The glory of the great hall; Dundarave, Co. Antrim

Dundarave, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland - for sale, June 2012, £5m (Image: Savills)
Dundarave, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland – for sale, June 2014, £5m (Image: Savills)

Where is the centre of a country house? For some it may be a favoured study or library, or a sunlit parlour facing the gardens. Yet, from the time of the earliest large residential buildings, the great hall has often enjoyed that rare status of being at the core of daily life. However, as times changed, so too did the function, becoming less a space for the whole household to meet and eat, more a statement about the wealth and status of the owner.  The Victorians were keen revivalists for the patterns and forms of ancient aristocratic life and although few used their halls for dining, their role as an impressive reception area, both for receiving guests and entertaining, meant that some embraced the opportunity for grandeur, as can be seen in the recently launched for sale, Dundarave, Co. Antrim, in Northern Ireland.

A medieval country house still reflected the social arrangements of a castle with the lord and his family congregating in the central hall as this was safest and also warmest.  As the designs of homes changed from fortifications to the form we recognise today, the family would still wish to be seen and to entertain in the grandest space in the house.  It was also still probably the warmest.  The huge processions of the Tudor monarchs required a large enough area to accommodate the existing household plus the royal retinue and to have such a capacity was a sign of prestige.  The great hall was therefore as much a practical space as it was a statement of the wealth and power of the owner, as shown by the lavish construction, including spectacular hammer-beam roofs, such as at Eltham Palace (built in 1470s) and Burghley (built much later in 1578 – and the last to have an open timberwork roof), and windows with glass.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire - view of the inside of the great hall (Image: © d-kav / flickr)
Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire – view of the inside of the great hall (Image: © d-kav / flickr)

For the Elizabethans, the great hall was becoming increasingly symbolic, with Burghley the last extravagant flourish of that earlier age.  For houses closely associated with the monarchy or the favoured courtiers, the decorative opportunities that a space such as a great hall offered were irresistible.  At Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, built between 1580-88 by the brilliant Robert Smythson, a soaring central tower was designed to not only be topped by a prospect room from which to watch the hunting but also to contain a lofty interior, rising 50ft to a hammer-beam roof (though this one is decorative rather than structural).  Already the role of the great hall as a daily practical space was diminishing in favour of a more exhibitionist one.

Montacute, Somerset - View of the Great Hall, looking towards the screen which separates the Hall from the Screens Passage (Image: ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie)
Montacute, Somerset – View of the Great Hall, looking towards the screen which separates the Hall from the Screens Passage (Image: ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie)

Just over ten years later, in c.1601, the completion of the great hall at Montacute, Somerset, marked the first clear departure in design.  Although at the ground level it still had the same traditional features – porch, screen, bay window, steps at the high end – this hall was only a single story, rejecting the customary double-height space.  The hall was still an important part of the house with the other rooms designed to lead from it, but decisively its role as the daily venue for the entire household to meet and eat together had passed.  Instead the hall became less a space for living and more a space for occasional entertaining; for banquets, balls, and concerts.

Plan showing transverse hall - Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire. c1595 (Image: Andor Gomme / Alison Maguire)
Plan showing transverse hall – Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire. c1595 (Image: Andor Gomme / Alison Maguire)

The hall was often the centrepiece of the ‘polite’ rooms for guests which formed the main front to a house.  This meant that the main entrance would usually lead to a screens passage separating it from one end, with the hall orientated east-west (especially in H-plan houses).  As the overall plan of country houses started adopting the double-pile, this arrangement was increasingly awkward and so the hall was re-orientated to north-south, often running through the centre of the house, as can be seen in one of the earliest examples of a transverse hall at Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire, also designed by Robert Smythson, in c.1595 (which has been shockingly treated over the last 20 years, including a suspicious fire in 2007).  Although exterior fashions were changing to a more austere form, houses such as Forty Hall, Enfield, built in 1629, were still organised internally around a recognisable great hall.

Ham House, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ham House, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The next major change was the elevation of the bedroom into a formal receiving room, a French practice adopted by Charles II after his return at the Restoration in 1660. This is reflected in the layout of Hampton Court Palace, as redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren between 1689–1700, where the state apartments form the centre of the procession towards the presence of the king (though the existing great hall, added in 1532-35, was the last to be built for a monarch).  This fashion had already been adopted by other members of the court, with Charles II’s friend and minister, the Duke of Lauderdale, having created a state apartment  in 1672 at Ham House, Surrey (though, as a rebuilding of an earlier house, it still retained a great hall).

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

With the decline in the importance of the hall, it seemed almost inevitable that it would be used as a convenient setting for the ever grander staircases so beloved by the Georgians or even just as a convenient circulation space to pass through between the fine rooms. The broadening of wealth to those who made their money from trade and therefore preferred to live closer to the cities, led to the development of the villa.  Adapted from the Italian model, most famously those of Palladio and Scamozzi, there was neither space nor the social requirement for a great hall.  Chiswick House, designed in 1726, by the arch-Palladian Lord Burlington, had a central octagonal hall.  In larger houses, such as New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, built 1769-76, is one of the finest examples of the Georgian interpretation of the hall, a cathedral-like space, with curved staircases leading to a columned gallery with a circumference of 144-ft.  Of course, for those favouring the gothic, a great hall was still a core statement of lineal antiquity and so was still included in the plans, leading to beautiful examples such as the Gothic Hall for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Oxford, at Welbeck Abbey in 1751, or as at Ashridge House, Hertfordshire for the Duke of Bridgewater built between 1803-17, decorated with statues of kings.

It was those same intentions to either emphasise a family’s existing heritage or to give the impression that a family had a distinguished past, which led to a broader revival of the great hall in the Victorian era.  By having the benefit of eight centuries of the development of the great hall, a family would be able to design for accuracy, for comfort, but almost always for show. Fuelled by romantic visions of the past by books such as Joseph Nash‘s 4-volume ‘Mansions of England in the Olden Time‘, published in 1839-49,  the hall was now to be a grand display of whatever values they wish to imprint on this most useful of architectural motifs.

A late-Georgian recreation was at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, in 1830, where the Elizabethan great hall was reinstated.  In 1836, two examples were started independently with accurate medieval revival great halls at Alton Towers, Staffordshire for the Earl of Shrewsbury, and the other for Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt at Bayon’s Manor, Lincolnshire.  Each of these represent the two strands to the historic revivalism; Alton Towers being a religious statement, designed by A.W.N. Pugin, and Bayons Manor, of giving substance to a family line. Pugin was one of the keenest exponents for the revival of the great hall. A gothic evangelist who promoted the style as the only true architecture for the country as it was linked to a pre-Reformation England of Roman Catholicism.  The great hall was a symbol of a paternal system which Pugin related strongly to and which could be incorporated into daily life through the use of a great hall where the family could meet and the estate tenants and workers could be fed.

Derelict great hall in 1960s - Bayon's Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: W.T. Jones via Drakes Family)
Derelict great hall in 1960s – Bayon’s Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: W.T. Jones via Drakes Family)

The great hall at Bayons Manor was equally impressive as Pugin’s but was designed by Anthony Salvin. He had probably developed an affection for them whilst working on the restoration of the one at Brancepeth Castle, Co. Durham, in 1829 at the start of his career, throughout which he would create other notable examples including at Harlaxton (1831-38), Mamhead House (1835), and Peckforton Castle (1844). Firmly in the ‘family heritage’ camp is Arundel Castle, West Sussex, where between 1893-98 a vast Baron’s Hall was built, perhaps one of the closest recreations in form and spirit of the medieval great hall.  Although designed by renowned gothic scholar and architect Charles A. Buckler, he worked in exceptionally close co-operation with the 15th Duke, to whom a near constant stream of designs and decisions were passed for his comment and approval. This work was designed to emphasise the great age of the Norfolk family, a re-assertion of their status as one of the premier ducal families.

However, as the nature of the ownership moved increasingly towards those owners whose wealth came from industry and finance rather than landowning, so the need to entertain in large numbers such as the estate workers was less common.  Houses were often for weekend entertaining; smaller groups of business and political associates who would wish to dine in convivial intimacy conducive to discussion.  The role of the great hall moved back towards being a circulation space at the centre of the house, a place where pre-dinner drinks may be served but little more – though, equally, it still had to amaze.

Great Hall - Dundarave, Co. Antrim, N. Ireland (Image: Savills)
Great Hall – Dundarave, Co. Antrim, N. Ireland (Image: Savills)

The hall was often the first room your guests stepped into and so it had to create that all important first impression of your wealth and status.  Lofty, substantial rooms were created with muscular columns, galleries, niches for statues, and space for art.  It’s in this tradition that Dundarave was built between 1846-49 to designs by Sir Charles Lanyon. This top-lit space evokes something of the grand Roman baths and certainly fulfils the requirement to thrill.  The house is currently for sale and I imagine that potential buyers will step through the closed hallway, step out into the great hall and express similar amazement as has been the intention of all owners who have used spaces such as this for centuries; to impress.

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Sales particulars: ‘Dundarave, Co. Antrim‘ [Savills] – £5m, 549-acres

Article: ‘Selling off the holiday home for £5 million‘ [The Irish Times]

William Kent, the reluctant Gothick

If asked what style of architecture one would associate with William Kent, one of the leading designers of the Georgian era, most would say Palladian and, if pushed, they might argue that his interiors are distinctly Baroque.  Yet Kent is also regarded as the creator of the ‘Gothick’ style of architecture; a blend of historical Gothic elements but applied, initially, within the structure of classical rules. This quickly evolved to have greater historical rigour, laying the groundwork for the more zealous interpretation by Victorians such as A.W.N. Pugin.  However, it could be argued that Kent was merely satisfying the stylistic whims of a patron and in his use of ‘Gothic’ elements, was actually continuing the Elizabethan practice of creating ‘symmetrical Gothic’, a visually impressive approach built on Renaissance principles.

Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)
Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)

William Kent was born in 1685 in Bridlington, North Yorkshire, and displayed an early talent for drawing. Despite his parent’s modest means, he ‘had the good fortune to find some Gentlemen…to promote his studyes‘ who paid for him to travel to Italy in 1709, along with another talented young artist, John Talman.  Whilst there, Kent developed his skills in painting, but also in business as an agent for various young aristocrats on the Grand Tour, including Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, and Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, for whom Kent would help purchase paintings and other works of art. The latter connection with Lord Burlington, first professional, then as a friend, was to launch Kent’s career when they both returned to London in 1719, with Kent as the draughtsman of Burlington’s dream of a Palladian Britain.

It was the need for patronage which kept Kent in the thrall of Burlington and the circle of Palladians. Where Kent was given greater freedom, particularly in designing interiors and furniture, his natural inclination seems to have been towards a more Baroque style; a rich, florid escape from the strictures of the pure and elegant Roman style which Burlington so enthusiastically promoted.  So how did Kent become the father of ‘Gothick’, an architectural style characterised by the playful, historically-inaccurate application of medieval Gothic, the language of the cathedrals?

Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court - detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)
Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court – detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)

Kent’s first documented use of Gothick was in 1732-34 at Hampton Court Palace where he was commissioned to rebuild the east front of the Clock Court as accommodation for the Duke of Cumberland.  As a good Palladian, Kent originally proposed a classical scheme but Sir Robert Walpole, who had final approval over the design as First Lord of the Treasury, required that it be in keeping with the existing Tudor Gothic. Although originally there was only a much simpler door, Kent developed this and created a full gatehouse as a central focus of the front. Though now altered, Kent’s design drew on the existing architectural features, using ogee-domed octagonal turrets and a Gothick Venetian window. The interiors were also remodelled but here Kent’s enthusiasm for Gothick waned and he reverted to a more classical style of decoration.

On a side note, there is a suggestion that Kent’s actual first Gothick design was for a church tower at St Martin’s, Houghton in 1727.  Although the drawings in the Houghton archives are by Thomas Ripley, Kent had been involved with designs at Houghton since 1725 for the owner, Sir Robert Walpole, who, as previously mentioned, also instigated the use of Gothick at Hampton Court.

The most complete early use of this novel Gothick for a country house was at Esher Place, Surrey.  Having bought a 14th-century gatehouse, Wayneflete Tower (the only surviving part of a much larger quadrangular mansion) Henry Pelham, Prime Minister from 1743-54, lacked a house on his estate. Again, Kent proposed a Palladian solution – a compact villa which (minus dome and projecting portico) bears similarities with Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House, completed in 1729. Again, Kent was to be over-ruled by the client who wished for Wayneflete Tower to be more than a grand garden ornament – it had to be the centrepiece of the new house and this dictated the style.

Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)

One can imagine Kent sitting down with pen and paper and, much as if learning a new language, started drawing out his new vocabulary.  Though the initial sketches show two classical wings grafted onto the tower, he also, importantly, was experimenting with a more varied facade, one which pushed forward and receded with canted windows and recessed bays. This movement was to be a key influence in the future, breaking down the more formal, flatter approaches which had previously dominated.  This experimentation also extended to the interiors with rooms taking on greater variety; octagons or rectangular rooms ending in canted bays.

Esher Place, Surrey - John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)
Esher Place, Surrey – John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)

Kent’s final design (see at the top of the article) was an elegant solution and created a charming composition of a symmetrical house with the wings dominated by full-height canted bays and grand ogee-capped domes on the central tower. Unfortunately the scheme was watered-down in the execution – John Vardy‘s c.1744 engravings showing more austere wings without the bays and the tower without the domes. Even these were not to last as the new owner of the estate in 1805 pulled down the wings, leaving just the historic tower, before building a new house (the 1805 house is the south wing of the 1895 house) on the hill above – just as Kent had originally proposed to Pelham.

Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)
Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)

After Esher Place, in the next of Kent’s Gothick experiments, in 1737 he produced a design for the remodelling of Honingham Hall, Norfolk, for the second son of Viscount Townshend. A year later, Kent came back with a more detailed plan which removed much of the Jacobean character of the house, which had originally been build c.1605, to dramatically alter the front with a mixture of the bays and recessions. Sadly neither of the designs where executed and the house itself was demolished in 1966.  However, this exercise gave Kent an opportunity to gain greater familiarity with Gothick detailing and elevations.

Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The only other significant house Kent was to design in this style was Rousham House, Oxfordshire, for Lieutenant General James Dormer in 1737 (note the same year as the first proposed design for Honingham Hall). This was a remodelling of a small, H-plan house built in the 1630s and so Kent’s design had to accommodate the inevitable compromises of an existing building.  This he did by taking elements of the Honingham design, including the crenellations and a central ogee-capped dome, and combining them with classical elements such as the two pavilions which flanked each side. The interiors were a mix of styles; the parlour was purely classical but the library (a drawing room since 1764) was Gothick (or oriental, or Moorish, depending on who you ask). The gardens are the celebrated delight of Rousham and the buildings were designed by Kent at the same time as the house but are almost all classical, bar a Gothick Corn Mill.

North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)
North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)

Other Gothick projects by Kent such as the screens for Westminster and Gloucester Cathedrals, the Choir Fittings at York Minster, and various garden buildings all show a facility but not a fluency with the Gothic language. The same elements are used repeatedly within a variety of layouts and plans but without the detailed study of the original source buildings Kent seemed bound to his limitations.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon - print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830
Mount Edgcumbe, Devon – print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830

Did Kent ‘create’ Gothick? Yes – and no.  The Elizabethans had long been creating houses which deployed the language of historical Gothic to their houses.  An article by Mark Girouard on ‘Elizabethan Architecture and the Gothic Tradition‘ (SAHGB, 1963) cites Burghley, Lincolnshire, where the house features a west front (built 1577-78) of towers and a turreted gatehouse, a north front (1585) dominated by Tudor-Gothic windows with a Gothic parapet, and the clock tower (1587) has an almost Gothic spire.  The Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses featured an emphasis on the vertical with towers and squared-off bay windows such as Robert Smythson’s Worksop Manor.  Finally, the symmetry that underlies Kent’s work, can be seen in the Renaissance-influenced Elizabethan houses such as Longleat or Mount Edgcumbe.

What Kent did do was apply his natural love of a more lively baroque interpretation of Gothic design to create a style which, although it mainly influenced those he worked with, was an inspiration to a later group of designers such as John Vardy and Batty Langley.  Overall, Kent’s Gothick houses and interiors lack the commitment and historical rigour he displayed to the Palladian style or the verve and passion which characterised his Baroque efforts. Certainly a measure of his success is that Kent did create a new architectural language which fed the wider Georgian passion for the Picturesque. Here, at last, was a style which could break strict Classical regularity and substitute it with a rambling vision of finials and tracery.

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This article was clearly inspired by the superb exhibition: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ (22 March – 13 July 2014). Definitely worth a visit if you are in London.

A brilliant tome (it’s huge) has been produced to coincide with the exhibition but easily works as a standalone reference: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ by Susan Weber.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has an extensive collection of William Kent drawings

The Royal country house honeymoon

So the happy Royal couple, our new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have taken just the long weekend for their honeymoon leaving an interesting question as to whether they are breaking with the tradition of spending their first days of marriage in an British country house?  With the twin demands of luxury and privacy, the country houses of the UK have often proved particularly attractive, though Royal palaces even more so.

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Gail Johnson / flickr)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Gail Johnson / flickr)

In an earlier age, the Royal family would often simply use one of their own palaces as a convenient venue.  Already secure and well-established for the great demands of catering and supporting a King or Queen, they had a natural advantage.  One often used has been Hampton Court Palace, in Surrey, one of the finest Royal residences ever built and a worthy equal to the splendour of Versailles.  Construction started in 1514 by Thomas Wolsey, an Archbishop of York, who built a palace which rivalled any that King Henry VIII then possessed.  With over a 1,000 rooms and accommodation for 280 guests, Wolsey wisely answered, when asked by the King in 1526 why he had built such a magnificent house, “To show how noble a palace a subject may offer to his sovereign.”

Having now taken ownership, Henry then embarked on his own ambitious programme, adding a third courtyard and stamping his mark on all aspects of the palace. It was in this sprawling residence which he enjoyed at least two of his honeymoons; with Jane Seymour, his third wife, in 1537, and with Kathryn Howard, his sixth, who he married at Hampton Court in 1543.  Due to his unhappiness with the looks of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and the very short marriage (Jan-July 1540), it seems unlikely that he would have made any significant arrangements and so possibly used Hampton Court as his most convenient palace near London.

Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary I, also spent her honeymoon with Philip I at Hampton Court  in 1544. It was used again by King James I on his marriage to Henrietta Maria in 1625 and then by Charles II and Katherine of Braganza in 1662.

Rycote Park (Palace), Oxfordshire (Image: Thame History)
Rycote Park (Palace), Oxfordshire (Image: Thame History)

Henry VIII obviously had several opportunities to honeymoon, though his first was more a working tour as, following his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1501, he was sent to Ludlow Castle to preside over the Council of Wales and the Marches. His second, with Anne Boleyn in 1533, was at Shurland Hall, Isle of Sheppey in Kent, which has recently become the 70th building to be rescued by The Spitalfields Trust (and which is currently for sale).  His honeymoon with Catherine Howard, his fifth wife, in 1540, was spent at Rycote Park, in Oxfordshire. It’s not entirely clear who originally built this Tudor mansion but it certainly of a status to attract the Royal couple.  The house suffered a devastating fire in 1745, but was rebuilt before being emptied in a contents sale in 1779, and then sold for materials in 1807.

The tradition of the Royal family using their own houses has largely continued, though in more recent times they have also used suitable private houses as the retinues required have shrunk making it unnecessary to require a palace.

Taymouth Castle, Scotland (Image: RCAHMS)
Taymouth Castle, Scotland (Image: RCAHMS) - click for more images of interior

Queen Victoria and HRH Prince Albert enjoyed only a mini-honeymoon of three days in 1840, which was spent at Windsor Castle. The Queen, unwilling to ignore her duties and responsibilities as monarch which require frequent contact with her ministers, wished to stay close to London – even if her husband might have preferred a quieter break further away.  They did take a belated honeymoon in 1842 to Scotland where they stayed at the impressive Taymouth Castle, seat of the Marquesses of Breadalbane, owners of one of the largest estates covering 450,000-acres, which took over 40 years to build and had only recently been completed but to standard above almost any other seat in Scotland.  Designed by James Gillespie Graham, it was a convalescence home in WWII and a school but is currently unused whilst negotiations continue about turning it into a ‘seven star’ hotel.

Polesden Lacey, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Polesden Lacey, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

In the early part of the 20th-century, King George VI and his new bride, later the Queen Mother, stayed in 1923 with the remarkable society hostess, Mrs Ronald Greville, at her country retreat Polesden Lacey in Surrey (now National Trust).  An accomplished hostess, Mrs Greville and her staff were well used to catering for the cream of society.  Once home to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, after his death it was largely demolished and rebuilt by Thomas Cubitt in 1821 as, essentially, a neo-classical seaside villa.  After being bought by the Grevilles in 1906, she employed Mewes and Davis, architects of the Ritz, to remodel the interior.  The new opulence was matched by with an equal measure of intimacy, with rooms flowing between each other and the outside to create a fluid social space lined with portraits by Lely, Raeburn and Reynolds and cabinets full of Meissen china – a perfect venue for a Royal honeymoon.  Continuing the tradition started by Queen Victoria, they also spent time in Scotland at Glamis Castle, ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore, and that of the future Queen Mother.

Balmoral Castle, Scotland (Image: Stuart Yeates / flickr)
Balmoral Castle, Scotland (Image: Stuart Yeates / flickr)

On her marriage in 1947, our current monarch, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, continued this practice and stayed at Broadlands in Hampshire, one of the best mid-sized Georgian houses, which largely appears to day as it was when it was finished in 1766. Elizabeth II also stayed at the family’s Scottish estates at Balmoral Castle and Birkhall, which were also destinations for the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981 along with Birkhall which also used by Prince Edward and Sophie Wessex in 1999 and by the Prince of Wales and Camilla in 2005.

Alternatively, if they do wish to go abroad, they have the examples of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who, in 1937, who spent three months at Castle Wasserloenburg in Austria, or Princess Anne who, in 1973, chose to spend her honeymoon cruising in the West Indies.  So, seeking peace and security, perhaps we’ll see the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge take a short break in a smaller country house before spending time in Scotland – or perhaps jetting off, but either way is in keeping with a long history of Royal honeymoons.

For sale: ‘Shurland Hall, Kent‘ [Jackson-Stops & Staff]

Thanks to Andrew for his help.

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]