#Repton200: Humphry Repton, landscape gardener – and architect?

Although principally known as a ‘landscape gardener’ – a job title he invented even if the role was already well-defined – Humphry Repton was clearly a man who understood that an estate was a composition of many parts and that architecture had a vital role to play in the success of his schemes. The challenge in assessing Repton’s contribution to architecture is that of his collaborations; what sprang from his inventive and knowledgeable mind, and what came from those he worked with, including his sons, John and George, and also that leading proponent of the Picturesque, John Nash.

Detail from Humphry Repton by Henry Bryan Hall, published by Longman & Co, after Samuel Shelley (1839) (NPG D5801 © National Portrait Gallery)
Detail from Humphry Repton by Henry Bryan Hall, published by Longman & Co, after Samuel Shelley (1839)
(NPG D5801 © National Portrait Gallery)

Humphry Repton (b.1752 – d.1818) had a lifelong passion for gardening, but it was not his first career.  After starting in business as a general merchant in Norwich, which failed, Repton decided to retire to the countryside and live with his sister and husband in Sustead, near Aylsham, in Norfolk.  With his father’s prosperity and sister’s indulgence, he developed his interest in botany and gardening.  After a brief period in 1783 as private secretary in Ireland to his neighbour William Windham of Felbrigg (he resigned after a month), Repton took a cottage near Romford, Essex, and decided to focus on turning his interest into a career.  Fortunately, circumstances meant that he was well placed to do so with his deep horticultural knowledge, his superlative skills as a watercolourist, which he used to create his visions in his beautifully produced Red Books, plus opportune timing, with the death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783 creating a gap for someone with Repton’s grand ideas.

Although the setting of a house was a key consideration for any architect of the era, few  thought of themselves as landscape gardeners (Decimus Burton (b.1800 – d.1881) was something of an exception).  However, those who were of that profession seemed to not only have an opinion on architecture but also apparently felt confident that they could also practice in this as well as their primary domain. For Repton, although not trained as an architect, he saw architecture as ‘an inseparable and indispensable auxiliary‘ to his efforts. Repton was usually brought in after the house was complete and his plans would be presented in one of his famous Red Books, leather-bound volumes of his ideas for a specific property, in which he set out his vision of the landscape as it was, including the current house.  In it, Repton would often include his criticisms of what was there and include his suggestions for sympathetic alterations which would better enable the house to fit within his vision.

Detail showing example of possible changes to example house - Plate III of Repton's 'Sketches and hints on landscape gardening' (1794)
Detail showing possible changes to example house – Plate III, State B from Repton’s ‘Sketches and hints on landscape gardening‘ (1794) – source: copy held by University of Wisconsin and kindly shared online

A measure of Repton’s boundless confidence in his own abilities can be seen in whom he felt able to criticise for their architectural efforts, including Sir John Soane, probably the leading architect of his era.  Repton was commissioned to create a landscape at several of Soane’s commissions, usually appearing a year or two after completion, including at Mulgrave Castle, Moggerhanger House, Aynhoe Park, Holwood House and Honing Hall. In the case of the latter house, Soane had made extensive alterations in 1788, and in Repton’s Red Book, produced in 1792, he criticised Soane’s work saying:

The proportions of the house are not pleasing, it appears too high for its width, even where seen at any angle presenting two fronts; and the heaviness of a dripping roof always takes away from the elegance of any building above the degree of a farm house; it would not be attended with great expence to add a blocking course to the cornice, and this with a white string course under the windows, would produce such horizontal lines as might in some measure counteract the too great height of the house. There are few cases where I should prefer a red house to a white one, but that at Honing is so evidently disproportioned, that we can only correct the defects by difference of colour, while in good Architecture all lines should depend on depths of shadow produced by proper projections in the original design. (1)

In the illustrations in the Red Book for Honing Hall, Repton boldly showed the house, not as it was, but with his suggested improvements. Repton had form for his criticisms of Soane, having been asked, in 1790, to review the newly completed Tendring Hall, Suffolk, (demolished 1955) where he wrote:

…had I been previously consulted the house would neither have been so lofty in its construction nor so exposed in its situation.

For a man with no formal architectural training to be so forthright in his judgements gives a sense of Repton’s confidence in his own abilities.  Luckily (for Repton), it’s likely that the notoriously sensitive Soane never saw these criticisms and they maintained cordial relations for many years. Repton’s comment about rarely preferring a red house to a white one is also corroborated by other Red Books, including the designs for Stansted Hall, and Rivenhall Place, in Essex and Hatchlands Park, Surrey.

Images showing proposed exterior changes from H. Repton's Red Book for Hatchlands Park, Surrey (1800)
Images showing proposed exterior changes from H. Repton’s Red Book for Hatchlands Park, Surrey (1800) – source: The Morgan Library & Museum

Repton’s architectural contributions are often overlooked as he was never enough of an architect to be considered as one, and, in general, those primarily interested in his landscapes are insufficiently interested in his architecture.  A prime example of this (not mentioned in Colvin, or Stephen Daniels’ book, except buried in an endnote) is Repton’s vision for Port Eliot, Cornwall, the seat of Lord Eliot.  In 1792, in one of his earlier commissions, he was brought in for his advice on the estate. Repton assumed the role of architect and provided, in the Port Eliot Red Book, a broader set of broadly Gothic proposals which brought house, church, estate and even the nearby town into his remit. This expansive approach to his brief was a challenge for Sir John Soane who was asked in 1794 to contribute his ideas – but now within a Gothic framework set by Repton (a style to which Soane was hostile), whose designs had found a level of favour with Lord Eliot, and which he adapted.

One of the key questions when considering the architectural improvements suggested by Repton is to what degree they were his and what had been conceived by his eldest son John Adey Repton (b.1775 – d.1860). J.A. Repton had been a pupil to William Wilkins where he developed a profound understanding of Gothic architecture.  He had then moved in 1796 to the office of John Nash, with whom the elder Repton had established an arrangement to pass on any architectural commissions in exchange for 2.5% of the cost of the work – an agreement which Nash failed to honour, leading to the partnership being terminated in 1800.

Nash has a chequered reputation professionally and this extended to those in his office, including J.A. Repton but left to become his father’s assistant when the agreement between Nash and his father ended.  Nash was unfortunately a champion of the Picturesque but not of his assistants; he never acknowledged J.A. Repton’s significant contribution in various schemes. Unfortunately, John was to suffer the same issue to a certain extent with his father, though he was later clearly credited for his assistance ‘in the architectural department‘ for designs for a number of houses including Stratton Park, Scarisbrick, Panshanger, and others.

Detail from Port Eliot Red Book showing the house as found (© Eliots of Port Eliot)
Detail from Port Eliot Red Book showing the house as found (© Eliots of Port Eliot)
Detail from Port Eliot Red Book showing the proposed changes to the house (© Eliots of Port Eliot)
Detail from Port Eliot Red Book showing the proposed changes to the house (© Eliots of Port Eliot)

In the Port Eliot Red Book, eighteen of the drawings are signed by the son and are probably his designs, however the scheme as a whole is attributed to the elder Repton, though he may have been angling for this to be a major commission for his son. Unfortunately for the Reptons, their grand vision for Port Eliot was never going to be realised, mainly due to financial constraints, though Soane was to provide an alternative scheme which he diplomatically managed to agree with Lord Eliot – much to Repton’s chagrin, later writing:

my beautiful plan for Port Eliot…my design for bringing together the house and the Abbey did not suit the fancy of my fanciful friend [Soane] (who knows but little about Gothic) so the plan was totally changed.

Repton’s architectural work was significant enough to merit inclusion in Howard Colvin’s seminal reference work, ‘A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840’.  The most important was the work at Welbeck Abbey in 1790 to remodel the east and west fronts (and the Red Book contains designs for an entirely new house) but the other entries are relatively insignificant – minor works in 1792 at Honing Hall, the enclosing of the courtyard at Sarsden House in 1795 to create a domed ‘hall of communication’, and a new entrance to Uppark in 1805. Beyond that, his association with John Nash meant he had an insight into the ‘cottage orne’ style and which Repton used in his design for a new ‘lodge of a new and singular description‘ comprising two thatched cottages on the Isle of Wight, one either side of the road.

Lodges at the entrance to Mr Simeon's grounds on the Isle of Wight, designed by H. Repton (Image from 'A New Picture of the Isle of Wight' by W. Cooke (1808)
Lodges at the entrance to Mr Simeon’s grounds on the Isle of Wight, designed by H. Repton (Image from ‘A New Picture of the Isle of Wight‘ by W. Cooke (1808)

Beyond that, his architectural contributions were mainly the designs within the books on landscape gardening.  The most important of these were ‘Sketches and hints on landscape gardening : collected from designs and observations now in the possession of the different noblemen and gentlemen, for whose use they were originally made : the whole tending to establish fixed principles in the art of laying out ground’, published early in his career in 1794, and the posthumous collection published in 1840, ‘The Landscape Gardening and Landscape Architecture of the late Humphry Repton’.

So, can Repton be considered an architect as well as a landscape gardener? On balance, his position seems to be more that of ‘frustrated architect but successful critic’. Repton doesn’t seem to have been able to establish a reputation as an expert on architecture, possibly because his commentary was often only available in the Red Books, with their naturally limited circulation. Also, his work was usually after the house was already built and often only recently finished, meaning the owner was unlikely to consider making significant changes very quickly, leaving few opportunities for him to showcase the talents he clearly thought he had.

However, his work was influential on the practices of contemporary and later architects, forcing them to acknowledge that their buildings did not exist in splendid isolation and had to be considered as whole; a three-dimensional, interactive, ever-changing landscape painting. Open, expansive parklands had the effect of placing the building on a visual plinth, majestic but with an aloof air. Repton firmly brought all the elements together, blending both Gothic with greenery and the Palladian with the planting.  His architectural contributions reflect this sensitivity and with more opportunities he may have been even more influential in the field of architecture, much as he dominated the landscapes represented so beautifully in his famous Red Books.


Further reading:


Sources:

(1) – Humphry Repton, Red Book for Honing Hall [1792], quoted in ‘The Surprising Discretion of Soane and Repton’ by Gillian Darley, in the Georgian Group Journal vol. XII 2002


Apologies for the long gap between articles – happily, just after I posted the last one in September 2017, our beautiful son was born. Mother and baby were, and remain, fine and his sister clearly loves him. However, as anyone with experience of small children knows, they’re justifiably demanding and, combined with having a day job, it’s meant I haven’t had the time to write, but as he gets a little older hopefully I should now be able to again…at least in some capacity, though they’ll remain sporadic.  Tweeting is easier to do regularly, so please do follow @thecountryseat and @lostheritage.  OK, on with the show…


40 years on from the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition

Many was the time I stood in that exhibition watching the tears stream down the visitors’ faces as they battled to come to terms with all that had gone.’ – Sir Roy Strong [Diaries, 1974]

'Destruction of the Country House' exhibition, 1975 - V&A
‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition, 1975 – V&A

In October 1974, one of the most influential exhibitions ever staged by a UK museum opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  The ‘Destruction of the Country House‘ laid bare the scale and depth of the losses the UK had suffered, showing how four centuries of architectural tradition and achievement in country houses had been severely damaged by the depredations of the 20th-Century. It was conceived as a dramatic display to waken the nation to the threat faced by country houses and the danger faced by all aspects of heritage.  This was in an age with weak legal protection and which seemed to be growing ever more apathetic, or even hostile, to the idea of preserving what represented the cultural character of the UK.  The exhibition was a huge success, not only in terms of the impact on the public, but also in being the catalyst for a long-term shift in how we seek to save and manage our heritage.  From 13-21 September, a new exhibition at the V&A, ‘Country House – Past, Present & Future‘, seeks to revisit this ground-breaking event and look at the future of the country house.

Thorington Hall, Suffolk - demolished 1949 (Image: Lost Heritage / Tiger Aspect Productions)
Thorington Hall, Suffolk – demolished 1949 (Image: Lost Heritage / Tiger Aspect Productions)

By the 1970s, relatively few people would have been aware of the parlous state of a significant number of country houses and how many had been lost in the demolition binges of the 1930s and the 1950s.  However, that there was a crisis was recognised not only by the owners of the houses, but also by the government which in 1948 had created a committee to look at ‘Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest’ and tasked it:

To consider and report what arrangements might be made by the Government for the preservation, maintenance and use of houses of outstanding historic or architectural interest which might otherwise not be preserved, including, where desirable, the preservation of a house and its contents as a unity.

The committee’s conclusions, which became known as the Gowers Report, were published in 1950 and the tone could be determined from the first paragraph which stated that ‘What our terms of reference require us to consider is not whether houses…should be preserved, but how this is to be done‘. The report made a number of recommendations including the creation of the Grade listing system we are so familiar with today, combined with tax concessions to which owners would be entitled, and also financial assistance for which they may be eligible. The aim to create a legal framework where restrictions on the rights of the private owner were compensated by financial incentives to ensure the preservation of these houses.

Trentham Hall, Staffordshire - in its heyday and during demolition in 1912 after being polluted by nearby industry  (Images: Lost Heritage)
Trentham Hall, Staffordshire – in its heyday and during demolition in 1912 after being polluted by nearby industry  (Images: Lost Heritage)

Yet, by the early 1970s it was clear that the crisis had not been solved, as demonstrated by the title of a report published in 1972: ‘Country Houses of Britain – can they survive?‘. Written by noted architectural historian John Cornforth, he sought to explore why the issues surrounding the sustainability of the country house had not yet been resolved, but also to cast the debate in a new era of soaring inflation, economic malaise, and with threatened punitive taxes on the asset rich (though cash poor).

In was at this time that Sir Roy Strong had conversations with Christopher Gibbs but the core of the idea came from John Harris, now noted architectural historian, but also a keen fisherman who, in his youth in the 1950s, had surveyed many an abandoned parkland and empty country house whilst fishing the ornamental lakes (adventures later recounted in his book No Voice from the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper). Combined with Marcus Binney, then at Country Life, they conceived and created this most remarkable exhibition, quite unlike any before or since.

Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition at the V&A

Designed by Robin Wade, the layout took visitors through a short display showing the glories of the country house, but then, as they turned a physical and symbolic corner, were faced with an almost full-height portico tumbling to the ground.  On the pillars and walls were photos of some of the hundreds already lost, whilst in the background, John Harris sombrely intoned a roll-call of their names.

Original poster advertising the Destruction of the Country House exhibition - 1974 (Image: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Original poster advertising the Destruction of the Country House exhibition – 1974 (Image: Victoria & Albert Museum)

The exhibition captured the public imagination, with queues forming to see it at the weekends and the catalogue becoming a best-seller.  Yet, it wasn’t just the public who were captivated by it; in the last week, the Queen, Princess Margaret, Lord Mountbatten, and various government ministers all visited too.  1975 was designated the European Architectural Heritage Year and so focused minds on how to help ensure the survival of the nation’s heritage. This resulted in further legislation which strengthened the legal protection afforded to buildings.   The exhibition also led Marcus Binney to form SAVE Britain’s Heritage, a campaigning charity which took a far more pro-active approach than had traditionally been the case, achieving many notable successes, as it continues to do so today.

Politically, the exhibition could not have opened at a more awkward time – just two days before a general election which brought in a Labour government whose proposed ‘wealth tax’ would have made private ownership of most of these houses unsustainable, probably leading to further wholesale demolition.  Yet, the exhibition also has been identified as ‘…a pivotal moment in the history of country house preservation and heritage politics more generally.’ (Ruth Adams). In truth, a shift had started, as shown by the strong reaction to the proposals by John Baring to demolish The Grange in Hampshire in 1972 which prompted angry exchanges of letters via The Times. However, after the exhibition, no longer were country houses an elite interest for just the owners or art historians, but now the public started to identify with them as part of their national heritage, as something which embodied characteristics and history which they wished to be saved. That broad public sense of attachment to heritage has grown and become almost a natural part of the national psyche (apart from, it seems, in the minds of developers and their occasionally pocket planning committees).

For me personally, the lost country houses were the subject which were the catalyst for my own passion for country houses, leading to the creation of the Lost Heritage website in 2005. The aim is to create the most comprehensive list of all notable lost English country houses – and as far as I’m aware, is the only current ongoing research into the topic. Having seen the ruin of Guy’s Cliffe House about ten years ago, I then started trying to find out more, with two of the most important sources being the superb Catalogue of the exhibition and Giles Worsley‘s later book, the beautiful and elegiac ‘England’s Lost Houses‘.  These contained a gazetteer of known losses – the version in the Catalogue compiled by John Harris and Peter Reid, with Giles’ list building on theirs to take the total to 1,169.  John had estimated that as many as 2,000 had been lost since 1800 and after nearly a decade, sadly my Lost Heritage research has a total of 1,925 (as at Sept 2014), largely proving him correct.

The ‘Destruction of the Country House’ was as much a platform as an exhibition. Although aimed at the public, it was also a touchstone for a wide variety of heritage interests to coalesce and focus their energies and arguments. This helped to create a society which increasingly understood and appreciated heritage but also one which felt there was some collective responsibility towards its defence.  One can only hope that, as a nation, we can continue to recognise the importance of the country house, as well as heritage more broadly, to ensure that those in the future can continue to appreciate their beauty and the rich cultural history they represent.


Events – 2014


Further reading

An academic assessment of the impact of the exhibition: ‘The V&A, The Destruction of the Country House and the Creation of ‘English Heritage‘ – Ruth Adams [Museums & Society]

A theatre of innovation: Cragside, Northumberland

Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)
Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)

One hundred and fifty years ago, as 1863 drew to a close, the great industrialist Lord Armstrong may have reflected on a year in which innovation was sweeping across so many areas of life and, perhaps, his own future plans for his new country house at Cragside, Northumberland.  Country houses have often been at the nexus of innovation as they contain just the right mix of elements; namely a fashion for novelty, complex issues to be solved and a desire to impress others, along with the resources to experiment.  Cragside was to be a fine example of all these desires, a joint effort between an inventor owner and an inventive architect.

1863 was another year of great industrial developments as diverse as the running of the first Underground trains in London and the patenting of TNT, both of which would have far-reaching consequences.  That driving spirit of creativity spurred the Victorian engineer to look at many challenges, both large and small, seeking solutions which provided greater utility and comfort, though often tempered by the conservatism or financial reluctance of the owner.

Comfort and luxury are not always as synonymous as they are today and tales are legion of freezing country houses where one bathroom (used only for bathing naturally) served a whole house.  Owners of older aristocratic houses often felt little need to modernise; after all, if you had hot and cold running servants ferrying coal and water about the house this was often cheaper than a full refurbishment.  Worse, such improvements might be seen as nouveaux-riche (and therefore vulgar), unhealthy, or, worse, American. By contrast, the new money aristocrats in the Victorian era often had worked their way from less distinguished backgrounds and were keen to use anything which provided a better life – and also gave them the social bragging rights of novelty.

Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Open fires have been the mainstay of country houses for hundreds of years but central heating – either steam, hot air or hot water – started making a comeback in the late Georgian period (remember the Romans introduced it first). The library at Bowood House, Wiltshire was thought to be the first modern room to be centrally heated when it was introduced in the 1790s (although it wasn’t all that successful).  Other centrally heated single rooms were to be found at Pakenham Hall, Co. Westmeath in 1807 where ‘The immense hall so well-warmed by hot air that the children play in it from morning to night‘.  The first multi-room ducted hot-air arrangements could be found at Coleshill, Berkshire in 1814, and Abercairny, Perthshire in 1829. Steam proved difficult to control (though it was installed by Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in 1823) so other early examples were either hot air (Osmaston Manor – 1846-49, Flixton – 1847, or Tortworth Court – 1849-52) or hot water via radiators (Mentmore Towers – 1850-55).  These systems rarely extended beyond the entrance areas, hallways and main downstairs rooms.

Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Ventilation was always a challenge and the unpleasant accumulation of stale air and the smell of gas was exacerbated by the higher building standards of the Victorians which reduced drafts.  Many houses such as Kelham Hall, Mentmore, Dobroyd Castle and Wykehurst Place had ventilation shafts fitted in individual rooms but they were fairly inefficient.  One of the most advanced systems was created in 1846-49 for Francis Wright, a wealthy ironmaster, at his home Osmaston Manor in Derbyshire.  A single intake near the kitchen drew air from outside before heating it and distributing it around the house.  Coal fires in individual rooms then drew the stale air towards them but the flues all took the air downwards into a central extractor system which vented though a single huge 150-ft chimney in the kitchen garden, thus eliminating the need for huge chimneys in the main house (though it had smaller ones).  Sadly the house was demolished in 1965, thus denying us the chance to marvel at the ingenuity.

Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)
Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)

Bathrooms and indoor plumbing were often a great source of inconvenience. Even as late as 1873, such a grand house as Carlton Towers, Yorkshire, had no bathrooms with washing still undertaken via hand-filled basins and hip baths.  By contrast, Stoke Rochford Hall in 1839 had fifteen and by 1874 Wykehurst had the then radical innovation of each bedroom being a suite with its own bathroom.  A number of country houses were demolished for reasons of inconvenience with a  lack of bathrooms often cited, especially as the complexities of adding them to older houses was to prove insurmountable, either technically or financially.

Such challenges were often a catalyst for innovation – particularly if the owner was one of the industrial titans of the age, a man as comfortable in the workshop as the boardroom. Although William Armstrong (b.1810 – d.1900), 1st Baron Armstrong (after 1887), started his professional life as a solicitor he was able to turn his analytical mind to practical challenges as much as legal ones.  The genesis of his engineering career stemmed from his love of fishing where he noticed how inefficient waterwheels were and so designed a much more efficient water-powered engine. He successfully showed it could be used to hydraulically power cranes and thus improve the speed of cargo unloading at the docks.  This formed the basis for Armstrong’s engineering firm in 1847 and his first fortune.  The firm’s greatest fame/infamy came due to the later armaments work which Armstrong had turned to when he read that the British Army had difficulties with heavy field guns during the Crimean War. Success here with his revolutionary design and, later naval versions, led to the creation of a shipbuilding firm which won orders throughout the world, generating his second fortune.

The Lodge 'Cragside', dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw's editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)
The Lodge ‘Cragside’, dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw’s editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)

Armstrong’s obviously busy and productive life gave him great status in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and beyond and his main home in the city was a grand, if heavy, suburban creation called Jesmond Dene House.  As befitted any Victorian man of wealth and social stature and due to the pressures of running his businesses, Armstrong sought a country retreat.  Having visited the Rothbury area as a child, he looked there for a suitable estate, eventually buying in 1863 the then small shooting lodge and 20-acres of land which formed part of a steep-sided valley through which ran the Debdon Burn. Over the next few years, as Armstrong came to reduce his involvement in his businesses, Cragside became a passion; a place to retreat but also to enjoy more domestic challenges with the help of one of the most brilliant architects of the age, Richard Norman Shaw. Armstrong eventually came to own 16,000-acres of Northumberland, including Bamburgh Castle, of which 1,759-acres surrounded Cragside in which he had planted over 7m trees and innumerable rhododendrons.

View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

Between 1869-84, Cragside was transformed into a modern Victorian plutocrats palace, but one incorporating all conceivable innovations, powered by his own hydraulic engines. The first challenge was the location, which was ideal for a small lodge but cramped for the house which it eventually supported.  The steep hillside meant that space for expansion either had to be created through excavation or by building up the ground.  What it lost in convenience, it gained in views; spectacular vistas overlooking the remote Northumberland countryside.  Unfortunately, those views – both from and of the house – are now somewhat obscured by some of those same trees planted by Armstrong.

One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)
One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)

It was inside the house that the inventive mind of both owner and architect could really find effect.  For Shaw, Armstrong was an ideal patron, offering none of the conservative reticence he might have found in other clients, able to offer either his innovations or those of his friends. By December 1880, Cragside was the first private house in the UK (and Girouard thinks possibly in the world) to have electric light comprehensively installed, thanks to Armstrong’s friendship with Joseph Swan, with his eponymous filament bulbs throughout. Power for these innovations came from Armstrong’s own hydroelectric engines, running from the Burn below.

With the luxury of his own cheap and apparently limitless power supply, Armstrong and Shaw’s opportunities were myriad.  In addition to the lighting, the central heating system was also driven by a hydraulic engine.  That same power source also enabled the kitchen to boast a hydraulically-powered spit with the heavy pots in the conservatories moved by hydraulic machinery, with an electric sewing machine and electric communication throughout the house and even out to a shooting lodge on the moor.

View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

To his contemporaries, Cragside must have seemed beyond ingenious – a place grown from an inhospitable hillside, packed with innovations.  The house became a significant marketing tool for Armstrong as visits from his prospective customers, including the King of Siam, the Shah of Persia and the Crown Prince of Afghanistan, gave him the chance to demonstrate the advanced technology they could be buying into, a true theatre of innovation.  The Prince and Princess of Wales also visited in August 1884, thus giving the royal seal of approval to such a modern approach to the traditions of the country house.

Cragside passed to the National Trust in 1977, sadly missing the best of Armstrong’s picture collection (sold in 1910), but cared for and open so we can enjoy seeing the products of two great Victorian minds.  Despite being the genesis of domestic hydroelectric power, a gas turbine was installed in 1895 to provide more power before being connected to the National Grid in 1945.  However, in early 2014, the National Trust is again installing a modern hydroelectric screw to once more generate electricity for the house providing a welcome return of innovation.

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Article: ‘Hydro-electricity restoration work starts at Cragside‘ [BBC News]

Official site: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust]

160+ images: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust Images]

Soane’s happy commission: Tyringham Hall for sale

Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire (Image: Savills)
Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire (Image: Savills)

Six of the most happy years of my life‘ is how Sir John Soane described his commission to build what is regarded as one of his finest works: Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire.  Although altered, the house forms an important link in the development of both Soane’s architectural and professional skill; an ideal commission which gave full scope to his genius.  It also has the rare distinction of benefiting from another British architectural giant, Sir Edwin Lutyens, who created some of his best but also smallest work there. Now having been restored, the house is for sale; an early and clear candidate for the most important house to be sold in 2013.

Letton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Chris & Angela Pye via Flickr)
Letton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Chris & Angela Pye via Flickr)

Sir John Soane built only eighteen complete country houses, mainly between 1780-1800, so each house is an important step in tracing the evolution of his distinctive style.  Burnham Westgate was Soane’s first major remodelling (covered in an earlier blog post: ‘For sale: a Soanian springboard‘ Oct 2011) but his first entirely new house was Letton Hall, Norfolk. Built between 1784-92 for B.G. Dillingham, Soane had convinced Dillingham to demolish, rather than alter, the existing Old Hall which he had inherited that year.  Soane’s early working practices, honed through smaller commissions, emphasised extensive discussions with the client at the early stages, and the creation of a wooden model to help them visualise the proposed scheme (created in 1785 – after work had started – at the cost of £6 11s).  Letton also demonstrated several of what we regard as ‘Soanian’ architectural traits: the compact villa design, pale bricks, beautiful proportions and the cantilevered, top-lit staircase.

Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)
Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)

Soane’s practice now progressed steadily with commissions for new houses at Tendring Hall and Shotesham, along with other works on varying scales.  His growing reputation for not only excellent designs but also for completing work on time and within budget led to his name being circulated amongst the right type of clients who could provide the opportunities Soane hoped for. Drawn by his friend, Lord Camelford, into increasingly political circles, he became friends with the powerful Marquis of Buckingham, who owned two great estates at Stowe and Wotton.  In August 1792, it was Buckingham who took Soane to visit the banker William Praed at his property, Tyringham, which his wife had inherited and which was conveniently close to the Marquis, in whom rested his political and business ambitions.  Needing a house to match his intended status, Praed initially commissioned Soane to remodel the existing Elizabethan manor house. However, after some Soanian persuasion, in June 1793 he decided that an entirely new house would best serve his needs – much to the architect’s undoubted relief.

Soane displayed a particular flair when designing an entirely new house.  Although at the  core of his houses was a Palladian villa, as John Summerson notes, Soane was able to ‘…twist it into something much more complicated with sequences of shaped rooms ingeniously interlocked, and lobbies introduced to effect harmonious transitions‘.  It was this imagination which Soane brought to the Tyringham commission and which created one of his early masterpieces, with flashes of brilliance, both inside and out.

One of the first is the now Grade-I listed monumental arch gateway leading from the main road; a building of such elegance and novelty that it had Pevsner in raptures, describing it as ‘a monument of European importance…it is entirely independent of period precendent, a sign of daring only matched at that moment by what Ledoux was designing in France [e.g. Hôtel Thellusson] and Gilly in Germany‘.  Leading to the house, the drive curves gently away, allowing the house to slowly come into view.  Soane designed the approach, incorporating an elegant humpbacked bridge with balustrades which curve at each end, away from the road, creating a delicate curl.  Arriving at the house, the exterior can also immediately be identified as by Soane, with typical details including the bow-front, the beautiful proportions and the superb detailing, such as the giant Ionic columns and Greek-key frieze.

The interior was to be the finest conception of the whole scheme; a dramatic, exciting series of spaces which would have delighted the visitor.  At the core of the plan was a device which Soane would re-use in later projects but on a monumental scale; the ‘tribune’, a top-lit inner hall.  To look at the plan is to understand the level of trust that William Praed displayed in Soane as, on entering the house, the first space encountered was dramatic as it was domestically redundant: a windowless ante-chamber lit only by the front door and flanking windows behind you, and through another doorway at the far end.  Passing through the room, flanked by four columns supporting a typical Soane shallow dome, you then stepped through the doorway and into the brightly lit central tribune; a Damascene moment of drama.  Forming the top of the T to the dark antechamber, the tribune then led to either the library, the drawing room or the stairs; each decorated in a typical Soane style. Though compact, the house and estate are both impressive and manageable, the perfect combination for a rising, ambitious banker who mixed in aristocratic company.

However, the house and estate today is not the same one Soane created.  Between 1907-19, a series of unfortunate changes were made to designs by the architect Ernst Eberhard von Ihne, his decorator Florian Kulikowski and another architect, Charles Rees, who implemented Von Ihne’s plans which swept away much of Soane’s interior decoration.  They also added an ill-proportioned copper dome, a tea cosy on a champagne bottle, which has the strange visual effect of elongating the columns.  With an estate of only 59-acres, it’s unfortunate that a series of 9 or 10 houses were built to the immediate north-east of the main house. Equally sad, the most important section of Soane’s considered drive to the house is now in separate ownership; the humpbacked bridge part of the public highway and worse, the road then continues down through that wonderful arch which so delighted Pevesner (how long before some careless driver seriously damages one or the other?) – follow the drive via Google StreetView.

Bathing and Music Pavilions, Tyringham Hall (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Bathing and Music Pavilions, Tyringham Hall (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Thankfully what is still intact is one of Sir Edwin Lutyens‘ finest garden schemes.  Between 1924-28, Lutyens was commissioned by the then owners, the Koenigs, a family of Silesian bankers, to create a garden ‘for the recreation of spirit and body‘.  Standing each side of a huge 72m pool, once thought to be the largest of its type in Europe, are two temples; one a bathing pavilion, the other of Music.  Reminiscent of Thomas Archer‘s sublime Pavilion at Wrest Park (1709-11), Lutyens’ interpretation is pared back, less ornamented, but equally impressive – indeed, he himself thought it faultless and would apparently sit in there on his own.

The current vendor, Anton Bilton and family, has lavished millions on restoring the house and grounds (though, he confirms not as much as the £10m previously reported) since buying it for £2.5m in 2001.  However, the £18m asking price quoted in The Sunday Times Home section (28/04/13) seems ambitious; £10m-12m feels more appropriate considering the way the house and estate have been compromised with the now non-private approach, the small housing estate to the east of the main house and the loss of Soane’s original interiors.  Make no mistake, this is still a superb house and sets the bar high for any other house offered for sale this year to be considered as attractive or as interesting.

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Property details: ‘Tyringham Hall‘ – £18m, 59-acres [Savills] Strangely, there is no brochure yet and the launch, through double fold-out spread in Country Life (1 May 2013), feels a touch late.  One wonders whether the Bilton’s were offered a chance to do the Sunday Times piece before Savills were ready and took it anyway?

Excellent selection of photos:

If you wish to find out more about Sir John Soane and are in London, visit his house at Lincolns Inn Fields, which is a museum to his life and work: ‘Sir John Soane’s Museum

Welcome to the market: Lutyens’ The Salutation, Kent

The Salutation, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)
The Salutation, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)

The analogy between language and architecture is one that has often been made, particularly as fluency is the key measure of success in both fields.  An immature architect can make elementary mistakes with the grammar of a building style as much as any tourist abroad can when ordering dinner. In most cases, both novice architect and linguist can be understood but when compared to the more experienced practitioner, skill and mastery come sharply into relief.  Such a lesson by a master architectural linguist has just been launched on the market; The Salutation, in Sandwich, Kent; a beautiful piece of poetry which demonstrates the fluency of the architect in the language of Classicism.

Heathcote, Ilkley (Image: Thursday Dave via Flickr)
Heathcote, Ilkley (Image: Thursday Dave via Flickr)

Lutyens’ career can largely be seen in three phases; the early years of the ‘Surrey-Tudor’, which evolved into the middle ‘Arts & Crafts’, and then the divergence into the bold ‘Classical’, and its particular variant, ‘Edwardian Baroque’.  That last switch can be seen quite dramatically in the brilliant Heathcote, Yorkshire, built 1906, where Lutyens playfully adopted and adapted the Classical motifs and style of Palladio and Scammozzi to create a wonderfully detailed villa, rich in style and quite unlike his previous work.  After the exuberance of Heathcote (which annoyed Pevsner, who although he commented that it was ‘Only a villa, but how grand the treatment!‘, also dismissed features such as the pilasters which ‘disappear’ into the continuous rustication (see ground floor either side of the windows) as ‘silly tricks‘). On a side note; Heathcote recently sold having previously been bought by a developer/vandal who wished to split the house into two, thus ruining Lutyens’ interior planning – fingers crossed the new owner is sympathetic to this wonderful house.

Lutyens was, of course, part of a longer tradition starting with the first English classical architects practising around the time of Sir Christopher Wren in the mid-17th Century including Hugh May, William Samwell, and Roger Pratt. These pioneers displayed a similar skill in Anglo-Classicism producing buildings such as Cassiobury House (May), the first Eaton Hall (Samwell) and the revolutionary Coleshill (Pratt).  Classicism has long had a place in British architecture, despite other fashions, and has shown its versatility in being used for all sizes of house, from palaces to the smaller country retreat – and it was in this latter requirement that Lutyens was commissioned to build The Salutation.

Located on the site of an old inn of the same name, it was built in 1911-12 in the Queen Anne style as a retreat for Gaspard Farrer, a partner in Barings Bank, and his two bachelor brothers. Lutyens’ clients were typically those who had made money in the decades either side of 1900; that high-point of the country-house lifestyle when staff, materials and labour were relatively cheap. If there is a ‘criticism’ of Lutyens it’s his generosity with regards to space with hallways, alcoves, and large staircases, such as at The Salutation where an extended landing serves as an overflow from the library.  Yet, each space serves a purpose in the plan, typically framing views along axes or as part of a route to the principal rooms which Lutyens often incorporated into houses.

Great Maytham, Kent (Image: Stephen Nunney via Geograph)
Great Maytham, Kent (Image: Stephen Nunney via Geograph)

The exterior of the house is a smaller derivation of his earlier and much grander Great Maytham, built 1910, for the Liberal MP, H.J. Tennant.  Following the exuberance of Heathcote (which most commentators seem to think came very close to pomposity), Lutyens took a more restrained path through Classicism (compared say, to Richard Norman Shaw at Bryanston House for Viscount Portman) and Great Maytham can be seen as a larger version of Samwell’s Eaton Hall, built 1675, or the smaller Puslinch in Devon, built 1720, with the latter showing clear similarities with The Salutation.

East terrace, The Salutation, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
East terrace, The Salutation, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The plan of The Salutation is based on the Palladian 3×3 grid but, importantly, Lutyens is able to adapt and amend this without losing the beauty of the proportions.  Gavin Stamp comments that, for Lutyens, his houses were ‘essentially romantic creations; that is, their form is determined by a picture in the architect’s mind‘ and another writer H.S. Goodhart-Rendel compared his ability to that of Wren in that they both had ‘the sculptor’s capacity of making beautiful shapes‘.  Country Life magazine said that it was a ‘dazzlingly suave yet restrained reinterpretation of the old Georgian idiom‘. It was this ability to combine a profound understanding of the Classical rules of architecture with originality which marked Lutyens out as one of the great architects.

To be given a measure of the importance the house, in 1950, it was the first 20th-century building to be given a Grade-I listing.  However, The Salutation suffered in the later 20th-century with the 1980s a particularly difficult time. Repeated attempts by developers were made to either split those graceful internal spaces into apartments or simply demolish it entirely and build on the 3-acre site, over which Lutyens (and possibly his long-term collaborator Gertrude Jekyll) had spent so much time and care crafting.

The Salutation from the garden (Image: Knight Frank)
The Salutation from the garden (Image: Knight Frank)

Salvation for The Salutation came in the form of Dominic and Stephanie Parker who bought it in 2004 for £2.6m and have subsequently spent £3m on its restoration and who now run it as a luxury B&B. Now for sale at £4.5m, for someone with the budget, this could again be a superb home; combining the finest elements of the last boom of the country villa, designed by one of the greatest architects Britain has produced.  For the rest of us, if you’d like to see and experience staying in one of Lutyens finest small houses, I’d suggest booking soon.

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Sale particulars: ‘The Salutation‘ [Knight Frank]

If you’d like to stay; you can book through their website: ‘The Salutation

Video of Mr Parker talking about his decision to buy: ‘The Salutation was ‘like finding a diamond in a river‘ [2009, Kent Online]

Watch the Parker’s competing in a B&B TV competition: ‘Four in a bed‘ [Channel 4]

For more on Lutyens, I recommend Gavin Stamp’s ‘Edwin Lutyens Country Houses‘ [Amazon]

Support the legacy: ‘Lutyens Trust

Listing description: ‘The Salutation‘ [British Listed Buildings]

‘A brighter, richer landscape lies display’d’; the battles for the views of country houses

'View of the Thames from Richmond Hill' by Peter Tillemans c.1720-1723 (Image: Government Art Collection)
‘View of the Thames from Richmond Hill’ by Peter Tillemans c.1720-1723 (Image: Government Art Collection)

Looking out from the top of Richmond Hill in south west London,  towards Windsor Castle, is to take in one of the most famous and admired views of the Thames, one that includes glimpses of at least four significant country houses. One of those, the beautiful Marble Hill House, was also the site of a ‘battlefield’; but this is a heritage one, a battle to protect one country house in particular and that spectacular view.  The fight to protect the views surrounding country houses has been fought many times, but two from the modern era in particular, at Witley Park and Marble Hill House, are worth a closer look for the impact they had.

Folly castle in Hagley Park, built c.1747, designed by Sanderson Miller (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Folly castle in Hagley Park, built c.1747, designed by Sanderson Miller (Image: Matthew Beckett)

In earlier centuries, landowners had far greater power to determine what they saw from their drawing room windows.  With the rise of the landscape architect, mere history was an insufficient reason for a tree, stream, building or even an entire village, to be left alone where they interfered with the sight-lines.  With the new emphasis on a view terminating in some object of interest, ever grander follies, bastions, and sham ruins sprang from the ground; from a distance giving an air of ancient decay, but betrayed up close by the drying cement. Yet, ancient buildings also could be pressed into service as ‘eye-catchers’ – but only if they met with the approval of the landscaper and/or the owner.

The first ‘battle’ to be fought to protect a heritage asset which formed part of a view was between a duchess and her husband’s architect, and involved one of grandest houses in the country. Ironically, the battleground was a house built to celebrate a military victory, Blenheim Palace, but a fight almost as vicious was being waged between Sarah, 1st Duchess of Marlborough, and the architect, Sir John Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726), one of the most remarkable men of that era.  Vanbrugh’s design for Blenheim was a tour-de-force of contemporary architecture; a spectacular palace which drew on the Continental Baroque style to create a house which was a set-piece of country house theatre.

Woodstock Manor, Oxfordshire (dem. 1720) (Image: courtesy of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough and Jarrold Publishing via Smithsonian Magazine)
Woodstock Manor, Oxfordshire (dem. 1720) (Image: courtesy of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough and Jarrold Publishing via Smithsonian Magazine)

The battle was fought over the ruins of the original Woodstock Manor, a house where King Henry II had romanced ‘fair Rosamund’ de Clifford, and which formed the original palace on the estate.  Having suffered under bombardment in the Civil War, large parts were in ruins.  However, Vanbrugh saw them not only as a historical artefact, but also as part of the grand conception of the landscaping; a precocious attempt at the Picturesque twenty-five years before William Gilpin conceived it.  Vanbrugh wrote to the Duchess, explaining:

That Part of the Park which is Seen from the North Front of the New Building, has Little Variety of Objects Nor dos the Country beyond it Afford any of Vallue, It therefore Stands in Need of all the helps that can be given, which are only Two; Buildings and Plantations. These rightly dispos’d will indeed Supply all the wants of Nature in that Place: And the Most agreable Disposition is to Mix them: in which this Old Manour gives so happy an Occasion for…So that all the Building left, (which is only the Habitable part and the Chappel) might Appear in Two Risings amongst ’em, it wou’d make One of the Most agreable Objects that the Best of Landskip Painters can invent. And if on the Contrary this Building is taken away; there then remains nothing but an Irregular, Ragged, Ungovernable Hill.

His appeals were in vain and the house razed to the ground in 1720.  The Duchess of Marlborough had a famously low opinion of architects and her dealings with Vanbrugh seemed to entrench this; his own case not helped by secretly making the Manor habitable again for his use but funded by the Duke’s money.  She was also devoted to the Duke and intended Blenheim to be his monument in life and for all time, and so she may not have wished to see another competing memorial to love from her windows.

Little changed in the following two centuries; if a landowner wished to reshape the view of his estate from his dining room, then so he shall.  Perhaps the ultimate expression of that was the occasional removal of an inconveniently sited village such as for Lord Cobham at Stowe c.1730, and Lord Harcourt at Nuneham Courtenay c.1750.

Some of the earliest effective challenges to this power only came much later from Victorian social activism which provided a platform for ideas to be confronted from the perspective of what was good for the people.  A landmark in the campaign for heritage protection of landscape centred around the now-lost mansion of Witley Park in Surrey.

Witley Park, Surrey (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Lost Country Houses)
Witley Park, Surrey (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Lost Country Houses) – click for more images of the house

The man responsible for raising the ire of the locals was one Whitaker Wright. A controversial financier who  made a fortune, lost a fortune, made another fortune and then bought the Witley Park estate and also the neighbouring South Park Farm estate from the Earl of Derby which included Hindhead Common and the famous Devil’s Punch Bowl.  To ‘improve’ the views from the house, Wright set 600 men to work, creating lakes and parkland but more worryingly, raising or levelling hills.  Without the legal frameworks we now rely on to protect the countryside and other areas of outstanding beauty for the common good, there was a real concern that Wright’s grandiose schemes would irreparably alter the local landscape.

Fortunately Wright’s other fanciful plans were his undoing; following the collapse of his companies in 1900 he was charged with fraud, found guilty, and dramatically committed suicide in court just after his sentencing hearing.  With his death the estate was put up for auction, and the locals who had been concerned about his landscaping efforts banded together and bought the sections of the estate which included the Devil’s Punch Bowl and Hindhead Common at auction in 1905. The locals then donated the land to the National Trust in 1906, becoming, in the process, the first Trust property to be managed by a local committee.

The idea that heritage was a national issue for the public good strengthened as organisations such as the National Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who took up the cause.  At the heart of the heritage debate was a widespread concern about the threat to heritage from development – and Marble Hill House was a prime example.

Marble Hill House, Surrey (Image: Maxwell Hamilton via Flickr)
Marble Hill House, Surrey (Image: Maxwell Hamilton via Flickr)

Regarded as one of the finest Palladian villas in the country, the house was built between 1724-29 for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk and former mistress of George II. On her retirement from court, Lady Suffolk created a new one, centred around her and her villa.  Her friendship with the writer Alexander Pope and the ‘man of taste’ Horace Walpole (whose own house, Strawberry Hill is nearby), created a wide ranging literary, political, and artistic circle which only enhanced the reputation of that corner of the Thames.  The bright-white villa was an obvious reference point for those looking down from Richmond Hill and formed ‘this Earthly Elysium‘, appreciated by those without and within.

As Richmond and Twickenham grew as one of the most fashionable places to visit, so too did the number of artists who recorded the view in paintings, engravings, books and pamphlets. Yet, the rural nature of the suburb which had so impressed those who gazed upon it became increasingly threatened as Victorian London moved west.  With the death of the last owner, the widow of General Peel, in 1887, the house was increasingly viewed with avaricious eyes by developers. In 1901, a local newspaper quoted Jonathan Swift’s 1727 poem ‘Pastoral Dialogue between Richmond Lodge and Marble Hill‘:

Some South Sea broker from the City
Will purchase me, and more’s the pity,
Lay all my fine plantations waste
To fit them to his vulgar taste.

The article carried on to warn that ‘It is the demon builder who will in all probability destroy this historical desmesne with his exhibition of latter day villadom‘. That threat took a more concrete form that same year when, having been empty for ten years, it was finally sold to William Cunard (of the shipping family) who lived in nearby Orleans House (dem. 1926).  His plans involved the villa becoming the centrepiece to a suburban development (oh, how depressingly familiar this all sounds!), and so trees were felled and roads laid. However, the prospect of this view being lost galvanised public opinion, causing Cunard to pause.  The Architectural Review highlighted that with regards to the view:

…it is evident that the deep wedge of woodland formed by Marble Hill is its most necessary and indispensable part; that spoiled, the view tumbles to pieces, with an eyesore for its focus.

View from Richmond Hill, 2012 - Ham House can still be seen on the left, the only one now not obscured by trees. (Image: Kam Sanghera via Flickr)
View from Richmond Hill, 2012 – Ham House can still be seen on the left, the only one now not obscured by trees. (Image: Kam Sanghera via Flickr)

In July 1901, the Richmond Hill View Executive Committee was formed and, with continued interest from the press, kept up the pressure until in June 1902, following an Act of Parliament, the house was saved. The (slightly over-the-top) speeches on the day it opened to the public reflected a mood and an understanding of the value of heritage and why many fight to save it.  As the press reports stated:

They felt that a national view was at stake; that a historic view was at stake, nay, that a view that was necessary to the whole world was at stake…  It is not only the glory of London, but the glory of the British Empire; and it is one of those things which struck foreigners visiting this country with amazement and delight.

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Richard Croft via geograph)
Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Richard Croft via geograph)

Looking beyond such giddy prose, those same core beliefs in the value and wonder of heritage can still be seen today.  Following the Marble Hill victory, further action such as in the Tattershall Castle controversy in 1910 showed that it was possible to mount an effective opposition.  Although not strong enough to prevent the worst excesses of the mass destruction of the country houses in the 1920s, 30s and 50s, these victories were critical in providing a cultural foundation, bolstered by wider appreciation through magazines such as Country Life, for the heritage protection movement which, despite many successes, continues to fight those battles today.

Bylaugh Hall: the hidden history to a remarkable restoration opportunity

Bylaugh Hall, Norfolk (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Bylaugh Hall, Norfolk (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Many country houses we can visit today are innately interesting; the design, the contents, the occupants, all tell a tale.  Sometimes though there are houses with a much richer past which not only have an immediate story to tell but also a much more complex history, one fascinating for anyone with an interest in how these houses came to be created. One such house which was recently launched – and amusingly described on Rightmove as a ‘60 bedroom detached house for sale‘ – is the remarkable Bylaugh Hall in Norfolk, an engineering marvel and architectural delight, which had a forced birth through litigation, which wasn’t wanted by the first owner, and where credit for the design hasn’t truly been given to the right architect.

Bylaugh is remarkable in many ways; some obvious, others less so.  Even its genesis came from beyond the grave as the controversial inherited wish of the last owner, Sir John Lombe Bt (b. c1731 – d.1817), a man whose fortune came from the family’s silk throwing mill in Derbyshire.  The Lombe’s were established Norfolk gentry whose original estate was at Great Melton, centred around Melton Hall (built in 1611 by the Anguish family) but now a ruin having been first tenanted and then, by the end of the 19th-century, abandoned.

Allegedly won by Sir John in a skewed card game, the Lloyds had owned the Bylaugh estate for a number of years, and even if the story is false, it was legitimately Sir John’s by c1796.  The Lombe’s were unusual in that their wealth largely came from industry, and one which was located outside of the county, but they quickly used their fortune to create the fourth largest estate in Norfolk, at over 13,000-acres by 1883.

Whatever house was already at Bylaugh was insufficient for Sir John so he resolved to build an entirely new one.  However, the house he had in mind was not the house which was built.  Sir John must have had a fair idea that he would not survive to see his grand plan to fruition but he certainly wasn’t going to let mere death cheat him of his ambition.  Having placed £20,000 in trust for the express purpose of building the house – though without approving a design – he died in 1817 (unmarried and childless), leaving his estate and his firm directions to his brother Edward. Here, the family history becomes a little complicated as Edward was his half brother, the product of an affair with a Norwich doctor’s wife.  Edward adopted the Lombe surname but was reluctant to take on the grand role envisioned by his late brother – which is perhaps why Sir John’s will was so prescriptive, and which led to a quite extraordinary court case.

Edward Lombe disputed with the executors of the estate the instruction to build the new house.  However, Sir John had been quite clear, including this fascinating clause in his will:

And whereas it is my wish and intention that a mansion house and suitable offices fit for the residence of the owner of my estate shall be erected on some convenient spot in the parish of Bylaugh in the county of Norfolk either in my lifetime or after my death and that if I shall not erect the same in my lifetime then that my said trustees shall forthwith after my death erect the same according to such plan as I shall in my lifetime approve of or if I shall die before such plan shall be prepared and completed then according to such plan as the trustees or trustee for the time being under this my will with the consent of the person for the time being beneficially entitled to the immediate freehold of my said manors &c under this my will shall think proper to adopt adhering as closely as possible situation and other incidental circumstances being considered to the plan of the house now the residence of Robert Marsham esquire at Stratton Strawless in the said county of Norfolk. (source)

Yet Edward resisted, delaying the start of the build for years by arguing with the executors, Mr Mitchell and Mr Stoughton, and stating that even if they built the house he wouldn’t live in it.  Finally, in 1828, he went to the Court of Chancery and demanded that the money, now having grown to £43,000, be placed with it and a judgement made as to whether he could overturn the provisions of his brother’s will. The case was still undecided in 1839, by which time the fund had grown to over £63,500, when Edward again pressed his case, with a decision finally being made in 1841 – against him.  The Vice-Chancellor said:

It appears to me to be impossible to read this passage in the will without seeing that there is in the plainest language an express trust for the erection of the mansion house which the trustees are forthwith after his death to commence and to proceed with the erecting of. I cannot conceive any words more plain.

Stratton Strawless Hall, Norfolk - pre 1960 (Image: 'The Country Houses of Norfolk' by David Clarke)
Stratton Strawless Hall, Norfolk – pre 1960 (Image: ‘The Country Houses of Norfolk’ by David Clarke)

Which rather settled that. In the meantime, the executors had not been idle in their duties – but they weren’t as obedient as they might strictly have been.  Sir John had clearly stated that the house was to follow ‘as closely as possible‘ Sir Robert Masham’s house at Stratton Strawless; a three-storey (now two), strictly classical, almost Palladian house with a Tuscan-columned porch.  However, the executors ignored this provision and with possibly an eye to emphasising the esteemed family line and to help the new house blend in with the other seats in the area, they chose to create a historical ‘Jacobethan’-style house – but even that is not the one we see today.

Interestingly, although the current Bylaugh is rightly described as being designed by Charles Barry the younger and his partner, Robert Robinson Banks, few are aware that in 1822 the trustees had originally asked another noted architect, William Wilkins (b.1778 – d.1839), to draw up a plan, and his design showed a remarkable stylistic similarity to the one actually built 27 years later.

Unexecuted design for Bylaugh Hall by William Wilkins, 1822 (Image: Public Record Office MPA. 66.1 / 'William Wilkins, 1778-1839' - R.W. Liscombe)
Unexecuted design for Bylaugh Hall by William Wilkins, 1822 (Image: Public Record Office MPA. 66.1 / ‘William Wilkins, 1778-1839’ – R.W. Liscombe)

Although a noted proponent of the Greek Revival, Wilkins, like many an architect, was well-educated in other styles and could turn his hand if asked. Clearly inspired by the style of ‘Prodigy‘ houses such as Burghley and Longleat, he also drew on elements of buildings he had seen and studied – for example, the polygonal domes capping the raised central hall are copied from the Porta Honoris at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, on which Wilkins had written a scholarly article for the esteemed ‘Vetusta Monumenta‘ in 1809. Although each façade was similar, the entrance front was enlivened by a projecting centre bay above the door which was on the piano nobile, reached by an elegant split stair.

The plan of the house was also modern, rejecting a rambling layout, and firmly following the Palladian 3×3 grid on the ground floor.  Centred around a double-return staircase, this was an innovative layout for an early Victorian design – though one Wilkins the classicist would have been entirely comfortable with.  Essentially, he had designed a Palladian villa, dressed in the architectural garb of the ‘Jacobethan’ style.

Bylaugh Hall today (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Bylaugh Hall today (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Bylaugh Hall, as attributed to Barry and Banks in 1849, was perhaps better described as an updated version of Wilkins earlier plan – the core 3×3 layout remained, as did the external style, though some of the details such as the raised central hall and domes were removed, and the central staircase replaced by a saloon.  The construction did display some innovation, being one of the earliest steel-framed buildings and was considered a success with one rather giddy local newspaper exclaiming ‘Neither Holkham nor Houghton, those Norfolk wonders, can compare with it for either appearance or comfort‘.  Such wild exaggeration aside, this was a house at the forefront of domestic convenience and was commended in The Builder for having no corridors in the main block, which maximised the space.  It was completed in 1852 at a cost of £29,389, and by 1869 it was reported that £38,000 had been spent on the project, which would have included further works on estate buildings and landscaping (see photos of the house and grounds c1917).  An interesting aside is that during the delay in starting the money had grown to quite a considerable sum, more than enough for all the works.  Edward Lombe applied for the remainder but the Court demanded it be spent on bricks and mortar and so a 4-mile perimeter wall was constructed to satisfy this.

Ruined shell of Bylaugh Hall before restoration (Image: The Burrell Partnership)
Ruined shell of Bylaugh Hall before restoration (Image: The Burrell Partnership)

It seems that no descendent ever loved the house.  By 1878, the then owner, Edward Henry Evans-Lombe, was renting the handsomely Classical Thickthorn Hall, before buying Marlingford Hall, whilst selling off outlying parts of the estate.  In 1917, Bylaugh Hall and the 8,150-acre estate were put up for auction in 140 lots but Edward sold it whole for £120,000, and the hall and 736-acre park were subsequently sold to the Marsh family.  Used by the RAF in WWII, it was sold in 1948 to a new owner who unsuccessfully planned to turn it into a nursing home.  At that nadir of country houses generally, a familiar pattern started; parts of the house were demolished and in June 1950 a 350-lot demolition sale was held which stripped the interiors of the house, creating a gaunt and sad shell.  So it remained until, in 1999, the house and a lodge was sold to a local sculptor who dreamt of fully restoring the house but with insufficient funds he was forced to restore just the Orangery (article by the engineers with lots of photos), intending it to be a wedding venue.  Other parts of the main house were parcelled up as investments and rebuilt but the plan faltered and then failed, leaving the partially restored house we see today.

So Bylaugh Hall is a house paid for by a man who never got to see it, with a design chosen by two men who ignored the last wishes of the patron, with credit for that design going to two men who relied heavily on another architect now obscured, for a beneficiary who really didn’t want it in the first place. A brilliant story richly illustrating the fascinating complexities of our country houses.

So what should happen to this superb house? Interestingly, the 557-acre Pavilion farm which surrounds the east and south of the house, and includes one of the original lodges, is also for sale, providing the opportunity for the right person to combine them both.  It would require real vision – the restoration work at Bylaugh Hall may be sound but the aesthetics are dire.  Given the budget, much of the existing restoration should be stripped right back and the interiors given the lavish attention they demand.  This is a house which cries out for sumptuous plasterwork and panelling, for grand rooms with fine wallpaper and filled with artworks and quality furniture. With the funds and the vision to take advantage of this rare opportunity, a restored Bylaugh Hall, combined with the farm and more land later, could once again create one of the finest estates in Norfolk.

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Property details

1917 auction catalogue:

Listing description: ‘Bylaugh Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

The east front of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, in the snow. (Image: National  Trust Picture Library)
The east front of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, in the snow. (Image: National Trust Picture Library)

It’s that time of year when I especially wished that I actually lived in a country house; the decorations, the roaring fire, the snow on the parkland. That said, I am lucky enough to write about and visit them – in 2012 I saw:

…and Buckingham Palace, twice (bit of advice: if going, book the last time slot of the day – it’s quiet and a pleasure.  Going in the middle of the day, not so much). Most of these visits were through organisations such as the Georgian Group, the Irish Georgians, and the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. They, and of course, the National Trust, do excellent work – both practical and scholarly – and are well-worth joining if you’d like to find out more.  I was also lucky enough to attend the Attingham Trust 60th Anniversary Conference which was a wonderful opportunity to meet some real experts and also, unexpectedly, some friends of the blog.

Of course, I remain grateful for the incredible interest shown by the tens of thousands of visitors to the blog who kindly read my articles and comment.  I always appreciate feedback and thank you for taking the time to do so.  In mid-December, the blog hit the milestone of 250,000 page views in a year – so the milestone is now a benchmark and I hope to bring our country houses to an even wider audience next year.  Thank you also to all those who have signed up by email and on Twitter (@thecountryseat), which has proved to be a useful channel for sharing snippets of news and connecting with those interested in houses specifically, and heritage generally.

More contributors?

In 2013, I’m aiming to build on the successes of the last few years.  Of course, there will be more articles, however, I’m conscious that the frequency has dropped, mainly due to my ever busier day job.  I’d be interested to have your thoughts on whether you would like to read articles by other contributors? I have written all of them so far (bar a brilliant piece on ruins by Jeremy Musson back in 2011) but there are many other writers out there who would undoubtedly bring greater and wider expertise on country houses.  At the moment, I write mainly about the architecture (especially the exteriors) but would you be interested in someone writing about say, plasterwork, on specific houses, the contents, or other aspects? I’d also be keen to hear what you would not be interested in reading about. It’s possible that the blog could become a platform for experts in their respective fields who may not wish to maintain their own blog or go down the academic journal route.  Anyway, it’s just a thought and I’d be keen to have your feedback either in the comments below or via email.

Thank you again for your interest and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and all the best for 2013.

Matthew

The estate office: country houses as corporate headquarters – and Barrington Hall, for sale

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

In many ways, a country house was often the headquarters of a business relating to both the estate and the affairs of the family who lived there.  This role was to be mirrored in the latter half of the 20th-century as firms sought to adopt the prestige of stately homes and set up their offices in the many country houses which were then available. What grander statement could a company make to clients and investors than to invite them to visit their stately offices?  Yet times changed, and over the years companies found it harder to justify such lavish accommodation, leading to a steady trickle of houses being sold – and the latest is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire.

Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village)
Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village) – click for an excellent history of the house

The Second World War ushered in the modern era of offices in country houses.  With little by way of aerial bombing, few firms saw the need to move out of London and other cities in World War I, however, this danger had dramatically increased by 1939.  Faced with the significant logistical challenges in moving their vital paper-based records and operations, the late 1930s saw a number of companies actively scouting out possible alternatives, with country houses an ideal choice due to their size and seclusion.  This new lease of life enabled some houses to escape the demolisher’s pickaxe, such as at Shalford Park in Surrey.  A solid, well-proportioned Georgian house, the result of a rebuild of an older house in 1797, had been sold to Guildford Borough Council in 1938, but primarily to protect the land from development, with the intention that the house be demolished.  However, a lease was granted to the Cornhill Insurance Company (later part of Allianz Inc) who moved there in 1939, creating dormitories on the upper floors.  Cornhill were to remain at Shalford Park until 1955, but unfortunately the condition of the building had significantly deteriorated, and combined with it being in the ideal location for a new local water treatment works, meant that the house was demolished.

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

One house which fared only slightly better from this type of arrangement was the beautiful Wrest Park, Bedfordshire.  A fanciful French château, it was built in the 1830s to the accomplished designs of the owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey, and features some of the finest, and earliest, Rococo Revival interiors in the country – of particular note is the spectacular staircase.  The house was sold in 1939 for £25,000 by John G. Murray to the Sun Insurance Company (later Sun Alliance) who bought it in anticipation of war. They promptly moved there from London once war had been declared, having made plans to ‘…alter the stable block and erect huts in the grounds for sleeping quarters, together with washing facilities and air-raid shelters … the stable block was the first area to receive our attention. The whole of the East Wing and the upper storey of the West Wing were to be converted for sleeping accommodation with toilet and washing facilities. The middle connecting section was also to be similarly altered, but it was later decided to make part of the upper storey into a communal long room.‘. Such scenes were undoubtedly repeated in many a country house – though such a use was preferable to the treatment meted out at the hands of enlisted men or children.

Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)
Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)

Other houses had the good fortune to secure relatively benign tenants for the duration of the war. The imposing Stratton Park, Hampshire, was built between 1803-06 by George Dance the Younger for Sir Francis Baring, Lord Northbrook, a founder of Barings Bank. Although it had been sold following the death of his descendent, Francis Baring, 2nd Earl of Northbrook in 1929, the house was bought back by Barings Bank in 1939 as their base for the duration of the conflict (though sadly it was demolished in 1960 by a later Baring who had bought it after the war).  The choice of house was possibly influenced by the fact that the Bank of England had decamped to the nearby beautiful Cranbury Park, also in Hampshire – and, coincidentally, also designed by George Dance the Younger, but built in 1780.  This little known house, still lived in today by the Chamberlayne family who commissioned it, has particularly impressive interiors; the hall and ballroom were described by Pevsner as an ‘unforgettable experience‘. Compared to the horrors of the bombing in London, what a strange pleasure it must have been to be stationed in such an environment.

Banqueting House, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Banqueting House, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

The extensive alterations to even such an important house as Wrest Park indicated the level of damage such intensive use could bring to buildings which had not been designed for such a purpose.  The post-war era held many threats to country houses and use as offices saved many from the wave of destruction which led to the demolition of so many in the 1950s.  In 1949, Wrest Park was sold to the Ministry of Works, who leased it to the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering, later called Silsoe Research Institute which inflicted even more stress on the house and estate.  Although Simon Jenkins included it in his book ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses‘, he wrote that ‘The [Institute’s] outbuildings spoil the approach avenue and its abuse of the interior is dreadful.  The best of the reception rooms, the library, is packed with modern bookcases and computer equipment. Other rooms are cheaply kitted out for lectures and seminars.  It is like a Soviet academy of sciences camped in a St Petersburg palace.’. Thankfully the Institute closed in 2006 and the ground-floor rooms of the house (sadly, office space remains), along with the superb gardens and Thomas Archer‘s sublime Baroque banqueting house have been expertly restored by English Heritage.

Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)
Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)

The pressure to create more space is often the cause of the most damaging changes to a country house.  Simon Jenkins’ criticism of the additional buildings at Wrest Park can similarly be levelled at the extensive construction which has taken place at Hursley House, Hampshire, home of IBM UK.  The house itself was originally built between 1721-24, with ‘gentleman architect’ Sir Thomas Hewett acting as architectural consultant for Sir William Heathcote, and with further major reconstruction in 1902-03 to create the imposing Queen Anne house which appears in various marketing materials.  What the images don’t show is the huge campus (of fairly ugly buildings) which has sprung up so close to the house since IBM took over the site in 1958. A more intelligent approach to the siting of extra accommodation can be seen at the Computer Associates site at Ditton Park, Berkshire, where the new office buildings have been placed a sensitive distance from the main house.  If their priorities changed, the house could be sold and could resume a comfortably independent existence even if the offices remained in use.  Such a change might once have been expected at Donington Hall, Leicestershire, which served as the headquarters for the airline BMI for many years until the recent merger made it redundant.  Sadly, it’s actually unlikely that anyone would chose to live there as there would be no peace and quiet as the parkland has long been converted into the Donington Park race circuit, just half a mile south of the house.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from "A New Display of the Beauties of England" (London : 1776-1777))
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from “A New Display of the Beauties of England” London,  1776-1777) – click to see full size image

Sadly, it is uncommon for a house, once it has been used as offices, to escape such a fate being made permanent.  The alterations and additions can render the house a soulless shell with the grounds ruined beyond the possibility of economic rescue.  However, some have survived this role remarkably intact and, if the possibility presents itself, offer a remarkable opportunity to rescue a house and bring it back to the glory of being a single family home.  One such example is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire, which has had something of a chequered history.  The original house (above) was built between c1735-40 for John Barrington to designs by John Sanderson (b.? – d.1774), a man who Colvin wrote was described as a competent ‘second-generation Palladian’, who worked on an impressive roster of houses including Hagley Hall, where he proved to be an accomplished designer of rococo decoration, Kelham Hall (burnt down 1857), Kirtlington Park, Pusey House, Langley Park, Copped Hall, and Kimberley Hall.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

Barrington Hall remained unfinished (despite the engraving above) and was uninhabited for 128 years due to, what the estate agents refer to as, ‘bizarre and unfortunate events‘ (anyone with more details please do post a comment!). The house was eventually restored in 1867 by George Lowndes, a distant relative of John Barrington, who employed the Lincolnshire architect Edward Browning to remodel it in a Jacobean style. The changes created an attractive house with a varied and interesting form, featuring a series of handsome architectural details such as the ‘Dutch’ gables, quoins and a miniature ogee turret.  The house was bought by the Gosling family in 1903 who had merged ‘Goslings Bank‘ to create Barclays & Co in 1896. It was then sold in 1977 to the British Livestock Board who converted it to offices and then subsequently sold in 1980 to CPL Aromas LTD, a family perfumery firm who seem to have had some challenging times following an ill-fated public listing in 1994, which they reversed in 1999.  Having remained at Barrington Hall it now seems that the company has reviewed its requirements and decided that a stately home is a luxury no longer required.

Although originally offered several months ago for £5m (with 32.85-acres), it seems possible that a serious, but lower, offer could be successful.  It would probably take at least £2m to restore this fascinating house, creating the rich and lively interiors which it needs to match the exterior and bring it back to life, but whoever did so would have the pleasure and pride of having rescued an interesting country house from the drudgery of corporate service.

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Sales website: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [Hamptons] – which, by the way, is a pretty weak effort.  Nice photos but quite lacking in details.

Listing description: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Know any more? If you’re aware of any other country houses of a similar size to Hursley House, Ditton Park, or Donington Park, please post a link (ideally) to a Google Map aerial view in the comments below.

N.B.: an earlier article on this blog (‘Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?‘) looked at a few other examples including Gaddesden Place, Hertfordshire, now the headquarters for Xara software, and Benham Valance, Berkshire.

A country house at risk of demolition: Winstanley Hall – and how you can help save it

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

That the headline above is even possible today is shocking; that it almost came with the acquiescence of English Heritage is even worse.  The wealth of Britain allowed the creation of thousands of wonderful country houses; stores of learning, art, literature, music and much more.  Yet hundreds have been lost, the contents scattered, the fixtures and fittings sold for a fraction of their worth and the history and visual value of these beautiful buildings lost to the demolisher’s pickaxe.  Many a country house has been restored from a serious state of dereliction, so for demolition to even be proposed is to be deplored. Winstanley Hall, near Wigan, has long been a cause for concern but a new campaign, run by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, hopes to quickly raise the funds needed to rescue this fascinating house.

The Country Seat blog is an off-shoot of my earlier interest and research into the lost country houses of England.  Initially sparked by the ruins of Guys Cliffe House in Warwickshire, I have been building on the remarkable work of Peter Reid, John Harris and Marcus Binney who produced an initial list of nearly 1,200 houses which had been lost since 1800.  This list formed the backbone of the ground-breaking 1974 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which dramatically brought home the shock that so much of our architectural heritage had been lost already and the then legal constraints were insufficient to stop it continuing. My list now totals over 1,800 houses which have been lost since 1800 – every county has been affected and each has their own sad roll-call of losses.

Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Uppark House, Sussex - on fire, 30 August 1989 (Image: National Trust)
Result of a bad workman and his tools: Uppark House, Sussex – on fire, 30 August 1989 (Image: National Trust)

Houses can be lost for a number of reasons but two of the main causes are fire and finances. Country houses are unfortunately particularly susceptible to fire; the wooden construction, the flammable contents, the open fires and the restoration work which often brings careless workmen with their blowtorches.  Beyond mitigating the risk, preventing these devastating blazes has always been a challenge.  Yet, diminishing or insufficient finances are equally pernicious but harder to combat as the decay can quietly take place over generations, with the realisation of the seriousness only coming too late.

Many houses were traditionally supported by their estates but the agricultural crisis of the 1880s led to a reduction in income which was largely staved off through the sale of contents, until, in the early 20th century, this was no longer sufficient and the houses themselves were demolished – at a stroke removing the running costs and raising funds through the sale of the materials.  This continued through that century, spiking in the 1920-30s and again in the 1950s, reaching a nadir in 1955 when a significant house was being demolished every five days.  This fascinating video below shows rare footage of a country house in Kent, Pickhurst Manor, as it was destroyed in the 1930s:

The impact of the ‘The Destruction of the Country House‘ exhibition cannot be over-stated in heritage terms. It can be said to have jump-started the heritage movement, creating the current mass interest in country houses which can still be seen today in the popularity of the National Trust and the many individual owners who open their houses to the public. It also led to the formation of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has since then been one of the countries most effective campaigning charities; saving not just country houses, but working to find viable uses for a broad range of historic buildings including factories, churches, offices, and, most recently, terraced housing threatened by the wasteful and pointless Pathfinder Scheme. In the interests of transparency: I am involved with SAVE as a member of the Committee which is consulted about current cases, but this post was not written at their request and the views expressed are my own.

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire - print
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire – print showing the original Elizabethan house

Which brings us to the Grade-II* Winstanley Hall. One of only three surviving Tudor buildings in that borough, the house was built shortly after James Bankes, a London goldsmith, bought the estate in 1595.  The core of the Elizabethan house, with its two projecting wings, can still be seen on the garden front of the house, thought the original gables were replaced by parapets during alterations designed by Lewis Wyatt in 1818-19.  It was Wyatt who created the new entrance tower to the west with its Ionic portico and his work can still be seen inside with some surviving plasterwork and the fine cantilevered staircase.  What makes Winstanley particularly interesting is that it contains layers of work but with each grafted onto the last making the house quite ‘readable’.  A new wing to the south-west was added in 1780, with further changes, marked by keystones, in 1843 and 1889.

The stable court is especially fascinating architecturally as it contains a range of different styles, chosen at the whim of the owner; Meyrick Bankes II.  This delightfully eccentric but still functional range of buildings reflect his life as a well travelled, well educated man and includes Norman, Tudor, and Baroque motifs (and even his own likeness) in the masonry which creates a varied design which adds to the charm of the setting.  The visual interest of the courtyard, combined with the house, really does set Winstanley apart as many houses have lost one or the other of these core elements which make up an estate.

The house started declining in the 1930s and was last occupied in the early 1980s, with the parkland being open-cast mined during the post-war period and later the M6 being built along the edge of the parkland.  However, the parkland has now been restored and the road, which is some distance to the west of the house, is hidden in a cutting and by banks of trees, resulting in the Winstanley estate forming a precious rural space on the edge of Wigan, still approached from the east along a long, secluded drive which dips in between romantically landscaped woodland.

When the family sold up, the house and 10-acres were bought by a local developer who submitted a scheme which proposed enabling development, even though, as Green Belt land, it was unlikely to succeed.  With the failure of this scheme, the house remained unused, sliding further into dereliction to the point where another scheme was suggested which would have involved the conversion of the buildings in the courtyard but would have resulted in the demolition of the main house – and it’s this shocking scheme which English Heritage almost approved in 2011 (though EH, to be fair, also cannot be praised highly enough for their saving of Danson House and Apethorpe Hall – which is still for sale, by the way).

Proposed restoration of Winstanley Hall (Image: Huw Thomas / SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Proposed restoration of Winstanley Hall (Image: Huw Thomas / SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

SAVE stepped in and prevented the demolition and has been working with leading consultants to draw up plans for emergency repairs but also to find a long-term, sustainable solution which not only preserves the house through re-use but also brings the other buildings in the complex to life.  The leading country house conversion architect Kit Martin along with the Morton Partnership, a leading firm of heritage surveyors, have been working with Roger Tempest of Broughton Hall (who has a track record of creating business space in estate buildings), in conjunction with the Landmark Trust, and the Heritage Trust for the North West, who have been consulted about creating heritage training skills opportunities.  The overall aim is to create a community which is not just residential but also hosts businesses and events, with public access via an exhibition space and café.

How you can help: English Heritage have agreed a major grant of £217,000 for the emergency works but SAVE urgently needs to raise a £50,000 contribution.  Any donation, large or small, will help rescue this wonderful house and estate and help prevent the loss of yet more of our heritage.  Since 1974 no house of this size or quality has been lost, so, if you can, please do help.

Ways to donate:

  • Online via the SAVE website
  • Phone: donate £3 or £5 by texting RESTORE3 (for £3) or RESTORE5 (for £5) to 70500. (This will cost £3 or £5 plus your standard message rate and 100% of your donation will go to SAVE Britain’s Heritage.)
  • Cheque: made payable to ‘SAVE Britain’s Heritage’ and sent to SAVE Britain’s Heritage, 70 Cowcross Street, London, EC1M 6EJ.

Thank you!

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Full SAVE campaign brochure: ‘Help us Save Winstanley Hall‘ [PDF – SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

Photos of the house in better days ‘Winstanley Hall: gallery‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

A very unofficial tour: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [YouTube]

A view of the interior: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [WiganWorld]

Aerial view of the house and outbuildings: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [Bing]

Listing description: ‘Winstanley Hall