‘An agreeable surprise’ – the country house and garden sculpture

Statue - Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Statue – Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

The country house has long been at a nexus of art, display and tourism with the treasures, mainly statues, collected by the owner shown in a grand gallery which often formed one of the main staterooms.  Whereas the house provided the setting for the art, outdoors, the gardens and parkland provided a setting not only for the house but also for the many sculptural works they had acquired – a trend which continues today, though often with a necessarily more commercial edge.

The first country house owners to place statues in their English gardens were the Romans.  However, as homes became castles, gardens fell from favour and with them, the ornaments to decorate them.   The trend for statuary only really returned with the Tudors and their love of the outdoor space as an extension of the symbolism they incorporated into the architecture of their houses.  One of the earliest collectors, and most acquisitive, was Thomas Howard Arundel, 2nd Earl of Arundel, who, as a youth, had been at the excavation of the Roman Forum, which had sparked a live-long passion for antiquities.  Arundel amassed one of the greatest collections of the age, rivalling that of the King, including a famed selection of Graeco-Roman statues found in Turkey, which became known as the ‘Arundel Marbles‘. These statues were then displayed at both their town and country seats, both indoors and out – though later, by the mid-17th-century, as a result of the uncertainties of the Civil War, John Evelyn found the Marbles “…miserably neglected, & scattred up & downe about the Gardens & other places of Arundell-house.”.  The statues were later donated to the Ashmolean Museum where they remain today.

The later rise and popularity of the Georgian grand tour firmly embedded the desire to purchase statues along with the requisite paintings. They provided a visual clue as to both the learning and wealth of the owner and so were displayed prominently, especially indoors where they might be shown in the entrance hall where guests would inevitably look at them as they waited. Some of the most famous dedicated indoor galleries include those at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire (though sadly now not as shown in previous link as it’s now a wedding venue).  Other notable galleries, though now lost due to dispersal or demolition, were those at Clumber Park, Ickworth House and Hamilton Palace, the latter described as “…peopled with bronze statuary on Irish black marble bases polished to such a gloss that they reflected the pavement like a mirror.“.

Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)
Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)

Outside, the display was no less formal – symmetry and structure dominated.  However, by the 1730s, the more formal display of statues outdoors gave way to a more naturalistic style whereby they became almost secreted amongst a more informal – but no less planned – landscape.  One thing often forgotten now is that we see gardens after over 250 years of growth, but when first planted they would have been much sparser giving the ornaments greater prominence.  The return of the Roman influence can be closely linked with the rise of Palladianism and the influence of Lord Burlington and his circle; most notably, the brilliant designer William Kent. Other notable influences include Batty Langley, who published his ‘New Principles of Gardening‘ in 1728 and Stephen Switzer’s ‘Ichnographica Rustica‘, published in 1718 – the latter of which was the first to show serpentine walks and streams. Life also imitated art, with the popularity of the Arcadian visions of painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicholas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa also inspiring those who collected the paintings to attempt to bring them to life.

Temple - Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Temple – Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The more secure and rising wealth of the 1730s enabled owners to create larger estates and so giving them more space to indulge their plans.  However, no stream will rival a raging river so to create a sense of theatre, the landscape was used and moulded to create a series of views which took advantage or distant landmarks or by introducing elements such as statues, temples and obelisks.  Often these gardens were designed to entertain the knowledgeable visitor with allusions to myths and noble virtues – though in one lesser known example, the owner of the famous Vauxhall Gardens in London, built a darker memento mori‘ garden at Denbies, his home in Surrey.

However, the main aim was to delight and to stimulate emotions. One of the most famous Georgian gardeners, Philip Miller, wrote in his 1739 edition of his ‘Gardener’s Dictionary’:

“In laying out these walks through woods there should be a great regard had to the neighbouring country, so as whenever there are any distant objects which appear to the sight, there should be openings to which the serpentine walks should lead, from whence objects may be viewed, which will be an agreeable surprise to strangers…”

Bridge - Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)
Bridge – Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)

These principles were translated according to the whims and finances of owners across the country, leading from the sublime creations of Stowe, Stourhead and Studley Royal to many lesser known and private gardens.

The statuary could sometimes cause the odd drama. Dallam Towers, Cumbria was archly described by Pevsner as “…undoubtedly the finest Georgian facade in the county; but what the visitor may not realise is that, behind all the stucco, there’s the finest Queen Anne facade in the county.“. Between the facade and the landscape once stood (or perhaps still stands) a line of statues standing guard between the garden and the ha-ha. Yet this line is slightly marred by one of the statues being headless – the unfortunate outcome of a 1820s dinner which led to a very ‘well-refreshed’ Lord Milthorpe.  Thinking he had seen a poacher, he grabbed a rifle, and despite the protests of his guests, he duly dispatched the ‘poacher’/statue; a loss for the world of garden ornaments but perhaps a gain for the forces of law and order.

With such vast quantities of marble scattered out the gardens, occasionally a prized statue may slip slowly into obscurity. This can lead to discoveries in the same way that an Old Master may be found in the attic, so they can also be found in the shrubbery, such as this rare Chinese Ming tomb horse or the lucky owner of a castle somewhere in northern Europe who had a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Adriaen de Vries.

The tradition of sculpture in the gardens of country houses is certainly alive and well today and has developed beyond the more formal Roman statuary towards a decidedly more contemporary ethos – though perhaps more commercial than for simple pleasure.

'Huge Sudeley Bench' by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)
‘Huge Sudeley Bench’ by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)

At the beautiful Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, Christies are holding their selling exhibition of contemporary sculpture from luminaries such as Marcel Wanders, Marc Quinn and Pablo Reinoso.  Over in Sussex, the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood, hosts a regularly changing line-up with a focus on supporting emerging talent along with the more established artists such as Lynn Chadwick and Anish Kapoor.  One more recent venue is the Jupiter Artland at Bonnington House in Scotland, just outside Edinburgh.  The vision the Wilsons, who own the house, Jupiter Artland features large-scale works such as the monumental ‘Life Mounds’ by Charles Jencks’ who specialises in landscape art that I suspect would appeal to the likes of ‘Capability’ Brown if he were around today.

These are just some of the examples of contemporary schemes which are taking place across the country. Each is enlivening the grounds of a house and again maintaining that artistic thread which has been spun out over hundreds of years, linking country houses, an owners’ taste and some of the best art in the country.

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More wonderful examples of works available outdoors can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library collection.

This blog post is a little off my usual patch so I’m grateful for the research of David Stuart in ‘Georgian Gardens

How tourism split a house from the estate: Warwick Castle, Warwickshire

Warwick Castle, Warwickshire (Image: Gernot Keller/Wikipedia)
Warwick Castle, Warwickshire (Image: Gernot Keller/Wikipedia)

A small advert tucked away in a recent Country Life marks the final split of a house from it’s estate. With the sale of the parkland associated with Warwick Castle in Warwickshire, another house loses control over an important asset – though this separation is very much tied up with the history of the opening of country houses to tourists, and this castle in particular.

Country house visiting is perhaps thought of as a more modern phenomenon but Warwick Castle was one of the first houses to be truly exploited as a tourist attraction with visitors coming in significant numbers from 1815 onwards. The growth of the industrial Midlands in the Victorian era and consequently a growing middle class seeking excursions, shifted the pattern of ‘show-houses’ (that is, ones regularly open to the public when the family were absent or on specific days) northwards, away from the more aristocratic 18th-century London-Bath axis.  The Midlands were particularly well provided for with many houses open to the public from the 1850s including Eaton Hall, Chatsworth House, Haddon Hall, Newstead Abbey, and Belvoir Castle amongst perhaps a hundred.  This reached a peak in the 1880s when the most popular houses would receive tens of thousands of visitors a year, reflecting a popular interest in the houses of ‘Olden Time‘ as popularised by writers such as Joseph Nash and Sir Walter Scott.

Warwick Castle, with it’s prized medieval origins, was particularly popular – to the extent that not opening it was considered unthinkable.  That the public expected to be allowed to see inside these houses could be shown in a comment in the Daily Telegraph in 1871 which said:

An Earl of Warwick who would make his whole castle his own in the spirit of an inhospitable curmudgeon, who would shut out all eyes but his own from the feast within those walls, is a being so opposed to every English tradition that it is difficult to realise him.

For the aristocratic owners, economics certainly played a stronger role than any sense of public generosity.  For some, having a popular house in the country was no inconvenience as, such as at Dunster Castle in Somerset, it was remarked in 1845; ‘The owner, an inveterate Bachelor, lives in London and hardly ever comes here‘.

Especially convenient for trippers from Birmingham and the nearby resort of Leamington Spa, Warwick Castle was hosting as many as 6,000 visitors per year in 1825-26 and when the Earl of Warwick’s housekeeper died in 1834 she was said to have left £30,000 earned from tips.  Yet it was the devastating fire of December 1871 which firmly moved the castle from being simply a home to a business. The fire destroyed the family apartments but luckily left the oldest parts of the castle untouched.  The Earl of Warwick’s financial situation meant that he simply could not afford to restore the house to its former glory, a prospect which scared the local tradespeople, fearing the loss of the tourist trade and so a restoration fund was created.  However, to ensure the Earl’s pride was not dented it was presented as recognition of the burden he bore as owner of a national treasure.

However, a furious response from no lesser figure than John Ruskin marked the start of a backlash, saying ‘If a noble family cannot rebuild their own castle, in God’s name let them live in the nearest ditch till they can‘.  Behind this was the growing social democratic movement which moved from support of national treasures privately-owned towards a more socialist belief that national assets ought to be owned by the ‘people’.  The purchase of Aston Hall by Birmingham Council in 1864 as a public museum and park was no doubt playing on the minds of both certain radical sections of society and Lord Warwick – though for different reasons.  The appeal eventually raised £9,000 which paid for restoration by Anthony Salvin but the importance of opening the house as an attraction was highlighted as a way of not only funding costs but also as a way of keeping the public happy that they had ‘access’ to what they now felt of as ‘theirs’.

From this point, the house was never really a private home again.  The Earl and his son embraced the tourist industry but in 1885 closed the castle for a year to re-organise the showing on a more commercial basis.  Gone were the old servants acting as guides; in came professionals paid for by the one shilling admission tickets.  The new system was a success, with 20,000 visitors in the first full year of the new regime.  The new domestic arrangements were confirmed by the 5th Earl who inherited in 1893 and preferred to live at his wife’s estate Easton Lodge in Essex.  In the same year, the castle staged its first historical pageant, which was repeated on a grander scale in 1906.  The 6th Earl, who took over in 1924, further promoted the tourist business, pushing visitors to a peak in 1930 of over 80,000.  Even during the war years, there were over 10,000 visitors in 1943-44, and numbers had recovered to their pre-war peak by 1949-50.

All this increasingly showed that the wider estate, for all its charms – landscaped by Capability Brown in 1747 and much admired by Horace Walpole, it was considered secondary to the primary purpose of the enterprise; to get people into the castle. When the 8th Earl decided to abandon Warwick Castle once and for all in 1978, selling it to the Madame Tussauds group which underlined just how much a tourist attraction it had become, the estate was included but farmed by tenant farmers leaving the grounds as a mere sideshow.  The 679-acres now under offer (guide price: £3m) is the bulk of the estate bar a few acres around the castle.  Land and house have been separated as assets and are unlikely to be reunited. This leaves a house without control of the setting which, although sidelined, has been an important part of what made it into such a popular tourist attraction, and leaving fans of our country houses sad that another has been split up in this way.

Property details: ‘Warwick Castle Park, Warwickshire‘ [John Shepherd]

For more history on country house tourism I can strongly recommend ‘The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home’ by Peter Mandler which proved very useful in relation to this article.

For sale for the first time in 1000 years: Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire

Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)
Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)

It has been estimated that there are approximately 2,000 large country houses in the UK with decent size estates  (over 100 acres) – but very few are still in the hands of the family which originally built them. Yet despite the many sales over the years it’s still possible for a house and land to remain with one family for many hundreds of years – though that is now coming to an end for Shakenhurst Hall in Shropshire, seat of the Meysey family for much of the last 1000 years and now on the market for the first time at £12m.

The lands were first given to a French Baron, Roger de Toeni, for his help in the conquest of Britain in 1066.  It has then passed through inheritance through various members of the Meysey family except when it passed for period to a godson in the 20th-century and then his wife, before being bequeathed to Michael Severne, a descendent of the Meyseys.  On his death in 2007 it passed to his only daughter Amanda who died of cancer in 2008 leaving the house and estate to her husband.

The grade-II listed Georgian house, built in the 1790s but with a 16th-century core, is now up for sale as it faces that age-old difficulty of an estate no longer providing sufficient income to maintain the house – and neither of their two sons are in a position to take it on.  Michael Severne had run a successful plastics business from outbuildings on the estate but with his death the business folded.  Interestingly this mirrors the challenges faced by country house owners in the 19th-century who relied also on a single source of income, agriculture, who were hit particularly hard by the 1870s depression in farm produce prices and land values.

Land has always been regarded as the most important asset (even if mortgaged) and so when faced with the choice of economising, selling land, or selling paintings or books it was usually the latter which went first.  This lead to the rise of the art sales particularly from the 1890s until the 1930s which dealers such as Joseph Duveen exploited as they extracted exquisite Old Master Italian paintings and others by the finest English artists which would then be shipped to the United States. Here a new class of exceptionally wealthy financiers and industrialists such as Hearst, Frick, Morgan, Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller would compete to secure the finest works of art before donating them to eponymous public galleries.

Although this did leave significantly smaller collections for some houses it did sometimes provide the finance to either diversify into investments or tide them over until agriculture recovered in the 1930s – although for some it merely delayed the more unpalatable choice of demolition which unfortunately was the outcome for hundreds of houses in the UK.  With demolition now thankfully out of the question an owner is left with few options and it can be easier to simply sell up which is what appears to be the case with Shakenhurst Hall.

Sad though it is that such a long connection is to come to an end, here’s hoping the next owner will respect the 1300-acre estate, the history and the house to create a rewarding new chapter for this elegant ‘minor’ country house.

Property details: ‘Shakenhurst Hall‘ [Savills]

PS: it’s interesting that two houses should be available which look so alike. I was struck by just how similar Shakenhurst Hall is to Peatling Parva Hall in Leicestershire which is currently on the market for £4.75m.  Interestingly the latter only took on it’s current form after alterations in 1910 after the Arts-and-Crafts architect Detmar Blow added two bays to the original house.  Was this just a coincidence of architects thinking alike or had Blow seen either Shakenhurst or something similar?

Property details: Peatling Parva Hall [Knight Frank]

Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?

Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)

As the pressures of the twentieth century forced more country houses owners to face the reality that they could no longer live as they had and would have to move out of their homes they then had to decide what to do with it.  Unfortunately this meant demolition of hundreds of large houses but some owners were more creative and many houses became commercial premises, either as hotels, schools or institutions, and others became some of the grandest office buildings in the country.  However, recent pressures of this century have now seen some of these offices being converted back into homes or being offered for sale as an opportunity to do so.

In many ways the country house has always had an element of the commercial to it with the estate offices usually being based either in a part of the main house or in a nearby building to enable the owner to deal with business without having to travel far from home. The changes of the twentieth century were on an altogether more comprehensive scale with the entire house being changed to accommodate the demands of business.  This not only meant the conversion of the main house with all that entailed for the interiors but also the building of further offices in the grounds.

Sometimes the development was kept a good distance from the main house such as at Ditton Park in Berkshire.  This became the office of the Admiralty Compass Observatory from 1917 until it was sold in the 1990s to Computer Associates who built a huge office building to the west of the main house (which became a conference centre) leaving the setting intact.

Sometimes though it’s possible for smaller businesses to be accommodated just within the main house such as at Gaddesden Place in Hertfordshire.  The house, built in 1768, is a elegant Palladian villa (similar to the White Lodge in Richmond Park) and was James Wyatt’s first country work.  The site is said to have some of the best views in the home counties and the sensitive use of the house has allowed to remain in splendid seclusion.

However, modern concerns mean that a country house has lost some of it’s appeal as offices.  One key issue is that by their nature the houses are isolated meaning that employees must have cars to reach it leading to more cars on the roads and the need to provide huge areas of parking.  Stronger heritage legislation now also means it’s much harder to alter the houses to meet modern business requirements such as air conditioning and computer networking.  The nature of the houses also means that maintenance costs are higher than for a purpose built office.

This has led to some houses which were formerly offices to be converted back into homes.  Mamhead House in Devon, built between 1827-33 and regarded as one of Anthony Salvin‘s finest designs, it was, for many years, a school before becoming offices for a local building company.  It was bought by a businessman who converted the main part of the house back into being a home whilst still letting out part of the house to the Forestry Commission.

Perhaps the grandest and largest opportunity for many years to restore a house into a home is the mansion at Benham Valence in Berkshire.  This superb house was built in 1772-75 for the 6th Earl of Craven and was designed by Henry Holland in collaboration with his father-in-law, Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the famous landscape architect.  The south front features a grand tetrastyle Ionic portico which looks out over a large lake with views into the parkland.  Inside, there are many fine chimney-pieces bought from the sale at Stowe in 1922, including one from the State Dining Room.  It also features a small circular double-height vestibule adjoining the inner hall, a design later adopted by Sir John Soane.

The house was empty in 1946 and remained so until it was sold in 1983 and converted to use as offices with a large wing to the north east of the house being demolished and replaced, in part, by an ugly 80’s complex providing over 100,000 sq ft of space.  Luckily though the main house was largely spared and remains Grade II* with the 100-acres of Grade-II parkland. Now offered for sale at £6m this is a rare opportunity to create a wonderful country house – providing it’s possible to obtain planning permission to convert it back – which, once restored, could be worth £10-12m.  One key requirement would be the demolition of the office complex and the ripping up of the huge car park – but give me a pickaxe and I’ll be happy to lend a hand.

Full property details: ‘Benham Valance, Berkshire‘ [Strutt & Parker]

If I won the lottery…Fillongley Hall

Fillongley Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Weddington Castle website)

Considering the difficulties faced by country house owners with death duties and a changed society, it’s always remarkable when a house is passed down through the generations; particularly so when it’s the same family for nearly 200 years.  Fillongley Hall designed by George Woolcott and was built in 1824-25 for the uncle of the 1st Lord Norton, extended in 1840-1, and now for sale again by the 8th Lord Norton after an unsuccessful attempt to sell in 2005.

The grade-II listed house is considered to be one of the best examples of smaller scale Greek Revival architecture which demonstrated the good taste of the Grand tourist with it’s fine interiors and classical exterior with recessed Corinthian columns on the main entrance front.    Bearing some resemblance to the now-demolished Thirkleby Park in Yorkshire, the house is a compact essay in elegant classicism with a restraint all too often lacking in modern country house architecture.  The house was inherited by Lord Norton in 1993 since when he and his wife have lovingly maintained and updated the house.  More images of the interior and exterior can be seen either on this fascinating local history website or on the Savills website.

When Fillongley Hall was put up for sale in 2005 the guide price was £5m but this included 400-acres as opposed to the 114 plus the house which are available now for £4.5m.  [The house subsequently sold in 2006]

This is a beautiful house and deserves and owner who understands the house and is sympathetic to its status as one of the best houses of its type in the region.

Property details: ‘Fillongley Hall‘ [Savills]

A house and it’s garden to be reunited? Leonardslee, Sussex

Leonardslee House, Sussex (Image: tom@picasaweb)

Often the course of the country estate over the last 100 years has been for the land to be gradually sold off, starting with the outlying areas, and moving closer until just the house and it’s immediate gardens remain intact.  At Leonardslee in Sussex the process was eventually taken one step further with the house being sold off.  This, however, may about to be reversed.

Sir Edmund Loder bought the manor house and 225-acre gardens from his inlaws in 1889 and soon opened them to the public.  Over the next five generations, the Loder family added to the planting and landscaping to create what is now one of the only 163 grade-I listed gardens in the country.  Despite the family still owning the gardens the grade-II listed Italianate manor house, built in 1853 and featuring a 900 sq ft central hall decorated with Ionic columns, was sold off separately in the 1980s and became offices.  The gardens grew in reputation so it was something of a shock when in April 2008 it was announced that they were being put up for sale by Robin Loder for £5m through the estate agency Savills.  Cleverly, the company who owned the house also announced they were open to offers at around £3.25m for the house.

The Times is now reporting that after nearly two years on the market, the gardens have been sold to a private businessman and are likely to close to the public.  They are also reporting that the house may also be under offer at £2.75m to the same businessman giving him a perfect  opportunity to once again recreate a stunning small estate which, with the addition of the house, could be worth in the region of £10m.  Though a sad day for the many garden-lovers who have made many a pilgrimage to wander among the wallabies, it’s an encouraging reversal of the trend for houses to lose the control of the landscape which so often perfectly frames them.

Full story: ‘Leonardslee Gardens to close to the public after being sold‘ [The Times]

The greatest country house you’ve never heard of: Wentworth Woodhouse

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)

Although Britain is a relatively small island it still has the capacity to hide some spectacular buildings which, unless opened to the public, can remain a secret.  One such house, featured this week in Country Life magazine (February 17) is Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, thought to be the largest private residence in Europe and for Marcus Binney “unquestionably the finest Georgian house in England”.

Built over a 25 year period from 1724 for Thomas Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham, it is twice as wide as Buckingham Palace and boasts over a 1,000 windows, 365 rooms and five miles of underground passageways.  The stable block appears to be a large country house but is merely the lodging for up to 100 horses. Inside the main house, the Earls FitzWilliam enjoyed a priceless art collection which included works by Titian, Van Dyck, Guido, and Raphael.

Yet this was a house to be blighted by the bitter class-war hatred of the post-war Labour government and questions of inheritance. In April 1946, heavy machinery moved into Wentworth Park to pointlessly mine low-grade coal right up to the back door of the house on the express instruction of Manny Shinwell, the minister of fuel and power.  A old-school left-winger, Shinwell was given options to save the parkland and gardens but was determined to press on despite representations from the local miners who had been very well treated by successive generations of FitzWilliams.

Once mining finished the FitzWilliams leased the house as a training college and retreated to 40-rooms but even then lived mostly elsewhere. Questions about the legitimacy of the inheritance led the last Earl to order a vast bonfire in 1972 of 16 tons of family papers, some dating back to medieval times, which burnt for three weeks.

Yet, despite its size the house escaped the fate of so many large houses in England and merely languished in obscurity.  Sold with just 30-acres in 1988 by the daughter of the last Earl it was bought by Wensley Haydon-Baillie who promised investment but in 1998 it was repossessed. It was then sold for the unbelievably low price of £1.5m (equivalent to just £7 per sq ft) to the architect Clifford Newbold whose careful restoration work has been praised and beautifully photographed in this weeks Country Life.

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*Update* May 2011 – I have written a more extensive write-up on the architectural history of the house in response to the episode of ‘The Country House Revealed

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More information: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse’ (Wikipedia)

Welsh ‘Versailles’ still awaiting saviour: Kinmel Hall for sale

Kinmel Hall, Conwy (Image: Hannells)

When Kinmel Hall was bought in March 2006 by an investment company it was almost immediately advertised on their website as a ‘a unique development opportunity’ with plans for use as either hotel, spa, offices, conference venue or apartments.  Yet, nearly four years later, this impressive mansion is still languishing without a clear future.

The Kinmel estate was bought in 1786 using the vast wealth generated for the Hughes family in the eighteenth century through their half-ownership of the copper mine in Parys mountain which generated up to £150,000 a year at it’s peak (equivalent today to about £200m measured against average earnings).  The Hughes family lived in the house already there until it was rebuilt in 1842-3 in a Palladian style designed by the famous Georgian architect Thomas Hopper for the 1st Lord Dinorben.  When this house burnt down shortly afterwards in 1848 their huge income meant that an even larger house could be built to replace it.  Designed by William Nesfield in a monumental chateau-style and built between 1871-76 it was for an age of lavish house parties and featured 52 bedrooms and accomodation for 60 live-in staff.  The Hughes family lived there until 1929 when it became a health spa, then a hospital during WWII and then a school from 1945 until a large fire forced them out in 1975.  Restored in the 1980s, it was sold several times before being purchased by Derbyshire Investments who still own it today.

The original descendants of the Hughes’ still own the 5,000-acre Kinmel estate – all that remains of their original holding of 85,000 acres they once owned across the area.  The grade-I listed Hall and the 18 acres of walled gardens would make a magical location for what ever final purpose is decided – but the important task is to determine that future.  I suppose it’s too much to hope that it will again be a family home but any sensitive use which preserves this historic house as part of Wales’ architectural heritage is to be encouraged.

More details: ‘Kinmel Hall, North Wales‘ [Derbyshire Investments]

Proposal for Trentham Hall to be rebuilt as a hotel

Trentham Hall proposal, Staffordshire (Image: Property Week)

One of the greatest losses in the many country houses demolished in the 20th-century was that of Trentham Hall, the Staffordshire seat of the Dukes of Sutherland.  Originally a large Georgian house, it was rebuilt and greatly extended for the second Duke in the 1830s by the famous architect Sir Charles Barry, who was also responsible for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament.  The house became a celebrated venue for entertaining and was filled with fine works of art and sculpture.

Unfortunately the relentless expansion of the nearby Potteries areas of Staffordshire led to increasing amounts of pollution entering the rivers which fed the lakes and gardens designed by Capability Brown. By 1898 the smell was so bad that the house was effectively abandoned by 1907.  The Duke tried to donate the house and estate to the local council  in 1905 but was rejected so in 1912 the house was demolished.

The gardens were eventually opened to the public with the remaining outbuildings sitting rather forlornly around the blank space which marked out the site of the now lost house.  The gardens had been maintained and delighted generations of locals who would walk through the extensive terraces which led down to the now clean lake.  Now the 750-acre Trentham Gardens are part of a £100m project to bring back the glory of the earlier eras, with the centrepiece being the £35m recreation of the house as a 150-room luxury hotel following Barry’s original designs.

Despite the economic turmoil, the developers, who originally planned for completion by 2011, are still hopeful that they will be able to proceed with the project.   Although the hotel will not bring back the history and unique architecture of the house, the idea of recreating a lost country house is one to be encouraged.  Although many houses were demolished, the parkland and gardens were often simply abandoned and are still visible today.  Perhaps other estates might be encouraged to look at whether a new house might be the most appropriate use of the estate – after all, this was the purpose of their creation.

Full story: ‘Trentham rebuilt‘ [Property Week]

Lowther Castle to be partially restored

Lowther Castle, Cumbria (Image: dailymail.co.uk)

Empty since 1942, Lowther Castle was used during WWII as a weapons research lab and the grounds as a practice ground for tanks who did their best to destroy the ornaments, fountains, paths and gardens.  The house was not lived in again and in 1957 was unroofed and abandoned as a shell, leaving it as an ornament in the gardens of the 3,000-acre estate.  The castle deteriorated over the passing decades until it was overgrown and the central tower was in danger of collapse and was featured in the 2008 Buildings at Risk register. However, this decay is about to be arrested and ambitious plans are afoot to partially restore the tower and invest in the gardens and park.

An application has been lodged to restore the gardens including the kilometre-long central avenue and create an indoor garden within the shell of the house once this has been stabilised.  The work is expected to cost up to £9m but will attract 160,000 vistors a year to the attraction, generating £10m for the local economy.

Although the loss of the castle as a house is lamentable it’s encouraging to see that the shell and estate still have such value which will hopefully secure the future for this elegant building for future generations.  Who knows, one day it may be possible for the Lowthers to restore the castle and move back in?

Full story: ‘Move to restore Lowther Castle could see gardens open in 2010‘ [The Cumberland News]