Guided missel: the rise of the country house guide book

‘Dear Picture Editor for the 2017 National Trust Handbook

National Trust Guide Book 2017
National Trust Guide Book 2017

Yours is a challenging job. Faced with selecting one cover image to represent the National Trust for an entire year and with the myriad opportunities presented by having over two hundred country houses (unfortunately now minus Clandon), hundred of thousands of acres of countryside, and 775 miles of coastline, such a welter of natural and man-made beauty makes your task both enviable and daunting.

It’s therefore somewhat odd that the 2017 image is a close-up of a couple and their slightly disdainful-looking dog getting caught in a wave on a beach. The lady in the couple looks distinctly unhappy, the chap is possibly saying a swear word. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that the bloke is wearing a bowler hat. For a walk on a beach. Of course, you would know that the bowler was created in August 1849 by the famous London hat-maker, James Lock, for the Coke family at Holkham Hall to help protect their gamekeepers from branches; both those attached to trees and those wielded by poachers. Holkham Hall, awkwardly, is not one of the many country houses (minus Clandon) under NT care so this image is, on many levels, a bit silly.

For next year, may I personally suggest a country house. Though I fear that they, as a class, appear to somewhat out of favour in the upper echelons of the NT, hopefully by appearing on the cover of the handbook, it may remind them that they are custodians of one of the finest groups of country houses one could dream to care for in perpetuity (minus Clandon).’

Guide books have long been a source of fascination for those who visit country houses. Topographical guides have been written for hundred of years to help those of us fascinated by country houses to determine which we might be able to gain entry to and revel in, whether in splendour or shabbiness.

Country house tourism is not a modern phenomenon.  Whether pilgrim or royalty, the idea of visiting houses was an ingrained part of the tapestry of life in the Middle Ages for providing hospitality.  One key difference can be seen in the preferences of Henry VIII who largely visited his own houses compared to Elizabeth I who frequently visited those of her favoured courtiers. Thus the concept of the country house (or palace) being built as much for display and prestige as the more mundane practicalities of large scale domestic occupation became a core characteristic of aristocratic life.

An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen [1806]
An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen by John Brittan [1806]
In the Georgian era, the burgeoning wealth of the expanded upper classes afforded increased leisure opportunities for travel and cultural pursuits. Their desire to assimilate themselves into the attitudes of the existing aristocracy fuelled a natural curiosity about their lives and tastes.  With frequent wars on the Continent often thwarting the traditional Grand Tour destinations, travellers now looked more domestically to visit their extended families and their friends. Even without the wars, it’s likely that the opportunities for women to travel were more restricted and to visit other ‘good’ families in their homes would have been an acceptable way for them to broaden their knowledge and tastes, thus cross-pollinating ideas, styles and fashions.

However, a family’s immediate social circle might contain only a limited number of contemporaries with whom they would be comfortable lodging.  Therefore, when visiting an area, either as a family guest or staying in accommodation, for example during the Season in Bath, day trip visits to other country houses was a favoured activity.  Despite the expectation that an owner would, as part of their duty to better society, open their house, the key question was how to find them and to determine whether they would even be amenable to visitors, no matter how genteel. Much as today, in fact, and hence the birth of the country house guidebook.

Opening Times in 'An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen' by John Brittan [1806]
Opening Times in ‘An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen’ by John Brittan [1806]
By the latter part of the eighteenth-century, an infrequent stream of visitors had become something of a torrent, if not a flood. Houses near large conurbations were particularly susceptible as Horace Walpole found at his charming neo-Gothic villa at Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, described as ‘the prettiest bauble you ever saw’.  Writing to his friend Sir Horace Mann in July 1783, Walpole complained that ‘I am tormented all day and every day by people that come to see my house, and have no enjoyment of it in summer.’  Areas with a higher density of fine houses, which were within a day or two ride of a city or existing tourist destinations, such in as Norfolk, Derbyshire or Wiltshire, were soon part of an unofficial British Grand Tour. This was a natural progression for a society structured around the idea of circuits; domestically through suites of rooms and socially through visiting friend’s houses and at functions and balls.

Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire (J. Skelton, 1825)
Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire (J. Skelton, 1825)

As the idea of country house visiting grew, so did the need to manage the number of visitors and their conduct whilst in the houses. Some simply refused access – a galling experience for those who might have travelled long distances such John Byng, who despite being just a civil servant, toured widely.  On being refused access to Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire, he splenetically cried ‘Let people proclaim that their great houses are not to be view’d, and then travellers will not ride out of their way with false hopes.’ Owners increasingly favoured knowing when visitors may appear and so started having set days of admission. By 1760, Chatsworth was specifically open on two days per week. In 1774, Walpole, though ‘very ready to oblige any curious persons with the sight of his house and collection’ started personally issuing tickets and rules for good conduct.

The internal tours of country houses were usually conducted by the housekeeper who would provide rich accounts of the history of the building and family and details about the works of art – and sometimes the information was even true.  Unfortunately many myths about a family’s history and unwarranted artistic attributions for paintings are likely to have been started by the imagination of the unwitting guide. As the hobby of visiting grew in popularity so too did demand for more accurate accounts; giving birth to the new concept of the guidebook. The earliest from the 1730s-40s were more for reference at home rather than from a carriage and usually focused on individual houses, giving a history,  a catalogue of art works and sometimes a plan for the route to take through the house. These quickly spawned more democratic versions from competing booksellers, sometimes for the same property such as Benton Seeley’s ‘A Description of the House and Gardens…at Stow‘ (first published 1744, totalling twenty-two subsequent editions)

'Plan of the Library Story' from 'The Peak Guide; containing the topographical, statistical, and general history of Buxton, Chatsworth, Edensor, Castlteon [sic], Bakewell, Haddon, Matlock, and Cromford' by Stephen Glover of Derby [1830]
‘Plan of the Library Story’ from ‘The Peak Guide; containing the topographical, statistical, and general history of Buxton, Chatsworth, Edensor, Castlteon [sic], Bakewell, Haddon, Matlock, and Cromford’ by Stephen Glover of Derby [1830]
The guidebooks were both guide and tutor, ushering the visitor through an agreed route around a house but also providing sometimes detailed entries on each individual art work with the expectation that the visitor would view and gain a deeper understanding. This can be seen in ‘The Peak Guide‘ by Stephen Glover [1830] where the entry for the most significant house in the county, Chatsworth, runs to a generous thirty-seven pages. Starting with a description of the immediate vicinity, the bulk of the text runs to great detail on the Cavendish family, the architectural history (including the architects, painters, plasterers, even the plumber’), and the expected walking tour of the house.  A typical entry reads

The second Drawing-room is 36ft by 30ft hung with Gobelins’ tapestry, representing the Death of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter and John healing the cripple, and Paul and Barnabas at Lystra. In an oval compartment in the ceiling is painted the discovery of Mars and Venus. In this room are the following portraits, viz. William, first Earl of Devonshire, in his state robes, ascribed to Mytems; and declared by Mr. Walpole to be one of the finest single figures he had ever seen. Two fine whole-length portraits, said to be the Earls of Pembroke, with pointed beards, whiskers, vandyke sleeves and slashed hose; James, Duke of Ormond, and an Earl of Devonshire, in the costume of the seventeenth century

The level of detail created almost the sensation of a virtual tour, allowing those who could afford a copy of the book, or at least get access to one, the chance to imagine inhabiting the palaces and houses which may be socially or physically out of reach.

Guidebooks have evolved continuously as the requirements of owners and visitors have demanded. Early National Trust books were written by noted historians such as John Cornforth and maintained the seventeenth-century principle of guidance and education. However more recent editions have dispensed with much of the in-depth information in lieu of more pictures of daffodils or scones (and let’s not even get started on the paucity of information about the houses on the National Trust website *sigh*). Happily, other private owners have created lavish books very much in the form of those earlier versions – Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and Boughton, Northamptonshire, are notable examples.

Whatever their role, the guidebooks are an essential component to the experience of the country house. Without them, the rooms would simply be an anonymous store of gilded treasures, without context or understanding. The books remain the key which unlocks the secrets of the houses; the owners and their motivations, their collections and tastes.

Handbook reviews

Hudson's Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums & Heritage Sites 2017
Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums & Heritage Sites 2017

Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums and Heritage Sites 2017

Content (design/layout): Having now been published for 30 years, the Hudson’s guide is a unique oracle for identifying ‘historic houses & gardens, museums and heritage sites’ for your visiting pleasure. In slightly-larger-than-A4 format, this is a book to be enjoyed as much at home, with full-page entries for leading houses, enhanced by full-colour photos. Bonus features include interviews and number of interestingly varied articles (including location filming / James Paine / The Clive Collection / Indian influences on the Royal Pavilion) and thematic guides such as dog friendly sites, events venues, and which properties have guided tours. If there is any criticism it’s that some of the smaller entries for houses read as though it were copied from their usual leaflet and sounds a little off-key.  However, given the comparatively almost lavish space, most sites have an informative, rather than purely functional, write-up with history and details on the art and architectural features.

Comprehensiveness: Unrivalled – the guide is invaluable when in an unfamiliar area and need to plan days out. It includes private properties, National Trust, HHA, plus other heritage sites.

Convenience: The larger-than-A4 format and number of pages means this is not one for the pocket and would be a bit hefty to carry all day. That said, the design means that planning your itinerary is both practical and a pleasure.

Verdict: Even if you get other member handbooks for free, for those wanting more detail or looking to visit a broader range of heritage sites, the Hudson’s guide is unequalled and definitely worth the modest investment. (Available on Amazon or all good bookshops)

*Transparency notice: Hudson’s did send me free copy to review but had no editorial input to any part of this blog post and I’d buy a copy anyway.

National Trust Members Handbook 2017

Content (design/layout):  As the product of many years of refinement, the guide is an excellent way to plan your visits. Set out with listings by county, each property or location has a brief write-up though some properties eclectically get more space and further details. All the useful information is in there including opening times and facilities. Bonus content includes a clever themed index highlighting which properties tick boxes for ‘Adventure playground, boat hire, bicycle hire, camping and caravanning, gardens, ghosts, and industrial heritage’. Note that neither ‘art’ nor ‘architecture’ make the cut as categories. Ghosts though, do.

Comprehensiveness: Unsurprisingly, it only covers National Trust properties.

Convenience: About the dimensions of a paperback novel so easy to leave in the glove box of the car or add to a rucksack.

Verdict: A benchmark for member organisation guides – one that marries convenience to practical information to help plan visits. Just wish it felt able to give equal billing to the houses and their contents as much to the playgrounds and cafes.

Historic Houses Association Friend’s Handbook / English Heritage

Unfortunately I’m not a member (there are limits to funds and time, you see) so I haven’t seen a copy of the latest version – but if said organisations would like to send me this year’s edition, I’ll add details to this page.

Other suggestions

If anyone can suggest other guides (either members or general) then please do comment below.

Find out more

Reflections on the loss of Clandon Park, Surrey

Loss is mainly regret that we will never see something, or that we have known it and will never see it again.  Where the loss is of something of beauty, which embodied ideas, history, culture, it takes on many facets. Fire is a destructive, cruel enemy, consuming all in its path; caring not for the value – either great or small – simply taking whatever it can as fuel for its avaricious need to grow. On 29 April 2015, as the fire at Clandon Park took hold we hoped for the best – yet sadly, less than twelve hours later, all that remained was a gaunt, blackened shell. The loss was not just the building and its beautiful interiors and contents, but also what it represented to UK architectural history.

Clandon Park, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Clandon Park, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

News breaks now on social media, the first photos and reports of huge plumes of smoke spreading much as the flames did; slowly at first, rapidly growing. Quickly it became clear that the fire had reached the roof and that the rooms on the ground floor of the south side had already gone – the Green Drawing, Palladio, Hunting, Prince Regent.  Each a small gem in themselves, their contents the result of decades of collecting and curation. As the floors above collapsed, it became clear that this was a very serious situation and thoughts immediately are to hope that, first, everyone is safe, but, secondly, how far would the fire go? Sadly, it soon became clear that the entire house was to be consumed in the inferno.

Clandon Park on fire, 29 April 2015 (Image: © Andrew Blondell / BBC Surrey)
Clandon Park on fire, 29 April 2015 (Image: © Andrew Blondell / BBC Surrey)

Why was Clandon Park important? It wasn’t just the history and collections.  Most importantly, the design of the house was a key transitional link between two defining periods of British architectural history; the Anglo-Baroque and the Palladian. The house, both interior and exterior, was designed by a Venetian architect, Giacomo Leoni, and built between 1723-29.  Both the architect and the dates are key to understanding why the house was so significant.

Clandon Park on fire - two-thirds of the house was now on fire (Image: © Oliver Dixon)
Clandon Park on fire – two-thirds of the house was now on fire (Image: © Oliver Dixon)

Giacomo Leoni (b.1686 – d.1746) played a key role in bringing the ideas of Palladio to the UK through the publication of that architects’ ‘I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (which he called ‘The Architecture of A. Palladio, in Four Books’). Although not an entirely accurate recreation (Leoni wasn’t above adding his own improvements) the instalments (published between 1715-20) were a huge success, casting the ideas of the Palladian ideal deep into the aspirational hearts of the British aristocracy.  Leoni’s edition remained the primary source of the nascent Georgian Palladianism until (prompted by Lord Burlington) Issac Ware produced a more accurate translation in 1738.

Clandon Park on fire - the flames reached the north side (Image: © Alex Greenwood)
Clandon Park on fire – the flames reached the north side (Image: © Alex Greenwood)

For all his intellectual influence, Leoni’s physical output was relatively meagre for a 45-year career – his earliest designs were for an unexecuted rebuilding of Wrest Park in August 1715 for the 1st Duke of Kent. His first completed work was in London in 1721, Queensberry House, 7 Burlington Gardens, for John Bligh, Lord Clifton, which featured an antique temple front, a reduced version of which appears on the south front of Clandon Park. Leoni’s output was mainly country houses; he designed eleven but only nine were completed (the two unfinished houses being Carshalton Park and Thorndon Hall) of which four have been lost already (Moulsham Hall – dem. 1809, Bold Hall – dem. 1901, Burton (or Bodecton) Park – fire 1826, and Lathom House – dem. 1929/1955).

Comparison of Leoni's 7 Burlington Gardens and south front of Clandon Park (Image: 7BG: Wikipedia / Clandon: Matthew Beckett)
Comparison of Leoni’s 7 Burlington Gardens and south front of Clandon Park (Image: 7BG: Wikipedia / Clandon: Matthew Beckett)

This left just four completed house which survived into the 21st-century; Lyme Park (c.1725-35), Alkrington Hall (1735-36), Wortley Hall (1743)- and Clandon Park (1723-29).

The brilliance of Leoni’s design for Clandon had survived almost unchanged as it had remained in the Onslow family until being handed to the National Trust in 1956. Where Clandon excelled was that the exterior was early-Anglo-Palladian; chaste, restrained decoration, subtle temple motif, but this was married with one of the greatest of the Anglo-Baroque rooms, the Marble Hall (the plasterwork of which Sir Simon Jenkins thought better than the similar room at Houghton Hall), and other rooms rich in beauty. This contrast between the quiet exterior and the exuberant interior is what made Clandon so important as the link between two of the most significant trends in British architectural history.

Marble Hall, Clandon Park (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Marble Hall, Clandon Park (Image: Matthew Beckett)

So, what next? The incredible staff and volunteers of the National Trust swiftly put into place the plans they never hoped to have to use and clearly, the efforts are being directed to the care of the salvaged contents and an examination of what can be recovered from the debris.   Investigations will be undertaken and conclusions reached as to the cause but looking to the future the options are the same as ever; rebuild, re-use, or ruin.

Marble Hall, after the fire (Image: © John Millar / NT Picture Library)
Marble Hall, after the fire (Image: © John Millar / NT Picture Library)

As a nation, we have fetishised ruins for centuries with castles, abbeys, fortifications and now factories celebrated for their managed decay. We have enough derelict country houses (far too many, truth be told), so to consign another to that sad, lonely fate would miss the chance to grasp a recoverable beauty and miss the opportunity to demonstrate and inspire through an educational process around the reconstruction.

The Landmark Trust’s inspired recent work at Astley Castle, Warwickshire, to create a modern living space in a shell created by a fire in 1978, shows that ruins can be re-used intelligently and with great aesthetic success.  However, Astley Castle was a smaller house and also without the spectacular interiors which once graced Clandon Park.

Uppark, Sussex (Image: © Matthew Beckett)
Uppark, Sussex (Image: © Matthew Beckett)

So the remaining option is rebuilding and restoration.  As has been shown at Uppark, Sussex, which also suffered a serious (though not quite as devastating) fire in August 1989, it is possible to restore the house back to as it was before.  This is not pastiche as it’s not conjectural – we have extensive, detailed records of the interiors and, combined with salvaged fabric, it is possible to recreate what was there.  As Sir Simon Jenkins argued in the Sunday Times (03/05/2015), it would be unthinkable not the reinstate the great Marble Hall – because we can.

Modern care and conservation means that the rate of losses of country houses has dropped from the hundreds each year in the 1950s to barely a handful and these are almost always due to fire. All those we have – that which survived this far – are fragile and it’s an uncomfortable truth to understand that they will not last forever.  As the painter Salvator Rosa once wrote:

All our works is fallen and sicken
Nothing is eternal
The Colossei die, the Baths
The worlds are dust, their pomp a nothing…

Rather than despair, we should celebrate and enjoy the architectural heritage which is still available to us and care for it for future generations. The original Clandon Park is lost; that patina of age, the individual details which only it knew are no more. Although the contents have been largely lost, resurrection is the most appropriate option as the main shell of the house has survived – the sterling work of the fire service has saved at least one half of Leoni’s vision. Modern craftsmen with ancient crafts, honed at Uppark, Hampton Court, and Windsor Castle, can recreate the beauty of the interior.  It won’t be the original but from our shock at the loss can come awe at the artistic skills that can recreate such wonders as the Marble Hall.


Gallery of images of the aftermath: ‘Clandon Park fire 2015‘ [National Trust Picture Library]

Statement: ‘Fire breaks out at Clandon Park, Surrey‘ [National Trust]

National Trust ‘stuff’ debate: ‘Re-presenting the Country House’ – Ben Cowell, Director, NT East of England

Since the earliest days of the country house, one of their primary roles has been display; conveying meaning through designs, devices and decoration. Through the generations this role remained, though each age had their own influence, mostly evolutionary or occasionally a more dramatic change.  The clearest messages were to be found in the houses which had remained in the family with their collections but as this became a rarer combination in private hands, the National Trust became one of the most important custodians of this legacy.

Library, Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)
Library, Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)

However, in an interview with Dame Helen Ghosh, the Director General of the National Trust, surprised many by saying:

People were also put off because there is “so much stuff” in some of the stately homes. The Trust was now looking at featuring only a handful of interesting artworks in some homes to see if it increased their appeal. Dame Helen said: “We just make people work fantastically hard, and we can make them work much less hard.” [Daily Telegraph – 23/03/15]

Cue much consternation – in his article ‘What’s wrong with the National Trust?‘, eminent art historian Bendor Grosvenor asked ‘Has the National Trust lost interest in art?‘. Mr Grosvenor then visited Ickworth and his follow-up article contained photos of the library, formerly full of contextually appropriate furniture, which now had bean bags.  I shared this via Twitter, prompting a spirited debate which raised the obvious curatorial and aesthetic concerns – who were these visitors who struggled, what about those who visit specifically to see the glorious contents? I confess to being firmly in the latter camp and have stated as much.

In the spirit of an honest debate about this important topic and to put the National Trust’s position, I offered Dr Cowell a guest blog post which he has taken up and is below.

After reading it, I understand why the National Trust feels it has a role to play in developing the interpretation of the country house.  Almost inevitably, these activities are going to be criticised. This is especially true where they conflict with the strongly held views of why most of the National Trust’s members visit these houses, namely, to see their unparalleled collections, married to the interiors for which they were intended.

The controversy is perhaps less about the experimentation and more about the less than transparent way that it has taken place.  One always fears that any action is the thin end of a wedge which permanently compromises what many would accept is the best way of displaying this historic collections. This is unfortunately compounded by Dame Helen’s frustratingly disrespectful description of the matchless art and furniture as mere ‘stuff‘, implying a rather disposable attitude.

Handled differently, I suspect that there would be much less outcry and reputational damage if they were less opaque and perhaps:

  • Shared, before changes were made, the proposed alterations and the research which led to them
  • Gave a clear indication of whether these changes were permanent or temporary (and, if the latter, for how long)
  • Indicated where the contents had been moved to if within the same building or that it was not available

I would also suggest that the National Trust facilitated a more formal feedback mechanism so that experts – both internal and external – can debate the merits of the changes along with contributions from their 4m members who care so deeply about the houses.  This would enable a more quantifiable response which could then feed into future proposals. Simply changing things is not sustainable if the National Trust wishes to retain the support and trust of their members and the wider heritage community.

Dr Ben Cowell, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England
Dr Ben Cowell, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England

Valiantly defending the position of the National Trust online is Dr Ben Cowell FSA, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England.  Dr Cowell is also Deputy Chairman of The Heritage Alliance. He worked formerly for English Heritage and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and has published widely on aspects of history and heritage.

Below is his specially commissioned response to the debate and the controversy, putting the other side to the argument about how the country house can be presented today.

‘Re-presenting the Country House’ – Dr Ben Cowell

Visitors to Dunham Massey this year, as last, are shown a different version of a house they might know well. The saloon, a masterpiece of Edwardian country house design, has been stripped bare. In place of the fine furniture are metal beds, medical cabinets and hospital screens.

The Saloon, Dunham Massey - contrasting traditional and WWII themed presentation (Images: ©National Trust Images - James Dobson/Andreas von Einsiedel)
The Saloon, Dunham Massey – contrasting traditional and WWII themed presentation (Images: ©National Trust Images – James Dobson/Andreas von Einsiedel)

Dunham Massey has been returned to the time when it was Stamford Military Hospital, a place of repair and recuperation for soldiers from the Western front during the First World War. The effect is electrifying. A team of actors has been engaged to re-enact imagined scenes from the lives of those – both soldiers and nurses – who were known to have been at Dunham during this time. The details of their lives have been carefully researched, even if the dramas are fictions, albeit highly engaging ones.

Nurse closing the shutters at Dunham Massey (Image: Christopher Davies / Correct Aperture Photography)
Nurse closing the shutters at Dunham Massey (Image: Christopher Davies / Correct Aperture Photography)

Not everyone has appreciated what the National Trust has done with Dunham Massey during its temporary ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ re-fit. But huge numbers have. The property has had its most successful year by far, and recorded levels of visitor satisfaction have rocketed.  People love the sense of connection with lives as they were lived a century ago in the midst of unparalleled global conflict.

Does this inevitably point the way for every National Trust country house? Of course not. Has ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ been such a success that we are now wondering where else we might make other temporary, experimental interventions? Of course.  And there is nothing new here, since we have perpetually made changes to the way the rooms of our mansions are shown, whether to draw out a particular theme or highlight a particular age in a house’s history.

The National Trust is committed to offering ‘experiences that move, teach and inspire’ by raising the standard of presentation and interpretation across our historic mansions. That is apparent from our recent strategy document, Playing Our Part.  There is no single policy or approach. Curatorial decisions are made in situ, respecting the genius loci.  The curatorial eye needs to be constantly on the move, seeking out new ways to display or experience things, in order to delight or otherwise engage visitors.

Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra)
Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra)

Two examples from my patch exemplify this. At Ickworth, following the highly successful recreation of the basement rooms, our attention has turned to the grand display rooms above them in the Rotunda. These rooms were conceived by Ickworth’s creator, the 4th Earl Bristol, as a gallery for his impressive collection. In the same spirit of wanting to show off the artworks to best effect, we are trying out some new approaches, confined to just a few rooms on the ground floor.

In the Library we’ve temporarily left the room bare (following cleaning work on the electrolier chandelier) in order to focus attention on the pictures and the chandelier itself.

Ickworth Electrolier: throwing new light after its clean (Image: ©National Trust)
Ickworth Electrolier: throwing new light after its clean (Image: ©National Trust)

Informal seating has been provided in order better to allow visitors the chance to stop and pause. When the project is complete (we’re only part way through the re-presentation at present), lighting elsewhere in the Rotunda will be enhanced, allowing works such as Titian’s portrait of an unknown man to be seen wholly afresh.

Up at Felbrigg, on the North Norfolk coast, another experiment is about to begin. Here, the grounds of the house are the venue for Wolf’s Child, part of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Wolf’s Child is a perambulatory work of drama, experienced at nightfall. Visitors will move on a pre-determined walk through the woods. The story is drawn from Ovid; the tales explore all manner of human-animal transformations.

Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler)
Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler)

Is this the ‘right’ way to experience the Felbrigg landscape? Ought we not to have moved a single piece of furniture in the Earl Bishop’s palace? There are those who are steadfastly certain of the answers to these questions. I am not one of them. All I know is that there can be no progress in the field of country house interpretation unless we are open-minded to the possibility of experiment.

We must do so in a way that is respectful of the spirit of the place, and we must never make permanent changes that would damage the inheritance that we hold in trust. We will make mistakes from time to time, and will be rightly chided for them. But to not explore different ways of seeing is surely to blinker us to the possibility of greater glories.

I very much thank Dr Cowell for his contribution to the debate and hope that it has helped provide an alternative viewpoint.  Comments can be left below but please remain respectful and on-topic.  The views expressed in the introduction are mine alone and have not been vetted or approved by the National Trust.

A mansion tax is a pox on all our country houses

It’s a widely accepted principle that even if trying to achieve a noble goal, it is not a justification to do harm in doing so.  Whether one is trying to fund the NHS or provide kittens and puppies for all, if ever such an ill-thought out idea as a mansion tax is introduced, it is likely that the law of unintended consequences will find myriad ways to demonstrate itself.  In few sectors will the damage be greater than in that of our nation’s cultural and architectural heritage where decades of hard work and conservation of our country houses will be sacrificed to play a short-term political game.

Beaudesert Hall, Staffordshire - demolished 1935 due to demands of heavy taxation (Image: Lost Heritage)
Beaudesert Hall, Staffordshire – demolished 1935 due to demands of heavy taxation (Image: Lost Heritage)

Let me make clear that this objection is not party political – I would object as vigorously regardless of whoever tried to propose it. Obviously the devil is in the detail but if we assume a tax levied on homes valued at £2m or more at 1% of the property value to be paid annually there are many obvious and profound flaws with the idea – below are a few of them:

  • Fallacy of numbers: there are more expensive houses than there are rich people who could afford the tax. Many houses which would be affected have been inherited thus exchanging the large liquid capital requirements of purchase for the more manageable (though not insubstantial) cost of on-going maintenance.
  • Value suppression: a house valued at £2m will immediately not be worth £2m when a mansion tax is introduced (thus reducing the projected tax receipts).  This will lead to a very hard ceiling on house prices, stagnating the market far below that level as it will prevent others trading up by imposing a disproportionate penalty on anyone purchasing over that price level. Think of all the disadvantages of the current crude banding of Stamp Duty, but magnified.
  • Incentive to neglect: if your house is worth just over £2m, there is a benefit to allowing your property to deteriorate so that it can be assessed at being below the threshold. But how often will they be valued? Will it lead to a cycle of neglect and repair to coincide with this? Who will wish to improve their property for fear that it will push it over the punitive threshold?

Perhaps the greatest threat is to the contents of country houses; the art, sculpture, books, tapestries which combine in such an intangible emotive way to create that atmosphere unique to each.  When the financial effects of the 1870-80s agricultural depression began to be felt, the first items to be sold were the contents – the Titians, Rubens, Caxtons, Shakespeares, Nollekens, Canovas were taken from their pride of place and sent to auction or dealers, the resulting funds merely delaying the inevitable sale of the house.  If we thought the National Lottery Fund was sorely stretched at the moment to acquire for the nation the occasional fine work which appears at auction, there is little chance of them being saved if the volume increases, meaning they will, in many cases, go overseas. Additionally, if the best works have already been sold, then death duties will be a final hammer blow to shatter the cultural and historical unity of the country house, with nothing left to sell or offer in lieu.

This type of crude taxation has been tried before and it is always heritage which pays the price.  The many gaunt shells of Scottish country houses, such as Dalquharran Castle or New Slains Castle, which were un-roofed to avoid punitive taxes are sad testament to the folly of this approach.  Supporting a mansion tax is to accept a probable return to an era where empty country houses become derelict – ironically coming so soon after the 40th anniversary of the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition. The National Trust will not be able to take them on without an endowment and English Heritage are sorely underfunded already – leaving either neglect or a hope for an influx of foreign wealth to purchase these houses. Without a local owner living there full time, there are likely to be fewer jobs reducing tax revenues and, with the dearth of rural jobs, leading to higher numbers relying on the State for assistance or an exodus to larger urban areas, further damaging the rural environment.

Dalquharran Castle, Ayrshire - built by Robert Adam c1785-1790, un-roofed 1967 (Image: RCAHMS)
Dalquharran Castle, Ayrshire – built by Robert Adam c1785-1790, un-roofed 1967 (Image: RCAHMS)

Perhaps there could be exemptions for houses which are open a certain number of days a year or which support useful charitable activities but the danger is that these would be used to justify an idea that is inherently wrong.

This article is deliberately painting a rather bleak picture, partially because there is a real likelihood of any of these outcomes, but also to emphasise just how badly-thought out this crude idea is.  It offers no benefits except as a bone to be thrown to a few class warriors but it should seriously worry anyone who cares about the UK’s cultural, artistic and architectural heritage.  Owning a country house is a responsibility, not only as a home for the owner and their family, but one owed to society as a whole.  It is inevitable and right that tax should be raised to pay for the society we hope to live in, but to wilfully sacrifice four centuries of heritage is an immoral and culturally destructive way to do so, no matter how noble the intended reason.

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.


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

Official site: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust]

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

‘A land where it is always afternoon’; the life and talents of Philip Tilden

Port Lympne, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Port Lympne, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

One of the finest skills an architect can possess and cultivate is that of charm; the art of turning an encounter into an acquaintance into a client – and sometimes even a friend.  Such a skill can offer a balance to such flaws as he may have, whilst also being his most effective sales technique.  One such architect was Philip Tilden, a man whose own assessment of his talent and skills usually surpassed that bestowed by his peers.  Yet, Tilden was a sensitive man, attuned to how people wished to live in their houses and who developed a rapport within high society leading to an almost bewildering array of commissions; from the most domestic to the breathtakingly grandiose and who, along the way, managed to design houses for two UK Prime Ministers.

Philip Tilden (b.1887 – d.1956) was an avowed traditionalist.  His memoirs – ‘True Remembrances‘ (though others doubt this!) – which were published in 1954, are full of repeated laments of lost skills, modern taste, and the lack of style. Not that he was ‘anti’ modern materials, but more that he thought they should be used cautiously and subserviently to the traditional ones, saying “Instead of absorbing the new materials and techniques into the body of tradition, and digesting them, we have let them take control“.  His was a world where architecture was national (and hence the international Bauhaus would have been an anathema) and, for him, ‘…Britain was not the home of the acanthus and cypress – it is the home of the Gothic rose, the oak, the ash, and the parasitic ivy‘.

Though he made clear his emotional preference for the Gothic, it was part of a broader love of the ancient, in particular, of the old castles which he was called upon to restore – though circumstances would ensure that he would work with whichever building he was called to look at.  Tilden was a good architect – but not a great one.  Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was his contemporary but not his peer, once complained having seen Tilden’s additions to a house as ‘work so ill-conceived by a man who claims a following and dares to criticise‘.  But such criticism shouldn’t obscure Tilden’s more positive characteristics; his sympathy for historic fabric, his imagination, and his consummate networking skills.

The early part of the 20th-century was still an age where patronage was in the hands of the upper echelons of society.  If one could gain a foothold, the power of the related and intertwined networks of politics, business, and industry could provide a welter of opportunities for someone who could play the game.  Tilden was a master of this – his memoirs are an almost embarrassingly giddy series of anecdotes of he and his wife staying with Sir ——— or Lady ———-, and the delight the hosts and visitors apparently took in each others company.  It was through these connections which provided Tilden with his commissions – from the smallest artistic endeavours to the excessive.

Allington Castle, Kent, 1928 (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Allington Castle, Kent, 1928 (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

He joined the Architectural Association in 1905 and on graduating became an articled pupil to Thomas Edward Collcutt, whom he later went into partnership with, before establishing his own practice in 1917.  One of his first clients was Sir Martin Conway, 1st Baron Allington, the mountaineer, politician and art critic who once said “I have always liked the work of Mr Philip Tilden, but if anyone asks me why, I cannot fully say“.  Sir Martin and his much wealthier wife, Katrina, had discovered Allington Castle, Kent and both exclaimed ‘Of course we must have it!‘ and she had bought it in 1905. Some restoration work had been carried out before 1914, by W.D. Caroe, to make the ruined castle habitable but Tilden was brought in for further changes in 1918 and became firm friends with the Conways, working on the castle until 1932.

Entrance front, Port Lympne (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Entrance front, Port Lympne (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

It was this long period of friendship which enabled Tilden to extend his circle of useful connections.  One of these was Sir Louis Mallet, once our Ambassador to Turkey, who had led a cultivated and international life which had created a prized social circle.  It was through him that Tilden came to know and work with the wealthy Sir Philip Sassoon, the noted politician and art collector.  Sassoon was a renowned host and his architectural requirements were driven by this.  Herbert Baker had built the Cape Dutch-style Port Lympne for Sassoon in 1913/14 and when Sassoon wished to enhance Port Lympne after WWI, he called on Tilden.  With the confidence of wealth (related as he was to the Rothschilds), Sassoon gave full rein to his artistic and stylistic preferences which were far removed from the chaste reserve of the traditional English country house.  With dining room walls painted in lapis lazuli blue and lined with golden chairs and an opalescent ceiling, a Spanish courtyard, and a grand flight of steps in the garden, this was a house for show.

Trent Park, Enfield, north London (Image: Enfield Council via flickr)
Trent Park, Enfield, north London (Image: Enfield Council via flickr)

Yet, barely had the works on Port Lympne been completed, when Sassoon bought Trent Park, in north London, in 1923, which was to become the centre of his social entertaining.  In contrast to the exuberance of his Kentish seaside retreat, Sassoon looked to Tilden to create a more traditional environment, one of lithographs and wallpaper, antiques and books.  This suited Tilden who created a hugely successful pleasure palace:

“…a dream of another world – the white-coated footmen serving endless courses of rich but delicious food, the Duke of York coming in from golf… Winston Churchill arguing over the teacups with George Bernard Shaw, Lord Balfour dozing in an armchair, Rex Whistler absorbed in his painting… while Philip himself flitted from group to group, an alert, watchful, influential but unobtrusive stage director – all set against a background of mingled luxury, simplicity and informality, brilliantly contrived…“.  (Robert Boothby. I Fight to Live (1947)

Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Tilden was happy to mix in these circles, both for the pleasure they brought and the commissions.  In 1919, Martin Conway and Tilden were at Allington when Conway burst out, ‘You know, Philip, Selfridge is going to build a castle‘. Of course, the ‘Selfridge’ was Gordon of the eponymous department store, who had enormous plans which almost matched his ego, but which certainly outstripped his finances.  We have previously looked at Selfridges’ fascinating plans in an earlier post (‘Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head‘) so no need to go into depth again but suffice to say that the whole episode showed that whilst Tilden could think big, he sometimes lacked the ability to tell his clients the honest truth about the prospects of being able to bring such grandiose schemes as Hengistbury Head or the Selfridges Tower into reality.

More successfully, Tilden was to create a home for a Prime Minister – but this isn’t about Chartwell.  The first PM Tilden worked for was David Lloyd George, the controversial Welsh Liberal, best known as the founder of the welfare state, who had met the architect at Port Lympne.  Lloyd George had decided in the summer of 1920 to purchase a plot of land in Churt, Surrey, where he could have a house built and gardens to tend.  The area he chose was, in fact, wind-swept hillside but compensated by the views.

Bron-y-De, Churt, Surrey (Image: 'True Remembrances' by Philip Tilden)
Bron-y-De, Churt, Surrey (Image: ‘True Remembrances’ by Philip Tilden)

The house was to be called ‘Bron-y-de’, Welsh for ‘facing south’, which was a joke as the house faced north, even though he had bought the estate unseen at auction on the recommendation of his secretary who had assured him it faced south. In keeping with his character, it was a modest sized house – though one room had to be the same size as the Cabinet Room in Downing Street so that his habit of pacing could continue at the same length. Lloyd George was always in a hurry, and so Tilden designed the house so that only the ground floor was brick to reduce the drying time, with a huge mansard roof covering the first floor. Once word was out that the house was to be built, Tilden was deluged with offers of free fittings and materials, however, Lloyd George was a deeply scrupulous man who gave strict instructions that everything down to the last nail was to be paid for.  Despite his modesty, it became apparent that the house was too small, and so Tilden was again employed in 1921 & 1922 to extend the house.  Sadly, Bron-y-De burnt down in 1968.

Of course, the house Tilden is best known for is Chartwell (subject of the earlier guest article ‘Sir Winston Churchill, Chartwell, and Philip Tilden’ – National Trust ‘Uncovered’‘).  Another commission as a result of a long fireside chat at Port Lympne, Churchill asked Tilden to help adapt the Victorian home to his requirements. The chapter in Tilden’s memoirs about the project is almost more an encomium to his client, lavishing praise on all aspects of his life and his interest in Chartwell; ‘No client that I have ever had, considering his well-filled life, has ever spent more time, trouble, or interest in the making of his home than did Mr Churchill‘.  The house which resulted is certainly more practical than beautiful – though it achieves the original goal of allowing the undeniable pleasure of the superb views.

Dunsland House, Devon (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Lost Country Houses)
Dunsland House, Devon (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Lost Country Houses)

Sassoon and his circle of friends was to bring work at other country houses such as Easton Lodge, Essex, Hill Hall, Essex, Saltwood Castle, Kent, Luscombe Castle, Devon, and Anthony House, Cornwall.  Of all the works Tilden deserves credit for, for me, his rescue of Dunsland House is perhaps the most admirable and the saddest.  Dunsland was one of the oldest houses in north Devon and had been owned by the Bickford family who had created a home with some of the most remarkable plasterwork to be found in the county.  Having owned the house for over 300 years it was finally sold in 1945 to a timber merchant who was interested only in the trees.

In 1949, Tilden was sent by the council to inspect the now seriously ‘at risk’ house. Realising that no-one else would be taking on the restoration, Tilden stepped up and bought it – and paid the timber merchant £5 for every tree he spared.  Using his own limited funds, Tilden brought a small section of the house back to a habitable state and moved in, but the project proved too much and he died in 1956.  His actions had staved off the immediate threat of complete collapse and the National Trust took over, finishing the restoration.  Sadly, in November 1967, just as the house was ready to open to the public, a fire broke out and completely destroyed it.

Philip Tilden, October 1925 (Image: National Portrait Gallery)
Philip Tilden, October 1925 (Image: National Portrait Gallery)

A sad loss of not only the house, but also what would have been a fitting reminder of one architect’s love of the ancient fabric of the nation’s built heritage; one who romantically thought that, ‘Most of those who build are interested in what has gone before, and their aim and object is to find out how to restore the present to something like a period that they imagine to be ‘a land where it is always afternoon‘.’  Tilden today is perhaps best remembered for what he didn’t build for Gordon Selfridge and the unexciting work at Chartwell, but he was certainly a principled and thoughtful architect whose views on heritage many would respect today.


There is a fine selection of images of Port Lympne in the Country Life Picture Library

Further reading:

Guest article: ‘Sir Winston Churchill, Chartwell, and Philip Tilden’ – National Trust ‘Uncovered’

The garden front of Chartwell, Kent (Image: National Trust)
The garden front of Chartwell, Kent (Image: National Trust)

Some country houses are less of note than the people who were associated with them. For some, the architect will be the draw, but with a strange ‘Midas’-like power, any house associated with figures of great renown will always be remembered.  When asked to name the greatest UK Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill often  justifiably tops the polls, and his retreat, Chartwell in Kent, became his refuge, but also a burden which was only relieved late in his life. As is often the case with older houses, they require adaptation for modern life, and Chartwell was no different.  In an almost inverse to Churchill’s fame, the architect who worked on the house was the low-profile Philip Tilden, about whom we’ll find out more in a separate article.

Chartwell passed to the National Trust in 1965 and, this weekend it will be the focus of their ‘Uncovered‘ campaign which is exploring the British landscape.  As the event in the series most connected with a house, below is a guest article from Emily Christmas, Learning and Events Officer at Chartwell for the National Trust, exploring Churchill’s love of the countryside and why the house became so special to him.


I have no hesitation in saying that this site is for its size the most beautiful and charming I have ever seen.

These were the words used by Sir Winston Churchill to describe the property he purchased in 1922, which would become his family home for the following decades.

Looking South-East from the balcony at Chartwell towards the Studio and cottages, the view for which Churchill bought the House (Image: National Trust)
Looking South-East from the balcony at Chartwell towards the Studio and cottages, the view for which Churchill bought the House (Image: National Trust)

In his eyes, he was acquiring the land and the view far more than the house itself. And what visitors today might not realise is that what he saw back then was not the same Chartwell that can be seen today.

The house and gardens are very much the product of two minds: Sir Winston Churchill and his architect Philip Tilden. Even before the sale was completed, Tilden was at work preparing the house for reconstruction. Over the course of the following several years, work was undertaken to change the existing house into one that would take best advantage of the stunning views with which Sir Winston fell in love.

The history of the property isn’t well known, though the oldest part of the building is thought to have been a Tudor hunting lodge; and like most ancient sites in this part of Kent, there’s the oft-uttered myth that King Henry VIII stayed at Chartwell while on the way to visit his sweetheart Anne Boleyn at Hever. One of the rooms in the house was even named after him.

View of the front of the house at Chartwell, Kent, before acquisition by Sir Winston Churchill in 1922 (Image: National Trust)
View of the front of the house at Chartwell, Kent, before acquisition by Sir Winston Churchill in 1922 (Image: National Trust)

Over the course of the following centuries it changed hands several times, became at one point a house for abandoned children, and in the 19th century the house, gardens, and outlying cottages began to take on something of the appearance that can be seen today.

Enamoured as he was with the views from Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill immediately set to work rebuilding the house to best take advantage of Kentish weald.

The Colquhoun family, who had been in possession of the property for the previous century or so, had extended the house a fair bit, as can be seen in the photographs. However, to ensure the largest number of rooms had access to the stunning views, Churchill reduced the overall size of the house, creating in their place the rooms on the south-east terrace, which can be accessed through what is now Lady Churchill’s sitting room.

Chartwell, the garden front from the south (Image: National Trust)
Chartwell, the garden front from the south (Image: National Trust)

The best indication of the change can be seen when viewing the house from the south-east side. The front of the house was also reduced and simplified to what can be seen today.

Visitors to the house today often remark upon the views when they walk out onto the pink terrace. Looking out across the North Downs, it’s not difficult to understand how Sir Winston felt when he first saw the place, despite the changes it has gone through over the past century.


Having withstood war, bombs, and even a hurricane, the property still boasts some of the most beautiful views to be found in Kent.  You can experience the views in person and visit during the National Trust ‘Chartwell Uncovered’ weekend of 21st-22nd September. Displays will include copies of some of the most iconic Churchill paintings of the landscape within the very views they depict, so it’s a rare opportunity to get insight into Churchill’s reflections on the land, his house, and his life.

View the full events programme for Chartwell Uncovered

Or find out more about the rest of our Uncovered campaign.

More views of the house can be found on the National Trust Picture Library


To coincide with the article, it seemed a good opportunity to look at the life and work of Philip Tilden; an architect with a complex life, who worked on a remarkable series of houses. Watch this space…

Rothschild-shire: the lost, the ‘cottage’, and the home (3/3)

Having seen the glories of the prodigiously grand Mentmore Towers and Waddesdon Manor in the previous article on ‘Rothschild-shire’, that part of Buckinghamshire which became the domain of the Rothschild family from the 1850s, this final one looks at the remaining three: the lost Aston Clinton House, the ‘cottage’, Ascott House, and the family home, Eythrope.

Aston Clinton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Lost Heritage) - Click for more images
Aston Clinton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Lost Heritage) – Click for more images

One of the tragedies of the history of the UK’s country houses has been the wholesale destruction of so many, mainly between 1930-1960.  Often, as a family fell on financial hard times, the house contents would be sold, followed later by the building itself, in the hope they could retain the estate.  Although, wealth was clearly not an issue for the Rothschilds, one of their houses, Aston Clinton House, has since been demolished – though, admittedly, long after they had left.

Possibly one of the (relatively) smaller of the Rothschild’s houses, Aston Clinton House was also unusual in that it grew from a smaller one, through a series of additions, to be a substantial home, rather than being a new build.  The original house was built sometime between 1770-1789 for General Gerard Lake, who laboured under the geographically diverse title of 1st Viscount of Delhi and Laswary and of Aston Clinton in the County of Buckingham. Never a grand seat, it was built in the style of a small hunting lodge, and passed through the Lake family until 1838 when the house and the accompanying 1,055-acres were sold for £23,426 to the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, who saw the productive estate as a good investment.

Aston Clinton House Bucks, just before demolition (Image: Lost Heritage)
Aston Clinton House Bucks, just before demolition (Image: Lost Heritage)

After the Duke’s death, it was initially put up for auction, largely unaltered, by the Duke’s son in 1848 but was withdrawn – but not before it had attracted the attention of the Rothschilds. Though “It is not like a fancy place”, it was bought for £26,000 as more of an investment but Sir Anthony Rothschild and his family moved in in 1853. Lady de Rothschild immediately took against the ‘small’ size and so Sir Anthony commissioned G.H. Stokes (Sir Joseph Paxton’s son-in-law, and who had previously worked at Mentmore) to significantly enlarge it, with works completed by the early 1860s.  The architect George Devey, who was to build his career around the Rothschilds, undertook more work between 1864-1877, on both the house and estate.

The house and estate passed through the family until it was sold in 1923, having served in WWI as the HQ for the Commanding Officer of the Twenty-First Division, then based at the nearby Halton estate (c.f. Halton House in part 1). Sold for just £15,000, it became a school – where Evelyn Waugh started his teaching career – before serving as a corporate HQ, then as a hotel in various guises before being bought by Buckinghamshire County Council and demolished c.1960. A training centre was built in its place, with only a few buildings remaining as a reminder of grander days.

Outcome: commercial use, demolished as surplus to requirements.

Ascott House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)
Ascott House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)

George Devey was to play an important role in the Rothschilds’ architectural plans, as were the family central to his own success.  One of his most successful designs was for Ascott House, for Leopold de Rothschild, for whom he extended a small house dating from 1606 to create a rambling, many-gabled ‘cottage’ (though one with 30 bedrooms) as a more rural retreat than Leopold’s other seat at Gunnersbury Park (see Part 1). Although initially used just for hunting and recreation (with an emphasis on the outdoors as the house was built without a library, though one was later added), Leopold quickly realised that he needed more space for entertaining and so, in 1874, started a program of extensions which would continue until c.1888 with Devey, but also beyond, into the 1930s.

Ascott House, main door (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)
Ascott House, main door (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)

Devey was an unusual Victorian architect in that he never exhibited his work or allowed his designs to be published, so secure was he in a bubble of aristocratic and wealthy clients who kept him constantly employed.  Mark Girouard regarded the houses Devey designed as the most interesting outside of the ShawNesfieldWebb circle, especially as he was regarded as having successfully developed a way of incorporating vernacular styles into his work.  He particularly favoured the idea of making houses look as though they had developed over time – and ideally that they be covered in ivy. Mary Gladstone (daughter of the Prime Minister) visiting in 1880, approvingly described Ascott as ‘a palace-like cottage, the most luxurious and lovely I ever saw‘. The flip-side to the accretive approach is that some of the layouts for his houses seem to stretch for long distances; at Goldings, Hertfordshire, it covered approximately 350ft from end-to-end (the house is now flats with sprawling, unimaginative development in the immediate grounds).

Ascott was inherited by Anthony Gustav de Rothschild from his mother in 1937 (Leopold having died in 1917) and he and his wife made further additions, including converting the billiard room into a library.  Although Anthony was very much involved with the family business he was also a renowned collector and the house is a treasure trove of fine paintings (including works by Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds and Cuyp), 18th-century English furniture, books and over 400 pieces of Chinese ceramics. The house, gardens, and a small part of estate were donated by Anthony to the National Trust in 1947.  Much of the collection and the surrounding 3,200-acre estate is still owned by the family, and Sir Anthony’s son, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild still lives in part of the house, keeping the connection to the original creator alive.

Outcome: owned by the National Trust, family still partially in residence

Eythrope, Buckinghamshire (Image: John S. Pipkin via flickr)
Eythrope, Buckinghamshire (Image: John S. Pipkin via flickr)

And so to Eythrope, in Waddesdon, a house strangely  built without bedrooms as it was primarily intended as the daytime retreat for Alice de Rothschild, sister of  Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, with whom she came to live.  Alice was independently wealthy (having inherited a large estate in Germany), strong-willed, and opinionated – all useful qualities, but less so to her brother, who was very similar. To reduce familial friction, Ferdinand suggested she build somewhere to while away the days and Eythrope was the solution. Alice bought the estate for £180,000 in 1875, and chose to build her ‘Pavilion’, as it was called, in a curve in the river.  As Alice had suffered from rheumatic fever, the damp of the river might have been dangerous had she been tempted to spend too long there so the design included no bedrooms. Problem solved.

The original house on the site had been built in the 1500s and was eventually inherited by Philip Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Chesterfield (d. 1726), but had been demolished in 1810—11 by Philip Stanhope, 5th Earl of Chesterfield.

Eythrope, Bucks - garden front (Image: crazybiker via flickr)
Eythrope, Bucks – garden front (Image: crazybiker via flickr)

As if to emphasise that this was Alice’s project, she chose not to use Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, who was then working for her brother at Waddesdon. Instead, the new house at Eythrope was another commission for George Devey who had worked at various Rothschild houses including Mentmore, Ascott, Aston Clinton, and Tring Park – but Eythorpe is his most complete work for the family.  In rejecting her brother’s grandiose French style (though not totally as there are flashes of the French Renaissance), Alice opted for what Pevsner described as a ‘free neo-Tudor style’ creating a delightful rambling house framed by the river. Passed down from Alice de Rothschild (who inherited and also became the forthright guardian of Waddesdon after the death of her brother), it was inherited, along with Waddesdon, in 1922 by Dorothy and James A. de Rothschild, who added a large wing with bedrooms and bathrooms. After James’ death in 1957, and having given Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust, Dorothy moved to Eythrope and lived there for forty years.  On her death, the house and estate were inherited by her husband’s great nephew, Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild, whose home it remains today.

Outcome: the only house built by the Rothschilds and still wholly owned, and lived in, by them


Although slightly off the usual ‘patch’, the Exbury estate, Hampshire, was another house where a Rothschild, Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, could give full rein to a passion; this time it was plants, specifically, rhododendrons and azaleas.  With a passion from an early age, the garden was always going to be spectacular, but Exbury House is also impressive and perhaps to be included in a future article.


Previous articles in the series on the Rothschild’s houses:


Fascinating ‘Lunch with the FT’ with Lord Rothschild at Eythrope

Visit Ascott House [National Trust]

HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 2 – Birmingham to Manchester: a delicate dance with one mis-step

Having looked at the impact on country houses of the first branch of the next phase of the HS2 line between Birmingham and Leeds (‘HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 1 – Birmingham to Leeds: good for some, bad for others‘) it’s clear that the damaging heritage choices which marred the plans for the first phase between London and Birmingham have been largely avoided.  Can this new spirit be successfully continued as the line tries to find a path to Manchester through a landscape shaped by the many country houses in the area?

Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)
Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)

The line emerges from the urban sprawl of Birmingham and swings past Lichfield into the Staffordshire countryside, equidistant between the rivers Trent and Blithe, well to the west of the remains of Hamstall Hall with its beautifully weathered gateway, and Blithfield Hall, which now sits next to the Blithfield reservoir. It also sweeps past well to the north of the first of the great estates on the route, the grand Shugborough Park. The core of the house was built in 1693, but the house house seen today was largely the creation of the architect Thomas Wright, between 1745-48, followed in 1794, by Samuel Wyatt who added the dramatic, ten-column portico. Across the river, the splendid Tixall Gatehouse (to the demolished, later Tixall Hall) also can continue in its peaceful repose.

Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Langstraat via Wikipedia)
Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Langstraat via Wikipedia)

Sadly, a poor route decision follows immediately after, with the line cutting within 400 metres to the south-west [PDF] of the grand front of Ingestre Hall (historical details here).  A former home of the Earls of Shrewsbury, the house is a wonderful example of the Jacobean tradition, that short period which developed the drama of the Elizabethan house with classical principles, combining architectural flamboyance with symmetry.  Although Ingestre is no longer a home, and the park a golf course, the embankments of the HS2 line may not be enough to mitigate a serious incursion into the environs of this house.

Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Simon Huguet via Geograph)
Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Simon Huguet via Geograph)

The route continues to the north of Swynnerton, placing the village between the trains and the beautiful seat of Lord Stafford, Swynnerton Hall, which still sits in a 3,000-acre estate. After Newcastle-under-Lyme, the line passes to the east of Doddington Hall, still the seat of the old Staffordshire family, the Broughton-Delves.  The route continues northward, neatly bisecting Winsford and Middlewich, passing to the east of the impressive but now hugely over-developed Bostock Hall with its housing estate at the back.

Tabley Hall, Cheshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy via Wikipedia)
Tabley Hall, Cheshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy via Wikipedia)

As HS2 heads into Cheshire, the delicate dance to avoid the grand houses and their estates requires some deft footwork. Knutsford is surrounded by important houses but importantly, for us, the line passes west of the beautiful Tabley Hall and estate, which was so atmospherically painted by J.M.W. Turner (the painting can be seen at Petworth in Sussex).  One of the finest examples of the work of John Carr, the house replaced Tabley Old Hall which remained on the estate and was incorporated as an eye-catcher in the landscape as a picturesque ruin.  Also untroubled is Viscount Ashbrook’s family seat of Arley Hall, also well to the west of the line.  Similarly, the ever-grand Tatton Park, once seat of the Egerton family, now owned by the National Trust, and its thousand acres of parkland are kept well clear of the line.

Dunham Massey, Cheshire (Image: Danny Beath via flickr)
Dunham Massey, Cheshire (Image: Danny Beath via flickr)

Past Knutsford and heading towards Altrincham, the line splits with one branch curving gently west away from another National Trust property, Dunham Massey. Following this line, heading north of Lowton, the attractive small family home of the Byrom family, Byrom Hall, built in 1713, loses its rural outlook and will instead be at the edge of a rolling stock maintenance depot at the end of that line.  The other branch heads south of Altrincham and heads towards Manchester, skirting the edge of the city but by now the semi-urban fringe is no longer the setting for country retreats and so the line passes into the city without any further threats.

So again, the route of HS2 from Birmingham has avoided many of the pitfalls of the first phase and has mostly been able to step lightly around the historic estates which have brought such beauty to our landscapes.  However, the one mis-step is around Ingestre Hall, where the line will create a dramatic slash through the parkland and perhaps impinge on the future ability of the house to be rescued from its current use as an arts centre and golf course to one day become a home again.  This is unlikely if the economics of conversion and restoration are upset by the overall value of the house and estate being seriously compromised by HS2.  With farmland to the south, it would make sense to move the route just another couple of hundred metres to ensure tranquillity for this fine house.  Overall though, the planners at Arup and Mott Macdonald ought to be congratulated on plotting a sensitive course through a difficult landscape and one hopes that the final plan maintains this.


Source for route: ‘HS2 phase two initial preferred route plan and profile maps‘ [Department for Transport/HS2 Limited]

The axe falls: route of High Speed 2 rail line announced

Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Transport has now announced the final route for the HS2 rail line which will carve its way through some of our most beautiful countryside and require the demolition of many homes so that we can get to Birmingham 15 whole minutes quicker! And it will only cost £32bn – honest. Despite claims of popular support, when faced with loud opposition from those living in its path or near enough to be blighted by it, those who care about our heritage and the environment, rail users, road users, opposition politicians, coalition politicians, Cabinet members, and MPs from their own parties, some important improvements have been wrung out as to the route – some of which have significantly enhanced the prospects for some of our country houses previously affected.

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)
Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)

One of the most significant houses to be affected by the initial route was Edgcote House, a glorious, grade-I, Georgian gem, which faced having the main view from the house out over the lake terminated by a not inconsiderable viaduct.  However, the new route has moved the line to the east, leaving the lake, and the view, largely preserved.  I wonder how much this change was influenced by the prospect of having to pay compensation for ‘statutory blight’ on a multi-million pound house and estate – a possibly more forceful reason, sadly, than just ruining the setting of a fine country house.

Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)
Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)

More broadly, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, has cautiously welcomed the alteration to the route, though, there are still concerns.  Having seen off very early proposals which would have had the route disturb the stunning West Wycombe Park, the later revisions did propose to run the line, with inadequate measures to minimise the impact, rather close to the National Trust’s grade-I Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire.  It seems that the powerful voice of the NT has succeeded in increasing the mitigation measures with extended deep cuttings to minimise the visual and sound impact – but it’s certainly not the tunnel they were hoping for.

Another house which has definitely escaped the blight is Shardeloes, also in Buckinghamshire.  The route originally ran across the other side of the shallow valley in front of the house on the other side of a main road (which already cuts through the parkland).  Although this section was to be in a cutting, under the new plans, the extended tunnelling completely removes the above ground elements near the house.

Of the other houses, Waddesdon Manor was never really going to be affected, the route past Stoneleigh Abbey hasn’t changed, still slicing through the agricultural showground which had already blighted the setting of that fascinating house, nor have there been any changes to the situation for Chetwode Manor.  On the positive side,  The Vache benefits from the extended tunnel at Chalfont St Giles, and that same tunnel means that the route now sweeps well to the south of Pollard Park House.  Grade-II* Doddershall Hall has also gained further protection.

Although it is easy to be sceptical about HS2, I am, in principle, a strong supporter of railways, particularly over domestic flights and more roads.  However, where projects of this scale and expense are proposed, it is even more important that the full costs – financial, social, material, and environmental – are fully understood, especially where irreplaceable built heritage will be compromised.  Commenting on the changes, Justine Greening said: “The changes mean that more than half the route will now be mitigated by tunnel or cutting and there will also be a reduction in the impacts on people and communities, ancient woodlands and important heritage sites. The revised route offers considerable improvements to communities, with the number of dwellings at risk of land take almost halving and the number experiencing increased noise levels reducing by a third.“.

So, overall, the effects on the country houses nearest the line have largely been removed or minimised. But what seems a shame is that so much energy and expense had to be deployed to achieve this – why were these considerations not taken into account as a matter of course when the initial plans were drawn up?  Sadly, it seems that cost pressures demand that civil servants start with the most damaging option and then must be forced to not spoil the nation they are supposed to be looking after.  Perhaps, one day, heritage will be valued so highly that such proposals are not even considered.  One can always hope.

Full plans: ‘HS2 revised line of route maps‘ [Department for Transport]