The Inadvertent Innovation: Country Life and Property Advertising

Over the last four centuries, the marketing of property has seen relatively few innovations. Those with money and the desire to establish themselves in society would seek out those with knowledge on which estates might be available.  However, the launch of Country Life magazine 120 years ago this month heralded a sea change in the marketing of the landed lifestyle. No longer did the buyer have to rely solely on what they found; now Country Life, through advertising and market reports, brought a selection of the choicest properties right into the drawing rooms of the aspiring elite. The continuing success of the magazine suggests that our desire for the grandeur and leisure of rural society is undimmed over a century later.

Country Life was the idea of Edward Hudson (b.1854 – d.1936), a successful magazine printer, who recognised a gap in the market for a publication which reflected the rural lifestyle of a wealthy elite and, importantly, those who wished to join them.  Conveniently for Hudson, he already had one publication which catered to a significant traditional interest, Racing Illustrated, but lacklustre sales meant it was ripe to be incorporated as a component part of the new magazine. The first issue of Country Life was published on 8 January 1897 and from the outset it was noted for the high quality of the content and, importantly, of the production, with heavy paper and fine photographs.

Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

As with most magazines of the time, the front cover and first page were adverts for all manner of essentials such as ‘Cadbury’s Cocoa’ and slightly more obscure (‘Old Grans Special Toddy‘, ‘Vigor’s Horse-Action Saddle – A Perfect Substitute for the Live Horse‘). However, below the grand ‘Country Life Illustrated‘ masthead is a single full page, rich in some of the finest country houses in the land – and all for sale or to let. It’s also noteworthy that this innovative layout was the work of the single firm of land agents, Walton & Lee of Edinburgh, through whom these properties were available.

As today, properties were sold for a number of reasons but, in an age when the loss of the family seat was considered a serious failing in society, financial embarrassment was often the single strongest reason for a property to appear for sale.  Until the twentieth-century, the majority of property transactions for country houses were primarily about the land; the actual house was usually a secondary consideration as, if you felt it wasn’t suitable, you could always rebuild it in a style or scale until it was. Intelligence regarding which estates were for sale was passed around through social networks, partly to preserve privacy, but often as a way of discretely finding a buyer. Local solicitors also played an extensive and dominant role in the sale of property, often using their extensive and intimate knowledge of local families to know who might be open to offers or to find suitable investments, especially as, since 1804, they held the monopoly on conveyancing.

In 1897, the second Agricultural Depression was hitting the income of those landowners who were heavily dependent on income from their estates.  The financial crisis that this created was the catalyst which forced a number of estates to be put on the market. Equally, death dealt its usual cruel blow with estates being sold in part or in total to meet the stipulations of wills, particularly if the only offspring were daughters, often married to a gentleman with his own estate and little need for a part share in another.

'In the Grafton country...' Advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘In the Grafton country…’ Walton & Lee advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

The houses shown in that first edition are certainly varied. Ranging from the grandeur of Stowe House to ‘a charming, moderate-sized manorial estate’, each warranted a small but densely-worded description. In contrast to today where a house of the importance of Stowe would most likely be either sold off-market or launched with all the fanfare modern country house estate agency can muster with multi-page, glossy, full page photo adverts. Although, with the exception of Stowe, all were anonymous, of the nine houses advertised, it’s possible to identify six of them:

Column 1

  • SALE: Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, with 6,700 acres (demolished 1972)
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘moderate-sized Manorial Estate’, South Devon, with 600 acres
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘unique specimen of an early English country house’, Sussex or Surrey, with 42 acres

Column 2

  • TO LET: Maesllwch Castle, Radnorshire, with shooting over 20,000 acres
  • TO LET: Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, with 250 acres (now National Trust)
  • SALE: Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, with 5,000 acres (now a private home again)
'Stowe House, Buckingham', 'In the Grafton country...' Advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘Stowe House, Buckingham’, Walton & Lee advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

Column 3

  • TO LET or SALE: Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, with 1,100 acres (now a school)
  • TO LET: Addington Manor, Buckinghamshire, with ‘parks and grounds’ (demolished 1926)
  • TO LET: Rigmaden Park, YorkshireUnidentified ‘fine Mansion’, North of England with sporting rights over 4,000 acres (thanks to a reader for the identification)

This selection in one week is almost unimaginable now – to have one house such as Stowe or Charlecote advertised for sale would be remarkable; to have those plus other grand houses showed the scale of the crisis which was quietly afflicting the established rural order. As financial circumstances forced retrenchment for families from the larger houses to their smaller ones (or sometimes from the countryside altogether), so Country Life offered a new and effective route for marketing these properties to those who had risen in the heady world of Victorian industry and finance and who now sought to install themselves as the inheritors of the old social order through the possession of their estates.

The photos of the houses for sale also echoed that Country Life also emphasised a new stylistic aesthetic in the photographs which accompanied the articles on specific houses; one which departed from a common representation of country houses; notably by removing the people and all signs of daily life. Whether this was the choice of Edward Hudson or the photographers is unknown, but engravings and images of country houses from earlier periods often showed them as the hubs of rural and social activity. Outdoor views displayed workers in the fields, the aristocracy enjoying the pleasures of the house and parkland, and coaches riding down lanes, whilst interior views were full of noble pursuits.

The bucolic ideal was important in times of political and social turmoil.  Such scenes, although partly a simple tool for demonstrating scale, also promoted the idea of the paternal landowner to those within the landowning classes, those who wished to join them, and others who had simply obtained a copy, perhaps through a lending library.  Note how often the sky is calm, the lake waters placid, and the animals docile or obedient – there are no signs of disharmony. This can be seen in J.P. Neale‘s famous series of views of country seats published between 1819-1823, soon after the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars:

Detail from 'Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

The compliant and dutifully grateful cows enjoying the benefits of the parkland at Langley Park, Buckinghamshire:

Detail from 'Langley Park, Buckinghamshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Langley Park, Buckinghamshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Take the later scene presented in J.M. Gilbert’s image, drawn in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Bill which extended voting to all men who owned property worth ten pounds or more in yearly rent, of Newlands, Hampshire, which includes a vignette of rural husbandry with the men taking instructions from an agent with the house looking benignly down:

Detail from 'Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby' by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from 'Grove's Views of Lymington' (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby’ by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from ‘Grove’s Views of Lymington’ (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Interior views often showed the aristocratic families at leisure. This was partly due to the romanticisation of the country house which can, in part, be attributed to the popular historical novels of Sir Walter Scott who, as noted by the writer Thomas Carlyle, that they

‘have taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled with living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men’.

For example, in Nash’s ‘The Mansions of England in the Old Time‘ published between 1839-49, the domestic scenes feature prominent groups of people going about their daily lives as imagined as an aristocratic set-piece where all the clothes were fine, the people good looking, and the activities noble.

'The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent'. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Museum no. 2996-1876)
‘The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent’. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London – Museum no. 2996-1876)

This is not to say that all followed such an approach. Many artists such as the Rev. F.A.O. Morris in his famous ‘Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland‘ published 1866 emphasised the houses, showing no signs of people.

Country Life therefore was both following the precedent of some earlier artists but also by so rigorously applying this view of the houses and the popularity of the magazine spreading this ideal far and wide, so the perception of country houses as denuded of evidence of life was one which was almost in contrast to the warm, sympathetic portrayal of the families in the accompanying text.

Walton & Lee maintained their tenacious grip on the important first page of advertising in Country Life from 1897 until 1912.  In that year, as a measure of the success of Country Life in establishing itself as one of the prime avenues for the sale of property, Howard Frank, of Knight, Frank & Rutley, bought Walton & Lee specifically to secure that  coveted advertising space. Though their reign at the forefront of advertising country estates had ended, their influence in the presentation of property was to remain and can be seen today. Evidence of this is in both the continued hold Knight Frank maintain on the first page of advertising, and the stylistic aesthetic which the estate agents and Country Life established as the standard for the photographic presentation of country houses for sale and exalted in numerous publications.

Country Life wrote their own retrospective on property advertising in 2007 for the 110th anniversary: ‘Wanted: Property for a Gentleman’ [Country Life]

So, you made the 2016 Sunday Times Rich List – where to live?

The now annual round-up of the richest 1,000 people in the UK (whose wealth can be ascertained…!) has been published today in the Sunday Times (£). Although there are now a few less billionaires than last year in the UK, the minimum required to join the list has risen slightly to £103m. With 80% of the list members having made their own fortunes and having acquired the trappings of status along the way, it’s unsurprising that many will already own a country house. However, some may not and to help them out of this socially embarrassing predicament, below are some of the most interesting country houses for sale today (April 2016).

Ignoring any of the ‘new’ country houses which, unless by Craig Hamilton and a limited few others, are unlikely to be architecturally notable, this entirely subjective selection, focuses on those historic houses which can be regarded as such.

Hackwood Park, Hampshire (Image © Savills)
Hackwood Park, Hampshire (Image © Savills)

Many of the most impressive country estate sales are often conducted ‘off market’, offers and negotiations concluded in private; never receiving the splendour of an advert in Country Life. However, occasionally, one quietly appears which sets the pulses racing. What will probably be one of the most interesting houses to be offered publicly this year is Hackwood Park, Hampshire, a splendid Classical house (listed Grade-II*) with accompanying 260-acres.  Designed by Lewis William Wyatt (1777-1853), nephew to the more famous James Wyatt, Lewis developed a very successful country house practice, especially in Cheshire, including work at Lyme, Heaton and Tatton Parks, but has been rather sadly overlooked in the history of architecture (something I will try to address in another post). Looking through the photos of Hackwood House, his skill and ability in handling of the external form (which was a rebuilding of an earlier house) and the superb interiors demonstrates clearly why he enjoyed a productive career. No price is given for Hackwood House, but given the quality of the house, the location and the estate, I suspect that only those troubling the upper reaches of the Rich List need contact Savills.

Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)
Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

Another house which certainly has grandeur in Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire – but it also hides a surprisingly important architectural statement. Built as Standlynch Park in 1733 by John James of Greenwich as a ‘villa’ for Sir Peter Vandeput, it was acquired by the nation in 1814 as a gift to Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté to express England’s gratitude for doing his duty for his country and renamed ‘Trafalgar Park’. Unfortunately for Lord Nelson, as he had famously died in 1805, the house, titles and generous pension were given to his elder brother, the Rev. William Nelson and descended through the family until 1948 when they were no longer able to afford the upkeep when the Attlee government cancelled the Nelson Pension.

Corridor by Nicholas Revett, Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)
Corridor by Nicholas Revett, Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire (Image © Savills)

After a slightly choppy latter half of the 20th-century, the house was bought in 1997 by Michael Wade who over the years has lavished attention to restore the house in an exemplary fashion but now wishes to move on.  I was lucky enough to visit in April 2013 with the Georgian Group and can attest to the quality of the work, especially to the main block. And the surprising architectural statement; the North wing contains a ‘monumental’ hall designed in 1766 by Nicholas Revett who had published in 1762, with James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, ‘The Antiquities of Athens‘ which was the catalyst for the hugely popular Greek Revival style in England.  This house therefore contains the genesis for the Greek-influenced ‘Neoclassicism‘ of the Georgian period which is still much admired and copied today. So if your place on the Rich List means you have £12m (plus a few more to finish the restoration, including Revett’s incredibly important corridor and North wing), again, contact Savills.

Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire (Image © Adrian Houston /
Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire (Image © Adrian Houston /

The phrase ‘comprehensively renovated and extended‘, especially in relation to a grade-II* listed Georgian country house can sometimes send a chill down your spine, fearful that all that made it special has been smothered in the relentlessly, boringly bland ‘international hotel’ style. Thankfully although, Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire, has been restored to within an inch of its life and whilst perhaps too polished for some, overall, the essential charm of the country house and what could be called the Colefax-Fowler ‘look’ makes the main rooms look very elegant. Originally an 18th-century house, it was rebuilt between 1796-1802 for the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, and then again between 1821-3 to designs by C.R. Cockerell, who probably added the Greek Doric colonnade on the south front. Bought by the Earl and Countess of Strathmore in the 1920s, it was then sold to Arthur Smith in 1949 and became home to the Hertfordshire Polo Club before being sold in 1997.  Now for sale again with 232-acres, Knight Frank have given it a guide price of £30m (don’t forget the eye-watering £3.5m stamp duty), which reflects that this is a house to which very little will need to be done to enjoy a country lifestyle.

For those a little further down the Rich List, below are some less pricey options but still would give the country house style to which many aspire:

  • Hall Place, Tonbridge, Kent – an unusually large house for the county, Victorian, with up to 226-acres – £8m [Strutt & Parker]
  • Manor Hall, Gloucestershire – 15th-century but updated including by the current owner Peter De Savery – £7.95m [Knight Frank]
  • Guyzance Hall, Northumberland – rebuilt 1894, now with 323-acres – £6m [Knight Frank]
  • Chedington Court, Dorset – built 1840 and altered 1894 in Jacobean style, now with ~50-acres – £5.95m [Savills]
  • Brandsby Hall, Yorkshire – built 1760s and well-proportioned, it now has some ‘interesting’ decor and needs a lot of work to fix  – £4.25m [Knight Frank]
  • Howsham Hall, Yorkshire – built 1610, the dramatic facade is dominated by beautiful mullioned windows – £4.25m [Savills]
Somerton Randle, Somerset (Image © Knight Frank)
Somerton Randle, Somerset (Image © Knight Frank)

Personally, if I was in the fortunate position of troubling the Rich List, the house I would beating a path to is the bucolically named, Somerton Randle, Somerset (£5.75m – Knight Frank). A compact grade-II listed country house built in the late 1700s, and now with 88-acres, the interiors are a wonderful example of regional Georgian style and retain an exceptional elegance.

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]

Sales details:


The finest SAVE, now for sale: Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

The wholesale destruction of UK country houses in the 1930s and 1950s was undoubtedly a tragic waste; not only of materials but also the embodied beauty and history of the hundreds of houses lost. Barlaston Hall, recently launched on the market for sale, and which was so valiantly fought for by SAVE Britain’s Heritage who famously bought it for £1, provides a case study which shows what might have been possible if circumstances had been different. How many more of our country houses might have survived to still be found nestled at the end of a tree-lined drive?

Collapse of Hague Hall, Yorkshire, due to mining subsidence, 1910 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Collapse of Hague Hall, Yorkshire, due to mining subsidence, 1910 (Image: Lost Heritage)

The plight of the country house in the 20th-century struck at both the large and the small, the grand and the intimate.  A financial crisis could, in a generation, take a family from a secure status enjoying thousands of acres to one of ruin and a forced retreat from the family seat.  For some houses the demise was swift – for sale intact one year but the following year could see sales of contents, then fixtures and fittings, and finally the materials. The alternative fate for a number of houses was a lingering demise – abandoned, at risk from thieves and the weather, to an increasingly hostile environment with threats coming from every angle, even from below.

The elegant Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire was one house which fell firmly into the latter category. A remarkable house, it represented an important development of the Palladian tradition; the moment it moved from ‘copying’ to evolving.  The house was built c.1756-58 for Thomas Mills, a local lawyer, with the design convincingly attributed to Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714-1788).

Architecture was not his first choice of career. Taylor was the son of a master mason and sculptor, also called Robert, who was successful enough to build a villa in Woodford, Essex, but who was also rather profligate.  The father managed to get his son apprenticed to the sculptor Henry Cheere and on completing his time, found his father had just enough to send him on to Rome to study.  Whilst there, his father died so he came back to find his inheritance was no more than debts, but friends enabled him to set up as a sculptor and by 1744 he was sufficiently accomplished to be commissioned by Parliament and to carve the pediment of the Mansion House in the City of London.  It became clear that he paled in the shadow of his contemporaries – Roubiliac, Rysbrack and Scheemakers – so at the age of 40 he turned to architecture.

Outside influences often act as catalysts for development. In the same way that Blenheim Palace was enriched by Vanbrugh‘s theatrical experience, so Taylor had the advantage of his earlier, if unsuccessful, sculptural career which brought a more developed sense of shape, form, and movement to his architecture.  Colvin praises him as an architect of ‘considerable originality‘ and that ‘his villas…represented a new departure in country-house architecture‘. What Taylor provided was an evolution of the strict Palladian designs of the previous generation, marrying them to a more tolerant approach that allowed the interiors to be more Rococo, with decorative plasterwork and patterns, drawing on his knowledge of the original sources in Italy. Taylor created wonderfully elegant villas for his clientèle of bankers and merchants, who needed smaller houses for entertaining rather than seats for a rural family empire.

Braxted Park, Essex - note the octagonal window frames (Image: Braxted Park)
Braxted Park, Essex – note the octagonal window frames (Image: Braxted Park)

Although Taylor undoubtedly designed many buildings, he seems to have almost conspired to make it impossible to attribute them as he left no record of his practice and also apparently never signed his drawings.  There are, therefore, large gaps in both his chronological and stylistic history but starting with his first country house, Braxted Park, Essex in 1753-6, it is clear that his skill and legendary capacity for hard graft meant a sizeable output.

Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stephen Richards via Geograph)
Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stephen Richards via Geograph)

Of particular note, in relation to Barlaston Hall, is Taylor’s design for Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire, in 1755. Part of a group of second-generation Palladians – along with Flitcroft, Keene, Paine, Ware, and Wright – Taylor saw Palladio as an inspiration but was not a slavish disciple.  The core principles relating to proportion and preserving a necessary elegance were respected but it was in the interpretation that they introduced variety.  At Harleyford, Taylor took a more vernacular style to the idea of the Villa Rotonda (a standalone villa with four equal fronts, allied with its landscape) but also combined with a sculptors appreciation that it should be attractive from all angles.

Asgill House, Richmond, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Asgill House, Richmond, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Built between 1756-58, the layout and style of Barlaston Hall clearly shows the kinship with Harleyford. The elegant simplicity of the ground floor layout with the four principal rooms pushing out into the arms of the cross with a double-height central hall clearly can be derived from the Villa Rotonda but rotated on the axis to create more interior space, as opposed to the Rotonda’s open loggias.  One of the most distinctive features is the pleasing ‘chinese’-style woodwork, with octagonal window tracery on the exterior, a pattern mirrored in the library in the bookcase doors.  For one so early in his career, Taylor was showing remarkable invention, elegance and practicality, all of which served to launch his practice, which continued for 35 years. After Barlaston, further commissions such as Asgill House (1761-64) on the riverside at Richmond, Surrey, for his friend Sir Charles Asgill, also helped establish Taylor’s reputation.

Not that any of this innovation and elegance mattered to the Wedgwood company who applied twice in the early 1980s to demolish Barlaston Hall.  The house and estate had been bought by the famous pottery firm in 1937 as part of a scheme to create a new factory and model village for their workers.  These were built some distance away but the now grade-I listed house was badly neglected with serious water damage causing it to become increasingly derelict, with ceilings and the staircase collapsing, and the structure affected by subsidence caused by coal-mining.  The house also sat across a geological fault and future mining plans risked the whole area sinking by about 40 feet.  Clearly, this was a house very much at risk.

Entrance front, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Entrance front, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

In 1981, the second application to demolish was called to public inquiry, due to the importance of the house, where the architectural conservation charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage argued the case for the preservation and restoration of the house. As Barlaston Hall had been designated as ‘outstanding’ this placed certain obligations on the National Coal Board who would be required to pay for not only repairs but also preventative measures, such as the huge concrete raft they devised to prevent further movement.  After a few days of arguments, Wedgwood decided that they would make a bold move and offer the house to SAVE for £1 on the condition that it was restored within five years or they could buy it back for £1 (after which the house would no doubt be swiftly demolished).  The then Secretary of SAVE, Sophie Andreae, immediately phoned the President, Marcus Binney (who was in the USA) with the news.  Conscious that he had to make a decision there and then, Marcus called Wedgwood’s bluff and bought Barlaston Hall.

Dining Room, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire - 1981 (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Dining Room, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire – 1981 (Image: SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

A few days later when Marcus was able to visit the house for the first time, the scale of the challenge became starkly apparent.  Stepping into the debris-strewn hallways, light shone through all three floors from gaping holes in the collapsed roof and 4″ cracks indicated where the subsidence was taking hold.  Although most of the fireplaces had been stolen, the good news was that much of the original plasterwork on the walls and the distinctive woodwork had survived.  SAVE immediately organised a temporary roof, after which, the house took nearly 2 years to fully dry out.  Specialist heritage builders and professionals swiftly set to work on both the structural and conservation issues.

East front, Barlaston Hall - 1981 / 2014 (Images: SAVE Britain's Heritage / Knight Frank)
East front, Barlaston Hall – 1981 / 2014 (Images: SAVE Britain’s Heritage / Knight Frank)

Although work had started well, delays in securing the necessary certificates from the Secretary of State meant that the National Coal Board then decided to try and renege on their agreement to fund the work.  SAVE sought leave for a judicial review which prompted the Secretary of State to immediately fulfil his promises, which ultimately forced the National Coal Board to capitulate from their shameful position and fund the repair and preventative works – and SAVE’s legal fees too.  With immediate funding secured, which was followed by further grants, the conservation work continued.  It was put up for sale in 1992 and bought by the current owners who have sensitively completed the restoration of this captivating and fascinating house.

That the value of a house can go from £1 to £2.3m in the space of 30 years shows that the fortunes of country houses can rise as swiftly as they fall.  Barlaston Hall not only represents an important link in our understanding of the domestic Anglo-Palladian tradition, but is also a testament to how determined action can succeed even against larger opponents.  Today, the house still stands proudly displayed from the road, a bold statement of hope and preserved beauty.


If you would like to support the fight to preserve our architectural heritage, please do become a Friend of SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  You will receive a regular newsletter plus access to the online database of ‘buildings at risk’.  You can also follow them on Twitter: ‘@SAVEBrit‘.  I am on the Committee of SAVE.


The sale was announced in Country Life magazine: ‘A Country House Reborn‘ [16 April 2014]

Sales particulars: ‘Barlaston Hall‘ [Knight Frank]

A more detailed account of SAVE’s fight: ‘Barlaston Hall‘ – the Wedgwood Museum also has a brief history of the house on their website but which skips over the bit where Wedgwood tried to have it demolished. For historical images, see ‘Neville Melkin’s Grand Tour of the Potteries‘.

Mynde the gap; 2013 country house market finally comes to life

For followers of the country house market, for pleasure or profession, the spring launch period is always of great interest as an indicator of the how it may go for the rest of the year. In previous years, the trophy houses often started making their débuts via glossy double-page adverts in the bible of country house property, Country Life magazine, around Easter.  However, this year, the chocolate eggs came and vanished with few of the expected houses appearing. And so we waited, ticking off the houses being re-launched at a slightly lower price, along with a few ‘minors’. Thankfully, the 2013 launch has finally happened, starting with The Salutation and then Tyringham Hall, and now others join the throng.

Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

Estate agents usually say that the most common reasons for houses coming to market are ‘death, divorce, and down-sizing’ and for Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire, although the latter two reasons are there, ‘death’ has been replaced by – ‘opera’.

Entrance corridor, Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Entrance corridor, Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Kingston Lisle, according to John Julius Norwich, is an ‘…absolutely fascinating house…[which]…got itself into a muddle‘ – though this makes it all the more interesting.  With a core dating from 1677, the wonderfully attractive Palladian entrance front was added around c.1720 – so far, so good.  However, the later additions create a hybrid of styles which, taken individually, you may think belong to separate houses. The garden front still retains an Elizabethan look, even though it dates from between c.1820-25 when significant changes were made for the then owner, Edwin Martin-Atkins, whom Marcus Binney has also suggested might have been his own architect (which may explain a few things).  The remarkable interior also dates mainly from then and has two eye-catching features.  The first is as you enter, as once inside, you are in a strikingly bold corridor featuring carytids and fan vaulting, which then leads to the second feature: the dramatic flying staircase.

The current owner, Jamie Lonsdale, has made frequent use of the setting when giving his opera recitals.  The house was bought by Lonsdale’s grandfather, Leo (founder of Lonsdale Investment Trust), for £26,000 in 1943, and his wife spent a lifetime and a fortune on filling it with the finest quality antiques.  Set in 1,000-acres, the house has been passed through the family but now Jamie Lonsdale has decided that he would rather pursue his singing ambitions and so, for a ‘telephone figure sum‘ – approximately £35m, he would trade the life of a squire for that of a singer.

Another house where the staircase, in this case an impressive space rising through the full height of the house, is the principle interest is Sholebroke Lodge, Northamptonshire. Designed by James Morgan, a pupil of John Nash in 1807 who was later better known as a canal engineer, the exterior lacks coherence but with refurbishment it could be an elegant home – even just a coat of white paint would bring back a certain Regency air.

King's Hall, The Mynde, Herefordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
King’s Hall, The Mynde, Herefordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Fine interior decorative plasterwork is something of a lost art in modern country houses  – in fact, if anyone knows of examples I’d be very interested to hear about them. However, the modern dearth also throws into sharp relief the exceptional quality and craftsmanship which previous generations lavished on their houses and which we can sometimes be seen today.  For the lucky future owner of The Mynde, Herefordshire, (OIEO £15m, Knight Frank) that includes the King’s Hall, so beautiful that Pevsner described it as ‘the finest room in Herefordshire‘.  The work which created it was at the behest of the owner from 1709, the 1st Duke of Chandos.  A controversial figure, his own house at Cannons, Middlesex, was an exuberant display of wealth but mocked by Alexander Pope and later demolished in 1747, with the church sold and moved to Witley Court.  Yet, hidden within the restrained yet imposing façade of The Mynde, this hall is a careful balance of elements to create a magnificent room.  Set in a 1,180-acre estate, this is the quintessential country house and fine estate, a rare combination where so often today one fails to live up to the other.

Tavy Hall, Devon (Image: Knight Frank)
Tavy Hall, Devon (Image: Knight Frank)

For those seeking a more coastal air, it would be difficult to beat the spectacular waters-edge setting of Tavy Hall, Devon.  With houses usually built in more protected sites inland, the location chosen nearly 900 years ago was certainly unusual. The house itself was largely rebuilt around the 12th- and 13th-century core between 1825-32, creating a larger, symmetrical front.  The house is surrounded by 32-acres of gardens, including a stretch of the foreshore, with a further 20-acres of woodland, which the new owner would be strongly advised to buy to ensure a reasonable estate.

Brent Eleigh Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Brent Eleigh Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills) – do click through for more photos

Some houses seem to be a contradiction; grand but small, spacious but manageable – and the impressive Brent Eleigh Hall, Suffolk falls into that category.  The early history of the house is unclear, at its heart may be an Elizabethan E-plan building, but one which has now been wholly encased in a fine Georgian cloak.  The garden front features two projecting three-bay wings but which supports between them a much grander Tuscan portico.  The entrance front is a more subtle arrangement but with variety to enliven; two shallow pilasters, a 4-bay stepped-forward projection, and a rather flamboyant shield in the pediment – but of most interest is a wonderfully elegant doorcase, the work of one Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1933-34 when commissioned for some minor alterations.  Inside, the most dramatic feature is the grand staircase with its oval ceiling painting and stucco surround.

The house is offered at £3m with 39-acres but the photos show that this is a house which probably needs a substantial amount spent (probably at least £500k-£1m) to bring it to a modern standard.  That said, I hope the new owners tread lightly in their restoration; the temptation will be to scrub it to a high-shine but in doing so it may lose something of that patina of character that has been built up over time.  Hotel chic is fine in a hotel but one hopes for a more human touch in the end result for this wonderfully attractive house.

Brownshill Court, Gloucestershire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Brownshill Court, Gloucestershire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

Still, for me, the enduring allure of a Classical house, with it’s beguiling symmetry, is where I would head with my as-yet-elusive lottery win. With those criteria, at the moment, I would be straight off to Painswick in Gloucestershire to rescue the sadly neglected Grade-II* Brownshill Court (£2m with 18-acres).  Completed c.1760, the brochure photos now show in clear detail the scale of the work involved in bringing this gem back to life, with masonry missing, degraded stonework and a lifeless interior.  Yet, underneath that is clearly the original, very fine house, designed by Anthony Keck (who was also responsible for Highgrove), struggling to shake off its recent mistreatment.  With deep pockets, architectural sensitivity and vision, Brownshill Court could again stand as one of the finest houses in the Cotswolds.

Estate agents and the specialist buying agencies will be hoping that 2013 continues the ascent from the doldrums of 2008/9 (though a surprising number of houses are launched and also fail to sell before being quietly withdrawn).  For country house watchers, the spring launch again shows what fine and varied houses are available, tucked away in quiet valleys and parks, sometimes little known even to those living closest – but what a delight to see them when they do appear. Who knows what the rest of the year might bring?


For a listing of the top 100 homes for sale, do check out the BISH100 on the British and Irish Stately Homes blog

Further information

Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire

Other sales particulars:

‘So you made the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List…’ – a selection of country houses for sale

Spring is upon us: the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, the drizzle is almost incessant – *sigh*. One bright spot is each week’s increasingly heavy Country Life magazine; the extra weight from the greater number of property adverts which signal the launch of the late spring/early summer (hah!) country house sales push. Below is a round-up of some of the most interesting and beautiful properties currently for sale, all entirely and subjectively chosen by me.

Bletchingdon Park, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Bletchingdon Park, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

The most impressive house to be offered for sale this year so far has to be the beautiful Bletchingdon Park, Oxfordshire [Knight Frank]. One of the relatively few Palladian villas in the county, it can easily hold its own with the others such as Kirtlington Park (completed in 1746) and Nuneham Courtenay (built 1756).  Bletchingdon Park was slightly late to the Palladian party, being built in 1782 for Arthur Annesley, Viscount Valentia, to the designs of James Lewis (b. c1751 – d.1820).  Lewis was mostly employed as surveyor of various charitable hospitals in London and near counties but he also completed a clutch of excellent country houses including Eydon Hall, Hackthorn Hall, and Lavington Park (now Seaford College). Owned since 1993 by Dr Michael Peagram, a philanthropist and chemicals industrialist, the grade-II* house has been obviously well cared for and offers the highly desirable combination of an imposing facade, superb views, 127-acres and elegant interiors which includes a wonderful sweeping, top-lit staircase – if you have £20m.

Cockfield Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Cockfield Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

For those who prefer an alternative to the architectural austerity of Palladianism, then Suffolk offers a wealth of brick houses; statements just as bold, but in a different language. Cockfield Hall, Suffolk [£5m, 74-acres, Savills] has a grand façade, galleried great hall, a wealth of rich plasterwork ceilings, and a range of estate buildings in the same style.  Although mainly built in 1613, the windows were sashed c1770 and the overall look is largely due to later Victorian enhancements, including the upper storey, gables, the great hall and various Tudor motifs.  That said, it is undeniably attractive as the changes work well together.

Highfields Park, East Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Highfields Park, East Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

There is often something just so elegant about Regency houses, particularly the smaller country villas which echoed the style and features of much larger and grander houses. Highfields Park, East Sussex,  [£5.75m, Knight Frank] is set in 191-acres, and overlooks its own lake and out to the countryside.  The house has grown as the ambitions and wealth of the owners allowed; a ballroom being added to the east and a swimming pool beyond that. Awkwardly, access to latter is through the former so just be careful not to schedule a pool party at the same time as your formal dances; though, on the upside, it will be easy to tell which guest is supposed to be at which party.

Ayton Castle, Scotland (Image: Knight Frank)
Ayton Castle, Scotland (Image: Knight Frank)

Previously offered for sale in May 2011 for £3m and now re-listed, Ayton Castle, Scotland [offers over £2.2m / Knight Frank] is a sprawling confection of Scots Baronial motifs; the design the work of two of the best architects working in Scotland at the time, now set in 159-acres.  The house was originally built in 1851 for William Mitchell-Innes who commissioned the talented James Gillespie Graham. Graham was known for his work in the Scots Baronial style which became so popular in the Victorian era, notably on the praise of Sir Walter Scott and the Queen’s remodelling of Balmoral.  Yet, Graham was a rare architect comfortable working in various styles; neo-classical at Blythswood House or semi-ecclesiastical Gothic at Cumbusnethan Priory (now tragically a ruined shell).  Ayton was later extended in 1860, with the addition of a billiard room and an enlarged drawing room by David Bryce.  Bryce, perhaps, more than any other architect, can be argued to be responsible for the legacy of Scots Baronial, if only through his prolific output of more than 230 buildings including many country houses such as Craigends (dem. 1971), Panmure House (dem. 1955), Torosay Castle and Dalmore House (burnt out 1969). Considering the tragic swathe cut through his work, it’s a shame that legacy wasn’t appreciated.

Honourable Mentions

There are, of course, many other good houses featured in Country Life but some would not be regarded as the seat of an estate – but they are still wonderful country houses; albeit ones with very large gardens and worth a mention.  A couple here are proper country seats but just haven’t made it to the list above:

Bradwell Lodge, Essex (Image: Matthew Beckett) - for sale: £2.25m through Jackson-Stops & Staff
Bradwell Lodge, Essex (Image: Matthew Beckett) – for sale: £2.25m through Jackson-Stops & Staff

Bradwell Lodge, Essex – a house of contrasts and a mixture of architecture; a Tudor core, latter additions by Robert Adam, Robert Smirke the elder, and Quinlan Terry, with decoration by Angelica Kauffman. The library/small dining room in the projecting bay on the ground floor is particularly elegant with twisted-wire screens to the bookcases. Grade-II*, 26-acres, £2.25m [Jackson-Stops & Staff]

Broadwell Manor, Gloucestershire – grade-II*, 35-acres, excess £8m [Knight Frank]

Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk – a fascinating early house by Sir John Soane which has previously featured on this blog (‘For sale: a Soanian springboard‘). Grade-II*, 38-acres, £6.5m (down from £7m) [Knight Frank]

Glansevern Hall, Powys – an apparently unique property in that it is the only complete house designed and build by the architect Joseph Bromfield and which also features some impressive gardens. Grade-II*, 80-acres, £4.5m [Balfours]

Rainthorpe Hall, Norfolk – grade-I, 18.7-acres, excess £2.95m [Strutt & Parker]

Roundhill Manor, Somerset – grade-II, 280-acres, £6m [Savills]


For other updates on country houses for sale do sign up for the excellent British and Irish Stately Homes blog, which is written by Andrew Triggs who frequently contributes comments on this blog.

School’s out: seats of learning for sale

One of the many uses to which our country houses have been successfully adapted to is that of schooling – from the grandest such as Stowe and Bryanston to the many smaller houses which have delighted and terrified children in equal measure for many years.  Even as recently as April 2010, Wispers in Sussex, was sold to a London primary school as a satellite to their main campus. Yet for all the fond memories held by generations of youngsters, private schools and educational colleges are facing their own periods of austerity, forcing some to close.  With closure comes a rare opportunity for a house to once again become a home – though such a move is fraught with practical, and sometimes political, challenges.

Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Augustus Photographic via flickr)
Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Augustus Photographic via flickr)

One of the bonuses of writing this blog is to discover houses so little known that, despite their obvious beauty, they seldom appear in books.  Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire is a classic example of this. Currently a residential college, this stunning smaller William and Mary country house was built around 1678 for William Pynsent, a wealthy London barrister, who would have been well-aware of the latest architectural fashions. The architect is unconfirmed but, with the hipped roof and projecting, pedimented centrepiece, it appears to draw inspiration from houses such as Horseheath Hall, Cambridgeshire (though 7-bays to Horseheath’s eleven) designed by Sir Roger Pratt in 1663-5 (dem.1777), and also clear stylistic similarities with houses such as  the north and south fronts of Fawley Court, Buckinghamshire (built 1684-5, by Sir Christopher Wren) and Puslinch, Devon (a late proponent of the style, being built c1720).  One curious anecdote, told to Sir John Julius Norwich, was that the house was substantially altered, creating the elegant east front, about twelve years after construction to designs by William Talman – but Colvin doesn’t mention it and no firm evidence has appeared to support this…so far.

Puslinch House, Devon (Image: Devon Rural Archive)
Puslinch House, Devon (Image: Devon Rural Archive)

Urchfont is a fascinating and enchanting smaller manor house which successfully plays the neat visual trick of looking larger than it is – at least from some angles. The two key views of the house are from the main road from the village, which gave a clear view of the east front and the road running below the south front (the house was once more visible; maps from 1880s show only a few clumps of trees, much fewer than there are now).  If one only saw these two fronts, one might think this a large, cube-shaped house – but move round to the north and the house is clearly only one room deep on the east front. A lovely piece of social aggrandisement.  The house passed through various families and was tenanted before being bought by another lawyer, Hamilton Rivers-Pollock, in 1928, who lived there until his death in 1941.  It then became a home for London children suffering from tuberculosis, and was then bought in 1945 by Wiltshire County Council as a residential college.  Now, faced with cutbacks,  the council have decided to sell up, amid much local controversy, giving this beautiful house an opportunity to once again become a home.

The Hill, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire (Image: Cooke & Arkwright)
The Hill, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire (Image: Cooke & Arkwright)

Across the country in Monmouthshire, The Hill, as the name implies, sits rather proudly on the edge of Abergavenny.  Built in the mid-18th century, the house sits in 20-acres of gardens (which are included on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic
Interest in Wales) from a once larger estate, the residential spread of the town having crept up towards it.  Sadly, poor planning has led to a small residential estate taking up the grounds to the east of the house, and further buildings associated with its time as a college now stand between them and the house.  This makes it exceptionally unlikely that the house would become a single-family home again but potentially a high-quality development, replacing the modern buildings and respecting the grounds, could offer a workable solution.

Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)
Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)

On a larger scale, the curse of the associated buildings also blights Bedgebury Park, Kent. The original house of the estate, seat of the influential Culpepper family, financed by a flourishing iron business based on the clay-ironstone on which it sits, was to the east of the current grand mansion (now a lake), and played host to Elizabeth I, who visited in August 1573.  The current house was built in 1688 for Sir James Hayes, a man who had become wealthy through  his wife’s inheritance and financing the recovery of jewels and gold from a sunken Spanish ship.  Sir John Cartier bought it in 1789 and added some impressive plasterwork and the chain of lakes on the estate.  Following Cartier’s death,  Bedgebury was bought by one of the Duke of Wellington’s most trusted men, Field Marshal Viscount Beresford.  He commissioned Alexander Roos c.1838 and the subsequent extensive alterations and the addition of the cross wings to create the H-shape, obscured the red-brick original behind an impressive cladding of warm, honey-coloured sandstone ashlar, creating a house which positively glows in the sun. Inherited by Alexander Beresford Hope in 1854, he made his mark on the house by adding the impressive Neo-Classical stairhall and the striking mansard roof.

Stairhall created c.1850s, Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)
Stairhall created c.1850s, Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)

The house was bought by the Church Education Corporation with 200-acres in 1919, opening as a school with just five pupils in 1920.  It quickly grew and new buildings were added in the grounds providing extra teaching and residential facilities, before closing in 2006.  Now offered at £7.5m, the grade-II* house sits in a 90-acre estate awaiting its future.  The brochure mentions that the local planning department are open to the idea of it becoming a single unit residence again – a possibly tempting prospect for a billionaire who needs an impressive house, a small estate, and doesn’t mind having to demolish the modern school buildings which have sprung up.  Considering the quality of the interiors, this must surely be a feasible prospect, especially in light of the recent sale of Park Place for £140m which proved that there are those willing to pay exceptional prices for the best quality properties.

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)
Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)

For those seeking to move into a former school which has been partially restored to the highest standards and now only requires the finishing touches (if you have a couple of million pounds available), then possibly the finest option would be Apethorpe, Northamptonshire.  This fascinating Tudor/Jacobean/Elizabethan house has played a supporting role in royal entertainments for 500 years and features some of the finest plaster ceilings in the country – and became a particularly grand school between the late 1940s and 1982, when it closed. Bought by an absentee owner, it languished for years, flirting with dereliction.  Finally, intervention by English Heritage brought it into their care and it’s currently for sale for offers around £5m (English Heritage reputedly spent £7m on the rescue so far), and would require another approximately £4m to complete the restoration.  On an remarkable side note; the fact that Apethorpe was saved from the usual vandalism, arson and theft which so often afflicts empty buildings, was largely due to the tireless efforts of the caretaker, George Kelley, who carried on even though he wasn’t being paid to do so.

The most recent closure (at least partially) is of St Michael’s in Tawstock, Devon.  Originally known as Tawstock Court, it was built in 1787 in a provincial Gothick style to replace an Elizabethan house which burnt down that same year.  Although the staff and parents have made heroic efforts to save it, the concern for them is that the house will fall into the hands of developers who will convert it into flats – and considering the poor job most do of such a task, their concerns are very valid.

In these straitened times, sadly a number of parents and councils will be forced to economise and schools, usually private, may well close.  Sad though this will inevitably be for the many current and former pupils, it does also offer a possibility that these houses may revert to their former role for which they were designed – and few would argue that the spectacular Marshcourt in Hampshire, designed by Lutyens, was better off as a school. However, as the roll call of struggling schools lengthens, it is important that the future of the often wonderful buildings, which gave each school their character, are given due priority to ensure an appropriate transition and restoration if the opportunity arises for them to return to being family homes.


Original story: ‘Urchfont Manor sale row erupts‘ [Gazette and Herald]

Listed building description: ‘Bedgebury Park, Kent‘ [British Listed Buildings]

The state of the country house market: Autumn 2010

Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)
Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)

Throughout September, the increasing weight of each week’s ‘Country Life‘ magazine heralds the starts of one of the busy periods for launches of country houses.  As an relatively unscientific barometer it would appear that the market is doing well with some impressive estates and houses being offered up to tantalise the armchair enthusiast and serious purchaser alike – but a few houses are still proving difficult to shift.

The September 1 magazine provided a summary of the successes of the year-to-date with glowing reports from estate agents who, despite some fears in January about an uncertain year ahead, are happy to highlight their successes.  The article quotes Crispin Holborow of Savills who rightly points out that ‘best in class‘ houses will always sell quickly and for above their guide price if the right buyers start competing.  He cites Ropley House in Hampshire which sold at over it’s guide price of £4.25m, as did the grade-I listed Shanks House in Somerset which was offered with 70-acres for £5.5m, but their biggest success was the coveted Chadacre estate in Suffolk with 680-acres which reputedly sold for more than double it’s £10m asking price.  Other houses such as the elegant grade-I Worlingham Hall – regarded by Norman Scarfe as ‘the most beautiful house of manageable size in Suffolk’ – also sold over it’s guide price of £3.9m.

Other houses sold close to their guide include Peatling Hall in Leicestershire (mentioned on this blog in July) which was offered at £4.75m, whilst the stunning Compton Pauncefoot Castle in Somerset suffered from an unfortunately timed launch in September 2008 at £17m which knocked buyer confidence meaning that it hung around until Febuary 2010 before selling at £15m.  Others had to drop their prices or accept being sold in lots with Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire selling for £15m to Jemima Khan once the rest of the 2,000-acre estate had been sold (originally offered as one for £42m), whilst Fillongley Hall in Warwickshire has yet to find a buyer even after selling 400- out of the original 500-acres originally offered when it went on the market in 2005 (£3.5m, Savills).  Pusey House in Oxfordshire, which was originally launched with 643-acres but when featured as the lead property advert in the September 15 magazine it was offered with just 67.

So who are the awkward squad?  Grade-I listed Noseley Hall in Leicestershire is still with Knight Frank with the same acreage; though now at £12m rather than the original £14m asking price, and Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire, a pocket Palladian gem, is still being offered (again with Knight Frank) – though mysteriously with no price, so probably less that the £4.5m guide in February 2010; and way down from it’s original price of £6.5m when it was first launched in 2007.  Up country, Yester House in Scotland is still available despite having had it’s price halved from £15m to £8m since the original launch in August 2008.

So, although the property market does seem buoyant, it does seem that some are struggling.  Perhaps the flurry of launches will bring an influx of new buyers who may take a renewed interest in the harder-to-sell properties, but they equally may well wonder why they are still available and pass them over.  It seems that some owners who are keen to sell are being flexible, either dropping the price or selling in lots, but for owners who refuse to budge the market may take a very long time to rise to meet what they think their property is worth.  It seems flexibility is still a vital attribute whatever rung of the property ladder you are on.

If in doubt, rent: Faringdon House, Oxfordshire

Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Renting a property has long been associated with those starting out on the property ladder but there is a long history of country houses, large and small, being tenanted for long periods of time.  Now the focus is very much on the sale of country houses with rentals being in the shade of their high-spending counterparts but there are still many fine houses available to those wishing to experiment with the country life or as a short-term solution.

Jane Austen was well-known for reflecting the social conventions of the aristocracy in her work and it’s interesting that one of the main characters in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the wealthy Mr Bingley, rents ‘Netherfield House’ whilst he considered which house and estate he would establish himself in.  This again is a pattern that still holds true today with those seeking to move to either a new area or out of town, renting to get a better understanding of an area.  These opportunities are available today where houses such as Puddletown Manor in Dorset are available for rent (£9,000 pcm) but also for sale (£6m) at the same time.

Country houses have been let for a variety of reasons.  One of the most common was simply that it might be a subsidiary seat and rather than simply leave it empty it was often let as a source of income.  Sometimes this included the entire working estate so that the new occupant could fully assume the role and responsibilities of the country gent.  Increasingly though in the Victorian era the house was let separately from the estate which would continue to be managed and run by the original family.  This was often the preferred option for the newly wealthy who aspired to the status and amenity of a ‘country seat’ but did not require the estate to generate an income.

This is why houses such as the Faringdon House in Oxfordshire [pictured above] are attractive as they allow someone else to simply move in (albeit for a significant monthly rent of £10,000) and enjoy a grade-I listed Palladian villa without the added burdens of ownership.

Letting was a handy solution when the family finances were insufficient for they themselves to live there.  The Marquess of Lansdowne became first Governor General of Canada and then Viceroy of India from 1883-1894 specifically to improve his financial position and keep hold of his estates.  These jobs came with benefit of government accommodation which freed up the family seat for letting.  In a letter to his mother he explained,

“India means saving Lansdowne House for the family.  I should be able while there not only to live on my official income, but to save something every year.  If I can let Lansdowne House, I might by the time  I come home have materially reduced the load of debt which has become so terrible an incubus to us all…”.

(n.b. when the Marquess refers to Lansdowne House, he is referring to Bowood House rather than their London townhouse of the same name which was sold by the family in 1783.)

The Second World War also offered a convenient escape route for some owners as country houses were taken over by evacuated schools who then stayed on such as at Motcombe House in Dorset.  Although the use of country houses as schools had been an established practice for many years (the 1920s saw Stowe, Canford and Bryanston all become schools) the widespread use during wartime meant that it gained even greater acceptability.   For the Earl Fitzwilliam at Wentworth Woodhouse who had seen his spectacular house vandalised by troops and a vindictive Minister for Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell, ordering the needless open cast mining of the gardens right up to the house, it was all too much and he let the house to become a training college for female PE teachers.

The letting of country houses has a long and varied history but it has mostly been driven by the need for country house owners to maximise their incomes.  Once the country house had ceased to be the physical embodiment of local political power following the reforms of the early 20th-century it became easier for families to simply move out and bring in tenants turning a costly extravagance into revenue.

Property details: ‘Faringdon House, Oxfordshire‘ [Knight Frank]

For those who like their houses with pedigree: Plumpton Place, Sussex

Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

One of the greatest of the UK’s country house architects was Sir Edwin Lutyens – a man with undoubted talent who was also able to use thoroughly modern techniques of collaboration and media exposure to boost his career and win business.  His main media connection was the tireless promotion of his work by Country Life magazine which was, in no small part, due to his close friendship with the founder and editor Edward Hudson.  So when Hudson needed to restore and modernise a manor house he’d bought it was inevitable who he would call on.   Plumpton Place in Sussex is now considered to be one of Lutyens’ best country houses and it’s for sale.

Lutyens (b. 1869 – d. 1944) was a master at the creation of houses which evoked what many would have in their minds as the ‘ideal’ country house.  He was able to marry the romanticism of the Arts & Crafts movement to his own clear ideas as to how a house should look both inside and out.  A strong proponent of using local materials he, more importantly, was able to use them in innovative ways which made his houses distinctive.

Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Clicks_1000 @ flickr)
Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Clicks_1000 @ flickr)

A classic example of this was his use of chalk at Marsh Court in Hampshire which gave this house a brilliant white appearance, and which contrasted with small tiles of knapped flint set into the walls and the red-brick chimneys.  Marsh Court (finished in 1904 and for sale in 2007 for around £13m) was the last of Lutyens’ ‘Tudor’ style houses but it would never be considered an old house – again showing his genius of matching local materials with an assured architectural design.

Much of Lutyens’ fame can be attributed to the unstinting support he received from Edward Hudson who had cleverly exploited the growing urban middle-classes interest in a nostalgic view of ‘olde’ England and the country lifestyle.  Founded in 1897 it chronicled not only the best of the grand old country seats but also sought to keep the tradition alive at a time when the lifestyle was beginning to come under threat. One of his writers was the renowned garden designer Gertrude Jekyll who had met Lutyens in 1889 and had collaborated with him to create some of the best regarded house-and-garden compositions in the country.  Jeykll introduced Lutyens to Edward Hudson in 1899 thus creating a life-long friendship between the two.  To Hudson, Lutyens’ ability to create these idealistic visions of country life were the perfect material for his magazine.  Coupled with the extensive use of their distinctive, high-quality black & white photos it provided an unrivalled opportunity for Lutyens to built fame with the middle-classes but also advertise his talents to the aspirational wealthy or the existing gentry.

Hudson was a man to put his money where his magazine was and commissioned Lutyens to work on three houses; Deanery Gardens, Lindisfarne Castle and Plumpton Place – all now considered to be Lutyens’ best work.  Hudson had bought Plumpton, a derelict, moated manor house, in 1928 for £3,300, to be used as a weekend retreat and a place to entertain.  In some ways Lutyens’ work there was a surprising contrast to the grand Classical-style banks and corporate work he was engaged with in London and elsewhere.  Lutyens created a new route to the house which used a theatrical sense of surprise to hide the house except for glimpses through arches and trees.  Inside the most notable addition was that of a music room with huge, almost mullioned, windows with small panes of glasses set into wooden frames rather than the then fashionable steel, flooding the room with light.

The house was bought in 1983 for £800,000 by an American venture capitalist called Tom Perkins who has since lavished ‘millions’ on careful restoration.   So if you have £8m, this is a rare opportunity to live in a genuine Lutyens masterpiece which has played its own part in shaping our national impression as to what a country house should look like.

Property details: ‘Plumpton Place, Sussex‘ [Knight Frank]