Thomas Archer: the unsung master of English Baroque, and the revival of Roehampton House

Roehampton House, SW London - Thomas Archer, 1712 (Image: St James)
Roehampton House, SW London – Thomas Archer, 1712 (Image: St James)

Thomas Archer is described as the most European, and certainly one of the most accomplished, of the English Baroque architects.  His later relative obscurity was mainly due to the misfortune that his contemporaries were some of the greatest British architects of any era.  However, looking at the examples we do have of his work, we can clearly see his virtuoso skill and creative talent written into the fabric of the buildings.  The recent restoration of Roehampton House, London, and its conversion into apartments, is a rare chance to live in an example of his work.

Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Fine & Country estate agents)
Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Fine & Country estate agents) – a house not designed by Thomas Archer.

In many ways, Thomas Archer (b.1668 – d.1743) was the quintessential ‘gentleman architect’. The youngest son of Thomas Archer M.P. of Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire, he studied at Trinity College, Oxford, but clearly had broader horizons as, after graduating in 1689, he immediately undertook a four-year Grand Tour, heading to Italy via Germany and Austria.  Almost nothing is known of his time in Italy, yet he must have studied the architecture and been influenced so heavily that this became his chosen profession.  However, as a man of independent means, for Archer, this was less about earning a living and more about the translation of a recognisably ‘European’ form of Baroque to his native country. His architectural career was to be one of successive highlights; broadly, each commission was for a notable patron and the work produced of exceptional quality.

North front, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: bronndave via flickr)
North front, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: bronndave via flickr)

Archer’s gentry origins and Whig affiliations secured him a place at Court where he came to know one of the most powerful aristocrats, William Cavendish, the 4th Earl (1st Duke from 1694) of Devonshire.  Retiring to his estates during the reign of James II, in 1686 the Earl embarked on a programme to rebuild Chatsworth.  In doing so, he elevated the status and grandeur of the private country house to a level not seen since the Elizabethan Prodigy houses – but with the key difference that this was explicitly for non-Royal appreciation. The Duke found in Thomas Archer an enthusiastic collaborator, but one with the advantage of direct experience of the style of grand Italian architecture he so admired.  Chatsworth grew in phases, with the majestic south front begun in 1686, the east front in 1693 (both designed by William Talman), the west front in 1696 (possibly designed by the Duke), with Archer finally being given his opportunity, the north front, in 1705.  As the final phase, Archer had to unite the mismatched lengths of the east and west fronts, which he brilliantly achieved though the use of a visual distraction; a bowed central projection. The use of curves was to become a stylistic hallmark of Archer, one used repeatedly and almost uniquely in the work of the English Baroque architects.

No sooner had Archer secured his first commission than he simultaneously acquired his second; Heythrop House, Oxfordshire, for Charles Talbot, 1st Duke of Shrewsbury.  Unusually for a Talbot, the 1st (and only) Duke of Shrewsbury had converted from his Roman Catholic upbringing to Church of England, and had found favour at Court under Charles II, but he was required to live abroad between 1700-1706 and spent time in Italy.  Whilst there, his diary in 1704 records that he was given a draft plan for a house by Paolo Falconieri, Chamberlain to Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany, and occasional amateur architect. Marcus Whiffen believes that it was this draft which was given to Archer and on which he based his design for Heythrop.  One piece of evidence for the Italian origins of the designs were the very large rooms (e.g. the hall being 32ft x 27ft, a drawing room of 47ft x 25ft) which take little account of the colder English climate.

Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire - Thomas Archer, 1706 (Image: Heythrop Park Hotel)
Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire – Thomas Archer, 1706 (Image: Heythrop Park Hotel)

Heythrop is a confident work which clearly draws its inspiration from the Italian Baroque, with an energetically decorated façade, showing stylistic connections to Bernini’s rejected design for the Louvre.  The grand Oxfordshire palazzo was probably completed by the early 1720s – though sadly the Duke did not live to see this, having died in 1718.  The interiors were designed by James Gibbs but were tragically lost in the huge fire which completely gutted the house in 1831. It remained a shell until 1870 when it was bought by Thomas Brassey as a wedding present for his third son and commissioned Alfred Waterhouse to rebuild the interior. Sold in 1926, it became a Jesuit college until 1969, when it then became the Natwest Bank training college (the latter two uses leading to the construction of extensive ancillary buildings), and then in 1999, it was sold again to become the hotel it remains today.

Top: Pavilion at Wrest Park - plan from Colen Campbell (Vitruvius Britannicus)  Bottom: S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome - plan by Michelanglo, from J. von Sandrart (Insignum Romae Templorum Prospectus)
Top: Pavilion at Wrest Park – plan from Colen Campbell (Vitruvius Britannicus)
Bottom: S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome – plan by Michelanglo, from J. von Sandrart (Insignum Romae Templorum Prospectus)

Although Thomas Archer was not responsible for the design of the main house at Wrest Park (the later house we see today was designed by the then owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey), he did create one of the finest garden pavilions in the country.  In 1711, Archer was commissioned by Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent, to build an elaborate pavilion to terminate the axial view, looking down the Long Canal, from the main house.  Again, Archer demonstrated his familiarity with Rome, using a version of Michelanglo’s unexecuted plan for the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. This is still one of the most exciting buildings in the country; a distillation of Michelanglo, filtered through the English Baroque.

Continuing what must have been a busy period by Archer’s standards, in 1712 he also designed Roehampton House, south-west London, for Thomas Cary. To call the original design ‘dramatic’ is something of an understatement as the plate in Vitruvius Britannicus shows it with a grand, full-width broken pediment – though whether this was actually built or was, but later removed, is unclear.  The plan of the house itself was double-pile with flanking wings, though these were not built originally.  The house then passed through a number of aristocratic owners before being bought in 1910 by Canadian banker Arthur Morton Grenfell. It was Grenfell who commissioned Lutyens to extend the house – though the efforts were not to benefit him as he was declared bankrupt in 1914, before the interiors could be fully completed.

Archer’s next commission, also in 1712, was for Hurstbourne Priors [Park], Hampshire, though, intriguingly, the plan does not match the house that was built – two surviving pictures by John Griffier show a much plainer design.  Proving just what Archer intended and any differences to what was built would be almost impossible as the house was rebuilt by James Wyatt in c. 1780-85, then again by Beeston & Burmester after a fire in 1894 and finally demolished in 1965.  Intriguingly, Tim Mowl suggested that the ‘Bee House’ aka Andover Lodge, was also by Archer and represents an experiment with architectural forms.

Having achieved such success in his life, in 1715, Archer turned to designing his own home. The result was Hale Park, Hampshire, though the house which survives today is much altered following work by Henry Holland Junior in 1770, and further changes in the early and late 19th-century, which covered the brick in (a now unfortunately peachy) render, added a portico and raised the level of the forecourt. Also of note was Archer’s redesign of Hale Church, creating a slice of a Roman church in Hampshire.

After 1715, Archer seems to have curtailed his architectural work as he was given the lucrative post of ‘Controller of Customs’ at Newcastle and largely retired.  He is known to have designed Harcourt House for Robert Benson, Baron Bingley, which stood on the south side of Cavendish Square, London, until it was demolished in 1906.

Chettle House, Dorset (Image: Chettle House)
Chettle House, Dorset (Image: Chettle House)

One of Archer’s last commissions, Chettle House in Dorset, could be argued to be his finest. Built c.1730, for George Chafin, who was a neighbour of Archer’s after he bought the nearby Hale Park, the house is a striking summary of the various elements which Archer had used so well in other buildings, but which here achieve a perfect balance.  The curved corners of the exterior (though raised later), along with the projection on the entrance front combine to make the house truly sculptural.

However, there are a number of other intriguing attributions, which Archer may have worked on during his career, with varying degrees of certainty.

  • Welford Park, Berkshire – Thomas married into the Archer family (no relation) and was asked to re-model the house; adding an extra storey and grand Ionic pilasters.
  • Chicheley Hall, Buckinghamshire – c.1703 – suggested by Arthur Oswald in Country Life but not given in Colvin.  Various elements such as the materials and certain details used on other Archer houses strongly indicate his involvement. Interiors now terribly ‘bland-ified’ as a conference venue.
  • Aynhoe Park, Northamptonshire – between 1707-11 – on stylistic grounds and the evidence of a payment to him from Hoare’s Bank of £39 15s. 6d. by Thomas Cartwright.  This work included the addition of a library, conservatory, stables, and a coach-house – though the first two were later altered by Soane in 1800-1.
  • Bramham Park, Yorkshire – c.1710 – no evidence but stylistically possible. Designed for Robert Benson, who we know commissioned Harcourt House in London.
  • Kingston Maurward, Dorset – c.1717-20 – suggested by Howard Colvin.
  • Marlow House, Buckinghamshire, built c.1720, is now largely agreed to have been by Archer due to the use of particular elements and that it was commissioned by John Wallop, 1st Earl of Portsmouth, for whom he had designed Hurstbourne Priors.
  • Serle’s House, Hampshire – built in 1730, this house has clear stylistic similarities with Archer’s earlier work. Now the Royal Hampshire Regiment museum.
  • Addiscombe House, Surrey – Marcus Whiffen argues that it is undoubtedly Archer, and it could well be, but unfortunately further inspection is frustrated by its demolition in the early 1860s. Images are shown on pages 42 & 44 of a PDF of a local book [note: 10mb download].

The challenge with looking at Archer’s work is that there is relatively little of it.  Without the financial pressures to work, he was able to be very selective in what he chose to do, and due to that scarcity, his work was under-appreciated and occasionally altered or demolished.  In what we do have we can see an exceptionally talented architect who, although living in the shadow of the more productive Wren, Vanbrugh, and Hawksmoor, nevertheless developed a distinctive and influential blend of English and continental Baroque architecture.

Roehampton House, Surrey (Image: St James)
Roehampton House, Surrey (Image: St James)

Roehampton House offers a rare chance to experience both the genius of Archer and Lutyens – though here, clearly, the latter is happy to defer to the work of former and sympathetically embraces and extends it.  Though this is a house which has been ill-used in the past and suffered some damage in WWII, the latest phase has created what appears to be a fine restoration and conversion with a careful re-use of the interior features which have survived.  Although there are too many other buildings built too close to it, the quality of the original architecture has been allowed to shine to ensure that we can again see the work of Thomas Archer, one of the finest English architects we have heard too little about.

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Disclosure: neither the developers, St James, nor their PR company, Luchford APM, have had any editorial input or control over this article, nor have I received anything. However, they have provided some details about the current project and the exterior photos. As always, topics and text on the blog are my choice and discretion.

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A more detailed history can be found on historic paint consultant Patrick Baty’s page on Roehampton House

If you do fancy living there, prices start from £1.35m: Roehampton House [St James]

The estate office: country houses as corporate headquarters – and Barrington Hall, for sale

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

In many ways, a country house was often the headquarters of a business relating to both the estate and the affairs of the family who lived there.  This role was to be mirrored in the latter half of the 20th-century as firms sought to adopt the prestige of stately homes and set up their offices in the many country houses which were then available. What grander statement could a company make to clients and investors than to invite them to visit their stately offices?  Yet times changed, and over the years companies found it harder to justify such lavish accommodation, leading to a steady trickle of houses being sold – and the latest is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire.

Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village)
Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village) – click for an excellent history of the house

The Second World War ushered in the modern era of offices in country houses.  With little by way of aerial bombing, few firms saw the need to move out of London and other cities in World War I, however, this danger had dramatically increased by 1939.  Faced with the significant logistical challenges in moving their vital paper-based records and operations, the late 1930s saw a number of companies actively scouting out possible alternatives, with country houses an ideal choice due to their size and seclusion.  This new lease of life enabled some houses to escape the demolisher’s pickaxe, such as at Shalford Park in Surrey.  A solid, well-proportioned Georgian house, the result of a rebuild of an older house in 1797, had been sold to Guildford Borough Council in 1938, but primarily to protect the land from development, with the intention that the house be demolished.  However, a lease was granted to the Cornhill Insurance Company (later part of Allianz Inc) who moved there in 1939, creating dormitories on the upper floors.  Cornhill were to remain at Shalford Park until 1955, but unfortunately the condition of the building had significantly deteriorated, and combined with it being in the ideal location for a new local water treatment works, meant that the house was demolished.

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

One house which fared only slightly better from this type of arrangement was the beautiful Wrest Park, Bedfordshire.  A fanciful French château, it was built in the 1830s to the accomplished designs of the owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey, and features some of the finest, and earliest, Rococo Revival interiors in the country – of particular note is the spectacular staircase.  The house was sold in 1939 for £25,000 by John G. Murray to the Sun Insurance Company (later Sun Alliance) who bought it in anticipation of war. They promptly moved there from London once war had been declared, having made plans to ‘…alter the stable block and erect huts in the grounds for sleeping quarters, together with washing facilities and air-raid shelters … the stable block was the first area to receive our attention. The whole of the East Wing and the upper storey of the West Wing were to be converted for sleeping accommodation with toilet and washing facilities. The middle connecting section was also to be similarly altered, but it was later decided to make part of the upper storey into a communal long room.‘. Such scenes were undoubtedly repeated in many a country house – though such a use was preferable to the treatment meted out at the hands of enlisted men or children.

Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)
Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)

Other houses had the good fortune to secure relatively benign tenants for the duration of the war. The imposing Stratton Park, Hampshire, was built between 1803-06 by George Dance the Younger for Sir Francis Baring, Lord Northbrook, a founder of Barings Bank. Although it had been sold following the death of his descendent, Francis Baring, 2nd Earl of Northbrook in 1929, the house was bought back by Barings Bank in 1939 as their base for the duration of the conflict (though sadly it was demolished in 1960 by a later Baring who had bought it after the war).  The choice of house was possibly influenced by the fact that the Bank of England had decamped to the nearby beautiful Cranbury Park, also in Hampshire – and, coincidentally, also designed by George Dance the Younger, but built in 1780.  This little known house, still lived in today by the Chamberlayne family who commissioned it, has particularly impressive interiors; the hall and ballroom were described by Pevsner as an ‘unforgettable experience‘. Compared to the horrors of the bombing in London, what a strange pleasure it must have been to be stationed in such an environment.

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

The extensive alterations to even such an important house as Wrest Park indicated the level of damage such intensive use could bring to buildings which had not been designed for such a purpose.  The post-war era held many threats to country houses and use as offices saved many from the wave of destruction which led to the demolition of so many in the 1950s.  In 1949, Wrest Park was sold to the Ministry of Works, who leased it to the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering, later called Silsoe Research Institute which inflicted even more stress on the house and estate.  Although Simon Jenkins included it in his book ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses‘, he wrote that ‘The [Institute’s] outbuildings spoil the approach avenue and its abuse of the interior is dreadful.  The best of the reception rooms, the library, is packed with modern bookcases and computer equipment. Other rooms are cheaply kitted out for lectures and seminars.  It is like a Soviet academy of sciences camped in a St Petersburg palace.’. Thankfully the Institute closed in 2006 and the ground-floor rooms of the house (sadly, office space remains), along with the superb gardens and Thomas Archer‘s sublime Baroque banqueting house have been expertly restored by English Heritage.

Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)
Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)

The pressure to create more space is often the cause of the most damaging changes to a country house.  Simon Jenkins’ criticism of the additional buildings at Wrest Park can similarly be levelled at the extensive construction which has taken place at Hursley House, Hampshire, home of IBM UK.  The house itself was originally built between 1721-24, with ‘gentleman architect’ Sir Thomas Hewett acting as architectural consultant for Sir William Heathcote, and with further major reconstruction in 1902-03 to create the imposing Queen Anne house which appears in various marketing materials.  What the images don’t show is the huge campus (of fairly ugly buildings) which has sprung up so close to the house since IBM took over the site in 1958. A more intelligent approach to the siting of extra accommodation can be seen at the Computer Associates site at Ditton Park, Berkshire, where the new office buildings have been placed a sensitive distance from the main house.  If their priorities changed, the house could be sold and could resume a comfortably independent existence even if the offices remained in use.  Such a change might once have been expected at Donington Hall, Leicestershire, which served as the headquarters for the airline BMI for many years until the recent merger made it redundant.  Sadly, it’s actually unlikely that anyone would chose to live there as there would be no peace and quiet as the parkland has long been converted into the Donington Park race circuit, just half a mile south of the house.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from "A New Display of the Beauties of England" (London : 1776-1777))
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from “A New Display of the Beauties of England” London,  1776-1777) – click to see full size image

Sadly, it is uncommon for a house, once it has been used as offices, to escape such a fate being made permanent.  The alterations and additions can render the house a soulless shell with the grounds ruined beyond the possibility of economic rescue.  However, some have survived this role remarkably intact and, if the possibility presents itself, offer a remarkable opportunity to rescue a house and bring it back to the glory of being a single family home.  One such example is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire, which has had something of a chequered history.  The original house (above) was built between c1735-40 for John Barrington to designs by John Sanderson (b.? – d.1774), a man who Colvin wrote was described as a competent ‘second-generation Palladian’, who worked on an impressive roster of houses including Hagley Hall, where he proved to be an accomplished designer of rococo decoration, Kelham Hall (burnt down 1857), Kirtlington Park, Pusey House, Langley Park, Copped Hall, and Kimberley Hall.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

Barrington Hall remained unfinished (despite the engraving above) and was uninhabited for 128 years due to, what the estate agents refer to as, ‘bizarre and unfortunate events‘ (anyone with more details please do post a comment!). The house was eventually restored in 1867 by George Lowndes, a distant relative of John Barrington, who employed the Lincolnshire architect Edward Browning to remodel it in a Jacobean style. The changes created an attractive house with a varied and interesting form, featuring a series of handsome architectural details such as the ‘Dutch’ gables, quoins and a miniature ogee turret.  The house was bought by the Gosling family in 1903 who had merged ‘Goslings Bank‘ to create Barclays & Co in 1896. It was then sold in 1977 to the British Livestock Board who converted it to offices and then subsequently sold in 1980 to CPL Aromas LTD, a family perfumery firm who seem to have had some challenging times following an ill-fated public listing in 1994, which they reversed in 1999.  Having remained at Barrington Hall it now seems that the company has reviewed its requirements and decided that a stately home is a luxury no longer required.

Although originally offered several months ago for £5m (with 32.85-acres), it seems possible that a serious, but lower, offer could be successful.  It would probably take at least £2m to restore this fascinating house, creating the rich and lively interiors which it needs to match the exterior and bring it back to life, but whoever did so would have the pleasure and pride of having rescued an interesting country house from the drudgery of corporate service.

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Sales website: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [Hamptons] – which, by the way, is a pretty weak effort.  Nice photos but quite lacking in details.

Listing description: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Know any more? If you’re aware of any other country houses of a similar size to Hursley House, Ditton Park, or Donington Park, please post a link (ideally) to a Google Map aerial view in the comments below.

N.B.: an earlier article on this blog (‘Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?‘) looked at a few other examples including Gaddesden Place, Hertfordshire, now the headquarters for Xara software, and Benham Valance, Berkshire.

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