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.

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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.

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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.

PPS7 – the saviour of the new build country house

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

The nature of our country houses is one of evolution in design, form, and function.  As society has changed, so too have the requirements of the wealthy and, as their houses have been a direct expression of their wishes, these changes can be traced through the architectural record.  Much as we love the many beautiful houses we have already there will always be the desire to build anew, which will constantly reinvigorate this branch of architecture.  As always, some designs will not stand the test of time and will be replaced but the best houses of today will be appreciated by generations to come.  Estate agents often have sites with planning permission for sale and the most interesting come with a design already approved – and in an interesting trend, they are almost all classical, rejecting the avant-garde in favour of brick, stone and Palladian proportions.

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: wikipedia)
Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: wikipedia)

Once Britain became a more domestically peaceful land under Elizabeth I, the form of our country houses changed from defensive, to one of show as exemplified by the Prodigy houses such as Longleat, Wollaton and Hardwick.  Gone was the need for walls, keeps and battlements and instead the requirements of the aristocracy became focused on courtly entertainments, sport and the display of one’s level of taste and education. This largely set the pattern which can still be seen today, with only the architectural choices as to style varying according to fashion and whim.

Yet it seems that for the wealthy who commission these houses, the overall exterior style has evolved as far as necessary because, despite the efforts of the last Labour government to promote the bold and radical as the only appropriate response, a majority of the houses designed and built today are in a form that your average 18th-century gentry would broadly recognise.  Although most construction in the countryside is largely forbidden, rules introduced by the Conservative government in 1997 – known as PPG7 section 3.21 – allowed for planners to approve houses where:

“An isolated new house in the countryside may … exceptionally be justified if it is clearly of the highest quality, is truly outstanding in terms of architecture and landscape design, and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings.”

In 2004 the Labour government sought to drop this, ostensibly because they thought it a loophole, but many suspected an undercurrent of class warfare (an early day motion put down that year by the former Member for Denton and Reddish, Andrew Bennett, stated that “this House … further believes that if the countryside is to be preserved by not building ordinary houses, it is even more important that is should not be polluted with big houses for the arrogant, vulgar and rich.“).  After a strong backlash with MPs (well worth reading is Alan Howarth’s spirited defence of the country house) and architects leading the charge, the rules were amended to become PPS7 which largely retained the status quo giving owners the opportunity to continue the fine tradition of new country houses but with a distorting preference for houses which would reflect “the highest standards in contemporary architecture.“. In fact, the market proved that clients know what they want more than misguided politicians and civil servants.

In response to the proposed changes the RIBA put on an exhibition called ‘The New English Country House‘ which looked at houses commissioned between 1997-2004 under PPG7.  Of the 24 houses included, 15 were in a historical style and only 9 contemporary, with a majority of the former being seen through to completion.  Interestingly, of the houses listed, at least half (by my reckoning) are replacements for previously demolished  country houses perhaps providing an object lesson in the folly of their original loss.

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

The poster child for the new ‘modernist’ country house was the design produced by Ushida Finlay in response to the 2001 RIBA competition to build “the country estate of the future”.  The original Tudor Grafton Hall in Cheshire had been demolished in 1963 after becoming derelict but the 200-acres of parkland offered the ideal opportunity to create an excellent smaller country estate. Yet for the limited pool of those wishing to spend the estimated £20m to build this vision the design ticked none of their boxes. After 7 years of marketing by the estate agents, it was decided to commission a new design from one of our best Classicists, Robert Adam, whose new proposal was described as “an exceptionally outstanding design“. However, the opportunity to create this new house is still being marketed with Jackson-Stops for £5m – so the argument hasn’t been decisively won in this instance just yet.

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

In much the same way as those in previous centuries wished to express themselves through their architecture, so it is the case today.  Houses such as the proposed Alderbrook Park in Surrey for the billionaire Lakshmi Mittal are a radical re-interpretation of the country house but driven by the particular requirements of the client.  Also of particular note is  Ferne Park in Wiltshire for Lady Rothermere – easily one of the finest country houses to be completed in the last 100-years and very much the product of the client working in conjunction with her architect, the brilliant Quinlan Terry.  Speculative developments seem less likely to find buyers as they become more an expression of the ego of the architect rather than the reflecting the personality of the buyer. The prime example of this is the poorly designed Updown Court in Surrey, once the most expensive house for sale in the UK at £70m, which now faces being carved up into flats or becoming a hotel.

Nyn Park, Hertfordshire (proposed) (Image: Julian Bicknell & Associates)
Nyn Park, Hertfordshire (proposed) (Image: Julian Bicknell & Associates)

So what other architecturally attractive opportunities are out there? One quite close to London is Nyn Park, Hertfordshire to replace a house which burnt down in 1963 with a design by another icon of the Classicists, Julian Bicknell, who designed the brilliant Henbury Rotunda in Cheshire. The proposed plan bears no relation to the former house and shows the type of new design allowed under PPS7. Just to underline the level of wealth required for these projects, the estate is being marketed at £10m, built costs could easily be £1m-2m, and the buyer must lodge £3m with the local council as a Landscape Bond that they will fulfil their obligations with regards to restoration which will be returned in tranches as the work is completed.

The Ridge, Gloucestershire (proposed) (Image: Yiangou Architects / Knight Frank)
The Ridge, Gloucestershire (proposed) (Image: Yiangou Architects / Knight Frank)

Another house which has featured before in this blog is the impressive ‘The Ridge’ in Gloucestershire; another replacement for a lost house designed by Humphrey Repton and demolished in 1934.  Designed by Ross Sharpe (who also designed the Icomb Grange), this 33,000 sq.ft. design takes the form of the original house but adds an extra level of architectural flair.  As expected, this is £5m for the opportunity with build costs on top.  Interestingly, the Knight Frank website also says that alternative plans for a smaller 15,000 sq.ft. house have been drawn up, hoping to draw in a wider pool of potential owners.

The Parkwood Estate in Surrey, designed again by Robert Adam, has also been featured previously on this blog back in July 2010 as part of the discussion around justifiable replacement.

For some, a new build will never be a substitute for a historic country house but for those with specific requirements or where there is a shortage of suitable houses, then the option of creating from scratch will always be enticing.  It is also important that the tradition of country house building is allowed to continue as it is only through development that it is shown that these fine buildings can contribute to, and enhance, the much-loved countryside.  PPS7 provides an important legal support for the principle that architecture should be allowed to flourish where it is justified and supportable and should be defended against any narrow-minded interests who would deny our history and diminish the future.

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The websites of the leading country house architects show the broad range of fascinating projects they are involved with, and that, fingers crossed, will one day be built: