A Salvin for sale: Mamhead House, Devon

Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Strutt & Parker)

One of the pleasures of running your own blog about country houses is that you get to play favourites.  I’m often asked which is my favourite but this is a difficult one to answer; is it the one I want to live in (currently Bragborough Hall, Northamptonshire), the one I most want to visit (Mereworth Castle, Kent), or one that I think is just stunning (Bruern Abbey, Oxfordshire)?  However, there are some which just hold a special affection – and that, for me, has to be Mamhead House in Devon, partly for its beauty and also for no better reason than it having been local to where I grew up.

Mamhead’s main claim to fame is that it was the project which established one of the best Victorian architects; Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881).  Described as a pioneer of Gothic Revival architecture, Salvin could be seen as the secular equivalent to the religiously driven Pugin. Both sought to restore Gothic as the traditional form of design most suited to the nation, but whereas Pugin saw this as a devotional mission to return Britain to how it might have been had the Reformation never occurred, Salvin saw Gothic as the form which was best suited to our landscape and aesthetics.  Salvin’s historically rigorous approach saw him create some of the most interesting country houses of the Victorian era – and Mamhead is a rare example which has now been restored to its former glory.

According to Mark Girouard, Salvin’s reputation appropriately rests on his country houses, dismissing his churches as ‘seldom interesting‘, and that it’s ‘hard to regret‘ that his designs for larger buildings such as the new Houses of Parliament and the Carlton Club were never built.  However, in the sphere of the country house; his success rested on his ability to combine three elements; “the domestic or castellated architecture of the Middle Ages and the Tudors; the design techniques of the Picturesque; and the needs of the Victorian upper classes“*.

The first Mamhead House, Devon shown c.1826, demolished c.1828
The first Mamhead House, Devon shown c.1826, demolished c.1828

Salvin specialised in the restoration and modernisation of ancient buildings, building on a precocious interest in medieval architecture which saw him elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1824, aged just 24.  His obvious scholarly talent marked him as someone to watch but it’s still unclear exactly how he secured his first commission at Mamhead – especially as he replaced a more experienced architect whose plans he then had to adapt.  The owner, a merchant called Robert Newman, had commissioned Charles Fowler, who had designed a classical house to replace the existing house (altered by Robert Adam for the Earl of Lisburne in 1774), which Newman appears to have decided not to proceed with, possibly seeing the winds of fashion shift towards the Gothic.  He may also have been influenced having seen Kitley (now a hotel), also in south Devon, which had been remodelled by George Stanley Repton between 1820-25, in one of the first attempts at authentic Elizabethan.  This change of heart gave Salvin his opportunity.

Moreby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Country House Picture Library)
Moreby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Country House Picture Library)

For Pevsner, Mamhead was the house which established Salvin as the chief Victorian architect for large country houses in the Tudor style. Salvin was constrained in that he was working from the existing symmetrical plan and denied the chance to introduce the projection and recession of elements so traditional with Gothic.  However, this plan does have tradition in that it has the feel of an Elizabethan E-plan house; though one where the main door has been moved to the corner rather than the expected middle. These minor quibbles were to be later offset by the masterly later additions.  Mamhead’s cost of £20,000 was financed from income, so although work started in 1827-8, the final interiors (strangely being the entrance hall) weren’t finished until seven years later.  During this time Salvin’s knowledge and experience grew – not least through his second commission for a new country house; Moreby Hall in Yorkshire, built between 1828-32. Here he enjoyed a freedom to create and developed his own arrangement of a central, two-storey hall off which came the main rooms and which also allowed warm air to circulate – not only visually impressive but also practical.

Conservatory - Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Devon Life)
Conservatory - Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Devon Life)

It was perhaps the later additions of stables and the conservatory at Mamhead where Salvin clearly demonstrated the flair which marked the original thinking of a great architect.  Rather than continue strictly in the same style, the stables were now to be housed in a mock, red sandstone castle, modelled on Belsay Castle in Northumberland, slightly above and behind the house, with the conservatory in a more correct Gothic design.  The conservatory is a beautifully elegant single-storey extending from the north-west of the main house featuring four Perpendicular windows leading to a two-storey pavilion leading to the garden.  The skyline features many pinnacles with an interior decorated with carved scrolls and verses, shields, and carved panels – all in stark contrast to the rather severe fortifications which Salvin chose for the stables at the other end of the house.

Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)
Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)

Mamhead is fascinating as it not only shows early brilliance in an architect’s career but unusually also is a house which shows all the styles in which he worked – both the Gothic and the fortified.  Salvin’s skill with the Gothic form and vocabulary perhaps found its greatest expression in his third country house commission: Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire; a fantastical composition which took full advantage of its location and the wealth of the owner.

Harlaxton must be seen to be believed and even when one has seen it, it is not always easy to believe it.” said Mark Girouard – and who can disagree?  Harlaxton takes the elements of Gothic and Elizabethan but then injects the visual flair to give it a skyline to rival Kirby Hall, Burghley or the lost Richmond Palace. The house is almost theatrical but coherent enough that the look isn’t overwhelmed by any element.  Inside, the most spectacular feature is the famous Cedar Staircase which seeks to match the outside with an unexpected Baroque interior.  The design demonstrates how quickly Salvin’s skills had developed, with the work at Harlaxton starting just three years after Mamhead.

Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)
Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)

By contrast, Peckforton Castle would be recognisable to a medieval knight as a useful fortification.  Rising prominently above the relatively flat Cheshire countryside, the imposing red sandstone castle is very much in the tradition of BurgesCastell Coch for the Marquess of Bute, and the later Castle Drogo by Lutyens.  However, a significant difference is the much greater degree of historical accuracy, perhaps appropriate considering it was visually challenging the truly medieval Beeston Castle on a neighbouring hilltop, but also to reflect the benevolent feudalism of the owner, John Tollemache who spent huge sums on buildings and homes for his workers.  However, the widespread public discontent at that time, with the risks of mobs and rioting, meant that it is also possible that Tollemache chose a castle with the intention that it be defensible.  So successful was Salvin’s design that even a critic (fellow architect George Gilbert Scott) called it a “…a perfect model of a Medieval fortress…“.  I think Salvin enjoyed the challenge of this design; a rare chance to build an uncompromising castle in a way which hadn’t been necessary for 500 years, fully taking advantage of his encyclopaedic knowledge of fortifications.  Today, despite being badly damaged in a recent arson attack, the castle is still a fascinating example of his work.

Apart from ecclesiastical work and alterations to existing houses such as Warwick, Alnwick and Dunster castles, he also designed a number of notable country houses including, in addition to those already mentioned: Cowesby Hall, Scotney Castle, Parham Park, Skutterskelfe Hall (one of Salvin’s rare Classical designs), Crossrigg Hall, Keele Hall, and Thoresby Hall, which still survive today.  Sadly, Flixton Hall, Campsea Ash High House, Congham High House, Stoke Holy Cross Hall and Hodnet Hall have all either been completely demolished or, in the case of the latter, significantly reduced.

Salvin was one of those rare Victorian architects whose work started strongly and just got better.  To have the opportunity to purchase the first major work at Mamhead is a rare privilege and one that I hope the new owner will recognise and appreciate.

Sales details: ‘Mamhead House‘ – £8m, 164-acres [Strutt & Parker]

Lovely article with many photos in ‘Devon Life’: ‘Mamhead House

More details:

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* source: foreward to ‘Anthony Salvin: Pioneer of Gothic Revival Architecture‘ by Dr Jill Allibone which I can highly recommend, and which was very helpful for this posting.

Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?

Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)

As the pressures of the twentieth century forced more country houses owners to face the reality that they could no longer live as they had and would have to move out of their homes they then had to decide what to do with it.  Unfortunately this meant demolition of hundreds of large houses but some owners were more creative and many houses became commercial premises, either as hotels, schools or institutions, and others became some of the grandest office buildings in the country.  However, recent pressures of this century have now seen some of these offices being converted back into homes or being offered for sale as an opportunity to do so.

In many ways the country house has always had an element of the commercial to it with the estate offices usually being based either in a part of the main house or in a nearby building to enable the owner to deal with business without having to travel far from home. The changes of the twentieth century were on an altogether more comprehensive scale with the entire house being changed to accommodate the demands of business.  This not only meant the conversion of the main house with all that entailed for the interiors but also the building of further offices in the grounds.

Sometimes the development was kept a good distance from the main house such as at Ditton Park in Berkshire.  This became the office of the Admiralty Compass Observatory from 1917 until it was sold in the 1990s to Computer Associates who built a huge office building to the west of the main house (which became a conference centre) leaving the setting intact.

Sometimes though it’s possible for smaller businesses to be accommodated just within the main house such as at Gaddesden Place in Hertfordshire.  The house, built in 1768, is a elegant Palladian villa (similar to the White Lodge in Richmond Park) and was James Wyatt’s first country work.  The site is said to have some of the best views in the home counties and the sensitive use of the house has allowed to remain in splendid seclusion.

However, modern concerns mean that a country house has lost some of it’s appeal as offices.  One key issue is that by their nature the houses are isolated meaning that employees must have cars to reach it leading to more cars on the roads and the need to provide huge areas of parking.  Stronger heritage legislation now also means it’s much harder to alter the houses to meet modern business requirements such as air conditioning and computer networking.  The nature of the houses also means that maintenance costs are higher than for a purpose built office.

This has led to some houses which were formerly offices to be converted back into homes.  Mamhead House in Devon, built between 1827-33 and regarded as one of Anthony Salvin‘s finest designs, it was, for many years, a school before becoming offices for a local building company.  It was bought by a businessman who converted the main part of the house back into being a home whilst still letting out part of the house to the Forestry Commission.

Perhaps the grandest and largest opportunity for many years to restore a house into a home is the mansion at Benham Valence in Berkshire.  This superb house was built in 1772-75 for the 6th Earl of Craven and was designed by Henry Holland in collaboration with his father-in-law, Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the famous landscape architect.  The south front features a grand tetrastyle Ionic portico which looks out over a large lake with views into the parkland.  Inside, there are many fine chimney-pieces bought from the sale at Stowe in 1922, including one from the State Dining Room.  It also features a small circular double-height vestibule adjoining the inner hall, a design later adopted by Sir John Soane.

The house was empty in 1946 and remained so until it was sold in 1983 and converted to use as offices with a large wing to the north east of the house being demolished and replaced, in part, by an ugly 80’s complex providing over 100,000 sq ft of space.  Luckily though the main house was largely spared and remains Grade II* with the 100-acres of Grade-II parkland. Now offered for sale at £6m this is a rare opportunity to create a wonderful country house – providing it’s possible to obtain planning permission to convert it back – which, once restored, could be worth £10-12m.  One key requirement would be the demolition of the office complex and the ripping up of the huge car park – but give me a pickaxe and I’ll be happy to lend a hand.

Full property details: ‘Benham Valance, Berkshire‘ [Strutt & Parker]