For all the traditional antipathy towards the French, the influence of their architecture has been felt throughout Britain’s country houses. Although initially the use of the French architectural vocabulary was a sign of wealth and education only available to the best families, the style was regarded as sullied by the later, more energetic, constructions of the Victorians – an association which still sadly lingers today.
The first wave of Anglo-French design started in the Elizabethan period; a time when it was acceptable to display one’s knowledge conspicuously. The French style, with its dramatic rooflines, dovetailed with the traditional English manor house and its own profusion of gables and chimneys. Houses such as Burghley in Northamptonshire made dramatic use of the style with the central, three-storey pavilion, dated 1585, based on the French triumphal arch but oddly includes a traditional mullioned window on the third floor. Burghley was the product of the owner, Lord Burghley, an architectural enthusiast who as far back as 1568 was known to have been writing to France to obtain specific architectural books.
This early use of the French style was relatively restrained – probably more by the conservatism of the ruling gentry who were most likely to be building these houses. Yet, our impressions now are more strongly influenced by the bolder, more assertive French style which was so popular during the Victorian era – though this same popularity was to also lead to it being derided.
The first of the Victorian nouveau-riche were keen to be accepted by society and so built houses which largely followed the same designs used by the local families. The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 led to a rush across the Channel leading to a revival of interest in French design, particularly in relation to interiors, such as the Elizabeth Saloon at Belvoir Castle, Rutland, built c.1825. By the mid-nineteenth century this was being more confidently expressed in dramatic houses which sought to boldly make their mark.
The second French Renaissance was influenced by lavish works such as the new block at the Louvre in Paris, built between 1852-70. However, there were earlier examples such as the complete Louis XV chateau at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, designed by the owner Earl de Grey, built in 1834-39, and Anthony Salvin’s French roofs added to Oxonhoath in Kent in 1846-47. Yet, after the Louvre, the fashion gathered pace with designs such as R.C. Carpenter’s redesign of Bedgebury in Kent in 1854-55, and Salvin’s work at Marbury Hall in Cheshire in 1856-8. Less successfully, the architect Benjamin Ferrey built Wynnstay in Denbighshire for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn which, for all its dramatic high roofs and pavilions, was thought rather gloomy. Another dramatic, albeit slightly awkward, design was that of Plas Rhianfa, Wales, built in 1849, which seems to mix both Scots baronial and French, whilst Sir Charles Barry completed a more successful use of the two styles at Dunrobin Castle for the Dukes of Sutherland in 1845. Also of note was Nesfield’s design for Kinmel Hall, described as a Welsh ‘Versailles’.
These houses were largely for the existing gentry who found the impressive skylines met their needs for a dramatic statement as was fashionable at the time. With the fashion spreading into London and being used for luxury hotels, clubs and offices it was inevitable that the newly wealthy would wish to emulate in the country the world they already enjoyed. The last burst of ‘aristocratic French’ could be seen in the designs for Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, 1865-68 for Lord Boston, Alfred Waterhouse’s Eaton Hall in Cheshire, 1870-72 for the Duke of Westminster, and T.H. Wyatt’s Nuneham Paddox in Warwickshire for the Earl of Denbigh, built in 1875. From around this time, its fashionability declined.
One of the earliest of this new wave was Normanhurst in Sussex, built in 1867 for Thomas Brassey, son of the famous railway contractor. Reputedly, Lady Ashburnham from nearby Ashburnham Place (note the very different architectural style of house) would snootily refer to him as ‘that train driver over the hill’. In Worcestershire, the equally dramatic red-brick Impney Hall – later Chateau Impney – was built in 1869-75 for local salt tycoon John Corbett, who employed Auguste Tonquois, who had extensive experience around Paris. In County Durham, the foundation stone of the Bowes Museum, originally designed to be part-home also, was laid in 1869 for John and Josephine Bowes. Designed by Jules Pellechet with J.E. Watson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the house reflected their love of France but also made a statement as to their wealth – and possibly sought to hide their less-than-solid social position as illegitimate son of an Earl and an actress. In Yorkshire, the additions to Warter Priory were considered unsuccessful, either due to the strange proportions or because the style had simply fallen out of favour. More successfully, St Leonard’s Hill, Berkshire, was transformed from a Georgian house in the mid-1870s to create a dramatic chateau visible from Windsor Castle.
Interestingly though, perhaps the most famous of the English chateau was also one of the latest. Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire was built in 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to a design by French architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, mixing elements from various famous French chateaux such as Blois, Chambord and Anet. The last of these grand French imports was Halton House, designed by William R. Rogers and built in 1882-88, also in Buckinghamshire and also for a Rothschild, Alfred Charles; Baron Ferdinand’s cousin. Equally grand, this house also featured a wonderful winter garden, though this was sadly demolished to make way for an accommodation block for the RAF who bought the house and turned it into an officer’s mess.
Perhaps one of the final straws as to the desirability of the French style was the spectacular collapse of the Victorian financier Baron Grant who, in 1875, spent over £270,000 (approx. £20m) building a huge house in Kensington before his crimes were exposed in 1879 with the subsequent public disgrace, and the demolition the house in 1883. Such a high-profile scandal and its flash monument would have been felt in society and tarnished the style for no-one would wish to be associated with such disgrace. However, fashion would have played a more significant role, with taste moving on to new styles, leaving these extravagant mementos to an earlier, brasher architectural exuberance which now give us an unexpected glimpse of France in the British countryside.
Credit: a wonderful insight into the period is Mark Girouard’s ‘The Victorian Country House’ which was most useful in the research for this post.
For more information on Chateau Impney; ‘Chateau Impney – the story of a Victorian country house’ by John Hodges