Country House Rescue: a matter of taste – Monreith House, Galloway

Monreith House, Scotland (Image: Mike Harrison / UK Wildlife Photography)
Monreith House, Scotland (Image: Mike Harrison / UK Wildlife Photography)

Country House Rescue heads from Tapeley Park in Devon to the other end of the country to Monreith House in Galloway, Scotland.  A dignified house, it has suffered from a classic problem for those that inherit, as the current owner Sir Michael Maxwell did in 1987, that: “…to put it politely, my relatives’ expenditure exceeded their income by many times.”. The necessary economies forced on Sir Michael have meant some cut corners which Ruth Watson quickly identifies as hindering his attempts to move upmarket.

The Maxwells of Monreith were certainly aristocratic with their baronetcy granted by Charles II in 1681 and various family members marrying well including the 8th Baronet’s wife, Lady Mary, who was a daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the richest and largest landowners in England. The Maxwells had been based at Myrton Castle since they bought it in 1685, obviously needing a house to match their newly elevated status.

Leuchie House, Scotland (Image: John Small - 1883 / buildings fan on flickr)
Leuchie House, Scotland (Image: John Small - 1883 / buildings fan on flickr)

Monreith House was built in 1791 by Sir William Maxwell, 4th Baronet, to replace Myrton, which was partially demolished to provide building materials for the new one.  The architect was the Edinburgh-based Alexander Stevens, son of a better known Alexander Stevens who specialised in designing and building bridges.  His design at Monreith shows that he was well versed in the Palladian vocabulary but is in contrast to his other principal design; the impressive Raehills in Dumfriesshire, built for the 3rd Earl of Hopetoun in 1786, which is an imitation of Robert Adam‘s castle style.  Monreith shows closer similarities with Leuchie House in Lothian, built for Sir William Dalrymple between 1779-1785, to designs by the little known Alexander Peacock who was also based in Edinburgh.  By the 1790s, the first wave of Palladianism had long ago swept through the country and much provincial design can be traced back to the many architectural pattern books which had been produced.  Stevens’ limited but varied output could indicate he used also used them, though perhaps more competently than most.

The Maxwells of Monreith became one of the most important families in the area with a substantial estate which totalled 17,000-acres.  The house has passed down through the Maxwells, though it never went to the most famous of the family, the writer Gavin Maxwell, heir to the 8th Baronet, Aymer Maxwell, but who died of cancer in 1968.  Gavin’s books were best-sellers, with his most famous being the autobiographical ‘A Bright Ring of Water‘ about his pet otter, the profits of which might have helped the estate but for his profligate ways.  His father also faced financial difficulties and, lacking funds to maintain the house, apparently felt it easier – and cheaper – to let the house deteriorate rather than pay to have it demolished.

When Sir Michael inherited the house from his uncle it was in a seriously neglected state, saying he remembers that “When it rained hard the water would run down the stairs and land in puddles on the floor.”.  Sir Michael had trained as a surveyor so he was able to approach much of the work himself – though this also appears to be part of the problem. One money-making scheme was to convert the top floor into holiday flats but these, and the rest of the house, all show signs of his major flaw – a determination to do things as cheaply as possible leading to various poor choices which compromise his aspirations.

Sir Michael displays an admirable duty towards maintaining the house – a contrast to that displayed initially by Hector Christie of Tapeley Park in the previous episode.  Sir Michael says “It would be too easy if your great-grandfather dropped dead and left you money to end up a drunk in the gutter – so it’s a challenge. Essentially, you’re not given much choice when you inherit a house like this.”.  Thankfully he does appear to want to listen to Ruth Watson’s advice and one hopes that this will put him on the path to a sustainably prosperous future which will ensure the Maxwells remain at Monreith.

Official website: Monreith House, Galloway

Programme website: Country House Rescue: Monreith House [Channel 4]

A problem shared? Whitbourne Hall visited by Country House Rescue

Whitbourne Hall, Herefordshire (Image: David Cronin on flickr)

The great wealth generated by the Victorians led to the creation of some of our grandest country houses.  Designed to impress guests and provide a showcase for the collections and taste of the owners, these houses were remarkable and beautiful expressions of the power and preferences of the age.  However, in the more straitened circumstances of the 20th-century, this left owners with running costs which far outstripped their wealth and which unfortunately led to hundreds of our country houses being demolished.

Some escaped the wreckers pickaxe through conversion into apartments – but this doesn’t always solve the questions about the long term sustainability of a house, as shown by the visit of the TV programme Country House Rescue to Whitbourne Hall in Herefordshire.

The grade-II* listed house was built for vinegar magnate Edward Bickerton Evans whose father founded the Hill Evans Vinegar works in Worcester in 1830, which was, by 1905, the biggest vinegar producer in the world.  As was standard practice for the discerning Victorian millionaire he decided to build a grand country house and chose a cornfield in Whitbourne as the perfect location.

Despite its Georgian appearance, it was built between 1860 and 1862 to a design by Edmund Wallace Elmslie and inspired by the Erectheum on the Acropolis in Greece. The house was a lavish example of neo-Palladian architecture with a six-column portico, whilst on the south front a huge orangery, now known as the palm house, was added in 1875 and was thought to be the tallest in Europe.  The interior features a fine pillared main Hall with a rare blue and white glass ceiling, and the main reception rooms retain many original features.  At it’s height in 1876, the estate extended to over 2,500 acres with the classically beautiful Whitbourne Hall sitting proudly at the centre.

Remarkably, the Hall remained in the Evans family until 1980, when it was purchased by Whitbourne Hall Community Ltd to be run as a communal housing project with individual apartments and set in eight acres of gardens.  This original arrangement floundered and a commercial company was created to run the house as a more conventional managed community of 23 apartments.  The main rooms have been preserved much as they were with the Morning and Drawing Rooms retaining their original wall coverings.  However the sheer scale of the house means that the average annual maintenance bill is about £42,000 – and due to extensive and significant work required to maintain a house of this quality, that bill is expected to double in 2011, posing serious problems for the residents.  Extensive restoration is now required as the house is now suffering from a catalogue of issues including failing plasterwork as water penetrates through the coffered ceiling of the main hall.    Curiously Whitbourne Hall doesn’t seem to be on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register – it would be interesting to know why not.

One of the perennial difficulties of owning a country house is not just the huge costs such as heating but also the ongoing maintenance (as demonstrated by the Earl Spencer’s sale), the costs of which, rise significantly the higher the classification.   With the paucity of public grants for maintenance it falls to the owners to seek innovative ways to make these wonderful houses financially self-sufficient if possible.  However, as Country House Rescue often shows, it’s the owners who can sometimes be the problem who need to be convinced before they become part of the solution.

More details: ‘Country House Rescue‘ [Channel 4]