Purchasing the picturesque: Hampton Court and Lasborough Park for sale

Hampton Court, Herefordshire - £12m, 935-acres (Image: Knight Frank)
Hampton Court, Herefordshire – £12m, 935-acres (Image: Knight Frank)

What is beauty? Though it is often in the eye of the beholder, some have attempted to define just what it is. In architecture, this can be seen in the development of the Picturesque ideal which sought to combine natural and man-made elements to compose a vision which would delight the eye and uplift the soul. Hampton Court in Herefordshire, and another house launched this week, Lasborough Park in Gloucestershire, can both be considered part of the Picturesque movement, even though the former took shape before the theory of the sublime and beautiful was brought to life and the latter was built just before the revival took hold.

'Landscape with Narcissus and Echo' - Claude Lorrain, 1644 (Image: National Gallery)
‘Landscape with Narcissus and Echo’ – Claude Lorrain, 1644 (Image: National Gallery)

The origin of the Picturesque movement can, in part, be found in the philosophical writings of a much under-rated figure of the 17th-century, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury.  To him, nature ought to be imperfect and that, in turn, we ought to celebrate the untamed trees and serpentine rivers, those dark glades and tumbling crags. Unsurprisingly, the Earl found that the early Italian landscape paintings by Nicolas Poussin, Gaspard DughetClaude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, reflected best this vision of a wilder natural world.  Landscapes had been unfashionable when Lord Shaftesbury first arrived in Italy in 1686, but by the turn of the century, they were in high demand amongst the grand tourists who carried these canvases back to the UK and into the popular taste of the nation.  These views married with Vanbrugh‘s early call in 1705 for a more natural approach to landscaping at Blenheim Palace, but found its true champion in William Kent in the 1730s, especially in his work at Rousham, Claremont and Stowe. The ideas were then developed further in 1757 in Edmund Burke’s ‘The Origin of our Ideas about the Sublime and the Beautiful‘ which, in its musing on aesthetics, distinguished between the latter, which was all about smooth lines and bold colours, whereas the former is about an awesome beauty on an almost fearful scale.

The death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783 created a vacuum which led to the revival of the debate as to the most tasteful approach to landscaping.  The arguments were largely between Humphry Repton (who defended Brown’s ‘contrived natural’ approach of smooth curved borders and sweeping lawns which ran right up to the house) versus Sir Uvedale Price, 1st Baronet (b.1747 – d.1829), author of the ‘Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared with the Sublime and The Beautiful’ (1794), who, along with Richard Payne Knight, sought to create a more ‘robustly natural’ approach, where blasted tree stumps and ruins were also important.  This mirrored the first wave of the Picturesque to some extent, but this later flourish created a new passion to rediscover the beauty of the same painters whom Lord Shaftesbury had admired decades earlier.  Although neither Price or Knight worked on any gardens other than their own, their ideas were to have a dramatic impact on the settings of country houses, which were now considered as part of the overall composition rather than separate from it; formal gardens were swept away and snaking carriage drives now swept visitors through glades and past vistas before their arrival.

Detail from 'The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire' by Leonard Knyff, c1699 (Image: Wikimedia)
Detail from ‘The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire’ by Leonard Knyff, c1699 (Image: Wikimedia)

The grand formalism of the gardens of Hampton Court c1699 (above) contrasted with the asymmetrical grouping of the house. ‘The Southeast Prospect of Hampton Court, Herefordshire‘ by Leonard Knyff, shows how the grounds were a vision of control; of formal avenues and canals (see also the companion North prospect view). The house was, at this time, owned by the Coningsby family, having been bought by Sir Humphrey Coningsby in 1510 from a fellow courtier. His son became the first Earl of Coningsby and it remained in their family for 300 years.  Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), who famously made his fortune from bringing the industrial revolution to the cotton industry, bought the house and 6,220-acres in 1810 for £226,325 (approx. £6.2m). His son, also Richard (1755-1843), made another fortune, before inheriting from his father in 1792, and invested in significant country houses, one for each of his five sons. However, the most significant changes came under his (fourth) son, John, who decided that ‘…of all the situations I know, there is none which suits my taste so well as Hampton Court‘ (funny that). After John’s marriage, the requirements of a growing family persuaded his father that the house needed to be enlarged.

The man chosen to design the work was Charles Hanbury-Tracy, a gentleman architect who had built his own home, Toddington Manor, between 1819-40, in his favoured ‘gothic collegiate’ style at a cost of £150,000 .  Though the style was sympathetic to Hampton Court, the relationship between architect and client became difficult. Another architect, John Atkinson, had pleaded with Hanbury-Tracy not to ‘make Hampton Court a cell to the Abbey of Toddington‘ but his determined views were at odds with Arkwright’s wife, who fell out with Hanbury-Tracy over the nursery arrangements, which led to nearly a decade of alterations and disagreements, especially as the costs mounted to eventually total over £30,000. John certainly preferred working with Joseph Paxton, who created the new conservatory, which was added in 1845-46. That said, the end result is one which successfully married old and new, creating a successful interpretation of domestic gothic and the picturesque.

Lasborough Park, Gloucestershire - £12m, 55-acres (Image: Savills)
Lasborough Park, Gloucestershire – £12m, 55-acres (Image: Savills)

The Picturesque was a constant presence throughout the 18th-century but enjoyed a revival of interest in the 1790s and Lasborough Park represented the style just at the cusp of this.  Built in 1794 for Edmund Estcourt, his architect was James Wyatt, who enjoyed a rare skill in being able to master a number of different architectural styles – something which led later to his being unjustifiably underrated.  At Lasborough, Wyatt provided a continuation of the theme which John Martin Robinson in his book on the architect called a ‘toy-fort model‘; that is, a symmetrical house with battlements and corner turrets.  Wyatt had been using this pattern when working on various schemes for remodelling the interiors of Slane Castle since 1773 but it was only over ten years later that he was able to remodel the exterior, taking an irregular L-shape and bringing symmetry by adding matching towers.

Slane Castle, Co. Meath (Image: Slane Castle)
Slane Castle, Co. Meath (Image: Slane Castle)

Wyatt’s design developed the tradition of the castellated residence; houses which had been either adapted from an older fortification or made to look like they might have done. Six decades before Wyatts’ work at Slane Castle, earlier versions, such as Howth Castle, Co. Dublin, which was altered significantly in 1738, are evidence that the style was already favoured and also incorporated an effort to create symmetry with the original keep on the left, mirrored in a new tower on the right.

The Picturesque style was popular in Ireland but initially as an import of the Protestant aristocracy and was viewed by some as an attempt to import a ‘little England’, a form of architectural and landscape colonialism. However, Ireland was particularly suited to the forms of the Picturesque which often worked in harmony with its natural beauty to form a unified creation which led the eye of the visitor from the grounds near the house, towards the middle distance, and then out to the wider landscape – much as a painter would structure their picture.

Hampton Court from south west (Image: Knight Frank)
Hampton Court from south west (Image: Knight Frank)

Hampton Court is one of the most important and impressive country houses to come to the market this year.  As part of our heritage, it embodies architectural developments which brought the country house from fortification to domestication, with a landscape which started with formal terraces but finished with flowing lawns.  The genesis of the more structured medieval revival form of Lasborough Park can be seen in the core of Hampton Court and in each of the subsequent alterations.  Both houses are valuable pieces of the nation’s architectural record and deserve owners who will appreciate them and hopefully both will remain as single family homes, enjoyed as they have for generations, for their Picturesque beauty.


For a more in-depth history of the Arkwrights and their time at Hampton Court, I recommend: ‘Champagne & Shambles – The Arkwrights and the Country House in Crisis‘ by Catherine Beale [Amazon]

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Rothschild-shire: the grand and the glorious (2/3)

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

The Rothschilds were social, as well as financial, titans.  In the first part of this now three-part article on the country houses of the Rothschilds, we saw the family establish their firm in England and later elevating their social standing through their estates at Gunnersbury Park, Tring Park and the opulent Halton Hall. Part two covers the two greatest houses created by the Rothschilds; Waddesdon Manor and Mentmore Towers.

One supposedly defining characteristic of the Rothschild’s UK country houses is their preference for the Neo-Renaissance ‘French chateau’-style – but this is more due to the fame of one house.  In Europe, the family often (though not exclusively) built in a style that could be recognised as the dominant one for a particular country, but in the UK they opted for alternatives – or a policy of ‘Anything-but-Gothic’.  One theory is that the other styles lacked the Christian associations which Pugin had so firmly nailed to Gothic – but perhaps they were just being more European in their tastes.  However, they did develop a remarkably similar interior style; a rich, luxurious environment featuring heavy fabrics with fine art and furniture, which became known as ‘Goût Rothschild‘, and which heavily influenced the newly wealthy American plutocrats.

One of the greatest expressions of this combination of French exterior and lavish interior was found in the creation of the remarkable Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire. Perhaps the most famous of the Rothschilds’ houses and also one of the grandest of the houses of the family in the UK.  Built between 1874-1883 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839–1898) it was designed by Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, who also designed the Imperial Mausoleum of Emperor Napoleon III in Farnborough in 1883, and had previously designed a townhouse for Albert de Rothschild in Vienna.

Aerial view of Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Waddesdon)
Aerial view of Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Waddesdon)

As Pevsner said in his entry on Waddesdon Manor, ‘Baron Ferdinand certainly got as much as anyone could have demanded‘. This was to be a building at the top end of country house construction – the 2,700-acres cost £240,000, with another £55,000 for levelling off the top of the hill for the site and creating access roads, and £87,000 for the completion of the shell, for a total of £382,000 (equivalent to £161m in 2012 using an average earnings comparison) – and this was before the fitting out of the sumptuous interiors. Finally, it was filled with his spectacular collection of paintings, objet d’art, tapestries, and furniture.

Tower Room, Waddesdon Manor (Image: Waddesdon)
Tower Room, Waddesdon Manor (Image: Waddesdon)

The exterior of the house is a grand composition of various elements from châteaux such as BloisMaintenon, and Chambord, married with elements of Louis XIII and some older Louis XII details, as though the house had grown over time.  Yet, as befits such a house, it was rife with modern details; at its core, a steel frame which allowed the room layouts to vary by floor, multiple bathrooms with hot and cold running water, and electrification, including a chandelier which Queen Victoria reputedly spent 10-minutes simply turning off and on, having never seen such a thing before.

The house was the luxurious setting of a social high-life and remained in the Rothschild family until 1957 when James Armand de Rothschild, who had inherited it in 1922, bequeathed the house, 165-acres, and the splendid collections to the National Trust – along with the largest endowment they had received to ensure it remained perpetually well-maintained, with family involvement through the management committee.

Outcome: owned by National Trust, with family involvement

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

Waddeson Manor today is what Mentmore Towers also was – and, sadly, could so easily have been but for the blinkered lack of vision of a former government. Mentmore was the first of the great Rothschild palaces in Buckinghamshire, built between 1852-1854, and was designed by Joseph Paxton and his son-in-law, G.H. Stokes, for Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild. It was remarkable for not only its size but also the detail and thought that went into it, setting a benchmark for the family and a clear demonstration of their wealth.  It was also a statement to the rest of the Rothschild family about the success of the UK branch – so much so that when his Paris-based cousin, Baron James de Rothschild, saw it he engaged Paxton himself with the instruction “Build me a Mentmore, but twice the size“.  The result was the Château de Ferrières, just outside Paris, which caused Wilhelm I, the Emperor of Germany, on seeing it to exclaim that “No Kings could afford this! It could only belong to a Rothschild“.

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: john edward michael1 via flickr) Click to see large version
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: john edward michael1 via flickr) Click to see large version

Architecturally, the house is distinctive for being one of the few to successfully imitate the scale and style of Wollaton Hall, Robert Smythson‘s masterpiece built in Nottinghamshire in the 1580s.    Deliberately drawing inspiration from a classic of Elizabethan architecture, this was a political message about ‘fitting in’.  However, the scale and exceptional quality of the work also made this a large and conspicuous statement of their financial standing.  Mentmore is even built of the same Ancaster stone as Wollaton and copies the arrangement of the square corner towers and ornate stonework.  However, it is missing the grand central tower of Wollaton; though there is a top-lit central hall around which the rooms are organised.  One other amusing criticism raised was that it might have been somewhat imprudent to have sited the housemaids’ room just at the foot of the mens’ stairs…

Great Hall, Mentmore Towers (Image: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library via flickr)
Great Hall, Mentmore Towers (Image: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library via flickr)

The tragedy of Mentmore is that it could have become one of the treasure houses of Europe.  It had survived virtually unchanged, including with its spectacular collections, which were said to be the best in private hands outside of royalty, up until the death of the 6th Earl of Rosebery (he inherited from his father, who had married Baron Mayer’s only child, his daughter Hannah).  Offered to the nation in lieu of £2m in inheritance taxes, the government of James Callaghan rejected the offer, demanding cash.  After three years of discussions, and a campaign by individuals and organisations, the collections were sold, raising over £6m, with various national institutions spending around £2m in total to secure just a few choice items.

The house was then sold to the Marharishi Foundation, who it’s generally accepted, kept it well-maintained.  It was then sold in 1999 to property developer Simon Halabi who had grand and unsympathetic plans for a luxury hotel.  The financial crisis thankfully saw the end of those, however, the house is now regarded as ‘at risk‘ without an immediate restoration in sight – though with the possibility that it might be for sale.

Outcome: collection sold, future of house unclear, ‘at risk’

These two houses represent the high-point of the architectural and artistic endeavours of the Rothschilds, easily matching in scale and grandeur the houses their relations were also creating across Europe.  Mentmore is a spectacular house in itself, even if it’s denied its collection, but Waddesdon encapsulates not only the personal enjoyment the family gained from creating these palaces, but also the philanthropic aspect which means that we can all now marvel at the ‘Goût Rothschild’ experience.


Dear Readers, you’ll perhaps have noticed that I’ve now decided to split this topic into three parts as it appears I was being a little ambitious trying to get them all into two – the final instalment will follow shortly.


Part One: ‘Rothschild-shire: the wider fate of UK country houses mirrored in a family (1/3)

Listed building descriptions:

Is Mentmore Towers finally for sale?

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

After various legal battles it seems that Mentmore Towers, one of the finest country houses in the UK may be for sale.  Part of the property empire of Simon Halabi, who was declared bankrupt in April 2010, it was bought with the intention of turning it into six-star country hotel with the ‘In and Out Club’ as the London clubhouse.  The plans were thwarted by the global financial crisis which not only reduced the market for such a venture but also the financing.  Now with the recent £150m sale of Halabi’s prime London West End estate, which included the ‘In and Out Club’, putting Mentmore on the market is the next logical stage of the disposals.

The only source for this story is a blog post by Christian Metcalfe who writes the Legal blog on the Estates Gazette website which has enough details to make it sound very plausible.

The grade-I listed Mentmore Towers was built between 1852-54 for Baron Mayer de Rothschild as one of several country houses built for the Rothschild family in the area.  Designed by Joseph Paxton, architect of Crystal Palace, the neo-Renaissance house was inspired by the Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses such as Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire.  Inherited by the Baron’s wife and then his daughter, it then passed to her husband, the Earl of Rosebery, following her early death.  It remained in the Rosebery family until the death of the sixth Earl in 1973 when the then Government stupidly turned down the offer of the house and world-class collections in lieu of death duties, triggering one of the finest country house sales of the 20th-century.  The house plus 81-acres was then sold in 1977 for £220,000 to the Transcendental Meditation foundation as a meditation centre, who cared for the house until it was sold in 1997 to Simon Halabi.  Since then little work has been done on the house and there have long been fears for its condition with English Heritage placing it on the ‘At Risk’ register.

The house is now apparently being quietly offered for sale, by as yet unknown estate agents, for around £16m – but no details on how much land would be included.  At that price, the house would be a bargain on square footage basis alone – but it would require a huge financial commitment from the new owner to not only restore the house but maintain it in the future, ideally as a family home.  The Rothschild’s have remained very much involved with the estate so perhaps this is their opportunity to bring it back into the family – although with Sir Evelyn de Rothschild living at nearby Ascott House perhaps Nat Rothschild, the incredibly successful hedge fund manager said to be worth around £300m, might like to take a look?

Original blog story published June 7, 2010 3:35 PM: ‘Will the real estate agent please stand up, please stand up‘ [Estates Gazette] – @Christian: if I do find out who the estate agent is, I’ll be sure to let you know.

What’s to happen to Mentmore Towers?

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

Running  a country house is always going to require a certain level of wealth with larger houses easily costing six figures a year in basic running costs and maintenance.  When funds are lacking it can be the house which shows the physical consequences as it becomes difficult to fund the ongoing care. Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire is one of the largest and impressive houses in the UK and the latest reports that its owner, Simon Halabi, has been declared bankrupt raise some worrying concerns about the future of this grand house.

The grade-I listed Mentmore Towers (known locally and to staff as just ‘Mentmore’) was originally built between 1852-54 by Baron Mayer de Rothschild of the famous banking family.  Designed by Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame) the neo-Renaissance style echoed houses as Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire and following Sir Charles Barry’s work at Highclere Castle in 1838.  The interiors are considered to be some of the finest Victorian designs and workmanship in the country.

Mr Halabi’s original plan was to convert Mentmore into a six-star country club with a London equivalent based at the ‘In and Out’ Club on Piccadilly which was also part of his property empire.  The global financial crises appeared to put these plans on hold before the collapse in property values caused a default on the bond secured on these properties which led to the bankruptcy.  Both properties are on the English Heritage ‘Buildings at Risk’ Register – indeed, Mentmore has been on for over 8 years with particular concern about the elegant stonework and the roofs with the danger of serious leaks increasing with each month goes by.  An earlier story on this blog (‘Simon Halabi and Mentmore Towers‘) produced a series of comments that indicated that a lack of maintenance was already taking it’s toll on the house.

So what’s to happen next?  Although Mr Halabi’s fortune is much reduced it is expected that the sale of various properties from his White Tower property empire will cover the £56m required to clear the debt which led to bankruptcy.  Ownership of Mentmore is also thought to be obscured through a web of companies but, if the report in The Times is correct, it is likely to be last property Mr Halabi would want to sell as his young son Samuel who tragically drowned in France is buried on the estate.  Hopefully, the bankruptcy will provide the opportunity for Mr Halabi to re-organise his empire, free up some capital and undertake not only the urgent basic repairs but also secure the long-term future of one of the most important country houses in the UK.

More details: ‘Hunt for Simon Halabi after tycoon is made bankrupt‘ [The Times]