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.
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.
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.
Moated houses are an architectural short cut to a more functional time when where a family lived had to be defensible and not simply a place of relaxation. Today, of course, we admire them for their ancient charm, the weathered bricks reflected in gently rippling waters. These houses are an older expression of our love of the natural, which found a more formal form in the later Picturesque movement, their more organic outlines in contrast with the more rigid classicism which followed.
Though once numerous, time has taken its toll and excellent examples are less common – and especially appealing when they come to market, as two have recently. The moated manor house was a result of many factors; the decline of the traditional castle, a more peaceful society, and increased wealth, but still with a need to provide some defence against thieves and attackers. The latter category was increasingly rare but a moat with gatehouse and even drawbridge had a practical advantage. However, for families which wished to visually bolster the perceptions of the grandeur of their lineage, a moated house was very evocative of permanence and status, drawing on their architectural ancestry with castles. As each manor required somewhere for the local owner to stay (sometimes only occasionally if they owned many) each had a house of varying size and status depending on the wealth of the owner. As each manor often covered a relatively small area this led to the building of thousands of these houses (though not all with moats), particularly in England.
The organic growth of a moated house often created a pleasing historical collage of styles, such as at Ightham Mote, Kent, though this was sometimes swept away to be replaced by a new house such as at Groombridge Place, also in Kent. This beautiful house was build in 1662 though in a traditional Jacobean/Elizabethan ‘H’ plan on the footprint of the older, more fortified house – though the diarist John Evelyn thought, following his visit in August 1674, that “…a far better situation had been on the south of the wood, on a graceful ascent.” indicating not everyone found a moat romantic.
Yet not every grand family felt the need to abandon the old house. The Lygon family (Earls Beauchamp between 1815-1979) have lived at the evocative Madresfield Court, Worcestershire for 28 generations. At its core, a 15th-century moated manor house, the current building is largely the work of the architect Philip Hardwick in 1865 for the 6th Earl Beauchamp. The house is a prime example of late Victorian taste; a clever blend of Anglo-Catholic Pugin gothick with extensive Arts-and-Crafts interiors including a wonderful library by C.R. Ashbee of the Cotswold Guild of Handicraft (to read more about this remarkable family and house I can recommend ‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead‘ by Jane Mulvagh).
The physical security of a moated house was also a factor in its decline as it limited the space available for expansion as either the family, wealth or ambition of the owner grew. Many a grand country house was constructed elsewhere to replace a smaller manor with the old house either being abandoned, demolished (sometimes for building materials), or used as a secondary or dower house. Yet, as a harsher economic reality came to pass from the 1880s, and as these smaller houses were lauded in magazines such as Country Life, so their attractiveness grew with many rescued from neglect and sometimes reinstated as a principle house on the estate.
H. Avray Tipping, one of the most influential of the Country Life writers, was a prime supporter of the smaller houses as reflected in his choice of house for the weekly ‘Country Houses and Gardens’ section – nearly a fifth of them in 1910, for example. This was also a time when John Ruskin was arguing for more honesty in architecture and against the over-enthusiastic renovations of the Victorians which he regarded as ‘ignorant’. This regret at the neglect of manor houses in general can be seen even in the earliest Country Life articles. Writing in 1897 (the year it was founded), John Leyland writing about Swinford Old Manor, Oxfordshire, said;
“There are manor houses through the length and breadth of the land as charming, it may be, as this, but awaiting, like sleeping beauties, the kiss that is to arouse them to fresh and unsuspected charm, the needed touch of the loving hand invested with creative skill.”
Perhaps one of the best examples of this loving restoration can be seen at Plumpton Place, Sussex for Country Life proprietor Edward Hudson by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. When Hudson bought the it in 1928 the house was semi-derelict though with an intrinsic beauty from its setting on an island in the middle of the uppermost of three lakes. Lutyens successfully restored and adapted the house to create one of the best current examples of a moated manor house – which was also offered for sale in July 2010 for £8m (and featured in another post: ‘For those who like their houses with pedigree: Plumpton Place, Sussex‘)
So having whetted our collective appetites, those with £3.5m to spare currently have a choice of two historic moated manor houses in Suffolk; Playford Hall, near Ipswich (£3.25m), and Giffords Hall, in Wickhambrook (£3.5m).
Playford Hall has the beauty of the warm red-brick with two wings placed off-centre, hinting at the further wing demolished in the 1750s after a devastating storm in 1721 blew holes in the roof and following a long period of dereliction from 1709 following the death of the owner, Sir Thomas Felton, who had remodelled the house in its current style. The house then passed by marriage into the estate of the Earls of Bristol, in which it remained until sold after WWII. The house has been restored and updated – though whoever buys it will probably want to re-do the eye-wateringly pink dining room.
No such concerns about the wonderful interiors of Giffords Hall – the house abounds with historic woodwork, from the masses of exposed beams to the extensive panelling. The exterior, in contrast to Playford, is almost entirely timber-framed, with an Arts-and-Crafts style north wing added in 1908 by the owner Mr A. H. Fass who also carefully restored the house following a period of neglect. Now cleverly brought up-to-date, in co-operation with English Heritage, the house now has a full suite of reception rooms, a new kitchen and a full quota of bathrooms.
So, proving the folly of those who allowed these romantic houses to decay and the wisdom of those who restored them – with thanks to the evangelism of Country Life – another important branch of the nation’s architectural history has been redeemed and now, once again, attracts high valuations which reflect the immediate attraction these houses can exert on us all.
For further reading, the excellent ‘The English Manor House – from the archives of Country Life’ by Jeremy Musson – though unfortunately this appears to be out of print and surprisingly expensive. One for the second-hand bookshop search, I think.
Despite the image of wealth and power a country house might create, in reality their existence is far more precarious – as can be seen with nearly 1,800 houses lost over the last two centuries. A house facing the threats of being uninhabited without a concerned, well-funded owner with an inclination to keep it in good repair can quickly deteriorate leaving another gap in the tapestry of the countryside. Sometimes it requires someone other than concerned locals and architectural historians to highlight and campaign on behalf of those ‘at risk’ so here’s a quick round-up of the main English organisations fighting on behalf of country houses and who are very worthy of support.
English Heritage inhabits a prime position in view of its role in defining and, in conjunction with local authorities, implementing the statutory protection of our built heritage. Its role can be traced back to the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 – though the legislation specifically excluded privately owned houses. The responsibilities were exercised through various government departments until it became a quango in 1984. As well as being responsible for the listing system and the annual production of the various ‘at risk’ registers (focussing mainly on grade-I and -II* properties), EH is also directly responsible for various country houses including Brodsworth Hall (Yorkshire), Rufford Abbey (Nottinghamshire), Hill Hall and Audley End (Essex), Kirby Hall (Northamptonshire), Witley Court (Worcestershire), Stokesay Castle (Shropshire), and Apethorpe Hall (Northamptonshire). It’s at the grade-I listed Apethorpe where EH has done some of it’s most interesting work; taking a direct role in the restoration of one of the finest Elizabethan/Jacobean houses in the country following a long period of neglect. Since 2008, the house has been for sale for around £5m – though there is a compulsory £4m list of renovations, and if you want complete privacy expect to pay another £8m to fully reimburse EH otherwise you have to open it for 28 days a year; so a nice round £20m to restore, furnish and keep as your own. However, this is a role that I fully support them in taking on – they should be there as owner and restorer of last resort for threatened grade-I houses. Now perhaps we can interest them in the sadly deriorating Melton Constable Hall in Norfolk…?
Another important group of campaigners are recognised in the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act which formalised the role of what are known as ‘amenity societies‘; that is, well-established voluntary societies who are experts in their areas, who must, by law, be informed of any applications for listed building consent to demolish listed buildings in whole or in part in England and Wales.
One of the best known is the Georgian Group who cover a period broadly from 1700-1837. The society was established in 1937 and has long campaigned for the sensitive restoration and retention of not only the buildings but the many important, and sometimes sadly overlooked, internal features which are a key part of the character of a building. Current active campaigns and cases they are involved in include Bank Hall in Lancashire and Trewarthenick House in Cornwall and many others. They also produce a scholarly annual research journal which provides a much more in-depth view of aspects of Georgian architecture. Access for the wonderful trips to houses not normally open to the public are worth joining for alone.
The Victorian Society (which also covers Edwardian buildings too) was formed in 1958 at a time when almost all things Victorian were disliked and an easy target for demolition. Founded at the suggestion of Anne, Lady Rosse, along with her influential friends such as Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nicklaus Pevsner, the Society has fought some notable battles; losing some such as Euston Station but winning others, such as the soon-to-reopen St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel building. Victorian country houses have suffered badly as, although designed by eminent architects such as Richard Norman Shaw and Alfred Waterhouse, they were often built on a much grander and therefore less economically sustainable scale and at the times of greatest threat (the 1930s and 1950s) had few friends to argue on their behalf. Luckily though this has changed – but with the predominant ‘gothic-revival’ style being quite polarising, threats to houses from this period will always be present. Again, well worth joining.
Perhaps more controversially for this blog, it’s also worth bearing in mind the Twentieth Century Society. Although the focus of the houses usually covered is before 1900, there has been a growing recognition that some of the country houses built in the 20th-century were well-planned and architecturally pleasing, even if they sometimes replaced a much more attractive Georgian or Victorian house. It does seem to take about 50 years after a style has passed from being fashionable for it to be appreciated, so I suspect there will be a growing realisation that we need to protect the work of those such as Francis Johnson, Craig Hamilton, Quinlan Terry, and Robert Adam (amongst many others) in the future.
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is, as its name makes clear, not usually concerned with country houses as they are relatively ‘modern’ in terms of its remit. However, they do immensely important work in promoting good repair practice to all buildings and their courses have taught generations of owners and craftsmen to respect the country houses and to approach any work required with a more ‘heritage’ mindset.
Although not ‘amenity societies’, two other organisations deserve a mention. The first is the Historic Houses Association which acts on behalf of the private owners of country houses and often lobby government to make them aware of the immense work done by the individual owners to maintain their slice of the national architectural heritage. It may seem unfashionable in wider society to support the wealthy but they are the ones not only maintaining their homes to the exacting standards of English Heritage, but also restoring and rescuing houses and converting them back into homes again – and for that they deserve our thanks.
The other organisation is one in which I have an interest having worked with them for several years: SAVE Britain’s Heritage. Founded in 1974, SAVE have taken a very active stance on campaigning, willing to create media interest at short notice, but also to take time to produce some excellent research on houses at risk with thoughtful proposals for their re-use. These campaigns have saved houses such as Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, The Grange in Hampshire, Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire (where SAVE bravely took on the house for £1!), and, working with Kit Martin, have acted as a catalyst for the saving of other houses through conversion into apartments. Supporting SAVE’s work and becoming a Friend also gives access to their extensive ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ which features over 800 properties, including several country houses, which are in need of rescue – could it be you?
It is also worth keeping an eye out for local activists and campaigns which can also be remarkably successful at highlighting buildings at risk but can also sometimes take a more direct role; see the wonderful work at Poltimore, Devon, Bank Hall, Lancashire, and Copped Hall, Essex. These are just three examples where concerned locals have organised themselves and presented a credible alternative and prevented the complete loss of the house.
All of these organisations are worth joining but economics being what they are it can be best to join a national organisation and then another to focus on the period which you prefer. Joining up means that you are helping to support research but also active campaigns to ensure that as much of our built heritage is passed on to future generations.
I realise this selection is not comprehensive and is quite national in focus and deficient in regional organisations but this will be remedied in another post once I’ve had time to learn a bit more about who’s out there.
One of the main satisfactions of having a house built is that, as it’s your money, you get to decide the style, design, scale and detail according to your whims. With many of the stranger flights of fancy now curtailed by cost or planning controls it’s interesting to look at earlier houses built without such restraints and, in particular, those which incorporated horological elements creating the phenomena of the ‘calendar house’; that is, where the architecture was influenced according to the number of days, weeks or months in a year.
The genesis of the calendar house appears to have been in the intellectually fertile Elizabethan period when the elite of society revelled in the advances of science, mathematics and astronomy. They also had a great love of the ‘device’ which in the 16th-century meant any ingenious or original shape or concept. Mark Girouard, in his excellent book ‘Elizabethan Architecture – Its Rise and Fall, 1540 – 1640‘, states that although there are precursors to the idea of an entire building as a device – which can be seen in the designs of Henry VIII’s forts and and contemporaries’ gatehouses – this was its extent.
Under the Elizabethans, this idea can be seen to grow – from gatehouses to entrance fronts to courtyards (before they disappear) and the whole house is the device. Yet for all the intellectual attraction, the idea of the form of a house being dictated by the calendar is actually quite rare. In fact, Girouard’s book doesn’t mention the idea at all, as technically the first house to incorporate these principles, Knole in Kent, was built in 1604 by one of her courtiers, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, a year after Elizabeth I‘s death.
The principle of the calendar house is that the number of external doors, windows or panes of glass, chimneys, or staircases etc should total either 4 (the number seasons), 7 (days in a week), 12 (months in a year), or 365 (days in a year). So in Knole’s case, the calendar is represented through the 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards. It is this choice of the number of which elements that provides the variation to the theme and can lead to the creation of palaces such as Knole. It also helps explain the relative scarcity of these houses as they require a certain commitment from the owner to complete the build and not compromise on the plans for fear of spoiling the totals.
One of the most compact of the calendar houses was built in 1681 – Scout Hall in Yorkshire. This wonderful house – which would give Hardwick Hall a run for its money for the phrase ‘more glass than wall’ – was built for a local silk merchant, John Mitchell, by an unknown designer and includes 365 panes of glass and 52 doors. Considering the rarity of calendar houses, it’s interesting to consider how this concept suddenly appeared over 70 years after the first and several hundred miles north. Perhaps Mitchell’s trade had taken him south and he had been to, or heard of, Knole. Who knows? What we do know is that this grade-II* house has been on the ‘buildings at risk register‘ for many years and has been derelict since the 1980s.
The next appearance of a calendar house is in the far north at Cairness House in Aberdeenshire, designed by the renowned architect James Playfair and built between 1791-97 for Charles Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw as the centrepiece of his 9,000-acre estate. What’s particularly remarkable about the house is that it resolutely neo-classical in design – a very unlikely style to marry with such a whim. Yet Charles Gordon had something of the Elizabethan love of the ‘device’ as the design contains numerous Masonic and pagan symbols with even the overall layout of the house making the initials ‘CH’.
It would be another forty years before the idea would be used again – this time in Cumbria in the construction of Holme Eden Hall in 1837. Built in a Tudor gothic style for a local cotton mill owner, Peter Dixon, to designs by John Dobson, a prolific local architect responsible for the remodelling of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and who worked on over one hundred country houses. Dobson had the rare facility of being able to competently design in many styles so it’s possible that the idea of the calendar house came from the owner; this time featuring 365 panes of glass, 52 chimneys, 12 passageways, 7 entrances and 4 storeys. The choice of the number of which elements was probably dictated by the budget as Dixon couldn’t have afforded to construct a house on the scale of Knole. After becoming a convent, the house fell into some decay but was converted by intelligent developers who kept the theme going and created 12 apartments, each named after a month.
The next house appears in Scotland again; Balfour Castle on the Isle of Shapinsay. This was a remodelling of an existing house by the famous Scottish architect David Bryce, who did so much to popularise the ‘Scots Baronial’ style we now associate with the country. The owner was David Balfour whose grandfather had originally purchased the house and estate in 1782. The Bryce alterations were completed in just two years from 1847 and the calendar theme this time produced 365 panes of glass, 52 rooms, 12 exterior doors, and 7 turrets.
Bradgate House, Leicestershire was built in 1854 for the extravagant George Harry Grey, the 7th Earl of Stamford, though it was only to survive 70 years before being demolished in 1925. A gentleman sportsman with a liking for the Turf, the 7th Earl was probably inspired by the contemporary Victorian fashion of connecting families with their real (or sometimes imagined) ancestral past and building an Elizabethan style house would remind everyone that the Grey family had first been elevated to the peerage by Queen Elizabeth I. Exactly why he chose a calendar scheme is unknown but the house included 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 main chimneys.
Although perhaps not strictly a country seat, The Towers, in Didsbury, Lancashire was built between 1868-72 as a rural escape for the proprietor and editor of the Manchester Guardian, John Edward Taylor. Designed by Thomas Worthington in a bold gothic style, it was reputed to have cost £50,000 to build – equivalent to around £3.3m today, and features 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 towers. Pevsner appears conflicted about it describing it as both ‘…grossly picturesque in red brick and red terra cotta’ but also as ‘the grandest of all Manchester mansions’. It was subsequently purchased in 1920 for just £10,000 and became the headquarters for the British Cotton Industry Research Association and became known as the Shirley Institute, before becoming rental offices sadly surrounded by bland office blocks.
Bedstone Court, Shropshire was designed in a completely different style – mock Elizabethan – but again followed the pattern with 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys and 7 external doors. The house was designed for Sir Henry Ripley by Thomas Harris, and had survived largely intact despite changing from use as a home to a school, until a serious fire in 1996 severely damaged large sections of the house necessitating extensive restoration.
Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire, completed in 1891 and now grade-I listed, was, as far as is known, the last calendar house to be built in the UK and incorporates 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys, and 7 external entrances. Designed by the distinguished Arts & Crafts architect W.R. Lethaby, a founding member of the architectural conservation charity the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was also particularly interested in architectural theory and design, so it is likely that he would have suggested the idea of the calendar house to Lord Manners. The client was a wealthy racehorse owner who built the house on the back of his winnings from a famous bet he made in 1881, that he could buy, train and ride the winner of the 1882 Grand National – which he did. Lord Manners donated the house to the “Youth of the Nation” and it is now an activity centre.
Considering that the idea of the calendar house was essentially Elizabethan in conception, it’s interesting to note that only one was built in that time, with the next in the late 17th-century, one in the 18th-century, but that it was the Victorians who produced the most. Perhaps this was a reflection of their interest in time, order and structure but also a revival in the Elizabethan delight in science and challenges. As a distinct group of houses they deserve to be better known – and in the case of Scout Hall, it deserves to be treated as a priority for rescue and restoration before it runs out of time.
Two other houses may also be calendar houses but I haven’t been able to reliably confirm this:
Kinmel Hall, north Wales – said to have 365 windows on the front elevation, 52 chimneys and 12 external doors.
Welcombe House, Warwickshire – now a hotel and has undergone significant alterations but is supposed to have 365 windows, 52 chimneys, 12 fireplaces and 7 entrances.
The UK aristocracy brought back many souvenirs from their grand tours to Italy – pictures, sculpture, drawings etc – but also a delight in the architecture inspired by the ancient ruins. This fascination manifested itself in country houses across the UK with a profusion of arches, Serlian windows, porticos and pediments. However, one device, despite its impressiveness, has been notable by its relative rarity; the rotunda – that grand circular space often featuring a parade of columns leading the eye up to a spectacular dome. So why would this grand centrepiece be so infrequently used inside our country houses?
The most famous rotunda, and that which was so influential on the Anglo-Palladians, was the Pantheon in Rome. Built in AD 124, this vast space under a 142ft diameter dome was closely studied by Andrea Palladio and became a key destination for UK architects who later travelled to Rome. Palladio then developed the use of the rotunda as the central circulation space in his residential villas, most famously with the Villa Capra or “La Rotonda” in Vicenza, begun in 1567.
Palladio was not the first to use a rotunda in a residential setting; the artist Mantegna built his own home in Mantua in the 1470s using a layout and scale very similar to that later used at Villa Capra, using a design probably suggested by the architect-engineer Francesco di Giorgio. Palladio then modified it and used it to great success to create what is regarded as one of his finest houses. The rotunda would have neatly solved the challenge of the Villa Capra in that a visitor may at any front, thus negating the traditional linear plan which assumed only one main entrance.
Looking through Colen Campbell‘s ‘Vitruvius Britanicus’ – a highly regarded collection of plans and prints of the best Georgian houses published between 1715-1725 – that over the three volumes a rotunda is only used twice. The first is in a proposed (but never executed) design for Goodwood House in Sussex for the Earls of March designed by Colen Campbell in 1724 which featured a 40ft diameter space. The second is the 35ft diameter version which forms the dramatic central hall of Mereworth Castle in Kent. Mereworth (built 1722-25) was one of only four Georgian houses to be built in the UK which closely followed the design of the Villa Capra; the others being Chiswick House, Middlesex (1726-29), Foots Cray Place, Kent (1754 – demolished 1949), and Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire (1757 – demolished 1929).
A later use of the rotunda was at the slightly eccentric Ickworth House, Suffolk. Built in 1795 and based on the designs of Mario Asprucci, an Italian architect; it was later adapted by Francis and his brother Joseph Sandys who also oversaw construction. This later use of the rotunda showed how it could be employed as a single dramatic centrepiece in its own right, not hidden in the centre of the house.
Yet, if it was hidden, it could form a dramatic and surprising irregularity to the procession of square and rectangular rooms which often dominated houses. One example of this is at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire where Robert Adam was inspired by his own 1764 study of the ‘Ruins of the Palace of the Emporer Diocletian at Spalatro [Split]’ which paired the circular rotunda with a square vestibulum. Adam also later proposed to convert the courtyard at Syon Park into a huge rotunda. Perhaps one of the most impressive and beautiful expressions of the rotunda is the central staircase at New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, designed by James Paine, and built between 1769-1776 and later described by Pevsner as ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’.
So, despite its impressiveness why are most entrances and staircases so determinedly right-angled? Simple finance can explain it in part; it would be more expensive to create a rotunda as they are more complex, require more space and also usually compromises in the floor plan to include the curvature.
Fashion can also play its part. As architectural taste moved in the Victorian era towards a preference for the gothic, so the opportunities for the use of the rotunda diminished. With its origins in the temple ruins of Classical ancient Rome, the most famous Gothic Revival architect, A.W.N. Pugin (b.1812 – d.1852) considered it part of a more pagan tradition – and therefore completely antithetical to his belief that gothic represented the only true expression of Christianity through architecture. And where Pugin led, others followed.
Or perhaps the answer is more pragmatic. One of the primary purposes of the country house was to impress visitors. Often a political power base, the grandest houses were designed to create an impression even before the visitor actually met the owner. As one of the principal spaces in a house, entrance halls have often played an important role in this domestic ‘theatre’ – and the use of a rotunda requires perhaps too many compromises.
Traditionally the grand rooms where visitors would be met were often on the ground floor and would be processed through, with only the most important visitors reaching the best rooms. Elizabethan houses changed this with the principal rooms moving to upper floors, such as at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, requiring more impressive staircases which, through the use of heraldic and political symbolism in the carving on balusters and handrail could make many a statement before the guest reached the required floor.
Palladian designs continued this with the preference for the piano nobile which moved the principle rooms to a raised ground floor. The large empty wall spaces of the staircase also formed a useful space for the display of paintings including family portraits or a large selection to show the owner’s taste and style. The staircase also provided a way to make a dramatic entrance – think ladies in their evening gowns gliding down to join the party. Yet if a house used a rotunda it compromised both these features. A curved wall made it difficult to hang the largest and most impressive works of art and staircases were usually spiral and tucked into the walls in the corners, meaning those coming down would only be seen when they emerged at the ground floor – which would never do.
Yet, the rotunda has not died out and those with the vision and wealth can still create these dramatic spaces. One of the most impressive has to be Henbury Hall in Cheshire, built between 1984-86 for Sebastien de Ferranti and designed by the architect Julian Bicknell from a painting by the artist Felix Kelly. A faithful recreation of Villa Capra, the dome rises to 15m with the principal rooms radiating from the central hall. Nigel Anderson at Adam Architects also designed a replacement country house in Surrey which, according to them, is based (I’d say loosely – at least externally) on Villa Capra. Another fine example is that at Tusmore Park in Oxfordshire, winner of the best new building in the classical tradition award from the Georgian Group in 2004 where the scagliola columns in the central rotunda are said to rival those of the imperial palaces of St Petersburg.
These examples show that, although comparatively rare, the impressive traditions of the rotunda are being continued by architects and clients determined to create the most dramatic interiors in contemporary country houses despite the compromises which have perhaps unfairly limited their use in previous centuries.
Run-down or derelict country houses are often an enticing prospect for a developer, especially where the house still retains some land, on which they can propose ‘enabling development’. In theory this is the correct use of this exemption but frequently the developer will suggest too many houses or ignore the fact that the house has too little land to avoid any development compromising the setting of the house. When this happens, it is often the house which suffers as the developers wait for appeals or a change in policy whilst allowing the house to deteriorate further. So in the case of Ruperra Castle in Wales it’s encouraging that the owner has decided to bow out giving someone else the chance to restore this architecturally interesting house.
Ruperra is an early example of the ‘mock’ castles which became fashionable in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras and were an example of life imitating art as the idea of these houses drew from the ‘pageant castles’ as featured in court entertainment of the time. These stage castles formed the centrepiece to the royal ‘masques’ and were laden with allegorical symbolism as they might be populated by damsels (signifying virtue) but successfully defended against attacking knights (signifying baser desires). Works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (published in 1590 and 1596) also fed a fashion for chivalry and heraldic forms. Importantly, the long period of domestic peace during Elizabeth’s reign meant that the design of houses moved from being primarily military and defensive to more simply domestic with the look of a house increasingly dictated by aesthetics.
Ruperra wasn’t quite the first of it’s type; that distinction could be said to be held by houses such as Michaelgrove in Sussex built for the Shelley family in 1536 (dem. 1830s), and Mount Edgcumbe in Devon, built between 1547 – 1554, which also were not fortresses and featured a square or rectangular central block with drum or square towers on each corner. This was followed by the fabulous Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, begun in 1580, which was an altogether more grandiose statement of power but broadly followed the same layout – as did Hardwick Hall, although in an adapted form. However, the Renaissance ornamentation of Robert Smythson‘s design at Wollaton contrasted dramatically with more austere designs of the true ‘mock’ castles which harked back to the earlier simplicity of decorated castles such as Herstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, begun in 1440, with its many windows and regularised defensive elements (such as the arrow loops) making them almost decorative.
The design for Ruperra Castle was clearly based on that for Lulworth Castle, just 100 miles away in Dorset, and built between 1603-05. Always called a ‘castle’ but built with the instruction from Lord Howard of Bindon that it ‘prove pretty’, it was never military. Indeed, Thomas Gerard writing in 1630 described it as ‘well seated for prospect and pleasure; but of little other use’. Bought by the Weld family from Lord Howard it remained their family seat until a devastating fire in 1929 completely gutted the interior – as it remains today, although the building itself has been restored. Another house thought to have been built around 1612 is Compton Bassett House in Wiltshire (dem. c1929) which clearly shared a similar layout although the corner turrents were square.
The builder of Ruperra Castle was Thomas Morgan (b.1564 – d.1632), who made his fortune as the Steward for the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton House, Wiltshire. Morgan would have been regularly exposed to court life and would have been very aware of the latest architectural fashions. Hence when he came to build his own house, which was finished in 1626, he deliberately drew on the latest architectural fashions and created one of the first of the ‘modern’ country houses. The layout was a significant departure as the rooms were orientated to the outside to make the most of views – hence Ruperra’s elevated site chosen for its beauty rather than defensibility. Interestingly the ‘castle’ design seemed to fall quite quickly from favour and so there are few other examples of this type – though one late example was Beaurepaire Park in Hampshire built in 1777 (sadly burnt down in 1942).
Ruperra Castle remained as part of the Morgan’s vast Tredegar estate and was traditionally used to house the eldest son before he inherited Tredegar House, the family’s principal seat. The castle originally had dormers but these were removed during the rebuilding after a fire in 1785 and replaced with the crenellations there today. It was last inhabited during World War II when a searchlight battery requisitioned it and they were there when the terrible fire caused by faulty wiring broke out in 1941. Despite best efforts, the house was completely gutted and was eventually sold, along with the rest of the 52,000-acre Tredegar estate in 1952.
Since then, constant promises of restoration have come to nothing and it has steadily deteriorated, most dramatically when, in 1982, the south east tower largely collapsed. Sold to the current vendor, Mr Ashraf Barakat, in 1998 he had hoped to convert the house into 11 flats and build 18 more houses in the 14-acre grounds that remained with the house. After a final rejection at a public enquiry in 2009, Mr Barakat has now, wisely, put the still grade-II* listed Ruperra Castle on the market for £1.5m, rather than holding on and letting the house deteriorate further. This should not be considered a development opportunity, so hopefully now someone with deep pockets will come forward to restore, as a single family house, this architecturally important building. Its rescue would once again connect the modern history of country house design in Wales, bringing life back to a house which, when it was built, was the most sophisticated in the country.
Tidmington was built in the early 17th-century but was re-fronted in the 18th-century giving it a pleasing and elegant facade, which is visible from the road. Distinctive gables top a neat front which successfully mixes Elizabethan elements with the classical. The recessed central section runs from a smaller middle gable featuring a Diocletian (or thermal) window, above a first floor tripartite Venetian window, sometimes known as Palladian or Serlian after the two architects most associated with popularising it, with finally the two wings being joined by a Tuscan colonnade. Two 1-bay pavilions extend to the left and right, providing a clever balance to the height of the main house.
The grade-II* listed house was once the home of Thomas Beecham, 2nd son of the famous conductor, before being put up for sale in 2009 for £3.95m by the owners who had moved there in 1988. The house was then given a glowing write-up in The Times by Marcus Binney who relished the bold use of colour; the sky-blue library, the jade green dining room – but I wonder if the bold colours in the house contributed to the situation as it was during renovations by the new owners that the fire started.
The blaze is reported to have badly damaged the first floor where the fire started and also part of the ground floor but hopefully a majority of the 8,500 sq ft house will have been spared from the flames – though the inevitable smoke and water damage will have spread beyond the immediate blaze. Again, it shows that insurance companies are right to demand to be told when works are taking place as it is so often during renovations when these fires seem to break out – please don’t let this be another workman being careless with a blow-torch.