Category Archives: English Country Houses – not quite what they seem

Soane’s hidden house uncovered

Moggerhanger Park, Bedfordshire

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was one of the greatest English architects who ever lived, but he’s relatively little known because many of his major buildings have been destroyed or mutilated.

His father and brother were bricklayers, and John used their connections to train with the architect George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) and later with Henry Holland (1745-1806). 

From the start of his career he was fortunate to know the right people and to travel to the right places.

On a Royal Academy travelling scholarship he undertook a comprehensive Grand Tour from London to Malta, centred on Rome, seeing and drawing a huge range of classical buildings between 1778 and 1780.  During his travels he encountered numerous people of influence who would eventually help to advance his career.

After a slow start on his return to England, his reputation grew on the strength of country-house commissions, leading to official posts such as Architect and Surveyor to the Bank of England, architect to the Office of Works, professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and clerk of works to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, St James’s Palace and the Palace of Westminster.

As a member of the United Grand Lodge of England he extended the Freemasons’ Hall in London (1821-31) – and, no doubt, his client-base.

The most distinguished of his surviving public buildings is the Dulwich Picture Gallery (1817), and his abiding legacy is the row of three terraced houses, 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, filled with his collections of drawings and sculpture and now known as Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the destruction of much of Soane’s Bank of England structures after the First World War as “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century”.

Only three of his country houses had remained intact – Pitzhanger Manor, Middlesex, Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire and the decayed but restorable Pell Wall Hall in Shropshire – but one, Moggerhanger Park, Bedfordshire, underwent an astonishing rediscovery at the turn of the twentieth century. 

It was commissioned by Godfrey Thornton, deputy governor and latterly governor of the Bank of England in the 1790s, and further altered for his son Stephen in 1806 and 1811.  His close friendship with Stephen Thornton and his brother and cousin meant that Soane used Moggerhanger Park as a test-bed for architectural innovations.

The house was sold to Bedfordshire County Council in 1919 for use as a TB hospital, which inevitably required extensive alterations and extensions.  In the late 1950s it became an orthopaedic hospital which closed in 1987.

It was bought by a developer who intended to build houses in the gardens, but it remained untouched for ten years until it was acquired by the Harvest Vision charity as a Christian Conference and Retreat Centre.

Harvest Vision worked with the Moggerhanger House Preservation Trust, which was led by a neighbour, Isabelle Hay, Countess of Erroll, to restore the building – a process of fascinating rediscovery that stretched over several years and repeatedly expanded the original budget – aided by designation as a Grade I listed building and support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

The cheap hospital extensions were stripped away, and a forensic archaeological examination of the original fabric, aided by the rich archive of the Soane Museum, showed that Moggerhanger could be substantially returned to its 1812 condition, revealing the architect’s command of proportion and spatial planning, the ingenious use of light and colour, and the inventive use and reuse of earlier structures.

Described by the architect Peter Inskip, who was involved in its restoration, as “a great work of art which has been ignored for a hundred years”, Moggerhanger Park could not have a better modern use. 

Alongside their mission work, Harvest Vision open the house to the public, provide accommodation for individuals and groups and offer outstanding wedding facilities, in which Mrs Thornton’s Dressing Room has become a chapel:  Moggerhanger Park.

It’s loved, it’s lived in, and it’s secured for posterity.  Sir John Soane would approve.

Moggerhanger Park features in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘English Country Houses – not quite what they seem’. For further details, please click here.

Minimalist Georgian

Wardour Castle, Wiltshire:  entrance hall

Wardour Castle, Wiltshire: entrance hall

When I was reconnoitring a ‘Country Houses of Wiltshire’ tour some years ago, I was particularly kindly treated by Nigel Tuersley, who was then coming to the end of his magnificent renovation of James Paine’s Wardour Castle, near Tisbury.

Nigel has a distinctive career-trajectory – ecologist turned property-developer – with a particular love of Georgian architecture.  He took over this 75-room Georgian house, that had previously been used by Cranbourne Chase School and was built in 1770-1776 for the 8th Lord Arundell, and converted it into ten apartments, the biggest of which, in the rustic and piano nobile floors of the central block, he occupied with his wife and two children.

To resolve the dilemma of decorating and furnishing the vast rooms with their 24-foot ceilings designed by the most understated of Georgian architects, Nigel Tuersley commissioned the minimalist architect John Pawson to design his apartment.

When Nigel gave me free rein to photograph the place I had to use ambient light, simply because I couldn’t find the light switches.  When subsequently he allowed me to take not one but two groups of Nottingham University adult-education students to visit, he challenged us to find them.  They were concealed in the architraves of the doorcases.

Pawson’s intention, throughout the house, is to retain the smooth lines of Paine’s classical minimalism.  Bathrooms are grand rooms within grand rooms, and the kitchen contains everything you’d expect to find, though not necessarily where you’d look for it.

As Nigel Tuersley remarked to Victoria O’Brien [‘No-frills Georgian’, The Sunday Times, February 22nd 2004], at the time the house was commissioned and designed “it was considered inappropriate…to show your wealth in any sort of obvious way”.  It’s easy to make cheap jokes about minimalism but Nigel, whose development company is called Classical Order, says, “Minimalism is not a fashion or passing phase.  It’s as enduring a design aesthetic as classicism, and (at Wardour Castle) the two work seamlessly together.”

Nigel Tuersley has now moved out of Wardour Castle, and it belongs to Jasper Conran, who comes from a noted design dynasty.  The house, which Nikolaus Pevsner described as “the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire”, attracts a succession of careful owners.

Wardour Castle is private, and is not open to the public.

Wardour Castle is one of the houses featured in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

 

No shrinking Violet

Harlaxton Manor:  present-day faculty common room

Harlaxton Manor: present-day faculty common room

The interwar rescuer of Gregory Gregory’s vast Harlaxton Manor was as formidable and eccentric as the building – the English daughter of a coal porter and a washerwoman who invented Shavex, the first brushless shaving cream, Mrs Violet Van der Elst (1882-1966), the widow of a Belgian artist.

A succession of Gregory’s descendants had inherited this unforgiving pile and, with varying degrees of success, tried to live in it.  When Thomas Sherwin Pearson Gregory died in 1935 his son put it on the market with 500 acres “or as required”:  80 bedrooms are mentioned, though there was only one bathroom.  Jackson Stops & Staff’s plaintive advertisement in The Times – “To save from demolition…noble ancestral seat…probably the supreme example of domestic architecture of its period” – ignored the possibility that Salvin and Burn’s architecture was so substantial that demolition would be uneconomic.

Mrs Van der Elst paid £78,000 for the building and its surrounding land, renamed it “Grantham Castle”, vigorously modernised the plumbing and installed electricity on a suitably grand scale, and was invariably to be found at the great country-house sales of the time – Clumber, Rufford and so on – picking up furnishings, fixtures and fittings at bargain prices.  She made the estate an animal sanctuary, extending her protection even to the domestic mice in the Manor.

A glimpse of the house in Mrs Van der Elst’s day exists as a 1939 Pathé newsreel clip:  http://www.britishpathe.com/video/grantham-castle.

She was famed for her vehement campaigns against capital punishment, regularly turning up in her Rolls Royce outside prisons at the time of an execution.  She also made a practice of holding séances to contact her dead husband, and kept his ashes in an urn in the library, a dark, low room dominated by antique barley-sugar wooden columns.

Having shared the building with the RAF First Airborne Division during the Second World War, Mrs Van der Elst ran out of money and sold the house in 1948 for only £60,000.  When the house contents were auctioned Mr Van der Elst’s ashes were accidentally knocked down to an unsuspecting bidder and had to be discreetly retrieved.

The manor passed successively to the Society of Jesus, the University of Stanford, California, and then the University of Evansville, Indiana, who use it as their English campus.

Harlaxton Manor features in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

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 £7.50 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. 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.

Open House Day at Harlaxton Manor

Harlaxton Manor

Harlaxton Manor

Harlaxton Manor is an exciting place to visit, yet most travellers only glimpse it as an astonishing vista to the south of the A607 Grantham-Melton Mowbray road.

Harlaxton is an exceptionally exciting building, designed between 1831 and 1837 by Anthony Salvin and William Burn for the eccentric bachelor Gregory Gregory (1786-1854), whose name is commemorated in Nottingham’s Gregory Boulevard, developed on one of his six landed estates.

Gregory Gregory’s intention in building such a huge house seems to have been first, to house his extensive art collection, and second to spite his heir, a distant cousin.  The result is a fascinating mixture of dramatic baroque interiors such as the Great Hall and Cedar Staircase and Victorian ingenuity – hidden doors so that the servants literally appeared out of the woodwork and an indoor railway viaduct to deliver coal by gravity to each floor.

In the spirit of the baroque theme, illusions abound.  The Cedar Staircase is nowhere near as high as it looks, and materials are not what they seem – wood turns out to be plaster, and what looks like solid plaster actually moves.  Room stewards will be available on Open House Day to explain the history of this strange building.

I’ve taken numerous groups to Harlaxton over the past twenty-three years, including one group of jaded teachers on a Friday-night near-the-end-of-term mystery tour.  As the coach trundled across the park in the summer evening, it seemed as if every window of the Manor glowed.  One lady (not a historian) thought she was at Disneyland.

Harlaxton Manor is well cared for by the University of Evansville, Indiana, who use it as their British campus.  The college website is at http://www.ueharlax.ac.uk/about_us/index.cfm.

Harlaxton Manor features in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

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 £7.50 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. 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.

Having a ball at Welbeck Abbey

Welbeck Abbey:  underground ballroom (1986)

Welbeck Abbey: underground ballroom (1986)

The eccentricities of the “burrowing” fifth Duke of Portland seem endless, and by no means all of the stories are true.  He was distinctive among his contemporaries for providing the very latest conveniences for his guests, even though he rarely entertained, and notoriously kept out of his guests’ way.  One of his most grandiose improvements to Welbeck Abbey was the vast ballroom 154 feet by 64 feet, entirely sunk below ground and top-lit by bull’s-eye domes, well-lit, centrally heated and not at all damp.  On arrival for a ball at Welbeck, guests were conveyed down to the ballroom, still in their carriages, by hydraulic lift to a gently-graded inclined tunnel leading them to the dance-floor.  However, the fifth Duke never gave a ball, and the gas-lit splendour only came into its own when the sixth Duke, a distant cousin who never met his predecessor, inherited in 1870.

The most recent, authoritative and succinct account of the fifth Duke’s life and works is Derek Adlam, Tunnel Vision:  the enigmatic 5th Duke of Portland (Harley Gallery 2013), which contains the full text of Elizabeth Butler’s Account of her life as a laundry maid at Welbeck, 1869-1879 (1931).

Nina Slingsby-Smith’s memoir of her father, George: Memoirs of a Gentleman’s Gentleman (Cape 1984 – out of print but available second-hand on Amazon), wonderfully captures the atmosphere of life above and below stairs at Welbeck in the sixth Duke’s time.  It includes a memorable story of an incident at dinner, when a luckless footman’s humanitarian dilemma nearly lost him his job, until King Edward VII saw the funny side:  the tale is far too good to spoil – seek it out on page 70 onwards.

Guided tours of the State Rooms (but not the underground rooms) are bookable in advance:  http://www.welbeck.co.uk/experience/visit/welbeck-abbey-state-room-tours.

Welbeck Abbey is one of the houses featured in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

 

More country-house railways

Welbeck Abbey:  basement railway

Welbeck Abbey: basement railway

The two railways at Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall are by no means the only examples of large country houses using rail transport to shift fuel, food, luggage and laundry around the capacious service wings.  Belton House [http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-beltonhouse.htm], on the other side of Grantham from Harlaxton and Stoke Rochford have hand-propelled railways, installed in the 1930s, connecting the kitchen in the courtyard with the basement of the main house.

Haddon Hall [http://www.haddonhall.co.uk/], near Bakewell in Derbyshire, was made habitable from 1912 onwards by the then Marquis of Granby, later the 9th Duke of Rutland.  Bringing the fully-fitted seventeenth-century kitchen into any kind of modern use was impractical, so a new kitchen was constructed in outbuildings a couple of hundred yards away.  This is now the tearoom for visitors to Haddon:  one end of the cable-operated railway can be seen inside the tearoom entrance;  the other is customarily hidden behind a dresser opposite the entrance to the medieval kitchen which forms part of the house tour.  The tunnel itself is blocked as a fire-precaution, but interested visitors are invited to ask a room-steward to show the remains of the railway within the medieval kitchen.

Most celebrated of all, but least seen, is the 5th Duke of Portland’s rail system in the cellars of Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire.  The “burrowing” Duke went to enormous lengths to live his later life out of sight of his servants, visitors and the world at large.    The railway, with hand-propelled carts, operated in combination with the technologically up-to-the-minute hydraulic lifts to streamline domestic freight in the Abbey.

A heated cart, like a grand Victorian predecessor of a 1950s hostess trolley, enabled His Grace to order food fast.  To avoid speaking to his servants he customarily sent his orders – “I shall only want rice pudding at one” – by means of twin letterboxes on the door of his suite in the west wing.   When in residence he had a standing order for chicken to be roasting twenty-four hours a day.  This fast food could be delivered to his apartment without fuss by the grace of contemporary modern technology.

Welbeck Abbey and Harlaxton Manor feature in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

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 £7.50 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. 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.