The Inadvertent Innovation: Country Life and Property Advertising

Over the last four centuries, the marketing of property has seen relatively few innovations. Those with money and the desire to establish themselves in society would seek out those with knowledge on which estates might be available.  However, the launch of Country Life magazine 120 years ago this month heralded a sea change in the marketing of the landed lifestyle. No longer did the buyer have to rely solely on what they found; now Country Life, through advertising and market reports, brought a selection of the choicest properties right into the drawing rooms of the aspiring elite. The continuing success of the magazine suggests that our desire for the grandeur and leisure of rural society is undimmed over a century later.

Country Life was the idea of Edward Hudson (b.1854 – d.1936), a successful magazine printer, who recognised a gap in the market for a publication which reflected the rural lifestyle of a wealthy elite and, importantly, those who wished to join them.  Conveniently for Hudson, he already had one publication which catered to a significant traditional interest, Racing Illustrated, but lacklustre sales meant it was ripe to be incorporated as a component part of the new magazine. The first issue of Country Life was published on 8 January 1897 and from the outset it was noted for the high quality of the content and, importantly, of the production, with heavy paper and fine photographs.

Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

As with most magazines of the time, the front cover and first page were adverts for all manner of essentials such as ‘Cadbury’s Cocoa’ and slightly more obscure (‘Old Grans Special Toddy‘, ‘Vigor’s Horse-Action Saddle – A Perfect Substitute for the Live Horse‘). However, below the grand ‘Country Life Illustrated‘ masthead is a single full page, rich in some of the finest country houses in the land – and all for sale or to let. It’s also noteworthy that this innovative layout was the work of the single firm of land agents, Walton & Lee of Edinburgh, through whom these properties were available.

As today, properties were sold for a number of reasons but, in an age when the loss of the family seat was considered a serious failing in society, financial embarrassment was often the single strongest reason for a property to appear for sale.  Until the twentieth-century, the majority of property transactions for country houses were primarily about the land; the actual house was usually a secondary consideration as, if you felt it wasn’t suitable, you could always rebuild it in a style or scale until it was. Intelligence regarding which estates were for sale was passed around through social networks, partly to preserve privacy, but often as a way of discretely finding a buyer. Local solicitors also played an extensive and dominant role in the sale of property, often using their extensive and intimate knowledge of local families to know who might be open to offers or to find suitable investments, especially as, since 1804, they held the monopoly on conveyancing.

In 1897, the second Agricultural Depression was hitting the income of those landowners who were heavily dependent on income from their estates.  The financial crisis that this created was the catalyst which forced a number of estates to be put on the market. Equally, death dealt its usual cruel blow with estates being sold in part or in total to meet the stipulations of wills, particularly if the only offspring were daughters, often married to a gentleman with his own estate and little need for a part share in another.

'In the Grafton country...' Advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘In the Grafton country…’ Walton & Lee advert for Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

The houses shown in that first edition are certainly varied. Ranging from the grandeur of Stowe House to ‘a charming, moderate-sized manorial estate’, each warranted a small but densely-worded description. In contrast to today where a house of the importance of Stowe would most likely be either sold off-market or launched with all the fanfare modern country house estate agency can muster with multi-page, glossy, full page photo adverts. Although, with the exception of Stowe, all were anonymous, of the nine houses advertised, it’s possible to identify six of them:

Column 1

  • SALE: Writtlebury Lodge, Northamptonshire, with 6,700 acres (demolished 1972)
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘moderate-sized Manorial Estate’, South Devon, with 600 acres
  • SALE: Unidentified ‘unique specimen of an early English country house’, Sussex or Surrey, with 42 acres

Column 2

  • TO LET: Maesllwch Castle, Radnorshire, with shooting over 20,000 acres
  • TO LET: Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, with 250 acres (now National Trust)
  • SALE: Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, with 5,000 acres (now a private home again)
'Stowe House, Buckingham', 'In the Grafton country...' Advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3
‘Stowe House, Buckingham’, Walton & Lee advert, Country Life Illustrated, 8 January 1897, p. 3

Column 3

  • TO LET or SALE: Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, with 1,100 acres (now a school)
  • TO LET: Addington Manor, Buckinghamshire, with ‘parks and grounds’ (demolished 1926)
  • TO LET: Rigmaden Park, YorkshireUnidentified ‘fine Mansion’, North of England with sporting rights over 4,000 acres (thanks to a reader for the identification)

This selection in one week is almost unimaginable now – to have one house such as Stowe or Charlecote advertised for sale would be remarkable; to have those plus other grand houses showed the scale of the crisis which was quietly afflicting the established rural order. As financial circumstances forced retrenchment for families from the larger houses to their smaller ones (or sometimes from the countryside altogether), so Country Life offered a new and effective route for marketing these properties to those who had risen in the heady world of Victorian industry and finance and who now sought to install themselves as the inheritors of the old social order through the possession of their estates.

The photos of the houses for sale also echoed that Country Life also emphasised a new stylistic aesthetic in the photographs which accompanied the articles on specific houses; one which departed from a common representation of country houses; notably by removing the people and all signs of daily life. Whether this was the choice of Edward Hudson or the photographers is unknown, but engravings and images of country houses from earlier periods often showed them as the hubs of rural and social activity. Outdoor views displayed workers in the fields, the aristocracy enjoying the pleasures of the house and parkland, and coaches riding down lanes, whilst interior views were full of noble pursuits.

The bucolic ideal was important in times of political and social turmoil.  Such scenes, although partly a simple tool for demonstrating scale, also promoted the idea of the paternal landowner to those within the landowning classes, those who wished to join them, and others who had simply obtained a copy, perhaps through a lending library.  Note how often the sky is calm, the lake waters placid, and the animals docile or obedient – there are no signs of disharmony. This can be seen in J.P. Neale‘s famous series of views of country seats published between 1819-1823, soon after the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars:

Detail from 'Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Sunning-Hill Park, Berkshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

The compliant and dutifully grateful cows enjoying the benefits of the parkland at Langley Park, Buckinghamshire:

Detail from 'Langley Park, Buckinghamshire' drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Langley Park, Buckinghamshire’ drawn by J.P. Neale (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Take the later scene presented in J.M. Gilbert’s image, drawn in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Bill which extended voting to all men who owned property worth ten pounds or more in yearly rent, of Newlands, Hampshire, which includes a vignette of rural husbandry with the men taking instructions from an agent with the house looking benignly down:

Detail from 'Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby' by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from 'Grove's Views of Lymington' (Image from Rare Old Prints)
Detail from ‘Newlands, The Seat of Mrs Whitby’ by J.M. Gilbert, 1832, from ‘Grove’s Views of Lymington’ (Image from Rare Old Prints)

Interior views often showed the aristocratic families at leisure. This was partly due to the romanticisation of the country house which can, in part, be attributed to the popular historical novels of Sir Walter Scott who, as noted by the writer Thomas Carlyle, that they

‘have taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled with living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men’.

For example, in Nash’s ‘The Mansions of England in the Old Time‘ published between 1839-49, the domestic scenes feature prominent groups of people going about their daily lives as imagined as an aristocratic set-piece where all the clothes were fine, the people good looking, and the activities noble.

'The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent'. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Museum no. 2996-1876)
‘The Gallery, Knole House, near Sevenoaks, Kent’. Joseph Nash. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London – Museum no. 2996-1876)

This is not to say that all followed such an approach. Many artists such as the Rev. F.A.O. Morris in his famous ‘Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland‘ published 1866 emphasised the houses, showing no signs of people.

Country Life therefore was both following the precedent of some earlier artists but also by so rigorously applying this view of the houses and the popularity of the magazine spreading this ideal far and wide, so the perception of country houses as denuded of evidence of life was one which was almost in contrast to the warm, sympathetic portrayal of the families in the accompanying text.

Walton & Lee maintained their tenacious grip on the important first page of advertising in Country Life from 1897 until 1912.  In that year, as a measure of the success of Country Life in establishing itself as one of the prime avenues for the sale of property, Howard Frank, of Knight, Frank & Rutley, bought Walton & Lee specifically to secure that  coveted advertising space. Though their reign at the forefront of advertising country estates had ended, their influence in the presentation of property was to remain and can be seen today. Evidence of this is in both the continued hold Knight Frank maintain on the first page of advertising, and the stylistic aesthetic which the estate agents and Country Life established as the standard for the photographic presentation of country houses for sale and exalted in numerous publications.


Country Life wrote their own retrospective on property advertising in 2007 for the 110th anniversary: ‘Wanted: Property for a Gentleman’ [Country Life]

‘An agreeable surprise’ – the country house and garden sculpture

Statue - Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Statue – Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

The country house has long been at a nexus of art, display and tourism with the treasures, mainly statues, collected by the owner shown in a grand gallery which often formed one of the main staterooms.  Whereas the house provided the setting for the art, outdoors, the gardens and parkland provided a setting not only for the house but also for the many sculptural works they had acquired – a trend which continues today, though often with a necessarily more commercial edge.

The first country house owners to place statues in their English gardens were the Romans.  However, as homes became castles, gardens fell from favour and with them, the ornaments to decorate them.   The trend for statuary only really returned with the Tudors and their love of the outdoor space as an extension of the symbolism they incorporated into the architecture of their houses.  One of the earliest collectors, and most acquisitive, was Thomas Howard Arundel, 2nd Earl of Arundel, who, as a youth, had been at the excavation of the Roman Forum, which had sparked a live-long passion for antiquities.  Arundel amassed one of the greatest collections of the age, rivalling that of the King, including a famed selection of Graeco-Roman statues found in Turkey, which became known as the ‘Arundel Marbles‘. These statues were then displayed at both their town and country seats, both indoors and out – though later, by the mid-17th-century, as a result of the uncertainties of the Civil War, John Evelyn found the Marbles “…miserably neglected, & scattred up & downe about the Gardens & other places of Arundell-house.”.  The statues were later donated to the Ashmolean Museum where they remain today.

The later rise and popularity of the Georgian grand tour firmly embedded the desire to purchase statues along with the requisite paintings. They provided a visual clue as to both the learning and wealth of the owner and so were displayed prominently, especially indoors where they might be shown in the entrance hall where guests would inevitably look at them as they waited. Some of the most famous dedicated indoor galleries include those at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire (though sadly now not as shown in previous link as it’s now a wedding venue).  Other notable galleries, though now lost due to dispersal or demolition, were those at Clumber Park, Ickworth House and Hamilton Palace, the latter described as “…peopled with bronze statuary on Irish black marble bases polished to such a gloss that they reflected the pavement like a mirror.“.

Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)
Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)

Outside, the display was no less formal – symmetry and structure dominated.  However, by the 1730s, the more formal display of statues outdoors gave way to a more naturalistic style whereby they became almost secreted amongst a more informal – but no less planned – landscape.  One thing often forgotten now is that we see gardens after over 250 years of growth, but when first planted they would have been much sparser giving the ornaments greater prominence.  The return of the Roman influence can be closely linked with the rise of Palladianism and the influence of Lord Burlington and his circle; most notably, the brilliant designer William Kent. Other notable influences include Batty Langley, who published his ‘New Principles of Gardening‘ in 1728 and Stephen Switzer’s ‘Ichnographica Rustica‘, published in 1718 – the latter of which was the first to show serpentine walks and streams. Life also imitated art, with the popularity of the Arcadian visions of painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicholas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa also inspiring those who collected the paintings to attempt to bring them to life.

Temple - Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Temple – Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The more secure and rising wealth of the 1730s enabled owners to create larger estates and so giving them more space to indulge their plans.  However, no stream will rival a raging river so to create a sense of theatre, the landscape was used and moulded to create a series of views which took advantage or distant landmarks or by introducing elements such as statues, temples and obelisks.  Often these gardens were designed to entertain the knowledgeable visitor with allusions to myths and noble virtues – though in one lesser known example, the owner of the famous Vauxhall Gardens in London, built a darker memento mori‘ garden at Denbies, his home in Surrey.

However, the main aim was to delight and to stimulate emotions. One of the most famous Georgian gardeners, Philip Miller, wrote in his 1739 edition of his ‘Gardener’s Dictionary’:

“In laying out these walks through woods there should be a great regard had to the neighbouring country, so as whenever there are any distant objects which appear to the sight, there should be openings to which the serpentine walks should lead, from whence objects may be viewed, which will be an agreeable surprise to strangers…”

Bridge - Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)
Bridge – Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)

These principles were translated according to the whims and finances of owners across the country, leading from the sublime creations of Stowe, Stourhead and Studley Royal to many lesser known and private gardens.

The statuary could sometimes cause the odd drama. Dallam Towers, Cumbria was archly described by Pevsner as “…undoubtedly the finest Georgian facade in the county; but what the visitor may not realise is that, behind all the stucco, there’s the finest Queen Anne facade in the county.“. Between the facade and the landscape once stood (or perhaps still stands) a line of statues standing guard between the garden and the ha-ha. Yet this line is slightly marred by one of the statues being headless – the unfortunate outcome of a 1820s dinner which led to a very ‘well-refreshed’ Lord Milthorpe.  Thinking he had seen a poacher, he grabbed a rifle, and despite the protests of his guests, he duly dispatched the ‘poacher’/statue; a loss for the world of garden ornaments but perhaps a gain for the forces of law and order.

With such vast quantities of marble scattered out the gardens, occasionally a prized statue may slip slowly into obscurity. This can lead to discoveries in the same way that an Old Master may be found in the attic, so they can also be found in the shrubbery, such as this rare Chinese Ming tomb horse or the lucky owner of a castle somewhere in northern Europe who had a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Adriaen de Vries.

The tradition of sculpture in the gardens of country houses is certainly alive and well today and has developed beyond the more formal Roman statuary towards a decidedly more contemporary ethos – though perhaps more commercial than for simple pleasure.

'Huge Sudeley Bench' by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)
‘Huge Sudeley Bench’ by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)

At the beautiful Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, Christies are holding their selling exhibition of contemporary sculpture from luminaries such as Marcel Wanders, Marc Quinn and Pablo Reinoso.  Over in Sussex, the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood, hosts a regularly changing line-up with a focus on supporting emerging talent along with the more established artists such as Lynn Chadwick and Anish Kapoor.  One more recent venue is the Jupiter Artland at Bonnington House in Scotland, just outside Edinburgh.  The vision the Wilsons, who own the house, Jupiter Artland features large-scale works such as the monumental ‘Life Mounds’ by Charles Jencks’ who specialises in landscape art that I suspect would appeal to the likes of ‘Capability’ Brown if he were around today.

These are just some of the examples of contemporary schemes which are taking place across the country. Each is enlivening the grounds of a house and again maintaining that artistic thread which has been spun out over hundreds of years, linking country houses, an owners’ taste and some of the best art in the country.

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More wonderful examples of works available outdoors can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library collection.

This blog post is a little off my usual patch so I’m grateful for the research of David Stuart in ‘Georgian Gardens

Country House Rescue: school’s out – High Elms Manor, Herts

High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)
High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)

If there was a prize for commitment above and beyond financial sense then the owner of High Elms Manor/Garston Manor could probably win ‘Highly Commended’ for her determination to rescue this once-derelict country house on the edge of Watford, Hertfordshire, which is the next destination of Ruth Watson and Country House Rescue. The house is an interesting example of the various pressures which can affect country houses and the solutions having experienced almost the complete range over the last century with the new owners adding a few more.

Built sometime before 1813 and once the centre of a 500-acre estate, High Elms Manor originally enjoyed fine rural seclusion, its nearest neighbours the St Pancras Industrial School and Metropolitan District Asylum to the west (now demolished and built over) and Bucknalls, a Victorian manor house now home to the Buildings Research Establishment, to the east.  Originally known as High Elms Manor, it was changed to Garston Manor in 1895, though the current owner has apparently decided to go back to using the original name; even if it’s not the one used by Channel 4.

Relentless urban growth over the last 100 years pushed housing estates and industry right up to the boundaries of many country estates – and usually then overwhelmed them.  The sad pattern was often industry moving closer and blighting the views, then the air, ruining the very attributes which had been their reason for being built in the first place.  As workers followed industry so more land was needed for housing and so estates on the edges of towns were particularly vulnerable (as they still unfortunately are today).

Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Watford has already lost one major house – Cassiobury – to just these pressures, though this was much closer to the centre of the modern town and was lost back in 1927. The long-time seat of the Capel family, Earls of Essex, who built a fine house which was altered by Hugh May c.1674-80 and which boasted superb interiors, with carvings by Grinling Gibbons, and which was later ‘Gothicised’ by James Wyatt (c.1800).  Visited by Country Life magazine in 1910 it was still rural:

“‘…set in great and delightful grounds and surrounded by a grandly timbered park. Therein is peace and quiet; the aloofness of the old-country home far from the haunts of men reigns there still, and Watford and its rows of villas and its busy streets is forgotten as soon as the lodge gates are passed’.”

Yet by 1922 the house and 458-acre park were for sale and were bought in 1927 by a consortium of local businessmen who stripped the house for materials, sold the carvings to museums and private collectors and then demolished the house, with residential estates over-running that once rural idyll.  Sadly this was the case for so many of our demolished country houses.

High Elms Manor, being further north, escaped these immediate pressures.  The house became home to the Watney brewing family around 1870, who commissioned alterations which enlarged the house.  The house was then sold to the Benskins, another family of brewers, before it was bought in 1911 by Walter Bourne, co-founder of the Oxford Street department store Bourne & Hollingsworth (now split into retail units and offices – history (scroll past the odd photos at top of the page)), who made further changes around 1920, shortly before his death in 1921.  Stafford Bourne, one of the sons of the founder, described High Elms as:

“…one of the finest and most dignified medium-sized estates in the county of Hertfordshire.”

With fine and interesting interiors, this was a house built for entertaining and accommodating large numbers of guests and visitors.  This was to perhaps save the house from demolition as the house was sold once again after Walter Bourne’s death and took on another of the many uses our country houses have been adapted for and became a medical rehabilitation unit, still known as Garston Manor.  It remained in this role until the 1990s when the council, faced with rising maintenance costs, abandoned it and left it to decay.

Sadly, although boarded up, the house suffered from repeated vandalism and theft, with roof lead and floorboards proving particularly attractive.  When the now-owner Sheila O’Neill came to view the house it was a daunting prospect:

‘It had been empty for years when I came to see it,’ says the present owner. ‘It was more or less derelict. Ceilings had fallen in, all the floors had been damaged, the wood panelling had turned green, chimneys had collapsed, lead had been stripped off the roof by vandals, there were 100 broken windows, the garden was a jungle, it was in a terrible state…”

Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)
Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)

Thankfully, as many other country houses have discovered, they can be rescued from such a parlous state.  High Elms was now adapted to that familiar role for a country house; that of being a school.  There is a long and fine tradition of our country houses educating future generations in grand adapted ballrooms and dining rooms.  In cases such as the spectacular Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, (now being wonderfully restored by the Stowe House Preservation Trust with backing from the World Monuments Fund) it almost certainly saved it from demolition.  Stowe is an especially grand example of the country house as a school but there are hundreds across the UK, each doing their bit to preserve our architectural heritage – though sadly the necessary ancillary buildings can sometimes detract from the setting.

Thankfully though, in the case of High Elms Manor, the needs of the school have been accommodated within the 80-odd rooms of the house with, for example, the ballroom serving as a gymnasium.  However, a house of this size requires significant funding not only in terms of capital investments in the house but also just to meet the £75,000 per year running costs.  Having bought it for £500,000, Sheila O’Neill estimates she has poured at least that much again in her quest to restore the house.  Faced with her own need for a replacement hip, and the relatively low profits from running her Montessori school, Mrs O’Neill has turned to Ruth to provide guidance as to how to make more from the not-very-successful wedding hire business and for any other tips. With strong local competition from the incredibly pretty Hunton Park, it seems that it is the posse of daughters who appear to hold the key to maintaining and improving their situation.

Country House Rescue: ‘Garston Manor‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Interview with Sheila O’Neill: ‘Country House Rescue in Garston‘ [Hertfordshire Life]

If in doubt, rent: Faringdon House, Oxfordshire

Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Renting a property has long been associated with those starting out on the property ladder but there is a long history of country houses, large and small, being tenanted for long periods of time.  Now the focus is very much on the sale of country houses with rentals being in the shade of their high-spending counterparts but there are still many fine houses available to those wishing to experiment with the country life or as a short-term solution.

Jane Austen was well-known for reflecting the social conventions of the aristocracy in her work and it’s interesting that one of the main characters in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the wealthy Mr Bingley, rents ‘Netherfield House’ whilst he considered which house and estate he would establish himself in.  This again is a pattern that still holds true today with those seeking to move to either a new area or out of town, renting to get a better understanding of an area.  These opportunities are available today where houses such as Puddletown Manor in Dorset are available for rent (£9,000 pcm) but also for sale (£6m) at the same time.

Country houses have been let for a variety of reasons.  One of the most common was simply that it might be a subsidiary seat and rather than simply leave it empty it was often let as a source of income.  Sometimes this included the entire working estate so that the new occupant could fully assume the role and responsibilities of the country gent.  Increasingly though in the Victorian era the house was let separately from the estate which would continue to be managed and run by the original family.  This was often the preferred option for the newly wealthy who aspired to the status and amenity of a ‘country seat’ but did not require the estate to generate an income.

This is why houses such as the Faringdon House in Oxfordshire [pictured above] are attractive as they allow someone else to simply move in (albeit for a significant monthly rent of £10,000) and enjoy a grade-I listed Palladian villa without the added burdens of ownership.

Letting was a handy solution when the family finances were insufficient for they themselves to live there.  The Marquess of Lansdowne became first Governor General of Canada and then Viceroy of India from 1883-1894 specifically to improve his financial position and keep hold of his estates.  These jobs came with benefit of government accommodation which freed up the family seat for letting.  In a letter to his mother he explained,

“India means saving Lansdowne House for the family.  I should be able while there not only to live on my official income, but to save something every year.  If I can let Lansdowne House, I might by the time  I come home have materially reduced the load of debt which has become so terrible an incubus to us all…”.

(n.b. when the Marquess refers to Lansdowne House, he is referring to Bowood House rather than their London townhouse of the same name which was sold by the family in 1783.)

The Second World War also offered a convenient escape route for some owners as country houses were taken over by evacuated schools who then stayed on such as at Motcombe House in Dorset.  Although the use of country houses as schools had been an established practice for many years (the 1920s saw Stowe, Canford and Bryanston all become schools) the widespread use during wartime meant that it gained even greater acceptability.   For the Earl Fitzwilliam at Wentworth Woodhouse who had seen his spectacular house vandalised by troops and a vindictive Minister for Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell, ordering the needless open cast mining of the gardens right up to the house, it was all too much and he let the house to become a training college for female PE teachers.

The letting of country houses has a long and varied history but it has mostly been driven by the need for country house owners to maximise their incomes.  Once the country house had ceased to be the physical embodiment of local political power following the reforms of the early 20th-century it became easier for families to simply move out and bring in tenants turning a costly extravagance into revenue.

Property details: ‘Faringdon House, Oxfordshire‘ [Knight Frank]

Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?

Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)

As the pressures of the twentieth century forced more country houses owners to face the reality that they could no longer live as they had and would have to move out of their homes they then had to decide what to do with it.  Unfortunately this meant demolition of hundreds of large houses but some owners were more creative and many houses became commercial premises, either as hotels, schools or institutions, and others became some of the grandest office buildings in the country.  However, recent pressures of this century have now seen some of these offices being converted back into homes or being offered for sale as an opportunity to do so.

In many ways the country house has always had an element of the commercial to it with the estate offices usually being based either in a part of the main house or in a nearby building to enable the owner to deal with business without having to travel far from home. The changes of the twentieth century were on an altogether more comprehensive scale with the entire house being changed to accommodate the demands of business.  This not only meant the conversion of the main house with all that entailed for the interiors but also the building of further offices in the grounds.

Sometimes the development was kept a good distance from the main house such as at Ditton Park in Berkshire.  This became the office of the Admiralty Compass Observatory from 1917 until it was sold in the 1990s to Computer Associates who built a huge office building to the west of the main house (which became a conference centre) leaving the setting intact.

Sometimes though it’s possible for smaller businesses to be accommodated just within the main house such as at Gaddesden Place in Hertfordshire.  The house, built in 1768, is a elegant Palladian villa (similar to the White Lodge in Richmond Park) and was James Wyatt’s first country work.  The site is said to have some of the best views in the home counties and the sensitive use of the house has allowed to remain in splendid seclusion.

However, modern concerns mean that a country house has lost some of it’s appeal as offices.  One key issue is that by their nature the houses are isolated meaning that employees must have cars to reach it leading to more cars on the roads and the need to provide huge areas of parking.  Stronger heritage legislation now also means it’s much harder to alter the houses to meet modern business requirements such as air conditioning and computer networking.  The nature of the houses also means that maintenance costs are higher than for a purpose built office.

This has led to some houses which were formerly offices to be converted back into homes.  Mamhead House in Devon, built between 1827-33 and regarded as one of Anthony Salvin‘s finest designs, it was, for many years, a school before becoming offices for a local building company.  It was bought by a businessman who converted the main part of the house back into being a home whilst still letting out part of the house to the Forestry Commission.

Perhaps the grandest and largest opportunity for many years to restore a house into a home is the mansion at Benham Valence in Berkshire.  This superb house was built in 1772-75 for the 6th Earl of Craven and was designed by Henry Holland in collaboration with his father-in-law, Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the famous landscape architect.  The south front features a grand tetrastyle Ionic portico which looks out over a large lake with views into the parkland.  Inside, there are many fine chimney-pieces bought from the sale at Stowe in 1922, including one from the State Dining Room.  It also features a small circular double-height vestibule adjoining the inner hall, a design later adopted by Sir John Soane.

The house was empty in 1946 and remained so until it was sold in 1983 and converted to use as offices with a large wing to the north east of the house being demolished and replaced, in part, by an ugly 80’s complex providing over 100,000 sq ft of space.  Luckily though the main house was largely spared and remains Grade II* with the 100-acres of Grade-II parkland. Now offered for sale at £6m this is a rare opportunity to create a wonderful country house – providing it’s possible to obtain planning permission to convert it back – which, once restored, could be worth £10-12m.  One key requirement would be the demolition of the office complex and the ripping up of the huge car park – but give me a pickaxe and I’ll be happy to lend a hand.

Full property details: ‘Benham Valance, Berkshire‘ [Strutt & Parker]