Guest blogger: Jeremy Musson – ‘English Ruins: an odyssey in English history’

Having written all nearly 200 posts since I started writing this blog I now thought it would be interesting to try and broaden the voices involved.  So as the first post in this new direction/experiment, I am delighted and honoured that one of our leading architectural historians, Jeremy Musson, kindly agreed to write a piece on country house ruins linked to his new book published this month, ‘English Ruins‘, a fascinating look at their role in shaping our perceptions of the past and our architecture.

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Jeremy Musson
Jeremy Musson

The English landscape is a landscape of ruins. Fragmentary or sometimes only roofless and windowless, these part dismantled buildings stand out to mark our national history in a number of different ways, and above all, provide a sense of historic scenery for our journeys, physical and imagined – and glimpsed from motorways and footpath alike. In this new book, photographer Paul Barker and I wanted to explore something of this particular cultural landscape and through this exploration trace something of how the English see themselves and their past.

I feel that we live in an old country, and the past is always there, to paraphrase T.S.Eliot, “pressing on the future”. Some love the past, some hate it, many are indifferent to it, happy enough to take pleasure in a good day out, with a dash of historic scenery. But the whole process of our encounter with ruins, is somewhat special – a deeply subjective, and in effect, an almost artistic experience. It is personal and often emotional, while it is also formed and shaped by a whole series of sometimes opposing cultural inheritances: Romanticism, anti-establishment, veneration for the classical, veneration for the Gothic, history seen through the very shape of the landscape.

There is something that seems to appeal about ruins to the English imagination over the centuries. Think of how John Aubrey, for instance, the late seventeenth antiquary and author of that amusing volume of English biography Brief Lives, observed that

“the eie and mind is no less affected with these stately ruines than they would be if they were standing and entire. They breed in generous mindes a kind of pittie; and set the thoughts aworke to make out their magnificence as they were in perfection.”

Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)
Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)

During the 18th century, the Grand Tour, part of the expected education of a gentleman or aristocrat, consisted of a journey through Holland and France to visit the great monuments of the Roman world, excited the aesthetic and cultural awareness of the 18th-century English gentleman, who was in turn the patron of artists and architects following the same path in trying to import the drama and excitement of great classical ruins to an English audience. Walk through any major house built in the 18th century, with anything of its original collections still in situ and the ruin is visible in painting after painting, and then echoed in the classical temples of the park.

The phenomenon of creating artificial ruins, in which the English seem to be pioneers, belongs to this period, and while the earliest garden temples seem to be classical, the contrivance of designing ‘ruined’ structures, was largely sourced in England’s own Gothic past. Horace Walpole the 18th-century diarist, who designed his own Gothic style house, Strawberry Hill, hugely admired the work of Sanderson Miller who designed a ruined tower at Hagley Park, with the perhaps slightly teasing phrase that it had “the true rust of the barons’ wars” referring to the Wars of the Roses.

When making this tour of England in tandem with photographer Paul Barker, I could not help noticing that we were often treading in the footsteps of the great landscape painter, J.M.W.Turner, for whom the evocative power of the ruin played a central role in his career, although we perhaps think of him most naturally as a landscape painter, and a painter of skies.

In the last years of the 18th century he exhibited numerous studies of great historical ruins in landscapes, appealing to the Romantic spirit of his audience – characteristically these are the foil for dramatic expositions of sky or sea. He continued to make special studies of ancient ruins, castles and abbeys on tours around the whole of England, for his ambitious Liber Studiorum project, and many were published in different histories, especially in Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales.

Turner looked principally at abbeys and castles, but abandoned country houses have come to be a feature of our landscape too. The dramatic changing status of the country house from the first world war, into the great depression of the late 20s and early 30s, becomes even more intense after the second world war – think of John Harris’s memoir, No Voice from the Hall. This was a period which resulted in so much change in English life, that it is easy to overlook the symbolic collapse of the world of the English country house. This was a feature of interwar life too, with the rise of income tax and death duties, but the upheaval of the Second World War, the widespread institutional use of country houses for military and other government purposes often hastened their subsequent abandonment.

Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)
Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)

Inevitably, given my interest, the country house looms large in our new book. We focus on the story of buildings from different themes and for the ruins of country house, beginning with Cowdray House, in Sussex, a substantial Elizabethan mansion damaged by a fire in the late eighteenth century, and then abandoned, partly as a result of complications over inheritance; but quickly becoming a destination for artists, for instance, Turner visited the ruins while staying at Petworth – it is now looked after by a newly formed trust, and feels like the sets left over from a Grand Opera, standing amongst the meadows and paddocks on the edge of Midhurst.

We also visited the ruin of an elegant early-seventeenth-century lodge at Wothorpe Towers, a lodge once part of the Burghley estate, which was used as a dower house and then, apparently, part dismantled to provide an eye-catcher in the new landscaped park. It was falling into serious decay and has recently been taken on by the Griffin family, who putting the main house into a trust, which is restoring the gardens, are converting the ancillary seventeenth century buildings into a new home.

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)

The classical country house tradition is represented in our book, by 1720s Seaton Delaval Hall, near Newcastle – one of the finest houses by Sir John Vanbrugh, re-roofed after a major fire, the interiors are otherwise the very picture of a ruin. In Derbyshire, we encountered the memorable and mournful spectacle of Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire, also built in the early 18th century. The latter, partly due to its proximity to mine-works, acquired in 1919, by businessman out to profit from its materials and fittings. The panelling was sold United States collectors, and some at least found its way into the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Its demolition was in fact prevented by local landowner Sir Reresby Sitwell, whose family later presented it to the state.

James Lees Milne, looked at the Sutton Scarsdale ruins for the National Trust, but said that “classical ruins in England are much satisfactory than Gothic ones, the lack picturesque gloom.” English Heritage look after it now, as they do Witley Court, a multi-layered great house and former seat of the Earl of Dudley, a splendid Italianiate palace with a vast portico by John Nash, was burnt out in 1937, and by some chance was not demolished during the 1950s, like so many abandoned houses, and it was subject to preservation order in the 1970s, and in the early 70s taken into state protection. Christopher Hussey thought that it conjured the beauties of the classical ruins visited by the Grand Tourist in the 18th century, as much as anything else.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria
Lowther Castle, Cumbria

Forgotten Victorian Gothic mansions such as Lowther Castle in Cumbria, possibly become more Romantic in their ruined state. Lowther, the historic seat of the Earls of Lonsdale, designed by Smirke in Gothic baronial style was not re-occupied after the second world war, and in 1957, de-roofed and only the exterior walls preserved. A haunting presence in the beautiful Cumbrian landscape, a new trust has been created to protect the runs and open them and the overgrown Edwardian gardens to the public, in the course of 2011.

For myself, as a historian of the English country house, there is no doubt that the ruin occupies a special place in English culture; the castle, the abbot’s lodgings, the country houses of the sixteenth century onwards, when they stand open to the elements, draw us in to a dialogue with our history and the mutability of fortune.

Jeremy Musson’s ‘English Ruins‘ with photographer Paul Barker, is published by Merrell publishers.

Text by Jeremy Musson, choice of links and images by Matthew Beckett.

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Dear Readers – as always I welcome your comments and feedback.

The front line: the campaigners for country houses

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)
Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)

Despite the image of wealth and power a country house might create, in reality their existence is far more precarious – as can be seen with nearly 1,800 houses lost over the last two centuries.  A house facing the threats of being uninhabited without a concerned, well-funded owner with an inclination to keep it in good repair can quickly deteriorate leaving another gap in the tapestry of the countryside.  Sometimes it requires someone other than concerned locals and architectural historians to highlight and campaign on behalf of those ‘at risk’ so here’s a quick round-up of the main English organisations fighting on behalf of country houses and who are very worthy of support.

English Heritage inhabits a prime position in view of its role in defining and, in conjunction with local authorities, implementing the statutory protection of our built heritage.  Its role can be traced back to the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 – though the legislation specifically excluded privately owned houses. The responsibilities were exercised through various government departments until it became a quango in 1984.  As well as being responsible for the listing system and the annual production of the various ‘at risk’ registers (focussing mainly on grade-I and -II* properties), EH is also directly responsible for various country houses including Brodsworth Hall (Yorkshire), Rufford Abbey (Nottinghamshire), Hill Hall and Audley End (Essex), Kirby Hall (Northamptonshire), Witley Court (Worcestershire), Stokesay Castle (Shropshire), and Apethorpe Hall (Northamptonshire).   It’s at the grade-I listed Apethorpe where EH has done some of it’s most interesting work; taking a direct role in the restoration of one of the finest Elizabethan/Jacobean houses in the country following a long period of neglect. Since 2008, the house has been for sale for around £5m – though there is a compulsory £4m list of renovations, and if you want complete privacy expect to pay another £8m to fully reimburse EH otherwise you have to open it for 28 days a year; so a nice round £20m to restore, furnish and keep as your own. However, this is a role that I fully support them in taking on – they should be there as owner and restorer of last resort for threatened grade-I houses.  Now perhaps we can interest them in the sadly deriorating Melton Constable Hall in Norfolk…?

Another important group of campaigners are recognised in the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act which formalised the role of what are known as ‘amenity societies‘; that is, well-established voluntary societies who are experts in their areas, who must, by law, be informed of any applications for listed building consent to demolish listed buildings in whole or in part in England and Wales.

One of the best known is the Georgian Group who cover a period broadly from 1700-1837.  The society was established in 1937 and has long campaigned for the sensitive restoration and retention of not only the buildings but the many important, and sometimes sadly overlooked, internal features which are a key part of the character of a building.  Current active campaigns and cases they are involved in include Bank Hall in Lancashire and Trewarthenick House in Cornwall and many others. They also produce a scholarly annual research journal which provides a much more in-depth view of aspects of Georgian architecture.  Access for the wonderful trips to houses not normally open to the public are worth joining for alone.

Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)
Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)

The Victorian Society (which also covers Edwardian buildings too) was formed in 1958 at a time when almost all things Victorian were disliked and an easy target for demolition.  Founded at the suggestion of Anne, Lady Rosse, along with her influential friends such as Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nicklaus Pevsner, the Society has fought some notable battles; losing some such as Euston Station but winning others, such as the soon-to-reopen St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel building.  Victorian country houses have suffered badly as, although designed by eminent architects such as Richard Norman Shaw and Alfred Waterhouse, they were often built on a much grander and therefore less economically sustainable scale and at the times of greatest threat (the 1930s and 1950s) had few friends to argue on their behalf.  Luckily though this has changed – but with the predominant ‘gothic-revival’ style being quite polarising, threats to houses from this period will always be present. Again, well worth joining.

Perhaps more controversially for this blog, it’s also worth bearing in mind the Twentieth Century Society.  Although the focus of the houses usually covered is before 1900, there has been a growing recognition that some of the country houses built in the 20th-century were well-planned and architecturally pleasing, even if they sometimes replaced a much more attractive Georgian or Victorian house.  It does seem to take about 50 years after a style has passed from being fashionable for it to be appreciated, so I suspect there will be a growing realisation that we need to protect the work of those such as Francis Johnson, Craig Hamilton, Quinlan Terry, and Robert Adam (amongst many others) in the future.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is, as its name makes clear, not usually concerned with country houses as they are relatively ‘modern’ in terms of its remit.  However, they do immensely important work in promoting good repair practice to all buildings and their courses have taught generations of owners and craftsmen to respect the country houses and to approach any work required with a more ‘heritage’ mindset.

Although not ‘amenity societies’, two other organisations deserve a mention. The first is the Historic Houses Association which acts on behalf of the private owners of country houses and often lobby government to make them aware of the immense work done by the individual owners to maintain their slice of the national architectural heritage.  It may seem unfashionable in wider society to support the wealthy but they are the ones not only maintaining their homes to the exacting standards of English Heritage, but also restoring and rescuing houses and converting them back into homes again – and for that they deserve our thanks.

The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)
The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)

The other organisation is one in which I have an interest having worked with them for several years: SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  Founded in 1974, SAVE have taken a very active stance on campaigning, willing to create media interest at short notice, but also to take time to produce some excellent research on houses at risk with thoughtful proposals for their re-use.  These campaigns have saved houses such as Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, The Grange in Hampshire, Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire (where SAVE bravely took on the house for £1!), and, working with Kit Martin, have acted as a catalyst for the saving of other houses through conversion into apartments.  Supporting SAVE’s work and becoming a Friend also gives access to their extensive ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ which features over 800 properties, including several country houses, which are in need of rescue – could it be you?

It is also worth keeping an eye out for local activists and campaigns which can also be remarkably successful at highlighting buildings at risk but can also sometimes take a more direct role; see the wonderful work at Poltimore, Devon, Bank Hall, Lancashire, and Copped Hall, Essex.  These are just three examples where concerned locals have organised themselves and presented a credible alternative and prevented the complete loss of the house.

All of these organisations are worth joining but economics being what they are it can be best to join a national organisation and then another to focus on the period which you prefer.  Joining up means that you are helping to support research but also active campaigns to ensure that as much of our built heritage is passed on to future generations.

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I realise this selection is not comprehensive and is quite national in focus and deficient in regional organisations but this will be remedied in another post once I’ve had time to learn a bit more about who’s out there.

– Matthew

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