Romancing the stone; country houses built by love

Many a man has been driven to great lengths by love – and architecture is often a rewarding though insatiable mistress for such a passion.  Whether as an expression of love for a wife or a demonstration of a yearning, aching heart, each found that their country houses were caught in that very human desire to make real those Romantic desires which otherwise are sometimes only expressed in far more transient ways. Though sometimes love’s labours are lost to unrequited desires, often country houses were the ideal means to commemorate the passions which had created their happiness.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight - holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)
Osborne House, Isle of Wight – holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)

The motivations behind the choice of architecture or design or even the starting of the construction of a new country house is sometimes overlooked in the literature. The occasion of ennoblement was an important catalyst for a grander house and equally a marriage and new building project are often keen bedfellows – though often the new house was financed through the newly acquired wealth of the husband from his bride and was more an expression of his newly-bolstered financial strength.  With the status of the married woman somewhere equal to that of the china plates, for many, their influence was limited to the running of a home.  The choice of some furnishings and the interiors of the ‘female’ areas of the houses were often the accepted limits of the wife’s contribution – though there were exceptions such as Lady Leicester who, after 1759, was left £2,000 a year to finish several of the state rooms at Holkham Hall (n.b. website annoyingly plays birdsong automatically).

Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)
Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)

The choice of architect, interiors, furnishings, furniture and art were all reserved for the man as an expression of his taste and power. Writing of his design for Kimbolton Castle, the architect Sir John Vanbrugh said, “I’m sure this will make a Noble and Masculine Shew‘, and that in the exterior visitors would “See a Manly beauty in it when tis up…‘. Clearly reflecting the female taste, or even necessarily their comfort, was not high on an architects priorities. Although some enjoyed a level of luxurious indulgence, such as the Dowager Lady Egerton for whom James Wyatt created a sumptuous Pompeiian-style dressing room at Heaton Hall in the 1770s, perhaps the experience of the Duchess of Northumberland was more common.  When Robert Adam remodelled their London seat, Syon House, in the 1760s, he was careful to place the Duke’s private apartments in a separate area, accessed via a private staircase, whilst the Duchess’ dressing room enjoyed a much less secluded arrangement, as it was included in the main circuit of entertaining rooms.

Ham House, Surrey - now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ham House, Surrey – now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Wives and widows were slowly asserting greater independence, often due to their personal wealth, but slowly changing attitudes did provide greater opportunities for their views and tastes to be heard and seen.  In the 17th-century, couples such as the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale were acting very much in concert together in the design and furnishing of their home, Ham House. It had been the home of the Duchess and her father and she had fiercely held on to it during the dark years of the Civil War when he had been forced to escape abroad. After her marriage in 1672, Ham House became not only a symbol of their wealth, but also a testament to their shared love of travel and the finer things in life.

Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)

Romance was surely often part of the motivation to build; a golden word that could turn a mere building into architectural poetry. Dobroyd Castle in Todmorden was the creation of a wealthy local mill owner, John Fielden, to honour a promise after his intended bride, Ruth, a poor labourer’s daughter, had said, during their extended courtship, “Build me a castle and I’ll marry you.“.  This can be said with either a romantic or mercenary inflection but, in honour of St Valentine, let’s believe that her request was for a fairytale expression of their marriage.  At least it was not a pre-condition, as they married in 1857 and work started on the castle in 1866 with completion in 1869.  Designed by the little known architect John Gibson, throughout the house the initials of John and Ruth are carved into the building many times as a constant reminder of their love.

Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The desire to do all one can for a wife, especially one who is ill, creates opportunities for love to be the patron of great architecture.  The delicate health of Dorothea Robinson, wife of Charles Hoare, a partner in the eponymous family bank, necessitated a more temperate climate and so an estate outside the small Devon coastal town of Dawlish was purchased. Requiring a house and not lacking in funds, Hoare commissioned the fashionable John Nash and Humphry Repton to create a retreat for rural recuperation.  With Repton’s help, Dorothea chose a most Picturesque site nestled in a secluded valley. Repton then recommended to Nash that it be in the ‘Character of a Castle’, and so Luscombe Castle was built between 1800-1804.  Considered one of the finest Regency houses, the external beauty is matched with a domestically convenient interior; a distilled version of Nash’s rather grander castle designs, but which perfectly suited the location and as a romantic reminder of a husband’s concern for his wife.

Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)
Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)

A love unrequited or thwarted is often a powerful force which can inspire many things.  For some, such as William Bankes, a prominent MP and renowned traveller, his enforced exile to escape a possible death penalty for being caught in a compromising situation with a soldier in Green Park in 1841, meant leaving his life’s work; the building and beautification of his Dorset home, Kingston Lacy. Subject to a punitive ‘outlawry‘ order, Bankes first escaped to France before settling in Venice. Bankes had been forced to give up, under threat of forfeiture, any legal title to his estates and contents to his brothers but he continued to be relatively well-funded and managed the building works at Kingston Lacy via detailed correspondence with the Clerk of Works.  One can only guess at the frustration of Bankes as he could only imagine how his plans were turning out, not only in relation to the building works but also the numerous pieces of art which he sent to Dorset.  Proving that for love, some will risk all, it is thought that Bankes risked imprisonment to be smuggled back into England in 1854 so that he might see his house and collection, which he had only been able to dream of, and give direction as to how it might be finished.

Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)
Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)

By the Victorian era, it was often both the husband and the wife who would take increasingly equal roles, especially as the role of the house was firmly centred on entertaining; a role traditionally taken on by the wife. It also reflected a relatively more accommodating age when women were at last more broadly considered intelligent equals to men.  The increasing importance of women can also be seen in the literature where discussion of the creation of a house now talks more husband and wife, though still often with their roles demarcated to exteriors/interiors.  The wives often had their own circles of interest leading to interesting contributions such as at Wallington Hall in Northumberland where the Pre-Raphaelite painted decoration in the central hall is by the artist William Bell Scott, whom Lady Pauline Trevelyan met through her literary activities.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)
Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous husband and wife architectural collaboration in the Victorian era was the creation of the summer retreat at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight by Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Prince Albert.  With a society leaning towards a more moral aspect, Victoria was determined that the royal family should be seen in step with it and so the planning of Osborne is not only to meet the needs of the family for entertaining but also, equally, that it be a family home. Indeed, writing to her daughter in 1858 from Windsor Castle, she tells how “I long for our cheerful and unpalacelike rooms at Osborne.”.  Her husband’s influence was the Italianate exterior, with the stucco work and belvedere towers, designed by the Prince and the London builder Thomas Cubitt, which matched his passion for Italian art, though Victoria was perhaps also influenced by the design of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire (by Sir Charles Barry) which was the home of her close friend the Duchess of Sutherland.  Osborne became the place she perhaps most associate with her husband and, after his death in 1861, it was one of the places she felt most at ease.

So, the building of a country house isn’t simply to mark ennoblement or new wealth, but can be an expression of love or passion between a couple, which one hopes might be more inspiring.  Certainly a love of country houses is something to be celebrated any day of the year.

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If you know of any other examples (and I’m sure there are many) please do add a comment below.

A poor prognosis: Great Barr Hall, Staffordshire

Great Barr Hall, Staffordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Great Barr Hall, Staffordshire (Image: English Heritage)

Many of the houses featured in this blog are shown as a celebration of the brilliance of our architects and craftsmen in creating one of the finest bodies of buildings of their type in the world.  Yet, in abundance is, perhaps inevitably, failure; where an interesting house becomes a victim of circumstance, policy, incompetence or, sometimes, all of the above.  Great Barr Hall, once outside Birmingham, now encircled by advancing urbanisation, is a sad example of where a house can languish and deteriorate whilst deliberate vandalism and institutional lethargy condemn it to its fate – and unless something is done soon, Great Barr Hall will join the already far-too-long list of the lost country houses of England.

Great Barr Hall c1800 (Image: artist known / sourced from Bill Dargue)
Great Barr Hall c1800 (Image: artist known / sourced from Bill Dargue)

Despite its current sorry state, Great Barr Hall was once a sizable house – though precisely how large is unclear.  An early print in 1798 Stebbing Shaw’s ‘History and Antiquities of Staffordshire‘ shows a 11-bay castellated house with four corner turrets but the present house is 9-bays.  For comparison, it’s interesting to note the stylistic similarities with Syon House in west London, a seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, though it is also 9-bays wide and has an imposing porte cochere.

What is known is in the 1760s, Sir Joseph Scott, then head of a family line which had been in the area for 600 years, built a new house in a ‘gothick’ style.  The original architect is unknown but Stebbing Shaw describes how ‘The present possessor [Joseph Scott], about the year 1767, began to exercise his well known taste and ingenuity upon the old fabric, giving it the pleasing monastic appearance it now exhibits – and has since much improved it by the addition of a spacious dining room at the east end, and other rooms and conveniences‘. If Scott was his own architect, perhaps he was, in part, inspired by the remodelling of Syon House by Robert Adam which started in that same year.

Sir Joseph Scott’s original extensive works led to some financial difficulties and so, from 1785, he moved to the Continent and rented the house out.  The lease was taken by Samual Galton junior, a controversial Birmingham Quaker, banker,  gun manufacturer, and intellectual who hosted meetings of the Lunar Society at Great Barr Hall leading to it becoming a noted crossroads for industrial ideas, a crucible for the Midlands industrial growth and the wider Industrial Revolution.

Where Great Barr becomes particularly interesting from our point of view is with the arrival of the young architect John Nash and his business collaborator and famous landscaper, Humphrey Repton. Nash was there to provide the buildings which Repton needed to complete his  gardening visions. This worked well for both men; Nash was to pay Repton 2.5% for any work the latter passed his way so Nash charged his clients the then rather high fee of 7%, giving him a 4.5% fee. There is no record of Nash ever putting any work towards Repton – but Nash benefited with work on over one hundred estates. There seems to be some uncertainty as to exactly when Nash started working there but John Summerson gives the date as 1800 for the construction of a gothic archway to the adjacent chapel, but other works such as the gate lodges, an icehouse and a new steeple for the chapel started in 1797 and were probably also by Nash and Repton.

Corsham House, Wiltshire - copper engraved print published in The Beauties of England and Wales, 1813 (Image: Ancestry Images)
Corsham House, Wiltshire - copper engraved print published in The Beauties of England and Wales, 1813 (Image: Ancestry Images)

About this time, the house was also updated to create the appearance we can just make out today – but it hasn’t been confirmed that Nash was the architect.  However, there are tantalising clues that it could well be by him. Nash had been developing his particular style of Picturesque gothic during his time in Wales and had been applying it with varying degrees of success since then during alterations at Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire, (1795) and at Corsham House, Wiltshire (1797 – a disaster due to poor workmanship with Nash’s work later demolished).  Yet, some of the architectural fingerprints of each of these can be seen in Great Barr.  Externally, one such feature is the crenellations applied to both the roof and the tops of the projecting towers, another is the hooded Elizabethan-style windows. Another interesting piece of the jigsaw is a house which Nash was working on in 1800 in Buckinghamshire,  Chalfont Park, which bears not only a superficial stylistic similarity but also one of form – a long rectangular main body with a projecting 3-bay centre.  However, Chalfont Park was also altered by Anthony Salvin in 1840 so it’s not possible to tell how much of the gothic detailing is Nash’s.

The Scott’s return in 1797 prompted the works of Repton and Nash before further work in 1830 and 1848 which included moving the entrance from the west side to the north.  In 1863, a chapel was built to a design thought to be by Sir George Gilbert Scott, though it was never consecrated and so became a billiard room.

The replacement windows (Image: Simon Cornwell) - click to see 'before and after'
The replacement windows (Image: Simon Cornwell) - click to see 'before and after'

The house remained with the Scotts until the house became a hospital for the mentally ill in 1918 following the death of Lady Bateman-Scott in 1909.  As is usual, the institutional nature of hospital use was not kind to the house.  Beyond the extensive network of buildings which marched across Repton’s parkland (and the south eastern corner of the estate being carved up by the M6 motorway), the house itself had a modern two-storey extension added in 1925 and in 1955 the clock tower, stables and much of the east wing were demolished.  In the 1960s, some sensitive architectural ‘genius’ removed the two splendid first-floor oriel windows which flanked the main entrance and inserted a pair of non-matching government-issue casement windows.

The current plight of Great Barr Hall can largely be laid at the door of Bovis Homes and John Prescott, formerly the Deputy Prime Minister, and the one who eventually signed off on the architectural blight that now affects the house.  Considering that the hospital buildings were in two distinct campuses, one to the north west and another to the north east, if there had to be development, replacing the buildings to the NW would have placed them furthest from the house, with the advantage of creating a more complete parkland around the house, with the possibility of re-instating, to some extent, the earlier Picturesque drive.  To hope that someone of Prescott’s aesthetic insensibilities would see such a solution was always forlorn but one might hope that someone on the local council or in English Heritage might have proposed a more sensitive outcome.  Sadly it was not to be and now a large development of 445 executive-style homes has been built, the closest being scarcely a hundred metres from the back of the house.  Worse, following the sale of the house to a building preservation trust, little progress has been made, with questions now being asked about the trust’s failure to restore it as promised earlier.  It was again put up for sale in May 2011 by the Trust at the unrealistic price of £2.2m with the option to buy a further 100-acres of parkland – with the threat of even more development.

Despite some architectural uncertainties, what is clear is that those charged with its care in the recent decades have failed.  Perhaps this is a broader failure of policy, that without an explicit mandate to determine that the architectural heritage must be managed, maintained and preserved as far as is possible, it will fall to all-to-fallible councillors to look beyond their own short-term interests; sadly, an unlikely prospect.  The NHS generally has a poor record of managing historical assets once it has no further use for them e.g Sandhill Park, and Stallington Hall are just two examples and don’t forget that Soane’s Moggerhanger survived despite the NHS, not because of it. A strong national policy should provide a clear strategy for preservation of heritage assets taken over by the state rather than just relying on existing listed buildings legislation.  In Great Barr Hall’s sad circumstance, one can only hope that someone will be able to extract the money owed as part of the enabling development, which can then be devoted to restoring this interesting and significant house so that it once again can be something for the local residents to be proud of, rather than the monument to NHS, central government and local council incompetence which it is today.

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Still for sale? (thanks to Andrew for spotting this): Great Barr Hall might still be for sale – there is a page with details but it’s not listed on the agent’s website: ‘Great Barr Hall‘. Now listed for £3m but with 150-acres but with another 100-acres of parkland by separate negotiation.   Considering the Building Preservation Trust paid just £900,000 for the entire site this seems a little odd – perhaps someone will enlighten us.

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Listing description: ‘Great Barr Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

‘At Risk’ Register entry: ‘Great Barr Hall‘ [English Heritage]

Recent history of house and some proposals for rescue

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