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.
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: