Plenty of room for guests

Wentworth Woodhouse:  east front

Wentworth Woodhouse: east frontThe Sheffield Star for May 21st 2011 announces 1,500 jobs in £200m plans to open Black Diamonds stately home, the first public news that Wentworth Woodhouse, the vast Palladian mansion on the borders of Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley, will become accessible to the general public for the first time, possibly by 2015.

Without doubt this is one of the greatest classical Georgian houses in the British Isles – actually two houses, because the rarely seen “back front”, a baroque west wing built for the Lord Malton who became 1st Marquis of Rockingham, is overshadowed by the enormous Palladian east wing designed by Henry Flitcroft for the 2nd Marquis, who served as prime minister from in 1765-6 and again briefly in the year of his death, 1782.

Flitcroft’s façade is 606 feet long, with pavilions each the size of a small country house.  The great rooms inside include the magnificent Great Hall, decorated with fluted Ionic columns in Siena scagliola, embellished, like the wooden doorcases, with verde antico, and the Whistlejacket Room, which still houses a reproduction of Stubbs’ famous painting (c1762) of a Fitzwilliam stallion, now in the National Gallery.

This house figures in architectural, political and social history as strongly as the celebrated Stowe, which survived as the centrepiece of a public school, its landscape now maintained by the National Trust.  Arguments over the family inheritance, leasing to the county council as a teacher-training college, the malicious excavation of the park by a vindictive Minister of Power, Emmanuel Shinwell [see], and the family’s refusal to resume the liability when the college closed in 1986 have made Wentworth Woodhouse a mystery house.

The circumstances in which the family loosened and then released its grip on the place are vividly described in Catherine Bailey’s superb Black Diamonds (Viking 2007).  The house and ninety surrounding acres were sold as a private residence in 1989 to Wensley Haydon-Baillie, who went voluntarily bankrupt nine years later.  Latterly it was sold by the administrators to a retired London architect, Clifford Newbold, who at the age of 85 is setting out on a scheme to incorporate a seventy-bedroom hotel and a spa while opening the main house as a museum, in anticipation of up to 150,000 visitors.  In this scheme John Carr’s stable block, built to house a hundred horses, will become a business park.

This development represents a very welcome change of direction, after years when the house and its immediate surroundings were strictly off limits to locals and visitors.  Now, with the backing of English Heritage and Rotherham Borough Council, Mr Newbould’s scheme is the first piece of optimistic news about the house since the Fitzwilliams packed up their possessions at the start of the Second World War.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  It includes chapters on Aston Hall, Brodsworth Hall, Cannon Hall, Cusworth Hall, Hickleton Hall, Renishaw Hall, Wentworth Castle, Wentworth Woodhouse and Wortley Hall.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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