40 years on from the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition

Many was the time I stood in that exhibition watching the tears stream down the visitors’ faces as they battled to come to terms with all that had gone.’ – Sir Roy Strong [Diaries, 1974]

'Destruction of the Country House' exhibition, 1975 - V&A
‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition, 1975 – V&A

In October 1974, one of the most influential exhibitions ever staged by a UK museum opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  The ‘Destruction of the Country House‘ laid bare the scale and depth of the losses the UK had suffered, showing how four centuries of architectural tradition and achievement in country houses had been severely damaged by the depredations of the 20th-Century. It was conceived as a dramatic display to waken the nation to the threat faced by country houses and the danger faced by all aspects of heritage.  This was in an age with weak legal protection and which seemed to be growing ever more apathetic, or even hostile, to the idea of preserving what represented the cultural character of the UK.  The exhibition was a huge success, not only in terms of the impact on the public, but also in being the catalyst for a long-term shift in how we seek to save and manage our heritage.  From 13-21 September, a new exhibition at the V&A, ‘Country House – Past, Present & Future‘, seeks to revisit this ground-breaking event and look at the future of the country house.

Thorington Hall, Suffolk - demolished 1949 (Image: Lost Heritage / Tiger Aspect Productions)
Thorington Hall, Suffolk – demolished 1949 (Image: Lost Heritage / Tiger Aspect Productions)

By the 1970s, relatively few people would have been aware of the parlous state of a significant number of country houses and how many had been lost in the demolition binges of the 1930s and the 1950s.  However, that there was a crisis was recognised not only by the owners of the houses, but also by the government which in 1948 had created a committee to look at ‘Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest’ and tasked it:

To consider and report what arrangements might be made by the Government for the preservation, maintenance and use of houses of outstanding historic or architectural interest which might otherwise not be preserved, including, where desirable, the preservation of a house and its contents as a unity.

The committee’s conclusions, which became known as the Gowers Report, were published in 1950 and the tone could be determined from the first paragraph which stated that ‘What our terms of reference require us to consider is not whether houses…should be preserved, but how this is to be done‘. The report made a number of recommendations including the creation of the Grade listing system we are so familiar with today, combined with tax concessions to which owners would be entitled, and also financial assistance for which they may be eligible. The aim to create a legal framework where restrictions on the rights of the private owner were compensated by financial incentives to ensure the preservation of these houses.

Trentham Hall, Staffordshire - in its heyday and during demolition in 1912 after being polluted by nearby industry  (Images: Lost Heritage)
Trentham Hall, Staffordshire – in its heyday and during demolition in 1912 after being polluted by nearby industry  (Images: Lost Heritage)

Yet, by the early 1970s it was clear that the crisis had not been solved, as demonstrated by the title of a report published in 1972: ‘Country Houses of Britain – can they survive?‘. Written by noted architectural historian John Cornforth, he sought to explore why the issues surrounding the sustainability of the country house had not yet been resolved, but also to cast the debate in a new era of soaring inflation, economic malaise, and with threatened punitive taxes on the asset rich (though cash poor).

In was at this time that Sir Roy Strong had conversations with Christopher Gibbs but the core of the idea came from John Harris, now noted architectural historian, but also a keen fisherman who, in his youth in the 1950s, had surveyed many an abandoned parkland and empty country house whilst fishing the ornamental lakes (adventures later recounted in his book No Voice from the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper). Combined with Marcus Binney, then at Country Life, they conceived and created this most remarkable exhibition, quite unlike any before or since.

Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition at the V&A

Designed by Robin Wade, the layout took visitors through a short display showing the glories of the country house, but then, as they turned a physical and symbolic corner, were faced with an almost full-height portico tumbling to the ground.  On the pillars and walls were photos of some of the hundreds already lost, whilst in the background, John Harris sombrely intoned a roll-call of their names.

Original poster advertising the Destruction of the Country House exhibition - 1974 (Image: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Original poster advertising the Destruction of the Country House exhibition – 1974 (Image: Victoria & Albert Museum)

The exhibition captured the public imagination, with queues forming to see it at the weekends and the catalogue becoming a best-seller.  Yet, it wasn’t just the public who were captivated by it; in the last week, the Queen, Princess Margaret, Lord Mountbatten, and various government ministers all visited too.  1975 was designated the European Architectural Heritage Year and so focused minds on how to help ensure the survival of the nation’s heritage. This resulted in further legislation which strengthened the legal protection afforded to buildings.   The exhibition also led Marcus Binney to form SAVE Britain’s Heritage, a campaigning charity which took a far more pro-active approach than had traditionally been the case, achieving many notable successes, as it continues to do so today.

Politically, the exhibition could not have opened at a more awkward time – just two days before a general election which brought in a Labour government whose proposed ‘wealth tax’ would have made private ownership of most of these houses unsustainable, probably leading to further wholesale demolition.  Yet, the exhibition also has been identified as ‘…a pivotal moment in the history of country house preservation and heritage politics more generally.’ (Ruth Adams). In truth, a shift had started, as shown by the strong reaction to the proposals by John Baring to demolish The Grange in Hampshire in 1972 which prompted angry exchanges of letters via The Times. However, after the exhibition, no longer were country houses an elite interest for just the owners or art historians, but now the public started to identify with them as part of their national heritage, as something which embodied characteristics and history which they wished to be saved. That broad public sense of attachment to heritage has grown and become almost a natural part of the national psyche (apart from, it seems, in the minds of developers and their occasionally pocket planning committees).

For me personally, the lost country houses were the subject which were the catalyst for my own passion for country houses, leading to the creation of the Lost Heritage website in 2005. The aim is to create the most comprehensive list of all notable lost English country houses – and as far as I’m aware, is the only current ongoing research into the topic. Having seen the ruin of Guy’s Cliffe House about ten years ago, I then started trying to find out more, with two of the most important sources being the superb Catalogue of the exhibition and Giles Worsley‘s later book, the beautiful and elegiac ‘England’s Lost Houses‘.  These contained a gazetteer of known losses – the version in the Catalogue compiled by John Harris and Peter Reid, with Giles’ list building on theirs to take the total to 1,169.  John had estimated that as many as 2,000 had been lost since 1800 and after nearly a decade, sadly my Lost Heritage research has a total of 1,925 (as at Sept 2014), largely proving him correct.

The ‘Destruction of the Country House’ was as much a platform as an exhibition. Although aimed at the public, it was also a touchstone for a wide variety of heritage interests to coalesce and focus their energies and arguments. This helped to create a society which increasingly understood and appreciated heritage but also one which felt there was some collective responsibility towards its defence.  One can only hope that, as a nation, we can continue to recognise the importance of the country house, as well as heritage more broadly, to ensure that those in the future can continue to appreciate their beauty and the rich cultural history they represent.


Events – 2014


Further reading

An academic assessment of the impact of the exhibition: ‘The V&A, The Destruction of the Country House and the Creation of ‘English Heritage‘ – Ruth Adams [Museums & Society]

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.

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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.

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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‘.

Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)
Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)

One often forgotten aspect of local newspapers is their ability to draw on their archives and provide reminders of local history. The local paper frequently played an important part in publicising the goings on at the ‘big house’, reporting the successes and scandals with usually equal vigour.  A recent article in the Northamptonshire ‘Evening Telegraph‘ reflects not only on the collapse of the Volta tower, built by the owner of Finedon Hall as a memorial to his drowned son, but also the later dereliction and near loss of the house itself as it slipped from dereliction ever closer to demolition.  Yet, unlike so many hundreds of other country houses which were lost, Finedon Hall was one of the many which have been saved.

c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)
c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)

Finedon Hall has 17th-century origins but its current style is the result of what Mark Girouard called “eccentric chunky” alterations by E.F. Law for the owner, William Mackworth-Dolben, in the 1850s.  Built in a Tudor-Gothic style in the local ironstone (which was quarried on their land) the house passed through the family until the last of the family, the spinster Ellen Mackworth-Dolben died in 1912.  With no heirs, the estate was sold off in parcels with the house passing through a number of owners before being bought by developers in 1971.  For over a decade they allowed the house to deteriorate until just ten years later parts of the roof had gone and the exterior was in serious danger of collapse.  Luckily, more enlightened developers stepped in and during the 1990s the house (and estate buildings) were converted into apartments.

One of the largest houses to be converted in this way was Thorndon Hall in Essex.  One of James Paine‘s largest commissions, this Palladian mansion was originally built for the 9th Lord Petre in 1764-7 but was gutted by fire in 1876, leaving only the eastern end of the main block and the eastern pavilion intact.  The Petre family lived in the reduced house until 1919 when they leased it and the estate to a golf club and they moved back to the original family home, Ingatestone Hall.  The house remained a largely ruined shell until it was sold for development in 1976 but was then bought in 1978 by a local builder who created a total of 84 apartments in the house, pavilions and estate buildings.

Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)
Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)

One of the most accomplished and intelligent of the developers to convert country houses is Kit Martin who has saved several houses and including Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  The house was largely remodelled by Ambrose Isted in 1755 in the then relatively new ‘Gothic-Revival‘ style (Horace Walpole had only started his work at Strawberry Hill in the early 1750s and it’s considered one of the earliest houses in the new style).  The house was filled with fine art, books and furniture and passed through the Isteds and then, by marriage, to the Sothebys who owned it until the last died, childless, in 1952. At this point the rot set in; builders called in to remove a large kitchen extension also, apparently, stole the valuable lead from the roof leading to dry and wet rot. Alexander Creswell, visiting in the 1980s, described the scene:

“The rich ochre stone of the garden front is engulfed in Virginia creeper, and sparkles of broken glass litter the terrace.  Inside the house, the drawing room fireplace rises above a heap of plaster that the roof has brought down…At one end of the house the winter storms have toppled a gable, which in falling has crushed the fragile camellia-house below; one surviving camellia blooms among the rubble of ironstone – the only flourishing vestige of Ecton’s former glory” – ‘The Silent Houses of Britain

However, by 1989 Kit Martin had finished his work and the new apartments were advertised for sale in Country Life; a remarkable rescue for this almost lost house.

Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)
Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)

Perhaps Kit’s finest work is Gunton Park in Norfolk.  The house was originally the work of Matthew Brettingham, a competent, if sometimes unimaginative, Palladian who had first achieved recognition with his work executing William Kent and Lord Burlington‘s designs for Holkham Hall.  This work brought him to the attention of other aristocratic clients, particularly in Norfolk, including Sir William Harbord who commissioned him in 1745 to design a replacement at Gunton for an earlier house which had burnt down three years earlier.  Brettingham’s house was to be significantly enlarged c.1785 to designs by James Wyatt.

Sadly, fire struck again; in 1882 the Brettingham portion of the house, including the fine rooms, was almost completely gutted and remained a forlorn shell for the next 100 years.  Kit Martin bought the house in 1981 and sensitively created well-proportioned apartments in the remaining wings. The front of the Brettingham wing (pictured above) become one large house separated from the main block by a large void created by the fire but still linked by the retained façades.  It’s not just the house which has been rejuvenated; the parkland – nearly 1,000 acres – has also been bought or, through agreements, reunited (and in the process winning an award from Country Life magazine) to restore the setting of this elegant house.

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)

It’s rare for a house, once in a state of dereliction, to be restored as a single family home, yet thankfully it does happen. Barlaston Hall is one example of this – and it’s rescue was down to some bold decisions by the campaigning charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and their President, the architectural writer Marcus Binney, who was offered this elegant house for £1!  Barlaston Hall is, according to Binney, almost certainly the work of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714 – d.1788).   The house is a relatively unadorned but sophisticated house, enlivened with unusual octagonal and diamond glazing bars in the sash windows; Taylor’s response to the popularity of Chinese Chippendale furniture and a general fashion for the Rococo.

Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)
Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)

However, the house had been built on several coal seams which threatened the house when they were mined in the 20th-century.  Structurally unsound, it had been abandoned and vandalised but SAVE stepped in to challenge Wedgewood’s application to demolish.  At the subsequent public inquiry, the National Coal Board threw down the challenge that SAVE could buy the house for £1 provided it completed restoration and repairs within six years.  SAVE swung into action, raising money through grants and by forcing the NCB to meet its obligations (which it did after some shameful attempts to avoid doing so), and the house was stabilised, restored, and subsequently sold to a couple who completed the interior and it remains a family home.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr) - click to see large version

Sadly there are many country houses still at risk today – though the rescues also continue. Pell Well Hall in Shropshire, a wonderful house by Sir John Soane built in 1822-28, has been restored as a shell after decades of neglect, vandalism and fire, and now requires someone with vision to complete the process.  Bank Hall in Lancashire was featured in the original ‘Restoration’ TV series but has continued to deteriorate with sections collapsing.  However, planning permission is being sought to convert the house into apartments which will enable restoration of the house. One house however has, inexplicably (well, to me), remained unrestored; Piercefield House in Monmouthshire.  This beautiful house, again by Sir John Soane, became uninhabited and was mistreated during WWII by the American troops stationed nearby who used the façade for target practice.  The house, set in 129 acres, has been for sale for several years but despite the architectural provenance and the wonderful setting it remains unsold.

The story of the country house has always been one of changing fortunes, which sadly led to many being demolished. The difference now we have heritage legislation is that whereas before houses were often simply demolished, now their plight is likely to drag on for many years.  Restoration is often the best course of action, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible, and ideally as a single family home, though the less palatable options of conversion are always to be preferred to the complete loss of another of our historic houses.

News story: ‘Fascinating history of Hall‘ [Evening Telegraph]

So you can’t afford a whole house: country house apartments

Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Country houses were always a community with not only the family but also a significant number of staff.  Yet as these houses became more uneconomical and houses emptied, large sections often lay dormant, until the family moved out and, in darker times, the house might be demolished.  However, conversion of the house into multiple individual homes offered a route to not only save the house but ensure that it was lived in rather than just used as a conference centre or hotel.  These apartments are now highly prized and offer the fascinating possibility of living in a grand stately home without many of the burdens – but only if it was converted sensitively and the setting preserved, which sadly isn’t always the case.

The idea of converting country houses into smaller, more manageable units is a fairly modern practice, largely since World War II, though some smaller conversions had taken place previously.  A pioneer was the now defunct Country Houses Association which was set up in 1955 to provide shared accommodation, with communal meals, for well-to-do retirees in good health in a style to which many residents had formerly been accustomed. The first house to be bought and converted, in 1956, was the red-brick Elizabethan Danny in Sussex. Next, in 1959, was the grade-I listed Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a Soanian masterpiece with an elegant central block framed by two wings (though this has now been converted back into being a single home).  These set the pattern which was successfully repeated for seven other houses, some of which remain as retirement communities despite the collapse of the CHA scheme.

Around the same time, Christopher Buxton formed ‘Period and Country Houses Ltd’ which focused on creating independent units within the house and estate buildings.  Buxton had several notable successes such as the restoration of Kirtlington Park in Oxfordshire, keeping the splendid central portion as his own home, and also Charlton Park in Wiltshire, seat of the Earls of Suffolk, who currently still live in a portion of the house and own the 4,500-acre estate surrounding it.

In the 1950s and 60s, sale adverts for country houses often included the phrase “eminently suitable for conversion”.  Other developers could now see the potential and developed their own schemes – but with little heritage protection they often did more harm than good.  For them the key to getting the maximum profit was to cram in as many units as possible within the house and estate buildings before trying to built in the parkland.  This sadly meant that the grandest rooms in the houses – ballrooms, libraries etc, – would be crudely sub-divided, wreaking their proportions and destroying decorative details.  Sometimes developers simply developed the houses in the estate and then neglected to restore the main house, often citing the mounting costs of the work.

Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)
Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)

A sad example of where the house has been compromised through too many units is at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire, a grade-I listed house of 1686, with later work by Lord Burlington in 1728-30 for Sir John Rushout.  An architecturally interesting house with a Classical east front topped with a decorated pediment, which contrasts with Burlington’s work on the east front, which was later, oddly, given shaped gables sometime between 1788-1804.   Empty from 1976 with significant thefts of chimneys and doorcases and general deterioration, it was then bought including just 19-acres in 1986 by a local developer for £2m.  With repairs estimated at the time to come to at least £1.5m, the local authority permitted some enabling development totalling 68 new units – with just six in the main house itself.  However, the new properties had to be sited within the footprint of existing estate buildings leading to an overcrowded development with the house becoming almost an architectural ornament, lost in the rest of the residential development.

Many of the most successful and sensitive conversions have been undertaken by Kit Martin, a gifted architect who has saved some wonderful houses and been instrumental, with assiduous promotion by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, in demonstrating that it is possible to convert a house without compromising it.  His particular skill was in dividing the houses vertically, rather than horizontally, which gave each residence (as they always are in KM’s developments – never apartments) a range of rooms and usually included one of the fine rooms.  Starting with Dingley Hall, a beautiful but terribly derelict house at risk of complete loss, he has worked on a number of significant houses including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire, and Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  His finest work, however, has been at Gunton Park in Norfolk, grade-II* listed house of 1742 designed by Matthew Brettingham with later work c1785 by Samuel and William Wyatt.

Formerly seat of Lord Suffield it had suffered a serious fire in 1872 leaving a large section of the main house as a burnt out shell.   Fortunately for Mr Martin, extensive Georgian estate buildings had been constructed in anticipation of future work to enlarge the house which never happened, leaving him with a perfect opportunity to create a new community.  He then proceeded to vertically divide the main house into four large 5,000 sq ft houses, with other smaller houses created in the wings and outbuildings.  Having restored the house, he then sought to recreate the 1,500-acre parkland by William Gilpin and Humphrey Repton and has succeeded in re-acquiring over 1,000-acres and has been replanting over 6,000 trees – each one in the place originally marked out on Repton’s plan.

It’s not known in total how many country houses have been converted to multiple residences but it is probably at least between 40-50.  Many of these would otherwise likely have been demolished so conversion is preferable but only where it respects the existing architectural heritage and setting.  However, where successful, these fascinating properties allow the opportunity for those of lesser means to experience living in the grandeur of a stately home with the cost and responsibility of owning a whole one.


Examples of apartments currently for sale in country houses:

 

The greatest threat: fire strikes at Tidmington House, Warwickshire

Tidmington House, Warwickshire (Image: Philip Halling/Geograph)
Tidmington House, Warwickshire (Image: Philip Halling/Geograph)

With sad co-incidence, having recently posted about how owners respond to fires in country houses, news comes through that Tidmington House in Warwickshire was badly damaged whilst undergoing renovations.

Tidmington was built in the early 17th-century but was re-fronted in the 18th-century giving it a pleasing and elegant facade, which is visible from the road. Distinctive gables top a neat front which successfully mixes Elizabethan elements with the classical.  The recessed central section runs from a smaller middle gable featuring a Diocletian (or thermal) window, above a first floor tripartite Venetian window, sometimes known as Palladian or Serlian after the two architects most associated with popularising it, with finally the two wings being joined by a Tuscan colonnade.  Two 1-bay pavilions extend to the left and right, providing a clever balance to the height of the main house.

The grade-II* listed house was once the home of Thomas Beecham, 2nd son of the famous conductor, before being put up for sale in 2009 for £3.95m by the owners who had moved there in 1988.  The house was then given a glowing write-up in The Times by Marcus Binney who relished the bold use of colour; the sky-blue library, the jade green dining room – but I wonder if the bold colours in the house contributed to the situation as it was during renovations by the new owners that the fire started.

The blaze is reported to have badly damaged the first floor where the fire started and also part of the ground floor but hopefully a majority of the 8,500 sq ft house will have been spared from the flames – though the inevitable smoke and water damage will have spread beyond the immediate blaze.  Again, it shows that insurance companies are right to demand to be told when works are taking place as it is so often during renovations when these fires seem to break out – please don’t let this be another workman being careless with a blow-torch.

More details: ‘Country house is hit by fire‘ [Cotswold Journal]

Conversion reversion? Wardour Castle, Wiltshire

Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

With so many country houses lost in the twentieth century, almost any alternative which saved them from the demolition crew was to be welcomed; no matter how drastic.  For some this meant institutional use but for many others of all sizes the solution was conversion into flats and apartments – though with varying degrees of success.  However, as these properties come on to the market, is it perhaps time to consider converting them back into the single, glorious houses they were intended to be?

Launched this week (16 June 2010) in Country Life magazine is the principal apartment in what is considered James Paine’s finest creation; Wardour Castle, a supremely elegant essay in Palladian architecture.

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

Built from 1770 – 76, for the eighth Lord Arundell the most impressive feature is a breath-taking central stairwell with first-floor gallery which Pevsner called ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’ and which forms the core of Apartment One which is now for sale.  Wardour Castle house has proved to be adaptable becoming Cranborne Chase School in 1960 until it closed in 1990 when it was then converted into ten apartments.  As the divisions appear to have respected the natural sections of the house this seems to be a good example of where someone could convert the house back to a single home.

There are many examples of houses being rescued by conversion.  SAVE Britain’s Heritage have long campaigned to protect these houses and have worked in conjunction with one of the leading architects, Kit Martin, in supporting conversion.  A 1983 SAVE report entitled ‘The Country House: to be or not to be’, written by Kit Martin and Marcus Binney, includes particularly interesting studies of how these houses could be sensitively converted.  These show that although almost any country house could be sensitively adapted some are naturally more suitable particularly where the overall layout of the house is symmetrical, shallow and long.

The study was an important milestone in the practice of country house conversion and saved many houses from complete loss or inappropriate use including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, the grade-I Northwick Park in Gloucesterhire, Dingley Hall in Northamptonshire.  The sensitive approach they championed now means that it should be possible to consider converting a house back if the right opportunity arose.  It should be said that some houses are never going to be converted back due to a variety of factors including there being too many apartments involved such as at Thorndon Hall in Essex which contains 37 flats, or where not enough land has been retained to make the unified house valuable enough to justify reversion.

Perhaps the idea of reversion becomes more realistic where more than one part of the same house comes on the market at the same time such as recently happened with grade II*-listed Ampthill Park House, Bedfordshire.  Built by the Cambridge architect Robert Grumbold in 1687-9 and completed by John Lumley of Northampton in 1704-6, with major additions by Sir William Chambers in 1769 it is certainly one of the most impressive houses in the county. It was rescued from dereliction by conversion into just four large houses; two of which were put on the market in April 2010, the largest of which includes most of the principal rooms.

Although it’s nice to dream about these houses becoming single homes probably the biggest obstacles are not only being able to secure the other apartments but also that the value of the individual properties may be greater than the value of the unified house.  However, it’s not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that someone with deep pockets and a desire to restore a house could take on one of these conversion reversions and recreate a superb country house.

Property details: ‘Apartment One – Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [Strutt & Parker] – £2.75m

Detailed architectural description: ‘Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [English Heritage: Images of England]

A glimmer of hope: ‘Country House Rescue’ visits Kelly House

Kelly House, Devon (Image: English Heritage)

Kelly House has a series of long associations; there has been a house there for over 900 years, it has been the seat of the Kelly family for that entire time, and, sadly, has been on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register for over five years.  Now the latest twist in the tale is that the house will feature in Channel 4’s ‘Country House Rescue’ on Thursday 1 April when expert Ruth Watson offer possible solutions which will help the Kelly family remain in their ancestral home.

The Kelly’s are one of the very rare families able to trace their lineage back to pre-Conquest times.  Warin Kelly is the 31st squire of the family to live in a house which has been passed down since 1100 through fathers, grandfathers, and brothers.  Described as being ‘in a class of its own’ by Marcus Binney*, the elegant Palladian house was built in 1743 -45 for Arthur Kelly by Abraham Rundle (d.1750), a joiner and provincial but obviously skilled architect who lived in Tavistock.  The house is grade-I listed and features a Portland stone doorcase, sash windows glazed with Crown glass and made in London, with local slat stone walls with moorstone quoins. Inside, the extensive high quality woodwork  features superb carving including panelling, chair rails, and a particularly good staircase with chunky corkscrew balusters.

However, the fine panelling hides serious issues such as the periodic bouts of dry rot which break out. Mr Kelly, as a conservation architect advocating minimal intervention, admirably refuses to treat it with chemicals or by stripping out the panelling.  This ongoing damage is largely the fault of death duties, with two demands being levied in swift succession which have severely limited the family’s ability to maintain the house.  Kelly House is exactly the sort of house which the Historic Buildings Councils would have provided grants for when they were set up in the 1950s.  Today, with English Heritage’s budgets under severe pressure, Mr Kelly was told in 2005 that they were unable to provide funds as the increase in the value of the restored house would be greater than the grant – meaning that they force owners towards the sale of their ancestral homes.

Much as it would appear difficult to argue for the provision of public money to preserve private residences, there has to be a better solution than just letting them slowly grow more derelict despite the often heroic efforts of the family involved.  The current generation doesn’t want to be the one which is remembered for having to sell the family seat, leading to a battle against the elements of decay which saps finances and families and often doesn’t provide a long-term solution.  Outside expertise is to be welcomed as it may show the way to a sustainable future for these beautiful homes. Hopefully Ruth’s suggestions can be taken on by the Kellys and other families to ensure their homes are self-financing and not a burden to either the state or the owners who are then able to look forward to the prospect of handing a home and not a liability to their descendants.

Programme details: ‘Country House Rescue‘ (Channel 4)

More information: ‘TV show could help manor restoration‘ [Western Morning News]

Official Kelly House website: ‘Kelly House

* – ‘Houses to Save’ – article by Marcus Binney in Country Life magazine (8 September 2005)

Ranton Abbey to be resurrected – or replaced?

Ranton Abbey, Staffordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

When the historic Ranton Abbey was accidentally set alight and gutted in 1942 by the Dutch troops stationed there, it was likely that it would go the way of many other houses and simply be demolished. Yet the Earls of Lichfield, who owned the 300-acre estate, simply left it and focused on turning the land into a first-class shoot, allowing the house to slowly collapse, leaving just the ivy-clad walls visible today.

The death of the 5th Earl, the famous photographer Patrick Lichfield, in 2005, prompted the family to look again at the estate.  However, rather than simply sell it they decided to obtain planning permission for the building of a new house and have now put both for sale at £3.5m.  Although an obvious course of action, the choices made seem a bit odd.  The new house is strongly Palladian in design but the projections produced so far have it sited so close to the red-brick shell of the old house, and the grey stone of the church, that it seems to have almost landed there by accident.  It certainly does not seem to appear at home in this location and appears almost arbitrary, resulting in three large architectural elements fighting for prominence in a small area.

As the respected architectural writer Marcus Binney says in the ‘Bricks and Mortar’ supplement of Friday’s Times newspaper, surely the better option would be to restore the original house.  This would bring back the balance which existed before and remove at once the obvious difficulties of leaving the old house as a giant garden ornament to compete with the new house.  Whoever buys the estate and planning permission will hopefully think again about this scheme and look seriously at restoration.

Full story: ‘Historic homes: restoration dilemma‘ [The Times]

Property details: ‘Ranton Abbey, Staffordshire‘ [Knight Frank]