The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

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.

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

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

The ‘artocracy’ expands: West Acre High House, Norfolk

West Acre High House, Norfolk (Image: Strutt & Parker)
West Acre High House, Norfolk (Image: Strutt & Parker)

In any age, once someone is successful they often seek the traditional status symbols – with a country house being high on the list.  For footballers it seems that the modern, bling-laden mansions are the favoured style but for an increasing number of modern artists it’s the historic houses which are finding favour.  The news that Anthony Gormley has bought West Acre High House in Norfolk adds him to a distinguished roll-call of artists who are forming what has been glibly named, the ‘artocracy’.

Artists moving to the country to help their work has a long history including  Peter Paul Rubens buying the Castle of Steen Manor House in the Netherlands in 1635 which led to some of his finest landscape paintings. West Acre High House was regarded as one of the prize estates when it came up for sale in 2008 for £9.5m with 1,000-acres.  Yet, it languished on the market despite the nearby 1,600-acre Kelling estate being sold which was listed at the same time.

West Acre High House was built in 1756 by Edward Spelman (d. 1767), a writer and translator and known eccentric, who had inherited the estate from the Barkhams.  The design raised eyebrows, particularly for that part of the world, with its novel piano nobile arrangement which was also being used around that time in the construction of Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall.  A visitor in that year, Caroline Girle, reported:

“I paid a droll visit to see an odd house, of a still odder Mr Spelman, a most strange bachelor of vaste fortune but indeed I’ll not fall in love with him.  We were introduced to him in the library where he seemed deep in study (for they say he’s really clever) sitting in a Jockey Cap in stiff white Dog’s Gloves. On seeing Mr Spelman one no longer wonders at the oddity of the edifice he has just finished.”

The house is also unusual in that the south front is 7 bays with the central 5 deeply recessed, but the north front is 13 bays due to the flanking wings being built level with the main block.  The wings were built by Anthony Hamond (b.1742 – d. 1822), a nephew of Richard Hamond who had bought the estate from Spelman in 1761.  The next major change was put in effect by Anthony’s second son, another Anthony, who, in c.1829, employed the well-known country house architect, W.J. Donthorn, who refaced the whole house in pale oatmeal Holkham brick, crenellated it and created the spectacular internal double-flight staircase.  The staircase leads to a picture gallery modelled on the one in Buckingham Palace and is formed of five perfect cubes of 18ft.

The house was bought by Henry Birkbeck in 1897 who might have inherited it having  married Anthony Hamond’s daughter in 1849 but, for reasons unknown, purchased it instead.  It remained in the Birkbeck family until the sale to Gormley, who has bought the house plus 100-acres for just £3m having had the price reduced by wanting less land and after factoring in the £1.5m cost of restoration.

Toddington Manor, Gloucestershire (Image: Images of England/Heritage Gateway)
Toddington Manor, Gloucestershire (Image: Images of England/Heritage Gateway)

The restoration costs may well turn out to be much higher – as Damien Hirst, another of the ‘artocrats’, has found out.  He has admitted recently that he has been affected by the recent economic turmoil and in addition to closing down his studios, he has paused the vast, £10m restoration programme he is undertaking at his equally vast country house, Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire, which he bought in 2005 for £3m.  Built in 1819-35 for Charles Hanbury-Tracy, later 1st Baron Sudeley, using his own very accomplished designs. He drew his inspiration from the Perpendicular architecture of Oxford and Pugin‘s work, to create an important Gothic-revival building at a cost of £150,000 (equivalent to £15m in today terms).  The design clearly influenced Sir Charles Barry in his design for Highclere Castle in Berkshire (built between 1838-78) and the Houses of Parliament (started in 1840) – but perhaps Barry was playing to the audience with the latter as Hanbury-Tracy was also on the committee which chose the design for the new Parliament.  After being empty for 20 years until Hirst bought it, the house was a cause for serious concern with outbreaks of dry-rot and a pressing need to replace the acres of roof.  After being saved from becoming a hotel, Hirst bought the grade-I listed house as both a home but also to eventually become a gallery for his work.

Another artist seeking the country life is Anish Kapoor who was apparently interested in taking the lease on Ashdown House in Berkshire – though it eventually went to Pete Townshend of The Who.  One of our prettiest country houses, and now owned by the National Trust, leasing it would have given him the status without the huge restoration costs.

One of the most encouraging aspects of both Gormley and Hirst’s purchases has been the willingness and ability to finance the necessary huge restoration projects.  For Hirst, this has involved covering the whole of Toddington Manor in some ‘Christo’-esque scaffolding with the expectation that the restoration will be a lifetime’s work.  Any restoration has an element of being a labour of love but, in exchange, their houses will give them status, but most importantly, a home – these are houses to be lived in, albeit on a much grander scale than most.

Property listing: ‘West Acre High House‘ [Strutt & Parker] – marked as ‘Sold’ so may not be on the website for long.

Detailed architectural listing: ‘West Acre High House‘ [British Listed Buildings]

More images: ‘Toddington Manor‘ [aerial-cam photography]

Kiddington Hall sold – but as a home or an investment?

Kiddington Manor, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life)

After many viewings and some speculation, the Sunday Times is reporting that Kiddington Hall has finally been sold for £15m to Jemima Goldsmith, the wealthy socialite.  The grade-II listed house, originally built in 1673 but largely rebuilt to designs by Sir Charles Barry, comes with 466-acres of gardens and parkland designed by ‘Capability’ Brown.  The Sunday Times quotes a ‘property source’ as saying “It was a romance. She just fell in love with it.”.

The sale was ordered by the court to fund the divorce settlement of the owner, Erik Maurice Robson, who needed to raise £8m to provide for his ex-wife (for a detailed estimation of the likely proceeds see the comments on a previous post: ‘The economics of selling a country house‘).  The estate, described as a ‘jewel in the heart of Oxfordshire’, was one of the most important estates to be launched onto the market last year as rarely do prime estates with a manageable house, fine gardens and a productive estate, come up for sale in the prime Home Counties and this was reflected in the original asking price of £42m for the entire 2,000-acres and house.

However, considering Jemima’s previous successful forays into property development, is Kiddington Hall to be a family home or will she take the advice of some who say that if she spends a couple of million on refurbishment the property could be worth £20m?  It will certainly be one to watch as if it is relaunched in a year or two, it will provide a useful barometer as to the recovery of prime country property.

The sale of the main house will also mean that the sale of the remainder of the estate, encompassing 1,600-acres plus several farms and houses can proceed.  These sales were contingent on the main sale as without the sale of the main house the rest of the estate could not be sold.  The Sunday Times is reporting that Alec Reed, founder of the Reed recruitment agency, is the purchaser.

More details: ‘Jemima Goldsmith jumps on £15m stately home‘ [The Sunday Times]

Proposal for Trentham Hall to be rebuilt as a hotel

Trentham Hall proposal, Staffordshire (Image: Property Week)

One of the greatest losses in the many country houses demolished in the 20th-century was that of Trentham Hall, the Staffordshire seat of the Dukes of Sutherland.  Originally a large Georgian house, it was rebuilt and greatly extended for the second Duke in the 1830s by the famous architect Sir Charles Barry, who was also responsible for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament.  The house became a celebrated venue for entertaining and was filled with fine works of art and sculpture.

Unfortunately the relentless expansion of the nearby Potteries areas of Staffordshire led to increasing amounts of pollution entering the rivers which fed the lakes and gardens designed by Capability Brown. By 1898 the smell was so bad that the house was effectively abandoned by 1907.  The Duke tried to donate the house and estate to the local council  in 1905 but was rejected so in 1912 the house was demolished.

The gardens were eventually opened to the public with the remaining outbuildings sitting rather forlornly around the blank space which marked out the site of the now lost house.  The gardens had been maintained and delighted generations of locals who would walk through the extensive terraces which led down to the now clean lake.  Now the 750-acre Trentham Gardens are part of a £100m project to bring back the glory of the earlier eras, with the centrepiece being the £35m recreation of the house as a 150-room luxury hotel following Barry’s original designs.

Despite the economic turmoil, the developers, who originally planned for completion by 2011, are still hopeful that they will be able to proceed with the project.   Although the hotel will not bring back the history and unique architecture of the house, the idea of recreating a lost country house is one to be encouraged.  Although many houses were demolished, the parkland and gardens were often simply abandoned and are still visible today.  Perhaps other estates might be encouraged to look at whether a new house might be the most appropriate use of the estate – after all, this was the purpose of their creation.

Full story: ‘Trentham rebuilt‘ [Property Week]

Shrubland Hall finally sold

When the Grade-II* listed Shrubland Hall near Ipswich in Suffolk was put on the market for £23m in 2006 it included over 40 cottages, several farms, over 1,400 acres and one of the finest Italianate houses in the country. The house was originally designed by James Paine in the 1770s it was extensively altered by Sir Charles Barry in the 1840s.  Lord de Saumurez had decided to start afresh with a grand country house auction rarely seen such a scale since the 1950s, and which included Meissen porcelain, paintings, and many fine pieces of Georgian furniture.  The sale was a roaring success but the house itself languished on the market as the especially as the growing global credit crunch limited the desire for buyers wealthy enough to take on the 40,000 sq ft. house.

However, after three years, and selling off much of the estate in smaller lots, the house plus a few hundred acres of parkland including the listed gardens designed by Sir Humphrey Repton, has now finally been sold for £6.5m to a London businessman.  It will now be interesting to see how the estate develops as without the larger estate it will be simply a home supported by income from elsewhere.  Here’s hoping that the new owner fully understands and appreciates the architectural gem they have acquired.

Full story: ‘Shrubland Hall sold‘ [Evening Star 24]