When newspaper stories appear with headlines such as ‘One of Britain’s ‘finest’ mansions for sale with guide price of £250,000‘, it guarantees that many will immediately start dreaming of exchanging their current home for the life of a country squire. The auction of Halswell House, Somerset, is the latest chapter in a blighted recent history of the house and the absurdly low guide price should be a warning. This is a house which will require equally deep reserves of money and heritage sensitivity for anyone wishing to take on this important house, a beautiful example of early English Baroque, described by Sir Nikolas Pevsner as ‘the most important house of its date in the country‘.
The Halswell family had been resident in the part of Somerset which took their name since the early 14th-century. Though no trace of the early building can be seen in Halswell House today, the core – consisting of two rambling gabled wings around a courtyard – dates from the early 16th-century, specifically 1536, when Nicholas Halswell used some of his inheritance to build a new home. The house and estate passed through the Halswells until 1667, when the then owner, Hugh Halswell, settled the inheritance on his daughter’s 18-year old son, who became, in due course, Sir Halswell Tynte – his daughter having married Sir John Tynte and wisely passing on the family surname as a first name.
It was Sir Halswell who was responsible for the building of the imposing great North wing, completed in 1689; a bold, three-storey addition which was placed so as to hide the older buildings from the view of visitors arriving along the main carriage drive. As to the identity of the architect; in a letter, dated March 1683, among the Thynne papers at Longleat, a surveyor called William Taylor, states that before he can return to London he needed to visit Sir William Portman at Orchard Portman and then Sir Halswell. In his famous dictionary of architects, Sir Howard Colvin states that Taylor was almost certainly responsible for the rebuilding of Halswell. Taylor had several commissions in the south-west in the 1680s, including Chipley House, Somerset (built 1681-3, rebuilt 1840, later dem.), and in Devon; Wembury House (dem. 1803) and Escot House, which was destroyed in a fire in 1808, but was illustrated in Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus.
The design of Escot has been attributed to Sir Robert Hooke but Colvin quotes that in 1684 Taylor was contracted to ‘contrive, designe, and draw out in paper‘ and supervise the building of the house, for which he was paid £200. Looking at the design of Escot House, especially the engaged pillars beside the door, the recessed doorway (inspired by Wren’s St Mary-le-Bow, London), surmounted window with pediment, it’s clear to see the similarities in Taylor’s work at the two houses. A similar style can be seen at nearby Ston Easton Park, a grand and beautiful house built in 1739, but designed by an unknown architect who appears to have taken inspiration from Halswell.
The importance of Halswell House stems from its very early use of the architectural language of the baroque – some five to ten years before the wider movement took hold in the country. Sir Christopher Wren had been the midwife to the use of the style but it was only once he had handed over his responsibilities as the Queen’s Surveyor in 1692 that others such as Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh were able to develop their designs into a distinctive school of English Baroque which reached its peak with the grand palaces such as Castle Howard (built 1699-1712) and Blenheim (built 1705-24). William Taylor was innovative in his use of the style although he was probably copying elements from French pattern books as he lacked the genius of Vanbrugh to bring it to its full expression.
After Sir Halswell’s death in 1702, the house continued down the Tynte family line, with his son John’s marriage bringing Welsh wealth into the estate. It was Sir John’s third son, Sir Charles, who looked beyond the house (completing only minor works there) and instead concentrated his energies on beautifying the parkland. A series of new lakes, canals and ponds, avenues of trees all grew under his watch, but his best commissions were the hermit’s house on the hill, Robin Hood’s Hut (now restored by the Landmark Trust) and the Temple of Harmony, derived by Thomas Prowse from a Robert Adam design. Extensive gardens and greenhouses ensured that the table at Halswell was as exotic as it was plentiful.
Sadly, the 19th-century was a time of neglect and disuse for Halswell as, although it was still owned by the family, it had passed to a niece and was regarded as old-fashioned. It came back into use when Charles Theodore Halswell Kemeys-Tynte succeeded as Lord Wharton in 1916 and the house again became a home. Any hope that this upward trend in the fortunes of the house could continue were dealt a cruel blow early on 27 October 1923 when Lord Wharton’s valet awoke to smoke seeping under the door to his room at the top of the house. Despite the efforts of estate staff to both fight the fire and rescue the contents, by breakfast time the grand North wing was gutted, destroying ten bedrooms, the drawing room, reception hall and the dining room. The local paper reported mournfully that ‘Practically all that remained of the front part of the building were blackened outside walls, the interior being a mass of smouldering debris‘.
The cause of the fire was eventually judged to be a newly-installed electricity supply. Despite the estate being heavily mortgaged, the house was rebuilt at a cost of £41,534 with the work to such a standard that it was confused for being original. During WWII, the house became a girls school and the grounds were used as a prisoner of war camp. Halswell House finally passed out of family ownership when it was sold in 1950, after which it was divided into flats (badly) and also used as a furniture store. The house had a brief respite when it was bought by a businessman in 2004 who lived there and used it as an events venue (sometimes with unexpected results). However, with the house and estate being repossessed Halswell is again looking for a new owner.
The auction guide price is simply that – and in this case feels more like a marketing ploy to attract the greatest interest. It’s likely that bidding will be keen and the final price for the house alone will be multiples of the original guide price, probably nearer £1m, though ideally they will be able to start putting this fractured estate back together, reuniting the parts to create the surroundings that this grade-I listed house deserves. Beyond the sale price, will also be the certainty that the new owner – if they are the right owner – will need to be willing and able to spend large sums to restore the house, especially the Tudor ranges, to the state it deserves. So, rather than £250,000, this house will easily require £2-4m – and possibly more. Not such a bargain after all.
That said, Halswell House is not simply a home – it’s an important milestone in the development of the English country house and a source of wonder at the beauty and composition of the exterior, married to an equally impressive interior. Hopefully the house will sell for a price which reflects its value and ideally to someone who will appreciate it and is willing to pour money almost beyond reason into restoring it. In return, they will be the custodians of one of the finest houses in the country and proud owners of a piece of architectural history.
Full auction details: ‘HALSWELL HOUSE & THE TUDOR BUILDINGS, HALSWELL PARK‘ [Clive Emson] – auction to be held on 17 December 2013 in Saltash, Cornwall. Halswell House and its five other outbuildings lots will firstly be offered as one lot, then separately if not sold.
Official website: ‘Halswell House‘
Listing description: ‘Halswell House‘ [British Listed Buildings]
Further history: ‘Halswell House‘ [Wikipedia]