Romancing the stone; country houses built by love

Many a man has been driven to great lengths by love – and architecture is often a rewarding though insatiable mistress for such a passion.  Whether as an expression of love for a wife or a demonstration of a yearning, aching heart, each found that their country houses were caught in that very human desire to make real those Romantic desires which otherwise are sometimes only expressed in far more transient ways. Though sometimes love’s labours are lost to unrequited desires, often country houses were the ideal means to commemorate the passions which had created their happiness.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight - holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)
Osborne House, Isle of Wight – holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)

The motivations behind the choice of architecture or design or even the starting of the construction of a new country house is sometimes overlooked in the literature. The occasion of ennoblement was an important catalyst for a grander house and equally a marriage and new building project are often keen bedfellows – though often the new house was financed through the newly acquired wealth of the husband from his bride and was more an expression of his newly-bolstered financial strength.  With the status of the married woman somewhere equal to that of the china plates, for many, their influence was limited to the running of a home.  The choice of some furnishings and the interiors of the ‘female’ areas of the houses were often the accepted limits of the wife’s contribution – though there were exceptions such as Lady Leicester who, after 1759, was left £2,000 a year to finish several of the state rooms at Holkham Hall (n.b. website annoyingly plays birdsong automatically).

Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)
Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)

The choice of architect, interiors, furnishings, furniture and art were all reserved for the man as an expression of his taste and power. Writing of his design for Kimbolton Castle, the architect Sir John Vanbrugh said, “I’m sure this will make a Noble and Masculine Shew‘, and that in the exterior visitors would “See a Manly beauty in it when tis up…‘. Clearly reflecting the female taste, or even necessarily their comfort, was not high on an architects priorities. Although some enjoyed a level of luxurious indulgence, such as the Dowager Lady Egerton for whom James Wyatt created a sumptuous Pompeiian-style dressing room at Heaton Hall in the 1770s, perhaps the experience of the Duchess of Northumberland was more common.  When Robert Adam remodelled their London seat, Syon House, in the 1760s, he was careful to place the Duke’s private apartments in a separate area, accessed via a private staircase, whilst the Duchess’ dressing room enjoyed a much less secluded arrangement, as it was included in the main circuit of entertaining rooms.

Ham House, Surrey - now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ham House, Surrey – now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Wives and widows were slowly asserting greater independence, often due to their personal wealth, but slowly changing attitudes did provide greater opportunities for their views and tastes to be heard and seen.  In the 17th-century, couples such as the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale were acting very much in concert together in the design and furnishing of their home, Ham House. It had been the home of the Duchess and her father and she had fiercely held on to it during the dark years of the Civil War when he had been forced to escape abroad. After her marriage in 1672, Ham House became not only a symbol of their wealth, but also a testament to their shared love of travel and the finer things in life.

Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)

Romance was surely often part of the motivation to build; a golden word that could turn a mere building into architectural poetry. Dobroyd Castle in Todmorden was the creation of a wealthy local mill owner, John Fielden, to honour a promise after his intended bride, Ruth, a poor labourer’s daughter, had said, during their extended courtship, “Build me a castle and I’ll marry you.“.  This can be said with either a romantic or mercenary inflection but, in honour of St Valentine, let’s believe that her request was for a fairytale expression of their marriage.  At least it was not a pre-condition, as they married in 1857 and work started on the castle in 1866 with completion in 1869.  Designed by the little known architect John Gibson, throughout the house the initials of John and Ruth are carved into the building many times as a constant reminder of their love.

Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The desire to do all one can for a wife, especially one who is ill, creates opportunities for love to be the patron of great architecture.  The delicate health of Dorothea Robinson, wife of Charles Hoare, a partner in the eponymous family bank, necessitated a more temperate climate and so an estate outside the small Devon coastal town of Dawlish was purchased. Requiring a house and not lacking in funds, Hoare commissioned the fashionable John Nash and Humphry Repton to create a retreat for rural recuperation.  With Repton’s help, Dorothea chose a most Picturesque site nestled in a secluded valley. Repton then recommended to Nash that it be in the ‘Character of a Castle’, and so Luscombe Castle was built between 1800-1804.  Considered one of the finest Regency houses, the external beauty is matched with a domestically convenient interior; a distilled version of Nash’s rather grander castle designs, but which perfectly suited the location and as a romantic reminder of a husband’s concern for his wife.

Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)
Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)

A love unrequited or thwarted is often a powerful force which can inspire many things.  For some, such as William Bankes, a prominent MP and renowned traveller, his enforced exile to escape a possible death penalty for being caught in a compromising situation with a soldier in Green Park in 1841, meant leaving his life’s work; the building and beautification of his Dorset home, Kingston Lacy. Subject to a punitive ‘outlawry‘ order, Bankes first escaped to France before settling in Venice. Bankes had been forced to give up, under threat of forfeiture, any legal title to his estates and contents to his brothers but he continued to be relatively well-funded and managed the building works at Kingston Lacy via detailed correspondence with the Clerk of Works.  One can only guess at the frustration of Bankes as he could only imagine how his plans were turning out, not only in relation to the building works but also the numerous pieces of art which he sent to Dorset.  Proving that for love, some will risk all, it is thought that Bankes risked imprisonment to be smuggled back into England in 1854 so that he might see his house and collection, which he had only been able to dream of, and give direction as to how it might be finished.

Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)
Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)

By the Victorian era, it was often both the husband and the wife who would take increasingly equal roles, especially as the role of the house was firmly centred on entertaining; a role traditionally taken on by the wife. It also reflected a relatively more accommodating age when women were at last more broadly considered intelligent equals to men.  The increasing importance of women can also be seen in the literature where discussion of the creation of a house now talks more husband and wife, though still often with their roles demarcated to exteriors/interiors.  The wives often had their own circles of interest leading to interesting contributions such as at Wallington Hall in Northumberland where the Pre-Raphaelite painted decoration in the central hall is by the artist William Bell Scott, whom Lady Pauline Trevelyan met through her literary activities.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)
Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous husband and wife architectural collaboration in the Victorian era was the creation of the summer retreat at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight by Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Prince Albert.  With a society leaning towards a more moral aspect, Victoria was determined that the royal family should be seen in step with it and so the planning of Osborne is not only to meet the needs of the family for entertaining but also, equally, that it be a family home. Indeed, writing to her daughter in 1858 from Windsor Castle, she tells how “I long for our cheerful and unpalacelike rooms at Osborne.”.  Her husband’s influence was the Italianate exterior, with the stucco work and belvedere towers, designed by the Prince and the London builder Thomas Cubitt, which matched his passion for Italian art, though Victoria was perhaps also influenced by the design of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire (by Sir Charles Barry) which was the home of her close friend the Duchess of Sutherland.  Osborne became the place she perhaps most associate with her husband and, after his death in 1861, it was one of the places she felt most at ease.

So, the building of a country house isn’t simply to mark ennoblement or new wealth, but can be an expression of love or passion between a couple, which one hopes might be more inspiring.  Certainly a love of country houses is something to be celebrated any day of the year.

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If you know of any other examples (and I’m sure there are many) please do add a comment below.

Possibly for sale – a landmark for landowners: Crichel House, Dorset

Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)
Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)

When to believe the rumours? Occasionally one of the old families will decide that they no longer wish to hold onto the estate which has been the family seat for many years – sometimes centuries. When these estates come to market they usually attract a significant price-tag which truly reflects their beauty, significance and acreage.  If the unconfirmed rumours which feature very prominently on page 2 of the Sunday Times (26 June 2011) are to be believed, then the Marten family of Crichel House in Dorset have decided to sell – almost 60-years after the family won a decision against the government of the day which became a landmark in the rights of landowners against government.

Crichel House is widely regarded as one of the best houses in the county – indeed, John Julius Norwich states that it “…possesses the most spectacular series of state rooms in all Dorset.“.  Crichel started off as a modest house in 1743; hastily built to replace a charming Elizabethan house which was burnt down in 1742.  This smaller seat of a country squire – brick-built and just five bays by seven – was for Sir William Napier, who left it to his nephew, Humphry Sturt, in 1765.  Sturt had inherited not only his uncle’s house and wealth but had also married well. He didn’t feel the house was grand enough for a man of his fortune, and so embarked on an impressive rebuild, creating a house “…so immensely enlarged that it has the appearance of a mansion of a prince more than that of a country gentleman.” (Hutchin’s ‘History of Dorset‘ – 1774).

Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)
Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)

Sturt, using an unknown architect (though thought to be from nearby Blandford), effectively wrapped a new house around the old one to the east and the west, and linking the two on the south front with an impressive recessed portico and suite of rooms on the first floor.  However, the need to accommodate the dimensions of the old house created a slightly cramped feeling to the first floor elevations.  However, all is forgiven by the splendid interiors which are, in parts, a curious mix of early Georgian created late (e.g. the staircase, the library), and fashionable later Georgian, particularly in the stunning Hall, Dining Room and Drawing Room where Adam-style plasterwork reigns.  The latter rooms were probably designed by James Wyatt who was working nearby at Milton Abbey and at Bryanston.  The Dining Room is considered the finest room in the house; a coved ceiling framing delicate plasterwork and decorative panels in the style of Cipriani and Angelica Kauffmann.

So, how did part of the Crichel estate become so significant that it became immortalised as a set of planning procedures known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’? In part, it was due to the bureaucratic arrogance of the post-War era which meant the Civil Service felt able to deal rather high-handedly with anyone, and particularly landowners who were not popular under Attlee’s socialist government. In 1937, 742-acres of Crichel Down had been compulsorily bought as part of a larger area for use as a bombing range. Churchill had given a very public commitment in the House of Commons in 1942 that land purchased in this way would be offered back to the original owners once it was no longer required for the original purpose.

Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)
Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)

However, there was an even greater danger of compulsory purchase for houses which had been adapted for wartime use under the ‘Requisitioned Land and War Works Act (1945)’ (sections 8 & 9 Geo. 6 c.43 in case you were wondering!) which gave officials the right to buy, regardless of the wishes of the former owner or any previous assurances. At Hinton Ampner in Hampshire where Ralph Dutton (the 8th and last Lord Sherborne), having just finished an extensive remodelling in 1939 only to be turfed out by a girls school, received a letter saying that the Royal Observatory were interested as a new Royal Observatory.  Dutton took the day off work at the Foreign Office and was on the doorstep when the officials arrived and gave an impassioned speech about the importance of the house, how it had been in the family for generations and that losing it would be akin to an amputation. The officials apparently looked somewhat embarrassed but gave no sign of retreating until a short note arrived a little later confirming that they were taking Hurstmonceaux Castle instead.

At Crichel Down, the government had decided to retain the land as a new model farm.  Lt-Cdr George Marten (who had married Mary Sturt, the only child of the 3rd Lord Alington), began a vigorous one-man campaign to examine the conduct and procedures of the relevant departments.  In doing so, he exposed a series of administrative errors as officials tried to evade the requirement to offer back the land and retain it for the government’s use.  Eventually, in 1954, public and press criticism led to the minister in charge, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigning in one of the first examples of a minister taking responsibility even though he had not been involved in the earlier decisions and the land was sold back to the Martens.  To avoid a repeat of such failings, new planning rules regarding compulsory purchase were drawn up which are today known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’ and are a vital part of the framework protecting landowners from the sometimes autocratic decisions of officials.

The death of Mary Marten in 2010 (her husband pre-deceased her) led to the recent sale of some of the contents of the house including a small collection of Asian jade ornaments which raised some £12.5m.  However, if the rumours are right, the rest of the house and 5,000-acre estate are also quietly on the market with an estimated price tag of around £100m, which, if it sold as a whole estate, would make it the most expensive sale ever outside of London.  It’s always a regret when families no longer wish to keep an estate which has been in the family for centuries, however, with the demands of sibling equality it is understandable that each of the six children – five females, one male – should wish to share their inheritance.  It would be a wonderful outcome if it could be bought in its entirety and remain one of the most important estates in Dorset, with the glorious Crichel House at it’s heart.

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Update – 7 July 2013: Crichel House has been sold

Daily Mail confirms that the house plus 400-acres has been bought by Richard L. Chilton, a US hedge fund billionaire.  Initial reports indicate that he is a ‘conservationist’ having rescued other houses in the States so it seems promising that he is the right buyer; one with both the right attitude and pockets deep enough to do the house justice.  Though sadly it’s the end of an era for the Marten family, one hopes that this next phase will see the house restored to its former glory.

And if Mr Chilton happens to read this, it would be great to get your perspective – please do email me.

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More images – both interior and exterior: ‘Crichel House, Dorset‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

‘Take a Chance on Me’ – Buildings at Risk Register 2011

'Take a Chance on Me' - 2011 SAVE Buildings at Risk Register
'Take a Chance on Me' - 2011 SAVE Buildings at Risk Register

Despite the obvious deep and passionate interest society has with historic buildings every year the SAVE Britain’s Heritage Buildings at Risk Register highlights just how many properties are still under threat from neglect and those in power who believe the only good building is a new one with their name on the opening ceremony plaque.  The 2011 BaR register – ‘Take a Chance on Me‘ – has just been published and sadly, as always, it contains some country houses which really deserve a better fate.

Perhaps the one of the most attractive, both architecturally and in terms of being a  case for restoration is Blackborough Hall, near Cullompton in Devon. This elegant, if thoroughly dilapidated grade-II house, is a remnant of the grand building plans of the Earl of Egremont whose many-columned main house, Silverton Park, was demolished in 1902.  The house is actually two, as when built in 1838, it formed one house at the front and a second at the rear for the local rector.  In recent years it became a car scrap yard which covers most of the immediate grounds and would obviously need clearing first – though I suspect the costs could be made back through selling some of the classic cars. The house is currently for sale for a nice round £1m and has been listed with Winkworths who, after an initially poor showing, have now managed to put a few more photos and a floor-plan online.

Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire (Image: Steve Tomkinson / Friends of Elvaston Castle)
Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire (Image: Steve Tomkinson / Friends of Elvaston Castle)

Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire has a grade-II* listing putting it in the top 4% of buildings nationally but that hasn’t stopped it making an entry into the Register this year.  Originally built in 1633 for the Earls of Harrington it was largely rebuilt in a ‘Gothick’ style c.1817 to designs by James Wyatt.  Now owned and managed by Derbyshire County Council (who had a fairly poor record in the 20th-century of demolishing country houses in their ‘care’) it is today mostly vacant and with the Council now claiming it can’t afford to maintain it they are seeking a developer to get them out of a hole of their own making.  Luckily an active local campaigning group – the Friends of Elvaston Castle – have been objecting to these plans and trying to force the Council to face up to their responsibilities – though perhaps there is an opportunity for someone else to come up with a viable plan.

Stone Cross Mansion, Cumbria (Image: HiddenShadow / 28dayslater)
Stone Cross Mansion, Cumbria (Image: HiddenShadow / 28dayslater) - click for more images of the house today

Stone Cross Mansion, Cumbria presents the interesting confusion of a Scots Baronial design in England.  Built in the 1870s by a stubborn man, one Myles Kennedy, who wanted to buy Conishead Priory for £30,000, but who met an equally stubborn vendor who wouldn’t accept less than £35,000.  Mr Kennedy may have come to regret his obstinacy when presented with the final bill which totalled nearly £45,000.  The sum reflected the high quality of the workmanship, particularly the impressive High Victorian Gothic grand hall (scroll down) which originally had a fine staircase which was later removed when the house became a special school to make it easier to play indoor football (seriously, where do they find these people?!).  The house then became a corporate headquarters during which it time it was restored to a high-standard before falling into neglect.  Repeated enabling development proposals have been rejected (not that the council is against it) so this house either needs someone willing to restore the house on the back of a sensitive ED proposal – or, ideally, someone to rescue this house and make it a home again.

Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

Another house which would make a fantastic home is Plas Gwynfryn in south Wales.  This house has been featured before on this blog (‘Orphan seeks new carers: Plas Gwynfryn, Gwynedd‘) which sparked some passionate debate in the comments about who the owner is – and that same unresolved question is why the house makes an appearance in the BaR this year. Built in 1866 to replace an earlier one, this distinctive house – described in the listing description as ‘romantically assymetrical’ – was a hospital in WWII, before becoming an orphanage and then a hotel before a serious fire in 1982 gutted it.  Although in a derelict condition this house can be restored and would once again be a fine part of the local architectural heritage.

The Register is available from 1 June 2011 priced at £15 (£13 to Friends of SAVE) and can be ordered from the SAVE website. The BaR contains many other types of property so even if your budgets are less lavish than these house might require it is well worth having a look.  Of course, SAVE does superb work across the country to protect our architectural heritage and I would strongly urge everyone to become a Friend to help support their efforts (well, I would say that as I’m on the Committee – but I’d also say it anyway!) which will also give you access to the online version of the BaR register which contains hundreds of other potential future success stories.

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A more comprehensive list of country houses currently at risk can be found on my Lost Heritage website: ‘Houses at Risk

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]

Country House Rescue: the weight of history – Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire

Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire (Image: mhaswell / flickr)
Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire (Image: mhaswell / flickr)

For some who inherit, the weight of family history can easily overcome the burden of running a historic home on a limited budget.  As we saw in the previous episode of Country House Rescue at Trereife House in Cornwall, the desire to not be the generation which loses the ancestral home, a prospect which faced the Le Grice family who had been there since 1799.  So imagine the weight of responsibility facing the Lucas-Scudamore family who have lived for ten centuries at Kentchurch Court in Herefordshire.

The house itself was originally a Saxon tower with further additions in the 14th-century.  However, the main style of the house as it stands today is due to work commissioned from the famous Regency architect John Nash (b.1752 – d.1835).  More importantly, Kentchurch is a significant as one of a number of houses built in the area around that time which were a visible expression of a new wave of architectural fashion; the Picturesque.

Strawberry Hill, London (Image: D Kendall / EH Viewfinder)
Strawberry Hill, London (Image: D Kendall / EH Viewfinder)

When thinking of Georgian architecture many think of the symmetrical classical façades and strictly proportioned Palladian designs which were so prevalent in that era.  Yet one house, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, south London, was to be the catalyst for a new way of thinking, breaking these patterns and ushering in a more organic way of viewing architecture. This saw the house as part of a landscape with the design playing its part in the beauty of the view as much as the lakes, gardens and parkland. Originally an unremarkable house, it was bought in 1747 by the wealthy Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford and fourth son of Walpole the Prime Minister, who was an astute observer of society, art, and architecture. Walpole contributed little to art but was particularly well read and as he pursued his academic studies decided to start experimenting with alterations to his house.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: John Rutter (1823) / RIBA)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: John Rutter (1823) / RIBA)

His original changes from about 1749 were uncontroversial and, importantly, followed the convention for symmetry.  However, from 1753 onwards the interiors were fashioned in a gothic style with the help of what he called his ‘Committee of Taste’ comprising a few of his equally well-read friends.  This experimentation was confined to the interiors until, in 1759, he broke with architectural convention and had a great circular tower constructed but which, radically, had no matching pair.  The house was to continue to grow in a rather free fashion which can still be admired today (particularly so following the completion of phase one of a fantastic restoration by the Strawberry Hill Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the World Monuments Fund). The house became famous, attracting day trippers in large numbers and spawned imitators; though it was James Wyatt’s Lee Priory (built 1785-90 – dem. 1955) which was said to the be first ‘child of Strawberry’.  Also considered worthy, and also designed by Wyatt were the fantastical Fonthill Abbey (collapsed in 1825) for William Beckford, and Ashridge Park for the 7th Earl of Bridgewater.

Downton Castle, Herefordshire (Image: gardenvisit.com)
Downton Castle, Herefordshire (Image: gardenvisit.com)

One man particularly taken with this new style was Richard Payne Knight, a Herefordshire MP and intellectual with a large inheritance.  Using his wealth, in 1774 Payne Knight started the construction of a new home, Downton Castle, which bore similarities to Strawberry Hill, with the asymmetry and a large circular tower, and an irregular plan which was quite radical for the time.  This house was a prototype for a new ‘castellated’ style of house which was to be popular for fifty years from about 1790.  Driving this new style was the publication of three key books, the first two in 1794; ‘The Landscape, a Didactic Poem‘ by Payne Knight, and ‘Essay on the Picturesque‘, a brilliant reply in support by Uvedale Price (another local landowner), and, in 1795, ‘Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening‘ by the landscape-gardener, Humphrey Repton, who formed a successful and highly influential partnership with the architect John Nash that same year.

Nash had moved to Aberystwyth after his bankruptcy following a failed speculative buildings scheme in Bloomsbury in London.  Yet, the contacts he was to make in Wales led to Nash becoming one of the leading architects of the Picturesque.  The early development of his interest in the ideas of the movement can be seen when he designed a castellated triangular lodge for Uvedale Price sometime between 1791-4.  He also worked for Thomas Johnes at the spectacular Hafod estate where Johnes had planted 3 million trees to paradoxically create a more ‘natural’ looking Picturesque landscape.

For Nash, the ideas he developed in that short period from 1790 until he left to go back to London in 1796, were what made him one of the most significant architects of the period. The influence of Downton Castle and Nash also created a strong regional collection of these mock castles – Garnons (dem. 1957), Saltmarshe Castle (dem. 1955), Goodrich Court (dem. 1950), Garnstone Castle (by Nash, built 1806-10 – dem. 1958) Hampton Court Castle (alterations 1830s-40s) and extending down to Devon where Nash designed perhaps one of his best creations; Luscombe Castle (built 1800-4), and into Cornwall, where he designed Caerhays Castle (built 1807-10).

Kentchurch Court from "Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen" (London : 1829-1831)
Kentchurch Court from "Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen" (London : 1829-1831)

By their very nature these were large houses and often a little impractical which sadly meant many were demolished.  This is why Kentchurch Court is important – not only is an early work by Nash in the style of house which was to become his trademark, but it’s also one of the survivors of the tragedy of the many demolished country houses.

Perhaps the current Mrs Lucas-Scudamore should be grateful, in some ways, that their branch only inherited some fine carvings from the sale of the other much grander family seat, the grade-I Holme Lacy House (now a hotel) rather than the house itself with its 9 fine rooms with plaster ceilings which Pevsner though to be some of the best in the county.  The story of Kentchurch Court today is a familiar one of a family with an incredible history and a fine house and estate struggling with the usual demands for maintenance and £120,000 per year running costs.  Mrs Lucas-Scudamore and her two children (Mr Lucas-Scudamore being estranged and living away) battle on with determination but managing a house like this requires a money tree not a family tree – but this house is too important to be neglected.

Country House Rescue: ‘Kentchurch Court‘ [Channel 4]

Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)
Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)

One often forgotten aspect of local newspapers is their ability to draw on their archives and provide reminders of local history. The local paper frequently played an important part in publicising the goings on at the ‘big house’, reporting the successes and scandals with usually equal vigour.  A recent article in the Northamptonshire ‘Evening Telegraph‘ reflects not only on the collapse of the Volta tower, built by the owner of Finedon Hall as a memorial to his drowned son, but also the later dereliction and near loss of the house itself as it slipped from dereliction ever closer to demolition.  Yet, unlike so many hundreds of other country houses which were lost, Finedon Hall was one of the many which have been saved.

c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)
c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)

Finedon Hall has 17th-century origins but its current style is the result of what Mark Girouard called “eccentric chunky” alterations by E.F. Law for the owner, William Mackworth-Dolben, in the 1850s.  Built in a Tudor-Gothic style in the local ironstone (which was quarried on their land) the house passed through the family until the last of the family, the spinster Ellen Mackworth-Dolben died in 1912.  With no heirs, the estate was sold off in parcels with the house passing through a number of owners before being bought by developers in 1971.  For over a decade they allowed the house to deteriorate until just ten years later parts of the roof had gone and the exterior was in serious danger of collapse.  Luckily, more enlightened developers stepped in and during the 1990s the house (and estate buildings) were converted into apartments.

One of the largest houses to be converted in this way was Thorndon Hall in Essex.  One of James Paine‘s largest commissions, this Palladian mansion was originally built for the 9th Lord Petre in 1764-7 but was gutted by fire in 1876, leaving only the eastern end of the main block and the eastern pavilion intact.  The Petre family lived in the reduced house until 1919 when they leased it and the estate to a golf club and they moved back to the original family home, Ingatestone Hall.  The house remained a largely ruined shell until it was sold for development in 1976 but was then bought in 1978 by a local builder who created a total of 84 apartments in the house, pavilions and estate buildings.

Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)
Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)

One of the most accomplished and intelligent of the developers to convert country houses is Kit Martin who has saved several houses and including Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  The house was largely remodelled by Ambrose Isted in 1755 in the then relatively new ‘Gothic-Revival‘ style (Horace Walpole had only started his work at Strawberry Hill in the early 1750s and it’s considered one of the earliest houses in the new style).  The house was filled with fine art, books and furniture and passed through the Isteds and then, by marriage, to the Sothebys who owned it until the last died, childless, in 1952. At this point the rot set in; builders called in to remove a large kitchen extension also, apparently, stole the valuable lead from the roof leading to dry and wet rot. Alexander Creswell, visiting in the 1980s, described the scene:

“The rich ochre stone of the garden front is engulfed in Virginia creeper, and sparkles of broken glass litter the terrace.  Inside the house, the drawing room fireplace rises above a heap of plaster that the roof has brought down…At one end of the house the winter storms have toppled a gable, which in falling has crushed the fragile camellia-house below; one surviving camellia blooms among the rubble of ironstone – the only flourishing vestige of Ecton’s former glory” – ‘The Silent Houses of Britain

However, by 1989 Kit Martin had finished his work and the new apartments were advertised for sale in Country Life; a remarkable rescue for this almost lost house.

Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)
Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)

Perhaps Kit’s finest work is Gunton Park in Norfolk.  The house was originally the work of Matthew Brettingham, a competent, if sometimes unimaginative, Palladian who had first achieved recognition with his work executing William Kent and Lord Burlington‘s designs for Holkham Hall.  This work brought him to the attention of other aristocratic clients, particularly in Norfolk, including Sir William Harbord who commissioned him in 1745 to design a replacement at Gunton for an earlier house which had burnt down three years earlier.  Brettingham’s house was to be significantly enlarged c.1785 to designs by James Wyatt.

Sadly, fire struck again; in 1882 the Brettingham portion of the house, including the fine rooms, was almost completely gutted and remained a forlorn shell for the next 100 years.  Kit Martin bought the house in 1981 and sensitively created well-proportioned apartments in the remaining wings. The front of the Brettingham wing (pictured above) become one large house separated from the main block by a large void created by the fire but still linked by the retained façades.  It’s not just the house which has been rejuvenated; the parkland – nearly 1,000 acres – has also been bought or, through agreements, reunited (and in the process winning an award from Country Life magazine) to restore the setting of this elegant house.

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)

It’s rare for a house, once in a state of dereliction, to be restored as a single family home, yet thankfully it does happen. Barlaston Hall is one example of this – and it’s rescue was down to some bold decisions by the campaigning charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and their President, the architectural writer Marcus Binney, who was offered this elegant house for £1!  Barlaston Hall is, according to Binney, almost certainly the work of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714 – d.1788).   The house is a relatively unadorned but sophisticated house, enlivened with unusual octagonal and diamond glazing bars in the sash windows; Taylor’s response to the popularity of Chinese Chippendale furniture and a general fashion for the Rococo.

Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)
Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)

However, the house had been built on several coal seams which threatened the house when they were mined in the 20th-century.  Structurally unsound, it had been abandoned and vandalised but SAVE stepped in to challenge Wedgewood’s application to demolish.  At the subsequent public inquiry, the National Coal Board threw down the challenge that SAVE could buy the house for £1 provided it completed restoration and repairs within six years.  SAVE swung into action, raising money through grants and by forcing the NCB to meet its obligations (which it did after some shameful attempts to avoid doing so), and the house was stabilised, restored, and subsequently sold to a couple who completed the interior and it remains a family home.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr) - click to see large version

Sadly there are many country houses still at risk today – though the rescues also continue. Pell Well Hall in Shropshire, a wonderful house by Sir John Soane built in 1822-28, has been restored as a shell after decades of neglect, vandalism and fire, and now requires someone with vision to complete the process.  Bank Hall in Lancashire was featured in the original ‘Restoration’ TV series but has continued to deteriorate with sections collapsing.  However, planning permission is being sought to convert the house into apartments which will enable restoration of the house. One house however has, inexplicably (well, to me), remained unrestored; Piercefield House in Monmouthshire.  This beautiful house, again by Sir John Soane, became uninhabited and was mistreated during WWII by the American troops stationed nearby who used the façade for target practice.  The house, set in 129 acres, has been for sale for several years but despite the architectural provenance and the wonderful setting it remains unsold.

The story of the country house has always been one of changing fortunes, which sadly led to many being demolished. The difference now we have heritage legislation is that whereas before houses were often simply demolished, now their plight is likely to drag on for many years.  Restoration is often the best course of action, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible, and ideally as a single family home, though the less palatable options of conversion are always to be preferred to the complete loss of another of our historic houses.

News story: ‘Fascinating history of Hall‘ [Evening Telegraph]

‘The National Trust can have it’: why the NT can’t accept all offers

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland

In an ideal world no country house would ever be at risk but poor finances, often caused by pernicious death duties, and insufficient income from the estate or investments leaves families facing the reality of being unable to stay in their ancestral home.  When this situation arises the cry has often been for the National Trust to step in and ‘save’ the house.  Yet the financial complexities of taking on a house and the responsibilities of the many others they already care for mean that it’s unlikely the National Trust would be able to unless it meets their necessarily strict conditions – a marked contrast to the rather more ad hoc approach of the early years of country house acquisitions.

The National Trust owns over 330 houses though only about half would be considered true country houses.  The first, Barrington Court, Somerset was acquired in 1907, though it wasn’t until the 1940s that the National Trust began to acquire houses in any significant numbers.  Instrumental in the early acquisitions was James Lees-Milne, the Secretary of the Country Houses Committee between 1936-51 (see also this fascinating reflection on JLM and the NT).  A complex man from a well-to-do family who got progressively poorer, but with his good looks and manners, and a certain charm, he was able to lay the ground for many of the later acquisitions through his aristocratic contacts.

The National Trust was initially focussed on the countryside with any houses being taken on as rescue missions to save them from demolition.  This changed after an impassioned speech in 1934 by Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, who argued that our country houses were a unique and valuable heritage and worthy of being saved. Following this, the Trust established the Country Houses Committee with James Lees-Milne at the important first Secretary who set the tone for years to come.  In the early years, Lees-Milne would travel the country meeting the many owners and starting a gentle conversation leading to more hard-headed negotiations – though some would approach the NT begging for them to take their houses such were their financial straits.

For many owners faced with the dramatic social changes after the wars, and their own impoverishment, the options were fairly stark; soldier on in an increasingly dilapidated house, rent or sell to a new resident owner, sell for demolition, or hand it over to the National Trust.  For many owners who were the latest in a line stretching back over hundreds of years the latter option was often the most appealing (especially as they could often continue living there), though many chose to take the other options leading to mass demolitions, particularly in the 1930s and 1950s.  Yet, as Lees-Milne acknowledged, his own enthusiasm meant, “I have to guard against a collector’s acquisitiveness.  It isn’t always to the advantage of a property to be swallowed by our capacious, if benevolent, maw.” (Diaries, 1 June 1945).  However, it was never an easy task as the rest of his entry for that day notes, “The lengths to which I have gone, the depths which I have plumbed, the concessions which I have (once most reluctantly) granted to acquire properties for the National Trust, will not all be known by that ungrateful body.  It might be shocked by the extreme zeal of its servant if it did.  Yet I like to think that the interest of the property, or building, rather than the Trust has been my objective.“. (Amusingly he finishes with “These pious reflections came to me in the bath this morning.“)

The troubled acquisition of Barrington Court had a profound impact on how the National Trust dealt with later offers.  Merlin Waterson in ‘The National Trust – The First Hundred Years‘ highlights that even thirty years later those with fears about unexpected costs for repairs and maintenance were citing Barrington Court in evidence.  Caught between the rock of their own very high standards and the hard place of not having limitless funds, the National Trust began insisting that any house they took on came with a sufficient endowment.  This was formalised in 1968 as the ‘Chorley formula’ (after Roger Chorley who created it and later served as chairman from 1991-1995) which calculates the endowment required, taking in to account expected high-level maintenance and repairs, likely revenues, workers wages and many other factors.

Initially though this meant that a strange paradox developed whereby the NT would only be able to accept houses from wealthy owners – who were unlikely to want or need to hand them over.  However, in 1937, Parliament enabled the National Trust to make money from its properties by allowing it to accept additional property, cash or securities to provide income producing endowments.  One of the first to do so was Philip Kerr himself who, in 1941, bequeathed Blicking Hall in Norfolk along with its content, more than one hundred other houses and cottages, and over 4,700-acres of woodland.  By the end of WWII, the NT owned 23 houses including West Wycombe Park and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, and Polesden Lacey in Surrey, each of which had come with generous endowments.

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

However, where owners didn’t have the money other sources had to be found, as the protracted negotiations around Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire proved.  This stunning neo-classical mansion of the Curzon family was designed by Robert Adam in the 1760s and has one of the finest collections of Chippendale furniture in the world.  Faced with crippling death duties and a need to pay the grandson a ten-percent inheritance (which he demanded regardless of the threat this posed to the house and estate), the 3rd Viscount Scarsdale opened negotiations with the Trust who determined that it would need a £6m endowment plus another £2.5m for immediate repairs.  Faced with the breakup and sale of the house and its collections, English Heritage, the National Trust, American donors, and the Curzon’s themselves all contributed. This neatly demonstrated the broad spectrum of public and private sources that now had to be called upon to meet obligations such as this – and the difficulties of marshalling such a diverse range each time an opportunity presented itself.

The Trust has been consistent in this policy even when offered fine houses such Heveningham Hall, designed by Sir Robert Taylor with interiors by Wyatt, which had been accepted by the Goverment from the Vanneck family in lieu of inheritance tax in 1970.  Without endowment the Trust refused to take ownership but were happy to manage it for five years whilst the Government found a buyer.  Conversely, when the Dryden family were looking to offload the 16th-century Canons Ashby in 1981 the newly established National Heritage Memorial Fund was able to provide the endowment to fund the family’s gift.

These cases have now formed the model for subsequent campaigns such as the impressive Tyntesfield in Somerset and recently Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland where a combination of grants and generous local support enabled them to raise £7m to repair and endow the property.

For many within the National Trust the thinking is now that they have enough houses – for them, current campaigns are mostly around the protection of landscape.  Yet, their obvious financial and political power means that when the need arises they are able to step up to ‘save’ a house.  However, as it is usually preferable that a house remain with the family, hopefully the careful trust arrangements many now have in place mean that increasingly they are able to stay in their home.  Perhaps more houses could have been saved if the National Trust had accepted more of those offered to it, but in reality it is difficult to see how they would have been able to fund so many, especially where the existing owners had proved just how difficult it was to stay financially afloat.  Rather than just saying ‘the National Trust can have it’ we all must be aware that it is not a simple solution and that the long-term care of our country houses requires exceptional planning and commitment – and, ideally, very deep pockets.

The National Trust’s policy on acquisitions [National Trust]

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]

A justifiable replacement? Parkwood House, Surrey

Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Peter Lind & Co)
Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Peter Lind & Co)

There is a long tradition of replacing country houses going back hundreds of years ever since the first non-fortified mansions were built in the early Tudor period. Since 1974 when the V&A exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ did so much to highlight the hundreds which had already been lost across the UK and particularly in England the presumption has rightly been against the demolition of country houses – a position which this blog very firmly supports.  Yet to stop the replacement entirely could be seen as preventing the improvement of existing estates and seems to presume that no modern architect could match the skill of those who went before.  The case of Parkwood House in Surrey could be a useful case study in showing that replacement can be ‘creative destruction’.

Since 1800, of the nearly 1,800 English country houses which have been lost, over 150 have been replaced by a new house.  In the austere times of the post-WWII era, the new house was often smaller and easier to manage.  However, before 1930, houses which were demolished were often replaced by much larger houses to reflect the newly established status of the modern captains of industry and finance or to mark an inheritance.

Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire (Image: RIBA)
Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire (Image: RIBA)

This process of renewal could strike again and again – I think the record is held by the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire which has had seven principal houses of varying sizes including the infamous Fonthill Abbey which replaced the superb Fonthill Splendens. James Wyatt’s Fonthill Abbey is widely regarded as one of the most interesting (if ultimately unsuccessful) houses ever built in the UK – yet its creation led to the destruction of the old house.  Do we deny country house architects the ability to develop and improve just to preserve every older country house regardless of its merits?  Is it worse to stagnate estates with unsuitable (or unsightly) houses or must new houses only be built where a house has already been lost or on greenfield sites?

Parkwood House in Surrey is unlisted – and probably rightly so.  Built in the late nineteenth-century, it is, in the words of the architects of the new house “…an unremarkable and diluted essay in the ‘Old English’ or ‘Arts and Crafts’ style of the time” – but of course they would say that.  However, looking at it architecturally, there does seem little to recommend it – a rambling house, pebble-dashed, with an unexciting entrance front with an only slightly more interesting garden front.  The house is not connected with any noted architect, nor any particularly notable family (the only one of interest is the Australian 1st Baron Ballieu who was living there in the 1950s). The house then became the Rank Hovis conference and training centre with all that damage that entails during institutional conversion.

Proposed Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Candy & Candy)
Proposed Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Candy & Candy)

Planning permission was originally submitted in September 2007 and approved in November 2007 – a remarkably quick approval which might indicate that the planners had few qualms about the loss of the house.  In fact it might be said that Parkwood is simply a big house a countryside setting – and ‘big’ does not automatically mean it is of merit.  However, if the new house designed by the eminent Robert Adam Architects was not of such a high quality would the presumption fall on the side of retaining the old house?  The new house is an elegant essay in the use of the Palladian vocabulary to create a design which obviously provides the space and comfort that someone who would live in such a house would demand but is also architecturally interesting.  This is no mere cobbling together of a few weak ideas – this is a house which would rightly enter the list of good country houses in Surrey.  Robert Adam Architects are one of the leading practices in the country working in the Classical style and have completed other similar projects such as this house in Surrey which also replaced an earlier country house or this house in Sussex.

So if we can be confident that the new house would be high quality replacement is it justified to demolish the existing house?  In this case, as the earlier property is so unremarkable it would seem that the 91-acre estate would be better served through the keeping alive of the tradition of country house replacement – but this can only be justified where the original house is unlisted and of a poor design and the new house would be of the highest quality.  Demanding the destruction of one house to provide another has a long tradition but is a very risky path and any such application must be open closely scrutinised to ensure that we are not simply throwing away architecturally interesting houses just to build hideous ‘McMansions‘ where bigger is automatically assumed to be better.

Credit: thanks to Andrew for flagging this up.

More details and images: ‘Parkwood Estate, Surrey‘ [Candy & Candy]

More work by Robert Adam Architects: Residential portfolio

Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?

Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)

As the pressures of the twentieth century forced more country houses owners to face the reality that they could no longer live as they had and would have to move out of their homes they then had to decide what to do with it.  Unfortunately this meant demolition of hundreds of large houses but some owners were more creative and many houses became commercial premises, either as hotels, schools or institutions, and others became some of the grandest office buildings in the country.  However, recent pressures of this century have now seen some of these offices being converted back into homes or being offered for sale as an opportunity to do so.

In many ways the country house has always had an element of the commercial to it with the estate offices usually being based either in a part of the main house or in a nearby building to enable the owner to deal with business without having to travel far from home. The changes of the twentieth century were on an altogether more comprehensive scale with the entire house being changed to accommodate the demands of business.  This not only meant the conversion of the main house with all that entailed for the interiors but also the building of further offices in the grounds.

Sometimes the development was kept a good distance from the main house such as at Ditton Park in Berkshire.  This became the office of the Admiralty Compass Observatory from 1917 until it was sold in the 1990s to Computer Associates who built a huge office building to the west of the main house (which became a conference centre) leaving the setting intact.

Sometimes though it’s possible for smaller businesses to be accommodated just within the main house such as at Gaddesden Place in Hertfordshire.  The house, built in 1768, is a elegant Palladian villa (similar to the White Lodge in Richmond Park) and was James Wyatt’s first country work.  The site is said to have some of the best views in the home counties and the sensitive use of the house has allowed to remain in splendid seclusion.

However, modern concerns mean that a country house has lost some of it’s appeal as offices.  One key issue is that by their nature the houses are isolated meaning that employees must have cars to reach it leading to more cars on the roads and the need to provide huge areas of parking.  Stronger heritage legislation now also means it’s much harder to alter the houses to meet modern business requirements such as air conditioning and computer networking.  The nature of the houses also means that maintenance costs are higher than for a purpose built office.

This has led to some houses which were formerly offices to be converted back into homes.  Mamhead House in Devon, built between 1827-33 and regarded as one of Anthony Salvin‘s finest designs, it was, for many years, a school before becoming offices for a local building company.  It was bought by a businessman who converted the main part of the house back into being a home whilst still letting out part of the house to the Forestry Commission.

Perhaps the grandest and largest opportunity for many years to restore a house into a home is the mansion at Benham Valence in Berkshire.  This superb house was built in 1772-75 for the 6th Earl of Craven and was designed by Henry Holland in collaboration with his father-in-law, Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the famous landscape architect.  The south front features a grand tetrastyle Ionic portico which looks out over a large lake with views into the parkland.  Inside, there are many fine chimney-pieces bought from the sale at Stowe in 1922, including one from the State Dining Room.  It also features a small circular double-height vestibule adjoining the inner hall, a design later adopted by Sir John Soane.

The house was empty in 1946 and remained so until it was sold in 1983 and converted to use as offices with a large wing to the north east of the house being demolished and replaced, in part, by an ugly 80’s complex providing over 100,000 sq ft of space.  Luckily though the main house was largely spared and remains Grade II* with the 100-acres of Grade-II parkland. Now offered for sale at £6m this is a rare opportunity to create a wonderful country house – providing it’s possible to obtain planning permission to convert it back – which, once restored, could be worth £10-12m.  One key requirement would be the demolition of the office complex and the ripping up of the huge car park – but give me a pickaxe and I’ll be happy to lend a hand.

Full property details: ‘Benham Valance, Berkshire‘ [Strutt & Parker]