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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country House Rescue returns for Series 3: Wyresdale Park, Lancashire

Wyresdale Park, Lancashire (Image: Channel 4)
Wyresdale Park, Lancashire (Image: Channel 4)

The history of the country house is sadly often a cycle of rise and fall with the main variable being the speed of each respectively.  The old phrase was ‘one generation made the wealth, the second enjoyed it, and the third lost it’. Over recent decades the trend has changed slightly in that, with longer life expectancies prolonging the older generations, the houses have had fewer chances for the rejuvenation which inheritance often brought.  As an alternative, Ruth Watson uses Country House Rescue as a catalyst for the type of entrepreneurial change which is the only way for these houses to survive – if only the owners would listen!

The first episode in Series 3, to be broadcast at on Channel 4 at 21:00 on 6 March 2011, takes us to Wyresdale Park in Lancashire to meet a father and son who don’t agree on the best way to maximise the obvious potential of the beautiful estate.

Wyresdale Hall was built between 1856-65 for Bolton cotton-magnate-turned-banker, Peter Ormrod, who bought 6,000-acres from the Duke of Hamilton to create his estate.  The house, which cost £50,000 (about £4m at today’s value) at the time, was designed by noted local architect Edward Graham Paley (b.1823 – d.1895) who had an extensive practice, partnering first with his mentor Edmund Sharpe, then, following Sharpe’s retirement, Hubert Austin, before being joined by his son, Henry Paley. The work of Paley & Austin in particular was well-regarded with Pevsner  saying they “did more outstanding work than any other in the county” and was “outstanding in the national as well as the regional context”.

Paley worked on relatively few country houses, being much better known for his ecclesiastical output, with included the design of Lancaster Cathedral.  Paley was brought up in deeply religious home and, working with Edmund Sharpe, who was heavily influenced by Pugin, it was unsurprising that Paley adopted the strict ecclesiastical style with the ‘correct’ use of Gothic elements.  Perhaps looking a little too much like a convent rather than a home, the house is, nonetheless, still a good example of the type of regional interpretations of Pugin’s architectural theories which gained ground in the 19th-century.

The grade-II listed house and estate passed through the Ormrod family before the land was bought by the Whewell family in the 1920s who then bought the house in 1967.  Now the family are facing the usual struggles of a listed house, an extensive list of improvements, and the need to make the changes which sometimes sit uncomfortably with the more traditional older generation.

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Country House Rescue – Series 3

My usual powers have slightly failed me and I haven’t a verified list of all the houses in Series 3 but here are the ones I have identified so far:

See also: