Georgian style

Fairfax House, York

Fairfax House, York

Charles, 9th Viscount Fairfax of Emley (1700-72) had a hard life, despite his aristocratic status.  His first wife died less than a year after their marriage.  Of the nine children by his second wife, seven did not survive, and she died not long after her last pregnancy.  One of the two remaining daughters died at 17 in 1753.  His only surviving daughter, Anne, was twice engaged, but never married.

Probably in the hope of giving Anne a secure place in York society, Lord Fairfax purchased a property on Castlegate, and in 1762 commissioned the most prestigious Northern architect of the day, John Carr, to build the residence now known as Fairfax House.

After Anne died in 1793 the house passed through a succession of owners until 1865, when it became a gentlemen’s club (in the Victorian, rather than the modern sense).

In 1919 it was purchased so that a thousand-seat cinema could be constructed on the back-land.  The entrance was made through the next-door house, no 23, and Lord Fairfax’s house was incorporated.  The rear domestic offices, including the original kitchen, were demolished;  the drawing-room and saloon were amalgamated as a ballroom, and a first-floor bedroom became  lavatories.

Nevertheless, at the behest of an early York conservationist, Dr Evelyn, most of the interior features were safeguarded, and the grand staircase became a positive asset for the St George’s Hall Cinema.

Eventually, in 1980, the York Civic Trust took it on as a museum of eighteenth-century domestic life and a home for the valuable furniture-collection bequeathed by Noel Terry, the chocolate manufacturer.

The restoration was accomplished by another first-rate architect who chose to base his practice in North Yorkshire, Francis Johnson (1911-1995), a Classicist of subtlety and judgment.  [See the late Giles Worsley’s obituary – – and the website of Johnson’s successors’ practice:]

The tactful 1920s cinema foyer remains as a public entrance.  Much of the superb eighteenth-century plasterwork by James Henderson and Guiseppe Cortese remained sufficiently intact for restoration, though the busts of Shakespeare and Newton on the main staircase are replicas.  Similarly, the ironwork of the main stairs, by Maurice Tobin, is original, as is all but the bottom flight of the secondary staircase.  Of the public rooms, only the kitchen is a replica.

Francis Johnson knew where to find the best craftsmen to work in the eighteenth-century manner – Hare & Ransome (joiners), Bellerbys Ltd (interior decoration), W M Anelay Ltd (leadwork and stonework), Dick Reid (carved woodwork), Leonard Stead & Son Ltd (stucco) and Moorside Wrought Iron of Kirkbymoorside (wrought iron).

The Assembly Rooms gives the modern visitor the scale of grand living in Georgian York;  Fairfax House provides the style.  It’s a museum that feels like a home, and offers a rewarding couple of hours’ looking and learning:   Even if it’s not practical to visit the house, visit the informative, erudite, beautifully organised blog, a classic of the genre, at

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here. 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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