Conran collects another Georgian gem: Wardour Castle, Wiltshire

Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

The recent financial crisis has forced many properties onto the market and easily one of the grandest was the main apartment of Wardour Castle in Wiltshire which has now been bought by the fashion designer Jasper Conran.

The Apartment (as it’s imaginatively known) includes the wonderful central staircase, described by Pevsner as ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’, plus the other major state rooms which were restored with the assistance of John Pawson, the high priest of Minimalism.  This particular property has featured twice in this blog, once for suggested conversion back to being a single family home, but also later with the news that the property was one of the grandest repossessions in the country.

Ven House, Somerset (Image: Mike Searle/wikipedia)
Ven House, Somerset (Image: Mike Searle/wikipedia)

What is interesting about Conran’s purchase is that he appears to be collecting fine Georgian houses in the same way one might collect furniture or paintings.  In 2007 he bought the incredibly elegant Ven House in Somerset for just less than the £8.5m asking price. At the time the house had languished on the market for two years before Conran took it on.  Although more famous as a fashion designer, Conran has a good track record with property restoration having bought Walpole House in Chiswick, London for £7.25m which was sold following refurbishment for £12.5m in 2008 or Flemings Hall in Suffolk which he sold for £2m in 2006. Ven required comparatively little work and has remained his country home, opening it up for use by local organisations for charity fund-raisers.

It seems fashion designers have a taste for Georgian as Jasper’s father Terence Conran lives in Barton Court, an elegant red-brick villa-style house in west Berkshire which he bought in the 1970s and has carefully restored.  On a much larger scale, the American fashion designer Leon Max famously bought the magnificent Easton Neston in Northamptonshire for £15m in 2005.  The grade-I listed house, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built between 1695-1710, was the home of the Hesketh-Fermor family for nearly 500-years before the current Lord Hesketh decided to sell up. Leon Max purchased the house with the intention of converting a fire-damaged wing into a base for his fashion company.

Perhaps the natural grace and light of the best of the Georgian homes appeals just as much to the aesthetic eye of the designer as it does to most of us, confirming their broad appeal.  Happily for Wardour Castle it seems that has caught the eye of someone who has a good track record of looking after the wonderful homes he has bought.  Perhaps he might be open to suggestions for others that need some attention: Melton Constable Hall perhaps?

Full story: ‘Conran captures the repossessed castle: Fashion designer Jasper snaps up £7m ‘Billy Elliot’ house – for just £2.75m‘ [Daily Mail]

In need of resuscitation: Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire

Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Eggleston/English Heritage)
Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Eggleston/English Heritage)

Some houses languish for years slowly deteriorating, much to the annoyance of interested locals who care about their architectural heritage.  For some houses, the obstacle in the way can sometimes be a difficult owner, for others it’s just the sheer scale of the job. Certainly falling into the latter category is Firbeck Hall near Rotherham in South Yorkshire; once palatial home, then a country club, a hospital, and now a cause for serious concern.

Firbeck Hall was originally built in 1594 for William West, a wealthy lawyer who was also connected between 1580 to 1594 to Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury.  After his death in 1598 it passed through various branches of the family via inheritance until bought by Henry Gally in the late 18th-century.  It was his son, Henry Gally-Knight, who, in 1820, substantially remodelled and extended Firbeck in the Elizabethan style we see today. Sold in the mid-19th-century it passed through the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who sold it to Mrs Miles of Bristol who left it to the Jebb family who remained there until 1909 when it was put up for sale.  The early 20th-century was a particularly hard time for country house owners with falling rental and agricultural income affecting all landowners but particularly those caring for the architectural extravagances of previous owners.

Firbeck Hall was badly damaged by fire in 1924 but it’s fortunes improved when it was eventually sold in 1934 to businessman Cyril Nicholson who invested £80,000 (approx £4m – 2008 values) who created the premier country club in the nation, visited by royalty and celebrities.  World War II put an end to the gilded lifestyle and it became a hospital in 1943, a role it was to fulfil until c.1990 when it eventually closed.

Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Rookinella @ Pretty Vacant)
Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Rookinella @ Pretty Vacant)

Since then the house has deteriorated significantly – despite it’s grade-II listing it has suffered from lead theft from the roofs, neglect, and a series of failed plans to rescue what is still one of the largest houses in the area with over 200 rooms.  It’s this last fact which is the root cause of the difficulties with any plans for conversion and restoration requiring significant financial resources which banks are unwilling to provide in these tough economic times.  Too large for private solutions, the house is also probably too large for our stretched national heritage organisations to take on (such as English Heritage did with Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire) – especially as the institutional use has degraded the interior.

The house was bought by a local construction firm in 1996 but little seemed to happen apart from further thefts and vandalism and with little reaction initially from Rotherham Council and active interest from a local conservation group, the ‘Friends of Firbeck Hall‘. However, a major theft in 2005 prompted a complete change of heart from the owner who forged links with a new conservation officer leading to new plans for conversion, active security and some remedial restoration works.  Although progress was slow, at least it was progress – until July 2009 when a fire broke out during works on the roof causing serious damage.  More bad news followed when the construction firm went into liquidation in May 2010 – joining the ranks of developers with grand plans who have been beaten by the scale of the task, as seen at Gwrych Castle in Wales.

There does seem to be a gap in the provision of solutions for larger houses where private initiatives are insufficient.  A more active local conservation department may have slowed the decay in the early stages but the longer houses of this size continue to be unused the greater the cost of restoration, reducing the chances that they can be saved.  Hopefully there is some hope for Firbeck Hall as the house was sold again in July 2010 – but as yet there’s no news as to future plans, or more importantly, how they will be financed.

Campaign group: ‘Friends of Firbeck Hall

Detailed architectural description: ‘Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire‘ [Heritage Gateway]

How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)

This blog has highlighted several country houses which are at risk but the true scale of the issue is unfortunately much larger, as the publication of the 2010 English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register shows.

Country houses all too easily can move from being secure, watertight buildings to having minor problems to becoming seriously at risk due to their size and the high standards required to repair them necessarily making even simple tasks much more expensive.  For the owners this can mean that the burden of looking after their ancestral family home becomes a daily challenge which, rather than facing, can be easier to ignore – especially if they are able to simply shut the door to a wing and forget the damp and leaks.

One of the greatest enemies of the country house is obscurity – particularly when combined with negligent or incapable owners. For some the house is merely an obstacle to redevelopment and so it is in their interest to forgo maintenance and hope that the house quickly and quietly deteriorates to the point where they can apply for permission to demolish.  Unfortunately under-resourced councils are rarely able to regularly survey all the listed buildings in the area meaning that houses can slip through the cracks.  The current economic climate means that it is even more unlikely that councils will be able to fully fund the heritage teams to ensure that they are able to ensure owners meet their obligations.

Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)
Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)

Although English Heritage have had some limited successes (e.g. Sockburn Hall, County Durham) there are still far too many houses at risk – I counted nearly 100 in a couple of searches.  It should be noted that houses are included even where works are planned or under way such as at Clarendon House, Wiltshire which was recently sold (with estate) for a reputed £30m and where restoration is expected to be completed by the end of 2010).  However, other examples include:

Others on the list include:

The head of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, said at the launch:

“Neglect is a slow, insidious process whose costly damage takes time to become clearly visible. Cuts in both private and public spending are currently inevitable but armed with our Heritage at Risk Register, English Heritage is well-equipped to guard against the loss of the nation’s greatest treasures and to suggest effective and economical strategies to protect our national heritage.”

One can only hope that this proves to be the case and that EH are able to fully fulfil their role particularly in relation to country houses and ensure that these beautiful buildings aren’t allowed to quietly slip into dereliction, depriving future generations of wonder of these grand houses.

More details: English Heritage Buildings at Risk 2010 or you can search the 2010 Register

Conversion reversion? Wardour Castle, Wiltshire

Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

With so many country houses lost in the twentieth century, almost any alternative which saved them from the demolition crew was to be welcomed; no matter how drastic.  For some this meant institutional use but for many others of all sizes the solution was conversion into flats and apartments – though with varying degrees of success.  However, as these properties come on to the market, is it perhaps time to consider converting them back into the single, glorious houses they were intended to be?

Launched this week (16 June 2010) in Country Life magazine is the principal apartment in what is considered James Paine’s finest creation; Wardour Castle, a supremely elegant essay in Palladian architecture.

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

Built from 1770 – 76, for the eighth Lord Arundell the most impressive feature is a breath-taking central stairwell with first-floor gallery which Pevsner called ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’ and which forms the core of Apartment One which is now for sale.  Wardour Castle house has proved to be adaptable becoming Cranborne Chase School in 1960 until it closed in 1990 when it was then converted into ten apartments.  As the divisions appear to have respected the natural sections of the house this seems to be a good example of where someone could convert the house back to a single home.

There are many examples of houses being rescued by conversion.  SAVE Britain’s Heritage have long campaigned to protect these houses and have worked in conjunction with one of the leading architects, Kit Martin, in supporting conversion.  A 1983 SAVE report entitled ‘The Country House: to be or not to be’, written by Kit Martin and Marcus Binney, includes particularly interesting studies of how these houses could be sensitively converted.  These show that although almost any country house could be sensitively adapted some are naturally more suitable particularly where the overall layout of the house is symmetrical, shallow and long.

The study was an important milestone in the practice of country house conversion and saved many houses from complete loss or inappropriate use including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, the grade-I Northwick Park in Gloucesterhire, Dingley Hall in Northamptonshire.  The sensitive approach they championed now means that it should be possible to consider converting a house back if the right opportunity arose.  It should be said that some houses are never going to be converted back due to a variety of factors including there being too many apartments involved such as at Thorndon Hall in Essex which contains 37 flats, or where not enough land has been retained to make the unified house valuable enough to justify reversion.

Perhaps the idea of reversion becomes more realistic where more than one part of the same house comes on the market at the same time such as recently happened with grade II*-listed Ampthill Park House, Bedfordshire.  Built by the Cambridge architect Robert Grumbold in 1687-9 and completed by John Lumley of Northampton in 1704-6, with major additions by Sir William Chambers in 1769 it is certainly one of the most impressive houses in the county. It was rescued from dereliction by conversion into just four large houses; two of which were put on the market in April 2010, the largest of which includes most of the principal rooms.

Although it’s nice to dream about these houses becoming single homes probably the biggest obstacles are not only being able to secure the other apartments but also that the value of the individual properties may be greater than the value of the unified house.  However, it’s not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that someone with deep pockets and a desire to restore a house could take on one of these conversion reversions and recreate a superb country house.

Property details: ‘Apartment One – Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [Strutt & Parker] – £2.75m

Detailed architectural description: ‘Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [English Heritage: Images of England]

If you thought ‘The Restoration Man’ projects a bit small-fry; try Overstone House

Overstone Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Martin Sutton on flickr)
Overstone Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Martin Sutton on flickr)

Although hated by Samuel Loyd who commissioned it, Overstone House is fondly remembered by the generations of girls who were taught there after it became a school.  A vast, rambling property, it was sold to an obscure evangelical religious group who lived there until a devastating fire in April 2001 destroyed the main part of the house – although Loyd might have been quite relieved.

Overstone House replaced the earlier Overstone Hall and was built in 1862 for the banker Samuel Loyd, who became Lord Overstone for services to finance.  His wife  was keen to have a property commensurate with their status and so her husband decided to rebuild on a grand scale.  However, he inexplicably picked the unknown architect William Milford Teulon (brother of the more famous Gothic revivalist Samuel Sanders Teulon) who was instructed to design with a mixture of Elizabethan and Renaissance features.  This choice led to the creation of one of the most derided houses created in the Victorian era.

Both Girouard and Pevsner were uncomplimentary with the latter describing it as ‘drearily asymmetrical’.  However, the most damning verdict  came from Samuel Loyd himself, who, in what could be regarded as a wonderfully amusing piece of architectural criticism, said:

“The New House I regret to say, is the cause of unmitigated disappointment and vexation.  It is an utter failure – We have fallen into the hands of an architect in whom incapacity is his smallest fault.  The House tho’ very large and full of pretension – has neither taste, comfort nor convenience.  I am utterly ashamed of it … the principal rooms are literally uninhabitable – I shall never fit them up … I grieve to think that I shall hand such an abortion to my successors.”

As if this wasn’t enough, Loyd’s wife died before the project was finished leaving him with this rather large problem – which he promptly ignored by going and living with his daughter at Lockinge house in Berkshire where she had become Lady Wantage. Loyd must have eventually finished it as, on his death in 1883, it passed to Lady Wantage who, along with her husband, used it regularly during the hunting season until 1901.  After her death it was tenanted until sold to become a girls school in 1929.

It remained a girls school until 1979 when the pressures of looking after such a vast pile became too much and it was eventually sold to the New Testament Church of God for £100,000 in 1980 who are the current vendors.  The devastating fire in 2001 destroyed approximately 60% of the building including all the principal rooms and the impressive carved staircase.  Parts of the grade-II listed house remained in use as an old people’s home but the rest became a concern, leading to it being added to the ‘Buildings at Risk’ register.

However, the house is now for sale as a grand project with the opportunity to create a truly palatial home – the original house contained 119 rooms totalling around 20,000 sq ft.  The local council’s preference is that it become a single house – but to do so would require someone with big ideas and very deep pockets, willing to spend at least £5-10m on restoration on top of the £1.5m to buy the house and 50-acres.  However, as the main cause of Loyd’s distress has now been destroyed, this is great opportunity for someone to perhaps create a house which might meet with greater approval.

For anyone with the necessary funds and Kevin McCloud on speed-dial, please call Robert Godfrey of Bidwells (01604 605050).

A detailed history of the house is available on the Overstone School for Girls website.

More details: ‘Property restoration project: Overstone Hall, Northampton‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Empty walls? The sale of contents to fund the house – Althorp House

Althorp House, Northamptonshire (Image: Andrew Walker @ wikipedia)

For hundreds of years the political power of a country house was in the ownership of the house, and most importantly the estate – acreage equated with power even if the land was mortgaged to the hilt.  The paintings or furniture which furnish these houses were not only decorative but assets which were easy to sell off when financial circumstances demanded that money be raised.  An upcoming sale at Christies highlights how this is still the case today – even if the strength of the art market means that fewer works now need to be sold to raise the totals required.

Althorp House in Northamptonshire has famously been the home of the Spencer family since the 16th-century and sits in a 14,000-acre estate.  The family fortune was founded in livestock and commodities which enabled John Spencer to purchase the red-brick Tudor house at Althorp in 1522.  It was this house which the 2nd Earl Spencer commissioned the architect Henry Holland to modernise in 1787-89, encasing it in white brick and tiles and remodelling the interior to create the grade-I listed house we see today.  The Spencer family then built up their connections becoming politically influential but also extensive art collectors.

Today, Althorp is in the middle of a £10m project to put the house on a sound structural footing.  One major task, along with repairing the ornate stonework and the external tiles, is to fix the roof – an undertaking which is taking nine months and requires over 50-tonnes of lead.  Globalisation means that commodity prices have been rising strongly on the back of growing demand from countries such as China meaning the cost of the project has proved too great to be borne through income.  So the 9th Earl Spencer has been forced to put a selection of art, considered ‘non-core’ to the collection by the trustees, up for auction.  However, the flip side to globalisation is the massive wealth creation and more well-funded collectors chasing the best works.  In this case, the quality of the paintings and the robust prices being achieved at recent auctions, it is possible to raise enough money with just a few works.

The highlight is ‘A Commander Being Armed for Battle‘ by Sir Peter Paul Rubens which is expected to fetch between £8-12m which should cover the restoration bill for the house with the other works, including ‘King David‘ by the Italian Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino, providing some financial breathing space.  Ironically, the current Earl publicly criticised his stepmother for selling off four van Dycks and a Stubbs in the 1970s and 80s but this time the difference is that the proceeds will be re-invested in the house and estate rather than just simply for running costs.  It’s a fact of life that ownership of a country house is a constant battle against physical deterioration and with grant aid from the public bodies in such short supply it is unfortunately the artistic heritage which is once again being sacrificed to ensure that the family seat remains intact.

Full story: ‘On their uppers: The great aristocratic art sell-off‘ [The Independent]

Auctioneers: Christies – The Spencer House sale will be on 8 July 2010.

Stanwick Hall to get a makeover on TV

Stanwick Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Daily Telegraph)

When the beautiful Grade-II* listed, Queen Anne-era Stanwick Hall came up for sale in 2006, many would have been surprised at the relatively  low asking price of £1.1m.

Though the house came with seven bedroom and 11-acres in the Northamptonshire countryside, it also came with an ‘At Risk’ rating from English Heritage due to the structural problems.

Despite this it did sell and now Endemol have expressed an interest to the architect in charge of the restoration, Anthony Rickett, who has agreed to let them follow the work.  It’s always pleasing to hear of houses being restored and it’s even better when the work is brought to the attention of the wider public so they can also appreciate the hard work that is done to maintain these vital pieces of our heritage.

Full story: ‘Hall’s restoration to be shown on TV‘ [Evening Telegraph]

Pytchley Gates restored

In April 2007 a car veered off the road and severely damaged the historic Pytchley Gates, which were originally the entrance to Pytchley Hall (demolished 1824) before they were moved to become the entrance to Overstone School.  Parts of the main arch and column were demolished with other damage caused to the surrounding areas.  However, Northamptonshire County Council are to be commended for assembling a team skilled in conservation restoration to repair the gates.

Full story: ‘Damaged Pytchley gates restored to former glory‘ [Northamptonshire County Council]