The Country House Revealed – Easton Neston, Northamptonshire

Easton Neston, Northamptonshire (Image: Trish York)
Easton Neston, Northamptonshire (Image: Trish York)

The stated objective of Dan Cruickshank’s series ‘The Country House Revealed‘ is to “…explore Britain’s finest country houses” and after the relatively low-key start with South Wraxall Manor, it upped the ante with the elegant Kinross House, and now it truly reaches one of the finest houses in the country: Easton Neston, Northamptonshire.  The only country house by one of the finest architects of his generation, when it was put up for sale in 2005, it marked the end of one of the great family estates.

Although many fine adjectives can be applied to Easton Neston, one seems to sum it up: noble.  Sitting on a slight rise of ground, this beautifully proportioned house neither lords it over the area but neither does it shirk from elegantly dominating its environment.  That the house looks as it does is due to a unique set of circumstances which gave the opportunity for Nicholas Hawksmoor (b. c.1662 – d.1736) to design his only country house – though he did help with others.

Hawksmoor was born in Nottinghamshire and, after finishing school, was employed as a clerk by a local landowner.  Such was his ‘early skill and genius‘ that word of his talent reached the finest architect in the country, Sir Christopher Wren, who took him on as a clerk at the age of 18.  This employment gave Hawksmoor a role in almost all Wren’s projects from c.1684 onwards, including Winchester Palace, the London City churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1689, thanks to Wren, Hawksmoor obtained the post of Clerk of Works at Kensington Palace – the first in a series of official state roles he was to hold throughout his life, which provided both opportunities and frustrations.

It was this close relationship with Wren which gave Hawksmoor the opportunity to design the house at Easton Neston for Sir William Fermor.  Wren seemed not to display much of an interest in designing country houses but, as he was related by marriage to Sir William, he had originally been consulted about a new house in 1682 and had provided designs for two wings built in the early 1690s, of which one now survives (despite a serious fire in 2002).  Importantly, these two facing wings were 125-feet apart, limiting the size of the main house which would site between them.

Oak model of Easton Neston, c.1690 (Image: Sotheby's?)
Oak model of Easton Neston (as proposed? as built?) (Image: Sotheby's?)

Due to the lack of virtually any drawings or documents relating to Hawksmoor and Easton Neston, there seems to be some debate between such distinguished historians as Howard Colvin, John Julius Norwich and Kerry Downes as to exactly what Hawksmoor designed.  The couple of surviving letters relating to the build from Wren and others indicate that there was possibly a brick house, to Wren’s design, which looked similar but the house as it is today differs in several notable ways, not least the use of engaged columns and giant pilasters.

The first use of the giant pilaster order in English residential architecture can be seen in the south front of Chatsworth, designed by William Talman in 1687 and which also introduced the rectangular silhouette, the echoes of both of which can be seen in Easton Neston.  If the house as modelled is what was proposed or built then it is Wren’s design as Talman’s influence was not yet to be felt.

Staircase, Easton Neston (Image: English Heritage / NMR)
Staircase, Easton Neston (Image: English Heritage / NMR)

Norwich argues that the form of the house was substantially Wren’s, as was the interior, though Downes argues that, on the evidence of Hawksmoor’s sophisticated alterations for the interior at Ingestre Hall in 1688, with its clever use of internal screens of columns and dramatic spaces, and similarly demonstrated with the original hall and the brilliant cantilevered, shallow-stepped staircase at Easton Neston, he comes down firmly on the side of Hawksmoor.

The overall look of the house as it stands today is clearly Hawksmoor – it’s exciting, erudite, and draws on his extensive knowledge of classical architecture to create  bold fronts but with brilliant proportions which make perfect use of the form.  Hawksmoor also had the advantage of the use of Helmdon stone which, due to its durability and exceptional crispness when carved, ensures the house looks as good today as when it was first built.

Easton Neston as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus' (Image: wapedia)
Easton Neston as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus' - click for larger image (Image: wapedia)

Hawksmoor never undertook the usual Grand Tour to Italy so his architectural style was essentially drawn from a close study from various books of earlier classical architects.  This gives his work an intellectual quality which others lacked but also gave him the vocabulary to be inventive.  Easton Neston appears as a much bigger house, including a huge forecourt, in Colen Campbell‘s ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘ though, thankfully they were never executed.  However, the drawing clearly show a clear link between Hawksmoor’s country house and the six London churches (of the 12 built from the proposed 50) he designed: St Alfege’s Church, Greenwich, St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, Christ Church, Spitalfields, St George in the East, Wapping, St Mary Woolnoth, and St Anne’s, Limehouse.

Hawksmoor was also to work, from 1702, with that other genius architect of that age; Sir John Vanbrugh; the playwright turned architect who came to rely on Hawksmoor’s practical skills to translate his fanciful visions into a reality at Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace (even more so when he had to take over following Vanbrugh’s bitter falling out with the Duchess of Marlborough).  Hawksmoor can therefore be seen as a link between Wren’s classicism and the exuberance of Vanbrugh’s particular brand of English Baroque.

Easton Neston remained essentially unchanged (except for some later flamboyant and slightly rampant interior plasterwork by a local artisan in the 18th-century) and in the Fermor-Hesketh family for nearly 500-years until in 2004 Lord Hesketh decided that he was not willing to burden his children with running a house and estate which “…in a good year it loses £500,000 and in a bad year it could lose £1.5m.” and risk seeing the family wealth slowly ebb away on maintenance. He was possibly also influenced by the likely cost of the restoration of Wren’s badly-damaged East wing which suffered a serious fire in 2002. Originally the house and 3,000-acres were put on the market for £50m in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to purchase one of the finest estates to come on the market for decades. Yet with no takers for the whole, Knight Frank sold over 2,200-acres for around £20m leaving just the house and 600-acres for £15m.

In July 2005 it was announced that Easton Neston had been sold to the American clothing retail tycoon Leon Max, the Russian-born owner of the California-based Maxstudio.com retail chain.  For all the fear about overseas buyers, Mr Max appears to have taken his custodianship of this grade-I masterpiece very seriously; hiring the architect Ptolemy Dean to oversee the work and investing an estimated £5m on the restoration to update the services of the house but also to restore the damaged wing to create a European headquarters for his company.  The interiors are equally splendid, overseen by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill (who grew up at Blenheim), with Max taking an ‘almost pedantically historicist approach‘ to sourcing furnishings and furniture which includes Aubusson tapestries from a chateau in France, Louis XVI chairs, and even a couple of the paintings sold by Lord Hesketh as he emptied the house of everything in a series of grand country house sales before moving out.

Easton Neston probably now looks better now than it has done since it was built, with the investment from the new owner likely to have secured the future of one of our greatest and most interesting country houses.

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Book of the series: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Waterstones]

Official listing: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [BBC2]

Quotes, figures and details in final paragraph come from an interview with Leon Max in the Sunday Times ‘Home’ section – 3 October 2010.

An autumn flutter: country houses currently for sale

Country houses are often launched on the market to catch either bonus money early in the year or those looking to move before the summer.  However, circumstances or owner preference can lead to some interesting houses being given a promotional push in the autumn (usually through Country Life magazine) to catch those who fancy Christmas in front a different log fire.  So, here’s a quick round-up of some of the better country houses currently for sale.

Upton Pynes, Devon (Image: Upton Pynes website)
Upton Pynes, Devon (Image: Upton Pynes website)

Easily one of the most impressive houses is one that has always been a sign for me that I’m nearly home when travelling back to Devon on the train.  Just outside Exeter is the beautiful grade-II* listed Upton Pynes, which, despite the very English sounding name, bears a striking resemblance to a French chateau.  Built c.1700 by Hugh Stafford with very sympathetic later additions, this large but elegant house sits in a commanding position in the Exe Valley, perfectly positioned to catch the sun throughout the day, giving the red-brick façades a warm glow.  Described by Pevsner as “…an excellent example of the stately double-pile house that became popular after the Restoration but is relatively rare in Devon.”, the interior features a particularly grand entrance hall created as part of alterations in 1852 by the architect Ambrose Poynter for Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (later the Earl of Iddesleigh).  The main interiors of the house, including an enfilade of rooms on the south front and a notable library, largely dates from 1700.  The house also has the claim that it was the one Jane Austen had in mind when describing ‘Barton House’ in ‘Sense & Sensibility’.  The house still requires some restoration but will definitely reward whoever completes this grand project.

> More information: ‘Upton Pynes, Devon‘ £3.25m, 37-acres [Savills]

Crendle Court, Dorset (Image: Savills)
Crendle Court, Dorset (Image: Savills)

Sometimes a grand house designed by an interesting architect can remarkably remain unlisted, as is the case with the Edwardian Crendle Court in Dorset which was designed by Walter H. Brierley (b.1862 – d.1926) who has been described as ‘the Yorkshire Lutyens’.  A prolific architect, he designed over 300 buildings including schools, churches and several country houses including the elegant neo-Georgian Sion Hill Hall in Yorkshire.  Brierley was a versatile architect able to work successfully in various styles though with a preference for ‘Wrenaissance’ – a modern re-working of the architectural language of Sir Christopher Wren.  Crendle Court was built in 1909 and features elaborate ornamental plasterwork in the main reception rooms by George Bankart, and sits, well, more luxuriates, in 270-acres of grounds.  Considering the architect and the quality English Heritage ought to send someone round to evaluate and spot list it before it gets ruined by someone with more money than taste.

> More information: ‘Crendle Court, Dorset‘ £6.95m, 270-acres [Savills]

Rudby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)
Rudby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)

Other significant houses available were launched earlier but are now being promoted following price cuts.  One such house is the grade-II* listed Rudby Hall in Yorkshire, which was originally given a guide price of £3.5m but now is offered at £2.75m.  Designed by Anthony Salvin in 1838 for the 10th Viscount Falkland, who originally called it Leven Grove, but by the late 19th-century it was known as Skutterskelfe Hall before being given its present name by the company which owned it in the 1990s.  The house was restored in the 1980s and comprises the main house but with the ancillary buildings converted into let accommodation bringing in a handy £50,000 p/a – so long as you don’t mind sharing your gardens, grounds and woodlands with them.

> More information: ‘Rudby Hall, Yorkshire‘ £2.75m, 10-acres [Carter Jonas]

Blairquhan Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland (Image: Blairquhan Castle website)
Blairquhan Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland (Image: Blairquhan Castle website)

For those who fancy something more baronial, then Blairquhan Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland may be perfect.  The core of the property is a tower house built in 1346 but was later given a new front by William Burn in 1820-24 to provide the imposing if slightly stern façade we see today.  The estate was noted for it beauty with Lord Cockburn writing in 1844: “I rose early…and surveyed the beauties of Blairquhan. It deserves its usual praises. A most gentleman-like place rich in all sorts of attractions – of wood, lawn, river, gardens, hill, agriculture and pasture.”.  What more could a squire desire?

> More information: ‘Blairquhan Castle, Scotland‘ £4.85m, 670-acres [Savills]

Beaurepaire House, Hampshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Beaurepaire House, Hampshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Most of these houses seem to be with Savills so to even things up, and to include a house I’m surprised hasn’t sold already, is Beaurepaire in Hampshire.  The house was featured on the blog in more detail (‘Phoenix for sale: Beaurepaire House, Hampshire‘) when it was first launched in June this year.  The house is what remains after a devastating fire in 1942 destroyed the main block of the house, leaving the current service wing which was extensively refurbished and remodelled after WWII to give the elegant house which is for sale today.  Approached down a long drive, what guest couldn’t fail to be impressed by the wonderful gates designed by Sir John Soane which guard the entrance over the moat?  Sitting in a 250-acre estate, the £8m price tag is probably justified for the area – and the owner is apparently in no rush to sell so don’t expect any big price cut soon.

> More information: ‘Beaurepaire, Hampshire‘ £8m, 250-acres [Knight Frank]

Rent a doll’s house: Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire

Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)
Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)

Sitting on a small rise, just off the A158 on the road to Skegness in Lincolnshire sits one of the prettiest of the National Trust’s many country houses; Gunby Hall. However, unlike the others, where we can only ever dream of moving in, Gunby is currently available to rent for the bargain rate of £10,000 per year – but do remember to add an estimated £100,000 for the annual running costs.

Gunby Hall was built in 1700 (commemorated with the date on the rainwater heads) for Sir William Massingberd by an unknown architect but one who was obviously familiar with the work of Sir Christopher Wren.  Built of warm plum-red bricks the sophisticated 3-storey exterior shows the elegant use of stone dressings which elevates this grade-I listed house to being one of the finest of the smaller country houses.  Although showing stylistic links with Wren it was almost certainly by a skilled provincial imitator or local builder.  Wren designed very few country houses – Tring Park in Hertfordshire, Winslow Hall and, according to John Harris, contributed designs for Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, and Houghton Hall in Norfolk – all for patrons who were somehow connected to Wren.  So unless someone discovers a link between Sir William and Sir Christopher it is likely that the local ‘architect’ had only been shown Wren’s designs.

Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)
Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)

When Gunby Hall was built it would have been regarded as very fashionable as Baroque style houses had only become popular in the 1680s.  Newby Hall in Yorkshire is one of the best examples and was rated as the finest house in Yorkshire when it was completed c.1690 (remember the houses we regard as the finest today in Yorkshire such as Castle Howard, Wentworth Castle, and Wentworth Woodhouse amongst others hadn’t yet been built).  In many ways, Gunby Hall and Newby Hall are architectural ‘cousins’ – closely stylistically related but distinct, particularly in size; reflecting the relative wealth of the owners .  Similarities can also be seen with other Yorkshire houses such as the earlier Ribston Hall, built in 1674, and the wonderful but now sadly demolished Wheatley Hall built in 1680, and the later Bolton Hall.

Gunby Hall was later altered c.1730 and extended in 1873 and 1900 to very successfully add a Dining Room, Servants’ Hall and Service Wing.  The later additions blend very neatly with the existing building creating the harmonious look which is so attractive today.  Gunby has long been admired with the famous poet Lord Alfred Tennyson reputedly using it as his inspiration when he wrote during one visit:

. . . an English home – gray twilight

On dewy pastures, dewy trees

Softer than sleep – all things in order stored,

A haunt of ancient peace.

The house was also admired by James Lees-Milne who described it as ‘an Augustan squire’s domain, robust, unostentatious, dignified and a little prim.’.  Lees-Milne was a regular visitor and was instrumental in not only bringing the house to the National Trust, as he did many other houses, but also saving it from outright demolition during WWII.  This terrible prospect came about in 1943 when the Air Ministry wished to extend the airfield they had built at Great Steeping only later discovering that Gunby Hall inconveniently blocked the proposed path of the longer runway.  Luckily the combined forces of James Lees-Milne and the impressively named owner, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, persuaded them to re-route the runway thus saving the house.  In thanks, the family immediately made over the house to the National Trust becoming one of the few houses to be taken on during the war.

So if you fancy living in one of the prettiest stately homes in the country and don’t mind a few tourists having a look round occasionally, get in contact with the Savills Lincoln office.

More details: ‘Stately home can be yours for just £10k a year… plus another £100k for the staff‘ [This is Lincolnshire]

Property details: ‘Gunby Hall‘ [Savills]

Houses as hospitals: the country houses in medical service

Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)
Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)

Our country houses have always been adaptable as changing fashions or functions required they accommodate new ways of living or roles.  One role which quite a few houses have taken on is that of hospital – either privately or as a fully-fledged part of the NHS – though this use has not always been sympathetic.  However, as the modern health service centralises to larger sites it seems some country houses are re-emerging to become homes again.

Hospitals were traditionally monastic, centred on the abbeys and convents but these were obviously scarce.  The ill were treated in large dormitories although some established houses in the country away from the main abbey to care for the mentally ill.  However the dismantling of the religious orders during the Reformation from 1536, meant that increasingly the burden for care of the pauper sick fell to secular civic bodies, with towns creating their own hospitals.  This model persisted until the 17th-century when private benefactors became increasingly prominent, donating funds and buildings for the care of the ill.

One of the earliest country houses to be converted was the partially completed Greenwich Palace. Originally a Tudor royal house, it had become derelict during the English Civil War, so in 1664 Charles II commissioned John Webb to design a replacement but which was only partially completed.  It was this building which Queen Mary II, who had been affected by the sight of the wounded sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue in 1692, ordered to be converted to a navel hospital in 1694, to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor and later Sir John Vanbrugh.

Possibly inspired by the royal example, other country houses were donated or converted for use as hospitals.  However, it quickly became apparent that they weren’t particularly suitable with one Irish physician, Edward Foster, complaining in 1768 that ‘In general, Houses have been rented for Hospitals, which are as fit for the Purposes, as Newgate for a Palace‘.  By the 1850s hospital design was beginning to emerge as a distinct branch of architecture -Florence Nightingale wrote to an officer of the Swansea Infirmary in 1864 saying that a hospital was a difficult to construct as a watch; no building ‘requires more special knowledge‘.  From this time, the country houses themselves became less important than the space they offered with the house itself being used as accommodation or offices. However, for the treatment of respiratory illness the clear country air was considered part of the cure with houses being acquired as tuberculosis sanatoria such as at Moggerhanger Park in Bedfordshire originally designed by Sir John Soane for the Thornton family.

The First World War necessarily required country houses to come back into medical use due to the terrible consequences of the strategy of attrition through trench warfare in WWI which created large numbers of wounded.  Without a national health service there were fewer hospitals able to cope with the seriously disabled or even those simply convalescing.  Many country houses were pressed into service, their clean country air and fine grounds considered most helpful to rest and recuperation. During WWII, fewer houses were used as military hospitals as changes in military tactics led to many fewer casualties than expected.  However, a significant number were used either by the military or as civilian replacements for urban hospitals which it was feared would be bombed.

Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII
Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII

For country house owners, given the possible options of who might take over their house, the bed-ridden were infinitely preferable to the bored squaddies who wreaked such havoc at other houses (apparently housing art treasures was first preference, evacuated schools second, hospitals third).  This reality plus a genuine sense of wanting to help led to many owners voluntarily turning over their houses as hospitals including the Earl of Harewood offering Harewood House, Lord Howard of Glossop Carlton Towers, Lady Baillie lent Leeds Castle and the 4th Marquess of Salisbury offering Hatfield House as he had done during WWI.  On the civilian side, Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire became a maternity hospital as was Battlesden Abbey in Bedfordshire, Stockeld Park and Farnley Hall, both in Yorkshire. Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire became a Royal Navy Auxiliary Hospital, treating ‘cases of good morale, who are suffering from nervous breakdown usually as the result of operational stresses’.

After the war many houses were returned to their owners in such terrible disrepair that unfortunately hundreds were demolished.  Others continued in their wartime roles with some such a Poltimore House in Devon becoming hospitals after the war when two local GPs recognised the need for more bedspaces and so took over the old seat of the Bampfyldes until it was nationalised after the creation of the NHS in 1948.  There were also many War Memorial hospitals, founded by public subscription after WWI, which often made use of a country house. The nationalisation of these hospitals gave the NHS many of the country houses it has today – although it is relatively few overall as less than 5% of all their buildings are grade II* or grade I listed.  Of the historic ‘therapeutic’ landscapes it manages, seven are included on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England.

However, sometimes these country houses and their settings can escape and revert to being homes, either through conversion or, if the houses has been lost, replacement.   Bretby Hall in Derbyshire, built between 1813-15 by Sir Jeffry Wyatville for the Earl of Chesterfield, was an orthopaedic hospital until the 1990s when the main house was converted into flats, as was the High Victorian Wyfold Court in Berkshire.  Harewood Park in Hertfordshire was demolished in 1959 after use as hospital in WWII but the estate has been bought by the Duchy of Cornwall with proposals for an elegant and very impressive new Classical house by Craig Hamilton Architects.  A similar plan has been put forward for the 57-acre site of the former Middleton Hospital in Yorkshire with the permission requiring the demolition of various redundant buildings from its former use to restore the site.

Sadly though, sometimes the NHS fails to adequately look after the houses it has in its care.  As the trend has moved towards large, new hospitals so the historic elements have been overlooked or abandoned as new hospitals are built elsewhere. As funding for new hospitals is not dependent on the sale of the old site and the house, sadly they can be neglected or subject to inappropriate development as has been the case with the grade-II listed Stallington Hall in Staffordshire, which became a home for the mentally ill in 1928, but after it closed has been vandalised and neglected with a housing development built inappropriately close to the house across the lawn, forever ruining it as a country house –  a poor payback for years of public service.

Related story: ‘Developers draw up plan for country house‘ [Ilkley Gazette]

Background information: ‘Reusing historic hospitals‘ [Institute of Historic Building Conservation]