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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Events – 2014

Further reading

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

The Lost Rooms: the sale of architectural salvages to America

Having just spent two weeks touring the west coast of the United States, one great pleasure has been visiting the various art museums to see some of the wonderful paintings which the immensely wealthy collectors of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries acquired at a time when many of our country houses were in crisis. Sadly, in so many cases, the sales were a precursor to the complete loss of the house, with over 1,400 houses demolished since 1900.  However, it is still possible to see a fragment of these grand homes as the demolitions fuelled an impressive transatlantic trade in architectural salvage which included entire rooms. The whereabouts of many of these are now unknown – but they do sometimes reappear in surprising places…

Cannons, Middlesex (Image: Vitruvius Brittanicus / wikipedia) - engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739)
Cannons, Middlesex (Image: Vitruvius Brittanicus / wikipedia) - engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739)

This post and the entire subject of country house architectural salvage owes an immense debt to the historian John Harris who has been chronicling these losses since he first started exploring country houses in the grim era following World War II. Of course, the trade had been going for many years: Nonsuch Palace, in Surrey, was deliberately sold for its materials in 1682, Cannons, in Middlesex, the seat of the Duke of Chandos was stripped and sold in 1747 after his death, and the once impressive Wanstead House, Essex, was similarly dismembered and sold to pay the debts of the spendthrift husband of the heiress in 1824. The plundering of rooms as part of the spoils of war by a conquering army has also happened throughout history with perhaps the most famous room taken also one of the greatest mysteries; no-one has seen the famed Amber Room from the Catherine Palace, just outside St Petersburg, since the German army meticulously removed it in 1941.

The country house room salvage trade takes off when, just as Europe is facing an agricultural slump which disproportionately affected landowners, the immensely wealthy industrial titans in the US were flexing their wallets to acquire collections which would become their legacies.  In the UK, as the situation worsened, so the familiar pattern of contents sales started with pictures and other artworks being discreetly sold.  Often many of these works were acquired by US collectors such as Frick, Mellon, Carnegie, Kress, amongst others, often on the enthusiastic encouragement of dealers such as Joseph Duveen.  However, to display the art required the right setting, and so an industry grew up to satisfy a voracious demand for authentic rooms – even if the rooms weren’t identical by the time they arrived.  Later, museums were also looking for rooms in which to provide context for their collections of furniture and art.

The Lawrence Room, Boston Museum of Fine Arts - de-accessioned 1930 (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)
The Lawrence Room, Boston Museum of Fine Arts - de-accessioned 1930 (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)

John Harris identifies the first stirrings of the transatlantic trade with the sale in 1876 of a supposedly ‘Jacobethan’ room to a Mrs Timothy Lawrence, which was incorporated into the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Harris next highlights the reference, in November 1897, in the sales/stock records of the famous Duveen family of art and antiques dealers of a ‘large Louis 14 Style Brown & Gold Room‘ ‘delivered free New York‘ for Mrs William C. Whitney which cost $10,000.  By the early 1900s, adverts were appearing in Country Life magazine and the Connoisseur listing entire rooms or just the parts; chimneypieces being a popular offering.  Building on the still lingering Victorian fashion for anything Elizabethan and Jacobean, dealers competed to offer the most choice rooms from the houses being demolished at the time.  One of the largest dealers, Robersons, were boasting in 1906 of having ‘100 Old Marble Mantelpieces in Stock‘, whilst Druce & Co had 5,000 feet of old panelling.  Books such Charles Latham’s ‘In English Homes‘ fuelled the fascination with these periods – perhaps even spurring on the demolition of some houses by creating a demand for the materials, and making it easier for the owners to decide to demolish.  As the architect John Swarbrick, founder of the Ancient Monuments Society, argued in 1928, ‘history adds commercial value to buildings’.

This desire for ancient association led some dealers to be somewhat generous in their attributions of the architects or owners involved.  The dealers Robersons were particularly apt at indulging in this type of misattribution, often assigning provenance with little or no research.  Another firm, Gill & Reigate, were being quietly accused of fabricating rooms as early as 1926.

Advert for the Staircase from Cassiobury House with Edwards & Co (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)
Advert for the Staircase from Cassiobury (Image: 'Moving Rooms' - John Harris)

However, the finest pieces were often were those with a clear provenance, usually from a celebrated dispersal or demolition auction such as that of Cassiobury House near Watford or Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire.  The urban growth of Watford has spoiled the estate at Cassiobury and so it was gutted in 1922, leading to the sale and dispersal, via French & Co, of one of the finest sets of Grinling Gibbons carvings in the country, including the impressive staircase.  Hamilton Palace, seats of the Dukes of Hamilton, was one of the most impressive houses in the country – and one of the greatest losses.  Built on coal wealth, it was also its literal undermining with subsidence (but also it’s vast size) leading to its demolition following huge sales in 1919 which not only released huge quantities of art and antiques but also of material.

Although there were many buyers, the most voracious – and possibly indiscriminate – was William Randolph Hearst; publishing magnate and heir to a mining fortune which reputedly gave him an annual income of $15m.  Although disliked by dealers for his lack of taste (something Joseph Duveen was particularly sensitive to), the value of his spending meant that they beat a path to his door despite his sometimes difficult behaviour.  In one case, having bought the staircase from Hamilton Palace via French & Co, he returned it to them no less than three times – but as he had spent $8m with them they were willing to be indulgent.  A network of agents throughout Europe sent him a daily stack of catalogues and flyers which he would eagerly read before dispatching orders for purchases.  These would then be shipped to his five-storey warehouse which occupied a whole New York block and was dedicated to his acquisitions and employed a staff of 30.  European purchases were mainly installed at San Simeon in California, but 50 English medieval salvages were installed at St Donat’s Castle in Wales which he bought without seeing and in which he only spent one night. In New York, he occupied five floors of a mansion block, creating a vast home which housed yet more salvage and art.  Almost inevitably, Hearst’s spending caused financial difficulties leading to a badly timed sale of many items in 1941 through the Gimbel Brothers department store in New York – though much remains even today in that warehouse which is still owned by the Hearst Corporation, who sadly refuse access to researchers (and if anyone knows someone who can get me in there I would happily make the trip to New York!). The scale of Hearst’s acquisitiveness is astounding and I’ll probably revisit it later in a separate post.

Inlaid Chamber, Sizergh Castle, Northumberland (Image: NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel)
Inlaid Chamber, Sizergh Castle, Northumberland (Image: NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel)

Sadly, like a tide coming in, which swept so many items and rooms into houses and museums in the States, so it also retreated and they also were removed, sometimes to vanish, their present whereabouts unknown.  Museums began quietly de-accessioning some rooms when they discovered that they perhaps weren’t as authentic and accurate as they had been led to believe.  Sometimes it was a positive thing; that sense of place being the greater concern leading to restitutions such as the Inlaid Chamber from Sizergh Castle (now National Trust) which was removed to the V&A Museum in 1891 and returned in 1999. One rare success for a Hearst purchase was that of the Dining Room from Gwydir Castle in Wales which was returned – having never been unpacked – in 1996 (the story is wonderfully told in ‘Castles in the Air‘ written by the then owner).

Perhaps it’s a little harsh to call the rooms lost if they have only been moved but to take a room from its original context is to lose something of the intrinsic value of it as part of an architectural whole. That said, it could also be argued that they were being rescued as, when the houses were demolished, fittings which couldn’t be sold were sometimes burnt – John Harris recalls seeing a beautiful staircase from Burwell Park in Lincolnshire being put on a bonfire in 1957.  Yet, so much of what was bought is still out there – particularly the items acquired by Hearst.  Which leads me to my own personal discovery in a bar in San Francisco; if you are ever in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, do visit ‘Jack’s Bar‘ in The Cannery where you will be standing in the former Long Gallery of Albyns, an elegant Jacobean house built c.1587.  It was demolished in 1954 but which had been gutted earlier with the gallery bought by Hearst but sold in the mid-1960s and given a new life – though not an elegant one.

Long Gallery, Albyns - now Jack's Bar, San Francisco (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Long Gallery, Albyns - now Jack's Bar, San Francisco (Image: Matthew Beckett)

So these rooms, once the centrepieces of some of our finest country houses, have been extracted and shipped around the world but particularly to America where, although they were initially often fully appreciated, now they may languish, unremarked and more worryingly unknown, vulnerable to just being dumped as though simple room decoration.  So, if you know of a Hearst room installed in a house or museum (and I’d be particularly grateful to my many American readers) then please do post a comment or email me and we’ll try and make sure that these wonderful expressions of the craftsman’s art are not forgotten and lost forever.


If you would like to see some of the rooms and items then below is a small list of museums where these items are being exhibited (thanks to Andrew for help with the research):

New YorkMetropolitan Museum of Art

PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia Museum of Art

BostonMuseum of Fine Arts

MinneapolisInstitute of Arts

  • Tudor Room‘ – unconfirmed, possibly Higham Manor House, Suffolk

Louisville – J.B. Speed Art Museum

Amherst, Massachusetts – Mead Art Museum, Amherst College

Washington DC – Freer Gallery of Art


Find out more – some recommended further reading

Finest prospects: the artist and the country house (and a challenge)

The country house has always been a trophy to be admired and enjoyed.  Yet, in the age before mass media and transportation made it easier to see these fine houses, often the only way to remind yourself and, more importantly, guests to your London townhouse, of your rural wealth and power was through the rather special branch of art that is the country house portrait.  Though originally European, it found new and invigorating life once it had crossed the Channel, creating an important and fascinating record of the lives, tastes and architecture of the landed classes. We also have a mystery house in a painting to find…

The country house first started appearing in paintings in France, with one of the very earliest depictions being that of the Duc de Berry’s houses and estates in 1416 by Pol de Limbourg.  These paintings served not only as reminders of wealth but also as practical tools for the running of extensive estates. The earliest English contemporary of these paintings is a 15th-century portrait of John of Kentchurch with a view of Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire in the background.  Although the depiction of the country house was a primarily European feature, it was still a relatively niche pursuit until the late 1500s, with painters more usually employed to portray the religious, historical or mythological.

Detail of 'An Aerial View of Tottenham Park, Wiltshire' by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack (after 1737) - this picture hung for many years in the estate office.
Detail of 'An Aerial View of Tottenham Park, Wiltshire' by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack (after 1737) - this picture hung for many years in the estate office.

The trade in country house views was particularly popular in the Netherlands, where a demand for topographical engravings combined with many estates created a ready market.  The genesis of the English tradition is also to be found here as the Royalist aristocracy fled to the region during the Civil War. The connections made at this time were to prove fruitful for the many painters who followed their current and prospective patrons back across the Channel after the the Restoration in 1660. Before then, views of a country house were usually part of an estate survey, bar a few exceptions such as those of Conway Castle in c.1600, Nonsuch Palace and Richmond Palace c.1620, and the ‘King’s houses’ by Alexander Kierincx in 1639-40.  It was the famous engraver Wenceslas Hollar who completed the first significant set; five views of Albury House in Surrey in the late 1630s. Hollar was also significant in establishing the new fashion for these views once confidence was restored in the late 1650s.

The Restoration of Charles II gave new life to the art, with Dutch artists eager to record the newly invigorated estates of the aristocracy.  Without the artistic constraints often found in Europe, the style of the art in England was largely determined by the owner rather than royal preference.  By the 1680s, the country house portrait was as well established, as well  as those of the family, and reflected both pride and change.  Views were often painted to record the old house before it was swept away or remodelled or after the work had finished to showcase their new seat.

One of the finest artists of this period was Leonard Knyff who had arrived in England in around 1676 but whose first country house painting, completed in 1696, is of Dunham Massey, Cheshire.  A few more paintings followed, but his master work was a collection of eighty engraved views published (by Johannes Kip) in 1707 under the title ‘Britannia Illustrata: Or Views of Several of the Queen’s Palaces, also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain…’.  It remains one of the finest records of the country houses of the period – today, even individual prints can sell for hundreds of pounds and full copies of the book for tens of thousands.

Detail of 'Westwood, Worcestershire' published 1709 for "Britannia Illustrata: Or Views of Several of the Queen's Palaces, also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain...." by Johannes Kip & Leonard Knyff
Detail of 'Westwood, Worcestershire' published 1709 for "Britannia Illustrata" by Johannes Kip & Leonard Knyff

From the 1700s, the composition of the paintings shifts to include, and give greater prominence to, sporting activities and also the setting of the house, particularly the gardens. With sports such as riding and hunting being such a key part of the enjoyment and reputation of an estate, it was natural that these should feature in any artistic celebration.   As the fashions for landscaping and elaborate gardens took hold, so to did a desire for these to also be included in such detail that the house became a much smaller element, subsumed into a wider bucolic vision.  The more ‘survey’-like paintings showed in almost cartographic detail the layout of the gardens with the tree-lined rides radiating away from the house.

'Lowther Castle, Westmorland, Seen from a Distance by 'Day' in 1810' - J.M.W. Turner
'Lowther Castle, Westmorland, Seen from a Distance by 'Day' in 1810' - J.M.W. Turner

This trend was not only driven by the owners who were very proud of their new environment but also because it was a natural continuation of the earlier work of these artists, as recorders of landscapes. John Harris argues that it would be difficult to confirm the exact influence which art exerted over landscaping but the popularity of landscape painters such as Claude Lorrain, coincided with the popularity of advocates of the more natural landscape such as Humphrey Repton and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1760s.  Parkland now moved from the more formal ‘boxes’ which Knyff had so accurately portrayed, and was now shown as a more rural, naturalistic form, the landscape now dominating the picture.  How far this style departed from formal country house portraiture can be seen in the works of J.M.W. Turner who frequently reduced the house to a mere smudge in the distance – and even when the house featured clearly, it was subordinate to the overall setting and atmosphere.  That’s not to say that the ‘Claudian’ view was the only one – the preferences of the owners for clear visions of their seats kept artists such as William Hodges, James Barret, William Marlow, and Theodore de Bruyn busy too.

By the mid-1800s there had been a marked decline in the demand for these type of paintings. Improved communications meant that houses were no longer so remote, and with the advent of mass printing, publishing filled the demand for images of the houses as typified by the eleven volumes of J.P. Neale’s ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen‘ (1818-1829).  Owners of houses were also now increasingly from the new wealthy who had their powerbases in cities and the country house was merely a retreat. By 1880, photography was also firmly supplanting oil paint as the medium of choice, as shown by the success of photographers such as Bedford Lemere, and, by the 1900s, the success of magazines such as Country Life which placed a high priority on using only the best photos.

Detail of 'Carclew, Cornwall' by Algernon Newton (house built 1720s, burnt out in 1934) - painting commissioned for the family which owned it at the time of the fire
Detail of 'Carclew, Cornwall' by Algernon Newton (house built 1720s, burnt out in 1934) - painting commissioned for the family which owned it at the time of the fire

However, in the last twenty years, a resurgent interest amongst country house owners has again created a demand for the country house portrait.  Artists such as Algernon Newton, Julian Barrow, James Hart Dyke, Jonathan Warrender, and Marcus May have led the way in continuing the tradition.  One artist has even been responsible for creating a country house which only existed in one of his paintings. Felix Kelly had painted an imaginary scene of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda within an English landscape; inspired by this, Sebastian de Ferranti then commissioned the architect Julian Bicknell to translate this art into reality, completing the house in 1986.

These important paintings are now, for some houses, the only record of how they were before later changes obscured or obliterated them forever. For many others, they are a wonderful reminder of the beauties of architecture and are a unique and invaluable record of our country houses.


Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken
Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken - click for full painting

The Challenge: can you identify the mystery house in this painting?

Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken
Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken

The catalyst for this post about country houses in paintings was an email I received from Wendy & Gordon Hawksley who are working to re-establish the reputation of William Bruce Ellis Ranken (1881-1941). A famous artist in his day, he socialised with the great and good and painted many of them before fading into obscurity after his death.  This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1936 (this is also the year it was painted) under the title of ‘Portrait Group’ but as yet it has not been possible to identify either the sitters or the house. And so to the challenge: simply, can we identify the house – almost certainly English or Irish, Palladian, engaged columns to the front (a la Kedleston Hall) with flanking curved colonnaded wings facing a large reflecting pool.  Obviously there may be some degree of artistic licence but it seems likely that this was the home of the subjects of the portrait. Suggestions either via the comments below or via email to me.  No prizes I’m afraid beyond a credit here and the happy thought that art history is slightly richer for your efforts.


For a more in-depth history and many images (and to which this post is much indebted)  I recommend ‘The Artist and the Country House: from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day‘ by the ever-brilliant John Harris – unfortunately now out of print.

Guest blogger: Jeremy Musson – ‘English Ruins: an odyssey in English history’

Having written all nearly 200 posts since I started writing this blog I now thought it would be interesting to try and broaden the voices involved.  So as the first post in this new direction/experiment, I am delighted and honoured that one of our leading architectural historians, Jeremy Musson, kindly agreed to write a piece on country house ruins linked to his new book published this month, ‘English Ruins‘, a fascinating look at their role in shaping our perceptions of the past and our architecture.


Jeremy Musson
Jeremy Musson

The English landscape is a landscape of ruins. Fragmentary or sometimes only roofless and windowless, these part dismantled buildings stand out to mark our national history in a number of different ways, and above all, provide a sense of historic scenery for our journeys, physical and imagined – and glimpsed from motorways and footpath alike. In this new book, photographer Paul Barker and I wanted to explore something of this particular cultural landscape and through this exploration trace something of how the English see themselves and their past.

I feel that we live in an old country, and the past is always there, to paraphrase T.S.Eliot, “pressing on the future”. Some love the past, some hate it, many are indifferent to it, happy enough to take pleasure in a good day out, with a dash of historic scenery. But the whole process of our encounter with ruins, is somewhat special – a deeply subjective, and in effect, an almost artistic experience. It is personal and often emotional, while it is also formed and shaped by a whole series of sometimes opposing cultural inheritances: Romanticism, anti-establishment, veneration for the classical, veneration for the Gothic, history seen through the very shape of the landscape.

There is something that seems to appeal about ruins to the English imagination over the centuries. Think of how John Aubrey, for instance, the late seventeenth antiquary and author of that amusing volume of English biography Brief Lives, observed that

“the eie and mind is no less affected with these stately ruines than they would be if they were standing and entire. They breed in generous mindes a kind of pittie; and set the thoughts aworke to make out their magnificence as they were in perfection.”

Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)
Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)

During the 18th century, the Grand Tour, part of the expected education of a gentleman or aristocrat, consisted of a journey through Holland and France to visit the great monuments of the Roman world, excited the aesthetic and cultural awareness of the 18th-century English gentleman, who was in turn the patron of artists and architects following the same path in trying to import the drama and excitement of great classical ruins to an English audience. Walk through any major house built in the 18th century, with anything of its original collections still in situ and the ruin is visible in painting after painting, and then echoed in the classical temples of the park.

The phenomenon of creating artificial ruins, in which the English seem to be pioneers, belongs to this period, and while the earliest garden temples seem to be classical, the contrivance of designing ‘ruined’ structures, was largely sourced in England’s own Gothic past. Horace Walpole the 18th-century diarist, who designed his own Gothic style house, Strawberry Hill, hugely admired the work of Sanderson Miller who designed a ruined tower at Hagley Park, with the perhaps slightly teasing phrase that it had “the true rust of the barons’ wars” referring to the Wars of the Roses.

When making this tour of England in tandem with photographer Paul Barker, I could not help noticing that we were often treading in the footsteps of the great landscape painter, J.M.W.Turner, for whom the evocative power of the ruin played a central role in his career, although we perhaps think of him most naturally as a landscape painter, and a painter of skies.

In the last years of the 18th century he exhibited numerous studies of great historical ruins in landscapes, appealing to the Romantic spirit of his audience – characteristically these are the foil for dramatic expositions of sky or sea. He continued to make special studies of ancient ruins, castles and abbeys on tours around the whole of England, for his ambitious Liber Studiorum project, and many were published in different histories, especially in Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales.

Turner looked principally at abbeys and castles, but abandoned country houses have come to be a feature of our landscape too. The dramatic changing status of the country house from the first world war, into the great depression of the late 20s and early 30s, becomes even more intense after the second world war – think of John Harris’s memoir, No Voice from the Hall. This was a period which resulted in so much change in English life, that it is easy to overlook the symbolic collapse of the world of the English country house. This was a feature of interwar life too, with the rise of income tax and death duties, but the upheaval of the Second World War, the widespread institutional use of country houses for military and other government purposes often hastened their subsequent abandonment.

Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)
Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)

Inevitably, given my interest, the country house looms large in our new book. We focus on the story of buildings from different themes and for the ruins of country house, beginning with Cowdray House, in Sussex, a substantial Elizabethan mansion damaged by a fire in the late eighteenth century, and then abandoned, partly as a result of complications over inheritance; but quickly becoming a destination for artists, for instance, Turner visited the ruins while staying at Petworth – it is now looked after by a newly formed trust, and feels like the sets left over from a Grand Opera, standing amongst the meadows and paddocks on the edge of Midhurst.

We also visited the ruin of an elegant early-seventeenth-century lodge at Wothorpe Towers, a lodge once part of the Burghley estate, which was used as a dower house and then, apparently, part dismantled to provide an eye-catcher in the new landscaped park. It was falling into serious decay and has recently been taken on by the Griffin family, who putting the main house into a trust, which is restoring the gardens, are converting the ancillary seventeenth century buildings into a new home.

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)

The classical country house tradition is represented in our book, by 1720s Seaton Delaval Hall, near Newcastle – one of the finest houses by Sir John Vanbrugh, re-roofed after a major fire, the interiors are otherwise the very picture of a ruin. In Derbyshire, we encountered the memorable and mournful spectacle of Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire, also built in the early 18th century. The latter, partly due to its proximity to mine-works, acquired in 1919, by businessman out to profit from its materials and fittings. The panelling was sold United States collectors, and some at least found its way into the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Its demolition was in fact prevented by local landowner Sir Reresby Sitwell, whose family later presented it to the state.

James Lees Milne, looked at the Sutton Scarsdale ruins for the National Trust, but said that “classical ruins in England are much satisfactory than Gothic ones, the lack picturesque gloom.” English Heritage look after it now, as they do Witley Court, a multi-layered great house and former seat of the Earl of Dudley, a splendid Italianiate palace with a vast portico by John Nash, was burnt out in 1937, and by some chance was not demolished during the 1950s, like so many abandoned houses, and it was subject to preservation order in the 1970s, and in the early 70s taken into state protection. Christopher Hussey thought that it conjured the beauties of the classical ruins visited by the Grand Tourist in the 18th century, as much as anything else.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria
Lowther Castle, Cumbria

Forgotten Victorian Gothic mansions such as Lowther Castle in Cumbria, possibly become more Romantic in their ruined state. Lowther, the historic seat of the Earls of Lonsdale, designed by Smirke in Gothic baronial style was not re-occupied after the second world war, and in 1957, de-roofed and only the exterior walls preserved. A haunting presence in the beautiful Cumbrian landscape, a new trust has been created to protect the runs and open them and the overgrown Edwardian gardens to the public, in the course of 2011.

For myself, as a historian of the English country house, there is no doubt that the ruin occupies a special place in English culture; the castle, the abbot’s lodgings, the country houses of the sixteenth century onwards, when they stand open to the elements, draw us in to a dialogue with our history and the mutability of fortune.

Jeremy Musson’s ‘English Ruins‘ with photographer Paul Barker, is published by Merrell publishers.

Text by Jeremy Musson, choice of links and images by Matthew Beckett.


Dear Readers – as always I welcome your comments and feedback.