The Country House Revealed – Kinross House, Kinross-shire

Kinross House, Kinross-shire (Image: The Daily Telegragh)
Kinross House, Kinross-shire (Image: The Daily Telegragh) - click for larger, but different, image from 'buildings_fan' on flickr

For houses which are owned by the same family for hundreds of years, the rhythm of their fortunes can often be read in the architecture of the house as it grows and shrinks accordingly.  This was certainly the case with South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire, featured last week in ‘The Country House Revealed – A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home‘.  Yet the object of our, and Dan Cruickshanks’, affections this week, Kinross House, Kinross-shire, is a more dramatic, and relatively short-term, reflection of the rise and fall in the fortunes of a key Scottish gentleman architect, Sir William Bruce.

Kinross was described in Country Life magazine (February 16, 1951) as ‘the complete expression in stone of the Renaissance in Scotland’ – a not inconsiderable accolade for a man who combined his passion for architecture with a sometimes turbulent career in politics.  ‘Sir William, the politician’, was certainly ambitious and profited from the fluctuations in the fortunes of Charles II.  Active in the Royalist cause prior to the Restoration, on the King’s return William Bruce, younger son of a small Perthshire laird, was knighted in 1668.  Basking in the King’s favour, and under the patronage of the Earl of Lauderdale, he secured a series of minor but lucrative political appointments, the most important as Surveyor-General of the royal works in Scotland.

His political career was matched with equal vigour by ‘Sir William, the architect’ with an enthusiasm for not only architecture but also horticulture, literature, and languages.  Yet Sir William’s importance is mainly founded on his country houses, approximately ten in total – two of which where built for his own use, which helped establish his position as one of the most important architects in Scotland by breaking away from the widespread practice for nobles to still live in castles.

His early building work was mainly with existing houses, with his involvement first recorded in the enlargement and remodelling of the once magnificent Leslie House, Fife, between 1667-72.  Sir William’s involvement was relatively minor as custodian of the working drawings but he also gave advice with regards to the interior.  Sadly, three of the four sides of this quadrangular house burnt down in a fire in 1763 leaving just one side which was later remodelled again to create the currently Leslie House – though this was also severely damaged in a blaze in 2009 whilst undergoing conversion into apartments.

Balcaskie House, Fife (Image: Morton Design) - click for more views
Balcaskie House, Fife (Image: Morton Design) - click for more views

Sir William’s next project is thankfully still visible today, almost unchanged from the day he  finished.  Balcaskie House, Fife, was bought by Bruce in 1665, and rather than demolish it, between 1668-71 he proceeded to enlarge and improve the existing house. It was here that his official role proved useful, employing some of the plasterers and painters he had also engaged in rebuilding Holyrood Palace, in Edinburgh between 1671-79.

Also in 1670, Sir William undertook several private commissions for his patron, the Duke of Lauderdale, including the remodelling of the Duke’s main Scottish seat at Thirlestane Castle.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work are the interiors which draw heavily on the designs, and indeed the workmen, from Ham House in Richmond, Surrey, owned by the Countess of Dysart, who married the Duke in 1671, bringing that fine and beautiful house into that family.

Moncreiffe House, Perthshire (Image: NMR) - burnt down, 1957
Moncreiffe House, Perthshire (Image: NMR) - burnt down, 1957

With so many projects it is unsurprising that Sir William’s next major commission wasn’t until 1676; the construction of a new house at Dunkeld for the 1st Marquess of Atholl, described by the Marquess’ son as ‘…extrodinarly convenient though not larg & and it will not cost much expences ether.‘ This house is important as not only was it his first chance to build on a fresh plot but which shows a clear style of design which was to flourish at Kinross.  Sadly the house was pulled down in 1830 as a much larger house had been built for the 4th Duke.  Sir William’s next commission in 1679 was Moncreiffe House, near Perth, which was also to display a very similar style.  This house has also now been lost; demolished after a devastating fire in November 1957, leaving no surviving house to mark the emergence of these new elements of classical architecture in Scotland.

Sir William’s political star continued to shine, providing a fortune which enabled him to purchase the Kinross estate in 1675, and his first opportunity to give full rein to his architectural skills with only himself as client.   Work first started to level the site in 1679 and by 1686 the main outline of the gardens and forecourt were in place, ready for the construction of the house which started in the autumn of that year.  What rose up was one of the finest houses in the country but also one of the most important in Scotland.

Sir William was able to introduce new ideas around the layout of a house, drawing on the same ideas that Sir Roger Pratt and Hugh May were also promoting in England to create the form of the country house we know today. Similarities can be seen between the works of these architects, particularly Pratt at Coleshill, Berkshire (tragically burnt down in 1952) and the use of the double-pile layout.  Another interesting aspect of the design of Kinross is that it is lined up axially with  the ruined island castle of Loch Leven, providing an ‘eye-catcher’ for anyone looking out of the house across the water.

Kinross was to be Sir William’s physical statement of his vision of the country house as the primary stage for the aristocracy to parade.  The house was to be part of a whole, made up of the estate, parkland, gardens, exterior and interiors; each playing their part to create a visible record of the owner’s standing and wealth.  To do so, Bruce took the architectural fashions of England and combined them with his own knowledge of the works of Palladio and Serlio, and some innovative ideas of his own with regards to the use of mezzanines to create extra rooms and corridors for privacy, to create a design which also reflected the new political realities; classicism being aligned with structure, order and symmetry in society.

Craighall, Fife (Image: A.J.B. Hope)
Craighall, Fife (Image: A.J.B. Hope)

Yet just as his costs mounted, his political career waned with the turmoil following the death of Charles II in 1685.  Having spent at least £10,000 (approx. £15m) with the house still unfinished,  he was forced to scale back the lavish interiors and his ambitions.  He now started taking on commissions again, working on Craighall between 1697-99 (ruined by 1793, demolished 1955), Craigiehall c1699, Hopetoun between 1699-1703, Mertoun c.1703-7, and his final contribution being to design the House of Nairne c.1710 (pulled down c.1760), though illness meant he wouldn’t have supervised the construction. Sir William had earlier made over Kinross to his son and moved back to the old Kinross house before moving to Edinburgh at the end of his life, dying there in 1710.

With limited family wealth the house declined until, in 1777, Kinross was bought by George Graham, a Scot merchant who had made a fortune in Jamaica, and since then had passed down through the family (latterly  Montgomery after a marriage in 1819).  Sadly the house was put up for sale in 2009 having been a family home since it was built and was sold in 2010 along with 75-acres with planning permission for conversion into a hotel – a rather depressing outcome for such an important house.

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

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

Note: having watched the first episode it seems that Dan is concentrating more on the family history aspect than the architectural so I hope these entries will balance this out.

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: