Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head

Those who dream grand plans in their professional lives can be equally ambitious in their private lives too.  This can be particularly acute when their thoughts turn to building their own homes; that ultimate statement of wealth, ambition, and, they hope, taste.  When Harry Gordon Selfridge came to Britain he quickly spotted an opportunity to revolutionise the high-street shopping experience and he was prepared to invest to do so, starting with a flagship store on Oxford Street in London.  Yet, what perhaps fewer are aware of, was his plan to build a spectacular castle in Dorset – a personal vision of his to create a home which matched his ambition.

Selfridges, 1929, seen from south-west (Image: RIBA Library Photographs Collection)
Selfridges, 1929, seen from south-west (Image: RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

Harry Gordon Selfridge (b.1864 – d.1947) became a giant of the retail industry.  Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, his father was manager of the general store but abandoned his family and then Harry’s two brothers died young, leaving him an only child.  His mother struggled financially, and Selfridge, displaying a precociously enterprising talent started, aged 12, a magazine which made money through advertising whilst he worked at another store. He then worked in a bank, then insurance, before joining the store which became Marshall Field in Chicago, as a stock boy. Over the next 25 years, he worked his way up to junior partner, became wealthy and married a local socialite.

During a visit to London in 1906, Selfridge noticed that the UK retail experience significantly lagged behind the latest innovations in the US and so decided to bring those ideas to Britain.  In his typical style, he did this on a huge scale – his vast 50,000 sq ft store on Oxford Street was a bold statement as to the importance of shopping.  Built in a grand Classical Revival style which echoed that of other areas of Edwardian London, it was actually designed by an American architect, Daniel Burnham, who had been responsible for the influential ‘World’s Columbian Exposition‘ held in Chicago in 1893 which had embedded and popularised the Classical style in US architecture.

Plaster model of proposed Selfridges tower (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Plaster model of proposed Selfridges tower (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

The store was built in phases but to a unified overall design.  The first nine-and-a-half bays closest to the Duke Street corner were completed first, with the store opening in 1909 at a cost of £400,000. The western extension was then built between 1924-29, designed by Sir John Burnet, who had designed the strikingly similar King Edward VII gallery at the British Museum in 1905. Externally, the store as it was in 1929 is the store you see today – but in true Selfridge style, this wasn’t all.  Planned from the beginning, the final piece of this retail jigsaw was more decorative and an early indication of Selfridge’s ability to think big: a 450-ft tower to soar over both the store and London. After five years of lobbying, Selfridge had permission from the Portman Estates and Marylebone Council – now he just needed a design.  It had always been his policy to commission more than one architect on a project, enjoying the differing ideas and so he also employed the well-respected Philip Tilden (who had carved out a comfortable career creating a number of country houses such notably Port Lympne and Chartwell), as well as Burnet. Both architects produced a number of designs all in a broadly Classical idiom but with significant differences (see Tilden’s variations: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4) -but none met with Selfridge’s approval and eventually he scrapped the idea, with only a plaster model to show for it. However, by this time, he had another commission for Tilden.

Between 1916-22, Selfridge took the lease on Highcliffe Castle, Dorset and enjoyed entertaining his wealthy friends from both London and the local area.  Yet, as was typical, this wasn’t enough and so he bought the nearby Hengistbury Head; a mile-long stretch of beautiful cliffs, wildlife, and ancient Bronze Age monuments.  Much to the alarm of the locals, he then announced that he would be building ‘the largest castle in the world‘. A showman’s boast perhaps (considering the competition!) but he set Tilden to work to make this dream a reality; which he did, lovingly creating a series of dramatic panoramas and hundreds of detailed individual designs.

Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Selfridge, of course, had his own vision what this castle would look like – and the brief must have made Tilden shudder (inwardly, of course).  Although Selfridge was rigorously Classical in London, he wanted a true castle and so demanded a mix; a medieval fortress planned on Classical lines with ‘…mighty vistas, balance, and co-ordination of the parts‘.  From early 1919, Tilden created a wonderful series of perspectives which Clive Aslet describes as ‘…dreams of Piranesian grandeur and Watteau-like romance‘.  This architectural hybrid was something of a awkward marriage, the imposing mass of the castle fortifications interrupted by delicate Classical arcades, statues and details.

Proposed Barbican at Hengistbury Head (Image: 'The Last Country Houses' by Clive Aslet)
Proposed Barbican at Hengistbury Head (Image: ‘The Last Country Houses’ by Clive Aslet)

The basic plan involved four miles or ramparts with towers, a ‘small castle’ (to be completed first and lived in whilst the main part was completed) and a ‘large castle’ on higher ground.  This ‘large castle’ was to include (beyond the usual living accommodation), a Gothic hall, a 300-ft tower, a theatre, a Hall of Mirrors copied from that at Versailles, a winter garden, a covered lake, long corridors and galleries for pictures, tapestries and other objet d’art, and at least 250 suites of rooms for guests.  Even the small castle would have been a significant project and the proposals for the main castle firmly moved this plan out of reality and into fantasy considering that, although wealthy, a building on this scale (the plans had to be drawn at 1:64) might even have caused the Morgans, Vanderbilts or Carnegies of this world to think twice – and they were many times richer than Selfridge.

Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Although Tilden must have quickly realised that this scheme would never be built in full, and at best only a small portion may be created, he took the commission seriously.  Each month he would travel to see Selfridge either in London or at Highcliffe and update him on the progress of the designs.  Selfridge would often have a selection of his millionaire friends in attendance who would pore over the developments and offer their encouragement and suggestions.  These intellectual gatherings even started to give Selfridge a slim reputation that he was a connoisseur in the grand tradition of earlier country house patrons.

Sadly, Selfridge’s personal life and fortune had both suffered over the years.  His beloved wife had died of influenza in 1918, after which he became increasingly reckless; lavishly entertaining, gambling and taking up with a pair of sisters who performed on stage.  In the decade after his wife died he reputedly ran through an $8m fortune and, combined with the financial impact of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, his wealth could no longer support his lifestyle. So, in 1930, he sold 300-acres of Hengistbury Head to the local council, including covenants still in force today that ironically stipulated that the land could not be built on (though, optimistically, he did retain 33-acres).  By the mid-1930s he was all but penniless and in 1939 he was forced to retire from Selfridges, eventually moving to a small flat in Putney and travelling around on the buses, before dying at home in May 1947, his grandiose plans for the largest castle in the world, a mere memory.

In many ways, H. Gordon Selfridge’s life was a remarkable series of triumphs and frustrations.  His early years clearly led him to a preference for the grandiose statements and a desire to accumulate the trappings of those he considered his social rivals who may have looked down on his humble beginnings.  Of course, he wasn’t the only department store owner with grand ambitions which ran far ahead of his budget – Lutyens‘ original design for the dramatically beautiful Castle Drogo, Devon for Julius Drew, owner of the Home and Colonial Stores, was three times larger than the completed building.  However, the sheer scale of Selfridge’s plans for Hengistbury Head increasingly looked more like an ‘after-dinner’ exercise; something to show and discuss with his wealthy friends rather than something he seriously intended to build.  In this way, he was a consummate showman with an ability to think grand dreams, which is to be applauded. However, in some ways we get the best deal; he didn’t get to create an oversized ego-driven building on a beautiful section of coastline but we do get to admire the incredibly detailed designs which Tilden laboured on for over half a decade to amuse Selfridge’s ambition.

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A new drama called ‘Mr Selfridge‘ on ITV in the UK on the life of H. Gordon Selfridge starts on 6 January 2013 – hence this article.

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More of Philip Tilden’s designs: ‘Hengistbury Head‘ [RIBA Library Drawings Collection]

Littoral translation: country houses on the coast

The very name ‘country house’ implies a certain rural solitude; a fine house surrounded by its own acres.  Yet, some owners, for reasons of preference or amenity, chose to site their country house on the coast – and the recent quick sale of Barton Manor on the Isle of Wight, despite the generally slow market, has proved that the lure of the sea is still as strong as ever.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon (Image: Brownie Bear via flickr)
Mount Edgcumbe, Devon (Image: Brownie Bear via flickr)

Some areas, particularly in the south of England, have a long tradition of country houses being built to take advantage of some beautiful coastal scenery.  The harsh, combative weather of the north may have discouraged some owners, bar those living in castles, into seeking calmer situations further inland.  Yet in the balmier south, with more clement weather, landowners have long sought peninsulas and headlands to build their manors.  Cornwall has many examples of just such situations. One of the earliest was Mount Edgcumbe, built  in 1550, for the Edgcumbe family, in a commanding position overlooking Plymouth Sound. Devastated by a bomb meant for the docks in WWII, the house was rebuilt by the 6th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, even though his son had been killed in the war.  Inherited by distant relations, it was finally sold in 1987 to the local councils and is now a museum – but standing in the grounds one can imagine the attraction of the location which drew the first Edgcumbe to build there.

Prideaux Place, Cornwall (Image: Ute&Hajo via flickr)
Prideaux Place, Cornwall (Image: Ute&Hajo via flickr)

Forty years after Mount Edgcumbe was built, in 1592 the Prideaux family chose an equally dramatic spot, a hill overlooking Padstow, to raise their beautiful house, Prideaux Place, which is still looked after by the family.

Yet for less dramatic locations, what’s the lure? For most of the very grandest estates, the house was the focal point; the termination of roads, views and rides – the landscape emphasising the dominance of the owner.  To compete with natural beauty of nature, even a more benign one, the house would have to equal to the challenge.  The coast at Holkham can hardly said to be dramatic, but the house, Holkham Hall, is certainly spectacular – an architectural tour de force of neo-Palladianism.

Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: About Britain)
Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: About Britain)

The builder of Holkham, Thomas Coke, (b.1697 – d.1759) 1st Earl of Leicester (fifth creation), was a passionate follower of the ideals of Palladio, and he was determined that his own house should follow the strict rules of Palladianism.  The archivist at Holkham, Christine Hiskey, confirmed that she is unaware of any specific mention of the sea in his choice of location and has suggested that he might have been simply very attached to the original manor house, the seat of the Holkham branch of the family since 1612, and his childhood home until the age of 10.  In fact, even while building the new Hall, he lived for most of his life in the old house – it was linked by a passage to the first wing of the new Hall and demolished only in 1756, three years before Coke, then Earl of Leicester, died. Perhaps though, he was looking for a location similar to the Ventian plains where Palladio had completed many of his commissions.  Certainly his friends, Sir Thomas Robinson and Lord Hervey, could not understand why he had chosen such a wind-whipped position.

Yet, even here, the house was surrounded by a manufactured landscape as a foil to the rather austere provisions of the natural world. Initially created by Thomas Coke, the builder of Holkham (in conjunction with the famed designer William Kent), a later Coke, another Thomas, 1st Earl of Leicester (seventh creation), on inheriting the 30,000-acre estate in 1776, commissioned Humphry Repton to contribute proposals towards his own plans.  Repton devised a complex series of paths, snaking through the woods, along the lakes, and around the estate, but curiously, not to the sea, tolerating only a view of it from a particular point.  His designs perhaps reflected the unease Coke of Norfolk felt at the location; he is quoted as complaining that:

“It is a melancholy thing to stand alone in one’s own country. I look around, not a house to be seen but my own. I am Giant of Giant Castle, and have ate up all my neighbours – my nearest neighbour is the King of Denmark.”

Lacking his ancestors affection for the sea, Coke of Norfolk seems to have employed Repton to create an alternative landscape which tries to almost ignore it.

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

Another group for whom such glum thoughts may also have played on their minds were those whose trade relied on shipping.  In the same way that traditional country estates were at the heart of agricultural production, so too, with the rapid growth of overseas trade in the Georgian period, ship-owners wished to be able to see their vessels returning to port, or, at least, the source of their wealth.  This led to a number of houses being built along the coastal areas leading up to major ports such as Bristol, Liverpool, and Hull; though, sadly, many have been lost as the cities have expanded.  The sea could also provide the vantage point from which to select the site of a house, with Tapeley Park,  (previously featured in this blog when it appeared in Country House Rescue)  situated on hill overlooking Bideford in Devon, chosen by a captain returning home.

Other influences were also coming  to bear, not least the concept of the ‘Picturesque’ which provided a renewed appreciation of the power of nature. One effect of these ideas was the reversal of the role of the house from being the focal point of the view, instead now emphasising the importance of view from the house. Advances in transportation technology such as more comfortable sprung carriages, enabled the Georgian wealthy to travel greater distances in shorter times, so the coast became more accessible.

Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Soon country houses were taking advantage of the dramatic possibilities; perhaps none more so than Culzean Castle, Ayrshire.  Perched on the edge of a cliff, the castle, built between built 1777-1792 for David, 10th Earl of Cassillis, was an architecturally forceful response to an spectacular location.  The architect was the talented Scotsman, Robert Adam, whose interior style is so recognisable as to have become a named genre.  Adam, as an architect, was also skilled in making the best use of locations and having been originally commissioned for some minor additions to the original, smaller tower house, Adam realised the potential of the site and convinced his patron to add the massive round tower in 1785 with its circular Saloon, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, which open onto a balcony overlooking the cliff and crashing waves below. Less dramatically sited, but also impressive, was Hooton Hall, Cheshire, built in 1788 to designs by Samuel Wyatt which was described as “…a beautiful structure, standing on a gentle eminence, and commanding an extensive view of the river [Mersey], and of the entire coast of Cheshire and Lancashire…“. Sadly, such charms were not enough to save the house which, after serving time as a WWI airfield officer’s mess, was demolished in 1932 and later replaced by a Vauxhall car factory.

Highcliffe Castle, Dorset (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Highcliffe Castle, Dorset (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Fifty years later, the lure of the sea was still strong.  Highcliffe Castle in Dorset was the result of the long-harboured dream of Lord Stuart de Rothesay, a distinguished diplomat, to build a home once he had finished his overseas duties. Drawing on happy childhood memories, he went back to a site he had known as a boy and, in 1840, built Highcliffe Castle, a classic evocation of the Pictureseque and Romantic architectural ideals in a smaller country house and which incorporated significant quantities of carved Medieval stone from the Norman Benedictine Abbey of St Peter at Jumieges and the Grande Maison des Andelys which had become derelict after the French revolution.

As with many popular Victorian trends, a house by the sea gained widespread fashionable credibility through the support of Queen Victoria and Price Albert.  Early in her reign  the Queen had decided to purchase a summer retreat and favoured the Isle of Wight having stayed at Norris Castle as a young girl. In March 1844, she bought the neighbouring Osbourne House, but decided that it was insufficient and so should be rebuilt, the foundation stone being laid in June 1845, and was finished in 1848.  The architect was Sir Charles Barry, who had built other houses which the Queen had stayed at such as Trentham Hall (demolished 1912).  The prominent position and royal patronage made this a hugely influential design; the style and elements from it can be seen in many country houses from the 1840s-1870s.  The loggias, choice of axis to maximise the views and the terraced gardens all emphasise the coastal attractions which had originally brought the Queen to the Isle of Wight (as it did many others, including the architect John Nash, who built his own Picturesque home, East Cowes Castle, (dem. 1960) there as well).

Barton Manor, Isle of Wight (Image: Sotheby's International Realty)
Barton Manor, Isle of Wight (Image: Sotheby’s International Realty) – listing still available but house has been sold. Click for more images.

The launch of Barton Manor, Isle of Wight in the March 14 issue of Country Life was considered the first of the major residential estates to be offered in 2012.  Built on the site of a priory, the estate, was bought by Queen Victoria in 1845 at the same time as neighbouring Osbourne, and then had it completely rebuilt in 1853, reusing the old stone.  Although the Queen herself had an apartment there, it was mainly used as supplementary accommodation for visitors to Osbourne House. With the royal connections, well-proportioned house, superb gardens and fine coastal location it was no surprise that the 202-acre estate sold within a month, proving the enduring lure of the littoral is still a powerful attraction.

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My thanks to Christine Hiskey, archivist at Holkham Hall, and James Crawford at Knight Frank (agents for Barton Manor) for their help with this article.

As always, dear Readers, delays between posting caused by pressures of work – apologies.