Sion Hill Hall has been described – convincingly but imprecisely – as “the last of the great country houses”. It was built for Percy Stancliffe, the son of a wealthy brewer by one of Yorkshire’s foremost local architects, Walter H Brierley, in 1912-3.
Walter Brierley (1862-1926) was a partner in the dominant York architectural practice which was begun in the eighteenth century by John Carr and had included in the intervening years such figures as J P Pritchett (1789-1868) and G T Andrews (1804-55, architect to the North Eastern Railway).
Like John Carr, Walter Brierley’s fame was limited because his work is concentrated in the North. He built a rich collection of houses, churches and public buildings including a distinctive series of 1890s school buildings for the York School Board and the Principal’s House at the King’s Manor in York. He restored Sledmere House after the major fire in 1911 and designed Welbeck Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, which was built (1930-1) after his death.
At Sion Hill Hall there were temperamental clashes between the rich but parsimonious Percy Stancliffe and his perfectionist architect, whose belief that “cheap work is always there to remind and annoy us” did not encourage a quiet relationship.
Nevertheless, the resulting building made Brierley’s reputation as “the Lutyens of the North”, and its expansive horizontal façades, enlivened by generous hipped roofs and tall chimneys, have a strong air of assurance, with an ambitious classical doorcase, dated 1913, as an entrance and on the south-facing garden front, roundels and painted shutters.
In fact, the house is only one room deep, with connecting corridors the length of the north front and all the principal rooms facing the sunny south. At the western end the corners are stepped, so that Percy Stancliffe’s study and his wife’s boudoir share the advantage of south- and west-facing windows.
(The real Edwin Lutyens, on one of his rare Northern commissions, took no nonsense from his rich Yorkshire client, whom he despised.)
Percy Stancliffe lived at Sion Hill House until his death in 1949. It was eventually purchased in 1962 by a remarkable collector, Herbert W Mawer (1903-1982), who rose from humble origins, trained as a chef at the Royal Station Hotel in Hull and started his own model bakery, “Our Herbert’s”, at Stokesley in 1926. The family business prospered enough for Herbert to retire in his forties with sufficient wealth to support a passion for antiques which had begun with the purchase of two candlesticks for £1 5s in Hull when he was eighteen.
In the late 1930s he bought Ayton Hall near Guisborough, but by the 1950s that modest Georgian house was too small to house his accumulating possessions.
Herbert Mawer chose, in the absence of an heir, to establish the H W Mawer Trust to administer Sion Hill Hall and the Mawer Collection, which has since his death been increased to include the remarkable pot that contained the Breckenbrough Hoard (discovered in 1985) and paintings by the identical twins Dorothy and Elizabeth Alderson (respectively 1900-1992 and 1900-1987), who were Herbert Mawer’s aunts.
The house is open for group visits by prior arrangement: http://www.sionhillhall.co.uk.