It’s curious how the flat lands of Lincolnshire produce architectural surprises. Tattershall Castle can be seen from miles away, but Grimsthorpe Castle, though it’s visible from the main road, is a sudden revelation.
The show front is unmistakably the work of Sir John Vanburgh, the architect of Castle Howard (1699-1726), Blenheim Palace (1705 onwards) and Seaton Delaval Hall (c1720-8).
Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus Volume III (1725) shows three elevations, dated 1722, respectively for the north, south and west or east sides of the house. These façades were intended to mask rather than entirely replace the earlier fabric behind, as at Vanburgh’s Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire (1707-9).
Vanburgh was commissioned by the first Duke of Ancaster who died in August 1723, but he was almost immediately summoned by the heir, Peregrine, 2nd Duke, to begin construction which was under way before Vanburgh’s death in 1726.
Once the north front and forecourt were completed, possibly under the supervision of Nicholas Hawksmoor, around 1730 the project abruptly stopped.
Walking round the four sides of this huge courtyard house shows that it is in fact a palimpsest: though the facades were tidied up in 1811, it’s obvious that the fabric grew over centuries: the earliest identifiable fragment dates from the twelfth century.
It’s one of the English country houses that developed in interesting ways during the twentieth century.
When Gilbert, 2nd Earl of Ancaster, inherited Grimsthorpe Castle in 1910, he and his American wife, Eloise, brought in the architects Detmar Blow and Fernand Billerey and the decorators Lenygon & Company to modernise the house and built a service wing in the courtyard.
After wartime military occupation, the estates and titles passed in 1951 to the 2nd Earl’s son, James, 3rd Earl of Ancaster and 27th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, who with his countess, Phyllis Astor, employed the architect R J Page and the decorator John Fowler to alter and improve the house, replacing the Edwardian service block with a single-storey kitchen range and turning the riding school into a garage.
Now Grimsthorpe Castle belongs to the third Earl’s daughter, Jane Marie Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby.
It’s one of the finest country-house experiences for miles around. It deserves a whole day: there’s plenty to see, do, eat and drink.
Of all the entertainments on offer at Grimsthorpe, the ranger-led Park Tour by minibus is particularly good value: http://www.grimsthorpe.co.uk/index.php?ID=15.
The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.