The temptation when Country Life magazine arrives each week is to flick through the properties and make tabloid-esque comparisons about how a detached Regency villa in Dorset with space for a family, chickens, and an excitable spaniel, could be had for the price of a tatty flat in London. Yet sometimes these comparisons seem almost too unreal when faced with the exemplary beauty of a country house like Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, which, along with 39 beautifully wooded acres, has just been put up for sale for just £3.5m; the price of a 3-bed terrace house in Chelsea.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Worcestershire lies a house which, either through deliberate privacy or convenient obscurity, is little known to the world. Yet Grade-I listed Ombersley Court is one of the finest houses in Worcestershire, arguably even in the wider region, due not only to the sublime architecture and surrounding estate, but also the fine collection of paintings and artwork. The estate has long been the seat of the Sandys family who acquired the manor in the late sixteenth-century. The current house was originally built for the 1st Lord Sandys (b.1695 – d.1770) between 1723-26, replacing earlier monastic buildings on the site. The house was designed by Francis Smith of Warwick (b.1672 – d.1738), one of the leading regional architects and, working with his brother William (b.1661- d.1724), ‘one of the most successful master builders in English architectural history’ (Colvin).
‘Smith of Warwick’, as Francis was more commonly known, was a clients ideal contractor due to his famous honesty and reliability, able to deliver buildings on time and on budget. His reputation spread amongst the Midlands gentry and aristocracy with almost all his work within a fifty-mile radius of Warwick. Such was his standing that even the fractious Duchess of Marlborough (who had famously fallen out with Vanbrugh over Blenheim), demanded that for her house in Wimbledon, Surrey, ‘that Mr Smith of Warwickshire the Builder may be employed to make Contracts and to Measure the Work and to doe everything in his Way that is necessary to Compleat the Work as far as the Distance he is at will give him Leave to do’ (1732-33).
Smith’s solid reliability also manifested itself in his repetition of his well-developed plans and designs for houses, creating a distinctive style which is quite recognisable as his own. Broadly, this would be a three storey house with the centre section either projected or recessed, consistent fenestration, and relatively sparse external decoration, usually only decorative stone dressings such as keystones, quoins or balustraded parapets. This consistency was perhaps a double-edged sword, with the Hon. Daines Barrington stated in a letter in 1784, that although ‘all of them (are) convenient and handsome […] there is a great sameness in the plans, which proves he had little invention’.
Yet, this is to overlook that Smith was, at heart, a successful commercial builder whose understanding and appreciation for architectural ornament and variety was inevitably tempered by his determination to deliver the commission on time and on budget. As the architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin highlights, the core design is that of a standard seventeenth-century house such as Belton House, Lincolnshire, but with stylistic updates as fashions evolved. ‘Smith’ houses such as Umberslade, Alfreton, and Wingerworth all share this readily accessible style, one which married domestic practicality with exterior grandeur.
Perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement was the tragically now-ruinous Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire; a house with a facade so stately as to rival Chatsworth. Built for the 4th Earl of Scarsdale in 1724, Sutton Scarsdale was one of the finest houses in the country. Although the form is familiar, the masterful control of a palisade of pilasters and columns topped with Corinthian capitals, gives it a gravitas, whilst the detailing such as the scrolled window surrounds to the projecting wings hint at Renaissance motifs; Fausto Rughesi (Santa Maria in Vallicella, 1605/06) filtered through William Talman (design for Thoresby House, 1685, – shown in Vitruvius Britannicus, C1, Pl.91) and James Gibbs (to whose designs Smith was building Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, 1722).
One regret with Ombersley Court is that although the form and plan of the house and much of the superb unaltered early-Georgian internal decoration is still Smith, the exterior is now not his. The original design featured a hipped roof, and what looks to be pilasters, giving it the recognisable ‘Smith’ characteristics. This was lost when the existing brick was refaced with ashlar in 1809 by the architect John Webb for Mary Sandys, the Marchioness of Downshire. In fairness though, this was a lucky escape as John Nash prepared a much more ambitious scheme in 1808, which proposed adding a two-storey pavilion to each side, linked by a seven-bay screen of giant Ionic columns, though this seems to have been rejected on cost.
One of the glories of the house are the interiors and especially the plasterwork and carving. With a desire for privacy which was rarely breached, few had seen the exceptional decorative work, except through the lens of a Country Life profile by Arthur Oswald in 1953. This extolled the virtues of many aspects including The Chippendale Room which featured bamboo framed silk wall pieces, remarking that ‘it is uncommon to find a Regency example as complete as this or as charming’. The rest of the house struck a careful tone of stately refinement; enough decoration to proclaim wealth and taste, but never excessive.
With the death of Lord Sandys in 2013 the house passed to Lady Sandys but following her recent death, concerns were raised and rebutted via letters in Country Life that this wonderful house would be forced (for complicated reasons) to become a care home; a fate which would have despoiled this jewel of a house. Instead, for the first time since it was built in 1724, it has been placed on the market. This is a house created by one of the finest craftsmen of the early-Georgian period, with connections to a wider, distinct Midlands architectural tradition which epitomises all that one would hope to see in a country seat. As an important house which deserves respect, one hopes that the new owner will appreciate this remarkable situation and that perhaps the best approach would simply be to buy the house and contents and perhaps another couple hundred acres to truly secure an Arcadian ideal, one which would be hard to better anywhere in the country.
Sales particulars: Omblersley Court, Worcestershire [Savills] – £3.5m with 39 acres
Listing description: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire [British Listed Buildings]