Want to lease a Vanbrugh? Kings Weston House, Bristol for sale

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)

For some, the height of connoisseurship is to own a Picasso or a Rembrandt, and, in the same way, one can also aspire to live in a house designed by one of the great architects.  Yet, although some were prolific, the best were often to be found working on the largest projects, limiting their capacity to turn their hands to other projects, making their surviving buildings rare.  The damage and devastation which subsequent generations have wrought on our architectural heritage have also made these special houses all the rarer.  So it is always of particular interest when the opportunity to own one of these houses arises; such as Kings Weston House, Somerset, designed by the wonderful Sir John Vanbrugh.

Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726) was one of the most interesting architects this nation has ever produced.  Yet to think of Vanbrugh is inevitably to also think of Nicholas Hawksmoor (b.1661 – d.1736) who provided the technical support necessary to ensure that Vanbrugh’s flights of architectural fancy were realisable as solid buildings worthy of his aristocratic patrons. However, this was not a partnership which diminished one through association with the other – both were brilliant architects who each gained from their collaboration. As John Summerson put it in Architecture in Britain (1530-1839): ‘The truth can only be that both Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh were very exceptional men.

Vanbrugh was an intensely private person – the few hundred surviving letters in his hand betray few family details or about his early adventures as a soldier, spy, hostage, East India Company trader, or playwright.  His time in the Forces seems to have imbued his style with a tendency towards the militaristic, most clearly expressed in his work in landscapes where huge sham fortified ‘defenses’ march across parkland, defending nothing and fooling few.  Yet this bombastic nature is part of the flamboyant and theatrical nature of the man, part of what gave him the flair to succeed architecturally in an age when statements in stone were as important as any made in print or Parliament.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

In his grandest buildings, Vanbrugh appears to almost be designing monuments which happen to have living accommodation – but he was especially pleased that Castle Howard was as practical as it was impressive. Writing in 1713 to Edward Southall, his client at Kings Weston, he states:

“I am much pleased here (amongst other things) to find Lord Carlisle so thoroughly convinced of the Conveniencys of his new house, now he has had a years tryall of it.”

Proud of how draught-free the house was, which helped retain heat, Vanburgh stated;

“He likewise finds, that all his Rooms, with moderate fires Are Ovens.”

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Kings Weston (built between 1710-19) was to be Vanbrugh’s fourth commission (after Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and Kimbolton Castle) and was a house very much to Vanbrugh’s style, creating a ‘Noble and Masculine Shew‘.  The house, dramatically sited above the Bristol Channel, was built for Sir Edward Southall, a well-educated civil servant, well-versed in architecture who had spent considerable time travelling in Italy. Southall clearly had strong ideas as to the influences and design of his house; and Vanbrugh, with his long history of collaboration, was the ideal architect to work with this knowledgeable client.  That said, this is clearly a Vanbrugh house – the imposing giant pilasters, the strong Classical detailing, the almost military look which is reinforced by the unusual arcaded design of the chimneys which emphasised a castle-like quality of a central bastion.

(By the way, it’s interesting the close similarity between the entrance to Kings Weston and that of the smaller Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire (built 1722-24) by John James, who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren).

The house passed through several generations of Southalls including Edward’s great-grandson who employed Robert Mylne in 1763 to add stables and the Shirehampton Lodge and also remodel the principal rooms. Edward’s son, also Edward, lived there until his death in 1832 without issue. The house was then sold in 1833 to Philip John Miles for £210,000 (approx. £17m today) who became the local MP, as had the Southalls been before him.  Three generations of the Miles family lived there until the death of Philip Napier Miles in 1935, marking the last time the house was used as a home. The house was sold at auction for £9,800 (approx. £500,000) with the intention of using it as a school.  This was interrupted by the Second World War when it became a hospital – a role it has also fulfilled in the Great War.  Post-war, it became the Bristol College School of Architecture, before becoming a Police training centre from 1970-1995.

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects is how the setting of this fine house has been compromised: to the north, a road and housing estate, to the west, more houses, and to the south, a golf course.  This is often the outcome of houses which lack a determined owner with the need to keep a large estate, and particularly of houses which fall into the clutches of local authorities who are only too happy to build over the parkland, often with little sensitivity as to the overall setting.

With the departure of the Police, the house was boarded up, neglected and facing an uncertain future.  However, in 2000, it was bought by a local businessman, John Hardy, who converted the house in to a successful wedding and conference venue, apparently pouring significant funds into the project.  His commitment ultimately cost him his marriage and the remaining lease – probably 115-years – is now for sale for £2m (the freehold is still owned by Bristol City Council).  Although this would still make an ideal family home, Mr Hardy has expressed a desire that it remain open to the public.  Whoever buys Kings Weston will certainly be buying one of the finest houses in the country. Perhaps it will remain open to the public, but it would be equally exciting to see the house restored as a home, a private retreat overlooking the Bristol Channel where the owner can contemplate the genius of Vanbrugh and enjoy knowing that an architectural DNA links their domain with the palaces of Castle Howard and Blenheim, a smaller scale distillation of the grand flamboyance which came to define English Baroque.

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Original story: ‘Bristol’s Kings Weston House up for sale for £2 million to help pay for owner’s divorce‘ [Bristol Evening Post]

More details: ‘Love affair with a £2m mansion that ended in divorce… King Weston House’s owner was ‘totally consumed’ by major Georgian renovation‘ [Daily Mail]

Property details: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Knight Frank] – £2m

More images: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

History of the house: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [kingsweston.com]

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.