, but more that he thought they should be used cautiously and subserviently to the traditional ones, saying “Instead of absorbing the new materials and techniques into the body of tradition, and digesting them, we have let them take control“.  His was a world where architecture was national (and hence the international Bauhaus would have been an anathema) and, for him, ‘…Britain was not the home of the acanthus and cypress – it is the home of the Gothic rose, the oak, the ash, and the parasitic ivy‘.

Though he made clear his emotional preference for the Gothic, it was part of a broader love of the ancient, in particular, of the old castles which he was called upon to restore – though circumstances would ensure that he would work with whichever building he was called to look at.  Tilden was a good architect – but not a great one.  Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was his contemporary but not his peer, once complained having seen Tilden’s additions to a house as ‘work so ill-conceived by a man who claims a following and dares to criticise‘.  But such criticism shouldn’t obscure Tilden’s more positive characteristics; his sympathy for historic fabric, his imagination, and his consummate networking skills.

The early part of the 20th-century was still an age where patronage was in the hands of the upper echelons of society.  If one could gain a foothold, the power of the related and intertwined networks of politics, business, and industry could provide a welter of opportunities for someone who could play the game.  Tilden was a master of this – his memoirs are an almost embarrassingly giddy series of anecdotes of he and his wife staying with Sir ——— or Lady ———-, and the delight the hosts and visitors apparently took in each others company.  It was through these connections which provided Tilden with his commissions – from the smallest artistic endeavours to the excessive.

Allington Castle, Kent, 1928 (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Allington Castle, Kent, 1928 (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

He joined the Architectural Association in 1905 and on graduating became an articled pupil to Thomas Edward Collcutt, whom he later went into partnership with, before establishing his own practice in 1917.  One of his first clients was Sir Martin Conway, 1st Baron Allington, the mountaineer, politician and art critic who once said “I have always liked the work of Mr Philip Tilden, but if anyone asks me why, I cannot fully say“.  Sir Martin and his much wealthier wife, Katrina, had discovered Allington Castle, Kent and both exclaimed ‘Of course we must have it!‘ and she had bought it in 1905. Some restoration work had been carried out before 1914, by W.D. Caroe, to make the ruined castle habitable but Tilden was brought in for further changes in 1918 and became firm friends with the Conways, working on the castle until 1932.

Entrance front, Port Lympne (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Entrance front, Port Lympne (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

It was this long period of friendship which enabled Tilden to extend his circle of useful connections.  One of these was Sir Louis Mallet, once our Ambassador to Turkey, who had led a cultivated and international life which had created a prized social circle.  It was through him that Tilden came to know and work with the wealthy Sir Philip Sassoon, the noted politician and art collector.  Sassoon was a renowned host and his architectural requirements were driven by this.  Herbert Baker had built the Cape Dutch-style Port Lympne for Sassoon in 1913/14 and when Sassoon wished to enhance Port Lympne after WWI, he called on Tilden.  With the confidence of wealth (related as he was to the Rothschilds), Sassoon gave full rein to his artistic and stylistic preferences which were far removed from the chaste reserve of the traditional English country house.  With dining room walls painted in lapis lazuli blue and lined with golden chairs and an opalescent ceiling, a Spanish courtyard, and a grand flight of steps in the garden, this was a house for show.

Trent Park, Enfield, north London (Image: Enfield Council via flickr)
Trent Park, Enfield, north London (Image: Enfield Council via flickr)

Yet, barely had the works on Port Lympne been completed, when Sassoon bought Trent Park, in north London, in 1923, which was to become the centre of his social entertaining.  In contrast to the exuberance of his Kentish seaside retreat, Sassoon looked to Tilden to create a more traditional environment, one of lithographs and wallpaper, antiques and books.  This suited Tilden who created a hugely successful pleasure palace:

“…a dream of another world – the white-coated footmen serving endless courses of rich but delicious food, the Duke of York coming in from golf… Winston Churchill arguing over the teacups with George Bernard Shaw, Lord Balfour dozing in an armchair, Rex Whistler absorbed in his painting… while Philip himself flitted from group to group, an alert, watchful, influential but unobtrusive stage director – all set against a background of mingled luxury, simplicity and informality, brilliantly contrived…“.  (Robert Boothby. I Fight to Live (1947)

Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Tilden was happy to mix in these circles, both for the pleasure they brought and the commissions.  In 1919, Martin Conway and Tilden were at Allington when Conway burst out, ‘You know, Philip, Selfridge is going to build a castle‘. Of course, the ‘Selfridge’ was Gordon of the eponymous department store, who had enormous plans which almost matched his ego, but which certainly outstripped his finances.  We have previously looked at Selfridges’ fascinating plans in an earlier post (‘Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head‘) so no need to go into depth again but suffice to say that the whole episode showed that whilst Tilden could think big, he sometimes lacked the ability to tell his clients the honest truth about the prospects of being able to bring such grandiose schemes as Hengistbury Head or the Selfridges Tower into reality.

More successfully, Tilden was to create a home for a Prime Minister – but this isn’t about Chartwell.  The first PM Tilden worked for was David Lloyd George, the controversial Welsh Liberal, best known as the founder of the welfare state, who had met the architect at Port Lympne.  Lloyd George had decided in the summer of 1920 to purchase a plot of land in Churt, Surrey, where he could have a house built and gardens to tend.  The area he chose was, in fact, wind-swept hillside but compensated by the views.

Bron-y-De, Churt, Surrey (Image: 'True Remembrances' by Philip Tilden)
Bron-y-De, Churt, Surrey (Image: ‘True Remembrances’ by Philip Tilden)

The house was to be called ‘Bron-y-de’, Welsh for ‘facing south’, which was a joke as the house faced north, even though he had bought the estate unseen at auction on the recommendation of his secretary who had assured him it faced south. In keeping with his character, it was a modest sized house – though one room had to be the same size as the Cabinet Room in Downing Street so that his habit of pacing could continue at the same length. Lloyd George was always in a hurry, and so Tilden designed the house so that only the ground floor was brick to reduce the drying time, with a huge mansard roof covering the first floor. Once word was out that the house was to be built, Tilden was deluged with offers of free fittings and materials, however, Lloyd George was a deeply scrupulous man who gave strict instructions that everything down to the last nail was to be paid for.  Despite his modesty, it became apparent that the house was too small, and so Tilden was again employed in 1921 & 1922 to extend the house.  Sadly, Bron-y-De burnt down in 1968.

Of course, the house Tilden is best known for is Chartwell (subject of the earlier guest article ‘Sir Winston Churchill, Chartwell, and Philip Tilden’ – National Trust ‘Uncovered’‘).  Another commission as a result of a long fireside chat at Port Lympne, Churchill asked Tilden to help adapt the Victorian home to his requirements. The chapter in Tilden’s memoirs about the project is almost more an encomium to his client, lavishing praise on all aspects of his life and his interest in Chartwell; ‘No client that I have ever had, considering his well-filled life, has ever spent more time, trouble, or interest in the making of his home than did Mr Churchill‘.  The house which resulted is certainly more practical than beautiful – though it achieves the original goal of allowing the undeniable pleasure of the superb views.

Dunsland House, Devon (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Lost Country Houses)
Dunsland House, Devon (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Lost Country Houses)

Sassoon and his circle of friends was to bring work at other country houses such as Easton Lodge, Essex, Hill Hall, Essex, Saltwood Castle, Kent, Luscombe Castle, Devon, and Anthony House, Cornwall.  Of all the works Tilden deserves credit for, for me, his rescue of Dunsland House is perhaps the most admirable and the saddest.  Dunsland was one of the oldest houses in north Devon and had been owned by the Bickford family who had created a home with some of the most remarkable plasterwork to be found in the county.  Having owned the house for over 300 years it was finally sold in 1945 to a timber merchant who was interested only in the trees.

In 1949, Tilden was sent by the council to inspect the now seriously ‘at risk’ house. Realising that no-one else would be taking on the restoration, Tilden stepped up and bought it – and paid the timber merchant £5 for every tree he spared.  Using his own limited funds, Tilden brought a small section of the house back to a habitable state and moved in, but the project proved too much and he died in 1956.  His actions had staved off the immediate threat of complete collapse and the National Trust took over, finishing the restoration.  Sadly, in November 1967, just as the house was ready to open to the public, a fire broke out and completely destroyed it.

Philip Tilden, October 1925 (Image: National Portrait Gallery)
Philip Tilden, October 1925 (Image: National Portrait Gallery)

A sad loss of not only the house, but also what would have been a fitting reminder of one architect’s love of the ancient fabric of the nation’s built heritage; one who romantically thought that, ‘Most of those who build are interested in what has gone before, and their aim and object is to find out how to restore the present to something like a period that they imagine to be ‘a land where it is always afternoon‘.’  Tilden today is perhaps best remembered for what he didn’t build for Gordon Selfridge and the unexciting work at Chartwell, but he was certainly a principled and thoughtful architect whose views on heritage many would respect today.

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There is a fine selection of images of Port Lympne in the Country Life Picture Library

Further reading:

Country House Rescue: efforts misapplied – Trereife House, Cornwall

Trereife House, Cornwall (Image: matt bibbey / flickr)
Trereife House, Cornwall (Image: matt bibbey / flickr)

Inheritance is a double-edged sword – for all the perceived luck of being given a large country house, the reality is that, in many cases, the house requires significant investment.  For some, this is a chance to shine; to put in place the plans they had been making, or develop new talents and unexpected skills. For others it quickly becomes burden as it pushes them into situations they seem unprepared for – as it frequently proves on Country House Rescue.  This week (27 March), heading back down to the south west, Ruth Watson visits Trereife House in Cornwall, to a house threatened by the odd schemes of the owner.

Antony House, Cornwall (Image: mothproofrhubarb / flickr)
Antony House, Cornwall (Image: mothproofrhubarb / flickr)

Trereife (pronounced ‘treeve’) nestles in the hills above Penzance, an neat pink hued Queen Anne house with an elegant parterre garden laid out below the south front.  The original house was an Elizabethan farmhouse which was home to the Nicholls family, who had become wealthy landowners and minor gentry through farming and marriage.  The first records of them is the marriage of William Nicholls (also known as William Trereife) in 1590, though it is thought the family had been in the area for several generations earlier.  The design of the grade-II* house as we see it today is the result of an extensive rebuilding in 1708 which not only added the wonderful Queen Anne front with its hipped roof but also created some fine interiors with plasterwork ceilings, probably by travelling Italian workmen, who were known to have worked on several houses in the south west.

Boconnoc House, Cornwall (Image: cornishmoth / flickr)
Boconnoc House, Cornwall (Image: cornishmoth / flickr)

Architecturally, the echoes of the style of Trereife can be seen at the much grander Antony House for the much wealthier Carew family. The house was begun in 1718 shortly after Trereife’s remodelling and so is technically Georgian (Queen Anne died in 1714) but the basic form of the house is similar.  Also Boconnoc House, near Lostwithiel, displays the same two-storey with dormer windows design as Trereife and Antony – though again for a much wealthier family, the Pitts.  Boconnoc features later alterations in 1786 by Thomas Pitt, cousin of Pitt (the Younger) the Prime Minister, in conjunction with Sir John Soane, who he had met in Italy in 1778, which probably explains the serlian window to the projecting bay.  Another house of a similar design was Dunsland House, Devon which was one of the most important houses in the area, with particularly fine plasterwork, which sadly burnt down in 1967.  On a smaller scale than any of these, but possibly even more beautiful, is Great Treverran, near Fowey, a compact (one room deep) house built in 1704 but given a dose of grandeur with fine granite Ionic columns, it was last sold in 2003 for around £650,000 and is now wasted as a holiday cottage.

Trereife is a significant part of a great tradition of Cornish houses with a fine family history with connections to the Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt through Revd Charles Valentine Le Grice, affectionately known as ‘CV’.  The house passed to the Le Grice family through inheritance in 1821 following the marriage of Mary Nicholls, whose son had died childless, to ‘CV’ in 1799.  The house is now owned by Tim Le Grice, a solicitor who inherited the neglected house in 1986 from his grandmother and who now lives at Trereife with his family.

Sadly, Tim appears ill-equipped for the role as country house rescuer as a series of slightly eccentric – gypsy caravan theme park anyone? – or badly planned business ventures have taken up significant time and money with little to show for it.  For the family, the £40,000 per year running costs were proving ruinous and so they turned to Ruth for advice; which is typically hard-hitting.  Much as the family would rather avoid having their family finances shared with the nation this appears to be the only way to persuade Tim that he needs to draw on the skills and experience of his literary agent daughter to organise events and his wife to develop the potential for B&B and weddings within the house.  Considering that the house now comes up well in Google searches as a venue for weddings and events it seems that Ruth was right – and has hopefully enabled another family to remain in their ancestral home.

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Country House Rescue: ‘Trereife House‘ [Channel 4]

Official website: ‘Trereife House

Interiors: ‘Trereife House‘ [UK Film Location]

Official Facebook page: ‘Trereife House

More details: ‘Trereife – a family home‘ [Cornwall Life]

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]