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.

The Royal country house honeymoon

So the happy Royal couple, our new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have taken just the long weekend for their honeymoon leaving an interesting question as to whether they are breaking with the tradition of spending their first days of marriage in an British country house?  With the twin demands of luxury and privacy, the country houses of the UK have often proved particularly attractive, though Royal palaces even more so.

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Gail Johnson / flickr)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Gail Johnson / flickr)

In an earlier age, the Royal family would often simply use one of their own palaces as a convenient venue.  Already secure and well-established for the great demands of catering and supporting a King or Queen, they had a natural advantage.  One often used has been Hampton Court Palace, in Surrey, one of the finest Royal residences ever built and a worthy equal to the splendour of Versailles.  Construction started in 1514 by Thomas Wolsey, an Archbishop of York, who built a palace which rivalled any that King Henry VIII then possessed.  With over a 1,000 rooms and accommodation for 280 guests, Wolsey wisely answered, when asked by the King in 1526 why he had built such a magnificent house, “To show how noble a palace a subject may offer to his sovereign.”

Having now taken ownership, Henry then embarked on his own ambitious programme, adding a third courtyard and stamping his mark on all aspects of the palace. It was in this sprawling residence which he enjoyed at least two of his honeymoons; with Jane Seymour, his third wife, in 1537, and with Kathryn Howard, his sixth, who he married at Hampton Court in 1543.  Due to his unhappiness with the looks of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and the very short marriage (Jan-July 1540), it seems unlikely that he would have made any significant arrangements and so possibly used Hampton Court as his most convenient palace near London.

Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary I, also spent her honeymoon with Philip I at Hampton Court  in 1544. It was used again by King James I on his marriage to Henrietta Maria in 1625 and then by Charles II and Katherine of Braganza in 1662.

Rycote Park (Palace), Oxfordshire (Image: Thame History)
Rycote Park (Palace), Oxfordshire (Image: Thame History)

Henry VIII obviously had several opportunities to honeymoon, though his first was more a working tour as, following his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1501, he was sent to Ludlow Castle to preside over the Council of Wales and the Marches. His second, with Anne Boleyn in 1533, was at Shurland Hall, Isle of Sheppey in Kent, which has recently become the 70th building to be rescued by The Spitalfields Trust (and which is currently for sale).  His honeymoon with Catherine Howard, his fifth wife, in 1540, was spent at Rycote Park, in Oxfordshire. It’s not entirely clear who originally built this Tudor mansion but it certainly of a status to attract the Royal couple.  The house suffered a devastating fire in 1745, but was rebuilt before being emptied in a contents sale in 1779, and then sold for materials in 1807.

The tradition of the Royal family using their own houses has largely continued, though in more recent times they have also used suitable private houses as the retinues required have shrunk making it unnecessary to require a palace.

Taymouth Castle, Scotland (Image: RCAHMS)
Taymouth Castle, Scotland (Image: RCAHMS) - click for more images of interior

Queen Victoria and HRH Prince Albert enjoyed only a mini-honeymoon of three days in 1840, which was spent at Windsor Castle. The Queen, unwilling to ignore her duties and responsibilities as monarch which require frequent contact with her ministers, wished to stay close to London – even if her husband might have preferred a quieter break further away.  They did take a belated honeymoon in 1842 to Scotland where they stayed at the impressive Taymouth Castle, seat of the Marquesses of Breadalbane, owners of one of the largest estates covering 450,000-acres, which took over 40 years to build and had only recently been completed but to standard above almost any other seat in Scotland.  Designed by James Gillespie Graham, it was a convalescence home in WWII and a school but is currently unused whilst negotiations continue about turning it into a ‘seven star’ hotel.

Polesden Lacey, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Polesden Lacey, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

In the early part of the 20th-century, King George VI and his new bride, later the Queen Mother, stayed in 1923 with the remarkable society hostess, Mrs Ronald Greville, at her country retreat Polesden Lacey in Surrey (now National Trust).  An accomplished hostess, Mrs Greville and her staff were well used to catering for the cream of society.  Once home to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, after his death it was largely demolished and rebuilt by Thomas Cubitt in 1821 as, essentially, a neo-classical seaside villa.  After being bought by the Grevilles in 1906, she employed Mewes and Davis, architects of the Ritz, to remodel the interior.  The new opulence was matched by with an equal measure of intimacy, with rooms flowing between each other and the outside to create a fluid social space lined with portraits by Lely, Raeburn and Reynolds and cabinets full of Meissen china – a perfect venue for a Royal honeymoon.  Continuing the tradition started by Queen Victoria, they also spent time in Scotland at Glamis Castle, ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore, and that of the future Queen Mother.

Balmoral Castle, Scotland (Image: Stuart Yeates / flickr)
Balmoral Castle, Scotland (Image: Stuart Yeates / flickr)

On her marriage in 1947, our current monarch, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, continued this practice and stayed at Broadlands in Hampshire, one of the best mid-sized Georgian houses, which largely appears to day as it was when it was finished in 1766. Elizabeth II also stayed at the family’s Scottish estates at Balmoral Castle and Birkhall, which were also destinations for the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981 along with Birkhall which also used by Prince Edward and Sophie Wessex in 1999 and by the Prince of Wales and Camilla in 2005.

Alternatively, if they do wish to go abroad, they have the examples of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who, in 1937, who spent three months at Castle Wasserloenburg in Austria, or Princess Anne who, in 1973, chose to spend her honeymoon cruising in the West Indies.  So, seeking peace and security, perhaps we’ll see the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge take a short break in a smaller country house before spending time in Scotland – or perhaps jetting off, but either way is in keeping with a long history of Royal honeymoons.

For sale: ‘Shurland Hall, Kent‘ [Jackson-Stops & Staff]

Thanks to Andrew for his help.