Want to lease a Vanbrugh? Kings Weston House, Bristol for sale

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)

For some, the height of connoisseurship is to own a Picasso or a Rembrandt, and, in the same way, one can also aspire to live in a house designed by one of the great architects.  Yet, although some were prolific, the best were often to be found working on the largest projects, limiting their capacity to turn their hands to other projects, making their surviving buildings rare.  The damage and devastation which subsequent generations have wrought on our architectural heritage have also made these special houses all the rarer.  So it is always of particular interest when the opportunity to own one of these houses arises; such as Kings Weston House, Somerset, designed by the wonderful Sir John Vanbrugh.

Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726) was one of the most interesting architects this nation has ever produced.  Yet to think of Vanbrugh is inevitably to also think of Nicholas Hawksmoor (b.1661 – d.1736) who provided the technical support necessary to ensure that Vanbrugh’s flights of architectural fancy were realisable as solid buildings worthy of his aristocratic patrons. However, this was not a partnership which diminished one through association with the other – both were brilliant architects who each gained from their collaboration. As John Summerson put it in Architecture in Britain (1530-1839): ‘The truth can only be that both Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh were very exceptional men.

Vanbrugh was an intensely private person – the few hundred surviving letters in his hand betray few family details or about his early adventures as a soldier, spy, hostage, East India Company trader, or playwright.  His time in the Forces seems to have imbued his style with a tendency towards the militaristic, most clearly expressed in his work in landscapes where huge sham fortified ‘defenses’ march across parkland, defending nothing and fooling few.  Yet this bombastic nature is part of the flamboyant and theatrical nature of the man, part of what gave him the flair to succeed architecturally in an age when statements in stone were as important as any made in print or Parliament.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

In his grandest buildings, Vanbrugh appears to almost be designing monuments which happen to have living accommodation – but he was especially pleased that Castle Howard was as practical as it was impressive. Writing in 1713 to Edward Southall, his client at Kings Weston, he states:

“I am much pleased here (amongst other things) to find Lord Carlisle so thoroughly convinced of the Conveniencys of his new house, now he has had a years tryall of it.”

Proud of how draught-free the house was, which helped retain heat, Vanburgh stated;

“He likewise finds, that all his Rooms, with moderate fires Are Ovens.”

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Kings Weston (built between 1710-19) was to be Vanbrugh’s fourth commission (after Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and Kimbolton Castle) and was a house very much to Vanbrugh’s style, creating a ‘Noble and Masculine Shew‘.  The house, dramatically sited above the Bristol Channel, was built for Sir Edward Southall, a well-educated civil servant, well-versed in architecture who had spent considerable time travelling in Italy. Southall clearly had strong ideas as to the influences and design of his house; and Vanbrugh, with his long history of collaboration, was the ideal architect to work with this knowledgeable client.  That said, this is clearly a Vanbrugh house – the imposing giant pilasters, the strong Classical detailing, the almost military look which is reinforced by the unusual arcaded design of the chimneys which emphasised a castle-like quality of a central bastion.

(By the way, it’s interesting the close similarity between the entrance to Kings Weston and that of the smaller Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire (built 1722-24) by John James, who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren).

The house passed through several generations of Southalls including Edward’s great-grandson who employed Robert Mylne in 1763 to add stables and the Shirehampton Lodge and also remodel the principal rooms. Edward’s son, also Edward, lived there until his death in 1832 without issue. The house was then sold in 1833 to Philip John Miles for £210,000 (approx. £17m today) who became the local MP, as had the Southalls been before him.  Three generations of the Miles family lived there until the death of Philip Napier Miles in 1935, marking the last time the house was used as a home. The house was sold at auction for £9,800 (approx. £500,000) with the intention of using it as a school.  This was interrupted by the Second World War when it became a hospital – a role it has also fulfilled in the Great War.  Post-war, it became the Bristol College School of Architecture, before becoming a Police training centre from 1970-1995.

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects is how the setting of this fine house has been compromised: to the north, a road and housing estate, to the west, more houses, and to the south, a golf course.  This is often the outcome of houses which lack a determined owner with the need to keep a large estate, and particularly of houses which fall into the clutches of local authorities who are only too happy to build over the parkland, often with little sensitivity as to the overall setting.

With the departure of the Police, the house was boarded up, neglected and facing an uncertain future.  However, in 2000, it was bought by a local businessman, John Hardy, who converted the house in to a successful wedding and conference venue, apparently pouring significant funds into the project.  His commitment ultimately cost him his marriage and the remaining lease – probably 115-years – is now for sale for £2m (the freehold is still owned by Bristol City Council).  Although this would still make an ideal family home, Mr Hardy has expressed a desire that it remain open to the public.  Whoever buys Kings Weston will certainly be buying one of the finest houses in the country. Perhaps it will remain open to the public, but it would be equally exciting to see the house restored as a home, a private retreat overlooking the Bristol Channel where the owner can contemplate the genius of Vanbrugh and enjoy knowing that an architectural DNA links their domain with the palaces of Castle Howard and Blenheim, a smaller scale distillation of the grand flamboyance which came to define English Baroque.

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Original story: ‘Bristol’s Kings Weston House up for sale for £2 million to help pay for owner’s divorce‘ [Bristol Evening Post]

More details: ‘Love affair with a £2m mansion that ended in divorce… King Weston House’s owner was ‘totally consumed’ by major Georgian renovation‘ [Daily Mail]

Property details: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Knight Frank] – £2m

More images: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

History of the house: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [kingsweston.com]

The state of the country house market: Autumn 2010

Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)
Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)

Throughout September, the increasing weight of each week’s ‘Country Life‘ magazine heralds the starts of one of the busy periods for launches of country houses.  As an relatively unscientific barometer it would appear that the market is doing well with some impressive estates and houses being offered up to tantalise the armchair enthusiast and serious purchaser alike – but a few houses are still proving difficult to shift.

The September 1 magazine provided a summary of the successes of the year-to-date with glowing reports from estate agents who, despite some fears in January about an uncertain year ahead, are happy to highlight their successes.  The article quotes Crispin Holborow of Savills who rightly points out that ‘best in class‘ houses will always sell quickly and for above their guide price if the right buyers start competing.  He cites Ropley House in Hampshire which sold at over it’s guide price of £4.25m, as did the grade-I listed Shanks House in Somerset which was offered with 70-acres for £5.5m, but their biggest success was the coveted Chadacre estate in Suffolk with 680-acres which reputedly sold for more than double it’s £10m asking price.  Other houses such as the elegant grade-I Worlingham Hall – regarded by Norman Scarfe as ‘the most beautiful house of manageable size in Suffolk’ – also sold over it’s guide price of £3.9m.

Other houses sold close to their guide include Peatling Hall in Leicestershire (mentioned on this blog in July) which was offered at £4.75m, whilst the stunning Compton Pauncefoot Castle in Somerset suffered from an unfortunately timed launch in September 2008 at £17m which knocked buyer confidence meaning that it hung around until Febuary 2010 before selling at £15m.  Others had to drop their prices or accept being sold in lots with Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire selling for £15m to Jemima Khan once the rest of the 2,000-acre estate had been sold (originally offered as one for £42m), whilst Fillongley Hall in Warwickshire has yet to find a buyer even after selling 400- out of the original 500-acres originally offered when it went on the market in 2005 (£3.5m, Savills).  Pusey House in Oxfordshire, which was originally launched with 643-acres but when featured as the lead property advert in the September 15 magazine it was offered with just 67.

So who are the awkward squad?  Grade-I listed Noseley Hall in Leicestershire is still with Knight Frank with the same acreage; though now at £12m rather than the original £14m asking price, and Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire, a pocket Palladian gem, is still being offered (again with Knight Frank) – though mysteriously with no price, so probably less that the £4.5m guide in February 2010; and way down from it’s original price of £6.5m when it was first launched in 2007.  Up country, Yester House in Scotland is still available despite having had it’s price halved from £15m to £8m since the original launch in August 2008.

So, although the property market does seem buoyant, it does seem that some are struggling.  Perhaps the flurry of launches will bring an influx of new buyers who may take a renewed interest in the harder-to-sell properties, but they equally may well wonder why they are still available and pass them over.  It seems that some owners who are keen to sell are being flexible, either dropping the price or selling in lots, but for owners who refuse to budge the market may take a very long time to rise to meet what they think their property is worth.  It seems flexibility is still a vital attribute whatever rung of the property ladder you are on.

An architectural gem – but still slow to sell: Iver Grove

Iver Grove, Buckinghamshire (Image: The Listed Property Owners Club)

When it was completed in 1724, Iver Grove was one of the first houses in Britain built using the then radical Palladian styling; pre-dating even Lord Burlington’s famous Chiswick House.  Iver Grove is a beautiful and compact red brick essay in the use of the Classical elements with a Doric portico and topped with an elegant pediment.  Although originally attributed to either Sir Christopher Wren or Nicholas Hawksmoor, it’s now more widely accepted to be the work of John James who worked with Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral and succeeded him as the surveyor of the Commissioners’ Churches.  The front steps lead into a spacious and light entrance hall featuring the original oak staircase.

That the house is here today is remarkable in itself as after WWII it was in a parlous state and at risk of becoming one of the many hundreds of country houses demolished in the 1950s.  The house was smothered in ivy, riddled with dry rot and had been subject to various thefts of lead and fixtures and vandals who had smashed all but one of the Wedgewood stained-glass panels in window over the staircase.  The house was one of the first to be bought by the Government in an effort to save it – although this led to angry questions in the House of Commons from philistine MPs who demanded to know why we had spent more saving an “extremely beautiful house” (Lord John Hope) than we had sent to aid the Congo.  Such amazing short-sightedness still prevails today with those asking why we spend any money on heritage with similarly spurious justifications.

Anyway, thanks to the Government, the house was rescued through a programme of works which included demolishing the collapsed Victorian wing – and in so doing bring the house back to it original scale, and conveniently making it more manageable.  So when the this grade-I listed house was first launched in 2007 with much press coverage including a glowing write-up by Marcus Binney in The Times (‘A fast track to perfection‘) and later in Country Life (‘Georgian estate for sale‘) it was thought it would sell quickly.  However, £6.5m price tag was probably boosted by its architectural importance above the fact that it was a six-bedroom house with just 17-acres near to the M25.  The price was probably quickly identified as the issue as in The Times article in May the price is £6.5m, by the time the Country Life article was published in December the price was given as ‘offers over £5m’.  Now, two and half years later the price has dropped to a more reasonable £4.25m, and hopefully this will entice a new sympathetic purchaser with a desire to live in an important country house with manageable grounds but who will appreciate being just 17 miles from Hyde Park corner.  Actually, if I win the lottery, I’ll probably go for it.

Full details: ‘Iver Grove, Buckinghamshire‘ [Knight Frank]