A theatre of innovation: Cragside, Northumberland

Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)
Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)

One hundred and fifty years ago, as 1863 drew to a close, the great industrialist Lord Armstrong may have reflected on a year in which innovation was sweeping across so many areas of life and, perhaps, his own future plans for his new country house at Cragside, Northumberland.  Country houses have often been at the nexus of innovation as they contain just the right mix of elements; namely a fashion for novelty, complex issues to be solved and a desire to impress others, along with the resources to experiment.  Cragside was to be a fine example of all these desires, a joint effort between an inventor owner and an inventive architect.

1863 was another year of great industrial developments as diverse as the running of the first Underground trains in London and the patenting of TNT, both of which would have far-reaching consequences.  That driving spirit of creativity spurred the Victorian engineer to look at many challenges, both large and small, seeking solutions which provided greater utility and comfort, though often tempered by the conservatism or financial reluctance of the owner.

Comfort and luxury are not always as synonymous as they are today and tales are legion of freezing country houses where one bathroom (used only for bathing naturally) served a whole house.  Owners of older aristocratic houses often felt little need to modernise; after all, if you had hot and cold running servants ferrying coal and water about the house this was often cheaper than a full refurbishment.  Worse, such improvements might be seen as nouveaux-riche (and therefore vulgar), unhealthy, or, worse, American. By contrast, the new money aristocrats in the Victorian era often had worked their way from less distinguished backgrounds and were keen to use anything which provided a better life – and also gave them the social bragging rights of novelty.

Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Open fires have been the mainstay of country houses for hundreds of years but central heating – either steam, hot air or hot water – started making a comeback in the late Georgian period (remember the Romans introduced it first). The library at Bowood House, Wiltshire was thought to be the first modern room to be centrally heated when it was introduced in the 1790s (although it wasn’t all that successful).  Other centrally heated single rooms were to be found at Pakenham Hall, Co. Westmeath in 1807 where ‘The immense hall so well-warmed by hot air that the children play in it from morning to night‘.  The first multi-room ducted hot-air arrangements could be found at Coleshill, Berkshire in 1814, and Abercairny, Perthshire in 1829. Steam proved difficult to control (though it was installed by Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in 1823) so other early examples were either hot air (Osmaston Manor – 1846-49, Flixton – 1847, or Tortworth Court – 1849-52) or hot water via radiators (Mentmore Towers – 1850-55).  These systems rarely extended beyond the entrance areas, hallways and main downstairs rooms.

Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Ventilation was always a challenge and the unpleasant accumulation of stale air and the smell of gas was exacerbated by the higher building standards of the Victorians which reduced drafts.  Many houses such as Kelham Hall, Mentmore, Dobroyd Castle and Wykehurst Place had ventilation shafts fitted in individual rooms but they were fairly inefficient.  One of the most advanced systems was created in 1846-49 for Francis Wright, a wealthy ironmaster, at his home Osmaston Manor in Derbyshire.  A single intake near the kitchen drew air from outside before heating it and distributing it around the house.  Coal fires in individual rooms then drew the stale air towards them but the flues all took the air downwards into a central extractor system which vented though a single huge 150-ft chimney in the kitchen garden, thus eliminating the need for huge chimneys in the main house (though it had smaller ones).  Sadly the house was demolished in 1965, thus denying us the chance to marvel at the ingenuity.

Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)
Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)

Bathrooms and indoor plumbing were often a great source of inconvenience. Even as late as 1873, such a grand house as Carlton Towers, Yorkshire, had no bathrooms with washing still undertaken via hand-filled basins and hip baths.  By contrast, Stoke Rochford Hall in 1839 had fifteen and by 1874 Wykehurst had the then radical innovation of each bedroom being a suite with its own bathroom.  A number of country houses were demolished for reasons of inconvenience with a  lack of bathrooms often cited, especially as the complexities of adding them to older houses was to prove insurmountable, either technically or financially.

Such challenges were often a catalyst for innovation – particularly if the owner was one of the industrial titans of the age, a man as comfortable in the workshop as the boardroom. Although William Armstrong (b.1810 – d.1900), 1st Baron Armstrong (after 1887), started his professional life as a solicitor he was able to turn his analytical mind to practical challenges as much as legal ones.  The genesis of his engineering career stemmed from his love of fishing where he noticed how inefficient waterwheels were and so designed a much more efficient water-powered engine. He successfully showed it could be used to hydraulically power cranes and thus improve the speed of cargo unloading at the docks.  This formed the basis for Armstrong’s engineering firm in 1847 and his first fortune.  The firm’s greatest fame/infamy came due to the later armaments work which Armstrong had turned to when he read that the British Army had difficulties with heavy field guns during the Crimean War. Success here with his revolutionary design and, later naval versions, led to the creation of a shipbuilding firm which won orders throughout the world, generating his second fortune.

The Lodge 'Cragside', dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw's editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)
The Lodge ‘Cragside’, dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw’s editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)

Armstrong’s obviously busy and productive life gave him great status in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and beyond and his main home in the city was a grand, if heavy, suburban creation called Jesmond Dene House.  As befitted any Victorian man of wealth and social stature and due to the pressures of running his businesses, Armstrong sought a country retreat.  Having visited the Rothbury area as a child, he looked there for a suitable estate, eventually buying in 1863 the then small shooting lodge and 20-acres of land which formed part of a steep-sided valley through which ran the Debdon Burn. Over the next few years, as Armstrong came to reduce his involvement in his businesses, Cragside became a passion; a place to retreat but also to enjoy more domestic challenges with the help of one of the most brilliant architects of the age, Richard Norman Shaw. Armstrong eventually came to own 16,000-acres of Northumberland, including Bamburgh Castle, of which 1,759-acres surrounded Cragside in which he had planted over 7m trees and innumerable rhododendrons.

View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

Between 1869-84, Cragside was transformed into a modern Victorian plutocrats palace, but one incorporating all conceivable innovations, powered by his own hydraulic engines. The first challenge was the location, which was ideal for a small lodge but cramped for the house which it eventually supported.  The steep hillside meant that space for expansion either had to be created through excavation or by building up the ground.  What it lost in convenience, it gained in views; spectacular vistas overlooking the remote Northumberland countryside.  Unfortunately, those views – both from and of the house – are now somewhat obscured by some of those same trees planted by Armstrong.

One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)
One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)

It was inside the house that the inventive mind of both owner and architect could really find effect.  For Shaw, Armstrong was an ideal patron, offering none of the conservative reticence he might have found in other clients, able to offer either his innovations or those of his friends. By December 1880, Cragside was the first private house in the UK (and Girouard thinks possibly in the world) to have electric light comprehensively installed, thanks to Armstrong’s friendship with Joseph Swan, with his eponymous filament bulbs throughout. Power for these innovations came from Armstrong’s own hydroelectric engines, running from the Burn below.

With the luxury of his own cheap and apparently limitless power supply, Armstrong and Shaw’s opportunities were myriad.  In addition to the lighting, the central heating system was also driven by a hydraulic engine.  That same power source also enabled the kitchen to boast a hydraulically-powered spit with the heavy pots in the conservatories moved by hydraulic machinery, with an electric sewing machine and electric communication throughout the house and even out to a shooting lodge on the moor.

View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

To his contemporaries, Cragside must have seemed beyond ingenious – a place grown from an inhospitable hillside, packed with innovations.  The house became a significant marketing tool for Armstrong as visits from his prospective customers, including the King of Siam, the Shah of Persia and the Crown Prince of Afghanistan, gave him the chance to demonstrate the advanced technology they could be buying into, a true theatre of innovation.  The Prince and Princess of Wales also visited in August 1884, thus giving the royal seal of approval to such a modern approach to the traditions of the country house.

Cragside passed to the National Trust in 1977, sadly missing the best of Armstrong’s picture collection (sold in 1910), but cared for and open so we can enjoy seeing the products of two great Victorian minds.  Despite being the genesis of domestic hydroelectric power, a gas turbine was installed in 1895 to provide more power before being connected to the National Grid in 1945.  However, in early 2014, the National Trust is again installing a modern hydroelectric screw to once more generate electricity for the house providing a welcome return of innovation.

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Article: ‘Hydro-electricity restoration work starts at Cragside‘ [BBC News]

Official site: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust]

160+ images: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust Images]

Rothschild-shire: the grand and the glorious (2/3)

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

The Rothschilds were social, as well as financial, titans.  In the first part of this now three-part article on the country houses of the Rothschilds, we saw the family establish their firm in England and later elevating their social standing through their estates at Gunnersbury Park, Tring Park and the opulent Halton Hall. Part two covers the two greatest houses created by the Rothschilds; Waddesdon Manor and Mentmore Towers.

One supposedly defining characteristic of the Rothschild’s UK country houses is their preference for the Neo-Renaissance ‘French chateau’-style – but this is more due to the fame of one house.  In Europe, the family often (though not exclusively) built in a style that could be recognised as the dominant one for a particular country, but in the UK they opted for alternatives – or a policy of ‘Anything-but-Gothic’.  One theory is that the other styles lacked the Christian associations which Pugin had so firmly nailed to Gothic – but perhaps they were just being more European in their tastes.  However, they did develop a remarkably similar interior style; a rich, luxurious environment featuring heavy fabrics with fine art and furniture, which became known as ‘Goût Rothschild‘, and which heavily influenced the newly wealthy American plutocrats.

One of the greatest expressions of this combination of French exterior and lavish interior was found in the creation of the remarkable Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire. Perhaps the most famous of the Rothschilds’ houses and also one of the grandest of the houses of the family in the UK.  Built between 1874-1883 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839–1898) it was designed by Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, who also designed the Imperial Mausoleum of Emperor Napoleon III in Farnborough in 1883, and had previously designed a townhouse for Albert de Rothschild in Vienna.

Aerial view of Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Waddesdon)
Aerial view of Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Waddesdon)

As Pevsner said in his entry on Waddesdon Manor, ‘Baron Ferdinand certainly got as much as anyone could have demanded‘. This was to be a building at the top end of country house construction – the 2,700-acres cost £240,000, with another £55,000 for levelling off the top of the hill for the site and creating access roads, and £87,000 for the completion of the shell, for a total of £382,000 (equivalent to £161m in 2012 using an average earnings comparison) – and this was before the fitting out of the sumptuous interiors. Finally, it was filled with his spectacular collection of paintings, objet d’art, tapestries, and furniture.

Tower Room, Waddesdon Manor (Image: Waddesdon)
Tower Room, Waddesdon Manor (Image: Waddesdon)

The exterior of the house is a grand composition of various elements from châteaux such as BloisMaintenon, and Chambord, married with elements of Louis XIII and some older Louis XII details, as though the house had grown over time.  Yet, as befits such a house, it was rife with modern details; at its core, a steel frame which allowed the room layouts to vary by floor, multiple bathrooms with hot and cold running water, and electrification, including a chandelier which Queen Victoria reputedly spent 10-minutes simply turning off and on, having never seen such a thing before.

The house was the luxurious setting of a social high-life and remained in the Rothschild family until 1957 when James Armand de Rothschild, who had inherited it in 1922, bequeathed the house, 165-acres, and the splendid collections to the National Trust – along with the largest endowment they had received to ensure it remained perpetually well-maintained, with family involvement through the management committee.

Outcome: owned by National Trust, with family involvement

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

Waddeson Manor today is what Mentmore Towers also was – and, sadly, could so easily have been but for the blinkered lack of vision of a former government. Mentmore was the first of the great Rothschild palaces in Buckinghamshire, built between 1852-1854, and was designed by Joseph Paxton and his son-in-law, G.H. Stokes, for Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild. It was remarkable for not only its size but also the detail and thought that went into it, setting a benchmark for the family and a clear demonstration of their wealth.  It was also a statement to the rest of the Rothschild family about the success of the UK branch – so much so that when his Paris-based cousin, Baron James de Rothschild, saw it he engaged Paxton himself with the instruction “Build me a Mentmore, but twice the size“.  The result was the Château de Ferrières, just outside Paris, which caused Wilhelm I, the Emperor of Germany, on seeing it to exclaim that “No Kings could afford this! It could only belong to a Rothschild“.

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: john edward michael1 via flickr) Click to see large version
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: john edward michael1 via flickr) Click to see large version

Architecturally, the house is distinctive for being one of the few to successfully imitate the scale and style of Wollaton Hall, Robert Smythson‘s masterpiece built in Nottinghamshire in the 1580s.    Deliberately drawing inspiration from a classic of Elizabethan architecture, this was a political message about ‘fitting in’.  However, the scale and exceptional quality of the work also made this a large and conspicuous statement of their financial standing.  Mentmore is even built of the same Ancaster stone as Wollaton and copies the arrangement of the square corner towers and ornate stonework.  However, it is missing the grand central tower of Wollaton; though there is a top-lit central hall around which the rooms are organised.  One other amusing criticism raised was that it might have been somewhat imprudent to have sited the housemaids’ room just at the foot of the mens’ stairs…

Great Hall, Mentmore Towers (Image: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library via flickr)
Great Hall, Mentmore Towers (Image: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library via flickr)

The tragedy of Mentmore is that it could have become one of the treasure houses of Europe.  It had survived virtually unchanged, including with its spectacular collections, which were said to be the best in private hands outside of royalty, up until the death of the 6th Earl of Rosebery (he inherited from his father, who had married Baron Mayer’s only child, his daughter Hannah).  Offered to the nation in lieu of £2m in inheritance taxes, the government of James Callaghan rejected the offer, demanding cash.  After three years of discussions, and a campaign by individuals and organisations, the collections were sold, raising over £6m, with various national institutions spending around £2m in total to secure just a few choice items.

The house was then sold to the Marharishi Foundation, who it’s generally accepted, kept it well-maintained.  It was then sold in 1999 to property developer Simon Halabi who had grand and unsympathetic plans for a luxury hotel.  The financial crisis thankfully saw the end of those, however, the house is now regarded as ‘at risk‘ without an immediate restoration in sight – though with the possibility that it might be for sale.

Outcome: collection sold, future of house unclear, ‘at risk’

These two houses represent the high-point of the architectural and artistic endeavours of the Rothschilds, easily matching in scale and grandeur the houses their relations were also creating across Europe.  Mentmore is a spectacular house in itself, even if it’s denied its collection, but Waddesdon encapsulates not only the personal enjoyment the family gained from creating these palaces, but also the philanthropic aspect which means that we can all now marvel at the ‘Goût Rothschild’ experience.

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Dear Readers, you’ll perhaps have noticed that I’ve now decided to split this topic into three parts as it appears I was being a little ambitious trying to get them all into two – the final instalment will follow shortly.

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Part One: ‘Rothschild-shire: the wider fate of UK country houses mirrored in a family (1/3)

Listed building descriptions:

Is Mentmore Towers finally for sale?

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

After various legal battles it seems that Mentmore Towers, one of the finest country houses in the UK may be for sale.  Part of the property empire of Simon Halabi, who was declared bankrupt in April 2010, it was bought with the intention of turning it into six-star country hotel with the ‘In and Out Club’ as the London clubhouse.  The plans were thwarted by the global financial crisis which not only reduced the market for such a venture but also the financing.  Now with the recent £150m sale of Halabi’s prime London West End estate, which included the ‘In and Out Club’, putting Mentmore on the market is the next logical stage of the disposals.

The only source for this story is a blog post by Christian Metcalfe who writes the Legal blog on the Estates Gazette website which has enough details to make it sound very plausible.

The grade-I listed Mentmore Towers was built between 1852-54 for Baron Mayer de Rothschild as one of several country houses built for the Rothschild family in the area.  Designed by Joseph Paxton, architect of Crystal Palace, the neo-Renaissance house was inspired by the Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses such as Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire.  Inherited by the Baron’s wife and then his daughter, it then passed to her husband, the Earl of Rosebery, following her early death.  It remained in the Rosebery family until the death of the sixth Earl in 1973 when the then Government stupidly turned down the offer of the house and world-class collections in lieu of death duties, triggering one of the finest country house sales of the 20th-century.  The house plus 81-acres was then sold in 1977 for £220,000 to the Transcendental Meditation foundation as a meditation centre, who cared for the house until it was sold in 1997 to Simon Halabi.  Since then little work has been done on the house and there have long been fears for its condition with English Heritage placing it on the ‘At Risk’ register.

The house is now apparently being quietly offered for sale, by as yet unknown estate agents, for around £16m – but no details on how much land would be included.  At that price, the house would be a bargain on square footage basis alone – but it would require a huge financial commitment from the new owner to not only restore the house but maintain it in the future, ideally as a family home.  The Rothschild’s have remained very much involved with the estate so perhaps this is their opportunity to bring it back into the family – although with Sir Evelyn de Rothschild living at nearby Ascott House perhaps Nat Rothschild, the incredibly successful hedge fund manager said to be worth around £300m, might like to take a look?

Original blog story published June 7, 2010 3:35 PM: ‘Will the real estate agent please stand up, please stand up‘ [Estates Gazette] – @Christian: if I do find out who the estate agent is, I’ll be sure to let you know.

What’s to happen to Mentmore Towers?

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

Running  a country house is always going to require a certain level of wealth with larger houses easily costing six figures a year in basic running costs and maintenance.  When funds are lacking it can be the house which shows the physical consequences as it becomes difficult to fund the ongoing care. Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire is one of the largest and impressive houses in the UK and the latest reports that its owner, Simon Halabi, has been declared bankrupt raise some worrying concerns about the future of this grand house.

The grade-I listed Mentmore Towers (known locally and to staff as just ‘Mentmore’) was originally built between 1852-54 by Baron Mayer de Rothschild of the famous banking family.  Designed by Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame) the neo-Renaissance style echoed houses as Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire and following Sir Charles Barry’s work at Highclere Castle in 1838.  The interiors are considered to be some of the finest Victorian designs and workmanship in the country.

Mr Halabi’s original plan was to convert Mentmore into a six-star country club with a London equivalent based at the ‘In and Out’ Club on Piccadilly which was also part of his property empire.  The global financial crises appeared to put these plans on hold before the collapse in property values caused a default on the bond secured on these properties which led to the bankruptcy.  Both properties are on the English Heritage ‘Buildings at Risk’ Register – indeed, Mentmore has been on for over 8 years with particular concern about the elegant stonework and the roofs with the danger of serious leaks increasing with each month goes by.  An earlier story on this blog (‘Simon Halabi and Mentmore Towers‘) produced a series of comments that indicated that a lack of maintenance was already taking it’s toll on the house.

So what’s to happen next?  Although Mr Halabi’s fortune is much reduced it is expected that the sale of various properties from his White Tower property empire will cover the £56m required to clear the debt which led to bankruptcy.  Ownership of Mentmore is also thought to be obscured through a web of companies but, if the report in The Times is correct, it is likely to be last property Mr Halabi would want to sell as his young son Samuel who tragically drowned in France is buried on the estate.  Hopefully, the bankruptcy will provide the opportunity for Mr Halabi to re-organise his empire, free up some capital and undertake not only the urgent basic repairs but also secure the long-term future of one of the most important country houses in the UK.

More details: ‘Hunt for Simon Halabi after tycoon is made bankrupt‘ [The Times]

Mentmore’s London sibling for sale

Mentmore Towers
Mentmore Towers

Simon Halabi’s original plan was to develop a super-luxury, six-star club experience with members enjoying country facilities at Mentmore Towers, in Buckinghamshire, with a London base at the In and Out Club on Piccadilly.  However, the recent global crisis seemed to put the plans on hold and concerns had been raised (including in comments on earlier blog post: ‘Simon Halabi and Mentmore Towers’ – 17 July) as to whether sufficient maintenence was being undertaken at both locations.

The master plan appears to have now been changed with the news that the In and Out Club has been put up for sale.  Included in the deal are various neighbouring buildings which give the potential for the sale to raise up to £250m. It’s not known what Mr Halabi’s plans are but one can only hope that the money raised will benefit Mentmore Towers, preserving and protecting this important country house.

Full story: ‘Mayfair’s In and Out Club on market‘ [Financial Times]

Simon Halabi and Mentmore Towers

The Times (‘Halabi may have to sell-up to pay loan‘ – 16 July 2009) is reporting that Simon Halabi, the multi-millionare businessman, may have to sell part of his London property portfolio to satisfy bond holders after the value of the properties dropped by nearly half, breaching the loan-to-value ratio of the bond secured against it.  In 1997, Halabi bought the Grade-I listed Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire, formerly one of the Rothschild banking family’s most famous and impressive houses,  with the intention of converting it into a luxury hotel.  It’s not known how far work on that project has progressed but the grand chateau-style house, which also starred in the film ‘Batman Begins’ as Bruce Wayne’s house, is just too important to be forgotten so I hope that his other issues don’t impact on the work being undertaken as part of that project.