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]

The Country House Revealed – Easton Neston, Northamptonshire

Easton Neston, Northamptonshire (Image: Trish York)
Easton Neston, Northamptonshire (Image: Trish York)

The stated objective of Dan Cruickshank’s series ‘The Country House Revealed‘ is to “…explore Britain’s finest country houses” and after the relatively low-key start with South Wraxall Manor, it upped the ante with the elegant Kinross House, and now it truly reaches one of the finest houses in the country: Easton Neston, Northamptonshire.  The only country house by one of the finest architects of his generation, when it was put up for sale in 2005, it marked the end of one of the great family estates.

Although many fine adjectives can be applied to Easton Neston, one seems to sum it up: noble.  Sitting on a slight rise of ground, this beautifully proportioned house neither lords it over the area but neither does it shirk from elegantly dominating its environment.  That the house looks as it does is due to a unique set of circumstances which gave the opportunity for Nicholas Hawksmoor (b. c.1662 – d.1736) to design his only country house – though he did help with others.

Hawksmoor was born in Nottinghamshire and, after finishing school, was employed as a clerk by a local landowner.  Such was his ‘early skill and genius‘ that word of his talent reached the finest architect in the country, Sir Christopher Wren, who took him on as a clerk at the age of 18.  This employment gave Hawksmoor a role in almost all Wren’s projects from c.1684 onwards, including Winchester Palace, the London City churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1689, thanks to Wren, Hawksmoor obtained the post of Clerk of Works at Kensington Palace – the first in a series of official state roles he was to hold throughout his life, which provided both opportunities and frustrations.

It was this close relationship with Wren which gave Hawksmoor the opportunity to design the house at Easton Neston for Sir William Fermor.  Wren seemed not to display much of an interest in designing country houses but, as he was related by marriage to Sir William, he had originally been consulted about a new house in 1682 and had provided designs for two wings built in the early 1690s, of which one now survives (despite a serious fire in 2002).  Importantly, these two facing wings were 125-feet apart, limiting the size of the main house which would site between them.

Oak model of Easton Neston, c.1690 (Image: Sotheby's?)
Oak model of Easton Neston (as proposed? as built?) (Image: Sotheby's?)

Due to the lack of virtually any drawings or documents relating to Hawksmoor and Easton Neston, there seems to be some debate between such distinguished historians as Howard Colvin, John Julius Norwich and Kerry Downes as to exactly what Hawksmoor designed.  The couple of surviving letters relating to the build from Wren and others indicate that there was possibly a brick house, to Wren’s design, which looked similar but the house as it is today differs in several notable ways, not least the use of engaged columns and giant pilasters.

The first use of the giant pilaster order in English residential architecture can be seen in the south front of Chatsworth, designed by William Talman in 1687 and which also introduced the rectangular silhouette, the echoes of both of which can be seen in Easton Neston.  If the house as modelled is what was proposed or built then it is Wren’s design as Talman’s influence was not yet to be felt.

Staircase, Easton Neston (Image: English Heritage / NMR)
Staircase, Easton Neston (Image: English Heritage / NMR)

Norwich argues that the form of the house was substantially Wren’s, as was the interior, though Downes argues that, on the evidence of Hawksmoor’s sophisticated alterations for the interior at Ingestre Hall in 1688, with its clever use of internal screens of columns and dramatic spaces, and similarly demonstrated with the original hall and the brilliant cantilevered, shallow-stepped staircase at Easton Neston, he comes down firmly on the side of Hawksmoor.

The overall look of the house as it stands today is clearly Hawksmoor – it’s exciting, erudite, and draws on his extensive knowledge of classical architecture to create  bold fronts but with brilliant proportions which make perfect use of the form.  Hawksmoor also had the advantage of the use of Helmdon stone which, due to its durability and exceptional crispness when carved, ensures the house looks as good today as when it was first built.

Easton Neston as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus' (Image: wapedia)
Easton Neston as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus' - click for larger image (Image: wapedia)

Hawksmoor never undertook the usual Grand Tour to Italy so his architectural style was essentially drawn from a close study from various books of earlier classical architects.  This gives his work an intellectual quality which others lacked but also gave him the vocabulary to be inventive.  Easton Neston appears as a much bigger house, including a huge forecourt, in Colen Campbell‘s ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘ though, thankfully they were never executed.  However, the drawing clearly show a clear link between Hawksmoor’s country house and the six London churches (of the 12 built from the proposed 50) he designed: St Alfege’s Church, Greenwich, St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, Christ Church, Spitalfields, St George in the East, Wapping, St Mary Woolnoth, and St Anne’s, Limehouse.

Hawksmoor was also to work, from 1702, with that other genius architect of that age; Sir John Vanbrugh; the playwright turned architect who came to rely on Hawksmoor’s practical skills to translate his fanciful visions into a reality at Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace (even more so when he had to take over following Vanbrugh’s bitter falling out with the Duchess of Marlborough).  Hawksmoor can therefore be seen as a link between Wren’s classicism and the exuberance of Vanbrugh’s particular brand of English Baroque.

Easton Neston remained essentially unchanged (except for some later flamboyant and slightly rampant interior plasterwork by a local artisan in the 18th-century) and in the Fermor-Hesketh family for nearly 500-years until in 2004 Lord Hesketh decided that he was not willing to burden his children with running a house and estate which “…in a good year it loses £500,000 and in a bad year it could lose £1.5m.” and risk seeing the family wealth slowly ebb away on maintenance. He was possibly also influenced by the likely cost of the restoration of Wren’s badly-damaged East wing which suffered a serious fire in 2002. Originally the house and 3,000-acres were put on the market for £50m in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to purchase one of the finest estates to come on the market for decades. Yet with no takers for the whole, Knight Frank sold over 2,200-acres for around £20m leaving just the house and 600-acres for £15m.

In July 2005 it was announced that Easton Neston had been sold to the American clothing retail tycoon Leon Max, the Russian-born owner of the California-based Maxstudio.com retail chain.  For all the fear about overseas buyers, Mr Max appears to have taken his custodianship of this grade-I masterpiece very seriously; hiring the architect Ptolemy Dean to oversee the work and investing an estimated £5m on the restoration to update the services of the house but also to restore the damaged wing to create a European headquarters for his company.  The interiors are equally splendid, overseen by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill (who grew up at Blenheim), with Max taking an ‘almost pedantically historicist approach‘ to sourcing furnishings and furniture which includes Aubusson tapestries from a chateau in France, Louis XVI chairs, and even a couple of the paintings sold by Lord Hesketh as he emptied the house of everything in a series of grand country house sales before moving out.

Easton Neston probably now looks better now than it has done since it was built, with the investment from the new owner likely to have secured the future of one of our greatest and most interesting country houses.

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

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

Quotes, figures and details in final paragraph come from an interview with Leon Max in the Sunday Times ‘Home’ section – 3 October 2010.

New Series: The Country House Revealed – South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire

South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Traumahawk / flickr)
South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Traumahawk / flickr)

In contrast to the weekly dramas of Country House Rescue, a new series starting on the BBC, presented by the excitable Dan Cruickshank, looks at some of the finest homes in ‘The Country House Revealed – A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home‘.  The series promises a look behind the estate wall at some homes which have never been open to the public, giving us a rare chance to glimpse houses which enjoy secure, well-funded ownership and demonstrating that the fears of those who thought these houses would never be sustainable have been thankfully proved wrong.

The first in the series (broadcast 10 May on BBC2 at 21:00) visits South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire; a house which matches a beautiful exterior with impressive interiors dominated by some of the finest chimneypieces and period rooms in the country.  The house was originally built for Robert Long who made a fortune in cloth in the early 15th-century before becoming an MP in 1433, around which time it is thought the core of the house was started.  As was befitting a rich MP, he was keen to show his status and as was often the case with the gentry, his home was the main platform with which to show off his wealth and erudition, creating one of the finest houses in the country today.

England, at the time work started at South Wraxall Manor, was feeling the influence of the Italian Renaissance and elements of the new fashions were often incorporated into the best homes, though often adapted for our native traditions and styles.  This use of wider influences was also a symptom of the gradual shift in power as major building projects were increasingly commissioned by wealthy gentry rather than the Church or Royal Court.  Maurice Howard also highlights that although the Court was highly competitive which might have led to a single architectural style being favoured, in fact, the houses we still have show how tenacious local styles were.

Chimneypiece c.1600, South Wraxall Manor (Image: (c) Nicholas Cooper)
Chimneypiece c.1600, South Wraxall Manor (Image: (c) Nicholas Cooper)

This continuation of the vernacular can be seen in the architectural vocabulary used by those commissioning the houses, drawing still strongly on ecclesiastical traditions.  Reading the full listing description for South Wraxall one might almost believe it to be a local church or monastery – windows with Perpendicular tracery, buttresses, even gargoyles.  The house was significantly remodelled around 1600, creating what John Julius Norwich calls ‘one of the major Jacobean rooms in all England‘.  A vast west window floods the room with light and is matched by one at the other end of the room, providing the illumination to highlight a most impressive fireplaces – a colossal, florid statement of importance.

Each generation of the Long family added to the house, with additional wings and chimneypieces, and extending the estate.  As with other such early houses which have survived subsequent centuries without ‘modernisation’, this was due to a small element of luck in that it was inherited by a branch of the Long family in 1814 who were already well established at Rood Ashton House, Wiltshire (largely demolished c.1950) meaning the house was often rented out.  The house let between 1820-26 and served time as a boys school, before the 1st Viscount Long took over c.1880 following his election as a local MP.  Viscount Long undid much of the damage caused during its time as a school when the linenfold panelling had been painted over and the ornate ceilings plastered over, however he never really took up residence there.  The house was let for the rest of the 19th-century and the early 20th, before the 2nd Viscount Long moved in in 1935.  Used to house refugees in WWII, the family again lived there before finally selling up in 1966, ending over 500-years of family ownership.

South Wraxall then entered a rather uncertain period, until it was bought by a businessman with plans to turn it into a country house hotel but who had some issues with the local planning authority over unauthorised changes (for example, I think he glassed in the loggia without permission).  The house was up for sale again in 2003 for £6.5m after the businessman abandoned his plans.  After languishing on the market for a couple of years – probably due to the extent of the restoration required – it was bought by the current owners: John Taylor (bass player with the band Duran Duran) and his wife Gela Nash (founder of the fashion house Juicy Couture) who apparently have done an excellent and sympathetic job of the repairs, thus rescuing a house that is a quintessential example of an English manor house.

Full listing description: ‘South Wraxall Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further information: ‘South Wraxall Manor‘ [Wikipedia]

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

Rest of the series

This looks to be a fascinating set of programmes – for reference the other houses featured are: