Country House Rescue: the weight of history – Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire

Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire (Image: mhaswell / flickr)
Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire (Image: mhaswell / flickr)

For some who inherit, the weight of family history can easily overcome the burden of running a historic home on a limited budget.  As we saw in the previous episode of Country House Rescue at Trereife House in Cornwall, the desire to not be the generation which loses the ancestral home, a prospect which faced the Le Grice family who had been there since 1799.  So imagine the weight of responsibility facing the Lucas-Scudamore family who have lived for ten centuries at Kentchurch Court in Herefordshire.

The house itself was originally a Saxon tower with further additions in the 14th-century.  However, the main style of the house as it stands today is due to work commissioned from the famous Regency architect John Nash (b.1752 – d.1835).  More importantly, Kentchurch is a significant as one of a number of houses built in the area around that time which were a visible expression of a new wave of architectural fashion; the Picturesque.

Strawberry Hill, London (Image: D Kendall / EH Viewfinder)
Strawberry Hill, London (Image: D Kendall / EH Viewfinder)

When thinking of Georgian architecture many think of the symmetrical classical façades and strictly proportioned Palladian designs which were so prevalent in that era.  Yet one house, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, south London, was to be the catalyst for a new way of thinking, breaking these patterns and ushering in a more organic way of viewing architecture. This saw the house as part of a landscape with the design playing its part in the beauty of the view as much as the lakes, gardens and parkland. Originally an unremarkable house, it was bought in 1747 by the wealthy Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford and fourth son of Walpole the Prime Minister, who was an astute observer of society, art, and architecture. Walpole contributed little to art but was particularly well read and as he pursued his academic studies decided to start experimenting with alterations to his house.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: John Rutter (1823) / RIBA)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: John Rutter (1823) / RIBA)

His original changes from about 1749 were uncontroversial and, importantly, followed the convention for symmetry.  However, from 1753 onwards the interiors were fashioned in a gothic style with the help of what he called his ‘Committee of Taste’ comprising a few of his equally well-read friends.  This experimentation was confined to the interiors until, in 1759, he broke with architectural convention and had a great circular tower constructed but which, radically, had no matching pair.  The house was to continue to grow in a rather free fashion which can still be admired today (particularly so following the completion of phase one of a fantastic restoration by the Strawberry Hill Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the World Monuments Fund). The house became famous, attracting day trippers in large numbers and spawned imitators; though it was James Wyatt’s Lee Priory (built 1785-90 – dem. 1955) which was said to the be first ‘child of Strawberry’.  Also considered worthy, and also designed by Wyatt were the fantastical Fonthill Abbey (collapsed in 1825) for William Beckford, and Ashridge Park for the 7th Earl of Bridgewater.

Downton Castle, Herefordshire (Image: gardenvisit.com)
Downton Castle, Herefordshire (Image: gardenvisit.com)

One man particularly taken with this new style was Richard Payne Knight, a Herefordshire MP and intellectual with a large inheritance.  Using his wealth, in 1774 Payne Knight started the construction of a new home, Downton Castle, which bore similarities to Strawberry Hill, with the asymmetry and a large circular tower, and an irregular plan which was quite radical for the time.  This house was a prototype for a new ‘castellated’ style of house which was to be popular for fifty years from about 1790.  Driving this new style was the publication of three key books, the first two in 1794; ‘The Landscape, a Didactic Poem‘ by Payne Knight, and ‘Essay on the Picturesque‘, a brilliant reply in support by Uvedale Price (another local landowner), and, in 1795, ‘Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening‘ by the landscape-gardener, Humphrey Repton, who formed a successful and highly influential partnership with the architect John Nash that same year.

Nash had moved to Aberystwyth after his bankruptcy following a failed speculative buildings scheme in Bloomsbury in London.  Yet, the contacts he was to make in Wales led to Nash becoming one of the leading architects of the Picturesque.  The early development of his interest in the ideas of the movement can be seen when he designed a castellated triangular lodge for Uvedale Price sometime between 1791-4.  He also worked for Thomas Johnes at the spectacular Hafod estate where Johnes had planted 3 million trees to paradoxically create a more ‘natural’ looking Picturesque landscape.

For Nash, the ideas he developed in that short period from 1790 until he left to go back to London in 1796, were what made him one of the most significant architects of the period. The influence of Downton Castle and Nash also created a strong regional collection of these mock castles – Garnons (dem. 1957), Saltmarshe Castle (dem. 1955), Goodrich Court (dem. 1950), Garnstone Castle (by Nash, built 1806-10 – dem. 1958) Hampton Court Castle (alterations 1830s-40s) and extending down to Devon where Nash designed perhaps one of his best creations; Luscombe Castle (built 1800-4), and into Cornwall, where he designed Caerhays Castle (built 1807-10).

Kentchurch Court from "Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen" (London : 1829-1831)
Kentchurch Court from "Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen" (London : 1829-1831)

By their very nature these were large houses and often a little impractical which sadly meant many were demolished.  This is why Kentchurch Court is important – not only is an early work by Nash in the style of house which was to become his trademark, but it’s also one of the survivors of the tragedy of the many demolished country houses.

Perhaps the current Mrs Lucas-Scudamore should be grateful, in some ways, that their branch only inherited some fine carvings from the sale of the other much grander family seat, the grade-I Holme Lacy House (now a hotel) rather than the house itself with its 9 fine rooms with plaster ceilings which Pevsner though to be some of the best in the county.  The story of Kentchurch Court today is a familiar one of a family with an incredible history and a fine house and estate struggling with the usual demands for maintenance and £120,000 per year running costs.  Mrs Lucas-Scudamore and her two children (Mr Lucas-Scudamore being estranged and living away) battle on with determination but managing a house like this requires a money tree not a family tree – but this house is too important to be neglected.

Country House Rescue: ‘Kentchurch Court‘ [Channel 4]

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]

A justifiable replacement? Parkwood House, Surrey

Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Peter Lind & Co)
Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Peter Lind & Co)

There is a long tradition of replacing country houses going back hundreds of years ever since the first non-fortified mansions were built in the early Tudor period. Since 1974 when the V&A exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ did so much to highlight the hundreds which had already been lost across the UK and particularly in England the presumption has rightly been against the demolition of country houses – a position which this blog very firmly supports.  Yet to stop the replacement entirely could be seen as preventing the improvement of existing estates and seems to presume that no modern architect could match the skill of those who went before.  The case of Parkwood House in Surrey could be a useful case study in showing that replacement can be ‘creative destruction’.

Since 1800, of the nearly 1,800 English country houses which have been lost, over 150 have been replaced by a new house.  In the austere times of the post-WWII era, the new house was often smaller and easier to manage.  However, before 1930, houses which were demolished were often replaced by much larger houses to reflect the newly established status of the modern captains of industry and finance or to mark an inheritance.

Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire (Image: RIBA)
Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire (Image: RIBA)

This process of renewal could strike again and again – I think the record is held by the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire which has had seven principal houses of varying sizes including the infamous Fonthill Abbey which replaced the superb Fonthill Splendens. James Wyatt’s Fonthill Abbey is widely regarded as one of the most interesting (if ultimately unsuccessful) houses ever built in the UK – yet its creation led to the destruction of the old house.  Do we deny country house architects the ability to develop and improve just to preserve every older country house regardless of its merits?  Is it worse to stagnate estates with unsuitable (or unsightly) houses or must new houses only be built where a house has already been lost or on greenfield sites?

Parkwood House in Surrey is unlisted – and probably rightly so.  Built in the late nineteenth-century, it is, in the words of the architects of the new house “…an unremarkable and diluted essay in the ‘Old English’ or ‘Arts and Crafts’ style of the time” – but of course they would say that.  However, looking at it architecturally, there does seem little to recommend it – a rambling house, pebble-dashed, with an unexciting entrance front with an only slightly more interesting garden front.  The house is not connected with any noted architect, nor any particularly notable family (the only one of interest is the Australian 1st Baron Ballieu who was living there in the 1950s). The house then became the Rank Hovis conference and training centre with all that damage that entails during institutional conversion.

Proposed Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Candy & Candy)
Proposed Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Candy & Candy)

Planning permission was originally submitted in September 2007 and approved in November 2007 – a remarkably quick approval which might indicate that the planners had few qualms about the loss of the house.  In fact it might be said that Parkwood is simply a big house a countryside setting – and ‘big’ does not automatically mean it is of merit.  However, if the new house designed by the eminent Robert Adam Architects was not of such a high quality would the presumption fall on the side of retaining the old house?  The new house is an elegant essay in the use of the Palladian vocabulary to create a design which obviously provides the space and comfort that someone who would live in such a house would demand but is also architecturally interesting.  This is no mere cobbling together of a few weak ideas – this is a house which would rightly enter the list of good country houses in Surrey.  Robert Adam Architects are one of the leading practices in the country working in the Classical style and have completed other similar projects such as this house in Surrey which also replaced an earlier country house or this house in Sussex.

So if we can be confident that the new house would be high quality replacement is it justified to demolish the existing house?  In this case, as the earlier property is so unremarkable it would seem that the 91-acre estate would be better served through the keeping alive of the tradition of country house replacement – but this can only be justified where the original house is unlisted and of a poor design and the new house would be of the highest quality.  Demanding the destruction of one house to provide another has a long tradition but is a very risky path and any such application must be open closely scrutinised to ensure that we are not simply throwing away architecturally interesting houses just to build hideous ‘McMansions‘ where bigger is automatically assumed to be better.

Credit: thanks to Andrew for flagging this up.

More details and images: ‘Parkwood Estate, Surrey‘ [Candy & Candy]

More work by Robert Adam Architects: Residential portfolio