A rural power house; literally – Fairfield House, Somerset

Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)
Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)

To describe a country seat as a ‘power house’ was usually to allude to its status economically, politically, certainly as a local employer, usually even in matters of style. Yet, these houses also indirectly, and sometimes very directly, played an important part in the provision of the electricity which has grown to power our everyday lives.  Power stations play an obvious central role and their expansion has often been controversial.  In earlier decades, a local power house was sometimes sacrificed to the demands of industry and the needs for power stations, but now, for some, particularly Fairfield House in Somerset, they have proven to be a windfall.

Country estates have a long history of being the beneficiaries of the need for power. In medieval times, the natural resources of an estate, such as a fast-flowing river or extensive woodland would be harnessed or harvested to drive local industry.  The most productive land could prove especially valuable if it could support the entire production cycle such as for bread, with corn grown on the estate, being ground in the windmill or mill on the river, before being sold in the market in a town owned by the local lord, who, at each stage would profit.  As the Industrial Revolution flourished, so the need for power grew, leading landowners to fully exploit the natural resources which lay beneath their land as well, with coal becoming a leading creator of Victorian fortunes.

Methley Hall, Yorkshire - demolished 1963 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Methley Hall, Yorkshire - demolished 1963 (Image: Lost Heritage)

Yet, the almost insatiable need for power, and the coal which generated it, has also consumed some of our country houses, including one of the grandest, and threatens some even today.  One of the greatest threats from mining is subsidence caused by extensive mine workings which simply followed the coal seam – wherever it may lead.  Given the choice between a loss of income or the loss of the family seat, it was rarely the house which won.  It was, of course, the northern counties which were worst affected; Methley Hall, seat of the Earls of Mexborough, was eventually ruined by the coal workings which surrounded it (an issue even when Country Life visited in 1907) and demolished in 1963.  Kippax Park, once the second longest country house in the country, stood in the way of an open-cast coal mine which eventually consumed it in the late 1950s.  In County Durham, Coxhoe Hall, was eventually bought by the local coal board who proceeded to demolished it in 1956 to avoid having to fix the structural issues they had created.

Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, Scotland - demolished 1919 (Image: Wikipedia) - more info from Virtual Reconstruction website
Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, Scotland - demolished 1919 (Image: Wikipedia) - more info from Virtual Reconstruction website

This is, inevitably, just a small selection of some of the many losses but easily the most spectacular casualty of coal mining would be Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire. Built for the Dukes of Hamilton, the Palace was the epitome of aristocratic wealth, creating both a home and a collection which would rival the best in Europe.  Built on the incredible wealth generated by the Lanarkshire coalfields they owned, the 10th Duke, Alexander, enclosed the existing house in a grand Classical embrace. The one-room deep extension of the house, in 1819, accommodated not only the many works of art he had acquired on his Grand Tour but also many of the treasures inherited from the fabulous collection of William Beckford which came via the Duke’s wife, who was Beckford’s youngest daughter.  Yet those same coalfields eventually fatally undermined the house, and faced with such a substantial problem, and not lacking other houses to move to, the decision was taken in 1919 to demolish the Palace – the most serious loss to Scottish country house architecture in the last 200 years.

Others houses were even more directly affected by the need for power stations which, ironically, shared similar requirements with the aristocracy for their homes; a level site with good access to roads (and later rail), a ready water supply and space to expand.  In the dark days of the mid-twentieth century, for an impoverished owner, the offer to be bought out by the local power company must have been very attractive – and perhaps may have helped their guilt by feeling that it was contributing to national infrastructure; though often the house had already gone.

Drakelow Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Drakelow Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

One house which certainly matched these criteria was Drakelow Hall, Staffordshire, seat of 28 generations of the Gresley family and which, declared Country Life in 1902, “…is one of those seats of ancient eminence which win the regard of all Englishmen.“. Situated above the River Trent, the house was perhaps best known for the Painted Dining Room by Paul Sandby which was completed in 1793.  Sadly, declining family fortunes led to its sale in 1933, followed by ill-fated ventures such as a country club and motor racing circuit before the house was demolished in 1938, though, fortunately, a section of the Dining Room was saved by the V&A.  In 1948, the huge Drakelow Power Station rose on the site, attracted by the sizable 707-acre estate and its proximity to the river, and railways, road and, most importantly, the East Midlands coalfields. Hams Hall in Warwickshire similarly vanished under the same demands. One house which was rescued was Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire, a wonderful small villa by Sir Robert Taylor, which was bought for £1 by SAVE Britain’s Heritage to prove that it was possible to restore it.  The house is now again a home as a result of their valiant efforts. However, even today, subsidence from old coal workings threatens other houses such as at Wentworth Woodhouse, where the owner, Clifford Newbold, has lodged a claim for £100m in compensation to fund the stabilisation and restoration of this magnificent house.

The requirements for nuclear power stations were different in that they were obviously less dependent on proximity to the raw fuel but they did require vast quantities of water for cooling so were often sited on the coast – which thankfully also meant fewer houses would be affected. Of those, the small manor house at Calder Hall had already gone by the time the decision was taken to built the UK’s first nuclear reactor on the site in 1947. So although the opportunities for landowners are now primarily around wind turbines, a report in the Sunday Times (13 Nov 2011) highlights the windfalls from owning the land adjacent to a nuclear power station scheduled for expansion.

Main entrance - Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)
Main entrance - Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)

Lady Elizabeth Gass, Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, and current owner of the 6,000-acre family estate, recently accepted a £50m offer from EDF to purchase 230-acres of farmland which will become the proposed Hinckley C power station.  The Fairfield House estate (a prime candidate for the Handed On blog of lesser-known seats) has descended through the Palmer-Acland-Wood-Fuller families for 800 years and has never been sold. The current part-Elizabethan house was begun in about 1580, but with later changes in 1633 to change it from a medieval courtyard layout to the more familiar E-plan which we see today.  Excitingly, traces of the old house are still embedded in the fabric today, with a cell for those awaiting the justice of the local magistrate and, once revealed behind some 19th-century plasterwork in the attics, the original finely-carved late-medieval roof timbers of a first floor hall.

The future of this wonderful estate is now secure and stands as a testament to how changing patterns of land use which once threatened and toppled grand houses can also enrich a country estate.  That it is going to support a rare survivor of familial descent is an added bonus and I hope Lady Gass feels rightly proud of her success.


More details: ‘£50m deal as Somerset wind turbine land goes to nuclear plant‘ [This is Somerset]

Listing description: ‘Fairfield House, Somerset‘ [British Listed Buildings]


An apology: you may have noticed that I haven’t been able to publish as frequently as I’d like but just to reassure you that this is definitely not due to any slackening of interest on my part but simply due to my day job requiring a greater commitment at the moment.  This hopefully will be temporary and as we go into the Spring I can pick up the pace again – but in the meantime, please do take time to re-read some of the old posts you may not have seen, and hopefully discover something new amongst the archives.

Thanks for your patience.


‘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.


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

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

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

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]