England’s most ‘at risk’ country houses; English Heritage 2013 report

Though he his House of polish’t marble built
Yet shall it ruine like the Moth’s fraile cell.*

Nymans, West Sussex - gutted by fire in 1947 (Image: sjr60 via flickr)
Nymans, West Sussex – gutted by fire in 1947, now a romantic ruin (Image: sjr60 via flickr)

There is a long tradition of the romanticisation of ruins and decay, but watching once grand houses slide into dereliction is thankfully now seen as a failure; on the part of the owner, and of the official bodies charged with the preservation of our shared architectural heritage. With those local experts disgracefully being seen as expendable by councils, it’s important that English Heritage has produced the 2013 ‘Heritage at Risk Report‘ [PDF] – a sad national roll call from which the priority sites list contains a surprising selection of country houses.

To be included in the list is not to say that a house is derelict, but is more a reflection that there are concerns about the long-term future of the house and current signs of deterioration.  Owners can often find that there are significant projects which require substantial investment which may not be currently possible through their own means, though inclusion on the ‘Priority’ list does open doors to grants and other funding.

Knebworth, Hertfordshire (Image: June Buck / Country Life Picture Library)
Knebworth, Hertfordshire (Image: June Buck / Country Life Picture Library)

Perhaps one of the best known to appear is Knebworth House, Hertfordshire, a Victorian fantasy that is now faced with a modern reality.  Home to the Lytton family since 1492, the house was originally a mid 16th-century courtyard house before losing three sides in 1811, leaving just the west wing which was remodelled externally in 1820 and 1843 in the Tudor-revival style, with interior alterations by Lutyens in 1907 (see Listing description for details).  Still a family home, the Lytton-Cobbolds (as they now are) have worked hard to open the grade-II* house and, famously, host vast pop concerts in the park.  Major grant-funded repairs in the late 1990s restored half the house, but now, as a priority case, a further £240,000 has been allocated for works on the roof and to restore the upper rendering and two pinnacles.

Sockburn Hall, County Durham (Image: Sockburn Hall Project)

For an estate once reputedly tormented by a dragon, the modern threats to Sockburn Hall, Darlington were much more prosaic, but which have meant years of restoration work.  The current house was built in 1834 for the younger brother of Sir William Blackett (1758-1816) in whose family it remained until sold in 1920.  A varied ownership history led to the period which left it in the current damaged state, when the house was owned by two sisters who were later convicted of keeping many dogs in terrible conditions in Sockburn Hall.  The accumulated excrement rotted the floors and a lack of maintenance led to water ingress.  New owners and a dedicated team of volunteers have rallied and started restoration, part-funded by English Heritage grants, though work clearly has some way to go before the house will be safe again.

Scraptoft Hall (Image: wikipedia)

Scraptoft Hall, Leicestershire has long been a cause for concern, faced as it is with threats from the weather, vandals and poor local planning decisions.  Originally built in the 1720s, this elegant smaller house, although still on the edge of Leicester, had earlier suffered the usual short-sighted urban development, which now encroaches on it and its condition had deteriorated significantly.  However, the setting of the house is still worth preserving, though previous proposals would have unsympathetically left it as a mere architectural bauble in the middle of a much larger development.  Sadly, in 2010, despite going against English Heritage advice, the local planning department, council, and MP, were all happy to cast this fine piece of local architectural heritage onto the scrapheap of their own inadequate vision.  A reduced scheme was approved in July 2013, which although at a more appropriate scale, still contains some regrettable choices such as separating the house from the lake and ruining the approach to the hall by lining the drive with houses (See Planning Documents: Presentation Layout). This plan will result in the house being restored as eight apartments, but neither the local council or the developer can claim any sort of credit from this outcome.

Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

For anyone stumbling across the Gothic Revival majesty of Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire, it might seem as thought they had found a university rather than a house – in fact, they had found one of the most remarkable buildings of the Victorian age.  On inheriting in 1833, Charles Scarisbrick embarked on a huge project to embellish his home, initially spending £5,500 between 1836-1846 on old antique carvings.   As one of the oldest Recusant families, the Scarisbricks had an affinity to the Gothic style and one of the reasons for the Hall’s grade-I listing is the creation in 1812-16 of the first new domestic ‘great hall’, to designs by Thomas Rickman and John Slater. One of the key reason for the highest listing is that the house is one of the greatest surviving examples of the work of A.W.N. Pugin, especially after the ruination of his masterpiece, Alton Towers.  Pugin was the architect who thought Gothic was the only ‘true’ architectural path for a Christian nation and, although Charles Scarisbrick initially only asked for a garden seat and a fireplace, Pugin eventually re-designed the interiors before being asked to alter the exterior, creating a more picturesque aspect.

Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire - the bell tower (Image: Alexandre R. dos Santos via flickr)
Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire – the bell tower (Image: Alexandre R. dos Santos via flickr)

Pugin died in 1852, and Charles Scarisbrick in 1860, after which, Charles’ sister inherited and employed Pugin’s son, Edward Welby, to continue the alterations including the spectacular tower – though without the planned clock so rendering it somewhat pointless.  The house passed out of the family in 1872, and was eventually sold for demolition in 1962 but became a school instead, a role it retains today. However, a mounting repair bill (estimated at £2.46m in 2008) has led to the house being added to the ‘at risk’ register, with particular concern about the main hall, and east and west wings.  On all counts, this is a remarkable house and warrants close monitoring and support to ensure that this magnificent example of the Gothic Revival doesn’t fall into a more parlous state.

An estate can contain many more buildings than just the main house, such as stables or follies, which form an important part of the a part of the character of an estate, but which can also become at risk. Below are examples from the same priority report:

In more positive news, although the grade-I Castle Goring, West Sussex, is included in the list, it also notes that this remarkable house has been sold and work to rectify the maintenance backlog has now started.  Congratulations to the South West and West Midlands regions which have no country houses or related buildings included in the 2013 list.

These Registers are a valuable opportunity to highlight the ongoing threats to our shared national architectural heritage, for although many of these country houses and buildings are in private ownership, we all enjoy the wider benefit of their beauty and history. If anyone demands justification as why anyone should care, why we should protect them, just ask them to imagine our country without them.

Ruins of Ravensworth Castle, County Durham (Image: Webb Aviation)
Ruins of Ravensworth Castle, County Durham which also feature on the ‘Priority’ list (Image: Webb Aviation)

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Full list (PDF): ‘Heritage at Risk Register – 2013‘ [English Heritage]

Previous blog post: ‘How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

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* – Quote by Gaston Boissier, ‘Rome and Pompeii‘ (1896), as quoted in ‘The Pleasure of Ruins‘ by Rose Macaulay

Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)
Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)

One often forgotten aspect of local newspapers is their ability to draw on their archives and provide reminders of local history. The local paper frequently played an important part in publicising the goings on at the ‘big house’, reporting the successes and scandals with usually equal vigour.  A recent article in the Northamptonshire ‘Evening Telegraph‘ reflects not only on the collapse of the Volta tower, built by the owner of Finedon Hall as a memorial to his drowned son, but also the later dereliction and near loss of the house itself as it slipped from dereliction ever closer to demolition.  Yet, unlike so many hundreds of other country houses which were lost, Finedon Hall was one of the many which have been saved.

c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)
c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)

Finedon Hall has 17th-century origins but its current style is the result of what Mark Girouard called “eccentric chunky” alterations by E.F. Law for the owner, William Mackworth-Dolben, in the 1850s.  Built in a Tudor-Gothic style in the local ironstone (which was quarried on their land) the house passed through the family until the last of the family, the spinster Ellen Mackworth-Dolben died in 1912.  With no heirs, the estate was sold off in parcels with the house passing through a number of owners before being bought by developers in 1971.  For over a decade they allowed the house to deteriorate until just ten years later parts of the roof had gone and the exterior was in serious danger of collapse.  Luckily, more enlightened developers stepped in and during the 1990s the house (and estate buildings) were converted into apartments.

One of the largest houses to be converted in this way was Thorndon Hall in Essex.  One of James Paine‘s largest commissions, this Palladian mansion was originally built for the 9th Lord Petre in 1764-7 but was gutted by fire in 1876, leaving only the eastern end of the main block and the eastern pavilion intact.  The Petre family lived in the reduced house until 1919 when they leased it and the estate to a golf club and they moved back to the original family home, Ingatestone Hall.  The house remained a largely ruined shell until it was sold for development in 1976 but was then bought in 1978 by a local builder who created a total of 84 apartments in the house, pavilions and estate buildings.

Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)
Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)

One of the most accomplished and intelligent of the developers to convert country houses is Kit Martin who has saved several houses and including Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  The house was largely remodelled by Ambrose Isted in 1755 in the then relatively new ‘Gothic-Revival‘ style (Horace Walpole had only started his work at Strawberry Hill in the early 1750s and it’s considered one of the earliest houses in the new style).  The house was filled with fine art, books and furniture and passed through the Isteds and then, by marriage, to the Sothebys who owned it until the last died, childless, in 1952. At this point the rot set in; builders called in to remove a large kitchen extension also, apparently, stole the valuable lead from the roof leading to dry and wet rot. Alexander Creswell, visiting in the 1980s, described the scene:

“The rich ochre stone of the garden front is engulfed in Virginia creeper, and sparkles of broken glass litter the terrace.  Inside the house, the drawing room fireplace rises above a heap of plaster that the roof has brought down…At one end of the house the winter storms have toppled a gable, which in falling has crushed the fragile camellia-house below; one surviving camellia blooms among the rubble of ironstone – the only flourishing vestige of Ecton’s former glory” – ‘The Silent Houses of Britain

However, by 1989 Kit Martin had finished his work and the new apartments were advertised for sale in Country Life; a remarkable rescue for this almost lost house.

Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)
Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)

Perhaps Kit’s finest work is Gunton Park in Norfolk.  The house was originally the work of Matthew Brettingham, a competent, if sometimes unimaginative, Palladian who had first achieved recognition with his work executing William Kent and Lord Burlington‘s designs for Holkham Hall.  This work brought him to the attention of other aristocratic clients, particularly in Norfolk, including Sir William Harbord who commissioned him in 1745 to design a replacement at Gunton for an earlier house which had burnt down three years earlier.  Brettingham’s house was to be significantly enlarged c.1785 to designs by James Wyatt.

Sadly, fire struck again; in 1882 the Brettingham portion of the house, including the fine rooms, was almost completely gutted and remained a forlorn shell for the next 100 years.  Kit Martin bought the house in 1981 and sensitively created well-proportioned apartments in the remaining wings. The front of the Brettingham wing (pictured above) become one large house separated from the main block by a large void created by the fire but still linked by the retained façades.  It’s not just the house which has been rejuvenated; the parkland – nearly 1,000 acres – has also been bought or, through agreements, reunited (and in the process winning an award from Country Life magazine) to restore the setting of this elegant house.

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)

It’s rare for a house, once in a state of dereliction, to be restored as a single family home, yet thankfully it does happen. Barlaston Hall is one example of this – and it’s rescue was down to some bold decisions by the campaigning charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and their President, the architectural writer Marcus Binney, who was offered this elegant house for £1!  Barlaston Hall is, according to Binney, almost certainly the work of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714 – d.1788).   The house is a relatively unadorned but sophisticated house, enlivened with unusual octagonal and diamond glazing bars in the sash windows; Taylor’s response to the popularity of Chinese Chippendale furniture and a general fashion for the Rococo.

Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)
Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)

However, the house had been built on several coal seams which threatened the house when they were mined in the 20th-century.  Structurally unsound, it had been abandoned and vandalised but SAVE stepped in to challenge Wedgewood’s application to demolish.  At the subsequent public inquiry, the National Coal Board threw down the challenge that SAVE could buy the house for £1 provided it completed restoration and repairs within six years.  SAVE swung into action, raising money through grants and by forcing the NCB to meet its obligations (which it did after some shameful attempts to avoid doing so), and the house was stabilised, restored, and subsequently sold to a couple who completed the interior and it remains a family home.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr) - click to see large version

Sadly there are many country houses still at risk today – though the rescues also continue. Pell Well Hall in Shropshire, a wonderful house by Sir John Soane built in 1822-28, has been restored as a shell after decades of neglect, vandalism and fire, and now requires someone with vision to complete the process.  Bank Hall in Lancashire was featured in the original ‘Restoration’ TV series but has continued to deteriorate with sections collapsing.  However, planning permission is being sought to convert the house into apartments which will enable restoration of the house. One house however has, inexplicably (well, to me), remained unrestored; Piercefield House in Monmouthshire.  This beautiful house, again by Sir John Soane, became uninhabited and was mistreated during WWII by the American troops stationed nearby who used the façade for target practice.  The house, set in 129 acres, has been for sale for several years but despite the architectural provenance and the wonderful setting it remains unsold.

The story of the country house has always been one of changing fortunes, which sadly led to many being demolished. The difference now we have heritage legislation is that whereas before houses were often simply demolished, now their plight is likely to drag on for many years.  Restoration is often the best course of action, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible, and ideally as a single family home, though the less palatable options of conversion are always to be preferred to the complete loss of another of our historic houses.

News story: ‘Fascinating history of Hall‘ [Evening Telegraph]

Going to the country: the country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 1

Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)
Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)

Those in important political roles have often sought to escape the pressures of office by escaping to the calm and tranquillity of the countryside.  This has been particularly true of the holder of the most important role; that of Prime Minister.  With early PMs drawn from the aristocracy, their backgrounds provided them with a seat which became a natural refuge but was also an important part of their political identity.  However, as their origins changed, so too did the nature of the country retreat.  However, for all PMs the country retreat has been a fairly constant feature – though not all aspired to live in grandeur.

To make this broad survey more digestible I’ve split this into PMs by ruling monarch, starting from when the role of Prime Minister was first recognised in 1721 under King George I.

The first holder of the office, Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, was the epitome of the aristocratic leader.  Walpole was born at Houghton Hall in Norfolk – though the house was a more modest one before Sir Robert engaged Colen Campbell in 1722 to rebuild it, creating one of the finest Palladian houses in the country.  The second PM was Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, who also employed Colen Campbell in 1726 to create a more modest home; Compton Place in Sussex.

The seat of Henry Pelham, who became the 3rd PM in 1743, was (according to Howard Colvin) Esher Place in Surrey which he bough in 1729. In 1733, he commissioned William Kent, who was also to create some garden buildings for Claremont for the Duke of Newcastle (see below), to add wings to the original house, Wolsey’s Tower, in a Gothic style.  The wings and garden buildings at Esher have now been demolished but drawings survive in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Pelham was succeeded as PM by his older brother, Thomas Pelham-Holles, the 1st Duke of Newcastle, whose main seat was Claremont in Esher, Surrey which he had bought from Sir John Vanbrugh who had built a ‘very small box’ as his own home.  The Duke then commissioned Vanbrugh to extend the house, adding two large wings.  This house was subsequently demolished as unfashionable by Clive of India who had bought the estate in 1768 following the Duke’s death, before being rebuilt in the Palladian style we see today.   The Duke also had other homes including in Halland, Sussex, an area the Pelham family had dominated since 1595 when they first bought land there.  Halland Place was also sold in 1768 and later demolished for materials.  [Originally I gave Welbeck Abbey as his seat but it was, in fact, inherited by the Holles Earls of Clare branch of the family creating a bitter feud.  A more detailed history of the feud is given by dennis in this comment below (thank you for the correction).]

One of the most fascinating houses in the country, particularly due to the extensive tunnelling work commissioned by the 5th Duke, but also one of the least known due to the reclusiveness of the Bentinck family and then later due to its role as the Army Sixth Form college which ensured military-level privacy. The house was largely the work of Sir Charles Cavendish who was given the house and estate by his mother, the remarkable Bess of Hardwick. [Corrected in response to comment below]

To complete the list of aristocratic PMs during the reign of George I (1714–1727) and George II (1727–1760), the last was William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire who lived in the peerless Chatsworth in Derbyshire – then, as now, one of the finest of our large country houses.  Interestingly, at the same time as he took on the role of PM in 1756, he also engaged in building at Chatsworth employing James Paine to add a new office wing and court (later replaced by Sir Jeffry Wyatville), a stable block, a bridge in the park, a bridge at Beeley, a water mill and also alterations to interiors of the house – though this work was not to be completed until 1767, long after his time as PM finished in 1757.

One notable feature of all the first PMs was they were all Whigs, a party nicknamed the ‘Country Party’ for their support was strongest in the shires and amongst the great landowners.  Unsurprisingly, these leaders were already managing vast estates which naturally came with sizeable houses which reflected their status – which then gave them the authority to aspire to be PM.  At this time, elections were rather crude affairs with the major landowners having MPs in their pockets due to ‘rotten boroughs‘ which gave the landowner a disproportionate, not to mention undemocratic, influence in the Houses of Commons.  Their country houses were therefore not a symptomatic trapping of power, something that they had aspired to and then acquired, but, in fact, were the foundation of the power which had secured them the position in the first place.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Architecturally, the apparently only acceptable styles were either Palladian or Classical which reflected the political nature of the landowners – symmetry, structure, proportion and the use of the correct orders would have appealed to those who were against monarchical absolutism (which would have challenged their own power) but also reflected a societal structure which ensured their wealth and status.  The Whigs were also closely associated with the Church of England and, as such, would not have entertained the idea of building their houses in the ‘Catholic’ Gothic style, and anyway, with the neo-Gothic movement only really starting in the 1740s it would be several decades before it gained real influence.

So the early years of the role of PM was dominated by the existing ruling class; the great landowners who now shifted from trying to solely influence events through the levers of Royal favouritism (though their support of the Hanoverian succession and therefore King George wasn’t overlooked) to the use of Parliament – though on their terms.  The houses which had often been built to attract and impress a visiting monarch in the hope of securing influence now shifted to helping build alliances with other landowners – and what better way than creating a home they would feel comfortable in? Architecture had become a key part of the political landscape; a physical expression of certain values but also part of a supporting cast which would build the alliances which elevated men to be Prime Minister.

Next: a change of King, and a new PM.

List of UK Prime Ministers

Thanks to Andrew for the original suggestion for this survey

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

The UK aristocracy brought back many souvenirs from their grand tours to Italy – pictures, sculpture, drawings etc – but also a delight in the architecture inspired by the ancient ruins.  This fascination manifested itself in country houses across the UK with a profusion of arches,  Serlian windows, porticos and pediments.  However, one device, despite its impressiveness, has been notable by its relative rarity; the rotunda – that grand circular space often featuring a parade of columns leading the eye up to a spectacular dome.  So why would this grand centrepiece be so infrequently used inside our country houses?

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

The most famous rotunda, and that which was so influential on the Anglo-Palladians, was the Pantheon in Rome.  Built in AD 124, this vast space under a 142ft diameter dome was closely studied by Andrea Palladio and became a key destination for UK architects who later travelled to Rome.  Palladio then developed the use of the rotunda as the central circulation space in his residential villas, most famously with the Villa Capra or “La Rotonda” in Vicenza, begun in 1567.

Palladio was not the first to use a rotunda in a residential setting; the artist Mantegna built his own home in Mantua in the 1470s using a layout and scale very similar to that later used at Villa Capra, using a design probably suggested by the architect-engineer Francesco di Giorgio.  Palladio then modified it and used it to great success to create what is regarded as one of his finest houses.  The rotunda would have neatly solved the challenge of the Villa Capra in that a visitor may at any front, thus negating the traditional linear plan which assumed only one main entrance.

Mereworth Castle, Kent
Mereworth Castle, Kent

Looking through Colen Campbell‘s ‘Vitruvius Britanicus’ – a highly regarded collection of plans and prints of the best Georgian houses published between 1715-1725 – that over the three volumes a rotunda is only used twice.  The first is in a proposed (but never executed) design for Goodwood House in Sussex for the Earls of March designed by Colen Campbell in 1724 which featured a 40ft diameter space.  The second is the 35ft diameter version which forms the dramatic central hall of Mereworth Castle in Kent.  Mereworth (built 1722-25) was one of only four Georgian houses to be built in the UK which closely followed the design of the Villa Capra; the others being Chiswick House, Middlesex (1726-29), Foots Cray Place, Kent (1754 – demolished 1949), and Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire (1757 – demolished 1929).

A later use of the rotunda was at the slightly eccentric Ickworth House, Suffolk. Built in 1795 and based on the designs of Mario Asprucci, an Italian architect;  it was later adapted by Francis and his brother Joseph Sandys who also oversaw construction.  This later use of the rotunda showed how it could be employed as a single dramatic centrepiece in its own right, not hidden in the centre of the house.

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

Yet, if it was hidden, it could form a dramatic and surprising irregularity to the procession of square and rectangular rooms which often dominated houses.  One example of this is at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire where Robert Adam was inspired by his own 1764 study of the ‘Ruins of the Palace of the Emporer Diocletian at Spalatro [Split]’ which paired the circular rotunda with a square vestibulum. Adam also later proposed to convert the courtyard at Syon Park into a huge rotunda. Perhaps one of the most impressive and beautiful expressions of the rotunda is the central staircase at New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, designed by James Paine, and built between 1769-1776 and later described by Pevsner as ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’.

So, despite its impressiveness why are most entrances and staircases so determinedly right-angled?  Simple finance can explain it in part; it would be more expensive to create a rotunda as they are more complex, require more space and also usually compromises in the floor plan to include the curvature.

Fashion can also play its part. As architectural taste moved in the Victorian era towards a preference for the gothic, so the opportunities for the use of the rotunda diminished. With its origins in the temple ruins of Classical ancient Rome, the most famous Gothic Revival architect, A.W.N. Pugin (b.1812 – d.1852) considered it part of a more pagan tradition – and therefore completely antithetical to his belief that gothic represented the only true expression of Christianity through architecture. And where Pugin led, others followed.

Or perhaps the answer is more pragmatic.  One of the primary purposes of the country house was to impress visitors.  Often a political power base, the grandest houses were designed to create an impression even before the visitor actually met the owner.  As one of the principal spaces in a house, entrance halls have often played an important role in this domestic ‘theatre’ – and the use of a rotunda requires perhaps too many compromises.

Traditionally the grand rooms where visitors would be met were often on the ground floor and would be processed through, with only the most important visitors reaching the best rooms.  Elizabethan houses changed this with the principal rooms moving to upper floors, such as at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, requiring more impressive staircases which, through the use of heraldic and political symbolism in the carving on balusters and handrail could make many a statement before the guest reached the required floor.

Palladian designs continued this with the preference for the piano nobile which moved the principle rooms to a raised ground floor.  The large empty wall spaces of the staircase also formed a useful space for the display of paintings including family portraits or a large selection to show the owner’s taste and style.  The staircase also provided a way to make a dramatic entrance – think ladies in their evening gowns gliding down to join the party.  Yet if a house used a rotunda it compromised both these features.  A curved wall made it difficult to hang the largest and most impressive works of art and staircases were usually spiral and tucked into the walls in the corners, meaning those coming down would only be seen when they emerged at the ground floor – which would never do.

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

Yet, the rotunda has not died out and those with the vision and wealth can still create these dramatic spaces.  One of the most impressive has to be Henbury Hall in Cheshire, built between 1984-86 for Sebastien de Ferranti and designed by the architect Julian Bicknell from a painting by the artist Felix Kelly. A faithful recreation of Villa Capra, the dome rises to 15m with the principal rooms radiating from the central hall.  Nigel Anderson at Adam Architects also designed a replacement country house in Surrey which, according to them, is based (I’d say loosely – at least externally) on Villa Capra.  Another fine example is that at Tusmore Park in Oxfordshire, winner of the best new building in the classical tradition award from the Georgian Group in 2004 where the scagliola columns in the central rotunda are said to rival those of the imperial palaces of St Petersburg.

These examples show that, although comparatively rare, the impressive traditions of the rotunda are being continued by architects and clients determined to create the most dramatic interiors in contemporary country houses despite the compromises which have perhaps unfairly limited their use in previous centuries.

A restoration or a recreation: Knightshayes Court, Devon

Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)

For all the wonderful work the National Trust has done over the last hundred years saving numerous country houses from demolition, one criticism that has been levelled at it is the almost artificial atmosphere it has created inside.  A recent visit to Knightshayes Court in Devon has also highlighted an interesting series of judgements as to how far an interior should be restored, even to the point of creating a room which was planned but never executed.

Knightshayes Court sits in an elevated and enviable position above the market town of Tiverton where the Heathcoat Amory family had the factory which generated their wealth.  The family fortune was created by the Loughborough-based John Heathcoat (b.1783 – d.1861) inventor of a revolutionary industrial lace-making machine who moved to Tiverton in 1816 after all 55 machines were smashed by drunken Luddites.  A caring man, he ensured the workers were well-housed and the children educated, and the factory became the largest lace-making factory in the world, employing 1,100 workers.

Knightshayes Court, however, was built by his grandson, John Heathcoat Amory (b.1829 – d.1914), whose father had married the only daughter of John Heathcoat, and had added his father-in-laws surname on inheriting. Although politically active, being knighted in 1874, he had sufficient time to indulge the usual pastimes of the wealthy Victorian aristocrat, particularly hunting.   So why would a provincial hunting gent commission a house from an eccentric medievalist, such as William Burges?

Burges (b.1827 – d.1881) has been described by Mark Girouard as ‘one of the most Gothic of the Gothicists‘.  His spectacular remodelling of Cardiff Castle, and the creation of the fantastical Castell Coch, both for the immensely wealthy 3rd Marquess of Bute, allowed him free reign to indulge his bold and imaginative decorative schemes.  Burges worked to a relatively simple philosophy that “No rule can be deduced except the golden one; whatever looks best is best‘ which combined with his other aphorism ‘Money is only a secondary concern in the production of first rate works…There are no bargains in art‘, meant that his work was never going to be cheap.  Yet Heathcoat Amory chose him – but the suspicion is that it was his wife Henrietta who made the choice, perhaps on the back of family connections which included the 2nd Lord Carrington for whom Burges had remodelled Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire (now flats), in the late 1850s-early 1860s.

Perhaps John Heathcoat Amory had only given broad instructions as to what he wanted and had left his wife to chose the aesthetics – either way, as paymaster, Sir John would later regret not taking perhaps a closer interest in the choice of architect.   Construction of the house started in 1869 and the exterior of the house was built almost exactly to Burges’ original design, with the exception of the reduced height of the great tower and a re-orientation of the billiard room.  With the shell completed in July 1870, at a cost of £14,080 (approx. £1m today), the Architect magazine observed that for completion ‘…the actual cost will be something more.‘ – a classic in the canon of architectural understatements as Burges had reserved his most incredible work for the interior.

In 1873, Burges presented the family with a 57-page album of detailed drawings which depicted everything from floor to ceiling.  Faced with such a grand and lavish scheme the Heathcoat Amorys abandoned Burges’ scheme, apart from the stone and wood carving, and, in 1874, brought in the cheaper but very talented John Diblee Crace.  Crace was the fifth generation of architectural decorators and between 1875 and 1882 he completed the interior of the house in his own more restrained but still colourful designs. The last additions to the house were an extra floor to the service wing in 1885 and a Smoking Room in 1902.

However, in the 1930s and 1950s, when appreciation for Victorian exuberance was at its lowest, the Heathcoat Amorys retreated from the bold colour schemes, removing fireplaces, screen and bookcases and covering or repainting ceilings and walls.  So when the National Trust took over in 1973 the house was very different, and less architecturally interesting, than the one of a century earlier.  The guide book, to its credit, does an admirable job of spelling out what is original, what was originally planned, what Burges executed, what Crace did, and what the National Trust has restored – and, perhaps more controversially, has recreated.

The obvious question when deciding on restoration is what particular period you pick as the ‘authentic’ period.  The National Trust took over Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire in 1987, easily one of the finest Adam houses in the country, but by 1994 the then Lord Scarsdale was complaining that the NT had decided that anything post-1760 had to go.  This led to the emptying of rooms, the repainting of others to how they thought Adam had painted them, and the removal in the grounds of anything not thought to have been put there by the first Lord Scarsdale and Robert Adam.

This is in contrast to the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) who state: “In the architectural context “restoration” means work intended to return an old building to a perfect state. It can be the unnecessary renewal of worn features or the hypothetical reconstruction of whole or missing elements; in either case tidy reproduction is achieved at the expense of genuine but imperfect work.“[source].

The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)
The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)

So was the National Trust wrong to strip back the layers of changes?  In view of the fascinating end result and the relative rarity of Burges country houses it can be argued that this work rescued what remained and cleverly exposed the earlier work.  But whose earlier work?  The guidebook explains that most of the interior is by Crace, and it’s his work which has been restored.  Yet upstairs in ‘The Burges Room’, the National Trust took it a step further and took Burges unexecuted plan for that room and created it as it imagined it would have looked.

So is this mere architectural theme park-ism?  Perhaps as it has be made clear what has been created from scratch there is less risk of confusion, but considering how few read the guidebook in detail (or at all), the National Trust has the unenviable choice between respecting all the changes or presenting a more visually interesting house but with necessary compromises in architectural integrity. On balance, there has to be a very strong case to take such a course of action otherwise we risk seeing recreations of idealised or imagined versions of houses rather than the rich and varied buildings which have honestly adapted and changed as family homes over time.

Visitor information: ‘Knightshayes Court, Devon‘ [National Trust]

The ‘artocracy’ expands: West Acre High House, Norfolk

West Acre High House, Norfolk (Image: Strutt & Parker)
West Acre High House, Norfolk (Image: Strutt & Parker)

In any age, once someone is successful they often seek the traditional status symbols – with a country house being high on the list.  For footballers it seems that the modern, bling-laden mansions are the favoured style but for an increasing number of modern artists it’s the historic houses which are finding favour.  The news that Anthony Gormley has bought West Acre High House in Norfolk adds him to a distinguished roll-call of artists who are forming what has been glibly named, the ‘artocracy’.

Artists moving to the country to help their work has a long history including  Peter Paul Rubens buying the Castle of Steen Manor House in the Netherlands in 1635 which led to some of his finest landscape paintings. West Acre High House was regarded as one of the prize estates when it came up for sale in 2008 for £9.5m with 1,000-acres.  Yet, it languished on the market despite the nearby 1,600-acre Kelling estate being sold which was listed at the same time.

West Acre High House was built in 1756 by Edward Spelman (d. 1767), a writer and translator and known eccentric, who had inherited the estate from the Barkhams.  The design raised eyebrows, particularly for that part of the world, with its novel piano nobile arrangement which was also being used around that time in the construction of Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall.  A visitor in that year, Caroline Girle, reported:

“I paid a droll visit to see an odd house, of a still odder Mr Spelman, a most strange bachelor of vaste fortune but indeed I’ll not fall in love with him.  We were introduced to him in the library where he seemed deep in study (for they say he’s really clever) sitting in a Jockey Cap in stiff white Dog’s Gloves. On seeing Mr Spelman one no longer wonders at the oddity of the edifice he has just finished.”

The house is also unusual in that the south front is 7 bays with the central 5 deeply recessed, but the north front is 13 bays due to the flanking wings being built level with the main block.  The wings were built by Anthony Hamond (b.1742 – d. 1822), a nephew of Richard Hamond who had bought the estate from Spelman in 1761.  The next major change was put in effect by Anthony’s second son, another Anthony, who, in c.1829, employed the well-known country house architect, W.J. Donthorn, who refaced the whole house in pale oatmeal Holkham brick, crenellated it and created the spectacular internal double-flight staircase.  The staircase leads to a picture gallery modelled on the one in Buckingham Palace and is formed of five perfect cubes of 18ft.

The house was bought by Henry Birkbeck in 1897 who might have inherited it having  married Anthony Hamond’s daughter in 1849 but, for reasons unknown, purchased it instead.  It remained in the Birkbeck family until the sale to Gormley, who has bought the house plus 100-acres for just £3m having had the price reduced by wanting less land and after factoring in the £1.5m cost of restoration.

Toddington Manor, Gloucestershire (Image: Images of England/Heritage Gateway)
Toddington Manor, Gloucestershire (Image: Images of England/Heritage Gateway)

The restoration costs may well turn out to be much higher – as Damien Hirst, another of the ‘artocrats’, has found out.  He has admitted recently that he has been affected by the recent economic turmoil and in addition to closing down his studios, he has paused the vast, £10m restoration programme he is undertaking at his equally vast country house, Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire, which he bought in 2005 for £3m.  Built in 1819-35 for Charles Hanbury-Tracy, later 1st Baron Sudeley, using his own very accomplished designs. He drew his inspiration from the Perpendicular architecture of Oxford and Pugin‘s work, to create an important Gothic-revival building at a cost of £150,000 (equivalent to £15m in today terms).  The design clearly influenced Sir Charles Barry in his design for Highclere Castle in Berkshire (built between 1838-78) and the Houses of Parliament (started in 1840) – but perhaps Barry was playing to the audience with the latter as Hanbury-Tracy was also on the committee which chose the design for the new Parliament.  After being empty for 20 years until Hirst bought it, the house was a cause for serious concern with outbreaks of dry-rot and a pressing need to replace the acres of roof.  After being saved from becoming a hotel, Hirst bought the grade-I listed house as both a home but also to eventually become a gallery for his work.

Another artist seeking the country life is Anish Kapoor who was apparently interested in taking the lease on Ashdown House in Berkshire – though it eventually went to Pete Townshend of The Who.  One of our prettiest country houses, and now owned by the National Trust, leasing it would have given him the status without the huge restoration costs.

One of the most encouraging aspects of both Gormley and Hirst’s purchases has been the willingness and ability to finance the necessary huge restoration projects.  For Hirst, this has involved covering the whole of Toddington Manor in some ‘Christo’-esque scaffolding with the expectation that the restoration will be a lifetime’s work.  Any restoration has an element of being a labour of love but, in exchange, their houses will give them status, but most importantly, a home – these are houses to be lived in, albeit on a much grander scale than most.

Property listing: ‘West Acre High House‘ [Strutt & Parker] – marked as ‘Sold’ so may not be on the website for long.

Detailed architectural listing: ‘West Acre High House‘ [British Listed Buildings]

More images: ‘Toddington Manor‘ [aerial-cam photography]