A Webb of intrigue: one hundred years on from Philip Webb (1831 – 1915)

Standen, West Sussex (Image: tadesco57 via flickr)
Standen, West Sussex (Image: tadesco57 via flickr)

To mark the centenary of someone’s death may seem morbid but to be worth noting a century later they must truly have been a significant influence.  Philip Speakman Webb, who died in January 1915, certainly can occupy that pantheon of those architects who not only embraced the existing trends of their time but also acted as the transitional midwife to a new stylistic era.  Though perhaps now slightly over-shadowed by his collaborators and successors, his influence can be seen throughout the UK in many fields; obviously in architecture, but also interiors and most significantly in conservation as a co-founder, with William Morris, of the Society for the Protection for Ancient Buildings.

Philip Speakman Webb (1831-1915) by Charles Fairfax Murray (Image: National Portrait Gallery)
Philip Speakman Webb (1831-1915) by Charles Fairfax Murray (Image: National Portrait Gallery)

Webb may perhaps unjustly now be seen as the quieter man of Victorian architecture; one who was avant-garde but who with little fanfare helped create a new mode of design, the influence of which can still be seen today. Considering his intellectual approach to architecture, his was more a philosophy of design that pre-dated the formal label of ‘Arts & Crafts‘. This was a symptom of his affinity for a more sympathetic approach to the care of ancient buildings combined with the adoption of an aesthetic which drew heavily on the natural world; bringing those designs which nature had already provided into a domestic context.

Born in 1831, on the turn of the Georgian period, Webb’s childhood was spent among the eclectic mix of buildings of Oxford; late Gothic next to Classical.  This both gave him an appreciation of how they could co-exist but also a reaction which led him to sometimes pursue an ‘astylar‘ approach, rejecting the grand statements of columns.  This inclusive approach was to prove hugely influential both his generation of architects but also their pupils who included W.R. Lethaby, George Washington Jack, and Ernest Gimson.  Webb’s meticulous method also meant that he was one of the few architects who produced a ‘total design’ for his commissions, not only drawing up the plans for the house itself, but also the fixtures and fittings.

Webb’s design philosophy was based on a set of principles which he applied to all his commissions; an avoidance of vulgar flashiness, a desire to integrate a building with its surroundings, a respect for local materials and traditions, and, above all, high quality workmanship.  When applied to country houses, this philosophy created a broad range of designs but were distinctively ‘Webb’ and also highly successful with owners making few changes to them.  Despite his reputation and skill, Webb’s country house commissions were rare – just ten completed designs, of which nine were built.  Of those, three have subsequently been completely lost, and all the others – bar one, Standen – have suffered varied changes, few of them beneficial.

Arisaig House, Inverness-shire, Scotland (Image: collection of the late Miss M.J. Belcher)
Arisaig House, Inverness-shire, Scotland (Image: collection of the late Miss M.J. Belcher)

Webb’s first country house was in remote Inverness-shire; Arisaig House was built for Francis Dukinfield Palmer Astley, an enlightened land- and colliery-owner. Designed in 1863 to replace an existing poorly-sited Gothick house by James Gillespie Graham, the new house was built in just 12 months despite challenges with the remoteness and the local labour.  Although the design draws on local building methods it rejected the contrived ‘Scots baronial’ features so beloved by other Victorian architects.  Instead, the house was, though large, a well-mannered collection of gables, recessions and projections, creating the overall effect of a house which was not seeking to dominate the spectacular location, and reflected the mountainous scenery.  As a first design, it was technologically clever and the internal plan was well-thought out and showed an understanding of both the practicalities and proprieties of a Victorian country house. Sadly, it burnt down in 1935 and was rebuilt as a smaller house.

As a second commission, Church Hill House (later Trevor Hall) was more of a suburban affair.  Built in 1868, it was the centrepiece to a 40-acre model estate farm in East Barnet, once rural but now absorbed into Greater London. The design showed Webb’s further exploration of the use of gables, symmetry and massing.  Although influential, both due to the connections of the owner and its proximity to London, the house was demolished c.1960.

An aborted commission for Lord Airlie in 1868-69 was the sizeable project, with a budget of £50,000, to rebuild Airlie Castle.  Financial pressures forced the scheme to be abandoned leading Webb to destroy all the drawings, leaving no known impressions of what would have been one of his most significant projects.

Joldwynds, Surrey (Image: from a photograph in Webb's collection)
Joldwynds, Surrey (Image: from a photograph in Webb’s collection)

Far more successful was Joldwynds, Holmbury St Mary, Surrey, which was designed in 1870-71 for William Bowman, a noted eye surgeon and scientist.  Replacing an existing, poor-quality 18th-century house, the new house took two years to build, starting in 1872.  The result was a a fine, smaller country house, tucked into a wooded hillside, sheltered from the west winds but fully exploiting the views to the south and north. Drawing in the ideas of the gabled English manor house, but applied to the villa plan, Joldwynds featured a dramatic central hall which rose the full height of the house. Again, the proximity of the house to London meant that it became very influential in the 1880s and 1890s as architects and students came to see it and other later local houses by Shaw, Champneys, Lutyens and Voysey – all of whom showed influences of having seen Webb’s elegant composition.  Fashion though was to condemn the house as it was demolished in 1930 – though it was replaced by one of the finest of houses of the Modern Movement, The Wilderness, designed by Oliver Hill.

Rounton Grange, Yorkshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Rounton Grange, Yorkshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Easily one of the most tragic of the losses is Webb’s Rounton Grange, Yorkshire, designed in 1871-72, which Webb’s respect for local architectural traditions and drew on the idea of the Pele tower. Originally asked by the owner of the estate, iron-master Sir (Issac) Lowthian Bell, to rework some estate offices (budget £800), Webb also produced a scheme to completely replace the existing house, a project which ended up costing £32,880. The tower-house idea meant that it could not only be seen in the well-wooded landscape but would also have views out as well.  The plan of the house suggested that of a castle with a core central hall with four ‘pavillions’ [sic] or towers at the corners. Again, monumental chimneys topped the design.  The design incorporated various modern comforts and the construction took advantage of whatever technical innovations Webb thought an improvement on an existing technique. Even decades after its demolition, those who had lived there remembered a beautiful but practical house, which was certainly a tribute to Webb’s skills. (Excellent history and photos here: The Rountons: Rounton Grange)

Smeaton Manor, Yorkshire (Image: Smiths Gore)
Smeaton Manor, Yorkshire (Image: Smiths Gore)

In 1876, Ada, one of Lowthian Bell’s daughters, and her husband commissioned a house which was to be the core of a horse-breeding estate.  Smeaton Manor was unsurprisingly on a much more modest scale that Ada’s father house at Rounton Grange but Webb produced what could be classed a ‘neo-Georgian’ design, a re-working of the traditional manor house but in a Classical style. The emphasis was on creating a bright interior so instead of heavy panelling, there was wallpaper (almost entirely Morris & Co, obviously) and all the woodwork (bar the staircase) was painted white. Smeaton Manor was again influential with other architects praising specific features or just admiring the overall effect of this light-filled house.  Subsequently, although some alterations have taken place, the house survives – and was offered for sale in 2014 for £2.5m.

Clouds, Wiltshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Clouds, Wiltshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Webb’s largest, grandest country house commission was also his most successful; Clouds, Wiltshire, designed 1877-80 for the aristocratic Honourable Percy Wyndham, younger son of Lord Leconfield of Petworth. The design took three years to agree due to the ambitions of the clients for a large house not quite being matched by an equivalent budget. This difficult start continued with difficulties finding a builder though construction finally started in 1881 and was completed in 1886. Sadly, in 1889 the central block of the house was completely gutted by fire and it took another three years to restore it – though it was compliment to Webb that this followed almost exactly his original plan.

Clouds, Wiltshire - central hall (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Clouds, Wiltshire – central hall (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Clouds became one of the most celebrated and innovative houses of its era.  This, in part, was due to the noted and aristocratic guests whom the Wyndhams regularly hosted so generously (who became known as the Souls), but also because the house successfully balanced the need for practicality with that of the now en vogue informal entertaining – Percy Wyndham described as it as the ‘house of the age‘. The exterior of stone on the first two storeys, with brick on the upper level, featured the now typically Webb-ian mix of gable, bold chimneys, and a pleasing rhythm of recession and projection. The interior could be thought to pre-figure the Modern movement of 20 years later – it was mostly white, with hints of decoration from Morris & Co products. Sadly, crippling death duties – Wyndham, his son, and his son’s heir all died within 3 years – eventually forced the sale of the house in 1936 after which it it suffered various truncations before settling into an institutional role as an addiction treatment centre which it still holds today.

Webb’s seventh country house was commissioned in 1886, back in Surrey. Willinghurst is an attractive, practical home which took various ideas Webb had explored in previous houses and concentrated them into a smaller plan.  The house is firmly in the tradition of ‘Surrey vernacular’ – gables, clay hung tiles, warm red bricks – but with an attention to detail in the beautiful plasterwork and fireplaces. Again, the house was subsequently dramatically altered with the central section demolished and the now separate principal part of the house and the offices becoming individual houses.

Standen, Sussex (Image: Paul F 36 via Flickr)
Standen, Sussex (Image: Paul F 36 via Flickr)

For what was to be a holiday home, Webb’s next commission was also to be one of his major houses.  The job of designing Standen, Sussex, was given to Webb in 1891 with the intention that the house was not to be grand, to instead be somewhere that the wealthy owner, solicitor J.S. Beale, could accommodate his large family plus guests. Webb’s first design was rejected as being too large but the house as built is still substantial – over 200ft wide on the south front. The styling is purely local and takes its cues from the original tile-hung farmhouse which was on the estate. The tower created a focal point to the design – a high-point when viewing the house, but also useful as an observation deck, rather than just being purely decorative.  By this point in his career Webb had largely abandoned decoration, the house achieves a pleasing contrast internally through the use of varied rooms with large windows flooding light into the white-painted interiors.

Standen, Sussex - covered walkway (Image: Kevin Blowe via Flickr)
Standen, Sussex – covered walkway (Image: Kevin Blowe via Flickr)

Standen, as a large country holiday home, was a success with the family remembering it as comfortable and delightful, requiring almost no changes. Certainly it was one of his most picturesque designs and continued to influence architects for decades after it was completed.  Considering the vicissitudes of Webb’s other country houses, it’s a relief that Standen has survived almost exactly as it was intended by Webb.  This is largely due to it remaining in the Beale family until 1972 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust in whose care it remains, making it one of the few Webb houses which can be visited.

Webb’s last country house, Hurlands, Surrey was designed in 1897 and built over the following two years.  To my view, the north entrance front is unfocused and lacks the unifying qualities shown in his earlier houses.  The large chimneys are still there but one is attached to the outer wall, giving the impression that it’s trying to escape. That said, the south front has a wonderful classical quality with the ground floor arcading being gently echoed in the window surrounds, whilst upstairs a typical Webb covered walkway gives a pleasing variety to the first floor.  The house survives but has been divided up.

This survey of Webb’s country houses provides a limited view of the broad skills and interests of someone who was at the forefront Victorian architecture.  His belief in the idea of ‘total design’ was rare but hugely influential. Similarly, was his passion for historic vernacular buildings and their conservation which led to his co-founding of the SPAB.  In looking back from the centenary of his death, we should appreciate not only his gifted development of an architectural style we now call ‘Arts & Crafts’. That said, Webb would, at the time, would simply recognise as good architecture which respected local traditions to create well-built houses which their owners loved. If only that could be adopted as a mission statement by modern mass house-builders we may be able to achieve a more harmonious solution to the challenge of designing houses for today – something Philip Webb would certainly support.

Make a date: the strange world of the calendar house

Knole, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

One of the main satisfactions of having a house built is that, as it’s your money, you get to decide the style, design, scale and detail according to your whims.  With many of the stranger flights of fancy now curtailed by cost or planning controls it’s interesting to look at earlier houses built without such restraints and, in particular, those which incorporated horological elements creating the phenomena of the ‘calendar house’; that is, where the architecture was influenced according to the number of days, weeks or months in a year.

The genesis of the calendar house appears to have been in the intellectually fertile Elizabethan period when the elite of society revelled in the advances of science,  mathematics and astronomy.  They also had a great love of the ‘device’ which in the 16th-century meant any ingenious or original shape or concept. Mark Girouard, in his excellent book ‘Elizabethan Architecture – Its Rise and Fall, 1540 – 1640‘, states that although there are precursors to the idea of an entire building as a device – which can be seen in the designs of Henry VIII’s forts and and contemporaries’ gatehouses – this was its extent.

Under the Elizabethans, this idea can be seen to grow – from gatehouses to entrance fronts to courtyards (before they disappear) and the whole house is the device.  Yet for all the intellectual attraction, the idea of the form of a house being dictated by the calendar is actually quite rare.   In fact, Girouard’s book doesn’t mention the idea at all, as technically the first house to incorporate these principles, Knole in Kent, was built in 1604 by one of her courtiers, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, a year after Elizabeth I‘s death.

The principle of the calendar house is that the number of external doors, windows or panes of glass, chimneys, or staircases etc should total either 4 (the number seasons), 7 (days in a week), 12 (months in a year), or 365 (days in a year).  So in Knole’s case, the calendar is represented through the 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards.  It is this choice of the number of which elements that provides the variation to the theme and can lead to the creation of palaces such as Knole. It also helps explain the relative scarcity of these houses as they require a certain commitment from the owner to complete the build and not compromise on the plans for fear of spoiling the totals.

Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)
Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)

One of the most compact of the calendar houses was built in 1681 – Scout Hall in Yorkshire. This wonderful house – which would give Hardwick Hall a run for its money for the phrase ‘more glass than wall’ – was built for a local silk merchant, John Mitchell, by an unknown designer and includes 365 panes of glass and 52 doors.  Considering the rarity of calendar houses, it’s interesting to consider how this concept suddenly appeared over 70 years after the first and several hundred miles north.  Perhaps Mitchell’s trade had taken him south and he had been to, or heard of, Knole.  Who knows?  What we do know is that this grade-II* house has been on the ‘buildings at risk register‘ for many years and has been derelict since the 1980s.

aberdeenshire-cairnesshouse
Cairness House, Aberdeenshire

The next appearance of a calendar house is in the far north at Cairness House in Aberdeenshire, designed by the renowned architect James Playfair and built between 1791-97 for Charles Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw as the centrepiece of his 9,000-acre estate.  What’s particularly remarkable about the house is that it resolutely neo-classical in design – a very unlikely style to marry with such a whim.  Yet Charles Gordon had something of the Elizabethan love of the ‘device’ as the design contains numerous Masonic and pagan symbols with even the overall layout of the house making the initials ‘CH’.

Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)
Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)

It would be another forty years before the idea would be used again – this time in Cumbria in the construction of Holme Eden Hall in 1837. Built in a Tudor gothic style for a local cotton mill owner, Peter Dixon, to designs by John Dobson, a prolific local architect responsible for the remodelling of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and who worked on over one hundred country houses.  Dobson had the rare facility of being able to competently design in many styles so it’s possible that the idea of the calendar house came from the owner; this time featuring 365 panes of glass, 52 chimneys, 12 passageways, 7 entrances and 4 storeys.  The choice of the number of which elements was probably dictated by the budget as Dixon couldn’t have afforded to construct a house on the scale of Knole.  After becoming a convent, the house fell into some decay but was converted by intelligent developers who kept the theme going and created 12 apartments, each named after a month.

Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)
Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)

The next house appears in Scotland again; Balfour Castle on the Isle of Shapinsay. This was a remodelling of an existing house by the famous Scottish architect David Bryce, who did so much to popularise the ‘Scots Baronial’ style we now associate with the country.  The owner was David Balfour whose grandfather had originally purchased the house and estate in 1782. The Bryce alterations were completed in just two years from 1847 and the calendar theme this time produced 365 panes of glass, 52 rooms, 12 exterior doors, and 7 turrets.

Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)

Bradgate House, Leicestershire was built in 1854 for the extravagant George Harry Grey, the 7th Earl of Stamford, though it was only to survive 70 years before being demolished in 1925.  A gentleman sportsman with a liking for the Turf, the 7th Earl was probably inspired by the contemporary Victorian fashion of connecting families with their real (or sometimes imagined) ancestral past and building an Elizabethan style house would remind everyone that the Grey family had first been elevated to the peerage by Queen Elizabeth I.  Exactly why he chose a calendar scheme is unknown but the house included 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 main chimneys.

The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)
The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)

Although perhaps not strictly a country seat, The Towers, in Didsbury, Lancashire was built between 1868-72 as a rural escape for the proprietor and editor of the Manchester Guardian, John Edward Taylor.  Designed by Thomas Worthington in a bold gothic style, it was reputed to have cost £50,000 to build – equivalent to around £3.3m today, and features 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 towers.  Pevsner appears conflicted about it describing it as both ‘…grossly picturesque in red brick and red terra cotta’ but also as ‘the grandest of all Manchester mansions’.  It was subsequently purchased in 1920 for just £10,000 and became the headquarters for the British Cotton Industry Research Association and became known as the Shirley Institute, before becoming rental offices sadly surrounded by bland office blocks.

Bedstone Court, Shropshire was designed in a completely different style – mock Elizabethan – but again followed the pattern with 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys and 7 external doors.  The house was designed for Sir Henry Ripley by Thomas Harris, and had survived largely intact despite changing from use as a home to a school, until a serious fire in 1996 severely damaged large sections of the house necessitating extensive restoration.

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)
Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire, completed in 1891 and now grade-I listed, was, as far as is known, the last calendar house to be built in the UK and incorporates 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys, and 7 external entrances. Designed by the distinguished Arts & Crafts architect W.R. Lethaby, a founding member of the architectural conservation charity the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was also particularly interested in architectural theory and design, so it is likely that he would have suggested the idea of the calendar house to Lord Manners. The client was a wealthy racehorse owner who built the house on the back of his winnings from a famous bet he made in 1881, that he could buy, train and ride the winner of the 1882 Grand National – which he did.  Lord Manners donated the house to the “Youth of the Nation” and it is now an activity centre.

Considering that the idea of the calendar house was essentially Elizabethan in conception, it’s interesting to note that only one was built in that time, with the next in the late 17th-century, one in the 18th-century, but that it was the Victorians who produced the most.  Perhaps this was a reflection of their interest in time, order and structure but also a revival in the Elizabethan delight in science and challenges.  As a distinct group of houses they deserve to be better known – and in the case of Scout Hall, it deserves to be treated as a priority for rescue and restoration before it runs out of time.

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Two other houses may also be calendar houses but I haven’t been able to reliably confirm this:

  • Kinmel Hall, north Wales – said to have 365 windows on the front elevation, 52 chimneys and 12 external doors.
  • Welcombe House, Warwickshire – now a hotel and has undergone significant alterations but is supposed to have 365 windows, 52 chimneys, 12 fireplaces and 7 entrances.

Can anyone confirm these? Thanks, Matthew

Looking for a saviour: St Osyth Priory, Essex

St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)
St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)

Of the phrases most likely to cause concern for those who love our country houses, up there with ‘dry rot’, ‘water leak’ and ‘death duties’ has to be ‘enabling development’.  Originally designed to protect heritage assets by permitting limited development to fund repairs, it appears to now be used to circumvent local and national planning guidelines to facilitate inappropriate development where it otherwise ought to be refused.

In Essex, perhaps one of the largest examples of its kind was submitted by the Sargeant family who bought St Osyth Priory in 1999 through their development company ‘City and Country Group‘ (CCG) .  The company applied to build 190 houses as part of an enabling development to fund repairs to the main house and the other 22 listed buildings in the complex claiming that some £30m-worth of repairs were required (and personally I doubt the cost would be that high – happy to be proved wrong by an independent survey from a SPAB scholar).   This number would naturally bolster the calculation for the total conservation deficit (that is, the amount by which the cost of repair (and conversion to optimum beneficial use if appropriate) of a significant place exceeds its market value on completion of repair and conversion, allowing for all appropriate development costs, but assuming a nil or nominal land value).  But is this a case of a developer using the provisions of enabling development to gain permission regardless of the consequences for the house – and the local area?

After passing through various Royal hands, it was sold to Lord Darcy in 1553 and remained the home of various Earls, Viscounts, Lords and Baronets until it was eventually bought in 1954 by author Somerset de Chair who, in 1974, married Lady Juliet Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. The couple lived in the gatehouse, with much of the valuable Wentworth Woodhouse art collection, but de Chair died in 1995, so in 1999 Juliet married Dr. Christopher Tadgell and sold St Osyth to CCG and went to live in Bourne Park, near Canterbury.

CCG have a track record of taking on historic houses and have recently restored Balls Park, Hertfordshire and Herringswell Manor, Suffolk and previously Cheverells and Gilston Park – but these were easier to convert as they had all been used for other institutional or commercial purposes rather than as a family home.  St Osyth Priory and related buildings have sad recent history of insufficient maintenance over many years and have been included on the various buildings at risk registers and undoubtedly needs significant work – but can the repair bill really be £30m (by comparison, the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral was recently restored for £40m)?

To play Devil’s advocate, perhaps this figure might be explained by the provisions of ‘enabling development’ which require that;

It is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the place”
– ‘Enabling development and the conservation of significant places‘ English Heritage (2008)

…so to secure a development of sufficient size to make it profitable for CCG, it would need a suitably large repair bill to justify this (see letter from local resident).  It has been suggested on the St Osyth Parish Council website that offering the house for sale (with just 20-acres rather than the full estate) is merely part of the process of proving that no-one is willing to take on the house and restore it and therefore the enabling development is the only option.  In reality, for someone to invest that much in a house (purchase+restoration) they would expect an estate of at least 100-acres, if not two or three times that.  The plans also seem inappropriate with regard to other provisions of the English Heritage guidance:

  • It will not materially harm the heritage values of the place or setting.
  • It avoids detrimental fragmentation of management of the place.

This all seems depressingly familiar where a developer ignores what’s best for the house, and, in this case, what seems to be determined to bloat the size of the local village in pursuit of this unpopular and out-sized scheme.  An active and well-supported local campaign has been highlighting the various flaws of the scheme and the potential damage to the setting and the village if the scheme were to go ahead, but of course, it’s the house which is continuing to suffer.

In an ideal world, the house would be restored for much less than £30m thus showing that the scale of development proposed was unjustifiably large. This again would show that ‘enabling development’ is apparently being used as a means to try and circumvent the usual planning restrictions which are there to protect our heritage and countryside. Then perhaps one day the house with the full estate (hopefully once CCG realise they won’t get permission) will be offered for sale and someone will get the chance to take care of this important house and estate without sacrificing it for housing.

Property details: ‘St Osyth Priory, Essex‘ – Bidwells

More details:  ‘Priory battle gathers pace‘ [Daily Gazette]

A restoration or a recreation: Knightshayes Court, Devon

Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)

For all the wonderful work the National Trust has done over the last hundred years saving numerous country houses from demolition, one criticism that has been levelled at it is the almost artificial atmosphere it has created inside.  A recent visit to Knightshayes Court in Devon has also highlighted an interesting series of judgements as to how far an interior should be restored, even to the point of creating a room which was planned but never executed.

Knightshayes Court sits in an elevated and enviable position above the market town of Tiverton where the Heathcoat Amory family had the factory which generated their wealth.  The family fortune was created by the Loughborough-based John Heathcoat (b.1783 – d.1861) inventor of a revolutionary industrial lace-making machine who moved to Tiverton in 1816 after all 55 machines were smashed by drunken Luddites.  A caring man, he ensured the workers were well-housed and the children educated, and the factory became the largest lace-making factory in the world, employing 1,100 workers.

Knightshayes Court, however, was built by his grandson, John Heathcoat Amory (b.1829 – d.1914), whose father had married the only daughter of John Heathcoat, and had added his father-in-laws surname on inheriting. Although politically active, being knighted in 1874, he had sufficient time to indulge the usual pastimes of the wealthy Victorian aristocrat, particularly hunting.   So why would a provincial hunting gent commission a house from an eccentric medievalist, such as William Burges?

Burges (b.1827 – d.1881) has been described by Mark Girouard as ‘one of the most Gothic of the Gothicists‘.  His spectacular remodelling of Cardiff Castle, and the creation of the fantastical Castell Coch, both for the immensely wealthy 3rd Marquess of Bute, allowed him free reign to indulge his bold and imaginative decorative schemes.  Burges worked to a relatively simple philosophy that “No rule can be deduced except the golden one; whatever looks best is best‘ which combined with his other aphorism ‘Money is only a secondary concern in the production of first rate works…There are no bargains in art‘, meant that his work was never going to be cheap.  Yet Heathcoat Amory chose him – but the suspicion is that it was his wife Henrietta who made the choice, perhaps on the back of family connections which included the 2nd Lord Carrington for whom Burges had remodelled Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire (now flats), in the late 1850s-early 1860s.

Perhaps John Heathcoat Amory had only given broad instructions as to what he wanted and had left his wife to chose the aesthetics – either way, as paymaster, Sir John would later regret not taking perhaps a closer interest in the choice of architect.   Construction of the house started in 1869 and the exterior of the house was built almost exactly to Burges’ original design, with the exception of the reduced height of the great tower and a re-orientation of the billiard room.  With the shell completed in July 1870, at a cost of £14,080 (approx. £1m today), the Architect magazine observed that for completion ‘…the actual cost will be something more.‘ – a classic in the canon of architectural understatements as Burges had reserved his most incredible work for the interior.

In 1873, Burges presented the family with a 57-page album of detailed drawings which depicted everything from floor to ceiling.  Faced with such a grand and lavish scheme the Heathcoat Amorys abandoned Burges’ scheme, apart from the stone and wood carving, and, in 1874, brought in the cheaper but very talented John Diblee Crace.  Crace was the fifth generation of architectural decorators and between 1875 and 1882 he completed the interior of the house in his own more restrained but still colourful designs. The last additions to the house were an extra floor to the service wing in 1885 and a Smoking Room in 1902.

However, in the 1930s and 1950s, when appreciation for Victorian exuberance was at its lowest, the Heathcoat Amorys retreated from the bold colour schemes, removing fireplaces, screen and bookcases and covering or repainting ceilings and walls.  So when the National Trust took over in 1973 the house was very different, and less architecturally interesting, than the one of a century earlier.  The guide book, to its credit, does an admirable job of spelling out what is original, what was originally planned, what Burges executed, what Crace did, and what the National Trust has restored – and, perhaps more controversially, has recreated.

The obvious question when deciding on restoration is what particular period you pick as the ‘authentic’ period.  The National Trust took over Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire in 1987, easily one of the finest Adam houses in the country, but by 1994 the then Lord Scarsdale was complaining that the NT had decided that anything post-1760 had to go.  This led to the emptying of rooms, the repainting of others to how they thought Adam had painted them, and the removal in the grounds of anything not thought to have been put there by the first Lord Scarsdale and Robert Adam.

This is in contrast to the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) who state: “In the architectural context “restoration” means work intended to return an old building to a perfect state. It can be the unnecessary renewal of worn features or the hypothetical reconstruction of whole or missing elements; in either case tidy reproduction is achieved at the expense of genuine but imperfect work.“[source].

The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)
The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)

So was the National Trust wrong to strip back the layers of changes?  In view of the fascinating end result and the relative rarity of Burges country houses it can be argued that this work rescued what remained and cleverly exposed the earlier work.  But whose earlier work?  The guidebook explains that most of the interior is by Crace, and it’s his work which has been restored.  Yet upstairs in ‘The Burges Room’, the National Trust took it a step further and took Burges unexecuted plan for that room and created it as it imagined it would have looked.

So is this mere architectural theme park-ism?  Perhaps as it has be made clear what has been created from scratch there is less risk of confusion, but considering how few read the guidebook in detail (or at all), the National Trust has the unenviable choice between respecting all the changes or presenting a more visually interesting house but with necessary compromises in architectural integrity. On balance, there has to be a very strong case to take such a course of action otherwise we risk seeing recreations of idealised or imagined versions of houses rather than the rich and varied buildings which have honestly adapted and changed as family homes over time.

Visitor information: ‘Knightshayes Court, Devon‘ [National Trust]

After the fire, the difficult choices: Raasay House, Scotland

Raasay House, Scotland (Image: BBC News)
Raasay House, Scotland (Image: BBC News)

When Raasay House on the Isle of Skye Raasay was largely destroyed by a huge fire in January 2009 just days before it was due to reopen following a £4m refurbishment, the locals and owners vowed to quickly rebuild the house as it was.  Fire has always been one of the major threats to our country houses and when it strikes the responses to the destruction can vary greatly – particularly in the modern era.

For many country house owners in the 16th-19th-centuries immediate rebuilding was the favoured response if funds allowed – either to re-create the original house or sometimes to build an entirely new one.  Raasay House was built in 1746 for the clan Macleod after the previous house, built in the 1500s, was deliberately burnt down in 1745 in the wave of retribution which followed the Battle of Culloden.  The house, extended in the 1870s, was run as an outdoor pursuits centre and was an important part of the economy on the Isle of Skye Raasay.  This meant the response was largely on the basis of local economics which required the house to be rebuild to support the business, apparently not for its intrinsic architectural value.  However, the Scottish grade-A listing (equivalent to the English grade-I) means that the ‘new’ Raasay will be a faithful recreation of the original house as it was before the fire.

Although country house owners have long rebuilt, the principle that the house will be strictly rebuilt exactly as it was is, in some ways, a modern response as heritage legislation requires full salvage of any architectural fragments with the presumption of restoration.  Insurance companies also pay out for recreation of the old building, not the construction of a new one.  So responses now are sometimes based on the architectural or heritage value, and sometimes due to the constraints placed on the owners.  The wishes of the owners also play an important part with some looking to recreate whilst others follow the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who state:

Although no building can withstand decay, neglect and depredation entirely, neither can aesthetic judgement nor archaeological proof justify the reproduction of worn or missing parts. Only as a practical expedient on a small scale can a case for restoration be argued.

– SPAB manifesto

The 1992 fire at Windsor Castle destroyed large sections of the State Apartments including the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms, the Queen’s Private Chapel and St George’s Hall.  It was quickly decided by the Restoration Committee (headed by Prince Philip) that many of the rooms would be restored to as close as possible their original state with only a few modern rooms and the Queen’s Private Chapel to be restored in a modern style.

However, no lesser organisation than the National Trust also has firmly followed the faithful re-creation approach, particularly following the devastating 1989 fire at Uppark, Sussex.  Although the dramatic pictures of the fire would suggest total loss, brave efforts by staff saved the majority of the contents of the house and the fire was found to have only destroyed the attic and first floors whilst severely damaging the ground floor.  It was then announced by Martin Sekers, the National Trust’s Regional Director for the Southern Region, that “We feel that enough survives to justify total restoration.”.  So how much has to survive to warrant re-creation?  A spirited public debate at the time brought forward opposing views such as that expressed by the respected architecture critic Deyan Sudjic who argued in an article in the Sunday Correspondent (17 Sept 1989) that:

“…it won’t actually be Uppark no matter how skilful the work of the 20th Century craftsman who seek to recreate it. What tourists come to see will, in fact, be a replica, one which could be said to diminish those fragments which actually are authentic…”

However, other eminent architectural historians such as Dan Cruikshank came out strongly in favour of recreation principally from the point that it provided the opportunity to re-learn old techniques and provide a model in their use.  Andor Gomme argued that a recreated Uppark would be the only appropriate way to show the rescued contents in an appropriate setting.  Gomme also highlighted that in previous cases where a house owned by the National Trust had burnt down (the incomparable Coleshill, Berkshire in 1953 and Dunsland House, Devon in 1967) the decision at the time to demolish what remained was later deeply regretted.

So for public organisations the clear preference is strongly in favour of re-creation despite the claims of the modernist and the SPAB that such an approach is to miss an opportunity or is simply fake.  Yet, for private country house owners, their long-held preference has been to simply restore as much as possible – even if just the walls were left standing.

When Knepp Castle, Sussex was gutted by fire in 1904, work started in 1905 to recreate John Nash’s original design.  Similarly after fires at Bramham Park in 1828, Duncombe Park in 1879, Stourhead in 1902, Monzie Castle in 1903 and Sledmere in 1911, the owners all worked to faithfully recreate the houses to the state as they had been.  For houses such as Lees Court in Kent which was almost completely destroyed in 1911 (scroll to last image) the house was just rebuilt using what remained of the outer walls.

So is restoration the best approach?  Although there is danger that the new work might be a poor pastiche of the earlier work, to just discard what has been salvaged and what remains and to only allow modern work would seem to be overly dogmatic.  However, it will only work if any restoration is of the highest quality to avoid any chance that what is produced is merely a lifeless reproduction.  Owners over the last 400-years when faced with a greater or lesser degree of loss have often sought to restore and to continue that tradition today is to draw on a much longer history than to rely only on the intellectual restrictions of the later purists.

Full story: ‘Fire damaged Raasay House to rise from ashes‘ [BBC News]

Forty Hall ‘renovation’ gets approval from council but probably not from everyone else

Forty Hall, Enfield (Image: Enfield Independent)

Enfield Council’s proposed renovation plan for Forty Hall in Enfield has been given the go-ahead by the council planners. However, the plan seems to verge on invasive and to contravene best practice guidelines from organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient  Buildings which recommend preserving as much historic material as possible to show how a building has developed.  The changes are part of plan funded with nearly £2m in grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Grade-I listed house was originally built in 1629 for Sir Nicholas Rainton, a City Alderman, President of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Lord Mayor of London.  The house passed through various owners until bought in 1895 by Major Henry Bowles who  made many changes including a new staircase with stained glass incorporating his family’s coat of arms.

However, rather than respect it as an important example of one of the many smaller mansions built on the edges of the then city but now subsumed into the suburbs, the council seem determined to make their own extensive changes.  An illuminating quote was given when the HLF grant was announced: “This gives us a unique chance to re-model the Hall completely to make sure that every aspect of it is planned and coordinated to make it the top visitor attraction that it should be.” [enfield.gov.uk].  Among the changes the council have proposed are:

  • installation of a lift shaft,
  • removal of the entrance porch,
  • construction of a glazed roof to the central courtyard, and
  • replacement of the main staircase.

It’s the latter that seems to be the most worrying change as the staircase was an important part of the history of the house.  The Victorian Society has raised their objection to this loss.  Interestingly, the press release inspired news story doesn’t mention whether English Heritage or the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings have given their approval.

Also of concern is the intention to redocorate the interior which will be carried out “by detailed investigation of historic finishes” – which doesn’t say that they will follow the evidence of the past.

All in all this seems to be a council who have approved their own plans to make many insensitive and substantial changes to a Grade-I listed building in an attempt to create a  ‘theme-park’ pastiche of an old house.  Perhaps a more considered approach would not only preserve more of the historic fabric the council seem so willing to rip out but would also offer cost savings.

The plans still require approval from the Secretary of State, John Denham, before they can be implemented so there is hope yet that this apparently inappropriate scheme might yet be modified so that whilst still meeting the council’s aim of increasing access and improving facilites it’s much more sensitive to this elegant house.

Full story: ‘Forty Hall renovation gets thumbs up from planners‘ [Enfield Independent]

Prince Charles and SPAB

It seems such a shame that Prince Charles and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings have fallen out.   This seems to be a classic case of dogmatic positions leading to the removal of a nose to the detriment of the face.  Both the Prince and SPAB have campaigned for the same causes and seem to sing from the same hymnsheet so often yet I can understand why SPAB felt as they did and similarly why HRH felt slighted.  Compromise can be the bitterest pill to swallow and I can only hope that there is a rapprochement in the future – for the sake of providing a better voice for conservation in the UK.

Full story: ‘Prince Charles resigns over restoration rumpus