Monthly Archives: July 2024

Ralph Dutton of Hinton Ampner

Hinton Ampner, Hampshire: entrance hall

Ralph Dutton – his first name always pronounced ‘Rafe’ – was born in 1898, in the right place at the right time.

His parents were wealthy – his father a descendant of the 2nd Baron Shelborne with an estate at Hinton Ampner in Hampshire, his mother a daughter of a Bristol banker.

Ralph progressed from West Downs School to Eton, leaving in 1917 without taking his School Certificate.  He was rejected for military service because of his eyesight and instead served as a clerk in the Foreign Office.  In 1919 he was admitted to Oxford University on the strength of a letter from his mother to the Dean of Christ Church, and left two years later without taking a degree.  During his second year at Oxford his father asked him how he was getting on at Cambridge.

This path through education gave him a priceless legacy of friends, young men who became luminaries in British life and culture – Anthony Eden, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Christopher Hussey, Beverley Nichols, Sacheverell Sitwell.

To the end of his life he gave no hint to anyone of his political views, his religious persuasion or his sexuality.

He knew that sooner or later he would inherit Hinton Ampner and, apart from taking a course at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, he spent his time and money on broadening his mind, travelling, and become adept at collecting fine art and furniture.

He acquired such treasures as a fireplace from Hamilton House near Motherwell, paintings by Jacob de Wit, Francesco Fontebasso and Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini and ceiling roundels by Angelica Kaufman.

He loathed his father’s house, a Victorian remodelling of a late-eighteenth century hunting lodge, and when eventually it became his in 1935 he lost no time in remodelling it in neo-Georgian style.  His architects were his friend Lord Gerald Wellesley (from 1943 7th Duke of Wellington) and Trenwith Wells.

At the same time he began to write about the aesthetic interests that gave him joy, beginning with The English Country House (1935) and The English Garden (1937), and after the War resumed producing books about architecture and fine art until the early 1960s.

He filled the house with the paintings, furniture and books that he’d accumulated, and when he took up residence in August 1939 he entertained only one guest, his friend Charlotte Bonham-Carter, before the property was requisitioned to accommodate the girls of Portsmouth High School at the start of World War II.

When peace returned Ralph gradually brought the house and garden to a state that satisfied him, so that he could entertain his wide circle of friends in comfort and luxury – the biographer James Pope-Hennessy, the art critic Raymond Mortimer, the diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson and the novelist L P Hartley.

A serious fire in 1960 destroyed part of the house and disfigured the rest.  Ralph Dutton’s immediate reaction was to call back Trenwith Wells (because Lord Wellesley was by this time fully occupied being Duke of Wellington) and his favourite decorator Ronald Fleming, and they not only restored the house but improved it, making good deficiencies that had only been recognised when it was lived in after the war.

He inherited the title 8th Baron Shelborne in 1982, three years before his death.  He had no direct heir, so the title died with him.

He had bequeathed the estate to the National Trust in the 1960s, soon after the house was rebuilt.  This caused some embarrassment to the Trust, who did not habitually take on properties before the paint was dry.  They were grateful for the gardens and grounds, but only agreed to open the house to the public after his death.

I’m glad they did, because it’s a beguiling place to visit.  The volunteer room-stewards are notably welcoming, and Ralph Dutton’s rooms are exquisite. 

It’s not an easy place to find, and really needs more signage in the surrounding area, but it’s worth putting aside a day to relax and savour some of the comforts its owner wanted guests to experience: Hinton Ampner | Hampshire | National Trust.

St Cecilia’s Apartments

St Cecilia’s Apartments, formerly St Cecilia’s Parish Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield (2024)

At long last, the attractive parish church of St Cecilia, Parson Cross, Sheffield is sure of a secure future after years of redundancy and the threat of demolition.

It was built at the same time as the surrounding council estate and consecrated in 1939, designed by a little-known architect called Kenneth Mackenzie. 

The church community thrived into the post-war period, led by clergy provided by the Anglo-Catholic Kelham Fathers, but in later decades the congregation shrank until they were forced to abandon the building for the smaller church of St Bernard, Southey Green.

The problem of disposing of St Cecilia’s after the church was closed in 2011 dragged on for several years, which I chronicled in a series of blog-articles:  St Cecilia’s – starting a new chapter | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

Sheffield City Council insisted that the only possible reuse would be residential, and eventually a developer came forward with a practical scheme, completed in 2024.

St Cecilia’s still looks like a church, even to the carved crosses on the gables, though it’s been converted into seventeen modern apartments shoehorned into the space within:  2 bedroom apartment for rent in Flat 9 102 Chaucer Close, Sheffield, S5 (rightmove.co.uk).

I wish that the UPVC glazing had been black or dark grey instead of stark white, and it’s a shame that Kenneth Mackenzie’s Gothic tracery had to go, but I’m pleased that this charming building survives within its circle of surrounding houses in an area of north Sheffield which has lost some of the few landmark buildings that were built in the 1930s, such as St Hilda’s Parish Church, Shiregreen and the Ritz Cinema, Parson Cross.

Local people who knew and loved St Cecilia’s Church will be bewildered if they set foot inside now.  Necessarily, its spaciousness has been sacrificed by the insertion of a mezzanine floor and multiple internal partitions, and though the arches of the nave arcades provide decorative features in individual first-floor apartments, the need to preserve the external fenestration has required compromises in the height of the window apertures.

Demolishing St Cecilia’s didn’t bear thinking about, not only because it’s an attractive and substantial building, but the closeness of the adjacent houses meant that it would have had to be taken down expensively brick by brick, which would have been an extended nightmare for local residents.

As it is, the former church can earn its keep and repay the investment in redevelopment.  And the exterior looks immaculate.

It remains a quiet, unobtrusive presence in the midst of the Parson Cross estate, and it’s a witness to the energy of the Kelham Fathers and the optimism of the worshippers who arrived from dismal inner-city areas at the end of the Thirties, only to face the upheaval of war and the uncertainties of the decades that followed.

The spirit of harmless eccentricity

Chatsworth: the Moorish Summerhouse

When I was at university in the late 1960s, the first social landmark of the academic year was the Fresher’s Bazaar – a recruitment fair in which new students could enrol in societies and clubs as diversions from their studies.

Here was a panorama of extra-curricular talent – sports societies (naturally), various cultural groups (predictably), religious, political and hobby groups. 

The University newspaper, Torchlight, recruited reporters (one of whom would have been Chris Mullin, who rose to be its editor and later became an MP). 

There was a Winnie-the-Pooh Society which, I was later informed, under the pretence of activities with Pooh-sticks planned to overthrow the government. 

Best of all was the Apathy Society which left a single sheet of paper on a bare trestle table where innocents could disqualify themselves from membership by summoning the energy to sign their name.  The Apathy Soc were notorious for never clearing their pigeon-hole.

On this analogy, you might think a society called the Folly Fellowship would be the destination of fools, but it’s quite the opposite.

Its members are knowledgeable, enjoyable individuals who take an interest in a cornucopia of architectural genres:  What is a folly? – The Folly Fellowship (follies.org.uk).

I came across them when Jonathan Holt bought a back copy of my handbook for a 2009 Derbyshire-based tour, Taking the Waters:  the story of spas and hydros.

He made admirable use of it to include out-of-the-way wells and spas that are largely unknown, such as the Royal Well at Matlock Bath, Quarndon Spa and the Stoney Middleton Bath Houses in his article in the Foundation’s magazine Follies, No 118 (Summer 2024), pp 10-14.

He also gave me a generous shout-out at the end of his article and invited me to join the group on their Derbyshire tour.

Because I already had a commitment on the Saturday I arranged to meet the Folly Fellowship members at Chatsworth on Sunday lunchtime for a tour of the house and the freedom of the gardens. 

Chatsworth is full of garden features and buildings without a purpose other than to entertain guests, from the Tudor Queen Mary’s Bower to the grand Victorian engineering of the Emperor Fountain, the ingenious Willow Tree Fountain to Dame Elisabeth Frink’s War Horse.

I chose to go looking for the one item on Jonathan’s list that I couldn’t identify, the Moorish Summerhouse.  It’s not marked on any of the maps, and I had to ask a garden guide at the ticket-kiosk how to find it.

Six of us tramped up the slope, past the Case and the Kitchen Garden, and up a serpentine path until we came upon it.

The Moorish Summerhouse, otherwise called the Saracen’s Shelter, is a fine structure, sited on a level with Thomas Archer’s Cascade House, exquisitely designed in Moorish style.  It seats six and would make an impressive bus shelter.

We chatted idly and then people wandered off to look at other things.  There are far worse ways of spending a Sunday afternoon.

I can find nothing about the Summerhouse online or in Pevsner, but that doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the spirit of harmless eccentricity that it embodies.

There’s an invitation to join the Folly Fellowship at The Folly Fellowship (follies.org.uk).