A Hollandaise Source: Henry Holland’s Benham Park, Berkshire

As the costs of owning a country house mounted in the early-twentieth-century and eventually overwhelmed the finances of many families, so they sought alternative uses for their houses. Whether as a care home, school, or any of other myriad uses, few houses or their estates endured the experience unscathed. For those used as offices, the particular indignity of large, modern additions obliterated the immediate setting of a house, occasionally driving it into obscurity. Few who suffered this fate have ever escaped, yet a rare and beautiful survival – Benham Park in Berkshire – has not only escaped, but been wonderfully (partly) restored and is now offered for sale.  What is most remarkable though about this house are its connections to some of the most famous names of Georgian architecture, including Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, a young Henry Holland, and an even younger John Soane.

Benham Park, Berkshire (Image © Savills)
Benham Park, Berkshire (Image © Savills)

Nestled in a lush parkland, Benham Park is significant as a formative experience, in different ways, for both Holland and Soane; a house where the two would each contribute in different ways, each gaining experience which would serve them well in the future. The noted architectural historian Dorothy Stroud declared Holland ‘a designer of perception and originality’. Her tireless research underpins much of what is known about Holland and his work.

Detail of Henry Holland (1745-1806) Image © National Portrait Gallery
Detail of Henry Holland (1745-1806) Image © National Portrait Gallery

Henry Holland (b.1745 – d.1806) was one of the leading architects during the reign of George III. Today, his reputation has been overshadowed by his contemporaries who were more willing to engage in courting public notice, such as by exhibiting their work at the Royal Academy, which Holland never did. Chiding a friend in 1789, he stated ‘Pray no more public compliments to me. I began the world a very independent man and wish to hold it at arms length…I find myself already more the object of public notice than suits my disposition or plan of life’.

Henry Holland was the son of Henry Holland (1712-1785 – to avoid confusion, the father will be referred to as ‘the elder Holland’, any other mentions of Holland are the son) of Fulham. A successful master builder, he built many important houses in the middle years of the eighteenth-century and worked with architects such as Robert Adam, executing his alterations to Bowood in Wiltshire in 1761 and, in the same year, working at Ashridge House, Hertfordshire.  It was this latter commission which was to prove singularly important as it established a professional relationship between Holland senior and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (b.1716 – d.1783), a landscape architect still revered today for his skill and imaginativeness. Brown’s particular ability was to be able to envision a whole landscape as it would be after the planting had reached maturity – to see its ‘capabilities’.

He was also noted architect, with even his rival Humphrey Repton praising the ‘comfort, convenience, taste, and propriety of design in the several mansions and other buildings which he planned’. The houses include Croome Court, Worcestershire (though the design may have been provided by Sanderson Miller), Corsham Court in Wiltshire (1761-64), Broadlands in Hampshire (1766-68), Fisherwick Park in Staffordshire (1766-74 – dem. 1814-16), Redgrave Hall in Suffolk (c.1770 – dem. 1946), Claremont House in Surrey (1771-74), and Cadland in Hampshire (1775-78 – later much enlarged – dem. c.1955).

Fisherwick Park, Staffordshire, painted by John Spyders (1786)
Fisherwick Park, Staffordshire, painted by John Spyders (1786)

Although the initial connection was with the elder Holland, Brown would become central to both the professional and personal life of the younger Holland.  Although he never undertook a Grand Tour, his education was more practical, working with his father in the family business. Holland displayed aptitude and skill, taking on more responsibility but also his talent for design was becoming clear.  With his father’s connections, Holland was taken on as architectural assistant in 1771 by ‘Capability’ Brown who would, in time, hand over much of his design work to Holland, who would use these earlier designs as inspiration.  The closeness and respect between the two can be gauged by the marriage of Henry Holland to Brown’s daughter, Bridget, in 1773. Professionally, a measure of the level of joint enterprise between Colvin notes that Claremont and subsequent houses are jointly attributed to Holland.

Benham Park was an easy commission of Brown to secure, though it was likely that he was primarily thinking of his new partner when doing so. The probability that Brown would be commissioned was high as he was already working for the owner of the estate, William Craven, 6th Baron Craven (b. 1738 – d.1791), on another country house for him, Coombe Abbey, Warwickshire. Apparently under pressure from his wife, Elizabeth Berkeley, Lord Craven wrote to Brown saying ‘Lady Craven wishes to make some alterations here and to begin immediately’. Holland and Brown submitted their designs for a house in September 1773 using a similar pattern to Brown’s previous work with a neoclassical, two-storey main house with grand central portico.

Benham Park, Berkshire (Image © Savills)
Benham Park, Berkshire (Image © Savills)

The house was built between 1774-75, the final result a sympathetic marriage between an elegant yet imposing house and the Arcadian pleasures of a sculpted landscape.  Despite these fine attributes, Benham has been rather overlooked in the histories of both Brown and Holland with the latter clearly learning important lessons from one who designed with practicality in mind, but not to the exclusion of an element of drama. However, Holland was not without his own influence as Stroud notes that from the time he joined Brown’s office, the interior design evolved from a more robust Palladian character to the more restrained yet elegant style which was Holland’s hallmark. Claremont, Cadland, and Benham all display this style, indicating that although the shell of the house was more the work of Brown, the interiors were to Holland’s designs.

What’s remarkable about Holland was his almost precocious drive to build on a grand scale. Backed by his father’s capital and expertise, Holland leased in 1771, aged 26, eighty-nine acres of what is now Chelsea and Knightsbridge, including what is now Cadogan Place, and proceeded to speculatively design and build houses based around a miniature park or garden square. This high profile activity brought Holland his first major solo design for Brook’s club in Mayfair, London, a haunt of the Prince Regent and Whig aristocracy. This would lead to the Prince commissioning two major buildings from Holland; Carlton House and Brighton Pavilion. These two commissions plus Holland’s speculative building cemented his position within the highest social strata, creating future opportunities.

Undated print of Henry Holland's Brighton Marine Pavilion of 1786-87 (Image source Khan Academy)
Undated print of Henry Holland’s Brighton Marine Pavilion of 1786-87 (Image source Khan Academy)

Other significant commissions included the the refurbishment in 1787 of Althrop, Northamptonshire, for the 2nd Earl Spencer, including a full re-casing of the red-brick house in white mathematical tiles with stone dressings, a re-design of the gardens, and inside, a re-ordering of the accommodation including the creation of the noble triple libary, divided into sections by screens of Ionic columns. Another Whig patron was Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford, who had Holland complete some minor works to Bedford House before commissioning more extensive work, also in 1787, at his main house at Woburn Abbey. Holland was back at Broadlands in 1788 creating a new vestibule and inner hallway, the entrance marked by a new grand portico. In 1795, after a sojourn into theatres, Holland returned to grand country houses, with the rebuilding of Southill Park in Bedfordshire for Samuel Whitbread, of brewing fame. Again, as with Althorp, this was a refurbishment to the point of rebuild; the house encased, the accommodation extended and a new portico added. His last commission was again from Lord Spencer in 1801 to rebuilt his Wimbledon house, which had earlier burnt down, with a sophisticated villa in a severely plain style both inside and out. Sadly, this was demolished in 1949.

'Rebuilding of Southill' (1797) by George Garrard (Image © University of Texas)
‘Rebuilding of Southill’ (1797) by George Garrard (Image © University of Texas)

Benham Park was also important for another young, aspiring architect, Sir John Soane. As a young apprentice, Soane had joined Holland’s office in 1772 as a junior. At Benham, Soane was given the task of measuring up to create the final bills, a task he was to repeat at other locations, giving him a valuable insight into not only the process of building but also the business aspects. Although, sadly, almost all Holland’s papers and drawings were posthumously destroyed by his nephew, one of Holland’s account books is preserved in the Soane collection. Soane seems to have retained it as a valuable record and tool when setting up his independent practice. Benham therefore provided practical, aesthetic and business training to the young architect who no doubt admired Holland’s neo-classical approach before evolving his own distinctive response and style, which was to establish him as one of the leading architects of his age.

Benham Park in 1904 (detail) - note the large servants wing to the left, now demolished (Image source Stockcross History via Wikipedia)
Benham Park in 1904 (detail) – note the large servants wing to the left, now demolished (Image source Stockcross History via Wikipedia)

Benham survived largely unaltered into the twentieth-century until 1914 when the pediment was removed from the portico and replaced by a balustrade. This was echoed at the roof level where the pitch was lowered and obscured  by a pierced stone balustrade. The servants quarters were removed at the same time due to their poor condition. The house and estate remained with the Sutton baronets until 1982 when it as bought and converted into offices in 1983, with additional office blocks built next to the house. These were thankfully demolished as part of the latest restoration of the house and estate.

Benham Park - looking out over the lake (Image © Savills)
Benham Park – looking out over the lake (Image © Savills)

Benham Park, (Grade II*), is now offered for sale with 130 glorious acres for £26m. Inevitably for a house of such grandeur situated so close to London, there are approved plans for the house to become a ‘wellness’ centre with a huge (though thoughtfully designed) extension to the side and rear.  For me, as ever, this is a house which would be best served by being returned to it’s original purpose, that of a family home. For a new owner, they could revel in the knowledge that the house and landscape had been conceived by one of the great Georgian partnerships of Brown and Holland.  Standing under the portico today, much as where they and the young John Soane must have once stood, the latter on the cusp of his era-defining career, looking out at Brown’s landscape, they can appreciate this rare combination of architectural genius – truly a prize worth such a princely sum.

Estate agent particulars: ‘Benham Park, Berkshire‘ [Savills]

Brochure (PDF): ‘Benham Park, Berkshire‘ [Savills]

Listing description: ‘Benham Park‘ [Historic England]

Please note: Savills very kindly provided the images and brochure but had no input into the text.

A Sleeping Beauty: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire

The temptation when Country Life magazine arrives each week is to flick through the properties and make tabloid-esque comparisons about how a detached Regency villa in Dorset with space for a family, chickens, and an excitable spaniel, could be had for the price of a tatty flat in London. Yet sometimes these comparisons seem almost too unreal when faced with the exemplary beauty of a country house like Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, which, along with 39 beautifully wooded acres, has just been put up for sale for just £3.5m; the price of a 3-bed terrace house in Chelsea.

Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)
Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Worcestershire lies a house which, either through deliberate privacy or convenient obscurity, is little known to the world. Yet Grade-I listed Ombersley Court is one of the finest houses in Worcestershire, arguably even in the wider region, due not only to the sublime architecture and surrounding estate, but also the fine collection of paintings and artwork. The estate has long been the seat of the Sandys family who acquired the manor in the late sixteenth-century. The current house was originally built for the 1st Lord Sandys (b.1695 – d.1770) between 1723-26, replacing earlier monastic buildings on the site.  The house was designed by Francis Smith of Warwick (b.1672 – d.1738), one of the leading regional architects and, working with his brother William (b.1661- d.1724), ‘one of the most successful master builders in English architectural history’ (Colvin).

‘Smith of Warwick’, as Francis was more commonly known, was a clients ideal contractor due to his famous honesty and reliability, able to deliver buildings on time and on budget. His reputation spread amongst the Midlands gentry and aristocracy with almost all his work within a fifty-mile radius of Warwick.  Such was his standing that even the fractious Duchess of Marlborough (who had famously fallen out with Vanbrugh over Blenheim), demanded that for her house in Wimbledon, Surrey, ‘that Mr Smith of Warwickshire the Builder may be employed to make Contracts and to Measure the Work and to doe everything in his Way that is necessary to Compleat the Work as far as the Distance he is at will give him Leave to do’ (1732-33).

Smith’s solid reliability also manifested itself in his repetition of his well-developed plans and designs for houses, creating a distinctive style which is quite recognisable as his own. Broadly, this would be a three storey house with the centre section either projected or recessed, consistent fenestration, and relatively sparse external decoration, usually only decorative stone dressings such as keystones, quoins or balustraded parapets. This consistency was perhaps a double-edged sword, with the Hon. Daines Barrington stated in a letter in 1784, that although ‘all of them (are) convenient and handsome […] there is a great sameness in the plans, which proves he had little invention’.

Yet, this is to overlook that Smith was, at heart, a successful commercial builder whose understanding and appreciation for architectural ornament and variety was inevitably tempered by his determination to deliver the commission on time and on budget. As the architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin highlights, the core design is that of a standard seventeenth-century house such as Belton House, Lincolnshire, but with stylistic updates as fashions evolved.  ‘Smith’ houses such as Umberslade, Alfreton, and Wingerworth all share this readily accessible style, one which married domestic practicality with exterior grandeur.

Perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement was the tragically now-ruinous Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire; a house with a facade so stately as to rival Chatsworth. Built for the 4th Earl of Scarsdale in 1724, Sutton Scarsdale was one of the finest houses in the country. Although the form is familiar, the masterful control of a palisade of pilasters and columns topped with Corinthian capitals, gives it a gravitas, whilst the detailing such as the scrolled window surrounds to the projecting wings hint at Renaissance motifs; Fausto Rughesi (Santa Maria in Vallicella, 1605/06) filtered through William Talman (design for Thoresby House, 1685, – shown in Vitruvius Britannicus, C1, Pl.91) and James Gibbs (to whose designs Smith was building Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, 1722).


One regret with Ombersley Court is that although the form and plan of the house and much of the superb unaltered early-Georgian internal decoration is still Smith, the exterior is now not his. The original design featured a hipped roof, and what looks to be pilasters, giving it the recognisable ‘Smith’ characteristics.  This was lost when the existing brick was refaced with ashlar in 1809 by the architect John Webb for Mary Sandys, the Marchioness of Downshire. In fairness though, this was a lucky escape as John Nash prepared a much more ambitious scheme in 1808, which proposed adding a two-storey pavilion to each side, linked by a seven-bay screen of giant Ionic columns, though this seems to have been rejected on cost.

Ombersley Court - proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808
Ombersley Court – proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808

One of the glories of the house are the interiors and especially the plasterwork and carving. With a desire for privacy which was rarely breached, few had seen the exceptional decorative work, except through the lens of a Country Life profile by Arthur Oswald in 1953. This extolled the virtues of many aspects including The Chippendale Room which featured bamboo framed silk wall pieces, remarking that ‘it is uncommon to find a Regency example as complete as this or as charming’. The rest of the house struck a careful tone of stately refinement; enough decoration to proclaim wealth and taste, but never excessive.

Ombersley Court - Hallway (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Hallway (© Savills)
Ombersley Court - Drawing Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Drawing Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court - Morning Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Morning Room (© Savills)

With the death of Lord Sandys in 2013 the house passed to Lady Sandys but following her recent death, concerns were raised and rebutted via letters in Country Life that this wonderful house would be forced (for complicated reasons) to become a care home; a fate which would have despoiled this jewel of a house. Instead, for the first time since it was built in 1724, it has been placed on the market. This is a house created by one of the finest craftsmen of the early-Georgian period, with connections to a wider, distinct Midlands architectural tradition which epitomises all that one would hope to see in a country seat. As an important house which deserves respect, one hopes that the new owner will appreciate this remarkable situation and that perhaps the best approach would simply be to buy the house and contents and perhaps another couple hundred acres to truly secure an Arcadian ideal, one which would be hard to better anywhere in the country.

Sales particulars: Omblersley Court, Worcestershire [Savills] – £3.5m with 39 acres

Listing description: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire [British Listed Buildings]

An Indian takeaway: Sezincote, Gloucestershire

We long for an ‘Indian Summer’, whilst sitting in a bungalow drinking tea, eating curry followed by a sorbet and later having a toddy and going to bed in our khaki pyjamas. There are many words, phrases, foods and customs Britain has adopted from our interactions with India, but strangely, despite its strong and vibrant architectural history, the tide of architectural style has been largely one way; Western traditions flowing east, with only scant examples of the ebb bringing Indian influences back. Except, that is, in one small corner of Gloucestershire where the remarkable Sezincote stands as a unique monument to the influence of India – but also leaving the question as to why the Indian (also known as Hindoo or Mughal) style failed to find wider acceptance.

Sezincote House, Gloucestershire - entrance front
Sezincote House, Gloucestershire – East Front

UK country houses have always been a magnet for other influences, the interiors vying with each other to embody ‘fashion’ and be seen to reflect the culture and stature of the owners.  With the advent of travel, particularly what would become recognised as the Grand Tour, architectural styles from across Europe including Roccoco, Classical, Baroque and Palladianism would also find a ready home, being easily adaptable to the English physical and intellectual climate.  Further afield, imperial trade in the late 17th-century carried home Chinese, Persian and Indian influences and evidence of both can be widely found in porcelain, furnishing, fashion and art. Daniel Defoe noted Queen Mary’s ‘love of fine East India calicos‘ which led to an increased popularity for imported textiles, much to the chagrin of domestic mill workers.

"East India House" by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), (Wikipedia / Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
“East India House” by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), (Wikipedia / Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Behind this trade was a British firm which grew to wield power never equalled and with an ability generate wealth in a way few have; the East India Company (EIC).  On the strength of resurgent national confidence following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, merchants gained permission from Queen Elizabeth I to sail to explore the opportunities of the Indian Ocean, with the first ships sailing in 1591. After three abortive attempts, they succeeded in 1600 and the Queen granted the newly formed EIC a 15-year monopoly on trading with the East Indies. After besting their Dutch, French and Portuguese competition both militarily, diplomatically and eventually financially, by the mid-1700s, control of trade in India was under the control of the EIC.

This control was exercised through the EIC’s own staff and enforced by its private army creating a pseudo-state-like entity which offered the chance for rank, prestige and to create a fortune. Back in Britain, many looked at the usual prospects of joining the clergy, law or military service as a dim comparison against the possibilities of India.  As the financial opportunities of India became apparent, so the attractiveness of a position there increased amongst the aristocracy who came, saw, and administered, with the intention of taking their new fortunes home to establish themselves or boost their status in society.

Yet, from an architectural viewpoint, for all the interaction and extended immersion in the rich Indian culture, the complex and beautiful architecture was largely ignored as an appropriate style for country houses back in Britain. This was in stark contrast to the European styles which came back to Britain, like burrs on the coat-tails of the aristocratic Grand Tourists. This makes the domed, florid Sezincote, nestled deep in the Gloucestershire countryside all the more exceptional.

Originally a small 15th-century manor house, it was bought by the Earls of Guildford in 1692 and survived largely unchanged until bought by Colonel John Cockerell in 1775 – but he was not the author of the final version of the house. Sir John was a friend and had been part of the military staff of Warren Hastings, the former Governor-General of Bengal, who was building his own house at nearby Daylesford, and Cockerell probably had the help of his friend, or at least his agent, William Walford, in selecting the estate. In 1797, Cockerell wrote to Walford saying ‘I have many conceits and fancies in regard to Seasoncote [his spelling] for a residence…‘. In reality, the plans were a conventional Georgian remodelling with Sir John looking for someone to complete ‘the plain sort of work I shall mostly want‘. Building work was well under way by 1798 but at the end of the year came to a rather unexpected stop with the death of Sir John.

The half-finished house was inherited equally by his brothers, Charles and Samuel, and his sister. Charles had also made a fortune in India through a combination of official positions and private trading and, having bought out his sibling’s shares in the house for a total of £38,000, decided to embark on a much more radical vision. Seemingly unconstrained in his imagination, Charles decided (in collaboration with Thomas Daniell and his nephew William, the famous painters Indian topographical pictures), to clothe his Georgian house in full Indian robes.

Indian fireplace, Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image from 'Country Houses of Gloucestershire' by Nicholas Kingsley (1992, Phillimore & Co)
Indian fireplace, Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image from ‘Country Houses of Gloucestershire’ by Nicholas Kingsley (1992, Phillimore & Co)

The architect for this grand plan was S.P. Cockerell, his brother, whom Colvin described as ‘original and inventive‘ and this commission would certainly give free reign to both those attributes. Interestingly, this was not Cockerell’s first experience of designing with Indian motifs as he had been employed in 1789-93 to remodel the nearby unfinished Daylesford House, the newly acquired seat of the controversial former Governer-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings. Facing numerous charges of embezzlement, cruelty and abuse of power from 1788-95 (of which he was later cleared), perhaps unsurprisingly the exterior does not laud his Indian experiences, except for a hint in the west front which features a curved bay topped with a copper dome with a ball and spike decoration. Inside, although Hastings owned an exquisite set of gilt ivory Indian furniture, the decoration was restrained though it featured a remarkable fireplace, carved by Sir Thomas Banks in 1792, which depicts an Indian sacrificial scene and Indian female figures on either side.

Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image © altitudepix.co.uk)
Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image © altitudepix.co.uk)

At Sezincote, Cockerell had a much less restrained brief and so was able to fully embrace the Indian architectural language but whilst still firmly rooting it in the ideal of the Picturesque – that ability to surprise. The design though is not just collection of Indian forms and details; this is a house built at a time of great interest in this new culture and with a client both well versed in the country and its buildings and with a genuine respect for them. Drawing on both Muslim and Hindu motifs, it reflected such impressive buildings as Humayun’s mausoleum of Emperor Akbar’s mother in Delhi (especially the roof shape of the small turrets), and Sezincote’s entrance front bears some echoes of Akbar’s own mausoleum with the double-height arch.

East Front, Sezincote (Image © Cotswold Journeys)
East Front, Sezincote (Image © Cotswold Journeys)

The south facade is the most playful and graceful; a delicate blend of Anglo-Indian to create something unique in British architecture.  Dominated by a canted bay, the windows are shaped into peacock fantails such as seen in the Jaipur palaces, the chajja or wide over-hanging eaves create shade, with the corners punctuated by chattris, or small minarets, the green balcony railings imitating Indian jali work. The main dome is striking in both its shape and dominance whilst still being proportional to the overall design. The main house then joins the grand curved sweep of the Orangery (possibly to follow the landscape, possibly shaped like a scimitar), with its continuation of the peacock windows, terminating in an elegant pavilion.  It should be noted that the interior was pure Greek Revival, again emphasising the application of Indian design being in the Picturesque tradition of decoration, rather than slavish copying.

Orangery and Pavilion, Sezincote (Image © Sezincote Estate)
Orangery and Pavilion, Sezincote (Image © Sezincote Estate)

Fashion being what it is, news of the building of this extraordinary house travelled far, even reaching the Prince Regent.  The earlier popularity of William Hodges ‘Select Views in India’ (1783) and the six volumes of Daniell brothers ‘Oriental Scenery‘ watercolours (completed 1808), this helped created the brief flourishing of the Anglo-Indian style.  The Prince Regent, ever one for fashion, visited the still unfinished Sezincote in 1807 (probably at the suggestion of Humphrey Repton who was working there) and was so duly taken with this fantasy (supported by one of Repton’s famous Red Books), he resolved to indulge as well and so his new pleasure retreat in Brighton externally adopted the same, creating the iconic Brighton Pavilion.

Hindoo Temple, Melchet Park, Wiltshire c.1800 (Image © British Library)
Hindoo Temple, Melchet Park, Wiltshire c.1800 (Image © British Library)

However, the Anglo-Indian fashion failed to gain widespread popularity beyond the ephemeral (and hidden) interior decorations and fabrics. Architecturally, there were a few examples. In the City of London, George Dance the Younger created one of the early Indian-Gothic designs in 1788 with his entrance to the south front of the Guildhall. Dance also added unspecified Indian elements to Stratton Park, Hampshire (built 1803-06, dem. 1963) for Francis Baring (who made a fortune with the EIC) and at Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire (built 1804-08). It made appearances in various architectural pattern books (e.g. Robert Lugar and Edmund Aikin), leading to some quite isolated ancillary buildings appearing to be influenced by it; a Hindoo temple at Melchet Park, Hampshire, (c.1800) and further afield such as in Ireland with the Copper Lodge, Portlaw, (probably built 1820s, dismantled 1970s), and the Dromona Gate, Co. Waterford, built in 1861.  Back in England, perhaps the most impressive was the dramatic conservatory at Enville Hall, Staffordshire, built in 1854, which mixed Gothic and Indian, and which was sadly blown up for demolition practice during WWII.

Conservatory, Enville Hall, Staffordshire (Image © Historic England)
Conservatory, Enville Hall, Staffordshire (Image © Historic England)

So, despite the inventive opportunities, the widespread cultural exposure and even an element of Royal patronage, why did the Anglo-Indian style not become more popular for country houses?

Probably the most influential element was timing – but also a number of other more negative factors. Fashion is part inspiration, but also heavily dependent on there being a space in popular taste for it to expand into. Although Britain had been involved in India since 1600, achieving the dominant position had been a struggle with a heavy price paid by all participants; financially, militarily but also directly in the mortality rates of the colonial staff sent to this still largely unknown place.

Often, those who were sent to make their fortunes in India were second or third sons, who may have been in the shadow of their elder brother who stood to inherit.  Although the position of Viceroy was considered a significant honour, it was sometimes coveted for the financial advantages it offered to the incumbent: the substantial salary, the state-funded lavish lifestyle and the chance to rent out your own home back in the UK. Also, unless they made their own significant fortune, their time in India was perhaps considered an exotic distraction, possibly combined with ‘moral’ difficulties, considering the stories of the taking of local ‘wives’ and the adoption of local dress and customs, as reflected in the pejorative phrase of ‘going native‘. The ongoing military operations, the accusations of mismanagement, and the reports of massacres by both sides can only have added to the sense that Indian culture and British involvement was not one to be celebrated.

From an architectural perspective, just at the time that the EIC had established its dominance in the mid-18th century, the popularity of Chinoiserie was in ascendance, boosted by Thomas Chippendale’s ‘The gentleman and cabinet-maker’s director‘ (1754) and the architect William Chambers’ influential book ‘Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils‘ (PDF, 15mb) in 1757.  As mentioned before, this fashion culminated in the Prince Regent’s Oriental extravagance, the Brighton Pavilion, completed in 1823, inspired by Sezincote.  However, the unpopularity of the Prince may well have meant that what he favoured, was unfashionable. As fashion was swept along by Gothic Revival and Neo-Classicism, the Anglo-Indian style was politically difficult, architecturally challenging, and increasingly unattractive.

'Designs of Chinese buildings, furniture, dresses, machines, and utensils' - William Chambers (1757) (© Warburg Library)
‘Designs of Chinese buildings, furniture, dresses, machines, and utensils’ – William Chambers (1757) (Image © Warburg Library)

This makes Sezincote all the more remarkable; the determined vision of Charles Cockerell, an educated man who revelled in his experience in the beauty of India, realised with great care and skill. It is also a reminder that architecture is often a product of fashion and both are closely linked with wider society. Today though, thanks to the loving restoration of the Kleinwort family, who bought the estate in 1944, both the house and gardens have been restored back to their former glory; a vision of India, unique in the UK.

For a more in-depth history:

To see Indian influences in the UK:

  • Sezincote, Gloucestershire – gardens often open, house used for events.
  • Powis Castle, Wales – former home of a Viceroy with extensive collection of artifacts.
  • Elvedon Hall, Suffolk – if you can get in on a rare visit, Elevedon was once owned by the Maharaja Dulap Singh and has some impressive Indian rooms added in the 1890s.

Why the long gap between posts?

I last posted in May 2015 on the devastating fire at Clandon Park. In June, I then moved house with the expectation that after a couple of months I’d be unpacked and able to start again. Unfortunately, as with any house, the renovations took far longer than expected (and it’s only a small 1930s semi!) and I’ve had to be very hands-on. More significantly, my father, who had been ill for a while, deteriorated in January and sadly passed away. This blog, in part, exists because he fully supported my interests and enabled me to start collecting books to indulge my passion for country houses, so, for this and many other reasons, I will always be grateful to him.

Reflections on the loss of Clandon Park, Surrey

Loss is mainly regret that we will never see something, or that we have known it and will never see it again.  Where the loss is of something of beauty, which embodied ideas, history, culture, it takes on many facets. Fire is a destructive, cruel enemy, consuming all in its path; caring not for the value – either great or small – simply taking whatever it can as fuel for its avaricious need to grow. On 29 April 2015, as the fire at Clandon Park took hold we hoped for the best – yet sadly, less than twelve hours later, all that remained was a gaunt, blackened shell. The loss was not just the building and its beautiful interiors and contents, but also what it represented to UK architectural history.

Clandon Park, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Clandon Park, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

News breaks now on social media, the first photos and reports of huge plumes of smoke spreading much as the flames did; slowly at first, rapidly growing. Quickly it became clear that the fire had reached the roof and that the rooms on the ground floor of the south side had already gone – the Green Drawing, Palladio, Hunting, Prince Regent.  Each a small gem in themselves, their contents the result of decades of collecting and curation. As the floors above collapsed, it became clear that this was a very serious situation and thoughts immediately are to hope that, first, everyone is safe, but, secondly, how far would the fire go? Sadly, it soon became clear that the entire house was to be consumed in the inferno.

Clandon Park on fire, 29 April 2015 (Image: © Andrew Blondell / BBC Surrey)
Clandon Park on fire, 29 April 2015 (Image: © Andrew Blondell / BBC Surrey)

Why was Clandon Park important? It wasn’t just the history and collections.  Most importantly, the design of the house was a key transitional link between two defining periods of British architectural history; the Anglo-Baroque and the Palladian. The house, both interior and exterior, was designed by a Venetian architect, Giacomo Leoni, and built between 1723-29.  Both the architect and the dates are key to understanding why the house was so significant.

Clandon Park on fire - two-thirds of the house was now on fire (Image: © Oliver Dixon)
Clandon Park on fire – two-thirds of the house was now on fire (Image: © Oliver Dixon)

Giacomo Leoni (b.1686 – d.1746) played a key role in bringing the ideas of Palladio to the UK through the publication of that architects’ ‘I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (which he called ‘The Architecture of A. Palladio, in Four Books’). Although not an entirely accurate recreation (Leoni wasn’t above adding his own improvements) the instalments (published between 1715-20) were a huge success, casting the ideas of the Palladian ideal deep into the aspirational hearts of the British aristocracy.  Leoni’s edition remained the primary source of the nascent Georgian Palladianism until (prompted by Lord Burlington) Issac Ware produced a more accurate translation in 1738.

Clandon Park on fire - the flames reached the north side (Image: © Alex Greenwood)
Clandon Park on fire – the flames reached the north side (Image: © Alex Greenwood)

For all his intellectual influence, Leoni’s physical output was relatively meagre for a 45-year career – his earliest designs were for an unexecuted rebuilding of Wrest Park in August 1715 for the 1st Duke of Kent. His first completed work was in London in 1721, Queensberry House, 7 Burlington Gardens, for John Bligh, Lord Clifton, which featured an antique temple front, a reduced version of which appears on the south front of Clandon Park. Leoni’s output was mainly country houses; he designed eleven but only nine were completed (the two unfinished houses being Carshalton Park and Thorndon Hall) of which four have been lost already (Moulsham Hall – dem. 1809, Bold Hall – dem. 1901, Burton (or Bodecton) Park – fire 1826, and Lathom House – dem. 1929/1955).

Comparison of Leoni's 7 Burlington Gardens and south front of Clandon Park (Image: 7BG: Wikipedia / Clandon: Matthew Beckett)
Comparison of Leoni’s 7 Burlington Gardens and south front of Clandon Park (Image: 7BG: Wikipedia / Clandon: Matthew Beckett)

This left just four completed house which survived into the 21st-century; Lyme Park (c.1725-35), Alkrington Hall (1735-36), Wortley Hall (1743)- and Clandon Park (1723-29).

The brilliance of Leoni’s design for Clandon had survived almost unchanged as it had remained in the Onslow family until being handed to the National Trust in 1956. Where Clandon excelled was that the exterior was early-Anglo-Palladian; chaste, restrained decoration, subtle temple motif, but this was married with one of the greatest of the Anglo-Baroque rooms, the Marble Hall (the plasterwork of which Sir Simon Jenkins thought better than the similar room at Houghton Hall), and other rooms rich in beauty. This contrast between the quiet exterior and the exuberant interior is what made Clandon so important as the link between two of the most significant trends in British architectural history.

Marble Hall, Clandon Park (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Marble Hall, Clandon Park (Image: Matthew Beckett)

So, what next? The incredible staff and volunteers of the National Trust swiftly put into place the plans they never hoped to have to use and clearly, the efforts are being directed to the care of the salvaged contents and an examination of what can be recovered from the debris.   Investigations will be undertaken and conclusions reached as to the cause but looking to the future the options are the same as ever; rebuild, re-use, or ruin.

Marble Hall, after the fire (Image: © John Millar / NT Picture Library)
Marble Hall, after the fire (Image: © John Millar / NT Picture Library)

As a nation, we have fetishised ruins for centuries with castles, abbeys, fortifications and now factories celebrated for their managed decay. We have enough derelict country houses (far too many, truth be told), so to consign another to that sad, lonely fate would miss the chance to grasp a recoverable beauty and miss the opportunity to demonstrate and inspire through an educational process around the reconstruction.

The Landmark Trust’s inspired recent work at Astley Castle, Warwickshire, to create a modern living space in a shell created by a fire in 1978, shows that ruins can be re-used intelligently and with great aesthetic success.  However, Astley Castle was a smaller house and also without the spectacular interiors which once graced Clandon Park.

Uppark, Sussex (Image: © Matthew Beckett)
Uppark, Sussex (Image: © Matthew Beckett)

So the remaining option is rebuilding and restoration.  As has been shown at Uppark, Sussex, which also suffered a serious (though not quite as devastating) fire in August 1989, it is possible to restore the house back to as it was before.  This is not pastiche as it’s not conjectural – we have extensive, detailed records of the interiors and, combined with salvaged fabric, it is possible to recreate what was there.  As Sir Simon Jenkins argued in the Sunday Times (03/05/2015), it would be unthinkable not the reinstate the great Marble Hall – because we can.

Modern care and conservation means that the rate of losses of country houses has dropped from the hundreds each year in the 1950s to barely a handful and these are almost always due to fire. All those we have – that which survived this far – are fragile and it’s an uncomfortable truth to understand that they will not last forever.  As the painter Salvator Rosa once wrote:

All our works is fallen and sicken
Nothing is eternal
The Colossei die, the Baths
The worlds are dust, their pomp a nothing…

Rather than despair, we should celebrate and enjoy the architectural heritage which is still available to us and care for it for future generations. The original Clandon Park is lost; that patina of age, the individual details which only it knew are no more. Although the contents have been largely lost, resurrection is the most appropriate option as the main shell of the house has survived – the sterling work of the fire service has saved at least one half of Leoni’s vision. Modern craftsmen with ancient crafts, honed at Uppark, Hampton Court, and Windsor Castle, can recreate the beauty of the interior.  It won’t be the original but from our shock at the loss can come awe at the artistic skills that can recreate such wonders as the Marble Hall.


Gallery of images of the aftermath: ‘Clandon Park fire 2015‘ [National Trust Picture Library]

Statement: ‘Fire breaks out at Clandon Park, Surrey‘ [National Trust]

Purchasing the picturesque: Hampton Court and Lasborough Park for sale

Hampton Court, Herefordshire - £12m, 935-acres (Image: Knight Frank)
Hampton Court, Herefordshire – £12m, 935-acres (Image: Knight Frank)

What is beauty? Though it is often in the eye of the beholder, some have attempted to define just what it is. In architecture, this can be seen in the development of the Picturesque ideal which sought to combine natural and man-made elements to compose a vision which would delight the eye and uplift the soul. Hampton Court in Herefordshire, and another house launched this week, Lasborough Park in Gloucestershire, can both be considered part of the Picturesque movement, even though the former took shape before the theory of the sublime and beautiful was brought to life and the latter was built just before the revival took hold.

'Landscape with Narcissus and Echo' - Claude Lorrain, 1644 (Image: National Gallery)
‘Landscape with Narcissus and Echo’ – Claude Lorrain, 1644 (Image: National Gallery)

The origin of the Picturesque movement can, in part, be found in the philosophical writings of a much under-rated figure of the 17th-century, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury.  To him, nature ought to be imperfect and that, in turn, we ought to celebrate the untamed trees and serpentine rivers, those dark glades and tumbling crags. Unsurprisingly, the Earl found that the early Italian landscape paintings by Nicolas Poussin, Gaspard DughetClaude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, reflected best this vision of a wilder natural world.  Landscapes had been unfashionable when Lord Shaftesbury first arrived in Italy in 1686, but by the turn of the century, they were in high demand amongst the grand tourists who carried these canvases back to the UK and into the popular taste of the nation.  These views married with Vanbrugh‘s early call in 1705 for a more natural approach to landscaping at Blenheim Palace, but found its true champion in William Kent in the 1730s, especially in his work at Rousham, Claremont and Stowe. The ideas were then developed further in 1757 in Edmund Burke’s ‘The Origin of our Ideas about the Sublime and the Beautiful‘ which, in its musing on aesthetics, distinguished between the latter, which was all about smooth lines and bold colours, whereas the former is about an awesome beauty on an almost fearful scale.

The death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783 created a vacuum which led to the revival of the debate as to the most tasteful approach to landscaping.  The arguments were largely between Humphry Repton (who defended Brown’s ‘contrived natural’ approach of smooth curved borders and sweeping lawns which ran right up to the house) versus Sir Uvedale Price, 1st Baronet (b.1747 – d.1829), author of the ‘Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared with the Sublime and The Beautiful’ (1794), who, along with Richard Payne Knight, sought to create a more ‘robustly natural’ approach, where blasted tree stumps and ruins were also important.  This mirrored the first wave of the Picturesque to some extent, but this later flourish created a new passion to rediscover the beauty of the same painters whom Lord Shaftesbury had admired decades earlier.  Although neither Price or Knight worked on any gardens other than their own, their ideas were to have a dramatic impact on the settings of country houses, which were now considered as part of the overall composition rather than separate from it; formal gardens were swept away and snaking carriage drives now swept visitors through glades and past vistas before their arrival.

Detail from 'The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire' by Leonard Knyff, c1699 (Image: Wikimedia)
Detail from ‘The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire’ by Leonard Knyff, c1699 (Image: Wikimedia)

The grand formalism of the gardens of Hampton Court c1699 (above) contrasted with the asymmetrical grouping of the house. ‘The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire‘ by Leonard Knyff, shows how the grounds were a vision of control; of formal avenues and canals (see also the companion North prospect view). The house was, at this time, owned by the Coningsby family, having been bought by Sir Humphrey Coningsby in 1510 from a fellow courtier. His son became the first Earl of Coningsby and it remained in their family for 300 years.  Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), who famously made his fortune from bringing the industrial revolution to the cotton industry, bought the house and 6,220-acres in 1810 for £226,325 (approx. £6.2m). His son, also Richard (1755-1843), made another fortune, before inheriting from his father in 1792, and invested in significant country houses, one for each of his five sons. However, the most significant changes came under his (fourth) son, John, who decided that ‘…of all the situations I know, there is none which suits my taste so well as Hampton Court‘ (funny that). After John’s marriage, the requirements of a growing family persuaded his father that the house needed to be enlarged.

The man chosen to design the work was Charles Hanbury-Tracy, a gentleman architect who had built his own home, Toddington Manor, between 1819-40, in his favoured ‘gothic collegiate’ style at a cost of £150,000 .  Though the style was sympathetic to Hampton Court, the relationship between architect and client became difficult. Another architect, John Atkinson, had pleaded with Hanbury-Tracy not to ‘make Hampton Court a cell to the Abbey of Toddington‘ but his determined views were at odds with Arkwright’s wife, who fell out with Hanbury-Tracy over the nursery arrangements, which led to nearly a decade of alterations and disagreements, especially as the costs mounted to eventually total over £30,000. John certainly preferred working with Joseph Paxton, who created the new conservatory, which was added in 1845-46. That said, the end result is one which successfully married old and new, creating a successful interpretation of domestic gothic and the picturesque.

Lasborough Park, Gloucestershire - £12m, 55-acres (Image: Savills)
Lasborough Park, Gloucestershire – £12m, 55-acres (Image: Savills)

The Picturesque was a constant presence throughout the 18th-century but enjoyed a revival of interest in the 1790s and Lasborough Park represented the style just at the cusp of this.  Built in 1794 for Edmund Estcourt, his architect was James Wyatt, who enjoyed a rare skill in being able to master a number of different architectural styles – something which led later to his being unjustifiably underrated.  At Lasborough, Wyatt provided a continuation of the theme which John Martin Robinson in his book on the architect called a ‘toy-fort model‘; that is, a symmetrical house with battlements and corner turrets.  Wyatt had been using this pattern when working on various schemes for remodelling the interiors of Slane Castle since 1773 but it was only over ten years later that he was able to remodel the exterior, taking an irregular L-shape and bringing symmetry by adding matching towers.

Slane Castle, Co. Meath (Image: Slane Castle)
Slane Castle, Co. Meath (Image: Slane Castle)

Wyatt’s design developed the tradition of the castellated residence; houses which had been either adapted from an older fortification or made to look like they might have done. Six decades before Wyatts’ work at Slane Castle, earlier versions, such as Howth Castle, Co. Dublin, which was altered significantly in 1738, are evidence that the style was already favoured and also incorporated an effort to create symmetry with the original keep on the left, mirrored in a new tower on the right.

The Picturesque style was popular in Ireland but initially as an import of the Protestant aristocracy and was viewed by some as an attempt to import a ‘little England’, a form of architectural and landscape colonialism. However, Ireland was particularly suited to the forms of the Picturesque which often worked in harmony with its natural beauty to form a unified creation which led the eye of the visitor from the grounds near the house, towards the middle distance, and then out to the wider landscape – much as a painter would structure their picture.

Hampton Court from south west (Image: Knight Frank)
Hampton Court from south west (Image: Knight Frank)

Hampton Court is one of the most important and impressive country houses to come to the market this year.  As part of our heritage, it embodies architectural developments which brought the country house from fortification to domestication, with a landscape which started with formal terraces but finished with flowing lawns.  The genesis of the more structured medieval revival form of Lasborough Park can be seen in the core of Hampton Court and in each of the subsequent alterations.  Both houses are valuable pieces of the nation’s architectural record and deserve owners who will appreciate them and hopefully both will remain as single family homes, enjoyed as they have for generations, for their Picturesque beauty.


For a more in-depth history of the Arkwrights and their time at Hampton Court, I recommend: ‘Champagne & Shambles – The Arkwrights and the Country House in Crisis‘ by Catherine Beale [Amazon]

Sales details:


Country House Rescue – Series 4: Meldon Park, Northumberland

Meldon Park, Northumberland (Image: Meldon Park)
Meldon Park, Northumberland (Image: Meldon Park)

One of the joys of Country House Rescue is to bring to light some of the lesser known houses. The subject of this week’s edition (12 July, 20:00, Channel 4), Meldon Park in Northumberland, can certainly be said to be one of the ‘illustrious obscure‘.  This is also perhaps an apt description of the architect, who was one of the most prolific in the north east of England yet surprisingly little known beyond that, though the house also features later work by another who was certainly famous. Yet, such noble associations do not pay the bills so, despite a 3,800-acre estate, the Cookson family have called in the services of Simon Davis to provide ideas to help keep the house in the family.

Entrance front, Meldon Park (Image: lawrencecornell via flickr)
Entrance front, Meldon Park (Image: lawrencecornell via flickr)

Meldon Park is certainly an elegant essay in the neo-Classical; golden brown sandstone in a compact and elegant design with some superb subtle detailing which denotes the hand of a finer architect.  The entrance front, though only three bays wide, features a grand porch with four free-standing (or ‘tetrastyle prostyle’ if you’d prefer the architectural terms) Ionic columns, projecting from a slight recession of the middle bay, with the corners of the building marked by shallow pilasters.

The architect of the now grade-II* Meldon Park was the regionally prolific John Dobson (b.1787 – d.1865) – a name famous in the north east but, due to his geographic focus, one less known nationally.  Dobson was born in Chirton, County Durham, and showed an early talent for drawing which led, at the age of 15, to his becoming a pupil of leading Newcastle architect David Stephenson.  On completing his studies in 1809, Dobson moved to London to develop his skills further, studying under the famous watercolourist John Varley. In London, Dobson became friends with the artist Robert Smirke and his two architect sons Robert (who designed the main facade of the British Museum) and Sydney (who later married Dobson’s daughter).  Despite the urging of his friends to stay in London, Dobson moved back to Newcastle where he established his practice, becoming (reputedly) the only architect between York and Edinburgh, except for Ignatius Bonomi in Durham.

Jesmond Towers, Newcastle (Image: GeordieMac Pics via flickr)
Jesmond Towers, Newcastle (Image: GeordieMac Pics via flickr)

Dobson proved to be an exceptionally capable architect; not only could he produce beautiful and convincing watercolours of proposed projects, he was also technically competent, to the extent that his daughter claimed he ‘…never exceeded an estimate, and never had a dispute with a contractor‘. Dobson is perhaps best remembered for designing much of central Newcastle, and in particular, the beautiful curved train shed at the Central station.  Despite his urban output, Dobson was also extensively involved in projects outside of the towns, designing or altering over sixty churches and more than a hundred country houses; the latter principally commissioned by the beneficiaries of the wealth of the Industrial Revolution. Dobson was a rare architect in that he was competent in designing in both the picturesque style of Tudor Gothic (such as at Beaufront Castle and Jesmond Towers) and the classical style of the Greek Revival – and it was in the latter that he truly excelled. Although Howard Colvin praises his careful siting of the houses, high-quality finish and precise and scholarly detailing, he thought Dobson had a tendency to exaggerate the scaling, creating an overall look which might be considered bleak. Yet, this is more an academic criticism; those today looking on the many houses he worked on would consider them to be handsome examples of the flourishing of the country house which resulted from the new wealth in the north east.

Stair hall, Meldon Park (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Stair hall, Meldon Park (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Meldon Park was to be one of Dobson’s finest of his Greek Revival designs.  Built in 1832 for Isaac Cookson, at a cost of £7,188 1s 1d (about £5m today if compared with average earnings), it was a sizeable house with extensive service accommodation and extending to a beautiful Orangery, even if the main house was comparatively small.  That said, the rooms are bright and well-proportioned with a grand Imperial central staircase, with its deep coffered ceiling described by Pevsner as being ‘the size of one in a London club‘.  The staircase was later reworked by no lesser figure than Sir Edwin Lutyens, who replaced the original metal balustrades with wooden ones and added decorative plaster panels.

Isaac Cookson was the third generation to manage the family manufacturing interests and had taken charge of his father’s glass works, developing them into one of the country’s leading makers, along with a very successful chemical works.

Longhirst Hall, Northumberland (Image: Longhirst Hall Hotel)
Longhirst Hall, Northumberland (Image: Longhirst Hall Hotel)

Cookson had previously employed Dobson to design part of a speculative urban development in Newcastle and combined with his earlier country house work at neighbouring Mitford Hall, Longhirst (with its striking entrance portico) and Nunnykirk halls, Dobson was a natural choice when looking to create his refined country seat.

As owners of a glass works, it was natural that the house would be well-lit; the bright interior a result of the large windows which graced the main rooms on the south and east sides.  Yet, Meldon Park actually marks a turning point.  The brilliant Mark Girouard, writing in Country Life in 1966, pointed out that:

In rooms like this, one realises just how much Georgian architecture developed in the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as windows grew bigger and more and more effort was made to link the inside of the house visually with the landscape.  Meldon shows the development at its final stage; soon a reaction was to begin and the Victorians turned away from the sun and immersed themselves in increasing gloom.   In this as in other aspects Meldon represents in a very convincing way, the last flowering of the Georgian country house tradition.

So Meldon Park represents not only the work of one of the finest architects to have worked in the north east but also marks a key point in the development of British architecture; the high-water mark of Georgian elegance before the more insular and muscular Victorian style swept over the north of England.  The house is also one of those rare survivals where it is still owned and lived in by descendants of the person who commissioned it, sitting in its own huge estate.  This is a house which seems to be clearly loved by the owners who have worked incredibly hard to ensure they can remain there especially when the house is less of an attraction for visitors as previous generations had sold the art collection.  Judging by their new website and other news stories about their expanded and diversified activities it seems that they were also willing to listen to Simon Davis’ advice and act on it and such pragmatism can only be applauded and will hopefully be rewarded.


Official website: ‘Meldon Park

Photos from Country Life: Meldon Park [Country Life Picture Library]

Listed building description: ‘Meldon Park, Northumberland‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Want to stay there? Meldon Park: East Wing Apartment

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 5 [Channel 4]

For more information about the architect: ‘John Dobson 1787-1865: Architect of the North East‘ – Thomas Faulkner & Andrew Greg

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Colebrooke Park, N. Ireland

Colebrooke Park, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)
Colebrooke Park, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)

Country House Rescue has proved to be one of the most interesting of programmes featuring the many varied mansions which the UK is lucky to enjoy.  Rather than the more glamorous recent series showing life at Chatsworth, or Jeremy Musson’s brilliant ‘Curious House Guest‘, Country House Rescue has shown the sometimes harsh reality of owning these homes, despite the lazy jibes in the wider media about families living in a state of supposed luxury.  The programmes have shown the hard work and sense of duty these families possess, though this is sometimes overshadowed by the friction which change can bring, and which is often what is broadcast.  Yet, with a new presenter for the new series (starting Thursday 14 June), perhaps the commitment of the owners and the sheer beauty of their houses will come more to the fore.

In the first three series, Ruth Watson has proved to be an entertaining, if no-nonsense, deliverer of some rather stark home truths to owners up and down the country. For series four, a new presenter, Simon Davis, (favourite houses: Sezincote, Blenheim, Mount Stuart, Villa Emo, Babington House) takes the helm and steers a more collaborative and involved course as he stays at the houses, with the families, to experience their day-to-day life, including the hardships; at one house he spent an extremely cold night after the family admitted they never turn on the heating as it costs £30 per hour to run. It will be interesting to see how the new messenger is received and whether a less assertive style will bring greater success – though many will undoubtedly miss Ruth’s acerbic commentary.

The houses to feature in the new series are now known: Colebrooke Park, Bantry House, Chapel Cleeve Manor, Craufurdland Castle, Great Fulford, Meldon Park (thank you Andrew); starting with Colebrooke Park in Co. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland; the first time the show has been to that part of the UK.

Colebrooke Park is a fascinating example of the varied fortunes of the country house over the last two centuries; a story marked by wealth and also decline, but also one driven by a continued commitment to a house by generations of one family. Home to the Brooke family for over 350 years, the current owner, the 3rd Viscount Brookeborough (a prominent peer, one of the 92 hereditaries sitting in the House of Lords) received what many would regard as an unenviable inheritance in 1980 when he took on the decaying and empty family seat.

Of course, as with many houses, they had had a heyday.  Once the centre of one of the five largest estates in the area, which had reached a peak of almost 28,000-acres in 1876, the house had been home to a succession of prominent politicians and soldiers including the 1st Viscount, the longest serving Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (1943-63). However, agricultural changes, taxation, and the Troubles, meant that the estate slowly shrank to just over a thousand acres, with a similarly reduced income insufficient to maintain a house of this size.

Castle Coole, Northern Ireland (Image: Stephen McKay / Geograph.ie)
Castle Coole, Northern Ireland (Image: Stephen McKay / Geograph.ie)

The house itself is a rather austere neo-Classical design; a two-storey, nine-bay block only enlivened by a grand pedimented portico with Ionic columns.  The house was built in 1820 for Henry Brooke (b.1770 – d.1834) who was created a baronet in 1822 (second creation), as a statement of his position, but one which was to be built on a budget – though a substantial one; the house was completed for £10,381 – approx £7m today.  Sir Henry had inherited the house and estate from a rather profligate uncle and clearing the debts and establishing a comfortable fortune had taken three decades – the house was a reward and a monument to his sound management.  Despite being a cautious man, Sir Henry still succumbed to the suggestions of his architect that he compete with the nearby Castle Coole by James Wyatt (built 1790-97), increasing the dimensions of the house so that it was larger, and then later in the summer, approving the enlargement of the Library to 36ft by 18ft.

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)
Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)

For those who regularly watch TV programmes featuring country houses, Colebrooke Park may trigger a vague sense of deja vue.  This is because the house is, bar a few details, quite similar in design to Sarah Beeny’s Rise Hall in Yorkshire (mentioned in this previous blog post).  Both houses were built around the same time but by different architects; Colebrooke in 1820 by William Farrell and Rise Hall in 1815-20 by Watson and Pritchett.  Yet it is likely that this was more co-incidence than copying as there is a clear architectural lineage for the ‘rectangular block with portico’ style of house which goes back to Colen Campbell‘s masterpiece of architectural propaganda, Vitruvius Britannicus.  Published in 1715, this collection of designs helped shift the national preference away from the more florid Baroque houses of Vanbrugh toward a simpler architectural style; one which Campbell himself exemplified with his quite radical first design for Wanstead Hall, Essex. Although Wanstead as built was significantly different in the detailing, the core architectural idea was for a rectangular central block, fronted by a bold, pedimented portico.  This was to be one of the most influential designs produced by an architect; shaping national taste, it was widely imitated for decades afterwards – see Prior Park in Bath, built in the 1730s and 40s, and Adlington Hall, Cheshire, built in the 1750s, and even today.  Of course, this design is a derivative of the rectangular, double-pile plan developed by Sir Roger Pratt at Coleshill, Berkshire (built 1650-64, burnt down 1952).

Wanstead House I by Colen Campbell - first proposed design - 1715
Wanstead House I by Colen Campbell – first proposed design – 1715

Despite the grandeur, the agricultural depression in the 1880s hit the estate and the decline began. This was only arrested by the return in 1918 after WWI of Sir Basil Brooke who instituted changes to bring the estate back. It was, though, a struggle; many rooms were left unused in the 1930s and by 1939 the timber was being felled as ‘the only way to save Colebrooke’.  Poor tax planning meant that when Lord Brookeborough died in 1973 the contents of the house had to be sold to pay the death duties, leaving a rather forlorn house for the present Lord Brookeborough when he took over in 1980.  Realising the scale of the challenge, an architect was engaged to explore what options were available; including the dreaded conversion to a golf club with the grounds becoming fairways.

Colebrooke Park, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)
Colebrooke Park, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)

Luckily, a better solution was found; the house became an exclusive country sports destination, with sporting rights over 10,000-acres and the Viscount and Viscountess welcoming the guests as though friends into their home.  The house was sensitively adapted to meet both the requirements of discerning visitors and official regulations whilst preserving the architectural fabric of the house to the greatest extent.  Despite their success, the Viscount and his wife wish to pass on the house and 1,100-acre estate to their nephew in an even more robustly healthy condition; hence the invitation to Country House Rescue.   It will be fascinating to see if this series presents radically different ideas to those proposed by Ruth Watson.  Obviously one hopes that whatever happens, the solutions enable the families to remain in their homes whilst providing sufficient income to not only maintain them but invest in them to give them a stronger future.


A more detailed history of Colebrooke Park [Colebrooke Park]

TV makeover for stately home‘ [Belfast Newsletter]

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4] – Colebrooke Park (episode 1: Thursday 14 June – 20:00)

Country House Rescue – Series Listing [Wikipedia]

‘On behalf of a grateful nation’: country houses given to military leaders

Nations have always found ways to reward those subjects who have rendered some greater or lesser service.  In earlier centuries, this often took the form of positions at Court which came with a salary, prestige, and unrivalled opportunities to feather one’s nest.  Titles have also always been popular, ranging from a baronetcy for those who have hosted the monarch for a weekend, to dukedoms and earldoms for the upper echelons of Court and on the battlefield – and it’s this latter category who have also enjoyed that rare gift of an entire country estate, in recognition of their services.  Such largesse is now unthinkable but the practice of rewarding military leaders in this way only fell from favour perhaps later than might be imagined.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (Image: Blenheim Palace via flickr)
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (Image: Blenheim Palace via flickr)

The grandest and most spectacular of these gifts is Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire – though the intrigues for both monarch, recipient, recipient’s wife, and architect make it something of a mixed blessing.  The recipient was certainly worthy of such a grand prize; John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough had risen through numerous victories to elevate and secure Britain’s place in the world, defeated the ambitions of various European leaders, and created the peace which ushered in the Georgian era.  These glorious victories provoked such a feeling of patriotic pride that even his critics praised him.  So how to reward such a man for such remarkable achievements?

Great Hall and Eastern Corridor, Blenheim Palace (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Great Hall and Eastern Corridor, Blenheim Palace (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Blenheim Palace was to represent many things – explicitly a national monument to the defeat of Louis XIV’s plans for European domination at the Battle of Blindheim in 1704, the considerations of it as a house were somewhat secondary. It embodied the idea that whereas previously the glory of the nation was demonstrated through the palaces of the Monarchy, Blenheim was the first which sought to do this though a private individual.  However, Marlborough’s close ties with Queen Anne would inevitably mean the prestige would reflect onto her and the nation. Work started in 1705 and, writing in 1709, the architect of the house, Sir John Vanbrugh stated,

‘Tho’ ordered to be a Dwelling house for the Duke of Marlborough and his posterity [it was] at the same time by all the world esteemed and looked on as a publick edifice, raised for a Monument of the Queen’s glory.’

The Queen had already resolved to gift the estate at Woodstock but the agreement on paying for the construction of the house was a murkier affair.  Royal patronage could cut both ways as the Marlboroughs and Vanbrugh found out.

Vanbrugh was the ideal choice for a building of this nature.  His background in theatre design gave him an understanding of dramatic effect and his relative inexperience and lack of formal training meant his imagination was bolder than others.  The commission at Blenheim required such a mind; the resulting spectacular building was a monument to power and prestige, incorporating military forms and details to reflect the occasion, but was also one of the most complete expressions of English Baroque.  Yet despite his fabulous wealth, the Duke was determined that the state would show its gratitude by paying for the construction, though he had originally intended the budget to be no more than £40,000 (approx £5m).  Wren had estimated £90,000 – £100,000, however the final cost totalled nearly £300,000 (approx £38m) for which the Treasury eventually was liable (proving that for government projects it was ever thus!).

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Castle Howard)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Castle Howard)

Such overruns were to be expected where the intention had been to build something like Castle Howard – only bigger. However, the Duchess opposed such a scheme saying: ‘I never liked any building so much for the show and vanity, as for its usefulness and convenience.‘ With such an attitude, friction with Vanbrugh was inevitable. Political changes hadn’t helped; a new government and Treasurer in 1710 slowed payments to almost nothing.  In 1711, the Duchess also fell out quite acrimoniously with her childhood friend, the Queen, leading, in part, to the Duke losing his official posts and the Marlborough’s going into self-imposed exile.  The accession of George I in 1714 brought them back into favour and work progressed again, though constant conflict between the Duchess and Vanbrugh led to his resignation in November 1716, saying: “You have your end Madam, for I will never trouble you more.  Unless the Duke of Marlborough recovers so far [he had suffered a stroke in 1716], to shelter me from such intolerable Treatment.‘ Work proceeded under Vanbrugh’s right-hand man, Nicholas Hawksmoor, to the original plans, with the family taking up residence in 1719, and work largely complete by 1725. Sadly though, the Duke never got to see this, having died in 1722; his monument incomplete, his reputation assailed, and his architect grievously estranged from his masterpiece.

It seems only some of the lessons of Blenheim had been remembered by the time the next gift was proposed for an equally illustrious general, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.  Again, a superb leader who had defeated plans for European domination, Wellington – the Iron Duke – was certainly worthy of such a reward. Rather than receiving a direct gift from the monarch, it was decided that the nation would provide £600,000 (approx £38m) for the purchase of an estate and the building of a suitable house. Rather than just provide the money, in 1817, Parliamentary trustees were appointed to oversee the purchase.  The Duke knew his limitations and called upon the architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt (son of James Wyatt) who promptly, even before a site had been found, drew up plans for a ‘Waterloo Palace’ which, in his words, would have “…a very magnificent & imposing effect” without “the monstrous expense of a Fabrick extended to the dimensions of Blenheim [or] Castle Howard“.  Despite his professed aim, this would have been an enormous house; designed around three sides of a courtyard, it featured two flanking pavilions, with the main house centred on a huge domed hall, with suites of grand rooms surrounding it.  Perhaps of particular interest was the severely Neo-Classical decoration, with few of the architectural flourishes which distinguish Blenheim.  This might have reflected the notably austere Duke’s taste but even this plan was rejected.

Stratfield Saye, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Stratfield Saye, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Given the Duke’s preference to be near London, the house and estate chosen was Stratfield Saye in Hampshire, after rejecting Uppark in Sussex due to the poor land, and was bought from the Pitt family for £263,000; a significant portion of the funds available. Though this may have been a factor in the eventual rejection of the plans in 1817, another was that the Duke was in the process of spending £40,000 anonymously purchasing Apsley House in London, for the use of his almost bankrupt brother who had previously lived there with his soon-to-be-ex wife.  That house also required significant work and, faced with the need to maintain two houses, the Duke abandoned the plans for the new palace, and concentrated on updating and modernising the existing house at Stratfield Saye.  Both houses are still lived in by the Wellesley family, though Apsley is now part-owned by English Heritage and open to the public – and absolutely worth a visit if in London.

Bemersyde House, Scotland (Image: Kevin Rae / Geograph)
Bemersyde House, Scotland (Image: Kevin Rae / Geograph)

We may think the practice of the nation buying a country seat for a military leader was the product of the more deferential Georgian and Victorian eras when such actions by government would be less subject to widespread scrutiny, but the latest example occurred in the 1920s.   Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, was a controversial figure as commander of British forces in WWI. Although he won, the horrendous loss of life left him with battered reputation which has only recently been revised. In the immediate aftermath of WWI, we, the victors, did feel grateful and Haig was created the 1st Earl Haig (with a subsidiary viscountcy and a subsidiary barony), given the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, plus £100,000 (though he had asked for £250,000) to enable him to live in the manner befitting a senior peer.  Haig chose Bemersyde House in the Scottish Borders, originally built in 1535 as a pele tower, to become, as it still is, the seat of the Haig family, the purchase funded by the grateful taxpayer.

Cefntilla Court, Monmouthshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Cefntilla Court, Monmouthshire (Image: Knight Frank)

It wasn’t only the ultimate leaders who could benefit from public largesse, though in the case of Cefntilla Court, Wales, the gift missed the mark by a generation.  Field Marshal FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, was the Duke of Wellington’s right-hand man who was later blamed (then exonerated) for the huge losses resulting from the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War.  Lord Raglan’s health suffered from the stress of the campaign and he died whilst on duty in June 1855.  However, such was the admiration for the man that a ‘Raglan Memorial Committee’ was formed and by 1858 was able to present Cefntilla Court, as commemorated by a plaque at the house which reads:

This house with 238 acres of land was purchased by 1623 of the friends, admirers and comrades in arms of the late Field Marshal Lord Raglan GCB and presented by them to his son and his heirs for ever in a lasting memorial of affectionate regard and respect.

Sadly, it seems that ‘for ever’ is a shorter time than they imagined as the house and estate are now for sale following a strange inheritance whereby the 5th Lord Raglan wrote his younger brother, now the 6th Lord Raglan, and the brother’s son, out of his will.  The house was instead left to another nephew, Henry van Moyland, who currently lives in Los Angeles and works as a recruitment consultant. With no deep ties to the estate, he has chosen to sell, splitting the title and estate for the first time since the gift was bestowed.  Legally, there is nothing to be done but it does seem regrettable that the whim of one Lord Raglan should lead to such an outcome, especially as it was the express intention of the donors that it should remain in the family.

That said, it is remarkable that three out of the four houses featured here are still owned by the families who were given them – a continuous link to the thanks of the nation as expressed through architecture and prestige. Though it may not happen now, or again in the future, such gifts are another part of the rich tapestry of our country house history.


Sales particulars: ‘Cefntilla Court‘ [£2m, 350-acres – Knight Frank]

More details: ‘The disinheritance of Lord Raglan’s nephew and future title holder causes split in family‘ [Wales Online]

“To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul”; the rise of the country house library

Long Library, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire (Image: Eastnor Castle)
Long Library, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire (Image: Eastnor Castle)

In country houses, perhaps the greatest indulgence is to be able to create on a much grander scale. Not for them a few flowers beds; no, there are acres of careful horticulture, nor do they have small dining rooms, or a few pictures.  Yet few rooms in a large country house are as impressive as one which boasts a well-stocked library; regimented rows of bound knowledge, reflecting the interests and passions of generations. Yet libraries are more fluid than many imagine; with their creation sometimes comes their dispersal, but this is a cycle, with those books then finding another shelf, helping build the portrait of their new owner, one title at a time.

Books have always had a greater intrinsic value than just the words or knowledge they contain.  Having developed from clay tablets, via way of papyrus, to animal skins, books became spectacular art works in their own right in the hands of the monasteries whose illuminated manuscripts spoke of their devotion through beautiful calligraphy and iridescent miniature paintings. The effort involved made them scarce so the wider collecting of books largely only became possible due to mass production following the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439.

Although books had formed part of the interests of the royal family since the 14th-century, it wasn’t until the rise of the post-Reformation Tudor bureaucrats who, influenced by the Renaissance, sought to use knowledge, rather than battle prowess, as their means to advancement.  Education was now seen as key and this was reflected in the growth and composition of the gentleman’s library for centuries to come.  Yet, there were still a remarkable number of the gentry who had little interest in books, a trend which grew stronger the further from Court they lived; Girouard notes that in the 1560s, ninety-two out of 146 Northumberland nobles were unable to sign their name, and that in 1601, Bess of Hardwick kept only six books at Hardwick Hall.

Library (1675), Ham House, Surrey (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Library (1675), Ham House, Surrey (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

As intellectual pursuits became more acceptable so too did acquiring books in larger numbers.  Paintings of ‘gentleman’s closets’, which held all things most precious to the man of the house, often showed books, and in quantity; an inventory in 1556 for Sir William More at Loseley in Surrey records that he had amassed 273.  Earlier libraries are recorded for the fifth Earl of Northumberland who had created both ‘Lord’s’ and a ‘Lady’s’ libraries by 1512 at Leconfield Castle (demolished 17th century). By the late 16th-century there is the first written reference to the building of bookcases in the form we recognise today; two French craftsmen were working at Longleat in 1563 fitting out the library there (though it was sadly lost in the fire in 1567).  The earliest dedicated library to survive in a private house is at Ham House, Surrey which dates from 1675, installed for the Duke of Lauderdale.

Long Library, Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Holkham Hall)
Long Library, Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Holkham Hall)

So how did we arrive at the grand, sumptuous libraries which grace many country houses?  As with so much of that which is beautiful, the elevation of the library can be largely attributed to the Georgians.  The right of passage that was the Grand Tour meant that, increasingly, a wealthy young man would return from several years in Italy having (hopefully) spent his days studying ruins, architecture, art, and sculpture – and, as with all good tourists, he accumulated souvenirs.  Not just any old trinkets; these mementos took the form of paintings and freshly faked statuary but also many books, not only for their education, but also as a way of demonstrating to those back home the wonders which they had seen.  This led to the creation of some of the finest libraries in the country, such as the Long Library created by Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall, as the intellectual interests of the owner found expression through the hundreds, if not thousands, of leather-bound tomes which now lined a dedicated room.

Nanswhyden House, Cornwall (Image: courtesy of Charlie Hoblyn)
Nanswhyden House, Cornwall (Image: courtesy of Charlie Hoblyn)

Books were now not just the exclusive interest of the man of the house but had become a resource for the whole family and their guests. With the upper-classes now expecting a certain level of culture from those in their social sphere, education became an important part of polite society. To have a library was a reflection on the owner, who gained from them even if he hadn’t read them. Owners provided access to their books to their guests but, as the works were probably also the only significant source of knowledge for many miles, to a select few in local society.  One notable example was at the grand Nanswhyden House, Cornwall which was built in 1740 by Robert Hoblyn and featured a library which “…occupied two rooms, the longest of which was 36ft in length, 24ft broad and 16ft high…” and contained over 25,000 volumes.  Hoblyn intended that his books were “…designed as a standing library for the county, to which, every clergyman and author, who had the design of publishing, were to have the readiest access.”

Library (before the fire), Sledmere House, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life)
Library (before the fire), Sledmere House, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life)

There was also unofficial access for the staff; at the beautiful Sledmere House, Micheal Kenneally, who arrived as pantry boy and rose to be butler, recalls that when he first arrived he was told to familiarise himself with the house.  In the Library, he noticed a book called ‘Miller’s Sexual Systems‘ on a shelf. “I thought, I’ll read that when I get the  chance. It was seven years before I got the opportunity, and when I opened it, it was the sex life of plants and flowers. After waiting for seven years!“.  The decoration of the Library at Sledmere was designed by the  celebrated plasterer Joseph Rose (b.1723 – d.1780) and completed in 1794.  So proud was Sir Christopher Sykes of this fine and elegant space, he commissioned local draughtsman Thomas Malton to record it.  Two hundred copies of the finished drawing were then created, which Sir Christopher sent to his friends, virally spreading the glory of a spectacular library.  Christopher Hussey, writing about it in 1949, said ‘architecturally designed libraries are a feature of several of Adam’s country houses, notably Kenwood. But this one surpasses them all in majesty of conception, suggesting rather the library of a college or learned and wealthy society; indeed in the space allotted to it, in the amount of shelf room, and in the beauty of its decoration it is surely the climax of the Georgian conception of the library as the heart and soul of the country house‘. Sadly, the original was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1911, though luckily the family still had the original plans, in addition to photographs taken by Country Life in 1897, and so it was rebuilt to exactly the same design as before – after all, how can one improve on such a fine room.

Library, Arundel Castle, Sussex (Image: Country Life)
Library, Arundel Castle, Sussex (Image: Country Life)

The role of the library changed in the Regency and Victorian periods.  During the day it was the informal family sitting room, but during evening entertaining it took the mantle of drawing room for the gentleman, as opposed to the formal drawing room which increasingly became the domain of the ladies.  As such, it reflected the status of the man of the house, becoming more masculine, but also richly decorated and furnished to ensure that guests would be comfortable as they admired their surroundings.  Notable libraries of the period include the gloriously gothic Arundel Castle (see also: article in Country Life), the elegant Tatton Park, and the simply spectacular Eastnor Castle (see image at top of the article).

The county house library perhaps reached its zenith in the 1880s as often stable ownership had accumulated a wealth of some of the finest books ever produced.  The intellectualism of the Georgian and Victorian eras had elevated knowledge and learning and exploited them to create the wealth which now funded the artistic pursuits of the social elite.  For all the appreciation of books, notable libraries such as the collection at Stowe had been auctioned off in the 1820s, and following the agricultural depression of the late 19th-century, many libraries up and down the land were plundered as a source of income.  However, today, many still boast thousands of volumes on myriad topics, each part of the historical collage of the family, and creating what are often one of the most admired and beautiful rooms in any country house.

Feel free to add a comment below sharing which is your favourite country house library.

For lots of photos, the ‘Most Beautiful Libraries of the World’ website has a dedicated section: ‘Country House Libraries‘.


*NEW* – ‘The Library’ on The Country Seat

To coincide with this I have published a new page on the blog; The Library.  I regularly receive emails asking for book recommendations so this will provide a selection of books on UK country houses which hopefully readers of this blog will find of interest.  The links are to Amazon and I do get a commission if one is bought (though the price you pay is the same) but the money will be re-invested in my library which will benefit the blog.  I now have most of the ‘easier’ books to get hold of and now face the challenge of acquiring the scarcer, more expensive, volumes, so it all helps.

A silver lining to an industrial cloud; the Mersey mansions of the Victorian elite

To join the landed gentry you previously needed to have no connection with the vulgar business of actually making money. Even if you had bought a significant house and estate, to be truly accepted (and not be cast off into social Siberia) a gentleman would have to sell all his business interests and retire to live off the proceeds.  Yet, times changed and as it became acceptable to mix business and pleasure, so the requirements of the new gentry altered as they became unwilling to be too far from their sources of wealth, particularly around the great Victorian cities.  Smaller country houses and weekend villas with reduced estates sprang up to meet this new demand, with Liverpool being a prime example of these forces.  Later, as the cities grew, fortunes waned and housing pressures increased, many of these houses were lost; yet, occasionally, a rare survivor appears such as Calderstones Park Mansion House in Liverpool.

Harewood House, Yorkshire (Image: Lee Elvin via flickr)
Harewood House, Yorkshire (Image: Lee Elvin via flickr)

The Georgian era truly challenged the mystique of inherited wealth and royal patronage being the primary route to social elevation (though both helped).  Money talks, and the vast wealth being created, and the men making it, could not be ignored.  No family exemplified this more than the Lascelles family of Yorkshire. Although the family had been in the county for many years, their purchase of the Harewood estate in 1739 for £63,827 (for an estate of 6000-8000 acres) was with wealth generated only relatively recently.  Henry Lascelles (b. 1690 – d. 1753) had made his fortune largely between 1715 and 1730 as a plantation owner, victualling contractor and Collector of Customs in Barbados. It was his son, Edwin, who, having inherited his father’s vast fortune, set about, between 1759-71, building the grand house we see at Harewood today, to designs by John Carr of York who had already built the stables.  The vast expense of paying Carr, plus Robert Adam for the interiors, Angelica Kauffman and Biagio Rebecca for internal decorative painting, Thomas Chippendale for the superb furniture, and ‘Capability’ Brown for the beautiful grounds hardly made any serious dent in the family fortune.  On Edwin’s death in 1795, he reportedly had an income of £50,000 per year, of which half came from the West Indies business interests.  It was this mercantile wealth which established one of the great houses of the 18th-century, elevated the family to the peerage and enabled them to become a local political force, all in the space of just 60 years – something not possible on the limited and sometimes uncertain income of an estate alone.

Picture gallery, Dawpool, Cheshire (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)
Picture gallery, Dawpool, Cheshire (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)

The 19th-century only saw this trend accelerate with the great wealth of the cities now a serious challenge to the old inherited wealth of the land. This was especially true since, following political reform, land holdings were not always necessary to secure power and influence.  Now the owners could indulge their preferences, as not all of them, having been born, brought up, educated, worked and having made their fortunes in the cities, would feel a natural attachment to the countryside, beyond the social cachet it brought.  Rising land values from the mid-19th-century also would have been a factor which might have put off the hard-headed businessman – better value to invest in the most luxurious house possible.  Yet, the allure of the country seat was still strong as a recognised symbol of success so around each major Victorian city could be found these mini ‘pleasure’ estates; with Liverpool being a classic example.

Hafodunos Hall, Wales in 1954 (Image: RCAHMW) - burnt out in 2004
Hafodunos Hall, Wales in 1954 (Image: RCAHMW) - burnt out in 2004

For some, their fortunes financed the Victorian version of the Lascelles, with the acquisition of large estates and the building of the great houses away from the dirt and noise of the cities, such as at Hafodunos Hall (sadly burnt out by morons in 2004) by George Gilbert Scott for H.R. Sandbach (son of a Liverpool West India merchant). Yet for some of these gentleman there was no shame in being near to the industrial heart which pumped their fortunes – but that didn’t mean they had to compromise on luxury or convenience. Soon, many large houses with small estates populated the edges of the city.  Writing in 1873, the journalist Patricius Walker said:

Crowds of comfortable and luxurious villas besprinkle the country for miles round Liverpool, inhabited by ship-owners, ship-insurers, corn merchants, cotton brokers, emigrant agents, etc, etc, men with “on foot on sea, and one on shore,” yet to one thing constant ever – namely, money-making – and therein duly successful.

These captains of industry and commerce were also able to take advantage of the newly developed railways; becoming early commuters, able to spend the day at the office yet still escape at the end, back to their slice of bucolic charm.

The merchant palaces of Liverpool were, broadly, either those which were built as villas with substantial gardens near the large pleasure parks such as Sefton, or, taking advantage of the rail links, based outside the city in areas such as a the Wirral, just across the Mersey.

Holmestead, Cheshire (Image: openlyJane via skyscrapercity)
Holmestead, Cheshire (Image: openlyJane via skyscrapercity)

One particularly fine example of ‘rural urban’ villa was Holmestead on Mossley Hill, set in its own extensive grounds just to the east of the elegant and very desirable Sefton Park.  What is remarkable is that many of the larger houses still survive, albeit in an altered form; some becoming flats or care-homes.  The house was originally built in the 1840s in a Gothic style and effectively doubled in size in 1869-70 by the then owner, Michael Belcher, a local cotton broker. Urban ‘society’ of the newly wealthy mirrored the practices of those in the countryside as shown by William Imrie, owner of the house at the turn of the 19th-century and formerly of the famous White Star line, and also a patron of the Arts-and-Crafts movement.  He held regular concerts in his music room – a grand space, decorated with William Morris’ ‘Acanthus‘ pattern wallpaper, with the imposing ‘The Tree of Forgiveness‘ by Edward Burne-Jones on one wall, and Spencer Stanhope’s ‘Why Seek Ye the Living Amongst the Dead‘ on another. Remarkably, the house has survived and is still a single family home.

Dawpool, Cheshire - dem. 1927 (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)
Dawpool, Cheshire - dem. 1927 (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)

One of the grandest houses of them all was also connected to the White Star Line.  Dawpool was the pet project of Thomas Henry Ismay, the man who built a company large enough to launch the Titantic. Although was not conceived as the centre of a landed estate, it was certainly designed to showcase the power of his empire.  Designed by the leading architect, Richard Norman Shaw, the house, started in 1882, was a monument to Ismay’s wealth and meant to last – the local red sandstone was finely shaped and even the screws being finest brass.  The house took four years to build at a cost of over £50,000 – equivalent to over £3.5m today, a colossal sum compared to the average £80 per year the skilled ship-worker took home. Yet, the house was to survive less than half a century. After Ismay’s death in 1899, the widowed Mrs Ismay said that the house had given her husband pleasure every day – but without that driving force, it languished before being sold, becoming an orthopaedic hospital in WWI, before being sold again, and then demolished in 1927 [more history and photos available on Lost Heritage: Dawpool].

Calderstones House, Liverpool (Image: Liverpool Confidential)
Calderstones House, Liverpool (Image: Liverpool Confidential)

Although some have been demolished and most of the houses have lost their extensive grounds, one rare survivor, Calderstones House, gives a rare insight into the once-gilded edges of Liverpool.  The now grade-II listed house was built in 1823 for Joseph Need Walker, a lead shot manufacturer, who built an elegant late-Georgian design (architect unknown) with a Doric portico which looked out over carefully tended gardens and parkland.  In 1875, the house and grounds were sold for £52,000 to Charles MacIver, a shipping magnate who had spent 35 years with the Cunard Line. The house and grounds were sold in 1902 to the Liverpool Corporation for £42,000 and became one of the city’s finest parks (John Lennon apparently used to hang about there) with the house used as offices for their Parks departments with a public tea-room and, to the rear, a stage for concerts.

Faced with severe budget cuts, Liverpool Council are now exploring what options are available, with a sale the preferred outcome.  Sadly, it is extremely unlikely to become a home again; to carve out sufficient space and access from a public space would be extremely controversial, with security a further worry.  The two most likely options are that it is taken on as a public facility with commercial aspects such as concerts and refreshments, or that it will languish, becoming progressively more dilapidated.  Sadly, local government generally has often shown a rather careless attitude to heritage assets in their care -though in recent years they have improved markedly from the 1950s and 60s when some (Derbyshire being particularly notorious) would simply demolish the historic buildings, especially country houses.

The current period of austerity is forcing councils to re-examine their assets and objectively analyse the most cost-effective way of operating – a process open to the risk of losing elements of what makes an area locally distinctive.  This is especially true when ‘heritage’ and ‘arts’ are seen (falsely) as relatively ‘high-brow’ interests – this creates a challenge for everyone to be aware of what their councils own, and to monitor whether there are any signs of them seeking to cut corners and creating conditions which threaten the heritage assets.  They hold these in trust for the local area and, if necessary, councils need to be forcefully reminded of their obligations to this generation and the ones which follow to care for the built environment which contributes so much to local identity.


Further reading: Merchant Palaces: Liverpool and Wirral Mansions Photographed by Bedford Lemere (Photographers of Liverpool) (disclosure: this is an Amazon associates link – the price you pay is the same but I’m experimenting to see if I can help offset costs with Amazon affiliate links).