The Country House Revealed – Marsh Court, Hampshire

Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

As with artists, some architects start well and then just get better, culminating in masterpieces which are rightly praised.  With buildings, and particularly the usually distant country house, it can be difficult to truly appreciate them; their beauty a pleasure reserved for those invited.  Thus one of the delights of ‘The Country House Revealed‘ series has been to elevate us mere viewers into guests of some lesser known, but wonderful houses – and Dan Cruickshanks’ visit to Marsh Court in Hampshire proves just what gems are nestled in the countryside.

The house is the work of one of the best architects to have been produced by this country; Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens.  A master at the re-interpretation of traditional building forms and styles, his work is, in many cases, instantly recognisable. Yet, in others, his sensitive updating of existing historic buildings blends so seamlessly it’s hard to distinguish between old and new (one of the best examples of this is Great Dixter, Sussex).  Lutyens was working at the end of the Victorian era and his work grew into the perfect response to the glory days of the Edwardian period; those long summers of country house entertaining from the turn of the 19th-century which were so firmly ended by the horrors of WWI.  Yet this was also a time of a confident nation, with fortunes being made (and lost) in an increasingly mercantile world, in which wealth was not related to the land. This fact was reflected in a new style of country house which required the trappings of the traditional entertainments and accommodation but which didn’t require a vast estate to support it.

Deanery Garden, Berkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Deanery Garden, Berkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Lutyens was the right man at the right time – and with the right connections.  His rise coincided with a new interest in the countryside, which was now being opened up to the new middle class with their leisure time and the rail network.  Spotting an opportunity, Edward Hudson started ‘Country Life‘ magazine in 1897, which quickly became the publication of the country set – and, more importantly, those who aspired to join them.  Hudson had been impressed with Lutyens’ work, to the extent that he had him design his own house, the brilliant Deanery Garden in Berkshire.  The distinguished architectural writer (and Country Life writer) Christopher Hussey said that it:

“…may be called without overstatement a perfect architectural sonnet, compounded of brick and tile and timber forms, in which his handling of the masses and spaces serve as a rhythm: it’s theme, a romantic bachelor’s idyllic afternoons beside a Thames backwater.”

Replace ‘Thames’ with ‘Hampshire’ and this praise might equally, and perhaps more so, be applied to Marsh Court. However, one other key difference would be the material used in the construction of Marsh Court; clunch, the local hard chalk stone; used for centuries in churches and cottages but never for an entire country house.  It’s a mark of Lutyens’ mastery of materials and style that he would even consider it – and the effect is what helps elevate this house to being one of the finest in the country.

Marsh Court echoes something of the character of the client, Herbert Johnson, who was as an “adventurer, stockjobber, and sportsman” who made a fortune, lost it, and made another.  Lutyens came to the attention of Johnson through the regular articles in Country Life featuring his various commissions which Hudson was only to happy to publicise.  In many ways, Johnson was an ideal Lutyens client – willing to think big, with a suitable budget and, although wishing to join the country life, not excessively bound by tradition.  This suited Lutyens as he was able to develop his ideas around the ‘Tudor’ style house, but marry them with a modern take which dramatically elevated the design to ensure no-one could ever call it ‘pastiche’.

West front - Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
West front - Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The house, built between 1901 and 1904 with later additions also by Lutyens, is essentially an ‘H-plan’, though without the south-east leg, and goes back to his earlier interest in historic English architecture.  As the architectural writer Lawrence Weaver highlights, this house only works because Lutyens has perfected the balance of local materials through clever groupings of shapes and elevations, combined with contrasts in size and stone.  But even a good design might become too dominant in such an exposed location, sitting on a rise above the river Test.  Again, Lutyens has the ideal answer in his use of the sloped site to create terraces which ease the house into the landscape – note the change from two-storey on the north front to three on the south.  The stark white stone is also softened through the introduction of slates, flint and red-brick into the walls to create a mix of regular and irregular patterns, such as on the west front which gives the impression of tiles sliding down the walls like rain to pool at the bottom.  Only someone of Lutyens’ skill could attempt and succeed with such an architectural fancy.  The interiors are similarly impressive, with grand, almost Baroque, plasterwork in the hallway, combined with the fine panelling elsewhere.

Herbert Johnson moved out in sometime after 1940 and the house became home to evacuated children, and then, in 1948, a prep school.  It remained in this role for nearly 50 years before it was bought, for £800,000, in 1994, by Sir Geoffrey Robinson; industrialist, Labour MP but, most importantly, a heritage-minded multi-millionaire. Working with Michael Edwards, Sir Geoffrey and his wife Marie Elena undertook a comprehensive, yet sensitive, restoration of the house; removing partitions, restoring the ceiling plasterwork and updating the services. It was then sold for £6m in 1999 and then offered at £13m in 2007, before being relaunched in June 2008 at £10m before selling at £11m later that year.

Lutyens’ brilliant output was somewhat overlooked by the wider contemporary architectural world which was more interested in the developing Modern movement. Hudson’s constant championing of this visionary architect ensured that Lutyens’ work and reputation were assured even if he had never gone on to his later, much grander, projects designing the Viceroy’s Palace in New Dehli. In 1909, G. Lloyd Morris, although talking specifically about Marsh Court, provided an elegant summary of the essence of Lutyens’ skill in that the;

‘ unity’ which ‘…is the pre-eminent quality underlying the orderly and tranquil beauty manifest in [his] houses.  He never fails in this respect; one may cavil at certain details, or question the use and treatment of a material, but in the handling of the general conception there is always a breadth and a certainty in the composition that remains in the memory long after the details may have been forgotten.’

Certainly, Marsh Court succeeds overwhelmingly in this respect and is a worthy inclusion in any series looking at the finest country houses in the UK.

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

Superb photos of the house and gardens: ‘Marsh Court, Hampshire‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

More on the house and Lutyens:

New Series: The Country House Revealed – South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire

South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Traumahawk / flickr)
South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Traumahawk / flickr)

In contrast to the weekly dramas of Country House Rescue, a new series starting on the BBC, presented by the excitable Dan Cruickshank, looks at some of the finest homes in ‘The Country House Revealed – A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home‘.  The series promises a look behind the estate wall at some homes which have never been open to the public, giving us a rare chance to glimpse houses which enjoy secure, well-funded ownership and demonstrating that the fears of those who thought these houses would never be sustainable have been thankfully proved wrong.

The first in the series (broadcast 10 May on BBC2 at 21:00) visits South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire; a house which matches a beautiful exterior with impressive interiors dominated by some of the finest chimneypieces and period rooms in the country.  The house was originally built for Robert Long who made a fortune in cloth in the early 15th-century before becoming an MP in 1433, around which time it is thought the core of the house was started.  As was befitting a rich MP, he was keen to show his status and as was often the case with the gentry, his home was the main platform with which to show off his wealth and erudition, creating one of the finest houses in the country today.

England, at the time work started at South Wraxall Manor, was feeling the influence of the Italian Renaissance and elements of the new fashions were often incorporated into the best homes, though often adapted for our native traditions and styles.  This use of wider influences was also a symptom of the gradual shift in power as major building projects were increasingly commissioned by wealthy gentry rather than the Church or Royal Court.  Maurice Howard also highlights that although the Court was highly competitive which might have led to a single architectural style being favoured, in fact, the houses we still have show how tenacious local styles were.

Chimneypiece c.1600, South Wraxall Manor (Image: (c) Nicholas Cooper)
Chimneypiece c.1600, South Wraxall Manor (Image: (c) Nicholas Cooper)

This continuation of the vernacular can be seen in the architectural vocabulary used by those commissioning the houses, drawing still strongly on ecclesiastical traditions.  Reading the full listing description for South Wraxall one might almost believe it to be a local church or monastery – windows with Perpendicular tracery, buttresses, even gargoyles.  The house was significantly remodelled around 1600, creating what John Julius Norwich calls ‘one of the major Jacobean rooms in all England‘.  A vast west window floods the room with light and is matched by one at the other end of the room, providing the illumination to highlight a most impressive fireplaces – a colossal, florid statement of importance.

Each generation of the Long family added to the house, with additional wings and chimneypieces, and extending the estate.  As with other such early houses which have survived subsequent centuries without ‘modernisation’, this was due to a small element of luck in that it was inherited by a branch of the Long family in 1814 who were already well established at Rood Ashton House, Wiltshire (largely demolished c.1950) meaning the house was often rented out.  The house let between 1820-26 and served time as a boys school, before the 1st Viscount Long took over c.1880 following his election as a local MP.  Viscount Long undid much of the damage caused during its time as a school when the linenfold panelling had been painted over and the ornate ceilings plastered over, however he never really took up residence there.  The house was let for the rest of the 19th-century and the early 20th, before the 2nd Viscount Long moved in in 1935.  Used to house refugees in WWII, the family again lived there before finally selling up in 1966, ending over 500-years of family ownership.

South Wraxall then entered a rather uncertain period, until it was bought by a businessman with plans to turn it into a country house hotel but who had some issues with the local planning authority over unauthorised changes (for example, I think he glassed in the loggia without permission).  The house was up for sale again in 2003 for £6.5m after the businessman abandoned his plans.  After languishing on the market for a couple of years – probably due to the extent of the restoration required – it was bought by the current owners: John Taylor (bass player with the band Duran Duran) and his wife Gela Nash (founder of the fashion house Juicy Couture) who apparently have done an excellent and sympathetic job of the repairs, thus rescuing a house that is a quintessential example of an English manor house.

Full listing description: ‘South Wraxall Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further information: ‘South Wraxall Manor‘ [Wikipedia]

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

Rest of the series

This looks to be a fascinating set of programmes – for reference the other houses featured are:

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]