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.


* – 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]

Rent a doll’s house: Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire

Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)
Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)

Sitting on a small rise, just off the A158 on the road to Skegness in Lincolnshire sits one of the prettiest of the National Trust’s many country houses; Gunby Hall. However, unlike the others, where we can only ever dream of moving in, Gunby is currently available to rent for the bargain rate of £10,000 per year – but do remember to add an estimated £100,000 for the annual running costs.

Gunby Hall was built in 1700 (commemorated with the date on the rainwater heads) for Sir William Massingberd by an unknown architect but one who was obviously familiar with the work of Sir Christopher Wren.  Built of warm plum-red bricks the sophisticated 3-storey exterior shows the elegant use of stone dressings which elevates this grade-I listed house to being one of the finest of the smaller country houses.  Although showing stylistic links with Wren it was almost certainly by a skilled provincial imitator or local builder.  Wren designed very few country houses – Tring Park in Hertfordshire, Winslow Hall and, according to John Harris, contributed designs for Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, and Houghton Hall in Norfolk – all for patrons who were somehow connected to Wren.  So unless someone discovers a link between Sir William and Sir Christopher it is likely that the local ‘architect’ had only been shown Wren’s designs.

Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)
Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)

When Gunby Hall was built it would have been regarded as very fashionable as Baroque style houses had only become popular in the 1680s.  Newby Hall in Yorkshire is one of the best examples and was rated as the finest house in Yorkshire when it was completed c.1690 (remember the houses we regard as the finest today in Yorkshire such as Castle Howard, Wentworth Castle, and Wentworth Woodhouse amongst others hadn’t yet been built).  In many ways, Gunby Hall and Newby Hall are architectural ‘cousins’ – closely stylistically related but distinct, particularly in size; reflecting the relative wealth of the owners .  Similarities can also be seen with other Yorkshire houses such as the earlier Ribston Hall, built in 1674, and the wonderful but now sadly demolished Wheatley Hall built in 1680, and the later Bolton Hall.

Gunby Hall was later altered c.1730 and extended in 1873 and 1900 to very successfully add a Dining Room, Servants’ Hall and Service Wing.  The later additions blend very neatly with the existing building creating the harmonious look which is so attractive today.  Gunby has long been admired with the famous poet Lord Alfred Tennyson reputedly using it as his inspiration when he wrote during one visit:

. . . an English home – gray twilight

On dewy pastures, dewy trees

Softer than sleep – all things in order stored,

A haunt of ancient peace.

The house was also admired by James Lees-Milne who described it as ‘an Augustan squire’s domain, robust, unostentatious, dignified and a little prim.’.  Lees-Milne was a regular visitor and was instrumental in not only bringing the house to the National Trust, as he did many other houses, but also saving it from outright demolition during WWII.  This terrible prospect came about in 1943 when the Air Ministry wished to extend the airfield they had built at Great Steeping only later discovering that Gunby Hall inconveniently blocked the proposed path of the longer runway.  Luckily the combined forces of James Lees-Milne and the impressively named owner, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, persuaded them to re-route the runway thus saving the house.  In thanks, the family immediately made over the house to the National Trust becoming one of the few houses to be taken on during the war.

So if you fancy living in one of the prettiest stately homes in the country and don’t mind a few tourists having a look round occasionally, get in contact with the Savills Lincoln office.

More details: ‘Stately home can be yours for just £10k a year… plus another £100k for the staff‘ [This is Lincolnshire]

Property details: ‘Gunby Hall‘ [Savills]

Restoration continues inside and out; Wilton House and others

Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)
Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)

Any time of economic difficulties can often lead to any expenditure being put on hold, including vital restoration projects.  So it’s encouraging to see projects still being completed – but as some of these were approved and started back in the heady days of government largesse, perhaps these are the last we’ll see for a while except where private money can fill the gap?

One of the most impressive has been the award-winning restoration of the family dining room at Wilton House, Wiltshire – and maybe all the more impressive as it was funded privately by the owner, the 18th Earl of Pembroke.  Although ranked as joint 574th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2010, with an estimated worth of £115m, most of this wealth is tied up in the value of the house, the contents (including superb paintings by Van Dyck and Rembrandt), and the estate.

Anyone undertaking an architectural project at Wilton is following in some fairly illustrious footsteps.  The main house, one of the finest still in private hands, is unusual in that the scale of the house was a response to the incredible gardens designed by Issac de Caus in 1632.  The design is sometimes attributed to Inigo Jones but a drawing found by Howard Colvin at Worcester College by de Caus showed he was responsible for the original plan for a much larger, 21-bay palace, with a grand central portico, running to a total length of 330-ft.  However, the untimely death of the newly-married Earl in 1636 and the subsequent return of the huge £25,000 marriage dowry (approx £40m today) to the bride’s father, the Duke of Buckingham, meant that the scheme was now too ambitious and so just one half of the original design was built; which is what we see today. The half-a-house was considered plain so Jones became involved, adding the one-storey corner towers to the design.

Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Wilton’s interior, in particular the celebrated set of seven state rooms in the southern facade which includes the famous Double Cube room, were largely the creation of Jones, assisted by his able deputy John Webb.  Yet there are other fine rooms which had become misused over the years and one has now been restored in sumptuous style as a private dining room.  Formerly cluttered with the normal ephemera of family life – CDs, books, old furniture etc – it was  fairly sorry sight.  The current Earl and Countess of Pembroke have spent an undisclosed, but undoubtedly substantial, sum on creating a glorious dining room but which will sadly not be included on the tourist trail.  Tapestries now cover the deep green walls, interspersed with family portraits by Reynolds, completing what James Stourton, chairman of Sotheby’s UK described as “…one of the outstanding country house renovations of the decade.” and winning the 2010 HHA/Sotheby’s Restoration Award.

One of the largest of the recent projects has been the £5.6m restoration of grade-II listed Bedwellty House in Tredegar, south Wales.  Built in 1818 for the owner of the first iron works in Tredegar, it was increasingly at risk of falling into dereliction.  Realising the importance of the building, the local council spent four years securing grants to fund the ambitious programme from organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Welsh Assembly, Blaenau Gwent council, and Cadw [Welsh equivalent to English Heritage] .  The works have included work on the ornate plaster ceilings, the sash windows and shutters, and the main structure.  Work will now continue on the parkland and gardens to bring them back to their former glory.

The grounds of our country houses were also not just a buffer to keep the world from intruding but also a stage on which to create idealised landscapes and views.  To this end they were often populated with follies or architectural creations to catch the eye of those looking out from the house but also those walking the grounds.  Sadly, the isolation of these buildings has often meant that in recent years they have been cut-off from the main house, forgotten, or neglected and vandalised.  Nowadays these wonderful architectural vignettes have been increasingly valued and urgent works undertaken to restore them.  One fine example is the grade-I listed Wentworth Castle Rotunda in Yorkshire.  Started in 1739 and finished in 1742, the design is based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli near Rome.  One of 26 listed buildings in the 500-acre parkland, the temple has now been restored following a grant of £300,000, which has enabled the removal of overgrowing shrubs, and the cleaning and repair of the stonework, roof, and floors.

Thankfully the official organisations don’t have a monopoly on generosity. Perhaps those selling a house in need of some restoration might take a lead from admirable seller of Newberry Hall, Ireland, Richard Robinson.  Realising that the elegant Palladian house with its wonderful flanking pavilions is in dire need of restoration, the elderly owner has put the house on the market but with the offer of a substantial contribution towards the costs of restoration to bring the house back to its former glory.  With such generosity, one hopes a suitably sympathetic buyer can be found who will be willing to take on the project and complete an appropriate restoration.

Restoration has always been expensive so in their straitened times we can only hope that funds for basic care and maintenance are found so that in a few years time we are not faced with a slew of houses and monuments suffering from any short-sighted desire to save a few pence today at the cost of many pounds tomorrow.  Long may the stories be of enhanced glories such as that at Wilton House rather than urgent appeals to save buildings at risk.

Full story: ‘Winner of Historic Houses Restoration Award 2010 Announced‘ [Art Daily]

Full story: ‘Tredegar’s Bedwellty House restoration work unveiled‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Restoration of Wentworth Castle Rotunda completed‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Rotunda is reopened to round of applause for works‘ [Yorkshire Post]

Full story: ‘Deal for buyer who will rescue Kildare demesne‘ [Irish Times]