The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

For all the traditional antipathy towards the French, the influence of their architecture has been felt throughout Britain’s country houses.  Although initially the use of the French architectural vocabulary was a sign of wealth and education only available to the best families, the style was regarded as sullied by the later, more energetic, constructions of the Victorians – an association which still sadly lingers today.

The first wave of Anglo-French design started in the Elizabethan period; a time when it was acceptable to display one’s knowledge conspicuously. The French style, with its dramatic rooflines, dovetailed with the traditional English manor house and its own profusion of gables and chimneys.  Houses such as Burghley in Northamptonshire made dramatic use of the style with the central, three-storey pavilion, dated 1585, based on the French triumphal arch but oddly includes a traditional mullioned window on the third floor. Burghley was the product of the owner, Lord Burghley, an architectural enthusiast who as far back as 1568 was known to have been writing to France to obtain specific architectural books.

This early use of the French style was relatively restrained – probably more by the conservatism of the ruling gentry who were most likely to be building these houses.  Yet, our impressions now are more strongly influenced by the bolder, more assertive French style which was so popular during the Victorian era – though this same popularity was to also lead to it being derided.

The first of the Victorian nouveau-riche were keen to be accepted by society and so built houses which largely followed the same designs used by the local families.  The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 led to a rush across the Channel leading to a revival of interest in French design, particularly in relation to interiors, such as the Elizabeth Saloon at Belvoir Castle, Rutland, built c.1825.  By the mid-nineteenth century this was being more confidently expressed in dramatic houses which sought to boldly make their mark.

The second French Renaissance was influenced by lavish works such as the new block at the Louvre in Paris, built between 1852-70.   However, there were earlier examples such as the complete Louis XV chateau at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, designed by the owner Earl de Grey, built in 1834-39, and Anthony Salvin’s French roofs added to Oxonhoath in Kent in 1846-47.  Yet, after the Louvre, the fashion gathered pace with designs such as R.C. Carpenter’s redesign of Bedgebury in Kent in 1854-55, and Salvin’s work at Marbury Hall in Cheshire in 1856-8.  Less successfully, the architect Benjamin Ferrey built Wynnstay in Denbighshire for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn which, for all its dramatic high roofs and pavilions, was thought rather gloomy.  Another dramatic, albeit slightly awkward, design was that of Plas Rhianfa, Wales, built in 1849, which seems to mix both Scots baronial and French, whilst Sir Charles Barry completed a more successful use of the two styles at Dunrobin Castle for the Dukes of Sutherland in 1845.  Also of note was Nesfield’s design for Kinmel Hall, described as a Welsh ‘Versailles’.

These houses were largely for the existing gentry who found the impressive skylines met their needs for a dramatic statement as was fashionable at the time.  With the fashion spreading into London and being used for luxury hotels, clubs and offices it was inevitable that the newly wealthy would wish to emulate in the country the world they already enjoyed.  The last burst of ‘aristocratic French’ could be seen in the designs for Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, 1865-68 for Lord Boston, Alfred Waterhouse’s Eaton Hall in Cheshire, 1870-72 for the Duke of Westminster, and T.H. Wyatt’s Nuneham Paddox in Warwickshire for the Earl of Denbigh, built in 1875.  From around this time, its fashionability declined.

One of the earliest of this new wave was Normanhurst in Sussex, built in 1867 for Thomas Brassey, son of the famous railway contractor.  Reputedly, Lady Ashburnham from nearby Ashburnham Place (note the very different architectural style of house) would snootily refer to him as ‘that train driver over the hill’.  In Worcestershire, the equally dramatic red-brick Impney Hall – later Chateau Impney – was built in 1869-75 for local salt tycoon John Corbett, who employed Auguste Tonquois, who had extensive experience around Paris.  In County Durham, the foundation stone of the Bowes Museum, originally designed to be part-home also, was laid in 1869 for John and Josephine Bowes.  Designed by Jules Pellechet with J.E. Watson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the house reflected their love of France but also made a statement as to their wealth – and possibly sought to hide their less-than-solid social position as illegitimate son of an Earl and an actress.  In Yorkshire, the additions to Warter Priory were considered unsuccessful, either due to the strange proportions or because the style had simply fallen out of favour.  More successfully, St Leonard’s Hill, Berkshire, was transformed from a Georgian house in the mid-1870s to create a dramatic chateau visible from Windsor Castle.

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

Interestingly though, perhaps the most famous of the English chateau was also one of the latest.  Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire was built in 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to a design by French architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, mixing elements from various famous French chateaux such as Blois, Chambord and Anet.  The last of these grand French imports was Halton House, designed by William R. Rogers and built in 1882-88, also in Buckinghamshire and also for a Rothschild, Alfred Charles; Baron Ferdinand’s cousin.  Equally grand, this house also featured a wonderful winter garden, though this was sadly demolished to make way for an accommodation block for the RAF who bought the house and turned it into an officer’s mess.

Perhaps one of the final straws as to the desirability of the French style was the spectacular collapse of the Victorian financier Baron Grant who, in 1875, spent over £270,000 (approx. £20m) building a huge house in Kensington before his crimes were exposed in 1879 with the subsequent public disgrace, and the demolition the house in 1883.  Such a high-profile scandal and its flash monument would have been felt in society and tarnished the style for no-one would wish to be associated with such disgrace.  However, fashion would have played a more significant role, with taste moving on to new styles, leaving these extravagant mementos to an earlier, brasher architectural exuberance which now give us an unexpected glimpse of France in the British countryside.


Credit: a wonderful insight into the period is Mark Girouard’s ‘The Victorian Country House’ which was most useful in the research for this post.

For more information on Chateau Impney; ‘Chateau Impney – the story of a Victorian country house’ by John Hodges

After the fire, the difficult choices: Raasay House, Scotland

Raasay House, Scotland (Image: BBC News)
Raasay House, Scotland (Image: BBC News)

When Raasay House on the Isle of Skye Raasay was largely destroyed by a huge fire in January 2009 just days before it was due to reopen following a £4m refurbishment, the locals and owners vowed to quickly rebuild the house as it was.  Fire has always been one of the major threats to our country houses and when it strikes the responses to the destruction can vary greatly – particularly in the modern era.

For many country house owners in the 16th-19th-centuries immediate rebuilding was the favoured response if funds allowed – either to re-create the original house or sometimes to build an entirely new one.  Raasay House was built in 1746 for the clan Macleod after the previous house, built in the 1500s, was deliberately burnt down in 1745 in the wave of retribution which followed the Battle of Culloden.  The house, extended in the 1870s, was run as an outdoor pursuits centre and was an important part of the economy on the Isle of Skye Raasay.  This meant the response was largely on the basis of local economics which required the house to be rebuild to support the business, apparently not for its intrinsic architectural value.  However, the Scottish grade-A listing (equivalent to the English grade-I) means that the ‘new’ Raasay will be a faithful recreation of the original house as it was before the fire.

Although country house owners have long rebuilt, the principle that the house will be strictly rebuilt exactly as it was is, in some ways, a modern response as heritage legislation requires full salvage of any architectural fragments with the presumption of restoration.  Insurance companies also pay out for recreation of the old building, not the construction of a new one.  So responses now are sometimes based on the architectural or heritage value, and sometimes due to the constraints placed on the owners.  The wishes of the owners also play an important part with some looking to recreate whilst others follow the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who state:

Although no building can withstand decay, neglect and depredation entirely, neither can aesthetic judgement nor archaeological proof justify the reproduction of worn or missing parts. Only as a practical expedient on a small scale can a case for restoration be argued.

– SPAB manifesto

The 1992 fire at Windsor Castle destroyed large sections of the State Apartments including the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms, the Queen’s Private Chapel and St George’s Hall.  It was quickly decided by the Restoration Committee (headed by Prince Philip) that many of the rooms would be restored to as close as possible their original state with only a few modern rooms and the Queen’s Private Chapel to be restored in a modern style.

However, no lesser organisation than the National Trust also has firmly followed the faithful re-creation approach, particularly following the devastating 1989 fire at Uppark, Sussex.  Although the dramatic pictures of the fire would suggest total loss, brave efforts by staff saved the majority of the contents of the house and the fire was found to have only destroyed the attic and first floors whilst severely damaging the ground floor.  It was then announced by Martin Sekers, the National Trust’s Regional Director for the Southern Region, that “We feel that enough survives to justify total restoration.”.  So how much has to survive to warrant re-creation?  A spirited public debate at the time brought forward opposing views such as that expressed by the respected architecture critic Deyan Sudjic who argued in an article in the Sunday Correspondent (17 Sept 1989) that:

“…it won’t actually be Uppark no matter how skilful the work of the 20th Century craftsman who seek to recreate it. What tourists come to see will, in fact, be a replica, one which could be said to diminish those fragments which actually are authentic…”

However, other eminent architectural historians such as Dan Cruikshank came out strongly in favour of recreation principally from the point that it provided the opportunity to re-learn old techniques and provide a model in their use.  Andor Gomme argued that a recreated Uppark would be the only appropriate way to show the rescued contents in an appropriate setting.  Gomme also highlighted that in previous cases where a house owned by the National Trust had burnt down (the incomparable Coleshill, Berkshire in 1953 and Dunsland House, Devon in 1967) the decision at the time to demolish what remained was later deeply regretted.

So for public organisations the clear preference is strongly in favour of re-creation despite the claims of the modernist and the SPAB that such an approach is to miss an opportunity or is simply fake.  Yet, for private country house owners, their long-held preference has been to simply restore as much as possible – even if just the walls were left standing.

When Knepp Castle, Sussex was gutted by fire in 1904, work started in 1905 to recreate John Nash’s original design.  Similarly after fires at Bramham Park in 1828, Duncombe Park in 1879, Stourhead in 1902, Monzie Castle in 1903 and Sledmere in 1911, the owners all worked to faithfully recreate the houses to the state as they had been.  For houses such as Lees Court in Kent which was almost completely destroyed in 1911 (scroll to last image) the house was just rebuilt using what remained of the outer walls.

So is restoration the best approach?  Although there is danger that the new work might be a poor pastiche of the earlier work, to just discard what has been salvaged and what remains and to only allow modern work would seem to be overly dogmatic.  However, it will only work if any restoration is of the highest quality to avoid any chance that what is produced is merely a lifeless reproduction.  Owners over the last 400-years when faced with a greater or lesser degree of loss have often sought to restore and to continue that tradition today is to draw on a much longer history than to rely only on the intellectual restrictions of the later purists.

Full story: ‘Fire damaged Raasay House to rise from ashes‘ [BBC News]