Supermodels: the rise and fall of architectural models of country houses

A William IV Cut-Card Model of an Unidentified Mansion, 1831 by John Bellamy (Image © Christie's - Sale of the Collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson, P.R.A., Sep 17, 2013)
A William IV cut-card model of Newtown Park, Hampshire, dated 1831 by John Bellamy (Image © Christie’s – Sale of the Collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson, P.R.A., Sep 17, 2013)

In a time before widespread literacy, a physical representation of what was intended to be built was a powerful aide to help ensure that the vision of the architect became the physical reality crafted by the builder.  Yet, the architectural model was more than this. Evolving from being a functional tool, it became an aspirational marketing device to demonstrate the proposed scheme but also as a three-dimensional business card for the architect and striking conversational piece for the wealthy patron who would possess both the miniature fantasy and the full-size reality of the design of their country house.

The role of the architectural model can be traced back to the earliest buildings, particularly the devotional and religious. Some of the oldest were found in Egyptian tombs, dating back over four thousand years, and represented functional spaces which may be required such as granaries or gardens. Later they were often displayed as a record of the beneficence of the donor (rather than skill of an architect), they appear in paintings or decorations being held as offerings (such as the 10th-century Vestibule Mosaic showing Justinian presenting the Hagia Sophia to Mary and Christ), or carved into their funerary monuments or other personal iconography such as portraits; all undoubtedly a handy aide-memoire to St Peter, come the reckoning on Judgement Day.

Detail of 17th-century portrait of Queen Marie Thérèse of France, as patron of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris (Studio of Beaubrun brothers) (Image: public domain via Wikipedia)
Detail of 17th-century portrait of Queen Marie Thérèse of France, as patron of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris (Studio of Beaubrun brothers) (Image: public domain via Wikipedia)

The creation of models of new buildings is recorded in the 15th-century with the renowned architect and theoretician Leon Battista Alberti (b.1402 – d.1472), stating that,

‘I always recommend the ancient builders’ practice by which not only drawings and pictures but also wooden models are made, so that the projected work can be considered and reconsidered, with the counsel of experts, in its whole and in all its parts.’

The fashion for the creation of architectural models as objects for study and decoration was one which grew with the interest and wider participation in what became known as the Grand Tour, particularly from the 1760s.  As wealthy young men would embark on extended study (and, if we’re honest, pleasure) tours of the Mediterranean and Middle East, so too did their desire to bring back a tangible memory of their time to display as a marker of their cultural and worldly sophistication.

Cork model of the Temple of Zeus or Apollo, Paestum (c. 1820), attributed to Domenico Padiglione. Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum
Cork model of the Temple of Zeus or Apollo, Paestum (c. 1820), attributed to Domenico Padiglione. ©Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum

Cork established itself as a popular material for the crafting of models of ancient ruins as it was intrinsically similar in its native form to the weathered appearance of the stones it was shaped to resemble. Light and easy to transport, it is easy to imagine that many hundreds of these were shipped back to country houses back in the UK as a reminder and an inspiration.  It is interesting to speculate how influential these romantically ruinous models were on the nascent Picturesque movement of the 1780s. The models may have generated not only new buildings but also the incorporation of existing ruins into new landscapes or the building of new ‘old’ ones too, energised by having at hand aesthetically compatible examples, steeped in irregularity and showing the forces of nature providing the finishing touches to the works of man.

For those who wished to show a more idealised representation of architectural purity, clearly the imprecise renderings of cork were not going to match their visions. In the 1780s, to demonstrate the beauty of the finer details of the classical world, entirely white, finely crafted ‘Plaster of Paris’ models started to be created.  Almost of these are thought to be the work of two French modellists, Jean-Pierre Fouquet (b.1752 – d.1829) and his son Francois (b.1787 – d.1870), who were based in Paris, trading as Fouquet et Fils.1 For architects, these models presented an alternative version of reality, one which enabled them to present their own schemes in a favourable context to the works of the ancient world.

Model of the ancient Greek Ionic temple on the Illisus, near Athens, 'restored', c.1800-1834, plaster of Paris. (Photo: © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)
Model of the ancient Greek Ionic temple on the Illisus, near Athens, ‘restored’, c.1800-1834, plaster of Paris. (Photo: © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Beyond the decorative role, the models were also naturally didactic; their representations of the ruins of the ancient world creating opportunities to teach those who would not otherwise be able to travel to see them. Of those who embraced this approach, the most prominent and inventive was Sir John Soane.  His collection was one of the largest but who was also able to use them as inspiration, as teaching aids to his pupils and marketing tool for those who visited his home/studio at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, where they can still be seen today in the restored model gallery.

“Many of the most serious disappointments that attend those who build would be avoided if models were previously made of the edifices proposed to be raised. No building – at least none of considerable size or consequence – should be begun until a correct and detailed model of all its parts has been made.”
– Sir John Soane (Royal Academy lecture, 1815)

Soane was drawing on his own experience but what had clearly been a well-established technique within the building trade and architectural profession – but just how frequently were these model houses created as part of the commissioning process? The key challenge is that so few are known to have survived that it’s difficult to draw broad conclusions from such a small selection. However, it is instructive to take a tour of a sample to see the range and skills deployed by architects and craftsmen to not only convince the patron but also to explore proposed designs at a stage when corrections were far easier to make.

Quidenham Hall, Norfolk - architectural model of c.1606 (Norwich Museum Service)
Quidenham Hall, Norfolk – architectural model of c.1606 (Norwich Museum Service)

One of the earliest known examples (and my thanks to Jeremy Musson for bringing it to my attention), is a beautifully detailed model of Quidenham Hall, Norfolk, dating from the early 1600s. The manor was bought by the Holland family from in 1572 and the model was created for the construction of the first house in 1606 – probably in the same year, as it would act as the visual guide for the builders and masons.

In the context of a less-educated age, the value of the model to the build process becomes more apparent, particularly for more complex designs such as Quidenham, with its detailed elevations including procession, recession, bows, pediments, crenellations, stepped gables, and chimneys.  A feature of the architectural models is that they can be explored, with the house dissembling either horizontally including the exterior walls, or just the interior floors, enabling a ‘fly-through’ so beloved of modern property programmes.  Clearly, being able to visualise the interior in relation to the exterior provided clarity as to the relationship between the designs for the rooms and their physical placement.

Quidenham Hall was subsequently extensively remodelled in the 18th-century with additional wings and the refacing of the entire house in a unifying neo-classical design. For us today, one value which was unexpected in the original construction of the model is that it allows us to know with a high degree of certainty what the original house looked like, despite these changes.

Model of Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, 1689 (Images © The Art Fund)
Model of Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, 1689 (Images © The Art Fund)

The degree of craftsmanship which was invested in the models is perhaps best shown in the remarkable model of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Easton Neston, in Northamptonshire. Dating from 1689, it is considered one of the most important models to have survived, due not only to the superb craftsmanship but also because it relates to the design of a house regarded as central to the development of the Anglo-Baroque aesthetic. The model was bought for £180,550 from the contents sale when Baron Hesketh sold the contents and house in 2005 and is now in the RIBA Architecture Study Rooms at the V&A in London.

Model for Tyringham, Buckinghamshire, (designed by Sir John Soane), made by Joseph Parkins, c.1793-1794, wood (© Sir John Soane Museum - number: X236)
Model for Tyringham, Buckinghamshire, (designed by Sir John Soane), made by Joseph Parkins, c.1793-1794, wood (© Sir John Soane Museum – number: X236)
Tyringham Entrance Front 3/5/13, (© Sir John Soane Museum)
Tyringham Entrance Front 3/5/13, (Image © Sir John Soane Museum)

Sir John Soane’s designs for Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire, are a particularly instructive example as model, drawings and house (the latter with minor later alterations) survive and can therefore be readily compared. Commissioned by the banker William Praed, the house took five years to build from 1793 to 1798, with the model being created in mahogany c.1793-1794 by Joseph Parkins, a joiner working on the project. This sophisticated approach of thoughtful, inventive but ultimately practical designs, high-quality presentation watercolours by Joseph Gandy, and equally polished miniature evocations show the exemplary professionalism of Soane and why he was one of the leading architects of the era and held in such high regard.

Model of Pyrgo Park, Romford, London (RIBA Collections)
Model of Pyrgo Park, Romford, London, 1851 (RIBA Collections)

A later example was the model created for Pyrgo Park, Essex (demolished c.1940). The house was built for Robert Field, who had inherited a largely derelict Tudor house and estate from his brother in 1836. The remains of the old house were demolished in 1851-52 and a new house built on the same site to a design commissioned from Thomas Allason (b.1790 – d.1852). In light of the architect’s death, in the same year as construction on the new house was due to start, the creation of the model in 1851, now held in the RIBA Collection, would have enabled the work to continue and for a house, faithful to the architect’s design, to be created.

Another architect to use models was George Devey (b.1820 – d. 1896) who produced them as a matter of course when proposing a design to a client.  The distinctive feature of Devey’s models, produced by a dedicated, in-house modeller who was ‘in constant work’, was their scale, being produced small enough to fit in custom, briefcase-sized boxes. These often beautiful models allowed Devey to dispense with creating perspective drawings, producing only elevations and plans, which were combined with the physical miniature they would see in front of them.

The Ledgers, model of proposed alterations - George Devey, c.1882 (Image © Jill Allibone)
The Ledgers, Surrey, model of proposed alterations – George Devey, c.1882 (Image © Jill Allibone)
Barton Manor, model of proposed alterations to the stables - George Devey, c.1873-74 (Image © Jill Allibone)
Barton Manor, model of proposed alterations to the stables – George Devey, c.1873-74 (Image © Jill Allibone)

Two more models are worthy of note due to their size and beautiful detailing. One of the tallest was for Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, the vast Gothic edifice built for William Beckford constructed between 1786-1807. The model was notable not only for its scale (built at a ratio of 1 inch to 10 feet), but also for its own evolutionary construction with the model corresponding in part to the earlier designs from 1799, but overall the composition is similar to the engravings from the 1820s. The irony is that this model, built of fragile card, survived more completely than the ill-fated abbey itself.

Model of Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt. (Image © British Library)
Model of Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt. (Image © British Library)

Perhaps the most beautiful and largest is the proposed model for a new palace in Richmond, Surrey, designed by William Kent for King George II and Queen Caroline in 1735. Created in pearwood, the model is nearly two and half metres long and is exquisitely detailed, as one would expect of a presentation model to be shown to royalty.

Model of a proposed new palace for Richmond, 1735, designed by William Kent. (Image © The Royal Collection)
Model of a proposed new palace for Richmond, 1735, designed by William Kent. (Image © The Royal Collection)

Clearly there is a long history of the use of models, with examples for houses both large and small from multiple notable architects and other evidence that these models were not an uncommon element in the design and construction of country houses. So, why are so few known to have survived? Without more primary, documentary evidence, conclusions necessarily have to be somewhat conjectural.

Some study has been made of architectural models, particularly by Professor John Wilton-Ely, who has stated that although frequently used, they were less used by the end of the eighteenth-century.  He also highlights that whilst models found favour with some architects, such as Soane, others such as William Chambers only used them occasionally, Wyatt only appears to have used it Fonthill and Longford Castle, Wiltshire, and that there are no known instances of their use by Robert Adam.

Additionally, one reason so few have survived is their role in the actual construction process; the frequent use on-site and the high-level of wear-and-tear likely to result from such treatment meant that those made from more fragile materials such as plaster or card were always at risk of being worn out and discarded.

For those which survived, their bulky nature would always be a factor in determining whether someone not only had the inclination but also the space to store them. Minutes and correspondence from within the Victoria & Albert Museum shows the ascending and waning fortunes of architectural models.  When the V&A first opened (called then, the Museum of Construction), models were given prominent billing and display space – though of the seventy-plus identified2 from the hundred known in the collection, only one is a house, surprisingly dating from 1936. The lack of country houses is stark, reflecting a level of  institutional disinterest from the outset and over the lifetime of the collection.  Cumbersome and unloved, the collection was removed from display in 1888 and put into store. After ownership was passed unenthusiastically between the various museums, the V&A reluctantly took them in 1916 (‘The items do not for the most part appear to be very desirable for us, either for exhibition or reserve‘) with some being selected for disposal, the minutes recording ‘their cremation‘.

Perhaps the most intriguing method of survival is the most charming – their use as dolls houses.  Once the model had served its purpose in design and construction, and perhaps served time as a conversation piece, one can easily imagine the children of the house being given a chance to recreate their lives in miniature. They also would serve as training for one day managing a country house of their own. So if you, or a relative, has an antique but surprisingly good quality or familiar looking dolls house in the attic, take a closer look…!

Melton Constable Hall Model (NWHCM : 1971.386) (Image © Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse - Norfolk Museums)
Melton Constable Hall Model (NWHCM : 1971.386) (Image © Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse – Norfolk Museums)

Perhaps the most impressive (and remarkable) surviving example is that of Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk, dating from the 1660s.  The architect of the now grade-I listed house is unconfirmed, particularly as there are no known drawings, but it is thought that the owner, Sir Jacob Astley, may have designed it himself. In such circumstances, the building of a model would have been a prudent step, both in confirming that his design was fit-for-purpose and for subsequent use during construction. The model of the house was then passed through generations of the Astley family children before being donated to the Norfolk Museum Service.

Another dolls house, this time at Greystoke Castle in Cumbria, was discovered to be a proposed eighteenth-century design for the enlargement of the pele tower.  Much of the work at Greystoke was completed by Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881) so it is possible that this an example of another architect using models as part of the process.

Today, the architectural model exists but as a method of celebration and display.  The model is less a functional representation of what will be and instead is a now a mechanism for the long-term appreciation of the finished building as sculpture.  It is curious to note that the model has moved from the purpose of remembrance to aspiration and back to the recreation of what has been lost. The sophistication of modern digital rendering has sadly removed the need for the model to help those commissioning a country house to visualise it.  However, in this we have have lost the physicality of the form and the sheer pleasure of the craftsmanship of a country house model; idealised but as yet unrealised.

 

Known complete models of houses

Do you know of any others? If so, please add a comment with details.

Summary list of examples (architect name and current location of the the model, in brackets, if either are known)


References

1 – ‘Plaster Casts: Making, Collecting and Displaying from Classical Antiquity to the Present’ – Rune Frederiksen, Eckart Marchand (Walter de Gruyter, 27 Sep 2010)

2 – Inside Outside: Changing Attitudes Towards Architectural Models in the Museums at South Kensington’ – LeslieFiona, Architectural History47 (2004), pp. 159200

Further reading

PPS7 – the saviour of the new build country house

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

The nature of our country houses is one of evolution in design, form, and function.  As society has changed, so too have the requirements of the wealthy and, as their houses have been a direct expression of their wishes, these changes can be traced through the architectural record.  Much as we love the many beautiful houses we have already there will always be the desire to build anew, which will constantly reinvigorate this branch of architecture.  As always, some designs will not stand the test of time and will be replaced but the best houses of today will be appreciated by generations to come.  Estate agents often have sites with planning permission for sale and the most interesting come with a design already approved – and in an interesting trend, they are almost all classical, rejecting the avant-garde in favour of brick, stone and Palladian proportions.

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: wikipedia)
Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: wikipedia)

Once Britain became a more domestically peaceful land under Elizabeth I, the form of our country houses changed from defensive, to one of show as exemplified by the Prodigy houses such as Longleat, Wollaton and Hardwick.  Gone was the need for walls, keeps and battlements and instead the requirements of the aristocracy became focused on courtly entertainments, sport and the display of one’s level of taste and education. This largely set the pattern which can still be seen today, with only the architectural choices as to style varying according to fashion and whim.

Yet it seems that for the wealthy who commission these houses, the overall exterior style has evolved as far as necessary because, despite the efforts of the last Labour government to promote the bold and radical as the only appropriate response, a majority of the houses designed and built today are in a form that your average 18th-century gentry would broadly recognise.  Although most construction in the countryside is largely forbidden, rules introduced by the Conservative government in 1997 – known as PPG7 section 3.21 – allowed for planners to approve houses where:

“An isolated new house in the countryside may … exceptionally be justified if it is clearly of the highest quality, is truly outstanding in terms of architecture and landscape design, and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings.”

In 2004 the Labour government sought to drop this, ostensibly because they thought it a loophole, but many suspected an undercurrent of class warfare (an early day motion put down that year by the former Member for Denton and Reddish, Andrew Bennett, stated that “this House … further believes that if the countryside is to be preserved by not building ordinary houses, it is even more important that is should not be polluted with big houses for the arrogant, vulgar and rich.“).  After a strong backlash with MPs (well worth reading is Alan Howarth’s spirited defence of the country house) and architects leading the charge, the rules were amended to become PPS7 which largely retained the status quo giving owners the opportunity to continue the fine tradition of new country houses but with a distorting preference for houses which would reflect “the highest standards in contemporary architecture.“. In fact, the market proved that clients know what they want more than misguided politicians and civil servants.

In response to the proposed changes the RIBA put on an exhibition called ‘The New English Country House‘ which looked at houses commissioned between 1997-2004 under PPG7.  Of the 24 houses included, 15 were in a historical style and only 9 contemporary, with a majority of the former being seen through to completion.  Interestingly, of the houses listed, at least half (by my reckoning) are replacements for previously demolished  country houses perhaps providing an object lesson in the folly of their original loss.

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

The poster child for the new ‘modernist’ country house was the design produced by Ushida Finlay in response to the 2001 RIBA competition to build “the country estate of the future”.  The original Tudor Grafton Hall in Cheshire had been demolished in 1963 after becoming derelict but the 200-acres of parkland offered the ideal opportunity to create an excellent smaller country estate. Yet for the limited pool of those wishing to spend the estimated £20m to build this vision the design ticked none of their boxes. After 7 years of marketing by the estate agents, it was decided to commission a new design from one of our best Classicists, Robert Adam, whose new proposal was described as “an exceptionally outstanding design“. However, the opportunity to create this new house is still being marketed with Jackson-Stops for £5m – so the argument hasn’t been decisively won in this instance just yet.

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

In much the same way as those in previous centuries wished to express themselves through their architecture, so it is the case today.  Houses such as the proposed Alderbrook Park in Surrey for the billionaire Lakshmi Mittal are a radical re-interpretation of the country house but driven by the particular requirements of the client.  Also of particular note is  Ferne Park in Wiltshire for Lady Rothermere – easily one of the finest country houses to be completed in the last 100-years and very much the product of the client working in conjunction with her architect, the brilliant Quinlan Terry.  Speculative developments seem less likely to find buyers as they become more an expression of the ego of the architect rather than the reflecting the personality of the buyer. The prime example of this is the poorly designed Updown Court in Surrey, once the most expensive house for sale in the UK at £70m, which now faces being carved up into flats or becoming a hotel.

Nyn Park, Hertfordshire (proposed) (Image: Julian Bicknell & Associates)
Nyn Park, Hertfordshire (proposed) (Image: Julian Bicknell & Associates)

So what other architecturally attractive opportunities are out there? One quite close to London is Nyn Park, Hertfordshire to replace a house which burnt down in 1963 with a design by another icon of the Classicists, Julian Bicknell, who designed the brilliant Henbury Rotunda in Cheshire. The proposed plan bears no relation to the former house and shows the type of new design allowed under PPS7. Just to underline the level of wealth required for these projects, the estate is being marketed at £10m, built costs could easily be £1m-2m, and the buyer must lodge £3m with the local council as a Landscape Bond that they will fulfil their obligations with regards to restoration which will be returned in tranches as the work is completed.

The Ridge, Gloucestershire (proposed) (Image: Yiangou Architects / Knight Frank)
The Ridge, Gloucestershire (proposed) (Image: Yiangou Architects / Knight Frank)

Another house which has featured before in this blog is the impressive ‘The Ridge’ in Gloucestershire; another replacement for a lost house designed by Humphrey Repton and demolished in 1934.  Designed by Ross Sharpe (who also designed the Icomb Grange), this 33,000 sq.ft. design takes the form of the original house but adds an extra level of architectural flair.  As expected, this is £5m for the opportunity with build costs on top.  Interestingly, the Knight Frank website also says that alternative plans for a smaller 15,000 sq.ft. house have been drawn up, hoping to draw in a wider pool of potential owners.

The Parkwood Estate in Surrey, designed again by Robert Adam, has also been featured previously on this blog back in July 2010 as part of the discussion around justifiable replacement.

For some, a new build will never be a substitute for a historic country house but for those with specific requirements or where there is a shortage of suitable houses, then the option of creating from scratch will always be enticing.  It is also important that the tradition of country house building is allowed to continue as it is only through development that it is shown that these fine buildings can contribute to, and enhance, the much-loved countryside.  PPS7 provides an important legal support for the principle that architecture should be allowed to flourish where it is justified and supportable and should be defended against any narrow-minded interests who would deny our history and diminish the future.

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The websites of the leading country house architects show the broad range of fascinating projects they are involved with, and that, fingers crossed, will one day be built:

The future of the country house? Alderbrook Park, Surrey

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

Within any established pattern there is always the shock of the new. Most people when asked to imagine an English country house will usually think of red-brick Jacobean or light-stone Georgian but the design of new country houses is always in flux and what has gone before is no guarantee of what will come. Following World War II, the aftermath of which led to the demise of many large houses, the fashion changed to have a smaller but more modern house – one which required fewer staff and perhaps used more contemporary architectural language; however much it was derided by others.

Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)
Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)

The nature of architectural innovation has usually been one of gradual change – subtle at first and then growing bolder.  For example, Palladianism is widely seen to have arrived rather dramatically with the building of the Queen’s House in Greenwich in 1616 to a design by Inigo Jones.  Jones had recently studied Palladian architecture in Rome for three years and this commission was his chance to put this into practice.  One can imagine the surprise of Londoners, long used to timber, gables, and red-brick, to the square, stuccoed, and very white, Queen’s House.  Yet Sir John Summerson argues that there is evidence of Palladianism in the plan of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built in the 1590s by Robert Smythson.  Here, the placing of the hall on the central axis of the main entrance and the colonnades between towers front and back, echo the layout of Palladio’s Villa Valmarana featured in his Second Book of Architecture, making Hardwick the first known use of Palladio by an English architect.  This quiet use would have meant that visitors would have become accustomed to a symmetrical, regularised interior, paving the way for the same style to appear externally.

As much as the role of ‘architect’ took time to develop, so to did the responses to their work.  In 1624, Sir Henry Wotton, writing in his ‘Elements of Architecture‘, bemoaned the lack of ‘artificiale tearmes’ – that is, language with which to describe architecture.  Yet William Webb, writing in 1622, managed to praise the then new Crewe Hall in Cheshire, saying that the owner, Sir Randolph Crew;

“…hath brought into these remote parts a modell of that most excellent for of building which is now grown to a degree beyond the building of old times for loftiness, sightlines and pleasant habitation…”

So, ever since we’ve had architects, we’ve had critics (who were also sometimes architects); Jones, Wren, Ruskin, Pugin, Morris, Lutyens, Pevsner, etc have all made their opinions known.  Overseas visitors were also apt to compare what they had seen.  Jean Barnard le Blanc, visiting in 1737-8, was well educated and travelled and critical of the emerging use of Italian designs in England saying;

“These models have not made the English architects more expert; for whenever they attempt to do anything more than barely to copy, they erect nothing but heavy masses of stone, like of Blenheim Palace…”

As the language developed and architecture became more academic it became more rigorous and perhaps dry, with light relief afforded by more waspish commentators such Sacheverell Sitwell.

So why are some houses criticised more than others?  It seems that houses which appear without the ground being prepared before them suffer most.  The shock of the new is unmitigated and particularly where there is a strong local vernacular, the language of the new house will be a greater change.  More broadly, where a house is seen to be breaking with old traditions and what is seen as the ‘appropriate’ style for a family or an area, criticism can be swift and strong.

Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)
Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)

One example of this is Eaton Hall in Cheshire following the unfortunate demolition between 1961-63 of the vast Victorian masterpiece designed by Alfred Waterhouse.  The loss of the house left a gaping hole at the centre of the estate with large gardens and long tree-lined avenues leading to nowhere.  The 5th Duke decided to rebuild and commissioned his brother-in-law, the architect John Dennys, to design a very modern replacement.  The resulting house, although striking, was regarded as unsuccessful, with John Martin Robinson saying,

“The sad fact is that, while from a distance the new Eaton has some of the classic Modern impact of the Corbusier dream…close up it is rather disappointing…”

Yet rather than criticising the house for not being in the traditional language of the English country house, Robinson is saying that it’s not Modern enough.  Others disagreed, with perhaps the most amusing response coming from the Duke of Bedford before it was even built.  Writing in 1970 after the unveiling of the design, he wrote;

“I was interested to see…a sketch model of Eaton Hall.  It seems to me one of the virtues of the Grosvenor family is that they frequently demolish their stately home [Waterhouse’s being the third on the site]. I trust future generations will continue this tradition if this present edifice, that would make a fine office block for a factory on a by-pass, is constructed.”

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

In more recent times, one design which met with critical acclaim but was perhaps a step too far was the Ushida Findlay design for Grafton New Hall, Cheshire.  Their house was a response to a 2001 RIBA competition to ‘design a country house for the 21st century’.  In creating their radical ‘star-fish’ layout they were rejecting the established patterns and trying to create a new response to the same requirements for the functions of a country house.  Yet the house never found a patron and, tellingly, the house now being constructed is a classic of modern Palladianism, designed by the pre-eminent Classical architect, Robert Adam.

There are, of course, many other examples of intelligent but unpopular designs for modern country houses – for example, Wadhurst Park in Sussex for TetraPak billionaire Hans Rausing.  And it’s in this constant stylistic flux into which Lakshmi Mittal has pitched the very radical designs for his new house on the 340-acre Alderbrook Park estate which he bought four years ago for £5.25m.  The original house by Richard Norman Shaw for the Ralli family was demolished in 1956 as too large, with a poor, inadequate substitute built in the 1960s.  The estate was sold with the express intention of demolishing this house and in its place Mittal is proposing a £25m, carbon neutral ‘eco-home’.  To help achieve this, the design of the house is driven by the functional requirements to minimise heat loss, to be cooled by natural ventilation, and have hot water provided by pyramid chimneys which incorporate solar thermal collectors which will help also vent heat in summer.  This house is a rejection of the idea of the house as an aesthetic construct in a particular architectural style but is more Corbusier-like; a ‘machine for living’ – a somewhat depressing prospect.

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

So what does the future hold?  The natural course of the development of the country house has been its adaptation to the whims and preferences of the owners.  As younger generations have taken the reins they’ve chosen different and perhaps more fashionable styles – and without change we wouldn’t have the Georgian mansions or Lutyens to love. However, each of the previous styles could be seen as natural evolution which reused a broad architectural vocabulary which was instantly recognisable as distinctively rural.  What seems to jar with the very modern designs is that they seem to use a more urban, industrial language to interpret the form of the country house.  This seems to sit somewhat uneasily with our preconceived notions as to what a country house should look like – but who knows, perhaps in 50 years maybe it’ll be accepted and appreciated and we’ll be concerned about the next stylistic evolution.  I still prefer Georgian Palladian.