The Country House Revealed – Kinross House, Kinross-shire

Kinross House, Kinross-shire (Image: The Daily Telegragh)
Kinross House, Kinross-shire (Image: The Daily Telegragh) - click for larger, but different, image from 'buildings_fan' on flickr

For houses which are owned by the same family for hundreds of years, the rhythm of their fortunes can often be read in the architecture of the house as it grows and shrinks accordingly.  This was certainly the case with South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire, featured last week in ‘The Country House Revealed – A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home‘.  Yet the object of our, and Dan Cruickshanks’, affections this week, Kinross House, Kinross-shire, is a more dramatic, and relatively short-term, reflection of the rise and fall in the fortunes of a key Scottish gentleman architect, Sir William Bruce.

Kinross was described in Country Life magazine (February 16, 1951) as ‘the complete expression in stone of the Renaissance in Scotland’ – a not inconsiderable accolade for a man who combined his passion for architecture with a sometimes turbulent career in politics.  ‘Sir William, the politician’, was certainly ambitious and profited from the fluctuations in the fortunes of Charles II.  Active in the Royalist cause prior to the Restoration, on the King’s return William Bruce, younger son of a small Perthshire laird, was knighted in 1668.  Basking in the King’s favour, and under the patronage of the Earl of Lauderdale, he secured a series of minor but lucrative political appointments, the most important as Surveyor-General of the royal works in Scotland.

His political career was matched with equal vigour by ‘Sir William, the architect’ with an enthusiasm for not only architecture but also horticulture, literature, and languages.  Yet Sir William’s importance is mainly founded on his country houses, approximately ten in total – two of which where built for his own use, which helped establish his position as one of the most important architects in Scotland by breaking away from the widespread practice for nobles to still live in castles.

His early building work was mainly with existing houses, with his involvement first recorded in the enlargement and remodelling of the once magnificent Leslie House, Fife, between 1667-72.  Sir William’s involvement was relatively minor as custodian of the working drawings but he also gave advice with regards to the interior.  Sadly, three of the four sides of this quadrangular house burnt down in a fire in 1763 leaving just one side which was later remodelled again to create the currently Leslie House – though this was also severely damaged in a blaze in 2009 whilst undergoing conversion into apartments.

Balcaskie House, Fife (Image: Morton Design) - click for more views
Balcaskie House, Fife (Image: Morton Design) - click for more views

Sir William’s next project is thankfully still visible today, almost unchanged from the day he  finished.  Balcaskie House, Fife, was bought by Bruce in 1665, and rather than demolish it, between 1668-71 he proceeded to enlarge and improve the existing house. It was here that his official role proved useful, employing some of the plasterers and painters he had also engaged in rebuilding Holyrood Palace, in Edinburgh between 1671-79.

Also in 1670, Sir William undertook several private commissions for his patron, the Duke of Lauderdale, including the remodelling of the Duke’s main Scottish seat at Thirlestane Castle.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work are the interiors which draw heavily on the designs, and indeed the workmen, from Ham House in Richmond, Surrey, owned by the Countess of Dysart, who married the Duke in 1671, bringing that fine and beautiful house into that family.

Moncreiffe House, Perthshire (Image: NMR) - burnt down, 1957
Moncreiffe House, Perthshire (Image: NMR) - burnt down, 1957

With so many projects it is unsurprising that Sir William’s next major commission wasn’t until 1676; the construction of a new house at Dunkeld for the 1st Marquess of Atholl, described by the Marquess’ son as ‘…extrodinarly convenient though not larg & and it will not cost much expences ether.‘ This house is important as not only was it his first chance to build on a fresh plot but which shows a clear style of design which was to flourish at Kinross.  Sadly the house was pulled down in 1830 as a much larger house had been built for the 4th Duke.  Sir William’s next commission in 1679 was Moncreiffe House, near Perth, which was also to display a very similar style.  This house has also now been lost; demolished after a devastating fire in November 1957, leaving no surviving house to mark the emergence of these new elements of classical architecture in Scotland.

Sir William’s political star continued to shine, providing a fortune which enabled him to purchase the Kinross estate in 1675, and his first opportunity to give full rein to his architectural skills with only himself as client.   Work first started to level the site in 1679 and by 1686 the main outline of the gardens and forecourt were in place, ready for the construction of the house which started in the autumn of that year.  What rose up was one of the finest houses in the country but also one of the most important in Scotland.

Sir William was able to introduce new ideas around the layout of a house, drawing on the same ideas that Sir Roger Pratt and Hugh May were also promoting in England to create the form of the country house we know today. Similarities can be seen between the works of these architects, particularly Pratt at Coleshill, Berkshire (tragically burnt down in 1952) and the use of the double-pile layout.  Another interesting aspect of the design of Kinross is that it is lined up axially with  the ruined island castle of Loch Leven, providing an ‘eye-catcher’ for anyone looking out of the house across the water.

Kinross was to be Sir William’s physical statement of his vision of the country house as the primary stage for the aristocracy to parade.  The house was to be part of a whole, made up of the estate, parkland, gardens, exterior and interiors; each playing their part to create a visible record of the owner’s standing and wealth.  To do so, Bruce took the architectural fashions of England and combined them with his own knowledge of the works of Palladio and Serlio, and some innovative ideas of his own with regards to the use of mezzanines to create extra rooms and corridors for privacy, to create a design which also reflected the new political realities; classicism being aligned with structure, order and symmetry in society.

Craighall, Fife (Image: A.J.B. Hope)
Craighall, Fife (Image: A.J.B. Hope)

Yet just as his costs mounted, his political career waned with the turmoil following the death of Charles II in 1685.  Having spent at least £10,000 (approx. £15m) with the house still unfinished,  he was forced to scale back the lavish interiors and his ambitions.  He now started taking on commissions again, working on Craighall between 1697-99 (ruined by 1793, demolished 1955), Craigiehall c1699, Hopetoun between 1699-1703, Mertoun c.1703-7, and his final contribution being to design the House of Nairne c.1710 (pulled down c.1760), though illness meant he wouldn’t have supervised the construction. Sir William had earlier made over Kinross to his son and moved back to the old Kinross house before moving to Edinburgh at the end of his life, dying there in 1710.

With limited family wealth the house declined until, in 1777, Kinross was bought by George Graham, a Scot merchant who had made a fortune in Jamaica, and since then had passed down through the family (latterly  Montgomery after a marriage in 1819).  Sadly the house was put up for sale in 2009 having been a family home since it was built and was sold in 2010 along with 75-acres with planning permission for conversion into a hotel – a rather depressing outcome for such an important house.

Book of the series: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Waterstones]

Official listing: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [BBC2]

Note: having watched the first episode it seems that Dan is concentrating more on the family history aspect than the architectural so I hope these entries will balance this out.

Country House Rescue: school’s out – High Elms Manor, Herts

High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)
High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)

If there was a prize for commitment above and beyond financial sense then the owner of High Elms Manor/Garston Manor could probably win ‘Highly Commended’ for her determination to rescue this once-derelict country house on the edge of Watford, Hertfordshire, which is the next destination of Ruth Watson and Country House Rescue. The house is an interesting example of the various pressures which can affect country houses and the solutions having experienced almost the complete range over the last century with the new owners adding a few more.

Built sometime before 1813 and once the centre of a 500-acre estate, High Elms Manor originally enjoyed fine rural seclusion, its nearest neighbours the St Pancras Industrial School and Metropolitan District Asylum to the west (now demolished and built over) and Bucknalls, a Victorian manor house now home to the Buildings Research Establishment, to the east.  Originally known as High Elms Manor, it was changed to Garston Manor in 1895, though the current owner has apparently decided to go back to using the original name; even if it’s not the one used by Channel 4.

Relentless urban growth over the last 100 years pushed housing estates and industry right up to the boundaries of many country estates – and usually then overwhelmed them.  The sad pattern was often industry moving closer and blighting the views, then the air, ruining the very attributes which had been their reason for being built in the first place.  As workers followed industry so more land was needed for housing and so estates on the edges of towns were particularly vulnerable (as they still unfortunately are today).

Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Watford has already lost one major house – Cassiobury – to just these pressures, though this was much closer to the centre of the modern town and was lost back in 1927. The long-time seat of the Capel family, Earls of Essex, who built a fine house which was altered by Hugh May c.1674-80 and which boasted superb interiors, with carvings by Grinling Gibbons, and which was later ‘Gothicised’ by James Wyatt (c.1800).  Visited by Country Life magazine in 1910 it was still rural:

“‘…set in great and delightful grounds and surrounded by a grandly timbered park. Therein is peace and quiet; the aloofness of the old-country home far from the haunts of men reigns there still, and Watford and its rows of villas and its busy streets is forgotten as soon as the lodge gates are passed’.”

Yet by 1922 the house and 458-acre park were for sale and were bought in 1927 by a consortium of local businessmen who stripped the house for materials, sold the carvings to museums and private collectors and then demolished the house, with residential estates over-running that once rural idyll.  Sadly this was the case for so many of our demolished country houses.

High Elms Manor, being further north, escaped these immediate pressures.  The house became home to the Watney brewing family around 1870, who commissioned alterations which enlarged the house.  The house was then sold to the Benskins, another family of brewers, before it was bought in 1911 by Walter Bourne, co-founder of the Oxford Street department store Bourne & Hollingsworth (now split into retail units and offices – history (scroll past the odd photos at top of the page)), who made further changes around 1920, shortly before his death in 1921.  Stafford Bourne, one of the sons of the founder, described High Elms as:

“…one of the finest and most dignified medium-sized estates in the county of Hertfordshire.”

With fine and interesting interiors, this was a house built for entertaining and accommodating large numbers of guests and visitors.  This was to perhaps save the house from demolition as the house was sold once again after Walter Bourne’s death and took on another of the many uses our country houses have been adapted for and became a medical rehabilitation unit, still known as Garston Manor.  It remained in this role until the 1990s when the council, faced with rising maintenance costs, abandoned it and left it to decay.

Sadly, although boarded up, the house suffered from repeated vandalism and theft, with roof lead and floorboards proving particularly attractive.  When the now-owner Sheila O’Neill came to view the house it was a daunting prospect:

‘It had been empty for years when I came to see it,’ says the present owner. ‘It was more or less derelict. Ceilings had fallen in, all the floors had been damaged, the wood panelling had turned green, chimneys had collapsed, lead had been stripped off the roof by vandals, there were 100 broken windows, the garden was a jungle, it was in a terrible state…”

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

Thankfully, as many other country houses have discovered, they can be rescued from such a parlous state.  High Elms was now adapted to that familiar role for a country house; that of being a school.  There is a long and fine tradition of our country houses educating future generations in grand adapted ballrooms and dining rooms.  In cases such as the spectacular Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, (now being wonderfully restored by the Stowe House Preservation Trust with backing from the World Monuments Fund) it almost certainly saved it from demolition.  Stowe is an especially grand example of the country house as a school but there are hundreds across the UK, each doing their bit to preserve our architectural heritage – though sadly the necessary ancillary buildings can sometimes detract from the setting.

Thankfully though, in the case of High Elms Manor, the needs of the school have been accommodated within the 80-odd rooms of the house with, for example, the ballroom serving as a gymnasium.  However, a house of this size requires significant funding not only in terms of capital investments in the house but also just to meet the £75,000 per year running costs.  Having bought it for £500,000, Sheila O’Neill estimates she has poured at least that much again in her quest to restore the house.  Faced with her own need for a replacement hip, and the relatively low profits from running her Montessori school, Mrs O’Neill has turned to Ruth to provide guidance as to how to make more from the not-very-successful wedding hire business and for any other tips. With strong local competition from the incredibly pretty Hunton Park, it seems that it is the posse of daughters who appear to hold the key to maintaining and improving their situation.

Country House Rescue: ‘Garston Manor‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Interview with Sheila O’Neill: ‘Country House Rescue in Garston‘ [Hertfordshire Life]