Georgian Group Architectural Awards 2014

2014 Georgian Group Architectural Awards - hosted by Christies, sponsored by Savills (Image: Nick Harvey)
2014 Georgian Group Architectural Awards – hosted by Christies, sponsored by Savills (Image: Nick Harvey)

The efforts of those who choose, or inherit, the responsibility for the care of our nation’s heritage are often unacknowledged – and yet the custodians continue regardless.  Their dedication is such that they will make significant sacrifices in terms of time, personal comfort, and money to not only rescue buildings at risk but also just to keep others in good repair.  Now in its 12th year, the Georgian Group Architectural Awards (hosted by Christie’s, sponsored by Savills) take the opportunity to assess and recognise those who have done such sterling work, primarily in the restoration and re-use of Georgian buildings but also new buildings built in a sympathetic style.

The first category awarded is the main prize – Restoration of a Georgian Country House – which this year was jointly won by Hendre House, Carnarvonshire and St Giles House, Dorset.  These two projects are both remarkable as each house was in a parlous state and only through the dogged efforts of each owner have they been rescued and are now beautiful homes again.

Hendre House, Carnarvonshire, Wales (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life)
Hendre House, Carnarvonshire, Wales (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life)
Drawing Room, Hendre House, Carnarvonshire, Wales
Drawing Room, Hendre House, Carnarvonshire, Wales

Hendre House enjoys an enviable position on the side of the Conwy valley, yet by the mid-20th century it had become a ruin after being abandoned in 1932.  In 2001, the derelict house was bought by Michael Tree, a man who had done much to raise awareness of the threats to Welsh architectural heritage and also on a practical level with the restoration of Trevor Hall. Hendre is a Regency gem which had been built in 1802 as a compact villa, orientated to take advantage of the stunning views. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the project is that Mr Tree decided to do much of the work himself, working with a local builder. The sensitive interior restoration involved the re-instatement of various elements which had been stripped out and were still on-site or recreated from existing fabric.  The shade of green used in the dining room is based on a paint fragment obtained from the ruined Edwinsford Hall and then used by Patrick Baty to create a new shade called ‘Edwinsford Green‘. Overall, this is a remarkable achievement both in terms of the scale but also the sensitivity brought to the restoration, allowing Hendre to re-join the sadly depleted ranks of Welsh country houses. (Country Life have a great gallery of photos of Hendre)

St Giles House, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)
St Giles House, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Considering the competition, one can appreciate why the committee decided that joint winners was the only way to recognise both Hendre and St Giles House, Dorset.  Now the seat of the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the restoration is one not only of the physical fabric of the house but also of the family in the life of the area.  The core of St Giles House dates from 1660, but with later additions, some of which were removed by the current Earl’s father in the 1970s.  This programme of work was not completed, and although it reduced the house to a more manageable size, left unresolved the scars of where the additions had been removed.  The house was put into hibernation for a number of years before the current Earl moved back after unexpectedly inheriting both the title and the estate.

One of the fine rooms, St Giles House, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)
One of the fine rooms, St Giles House, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Faced with the scale of work, others may have sold up and moved on, but all credit to Lord Shaftesbury (working with architect Philip Hughes), he has enthusiastically embraced the project which has comprised a complete restoration, to create not only living accommodation for the family but also to enable the rest of the house to function as a wedding and events venue.  Today, the quality of the interior  and sensitive exterior works belies the challenging state in which he took it on and enables the estate to once again become part of the fabric of local life.

Also on the shortlist in this category was the restoration of Corngreaves Hall, West Midlands by the private developer, Gr8space.  As regular readers of this blog will know that I’m very critical of developers who purchase ‘at risk’ country houses then submit huge ‘enabling development’ schemes far in excess of what’s required to restore the house, then build an estate, often unsympathetically, and then ‘forget’ to restore the house. Thankfully, in this case, although they didn’t win, the developer should be commended for their restoration of Corngreaves Hall.

Newly repainted Library, Kenwood House, London (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Newly repainted Library, Kenwood House, London (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The winner of the next category – Restoration of a Georgian Interior – was rightly awarded for the exemplary work carried out at Kenwood House, north London.  The house is one of Robert Adam’s best works, the marriage of a wonderfully proportioned and detailed country house, with a series of elegant interiors.  Now in the care of English Heritage, the restoration took a rigorous approach to the investigation of the original decoration and having determined the scheme implemented by Adam, then sought to replace the more garish 19th-century decoration. The replacement of the extensive gilt work with the more historically accurate scheme, particularly in the Library, has created a dramatic interior space which brings home just how bold and creative Adam was in his designs.

Llanelly House, Carmarthenshire, Wales
Llanelly House, Carmarthenshire, Wales

Llanelly House justifiably won the Restoration of a Georgian Building in an Urban Setting category. An important townhouse, built in 1714, it had become a much misused building, hemmed in by busy town-centre roads and cut off from the parish church opposite. Under the inspired guidance of Craig Hamilton Architects and with some thankfully enlightened support from the local council, not only has the house been restored and found a use as a genealogy centre, but wider townscape changes have re-routed the roads and created a delightful urban space with this historic building proudly taking pride of place.

The category of Reuse of a Georgian Building was won by St George’s Church, Great Yarmouth, which has found a new life as a theatre.

Painshill Landscape Garden, Surrey (Image: Painshill Trust)
Painshill Landscape Garden, Surrey (Image: Painshill Trust)

Painshill Landscape Garden, Surrey, has long been recognised as a fine example of a Georgian ‘country house’ parkland, even if it was created without a house at the centre. Winning the Restoration of a Georgian Garden or Landscape category recognises the exceptional work of the Painshill Trust in preserving what remains and the restoration of the many important garden buildings it contains.

Entrance front, Chitcombe House, Dorset (Image: Stuart Martin Architects)
Entrance front, Chitcombe House, Dorset (Image: Stuart Martin Architects)

One of the most exciting categories is the New Building in the Classical Tradition which was also awarded to joint winners. This category is the one which should demonstrate that the language of Classical architecture is still as relevant today and that its use does not automatically mean pastiche or unthinking decoration.  Chitcombe House, Dorset, designed by Stuart Martin Architects, won (in my humble opinion) on the strength and style of the entrance front.  Displaying a Dutch influence, with shades of Lutyens, it certainly creates the sense of arrival one would wish to have at a country house. However, the other side (for which I can’t find an image one now found [PDF] – thanks Tom) has two projecting bays connected by a loggia which seems almost an anti-climax after the interest created by the entrance.

Crucis Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Yiangou Architects)
Crucis Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Yiangou Architects)

The other winner is a superb design which marries both elegant proportions with fine and thoughtful detailing.  Crucis Park, Gloucestershire by Yiangou Architects, replaced a 1960s house with a compact house which draws on the traditions of local architecture but within the broader context of Queen Anne styling.   Although the two main fronts share the same historical form (a square with projecting centre – see Puslinch), the variations of the bold broken pediment above the front door, and the engaged colonnade on the other, create distinctive styling which subtly elevates the quality of the house. The interiors also feature some beautiful fireplaces and staircase.  This is the type of smaller country house architecture which should be encouraged as the correct continuation of the Classical tradition.

Overall, a very successful evening and credit should be given to the Georgian Group who have created awards that have established themselves as a benchmark by which Georgian restoration can be judged.  The annual event – made possible through the vital sponsorship of Savills (who had kindly invited me – thanks!) – not only rightly give praise and recognition to those directly engaged, but also generally raise the standard and awareness of architectural heritage and the huge efforts required to maintain it.  If there were space for one more award, I would like to see one to recognise ‘Restoration of Georgian Building by a Public Body’ to encourage the care of heritage within the public sector where it can sadly be all too often lacking.

Successive governments have retreated from their duties to help support the owners as custodians, not only by withdrawing grant support but equally with hostile measures such as applying full-rate VAT to repairs.  Consequently, the Georgian Group play a key role in acting as a ‘cheerleader’ for this vital part of the nation’s history, economy and, most importantly, our common heritage, which although mostly privately owned, enriches us all.

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Further information from The Georgian Group:

The front line: the campaigners for country houses

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)
Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)

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.

Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)
Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)

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 Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)
The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)

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.

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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.

– Matthew

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What goes around; the use of rotunda in UK country houses

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?

Italy - Villa Capra or 'La Rotonda' (Image: Marco Bagarella / Wikipedia)
Italy - Villa Capra or 'La Rotonda' (Image: Marco Bagarella / Wikipedia)

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.

Mereworth Castle, Kent
Mereworth Castle, Kent

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.

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

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.

Henbury Hall, Cheshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Henbury Hall, Cheshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

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.

Ferne Park, Wiltshire: the building of a modern Classical masterpiece

Ferne House, Wiltshire (Image: Q&F Terry, Architects)
Ferne House, Wiltshire (Image: Q&F Terry, Architects)

The English country house is considered our greatest contribution to the field of architecture – the unified vision of house and landscape combined with fine interiors, superb furnishings and exceptional art collections.  Yet in the 20th-century, it seemed that after Lutyens we largely lost our ability to excel in their creation – the new country houses seemed shadows of our earlier confidence, lacking the grand flair, and certainly the detailing, which had so defined the Georgian Classical house.  This was partially due to financial circumstances but also due to the influence of modernism which sought to re-interpret the country house in a new language – and it often didn’t translate well.

Yet, there are signs that given the right client and the right architect, we can again create the sort of country houses which will be admired in 200 years. Country Life magazine this week (5 May 2010) features one of the best country houses to be built in the last 70 years; Ferne Park in Wiltshire, winner of the Georgian Group award for the Best Modern Classical House in 2003.

This is a house built in the finest traditions of the English country house – with its clear use of the Palladian vocabulary but skilfully reinterpreted for the location and the needs of the client, Lady Rothermere.  The architect responsible, Quinlan Terry, has been responsible for some excellent buildings but this may well be his best.  The new house, built in 2000-2, was on the site of a previous Georgian mansion called Ferne House which was demolished in 1965 having fallen into a poor condition.  By rebuilding on the same site, Terry had a setting which was simply waiting for a new house to be created.

The local authority had already set the requirement that the new house must be Classical so both client and architect drew on other houses they knew such as Came House (Dorset) and Castletown Cox (Ireland), and were able to develop a distinctive plan for the site.  The house also cleverly has contrasting fronts with the dramatic views to the north matched by the stately columns and pediment, whilst the south, with the gentler views into Dorset, using a simpler facade.

Ferne Park has revived hope that it is possible to build a successful Classical house which is recognisably a continuation of the the glorious Georgian traditions which have created so many of the houses we love today.

More pictures of the house: Ferne House, Wiltshire [Quinlan & Francis Terry, Architects]


Part II of the article will be published in the 12 May 2010 edition of Country Life.

Georgian Group Architectural Awards: Cairness House

aberdeenshire-cairnesshouse
Cairness House, Aberdeenshire

The 7th Annual Georgian Group Architectural Awards have again highlighted that there are still those who will take on a neglected house and breathe new life into it.  Of particular interest is the winner of the ‘Restoration of a Georgian Country House‘ category, Cairness House in Aberdeenshire.

This interesting and elegant house was originally built in the 1790s as the centrepiece of a 9000-acre estate by the architect James Playfair for Charles Gordon.  The house remained with the family until 1938 after which it unfortunately experience a prolonged period of decline over the next 70 years including use as a farmhouse and even bedsits, and was riddled with dry rot.  Julio Soriano-Ruiz and Khalil Hafiz Khairallah are to be loudly applauded for showing that these houses can be restored and that the excuses of the developers, whose claims of dry rot has resulted in the demolition of other houses up and down the country, should never be accepted at face value.

Full story: ‘Georgian Group Architectural Awards‘ [Country Life]