A stay in the country: country houses as hotels – and a bad plan

Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stoke Park Country Club and Resort)
Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stoke Park Country Club and Resort)

Although country houses were built primarily as homes, an integral and important function was their use for entertaining.  However, one dramatic change has been the nature of the guests and how they paid for their visits – and the birth of the refined country house holiday now regarded as the best the hospitality industry can offer.  That said, running such a hotel is no guaranteed path to the wealth suggested by the lifestyle; with huge initial costs, large ongoing expenses and the elusive need for profitability leading to the recent troubles for the Von Essen hotel chain which had dominated this niche, including running the finest country house hotel – Cliveden, before collapsing under their own ambition.  The chase for profitability has also led to some shocking schemes for building further accommodation which can be seen in the recent proposals for Wyreside Hall in Lancashire.

Country houses have long been used as accommodation for travellers, be they friends of the owning family or, more spectacularly in medieval and Renaissance periods, for the monarch.  Often considered a great honour (supposedly there are more beds in which Queen Elizabeth I has apparently slept than nights she was alive), the occasion of a royal visit – or the possibility of one – would cause local aristocrats, or those aspiring, to refurbish suites of rooms such as at Burghley, Hatfield House, and Kirby Hall (even though Elizabeth I never came to the latter).  Sometimes, the ruinous expense of hosting the royal retinue would sometimes leave the owner with a title but also debts they’d be paying off for decades.

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

The heights of country house entertaining were reached by the Victorians and Edwardians who popularised, amongst the aristocracy, the vast weekend house party.  This led to houses being built or extended to create, in effect, large hotels.  The key difference was the guests were pre-selected from a narrow social strata and were expected to ‘pay’ for the hospitality with reciprocal entertainment or with business or political favours.  The greater the social elevation of the guests, so the number of staff required increased, leading to some houses, particularly at the cream of society, such as Eaton Hall and Clumber House, being greatly extended.  Eaton Hall eventually numbered around 150 bedrooms ranging from those for the honoured guests down to the  lowliest servants who would share dormitories.  Sadly, it was these sizeable extensions and aggrandisements which were largely the reason for their demolition in the 20th-century in their hundreds as austerity hit home and these huge palaces became unaffordable.

Sandringham, Norfolk (Image: Sandringham Estate)
Sandringham, Norfolk (Image: Sandringham Estate)

Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, was the longest serving Regent and developed a highly cultivated habit of ‘weekending’ at country houses, especially his own at Sandringham, Norfolk.  His preferences have been said to have laid the foundations for not only the practice of weekend visits but also for indulging with grand breakfasts followed by country activities such as shooting, followed by convivial dinners.  Such was his reputation that some owners would fear a visit for the expense involved with one family, the Gurneys of Northrepps Hall in Norfolk, allegedly burning down a wing to forestall such a visit. By contrast, in 1902, when Edward VII visited Burton in Staffordshire an entire wing was built and named after him in his honour at Rangemore Hall.

Country house visiting had been a common activity for the travelling aristocrat in the Georgian era (a topic explored in a previous article ‘How tourism split a house from the estate‘).  Often calling on those they knew, they would also call on the notable houses in an area (an acceptable enough practice to be included by Jane Austen in ‘Pride and Prejudice‘) – and the owners of these ‘show houses’ were happy to parade their good taste.  By the beginning of the 18th-century, Blenheim, Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Wilton and Burghley had become the ‘must-see’ houses for the country house tourist – later joined by Houghton, Holkham, Eaton Hall and Kedleston.  Sadly, visitors weren’t always there for the educational opportunities of seeing some of the finest art in the world – as Horace Walpole lamented regarding the visitors to his father’s Houghton Hall, where he was a guide, the worst were the seers:

 …they come, ask what such a room is called, in which Sir Robert lay, write it down, admire a lobster or a cabbage in a market-piece, dispute whether the last room was green or purple, and then back to the inn for fear the fish should be overdressed.

Tregenna Hotel, Cornwall (Image: lindad4a via flickr)
Tregenna Hotel, Cornwall (Image: lindad4a via flickr)

It’s the last line which is of particular interest – even the well-to-do Georgian guest would be staying in a nearby coaching inn unless they had family nearby.  By the Victorian era, the nature and number of the guests had changed, but still the houses were private residences – until 1878 when the first country house became a hotel; Tregenna Castle near St Ives, Cornwall.  The catalyst was the extension of the railway, and the purchasers of a initial lease on Tregenna, before buying the freehold in 1895, was the Great Western Railway who could not only provide the destination, but the means to get there.

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire (Image: sjm_1974 via flickr)
Cliveden, Buckinghamshire (Image: SJM_1974 via flickr)

The growth of a paying middle class in the Victorian and Edwardian eras created demand – but most importantly, both eras were about aspiration.  The middle class may not have had the wealth to run a country house (and in the 1930s and 1950s, many owners didn’t either) but they certainly wanted to experience it.  The glut of country houses which became available in the first half of the 20th-century presented many opportunities for the hospitality industry to cater for these new markets.  For the upper classes, although many had been forced to sell up or move out, they still wanted to continue the lifestyle – though not necessarily alongside the nouveau riche. This created another market for the exclusive country club with clear social stratification driving the finest hotels to become bywords for extravagant elegance – something still clear today (though entry is more socially open) when one looks at hotels such as Cliveden or Stoke Park.

Gravetye Manor, Sussex (Image: Patrick Baty)
Gravetye Manor, Sussex (Image: Patrick Baty)

Though initially slow to take-off, the first half of the 20th-century saw a number of houses become hotels; in 1929, Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire and North Bovey Manor, Devon (another for the Great Western Railway), Welcombe Manor, Warwickshire in 1931, Otterburn Tower, Northumberland and Studley Priory, Oxfordshire, both in 1947 and Greywalls in Scotland in 1948, to name but a few.  Gravetye Manor was sold to Peter Herbert in 1957, when he paid £57,000 and charged £2 per night.  One author reported that the 1995 Egon Ronay guide listed 220 country house hotels, and the Historic Houses Association estimated that a quarter of the country houses sold between 1972-1990 were converted into hotels.  Though some have inevitably failed, the trend continues with one of the most recent being Coworth Park, built in 1776, opening in September 2010.

This potential re-use of the houses has not always been benign.  The nature of hotels is that the bedrooms generate the income so the more you have the better for them – though usually not for the architectural cohesion of the house. In hotel terms, many houses would not be economic which has led to the building of large, and not necessarily sensitive, additions.  Considering the original intentions of country house owners were to demonstrate their wealth and taste and to build a house to last, rarely are the modern extensions designed with anything approaching the same care and expense so there is an inevitable mismatch.  Many a country house hotel is scarred with poor quality and visually flawed wings which are almost designed to detract from the main house – but then buildings designed by accountants never win prizes for beauty.

Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Lancaster Guardian)
Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Lancaster Guardian)

Although there is evidence of a greater sensitivity in recent years where new wings are tucked away from the main house and linked by corridors, it seems that there are still some owners who see the house as merely an ornament to put on the front cover of the brochure whilst they ruin the setting.  It was hoped that the worst schemes were behind us but sometimes one is proposed which is so bad that it would be laughable if it didn’t threaten a fine (though currently not in the best condition) house – Wyreside Hall in Lancashire (hat-tip to Matthew Steeples for flagging this one up).

The house was originally built in the 17th-century but was remodelled in 1790 by the then owner, John Fenton Crawthorne, MP, to a design by the gifted architect, Robert Adam.  Though the full scheme wasn’t implemented, the exterior benefited from a graceful symmetry with the drawing room, dining room and library also completed to his plans (though apparently no evidence of their decoration now remains).  The now Grade-II house remained in the Garrett family until 1936 after which it became a school and then home for a local motorsport legend.  The scheme that has now been proposed learns none of the lessons of sensitive hotel development (or any work involving heritage) over the last 50 years.

Proposed development, Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Wyre Council planning proposal, via Matthew Steeples)
Proposed development, Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Wyre Council planning proposal, via Matthew Steeples)

Yes, it really is that ugly.  The design effectively doubles the size of the house and, as can be seen from the plan (scroll to page 44 – no direct link, sorry), the associated access roads, parking and ‘landscaping’ ruin the immediate setting of the house.  The usual arguments have been made about this bringing jobs to the area but if we must sacrifice the very heritage which gives an area a distinct identity, which attracts tourists or the wealthy (who usually also spend money locally) then it’s a poor bargain.  Wyre Council should throw out this and any subsequent plan which displays equally limited thinking and such an arrogant disregard for the architectural heritage of the area.  As we’ve seen, country house hotels can work – but not when they are at the expense of the original building.

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Matthew Steeples’ original blog post is available here: ‘Adam would turn in his grave

Listed buildings description: ‘Wyreside Hall, Lancashire‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Planning application documents: ‘Ref 11/00840/LBC – Wyreside Hall‘ [Wyre Council]

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This is the last post for 2011 – 43 posts in total, now over 350 subscribers to the blog, nearly 210,000 pages served up; and 850 followers of @thecountryseat on Twitter, so all-in-all, a fairly impressive level of interest; thank you! Matthew

For sale: a Soanian springboard – Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk

Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)
Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)

For any architect starting out, the early commissions are perhaps the most important; establishing them both in terms of not only their designs but also how they operate in the execution.  In architectural terms, the early buildings of some architects are sometimes less prized, and therefore protected, than their later works which benefit from the full measure of their developed skill and experience.  In that light, Burnham Westgate Hall deserves to be cherished as not only a fine house but also the first substantial country house project of Sir John Soane.  It provided the springboard for one of our finest architects and is important for the promise shown but also for securing one of the most important prizes in the Georgian era: patronage.

For someone who ended up a knight of the realm, with fame and a noble client list, Sir John Soane (b.1753 – d.1837) had a very ordinary start in life as the son of a bricklayer from Goring-on-Thames, near Reading.  Patronage and connections were to define Soane’s personal and professional life, providing opportunities to establish himself in a way that his competitors, often connected from birth, already enjoyed.  Almost nothing is known of his early life but his obvious talent must have been spotted as he entered the office of George Dance the Younger in 1768, though only starting as errand boy, via an introduction by James Peacock, an employee of Dance who knew Soane’s older brother.

Claremont, Surrey (Image: Claremont Fan Court School)
Claremont, Surrey (Image: Claremont Fan Court School)

His talent and work ethic propelled Soane to join the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, where he quickly won the silver medal for a measured drawing of the facade of Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House.  What was particularly clear during Soane’s time at the Royal Academy was his ambition and an industriousness that was to serve him well in later periods, combined with an attention to detail which proved to be a blessing in his professional life.  In 1776, he won the Academy gold medal, which made him eligible to compete for the highly coveted King’s travelling scholarship which, for someone of Soane’s limited financial means, would be his only chance to see Italy first-hand.  Soane had heard that George III thought him a suitable candidate and so he rashly gave up his position with Henry Holland (where Soane was known to have assisted on three country house commissions: Claremont in Surrey, Benham Park in Berkshire, and Cadland in Hampshire (dem. 1953)) only to find out that Sir Joshua Reynolds had intervened to demand the winner of the scholarship be by vote from the Academicians. This delayed his departure by a year but it was put to good use completing smaller tasks for Henry Holland such as estimating bills and measuring work which exposed him to clients such as Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford; a man of noted taste and an amateur architect who was to prove particularly important in Soane’s career.  Though delayed, in 1777 Soane set off on the single most important trip of his life to Italy; one which was to establish him professionally and socially.

Arch of TItus, Rome - drawing by Sir John Soane
Arch of TItus, Rome – drawing by Sir John Soane

The Grand Tour had become an institution amongst the younger aristocrats as a way of experiencing the glories of classical art and architecture in their native environments.  It was also a fine opportunity for the wealthy to indulge their passion for art collecting but, for novice architects, days were largely spent measuring and recording the wonders of Roman architecture.  On a more practical level, Soane would have seen and experienced during his time with Dance and Holland how useful family and professional networks were in securing commissions.  In Italy, Soane worked assiduously to develop his own connections; travelling with his friend Robert Furze Brettingham (nephew of the famous architect Matthew Brettingham the Elder who had designed the original Burnham Westgate Hall, then called Polstede Hall) and visiting the English Coffee House; a central meeting point for the English nobility abroad, whom Soane courted as clients.

Soane's proposed design for Downhill, Northern Ireland (Image: Sir John Soane's Museum) - click to see full sketchbook page
Soane’s proposed design for Downhill, Northern Ireland (Image: Sir John Soane’s Museum) – click to see full sketchbook page

Patronage could also be a double-edged sword, with the ambitions of the client giving what could turn out to be false hope to an architect.  Of all those Soane met in Italy, Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry, later the 4th Earl of Bristol, was a prime example of the capricious client – though despite the Earl’s failure to deliver, he did introduce Soane, once again, to Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford, and cousin of William Pitt the younger, and who became a lifelong friend, supporter, mentor and patron.  Soane had fallen under the influence of the Earl, a charming, witty aristocrat who had a growing reputation for being a difficult client.  How much Soane knew of this is unclear but after travelling through Naples and Sicily for many weeks together discussing architecture, Soane believed he would be given a handsome commission to improve Downhill (now a ruin), the Earl’s rather bleak seat, set in the coastal hills of County Derry, Northern Ireland. However, after persuading Soane to cut short his travels by a year and luring him over to Ireland in 1780, after six fruitless and frustrating weeks with the disagreeable Earl not committing to any of Soane’s designs, he left Ireland in despair, seriously out of pocket, and with the hopes of his first significant commission of his architectural career in tatters.

Rustic dairy at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Sotheran's)
Rustic dairy at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Sotheran’s)

Back in London, Soane’s wealthy and well-connected friends, particularly those he had made in Italy, and especially Pitt, sought to ease his plight by asking for his designs for smaller estate buildings or their own houses, such as for his friend John Stuart at Allanbank, Berwickshire.  Again, although the smaller projects were built, the larger plans failed to materialise – the only one of significance being some limited  alterations to Petersham Lodge, one of Lord Camelford’s homes.  After this, Soane took on a few smaller commissions from other clients which allowed him to develop his skills as an architect, not just in designing but the delivery of the projects, including the elegant dairy in the fashionable rustique, Rousseau-esque style at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire for the Hon. Philip Yorke, later 3rd Earl of Hardwick – another of his Italy contacts.

Proposed design for Allanbank, Berwickshire by Sir John Soane (Image: Sir John Soane Museum)
Proposed design for Allanbank, Berwickshire by Sir John Soane (Image: Sir John Soane Museum)

However, it was his main supporter, Lord Camelford, who provided the largest commission in 1783, the one which elevated Soane from dreamer of grand plans but only executor of small estate buildings.  Camelford’s wife had inherited Burnham Westgate Hall and now her husband wished to create a seat of suitable standing near to that other fulcrum of political influence in north Norfolk, Holkham Hall, home of the Earl of Leicester.  Burnham Westgate is curious in that it is one of the early examples of Soane’s practice of reusing his designs.  Compare Burham Westgate Hall today with the unexecuted design illustrated right which Soane completed for John Stuart at Allenbank – the overall form of the house is similar, differing only in the striking chimneys and the size of the flanking wings.  Soane seemed to do this less as he grew as an architect but it can be seen in his bow-fronted design for Saxlingham Rectory and enlarged version seen on the south front of Tendring Hall (dem. 1955), and even more directly between Shotesham Hall in Norfolk and Piercefield near Chepstow.

Burnham Westgate Hall has perhaps been a little overlooked in the literature, perhaps suffering from being overshadowed by Soane’s next project: his first solo, entirely new-build house; Letton Hall, which was started in the following year in 1784.  However, the innovation of Letton could only be created on a sound architectural foundation which Soane had spent years building; the smaller commissions of temples, kennels and interiors, before Burnham Westgate gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that he was capable of working on a project of that size.  Bar the limited and hotly contested public works, private country houses were some of the most significant commissions available to any architect and Burnham Westgate was Soane’s calling card; his proof of his ability, imagination and practical ability to deliver a fine house suitable for those in upper society.  That it is a close variation on a earlier design can be forgiven considering the nascent stage of his career; this sale offers a new owner the chance to own the project which gave Sir John Soane the springboard which helped establish this most brilliant of architects.

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Property details: ‘Burnham Westgate Hall‘ – £7m, 38-acres [Savills]

Detailed listing description: ‘Burnham Westgate Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further information:

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Inspired by Park Place? Other country houses for sale to restore

The recent restoration and sale of Park Place was certainly on an epic scale – £42m to buy, a further £100m to complete – but thankfully not all projects need be so expensive (though they’ll never be cheap).  The story of the country house has, for many, featured a cycle of ascendency, enlargement, and enjoyment, followed by neglect but – hopefully – rescue. As the annual SAVE Britain’s Heritage ‘Building’s at Risk’ Register sadly makes all too clear there are any number of country houses which have reached quite a serious state of disrepair, even dereliction. Yet even for these there may be someone who is willing to step up and rescue part of the nation’s architectural heritage. Houses in need of a saviour are often for sale, their forlorn state in Country Life magazine a stark contrast to their better loved brethren.

The UK generally has a much more positive attitude towards restoration than many other countries.  The Victorians would often be tempted to restore an ancient seat due to the contemporary popularity of the romantic notions of ‘Ye Olde England’.  Living in an Elizabethan or Jacobean house gave the owner associations with older family lines (not necessarily their own) and was a short-cut to perceived greater respectability.  Today, those who take on a restoration of one of our beautiful older houses are rightly lauded over those who simply buy a super-sized Barrett home.  Yet, restoration requires sensitivity and a willingness to submit an individual’s grand designs to work within the boundaries of the listed building regulations and the character of the house.

Marske Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)
Marske Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)

One house with hidden character and which will require careful planning is Maerske Hall, Yorkshire.  Originally built by the Hutton family in 1597, they were still in residence in 1730 when the house was rebuilt and extended in a Classical style. The grade-II* house was mainly used for shooting parties by the family in the 19th-century saving it from alteration but in the 20th it was threatened with requisition by the Army in WWII.  Luckily the family were able to arrange for pupils from Scarborough College to take up residence instead which saved it from the worst damage.  After the war, it again came near to destruction, as it was sold in 1947 to local builders George Shaw and his son George William who intended to demolish it for the materials.  However, they baulked at taking down such a lovely house and so sympathetically converted it into 10 apartments.  Still divided but now empty it is for sale at £2.5m with 19-acres of beautiful, mature gardens, and presents a fascinating opportunity to recreate a single family home. For more on the history, there’s a brochure: ‘Marske Hall‘ PDF [Carter Jonas].

Walton Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Walton Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Knight Frank)

For those wanting a more straight-forward restoration, Walton Hall, Derbyshire perhaps offers a more appealing option.  This fine and elegant grade-II* house, prominently sited above Walton on Trent, was built between 1724 -1729 to designs by the architect Richard Jackson. The most striking feature are the full-height pilasters, giving dignity to a slowly deteriorating house which has become such a concern as to be listed on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register.  Inside, the most impressive feature is the grand staircase, reputedly copied from a building in The Hague.  The house is basically habitable but requires significant sensitive restoration, hence the price; £1.5m for the house plus just 7.5-acres.  That said, once restored this will be a quintessential Georgian  house to be enjoyed for generations.

Felix Hall, Essex (Image: Savills)
Felix Hall, Essex (Image: Savills)

For those who prefer a real challenge then the next two houses could be ideal.  The first is Felix Hall, situated just outside Kelvedon, Essex – the picture (right) immediately showing the scale of the challenge.  At its core, this house is firmly in the tradition of the Palladian villa with a compact footprint but featuring wonderful architectural flourishes such a fine portico (added in 1825) and, to the rear, four engaged columns and a pediment.  Originally built between 1760-2, it was purchased by the Weston family of Rivenhall Place in 1793 and was significantly extended with flanking wings in the early 19th-century, possibly on the occasion of Charles Callis Weston’s  ennoblement as Lord Weston of Rivenhall in 1833.  However, as with many larger houses, a reduction in  size was thought prudent and so in 1939 the two wings were removed, leaving just a 7-bay central section.  Sadly, during the course of renovations it caught fire, completely gutting the fine interiors leaving the gaunt shell with the proud Ionic columns we can see today.  The remains were bought in 1953 and the basement rooms restored as an occasional country retreat but this is a house crying out for a full restoration (for which there is planning permission).  However, the estate buildings such as the nearby stables have been separately converted and there is only a small amount of land – it would be lovely if the new owner could also purchase the buildings and gardens and if they could also acquire the field in front, they could create a superb small parkland in which to truly display the house.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)

Another shell available is the one I would be heading for: Piercefield, near Chepstow, Wales.  Designed by the peerless Sir John Soane in 1785 for George Smith, the actual completion of the house was delayed until 1793.  Of particular interest  here is that the design is not entirely unique – Soane appears to have used very similar plans for Shotesham Park in Norfolk which was also built in 1785, although that house was brick with stone dressings, whilst Piercefield is faced entirely with stone. The house was sold 1794 as Mr Smith had run into some financial difficulties and it was bought by Sir Mark Wood who employed Joseph Bonomi to add a saloon and a winding staircase – though not the two pavilions as has been suggested.  The house was sold in 1926 by the Clay family, who had bought it in 1861, to Chepstow Racecourse who abandoned it, leaving it become increasingly derelict, apparently helped by American troops stationed nearby in WWII who used the house for target practice.  After 90 years of neglect, the house still has the power to impress with its refined façade and elegant temple pavilions.  Although on the market for over six years the price has remained at a rather ambitious £2m (although it does include 129 grade-I listed acres of parkland). However, recent comments by the director of the race course have indicated that they might entertain offers of around £1m; though, of course, the restoration bill would be many times that – but what a prize at the end!

Ruperra Castle, Wales (Image: Jeffrey Ross - Estate Agent)
Ruperra Castle, Wales (Image: Jeffrey Ross - Estate Agent)

Even further down the scale of dereliction is another important house, also in Wales, which has been stubbornly mis-priced.  Ruperra Castle near Newport is one of the few ‘mock’ castles designed for pleasure and not as defensive installations – a subject examined in more detail in an earlier blog post related to Ruperra: ‘Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale‘ (Sept 2010).  Few of these style of houses were built and Ruperra’s importance derives from it being one of the earliest of the country houses of this type, having been built in 1626.  Sadly, many of the other examples have been lost (most recently, fire gutting the interior of Lulworth Castle in 1929) so for someone Ruperra offers the opportunity to not only restore an architectural gem but also to be able to enjoy the same stunning views which attracted Thomas Morgan to build there in the first place.  Unfortunately, although the owner has now switched agents, the price is still ambitious at £1.5m – especially considering the immense challenges and costs of restoration and the location.  Hopefully, as with Piercefield, the owner ought to be willing to entertain realistic offers and allow the house to be saved before it is lost forever.

Perhaps the last is stretching it to call it a restoration opportunity as Bellamour Hall, Staffordshire now exists only as two walls and a few piles of stones!

Restoration is never a cheap or easy approach but the satisfaction and pride in knowing that the work has saved another part of our architectural heritage must be immense.  For too long our country houses have been under threat from neglect, vandalism and poor maintenance and the selection above (and there are more) show that the degrees of restoration and commitment required can vary dramatically.  That said, I can only hope someone is out there with the wealth and sensitivity to take on these houses and bring them back to life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to lease a Vanbrugh? Kings Weston House, Bristol for sale

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)

For some, the height of connoisseurship is to own a Picasso or a Rembrandt, and, in the same way, one can also aspire to live in a house designed by one of the great architects.  Yet, although some were prolific, the best were often to be found working on the largest projects, limiting their capacity to turn their hands to other projects, making their surviving buildings rare.  The damage and devastation which subsequent generations have wrought on our architectural heritage have also made these special houses all the rarer.  So it is always of particular interest when the opportunity to own one of these houses arises; such as Kings Weston House, Somerset, designed by the wonderful Sir John Vanbrugh.

Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726) was one of the most interesting architects this nation has ever produced.  Yet to think of Vanbrugh is inevitably to also think of Nicholas Hawksmoor (b.1661 – d.1736) who provided the technical support necessary to ensure that Vanbrugh’s flights of architectural fancy were realisable as solid buildings worthy of his aristocratic patrons. However, this was not a partnership which diminished one through association with the other – both were brilliant architects who each gained from their collaboration. As John Summerson put it in Architecture in Britain (1530-1839): ‘The truth can only be that both Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh were very exceptional men.

Vanbrugh was an intensely private person – the few hundred surviving letters in his hand betray few family details or about his early adventures as a soldier, spy, hostage, East India Company trader, or playwright.  His time in the Forces seems to have imbued his style with a tendency towards the militaristic, most clearly expressed in his work in landscapes where huge sham fortified ‘defenses’ march across parkland, defending nothing and fooling few.  Yet this bombastic nature is part of the flamboyant and theatrical nature of the man, part of what gave him the flair to succeed architecturally in an age when statements in stone were as important as any made in print or Parliament.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

In his grandest buildings, Vanbrugh appears to almost be designing monuments which happen to have living accommodation – but he was especially pleased that Castle Howard was as practical as it was impressive. Writing in 1713 to Edward Southall, his client at Kings Weston, he states:

“I am much pleased here (amongst other things) to find Lord Carlisle so thoroughly convinced of the Conveniencys of his new house, now he has had a years tryall of it.”

Proud of how draught-free the house was, which helped retain heat, Vanburgh stated;

“He likewise finds, that all his Rooms, with moderate fires Are Ovens.”

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Kings Weston (built between 1710-19) was to be Vanbrugh’s fourth commission (after Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and Kimbolton Castle) and was a house very much to Vanbrugh’s style, creating a ‘Noble and Masculine Shew‘.  The house, dramatically sited above the Bristol Channel, was built for Sir Edward Southall, a well-educated civil servant, well-versed in architecture who had spent considerable time travelling in Italy. Southall clearly had strong ideas as to the influences and design of his house; and Vanbrugh, with his long history of collaboration, was the ideal architect to work with this knowledgeable client.  That said, this is clearly a Vanbrugh house – the imposing giant pilasters, the strong Classical detailing, the almost military look which is reinforced by the unusual arcaded design of the chimneys which emphasised a castle-like quality of a central bastion.

(By the way, it’s interesting the close similarity between the entrance to Kings Weston and that of the smaller Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire (built 1722-24) by John James, who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren).

The house passed through several generations of Southalls including Edward’s great-grandson who employed Robert Mylne in 1763 to add stables and the Shirehampton Lodge and also remodel the principal rooms. Edward’s son, also Edward, lived there until his death in 1832 without issue. The house was then sold in 1833 to Philip John Miles for £210,000 (approx. £17m today) who became the local MP, as had the Southalls been before him.  Three generations of the Miles family lived there until the death of Philip Napier Miles in 1935, marking the last time the house was used as a home. The house was sold at auction for £9,800 (approx. £500,000) with the intention of using it as a school.  This was interrupted by the Second World War when it became a hospital – a role it has also fulfilled in the Great War.  Post-war, it became the Bristol College School of Architecture, before becoming a Police training centre from 1970-1995.

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects is how the setting of this fine house has been compromised: to the north, a road and housing estate, to the west, more houses, and to the south, a golf course.  This is often the outcome of houses which lack a determined owner with the need to keep a large estate, and particularly of houses which fall into the clutches of local authorities who are only too happy to build over the parkland, often with little sensitivity as to the overall setting.

With the departure of the Police, the house was boarded up, neglected and facing an uncertain future.  However, in 2000, it was bought by a local businessman, John Hardy, who converted the house in to a successful wedding and conference venue, apparently pouring significant funds into the project.  His commitment ultimately cost him his marriage and the remaining lease – probably 115-years – is now for sale for £2m (the freehold is still owned by Bristol City Council).  Although this would still make an ideal family home, Mr Hardy has expressed a desire that it remain open to the public.  Whoever buys Kings Weston will certainly be buying one of the finest houses in the country. Perhaps it will remain open to the public, but it would be equally exciting to see the house restored as a home, a private retreat overlooking the Bristol Channel where the owner can contemplate the genius of Vanbrugh and enjoy knowing that an architectural DNA links their domain with the palaces of Castle Howard and Blenheim, a smaller scale distillation of the grand flamboyance which came to define English Baroque.

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Original story: ‘Bristol’s Kings Weston House up for sale for £2 million to help pay for owner’s divorce‘ [Bristol Evening Post]

More details: ‘Love affair with a £2m mansion that ended in divorce… King Weston House’s owner was ‘totally consumed’ by major Georgian renovation‘ [Daily Mail]

Property details: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Knight Frank] – £2m

More images: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

History of the house: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [kingsweston.com]

Possibly for sale – a landmark for landowners: Crichel House, Dorset

Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)
Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)

When to believe the rumours? Occasionally one of the old families will decide that they no longer wish to hold onto the estate which has been the family seat for many years – sometimes centuries. When these estates come to market they usually attract a significant price-tag which truly reflects their beauty, significance and acreage.  If the unconfirmed rumours which feature very prominently on page 2 of the Sunday Times (26 June 2011) are to be believed, then the Marten family of Crichel House in Dorset have decided to sell – almost 60-years after the family won a decision against the government of the day which became a landmark in the rights of landowners against government.

Crichel House is widely regarded as one of the best houses in the county – indeed, John Julius Norwich states that it “…possesses the most spectacular series of state rooms in all Dorset.“.  Crichel started off as a modest house in 1743; hastily built to replace a charming Elizabethan house which was burnt down in 1742.  This smaller seat of a country squire – brick-built and just five bays by seven – was for Sir William Napier, who left it to his nephew, Humphry Sturt, in 1765.  Sturt had inherited not only his uncle’s house and wealth but had also married well. He didn’t feel the house was grand enough for a man of his fortune, and so embarked on an impressive rebuild, creating a house “…so immensely enlarged that it has the appearance of a mansion of a prince more than that of a country gentleman.” (Hutchin’s ‘History of Dorset‘ – 1774).

Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)
Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)

Sturt, using an unknown architect (though thought to be from nearby Blandford), effectively wrapped a new house around the old one to the east and the west, and linking the two on the south front with an impressive recessed portico and suite of rooms on the first floor.  However, the need to accommodate the dimensions of the old house created a slightly cramped feeling to the first floor elevations.  However, all is forgiven by the splendid interiors which are, in parts, a curious mix of early Georgian created late (e.g. the staircase, the library), and fashionable later Georgian, particularly in the stunning Hall, Dining Room and Drawing Room where Adam-style plasterwork reigns.  The latter rooms were probably designed by James Wyatt who was working nearby at Milton Abbey and at Bryanston.  The Dining Room is considered the finest room in the house; a coved ceiling framing delicate plasterwork and decorative panels in the style of Cipriani and Angelica Kauffmann.

So, how did part of the Crichel estate become so significant that it became immortalised as a set of planning procedures known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’? In part, it was due to the bureaucratic arrogance of the post-War era which meant the Civil Service felt able to deal rather high-handedly with anyone, and particularly landowners who were not popular under Attlee’s socialist government. In 1937, 742-acres of Crichel Down had been compulsorily bought as part of a larger area for use as a bombing range. Churchill had given a very public commitment in the House of Commons in 1942 that land purchased in this way would be offered back to the original owners once it was no longer required for the original purpose.

Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)
Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)

However, there was an even greater danger of compulsory purchase for houses which had been adapted for wartime use under the ‘Requisitioned Land and War Works Act (1945)’ (sections 8 & 9 Geo. 6 c.43 in case you were wondering!) which gave officials the right to buy, regardless of the wishes of the former owner or any previous assurances. At Hinton Ampner in Hampshire where Ralph Dutton (the 8th and last Lord Sherborne), having just finished an extensive remodelling in 1939 only to be turfed out by a girls school, received a letter saying that the Royal Observatory were interested as a new Royal Observatory.  Dutton took the day off work at the Foreign Office and was on the doorstep when the officials arrived and gave an impassioned speech about the importance of the house, how it had been in the family for generations and that losing it would be akin to an amputation. The officials apparently looked somewhat embarrassed but gave no sign of retreating until a short note arrived a little later confirming that they were taking Hurstmonceaux Castle instead.

At Crichel Down, the government had decided to retain the land as a new model farm.  Lt-Cdr George Marten (who had married Mary Sturt, the only child of the 3rd Lord Alington), began a vigorous one-man campaign to examine the conduct and procedures of the relevant departments.  In doing so, he exposed a series of administrative errors as officials tried to evade the requirement to offer back the land and retain it for the government’s use.  Eventually, in 1954, public and press criticism led to the minister in charge, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigning in one of the first examples of a minister taking responsibility even though he had not been involved in the earlier decisions and the land was sold back to the Martens.  To avoid a repeat of such failings, new planning rules regarding compulsory purchase were drawn up which are today known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’ and are a vital part of the framework protecting landowners from the sometimes autocratic decisions of officials.

The death of Mary Marten in 2010 (her husband pre-deceased her) led to the recent sale of some of the contents of the house including a small collection of Asian jade ornaments which raised some £12.5m.  However, if the rumours are right, the rest of the house and 5,000-acre estate are also quietly on the market with an estimated price tag of around £100m, which, if it sold as a whole estate, would make it the most expensive sale ever outside of London.  It’s always a regret when families no longer wish to keep an estate which has been in the family for centuries, however, with the demands of sibling equality it is understandable that each of the six children – five females, one male – should wish to share their inheritance.  It would be a wonderful outcome if it could be bought in its entirety and remain one of the most important estates in Dorset, with the glorious Crichel House at it’s heart.

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Update – 7 July 2013: Crichel House has been sold

Daily Mail confirms that the house plus 400-acres has been bought by Richard L. Chilton, a US hedge fund billionaire.  Initial reports indicate that he is a ‘conservationist’ having rescued other houses in the States so it seems promising that he is the right buyer; one with both the right attitude and pockets deep enough to do the house justice.  Though sadly it’s the end of an era for the Marten family, one hopes that this next phase will see the house restored to its former glory.

And if Mr Chilton happens to read this, it would be great to get your perspective – please do email me.

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More images – both interior and exterior: ‘Crichel House, Dorset‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country House Rescue: a matter of taste – Monreith House, Galloway

Monreith House, Scotland (Image: Mike Harrison / UK Wildlife Photography)
Monreith House, Scotland (Image: Mike Harrison / UK Wildlife Photography)

Country House Rescue heads from Tapeley Park in Devon to the other end of the country to Monreith House in Galloway, Scotland.  A dignified house, it has suffered from a classic problem for those that inherit, as the current owner Sir Michael Maxwell did in 1987, that: “…to put it politely, my relatives’ expenditure exceeded their income by many times.”. The necessary economies forced on Sir Michael have meant some cut corners which Ruth Watson quickly identifies as hindering his attempts to move upmarket.

The Maxwells of Monreith were certainly aristocratic with their baronetcy granted by Charles II in 1681 and various family members marrying well including the 8th Baronet’s wife, Lady Mary, who was a daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the richest and largest landowners in England. The Maxwells had been based at Myrton Castle since they bought it in 1685, obviously needing a house to match their newly elevated status.

Leuchie House, Scotland (Image: John Small - 1883 / buildings fan on flickr)
Leuchie House, Scotland (Image: John Small - 1883 / buildings fan on flickr)

Monreith House was built in 1791 by Sir William Maxwell, 4th Baronet, to replace Myrton, which was partially demolished to provide building materials for the new one.  The architect was the Edinburgh-based Alexander Stevens, son of a better known Alexander Stevens who specialised in designing and building bridges.  His design at Monreith shows that he was well versed in the Palladian vocabulary but is in contrast to his other principal design; the impressive Raehills in Dumfriesshire, built for the 3rd Earl of Hopetoun in 1786, which is an imitation of Robert Adam‘s castle style.  Monreith shows closer similarities with Leuchie House in Lothian, built for Sir William Dalrymple between 1779-1785, to designs by the little known Alexander Peacock who was also based in Edinburgh.  By the 1790s, the first wave of Palladianism had long ago swept through the country and much provincial design can be traced back to the many architectural pattern books which had been produced.  Stevens’ limited but varied output could indicate he used also used them, though perhaps more competently than most.

The Maxwells of Monreith became one of the most important families in the area with a substantial estate which totalled 17,000-acres.  The house has passed down through the Maxwells, though it never went to the most famous of the family, the writer Gavin Maxwell, heir to the 8th Baronet, Aymer Maxwell, but who died of cancer in 1968.  Gavin’s books were best-sellers, with his most famous being the autobiographical ‘A Bright Ring of Water‘ about his pet otter, the profits of which might have helped the estate but for his profligate ways.  His father also faced financial difficulties and, lacking funds to maintain the house, apparently felt it easier – and cheaper – to let the house deteriorate rather than pay to have it demolished.

When Sir Michael inherited the house from his uncle it was in a seriously neglected state, saying he remembers that “When it rained hard the water would run down the stairs and land in puddles on the floor.”.  Sir Michael had trained as a surveyor so he was able to approach much of the work himself – though this also appears to be part of the problem. One money-making scheme was to convert the top floor into holiday flats but these, and the rest of the house, all show signs of his major flaw – a determination to do things as cheaply as possible leading to various poor choices which compromise his aspirations.

Sir Michael displays an admirable duty towards maintaining the house – a contrast to that displayed initially by Hector Christie of Tapeley Park in the previous episode.  Sir Michael says “It would be too easy if your great-grandfather dropped dead and left you money to end up a drunk in the gutter – so it’s a challenge. Essentially, you’re not given much choice when you inherit a house like this.”.  Thankfully he does appear to want to listen to Ruth Watson’s advice and one hopes that this will put him on the path to a sustainably prosperous future which will ensure the Maxwells remain at Monreith.

Official website: Monreith House, Galloway

Programme website: Country House Rescue: Monreith House [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: Tapeley Park, Devon

Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)
Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)

The subject of the 13 March episode of Country House Rescue, Tapeley Park in Devon, carries on the wonderful tradition for country house eccentricities – and eccentrics.  From how the site was chosen to the manner of the inheritance, this beautiful house has a fascinating history – though more recently it’s been a little neglected.

According to Simon Jenkins, “Few Devon houses have so spectacular an outlook” – and few would disagree.  Situated above the pretty seaside town of Bideford, the site of the house was apparently chosen by the builder, Captain William Clevland, who apparently spotted the location through his telescope as he sailed up the Torridge in 1702.  He made good on his wish, rebuilding the existing manor house in an austere and somewhat uninspiring style but which took full advantage of the fine views from its elevated position – though this was later largely negated by an enthusiastic blocking up of windows to avoid the window tax.

Tapeley Park, Devon - before Belcher alterations (Image: tapeleygardens.com)
Tapeley Park, Devon - before Belcher alterations (Image: tapeleygardens.com)

The house eventually passed to the Christie family through marriage when Agnes Clevland married William Langham Christie in 1855.  The Christie fortune was made when one Daniel Christie joined the East India Company and was later given a fortune in gems by a Sultan in thanks for having prevented troops from pillaging a harem.  On his return he married the daughter of Sir Purbeck Langham of Glyndebourne in East Sussex and Saunton Court in Devon.  His grandson, Augustus Langham Christie, inherited both estates and now being a very eligible and wealthy man was able, in 1882, to marry the daughter of the Earl of Portsmouth, Lady Rosamund, whose family seat was the nearby Eggesford House (demolished in 1917).  Coming from such a grand house she was fairly unimpressed with Tapeley, writing in her diary:

“When I first saw Tapeley it was in the winter of 1881 before my marriage to Augustus Langham Christie. It was a Georgian stucco house, very plain and rather dreary in appearance, for many of the front windows had been blocked and the sunk apertures painted black with halfdrawn paint blinds, cords and tassells, looked very dull. The terrace walk and garden did not exist and the drive approached between iron railings.”

The marriage was not a particularly happy one with Lady Rosamund eventually banishing Augustus to the other Christie estate, the nearby Saughton Court, for his ‘eccentricities’ which apparently included ‘childish behaviour’ such as kicking the furniture repeatedly to annoy her.  In his absence, Lady Rosamund poured her energies into rebuilding Tapeley and engaged one of the leading neo-baroque architects, John Belcher (b.1841 – d.1913).  Due to limited finance, the work was to last from 1896 until 1916 but the professional relationship between client and architect was a happy one – so much so that on his death she had a plaque added to a wall in his memory.

Belcher is not as widely known as perhaps he should be, though his work is well regarded. He worked mainly on commercial buildings and institutions including the Whiteleys department store in London, and the brilliant Mappin & Webb building in the City of London which was scandalously demolished in 1994 to build No.1 Poultry (the only good view is looking out from the top of it!). More prominently, Belcher also designed in 1907  the imposing Ashton Memorial in Lancaster for Baron Ashton.

Belcher transformed the ‘dreary’ house to create an imposing but elegant ‘Queen Anne’ style Georgian villa of brick with stone pilasters, parapet and a pediment, sitting above the impressive terraced gardens. The interiors are also of note, featuring a grand staircase hall and also several good fireplaces and plaster ceilings from the original house.  Lady Rosamund had to fight to keep hold of her creation as, in an act of revenge, Augustus left the house in his will on his death in 1930 to a distant cousin in Canada, forcing her to have to go to court to argue, successfully, that Augustus was obviously insane.

The house and estate were inherited by her son, John Christie, who founded the famous opera at Glyndebourne, where he spent the other half of his time when he wasn’t at Tapeley.  Tapeley was then inherited by his daughter, another Rosamund, who frugally ran the house until her death in 1988 and was known for conducting the tours with a parrot on her head.

The current owner is one Hector Christie, Rosamund’s nephew, who apparently decided with his brother which was to inherit Glyndebourne and Tapeley by flipping a coin whilst in a Brighton nightclub.  Hector, though Eton-educated, is something of a rebel, once sneaking into a Labour party conference to heckle Tony Blair about the Iraq war, and also extending a fairly broad invitation to various hippies to create something of an eco-commune at Tapeley.

Though almost all the hippies have now left, Hector has now decided that he should focus on managing the house and estate on a more commercial basis, and not a moment too soon judging by the deteriorating condition of the grade-II* listed house, where part of the dining room ceiling fell in shortly before Ruth Watson’s first visit.  Fingers crossed her advice can provide a means for the family to stay in their ancestral seat without compromising either the architecture or setting or his principles.

Official site: Tapeley Park, Devon

Country House Rescue: Tapeley Park

A bad omen: the spring country house relaunch

One rather unscientific barometer of the health of the country house market is the thickness of Country Life magazine as it comes through the letterbox each week.  After the thinning of the issue in the run-up to Christmas it’s always pleasing to feel the first weighty edition of the new year.  Yet, though this week’s issue (2 March) boasts ’70 pages of property for sale’ it’s remarkable that the estate agents have so few significant country houses to offer and of those that are there, it seems, along with last week’s issue, the largest houses are relaunches.

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

One of the most interesting is grade-II listed Pyrford Court, Surrey.  Originally built in 1910 for the 2nd Lord Iveagh, of the Guinness brewing family, it was one of a group of houses built around that time on the profits of beer (along with Polesden Lacey, Elveden Hall, and Bailliffscourt). The land was sold to Lord Iveagh by his father-in-law, Lord Onslow, whose family had owned the area since the 17th-century.  The house was designed by Clyde Young who had also worked at Elveden, another seat of the Guinness family, though the sensitively designed wings were added in 1927-29 by J.A. Hale of Woking to designs by Lord Iveagh.  The stylish neo-Georgian house is an elegant red-brick composition which originally sat in a 1,000-acre estate – though sadly now reduced to just 21-acres.  Lord Iveagh died in 1967 and the house sat empty until sold in 1977 – apart from a brief burst of fame as a location in the 1965 film ‘The Omen’.  The house then became an old people’s home with all the attendant damage until the current owners started their seven-figure restoration.

Pyrford Court was originally launched on the market in January 2010 for an ambitious £20m, a staggering rise in valuation from the £3.25m paid in 2000 and from the £8m asking price when it was offered for sale in 2002 (reduced, a year later, to £6.5m).  Yet this proved too much for the market to take; even for a ‘super-prime’ house within 25 miles of central London, and despite the high-quality restoration of the impressive interiors.  It subsequently languished and has now been promoted with a double-page advert – though the price is ‘on application’ meaning we won’t yet know quite how far the price has dropped.  However, looking at the other houses Savills have for sale in the area this is by far the most interesting and attractive house.

Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staffs)
Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staffs)

Another impressive house is the classically elegant, red-brick Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire.  Although the architect hasn’t been confirmed, the fact that it is virtually identical to Hatton Grange in Shropshire by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, means it can probably be attributed to him.  The house was built in the late 1750s for Bartholomew Richard Barneby, probably using the £3,000 brought to him through his marriage in 1756 to one Betty Freeman. The Barneby family had owned the estate since the 15th-century and were to own it until 1946 when John Talbot Lutley (who was a descendent of the  Barneby family) left the house and 1,200-acre estate to the National Trust. Col. Lutley was a no-nonsense man who, on hearing of the NT country houses scheme, wrote them a short letter in 1938 saying that as he was a bachelor whose heirs were rather distant, would they be interested?

James Lees-Milne was duly dispatched – and almost rejected it on sight as it wasn’t pure Georgian due to some relatively small Victorian alterations.  However, after a tour of the estate and on seeing the beautiful Lower Brockhampton Manor, he felt that the latter two would be fine additions for the Trust – even if the big house would be a drain. It was duly left to the NT in 1946 following the Colonel’s death. Neither the house nor the contents were of sufficient quality to justify retaining or opening to the public so they sought to let it.  Unfortunately no private tenant wished to take it on, usually citing its remoteness, however in 1985 an insurance company let the house as offices and undertook a comprehensive restoration programme.  After they moved out in 1996 it was again restored as a private home and is now available with just 8-acres but surrounded by the rest of the NT-owned estate.  Interestingly the house is listed under the ‘Sales’ section of the Jackson-Stops & Staff website but I suspect this is due to it being leasehold – again ‘price on application’ so the price of the privilege is unknown, but the house has been advertised since last summer so it may be cheaper than before.

Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)
Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)

Perhaps the most surprising house to still be available is the grand Ebberly House, Devon.  Rather than the expected provincial house, this is a house which displays remarkable architectural sophistication. Described by Pevsner as ‘unusual and attractive’, whose distinctive rounded ends ‘hint at the variety of room shapes inside; a provisional echo of the interest of contemporary architects such as Nash and Soane’.  Designed by Thomas Lee of Barnstaple, a pupil of Sir John Soane, the grade-II* house compensates for it’s remoteness with a fantastic house set in a fine 250-acre estate.  Offers in excess of £4m on the back of a postcard to Savills in Exeter.

Perhaps there are some clever marketing plans being hatched at the estate agents which means that rather than pushing their best properties in the first big property edition of Country Life of 2011 they’re saving them for…when?  Bonuses have just been announced and those looking to buy are probably active so perhaps there is just a general scarcity of significant country houses coming to the market.  Does this indicate 2011 will be rather thin for the agents as uncertainty limits buyers to the super-rich looking for somewhere in London or will the market pick up and a slew of new houses soon be released to whet our appetites?