The Country House Revealed – Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire - east front (Image: dykwia / flickr)
Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire – east front (Image: dykwia / flickr)

If asked to name the largest and grandest country houses in Britain, many would list obvious candidates; Chatsworth, Belvoir, Castle Howard, Petworth, but few would name Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, the house featured in the next episode of Dan Cruickshank’s ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Tuesday 31 May – 21:00 – BBC2]. One of the largest private homes in Europe, this leviathan slowly slipped into obscurity since family feuds and a vindictive Socialist minister caused the house to decline from being the greatest to being neglected.  Now, after ten years of hard work by the current owner, the house makes its first steps back towards the public stage – but is the price of the resurrection perhaps too high?

Wentworth Woodhouse - west front (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Wentworth Woodhouse - west front (Image: Matthew Beckett)

One of the triumphs of Wentworth Woodhouse is that the design of the house is coherent and powerful despite its size – extending to 606ft from tower-to-tower, to create the longest front in the country*.  Yet, the house is also one of two sides, the grand Classical east front, and the earlier, Baroque west front.  To have a house of such contrasting styles might indicate very separate plans of construction, yet a plan of proposed works dating from before 1725 and possibly as early as 1716, shows that the Earls Fitzwilliam had every intention to build on such a scale, with just the design itself changing.  The west side, the luxurious, decorated Baroque face, was raised between 1724-28 was long thought to be to a design by Ralph Tunnicliffe, a local architect who had worked on Wortley Hall and Calke Abbey, Derbyshire (1722). Yet, his work bears more familiarity with the Classical east front – so who designed the first stage?

Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: nickrick90 / flickr)
Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: nickrick90 / flickr)

Richard Hewlings in an article in Country Life magazine (17 February 2010) makes a solid case for the work being by the very well-regarded York architect, William Thornton (b. c.1670 – d.1721), who had previously worked on the joinery at Castle Howard, and designed Beningborough Hall. The latter of these (according to Colvin) showed a familiarity with Roman Baroque architecture as shown in Rossi’s ‘Studio d’architecttura civile‘ (pub. 1702-21).  Hewlings argues that because Beningbrough can be attributed to Thornton and that the same Rossi-inspired architectural elements can be seen in both houses, it makes Thornton (having definitely owned a copy of Rossi) the one most likely to have designed Wentworth Woodhouse – with his early death contributing towards his obscurity.

Wanstead House III, Essex - proposed design by Colen Campbell as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus'
Wanstead House III, Essex - proposed design by Colen Campbell as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus'

So Tunnicliffe designed the east front. Well, mostly. His 1734 design can very clearly be seen as derived from that most important of Palladian houses, Wanstead House, in Essex (built 1715 – dem. 1822).  The original architect of Wanstead, Colen Campbell, produced three designs (known as I, II, and III) which drew on the form of Castle Howard but stripped of much of the architectural verbosity which so offended the more austere Palladians. This design was to form the backbone for several generations of large country houses particularly in the boom years of the 1730s and -40s.  Yet, even though work started in 1731, in 1735 the Earl of Malton thought it best to have Tunnicliffe’s design reviewed by a greater authority, that of Lord Burlington, the ‘chief’ Palladian.  This proved timely as Tunnicliffe died in 1736 and so responsibility passed to Henry Flitcroft, a Burlington protege.  Flitcroft’s external alterations were relatively minor; adding pedestals to the portico columns, changing the shape of the attic windows, (he also provided designs for several rooms) but his engagement there was to last until work finished in 1770.

One obvious question is just why the house was so large? Beyond the usual demonstration of the scale of the family’s wealth and status, the house also had to be of such a size to accommodate the vast entertainments which the Watson-Wentworth’s needed to hold occasionally as part of their seduction of such a large and sparsely populated county.  Up to a 1,000 locals – nobles, gentry and simple gentleman alike – might be invited, with each given a ticket indicating which room they were to go to (and, by implication, their social status).  Another, seemingly more petty, reason was that Lord Malton’s father had inherited the estate in 1695; much to the shock and annoyance of another (politically opposed) relative, Thomas Wentworth, who lived nearby at Stainborough.  He responded by enlarging his own seat, Wentworth Castle (now a sadly much altered training college), in a grand style, ensuring that Lord Malton couldn’t be seen to ‘lose’.

The Marble Hall, Wentworth Woodhouse (Image: (c) Country Life Picture Library)
The Marble Hall, Wentworth Woodhouse (Image: (c) Country Life Picture Library)

One of the most breath-taking aspects of this need to impress are the interiors; boasting 25 ‘fine’ rooms of the highest quality, whereas by comparison, Buckingham Palace has 20 of a similar standard, Blenheim around eight, Castle Howard perhaps three or four.  These rooms are centred around the glorious central Marble Hall; 60ft square, 40ft high, with rooms leading off to the left and right including the Great Dining Room, the Van Dyck Room, the State Dressing Room and the Long Gallery.

That the Fitzwilliam family no longer live in Wentworth Woodhouse is one of the great sadnesses of the many families forced from their ancestral homes.   At one point this grand house boasted some of the finest furniture, a priceless collection of art including statues  and many paintings by such artists as Van Dyck, Reynolds, Mytens, Hoppner, Lawrence, Claude Lorraine, and a major collection of Stubbs’s work.  Yet, for all the wealth and power, it was founded on primogeniture and coal – both of which undermined the house in their own way.

The births of previous Earls Fitzwilliam had usually taken place in Wentworth Woodhouse and had been witnessed.  However the birth of the 7th Earl in the 1890s took place in the wilds of Canada for reasons which have never been fully explained, leading to members of the family levelling allegations that a settlers son had been swapped at birth for the daughter the Countess was thought to have really given birth to.  This eventually led to a split in the family as to where the title and the vast inheritance should descend.  With primogeniture determining it must go to the eldest legitimate male heir, this was only settled with a court case in 1952 between two brothers.  The ‘winner’ was the younger son who subsequently married an older lady, and therefore never producing an heir. On his death in 1979, the long title of the Earls Fitzwilliam died out – though not before the last Earl had a huge bonfire of 16 tonnes of family papers to permanently cloak their history.  The estate is now held by Lady Juliet Tadgell nee Wentworth-Fitzwilliam with the family still owning 80,000-acres of Yorkshire and 50,000-acres of Cambridgeshire – and the art collection.

Mining at Wentworth Woodhouse (house circled)
Mining at Wentworth Woodhouse (house circled)

It was the coal that physically undermined the house – both above ground and below. The post-war Socialist government was determined to break-up what it saw as the privileged elite.  One particularly bigoted ideologue was Manny Shinwell, then the Minister for Fuel and Power, decided that as part of his campaign of class warfare he would mine the coal under the park and house – even when told it was low-grade and not worth the effort.  He also ignored the pleas of the local miners and their representatives who had always enjoyed excellent relations with the Fitzwilliams who were widely regarded as one of the best mine owners in the country.  Shinwell’s workers destroyed the park which the miners had enjoyed for years and also dumped the spoil to within yards of the house.  Rather than live there the family moved out – though not before securing the use of the house as a teacher training college which no doubt saved the house from demolition.

However, the mining might yet save the house – though the proposed solution contains considerable risk.  Part of the mining deep underground left a column to support the house – but it wasn’t large enough leading to subsidence which has caused parts of the house to sink by up to 3ft. The house was bought for just £1.5m (£7 per sq ft!) by London architect Clifford Newbold in 1999 and he and his family have spent the last decade carefully restoring the house in conjunction with the conservation architects Purcell Triton Miller and engineers Arup.  Now the family are ready to launch legal action to secure £100m in compensation for the negligent mining under the house.  Using this money, they will obtain further funding to develop the huge stables (built by John Carr in 1768) as office space and also “...two new contemporary buildings that replace the former college accommodation and will support the Stables office building through provision of further office accommodation. These sunken ‘green roofed’ buildings will be designed so that they do not have any detrimental visual impact on the open spaces of the landscape of Wentworth Woodhouse.” (from the official press release).  This can be understood and can be supported so long as the commitment to the minimise the impact to the estate (which is now just 90-acres) is successful.

What gives some concern are the plans for the main house as a “…publicly accessible restored museum to the central and grandest rooms, as well as a 70 suite luxury hotel and spa to the remainder.“. This will necessarily have a significant impact on the structure of the house – and I’m not convinced it’s the entirely right plan.  This house should be the Chatsworth of Yorkshire – a grand house, filled with art and life – and though the plans for the museum will be put into action, there is no word as to whether the rooms will be furnished?  If so, by who?  Will the V&A have an outpost? Perhaps I miss the idea of a family living there, using these rooms – though where to find a family able to take on such a monumental task? Just imagine if the Fitzwilliams had been able to move back in? I do wish the Newbold family every possible success but only if the plans respect the history and importance of the house and it’s not just used as an architectural prop for a multi-use residential, hotel and office space development.

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* – that it was the longest was the subject of an amusing bet in 1750 between Sir John Bland of Kippax Park and Lord Rockingham (as the Watson-Wentworths had now become) as to whose house was longest – Sir John lost by just 6ft.  Kippax Park was later demolished and the area open-cast mined.

Many more images of the house, grounds and stables can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse‘ [countrylifeimages]

More about the house and estate: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse‘ [wikipedia]

Official website: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [BBC2]

More about life in Wentworth Woodhouse: Part 1 and Part 2 [countryhousereader]

Local news report: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse: Newbold family bagged mansion for just £1.5m‘ [thestar]

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]