Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Part I: Marking the Tercentenary of his Birth

by Nathaniel Dance (later Sir Nathaniel Holland, Bt), oil on canvas, circa 1769

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown by Nathaniel Dance (later Sir Nathaniel Holland, Bt), oil on canvas, circa 1769. National Portrait Gallery, London

With 2016 being the tercentenary of his birth, it would be silly not to write about Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Even better still, as I struggled to compose something over the last few days, Classic FM came up with just the perfect inspiration with a programme dedicated entirely to the landscape gardener. So, as I sat down for the tenth time working out where to start, it didn’t matter what was played on the radio next to me, the music finally brought the imagery I needed to the front of my tired brain.

Baptised in the parish church of St. Wilfrid’s at Kirkharle in Northumberland in August 1716, Lancelot Brown would spend much of his youth employed on the local estate. Little is known of these early years, except that Brown eventually left Northumberland to travel to Lincolnshire perhaps for work in water management. By the 1740s Brown came to work alongside William Kent at Stowe in Buckinghamshire and soon became head gardener there. He would leave Stowe in 1751 having gained worthy connections via his employer Lord Cobham to members of the elite in Buckinghamshire and much of the Midlands.

Highly perceptive and hard-working, Brown was very much a celebrity for his time and showed an awareness of the society within which he both served and influenced. That he told his clients their estate had ‘capabilities’ suggests great persuasive tactics. That it became habit, and thus adopted as a nickname suggests Brown happily assumed a sort of personal branding. As ‘Capability’ Brown he was highly sought after and by name he was recognisable for both skill and profession.

Aske Hall View from the South 1769-80 by George Cuit (1743-1818) oil on canvas. Zetland Collection

Aske Hall View from the South 1769-80 by George Cuit (1743-1818) oil on canvas. Zetland Collection

To mark the tercentenary, there are several exhibitions and events taking place across sites connected to Brown. Much of Brown’s place in the history of landscape gardening is fairly well-researched and the dissemination of this will be the aim of Part II. For this post, I simply want to share a small part of the events marking the tercentenary of his birth where I took off to Harrogate’s Mercer Gallery to see ‘Noble Prospects: Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape’ which will run until 11th September. This small yet thoughtful exhibition does replicate some of the material already exhibited elsewhere as part of individual projects in recent years. Yet, it pulls together present research well and has already attracted worldwide interest according to its Facebook page.

The exhibition explores the nearly 20 or so recognised sites in Yorkshire associated with him, supposedly one of the greatest concentrations in the country. Featured in the exhibition are portraits of Brown and his Yorkshire clients, original plans, drawings and documents by Brown, paintings of his creations and works of art that inspired his landscapes. Thankfully, I bought the guidebook which meant I could scrutinise the items a little closer – albeit on the page rather than in the flesh.

Many similar exhibitions began at sites in the spring months to coincide with seasonal opening times. Yet, I agree with the Classic FM presenter since the best time to visit Brown’s landscapes are late summer and early Autumn just when the trees begin to change colour and the grass has its last flush of growth before winter. This is the time of year when the air changes, when it grows heavy and the sun hovers over panes of glass and stone pillars. Utterly romanticised, I know, but Brown is not only part of a culture supposedly obsessed with gardening, he represents the human desire to simultaneously manipulate and emulate the natural landscape – and to frame it.

The Palladian bridge designed by Brown at Scampston Hall near Malton.

The Palladian bridge designed by Brown at Scampston Hall near Malton.

His clients were fully versed in classicism and such imagery would have been their source material. The Irwins at Temple Newsam commissioned Brown in the early 1760s as part of their plans for large scale improvements. Once work began and all outside was in disarray, Lady Irwin wrote to her close friends explaining how she sought comfort from the pastoral landscape paintings in the family collection, most notably Claude Lorrain whose arcadian imagery provided great inspiration. Here was Brown with the knowledge and practical skills ready to encapsulate the landscape of myth within the rural British countryside.

This more natural style (as opposed to the formal avenues and parterres of the century before) consisted of sweeping unbroken lawns, serpentine lakes, clumps of trees, classical style follies and winding carriage rides. He was, by no means, the only working towards this style and many estate owners employed others or took on the challenge themselves.

As my own interest in the country house evolves, it is the landscape which has always had different degrees of personal attraction. Certainly as a child I found gardens far more enticing and the country house itself was a steady burner. The wider landscape has only in recent years become something more for me. Perhaps in this context, the exhibition at Harrogate offered me a chance to see how Brown interacted with the landscape and brought the visions of his clients to life. This it does well, and it is possible to understand the practicalities of landscape gardening on a vast scale and how the eighteenth-century country house sat within this design framework.

One of the most intriguing aspects from this exhibition was the mention of the landscape at Whitley Beaumont near Huddersfield. This was the seat of Richard Henry Beaumont to which Brown made a visit in the late 1770s. Brown’s vision included all the usual characteristics. However, the house is one of many lost English country houses having been demolished in the 1950s, but the patterns of Brown’s landscape and the signature marks of the natural or arcadian style are still visible today.

Whitley Beaumont by J. T. Taite (fl. 1850s), 1858, oil on canvas. Huddersfield Examiner courtesy pf Stephen Beaumont

Whitley Beaumont by J. T. Taite (fl. 1850s), 1858, oil on canvas. Huddersfield Examiner courtesy of Stephen Beaumont

The exhibition has been curated by Karen Lynch who pieced together the guidebook from her recent essay for The New Arcadian Journal (see below) but has previously published works on other Yorkshire sites – Harewood House, Plumpton Rocks and Bretton Hall. What would be interesting to discover is the influence of the contemporary Yorkshire countryside on those instructing Brown in the mid-eighteenth century – a point not fully touched upon in this exhibition. Perhaps there was little influence at all but if the county has such a high concentration, then the ‘capabilities’ must also be high and certainly worthy of exploration.


Exhibition link or simply and Facebook link with good options to read reviews and articles elsewhere

The hosting website

The Guardian exhibition review

Historic Houses Association

Other events running into Autumn and beyond including associated landscapes and sites:

The Embroiderer’s Guild are holding exhibitions across several sites into 2017

Wimpole Hall –

Croome Court –

Kirkharle Courtyard –

Sherborne Castle –

Harewood House –

Scampston –

Further reading:

Jane Brown, The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783 (2011)

Karen Lynch, Noble Prospects: Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape. Yorkshire Gardens Trust and Harrogate Borough Council (2016) and in more comprehensive form ‘Capability Brown in Yorkshire’, Yorkshire Capabilities: New Arcadian Journal 75/76 (2016), pp.37-107

Allan R. Ruff, Arcadian Visions: Pastoral Influences on Poetry, Painting and the Design of Landscape. (2015)

Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown (1975)



Filed under Architecture and Design, Collections, Exhibitions, In the News, Men and the Country House, Parks and Gardens

Kenwood House, London

Kenwood House, south front, author's own image

Kenwood House, south front, author’s own image

This one is an old favourite, and increasingly noteworthy within the study of the English country house and more recently black history. Kenwood House is part of English Heritage’s portfolio and having recently completed an extensive restoration programme the house reopened to the public in 2013. Crucially, it is free of charge.

It is this restoration which perfectly reflects the enthusiasm of English Heritage overall; the research, knowledge and eventual interpretation of the site without ‘hidden extras’. Typically, I have found that those at English Heritage are eager to unveil as much as possible and at Kenwood House the feeling is one of progression and delight.

The fine art collection at Kenwood House incorporating the Iveagh Bequest and Suffolk Collection add to the resources available for any art historian and beyond. I remember visiting as a student in the late 1990s and being able to witness ‘in the flesh’ Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Mary, Countess Howe (c.1764). Writing an essay on Gainsborough’s use of modern dress rather than classical or antiquity styled society ladies certainly gained pace after seeing this painting!


Mary, Countess Howe, by Thomas Gainsborough (The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House)

Kenwood’s social history is rich and offers up a great deal for debate in terms of contemporary ideals and household hierarchies particularly in terms of the role Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) had within the family and the society which they mixed. Again research into Dido’s life both at Kenwood and after her marriage has been undertaken by English Heritage, but a lot of her life seems to inconclusive. Born into slavery as the natural daughter of Maria Belle an enslaved African woman and Sir John Lindsay, Dido was brought to England by her father as an infant to be placed under the guardianship of William Murray – a later pivotal owner of Kenwood House.

Theories abound about her portrait with her cousin Elizabeth (below), her position in the Murray household, and perceptions of her within wider society. It is difficult to pin anything down here as Dido is deserving of a post which allows for more discussion than can be committed here. There are some who argue that it was Dido’s illegitimacy rather than her heritage which played on the dynamics within the family. Yet her status as free woman seemed to have to be constantly reaffirmed and when Murray died he still felt it necessary to state this in his will when also noting Dido’s annuity of £100.

Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle, once attributed to Zoffany

When I visited, the curator was conducting an informal tour for members of a small group undertaking research on a number of paintings in the collection. My eavesdropping wasn’t met with suspicion or annoyance though, and as I followed the recommended route around the house it was clear that all staff members are proud to not only be presenting but also to be a part of Kenwood’s story.

The House

Built as a suburban villa rather than a country house with a centralised administration for the wider estate, the exact site for ‘Caen Wood’ House was established by the second decade of the 17th century. This earlier brick-built property located off Hampstead Lane in north London was later modernised about 1700. By 1746 the house was occupied by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and a nephew of the Earl of Ilay who by that date owned the property. Both Bute and Ilay shared an interest in exotic plants and it may have been Bute who added the orangery to the south west of the building.

Despite its modest size (the guidebook notes, ‘bigger than a town house but smaller than a country seat’) Kenwood’s development through this period is cleverly mapped in current literature as well as on the website. It is this sort of interpretation which makes architectural heritage so much more exciting and plausible for wider audiences.

An example of the reconstructions available to readers and visitors of Kenwood. This image shows how Kenwood may have looked in 1756.

An example of the 2-dimensional reconstructions available to readers and visitors of Kenwood. This image shows how Kenwood may have looked in 1756.

In 1754 William Murray (1705-93), later 1st Earl of Mansfield acquired Kenwood from Lord Bute for £4,000. Under the ownership of the Murrays, the aesthetics of the house were destined to change dramatically. William Murray set out to appoint Robert Adam to improve the house from about 1764; an important move for the time and a competitive one which suggested that Murray intended to show his business and political stature was equal to that of the Childs at Osterley and the Percys at Syon – two other contemporary Adam projects (Adam being appointed from 1761 and 1762 respectively).

Of course, it is impossible to write about Adam at Kenwood without noting the truly magnificent library there. In the visits I have made to Kenwood I have seen both interpretations of this particular interior – the dark colour scheme and heavily gilded plasterwork, and the transformation made in recent years towards a less heavy application in colour thought more accurate of the original Adam interior.

Column in the Adam library at Kenwood showing the older (and darker) colour scheme below the newly restored version.

Column in the Adam library at Kenwood showing the older (and darker) colour scheme below the newly restored version. (Author’s own image.)

The library ceiling designed by Adam with paintings by Antonio Zucchi

The library ceiling designed by Adam with paintings by Antonio Zucchi. (Author’s own image.)
















Detail from fire surround (author's own image).

Detail from chinoiserie fire surround (author’s own image).

The use of this room was for more formal entertainment by the Mansfields who otherwise used the upper hall for accommodating close friends. The two rooms today are vastly contrasting; where the library is bright and airy (it was considered difficult to heat even in the 18th century) and yet distinctive, the upper hall is somehow unsettled. Adam remodelled the upper hall in the fashionable chinioserie style but little remains of this apart from a fragment of wallpaper and the fire surround. Yet here are a number of pieces from the Suffolk Collection and once again time must be taken to study these away from published literature. If anything, the height of Stuart extravagance in dress is perfectly displayed in such minute detail that I doubt the full length portraits grow tiresome.

By the end of the 18th century a further extensive programme of remodelling took place which finally established the house as it may be seen today. This wave of building was at the instruction of David Murray, 2nd Earl Mansfield (1727-96) who inherited from his uncle. This Murray desired extra accommodation but also saw an opportunity to enhance the existing characteristics at Kenwood. In order to achieve this, his first act was to relocate Hampstead Lane several metres away from the original forecourt to allow the family more privacy. A new service wing was created to the east and two brick wings were added to the north front.

Admittedly, the service wing sits uncomfortably in its layout, and I am in agreement with Joseph Farington who noted in 1793 shortly after building work began that it was “considerable, and in respect of architectural effect, strange additions to the late Lord Mansfield’s house at Caenwood”. However, the most effective alteration at this time was achieved through the ambitions of Humphrey Repton whose appointment by Murray led to the opening up of the immediate surroundings of the house transforming it from grand suburban villa to that of a fine country mansion.

The north front before Repton's alterations (image taken from the Friends of Kenwood website - see link below)

The north front before Repton’s alterations (image taken from the Friends of Kenwood website – see link below)

The north front after Repton's alterations, also showing the extensions aligned east and west (image taken from the Friends of Kenwood website)

The north front after Repton’s alterations, also showing the extensions aligned east and west (image taken from the Friends of Kenwood website)









Even a new dairy building was created to the south west of the main house for Louisa, wife of the 2nd Earl. Kenwood was now every bit a country house in all but administrative purpose.

The 19th century saw general repair and maintenance take priority and steadily attention was turning to the significance of the surrounding locality – particularly Hampstead Heath to the south of the park. Portions of adjacent land were bought and sold to the Metropolitan Board of Works (later London County Council) in order to connect the park with the Heath and keep access open to the public and free from the developers. By the first decade of the 20th century, Kenwood was leased out and successive families took over the tenancy up to the 1920s.

It was not without its fluctuations in fortune and protracted discussions concerning Kenwood’s future which had begun in 1914 continued throughout the First World War. Alan David Murray, 6th Earl of Mansfield (1864-1935) had decided to sell the house and estate and local residents attempted to raise funds to prevent the land being developed for housing. In 1922 the house contents were sold by auction, but the relatively new Kenwood Preservation Council led by Sir Arthur Crosfield sought to vest in land to the south of the house. It was at this point that local resident Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927) stepped into the negotiations. Taking up a lease for 10 years in December 1924, he quickly implemented the use of his own family trust to purchase the remaining land with the intention of giving the house and estate with the addition of a selection of his own paintings collection to the nation.

Unfortunately, the supervision of the installation of objects was not to be fulfilled by Lord Iveagh himself who died in 1927 so instead this was undertaken by six administrative trustees including the then Director of the National Gallery. By the summer of 1928, Kenwood was open to the public and in 1929 The Iveagh Bequest Act established Kenwood as an independent museum.

I visited Kenwood on a bright but chilly day and took a snap decision to travel by tube as far as Hampstead and cross the Heath to the house.  As a student I went by coach which inevitably parked up on Hampstead Lane in order to keep the group for straying too far. I recommend Kenwood is better approached from the Heath through the the scrub and woodland, across stream and passing the rhododendrons if this is possible. It might sound idyllic or on the other hand troublesome for those inclined for a quick stop off, but it offers a better sense of place. There are the tantalising glimpses of the house and the dairy as the path curves out of the Heath and the avenue approach withholds the real glamour of the house until the final steps.

Kenwood is the result of gradual input from successive owners, tenants and local benefactors; layers which are meshed together coherently by English Heritage. Long may the research continue.

Further reading:

Laura Houliston, The Suffolk Collection (2012)

Laura Houliton and Susan Jenkins, Kenwood and The Iveagh Bequest. English Heritage Guidebooks (2013)

N. Poser, Lord Mansfield. Justice in the Age of Reason (Montreal and Kingston, 2013)


The Telegraph celebrating the reopening in November 2013

William Murray, Lord Mansfield on Wikipedia,_1st_Earl_of_Mansfield

Historic England listing including extra detail of the earlier estate of ‘Caen Wood’

Friends of Kenwood

Statute – The  Iveagh Bequest Act

Commentary and studies of Dido Elizabeth Belle

Dido Belle on the big screen 2014 and

Belle: What Happened to Dido After the Film Ended?


Filed under Architecture and Design, Collections, Parks and Gardens, Spotlight On ....

Press release: Preservation trust to acquire Wentworth Woodhouse

The following is a Press Release made by Save Britain’s Heritage. This is fantastic news and totally tips the balance in favour of a more local, regional and national plan of action which benefits so many. As before, fingers crossed for the future! Many thanks to readers of this blog for highlighting the link especially (see below for the full link).

3 February 2016

Press release: Preservation trust to acquire Wentworth Woodhouse

SAVE is delighted to announce that agreement has been reached with the Newbold family on the purchase of one of the finest and grandest historic houses in Britain, Wentworth Woodhouse.

The property will be purchased by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust (WWPT) and will continue to be open to the public.  The public opening of the property will be supported by the National Trust for the first five years. It is hoped completion of the sale will take place within two to three months.

The £7m pledged for the acquisition includes a £3.575m grant offer from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and grants from the Monument Trust, the Art Fund, Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement and the John Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust. Pledges and donations have also been received from many individual members of the public. SAVE and the trustees of the WWPT extend their warmest thanks for all pledges and support received.

The long term strategy is for the public to visit and enjoy all the most interesting parts of the property while restoring the others for revenue-earning uses such as events and holiday lets with business units in the stables. Traditionally a historic house of this size would have required a vast endowment.  This business model will provide a substantial income stream intended to cover both running costs and periodic bouts of repair.

Extensive repairs will be phased over 10 to 15 years allowing time for funds to be raised and the work to be carried out in phases while the property is opened to the public.

The Trust will build on the pioneering work of the Newbold family in opening the house to pre-booked visitors for the first time on a regular basis.  An annual Clifford Newbold lecture will be held to mark the work of the Newbold family in opening the house to the public.

The trustees of the new WWPT are: The Duke of Devonshire, Lady Juliet Tadgell, Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland, Julie Kenny (Chair), Timothy Cooke, Martin Drury, and Merlin Waterson.

For more information please contact Marcus Binney or Mike Fox at SAVE on 0207 253 3500 or, or Julie Kenny, Chair of WWPT, on 01709 535218


Notes to Editors:

The Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust has been established to secure the long term future of Wentworth Woodhouse.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage has been campaigning for historic buildings since its formation in 1975 by a group of architectural historians, writers, journalists and planners. It is a strong, independent voice in conservation, free to respond rapidly to emergencies and to speak out loud for the historic built environment.

Press release issued by SAVE Britain’s Heritage

70 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6EJ

Registered Charity 269129

Tel. 020 7253 3500  Email

Follow SAVE on Twitter: @SAVEBrit

Donate to SAVE via Justgiving


Full Press Release here:


Filed under In the News, restoration, The Destruction of the Country House, The running of the country house

Thinking about the Country House in 2016


A portion of the cast from Dowton Abbey giving their acceptance speech at the Screen Actors Guild in Los Angeles 30 January 2016

In 2012, I wrote a piece here about the current trends in country house studies as well as general literature and popular culture. A lot can happen in four years, so I thought a return to the subject matter seemed overdue. Spurred on by the recurring themes of country house social history highlighted by this blog’s statistics, there is indeed some things to be thinking about in 2016.

Since 2012 the country house has been discussed a lot less on British television that’s for sure and in hindsight, programmes like The Country House Revealed from 2011 seemed like a passing phase. That’s probably more to do with the producers of popular TV rather than the wider interests of those watching. Yet, there has been a shift and without doubt there is a strong fan base surrounding the country house united by the subject’s social themes more than anything else in 2016. That’s not to say that architectural history and the decorative arts have dropped from favour, but overall there appears to be a collective demand for knowledge about how people interacted with the country house; as designers, owners, servants or suppliers. This is not new, and there has certainly been an excess of publications on the country house servant specifically since the 1950s – partly as a result of the decline of the country house and the nostalgia that followed. Yet, the social history of the country house in the second decade of the millennium is rather more epic in its presentation.

In order to support this view, there is no need to look any further than the global appeal of Downton Abbey. At the close of 2015, rumours of a film abounded but as I write this blog post, it is neither confirmed nor denied as to whether the cast and crew are set for a large scale production. However, coming up trumps with a win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles for Best TV Ensemble, Downton Abbey shows its exceptional success in the US particularly and a continued appeal which looks set to blaze through many other countries still.

And it is the word ‘ensemble’ which is really intriguing! Of course the SAG Awards are identifying the on screen cohesion of a large cast, but in writing country house histories it has never been a word I thought to use – or one suggested to me as a PhD student. The country house hierarchy of servants is indeed an ensemble; the household is an ensemble of characters that work together. Acting these parts on screen is part of the story-telling process which has created the mass appeal of Downton which is an admirable achievement. It also goes to show the curiosity and demand for ever more detail and individual accounts (fictional or otherwise) set against the historical backdrop of the country house and its estate.

Rather more tentatively I would also say that the architectural aspect of the country house has become academic for most in 2016. Downton Abbey is certainly popularist but it allows some themes of the country house to become accessible to many – a point made time and again in this blog. Yet, I always feel a little dismayed at the types of literature available either online or at the local bookshop dedicated to the country house. The architecture of the British (mainly English) country house is confined to glossy coffee table tomes which lack depth and lengthy discourse. The most recent additions to my local bookshop’s shelves are repetitive and assert the author’s own connections to particular sites and families. More importantly, they’re out of many enthusiastic readers’ budgets.

As for the social histories, there are the semi-autobiographical pieces hidden away in the history section or selected for their seasonal relevance – usually at Christmas. Based on the literature being published alone, the argument would be that studies of the country house have become divisive in recent years. In academia this is reinforced by the capabilities of departments seeking funding for projects based on the specialisms of their existing staff, and in most cases one is either an architectural specialist or a social historian. For the moment, one cannot be both.

My diagnosis of this issue is the speed at which academic institutions are encouraged to deliver and the place these institutions have in our cultural landscape. It is easier to divide themes and examine them more closely that way, but also reach the targets set by funding bodies and peer group assessment. At the same time as academic institutions turn inwards to their research (be it architectural, material culture or social history), the well-connected TV broadcasters are inviting more viewers to think about past lives and discover semi-fictional accounts of families from ‘the big house’. Thus, it is television which is currently at the forefront of presenting the country house to a wider audience and not the traditional body of academics and curators and their respective assistants.

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So are things shifting again in 2016? Perhaps taking advantage of the popularity of Downton but also as a means of identifying as well as dismantling the popularist aspect of country house social history, it is my ambition this year to focus on the country house servant and household and the material culture that supports these. Not in the usual sense though – the nostalgia and ten-a-penny reminiscences – instead it will something more constructive and debatable. Of course, personal experiences are always valued and are critical to social history, yet the social history of the country house covers huge ground; it is every aspect of human life literally under one roof.  This year in blogging will see highlighted discussion concerning not just servants and their roles, but also love, marriage, children and parenthood, and even crime. Themes which themselves are an ensemble of varying aspects of day-to-day routine or circumstance influenced by or indeed an influence upon the country house and its development.

Let’s not forget that Downton Abbey is complete and its final series was aired in the UK in September 2015. Long may its reign continue, but something will move into the void left behind. I am not convinced academia will manage this without looking more outwardly than it does currently in Britain at least. Yet, there are many findings to hit the shelves in 2016 and I look forward to reading into these. It may still be possible to unite the architectural with the social before we meet 2017 and I hope to offer a narrative as we go!


Filed under Book reviews, In the News, Servants

BBC News: Wentworth Woodhouse sold to Hong Kong investment company 

Wentworth WoodhouseImage copyright Dave Pickersgill

One of Europe’s biggest private stately homes is due to be sold to a Hong Kong based investment company.

The Grade I listed Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, is larger than Buckingham Palace. It was on the market since May with a price tag in excess of £8m.

Estate Agents Savills said it had agreed a sale with Lake House Group but would not disclose the selling price.

Lake House Group said it was “delighted to be involved with the purchase”.

“It is our hope that we can work with some of the organisations which have also shown an interest in the property in order to save and preserve this magnificent historic house”, the company added.

Savills said the buyer was due to exchange contracts and complete the purchase “shortly”.

Mining past

An estimated £42m is needed to spend on repairs, campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage says.

The Georgian mansion, which is open to the public, sits in 82 acres of grounds and the earliest wing of the house was started in 1725.

The Palladian-style east wing has a front that extends for 606ft (184m).

It was bought in 1999 by architect Clifford Newbold, who died in April. His family made the “reluctant decision” to sell the property after his death.

Restoration work was under way but it had been hampered by subsidence caused by mining, which was a key source of income to help with running costs for the house’s former owners.

The interiors of the house are the work of three patrons -– the First and Second Marquess of Rockingham and the Fourth Earl Fitzwilliam.

The history of Wentworth Woodhouse and the nearby village of Wentworth is linked with three aristocratic families, the Wentworths, Watsons and Fitzwilliams.

Original article here:

And from a previous post regarding the ownership of British country houses

For updates on this, please see the comments below.


Filed under In the News

The World Monuments Fund – Wentworth Woodhouse is back in the news

Country: United Kingdom Site: Wentworth Woodhouse Caption: The Palladian east front Image Date: 2010 Photographer: Marcus Binney/World Monuments Fund Provenance: 2016 Watch Nomination Original: from Watch team

The Palladian east front, copyright, Marcus Binney/World Monuments Fund

A few days ago the World Monuments Fund released its list of 50 Watch Sites for 2016 from across 36 countries. In line with their own statement these sites are ‘at risk from the forces of nature and the impact of social, political, and economic change’. Sites included are Rumiqolqa, Andahuaylillas, Peru, Boix House, Manila, Philippines, Petra Archaeological Site, Wadi Mousa, Jordan, National Art Schools, Havana, Cuba, and the Averly Foundry, Zaragoza, Spain. There are two British sites included – Moseley Road Baths in Birmingham and Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham.

I have written about Wentworth Woodhouse on several occasions, most notably here and here, and its social history here. That the site has been included by the WMF in their Watch List is merely a step further along an incredibly long journey towards its restoration and also recognition for its role in the cultural landscape of England as well as further afield.

Known as the largest privately owned house in the UK, its palatial frontage at 606 feet/180 metres ensures Wentworth Woodhouse’s visual impact is truly established. Yet, its struggle for attention has been a long time coming with one blog in 2011 describing it as ‘the greatest house you’ve never heard of’ due to a lack of high drama and a more northerly position compared to the likes of Petworth or Chatsworth. As far as the first is concerned, a lack of fuss and melodrama should be considered as natural a sentiment as the still waters that run deep since its present owners have invested a great deal of emotional effort and financial resources over the past 15 years to drag the house into a fit state for public tours. For the second,  Wentworth Woodhouse fell foul of a combination of sour attitudes towards the north and an industry which literally clawed away at the landscape. Uniting the two in the demise of its structure (both architecturally and socially) was the general disregard of Wentworth Woodhouse’s symbolism; its political and aesthetic investment made by several families for over 250 years. And while it was talked about in academic circles, the increasing lack of access rendered it underappreciated and understudied – something the WMF readily acknowledges.

Its palatial grandeur may very well jar with many as elite and pompous. There is too much of it for sure which is why there is difficulty in maintaining it in the present climate, but Wentworth Woodhouse is not without use. The plans of the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust is to see the most significant interior spaces of the house opened to the public, while other areas would be turned into residential units, and other spaces to be used commercially as venues for hire.

The Hall at Wentworth Woodhouse, copyright

The Hall at Wentworth Woodhouse, copyright

There is business to be gained here and if done imaginatively, Wentworth Woodhouse can easily provide a great many with inspiration and an appetite for cultural learning. A troubling trend in under-funding of the arts in Britain continues especially where hard graft is necessary, but let’s not dismiss old practices as entirely elitist. There are stories to be told and worlds which are massively overdue attention from younger generations. There are skills which can be gained from research and practice and Wentworth Woodhouse can provide all this and more.

The List and the project vision

The Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust including ways to pledge support and the proposed plans

Local reactions and

The list as seen from across the Atlantic (spot the error in the name…!)

And lastly, one to watch out for?

A must-read: Bailey, Catherine, Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty. (2008)


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Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, In the News, restoration, The Destruction of the Country House

‘Wonder! Wonder! Wonder!’ The experimental philosopher comes to Nostell Priory

Having been greatly entertained by the recent series of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on BBC One, it reminded me of something I stumbled across a while ago when still researching the social history of Nostell Priory in Yorkshire. Needless to say, the suitably impressive Yorkshire locations chosen by the BBC for the drama meant I would also be wasting a golden opportunity to show some hidden connections to both the themes and backdrop of the series.

Filming at Oakwell Hall. From The Huddersfield Daily Examiner (15 May 2015).

Filming at Oakwell Hall. From The Huddersfield Daily Examiner (15 May 2015).

The drama is an adaptation of a book of the same name by Susanna Clarke and much of the reviews highlight the work as historical fiction and fantasy. Set in the early nineteenth century, the theory and practice of magic is the very heart of the tale and allows Clarke to subvert traditional systems and social frameworks such as class and industry: the north of England is mystical not industrial and the black servant may yet be destined to be a king. On a wider scale even Englishness itself is toyed with.

The drama is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo more specifically. The latter saw its 200 year anniversary only recently on the 18th June. Therefore there is obviously something immensely topical about the timing of the production. And yet, there is intentional English patriotism which sees the English Army and Navy look for ever more inventive ways to defeat the niggling French enemy of old. Here’s where Strange and Norrell attempt to give English magic a firm platform from which it can be taken seriously once again.

I’m all for an eerie tale of make-believe set against gritty real life and the human condition, moral codes and physical frailties. I think it helps us see the past better. And so, it made me recall a snippet I read in the Leeds Intelligencer dated 12 December 1786 about a Dr. Katterfelto who had been to stay at Lady Winn’s at Nostell for 5 nights and had therefore missed an engagement in town. That engagement was to be his first lecture in Leeds and one which was to have incorporated the varied themes of ‘philosophical, mathematical, electrical, magnetical, optical, physical, pneumatic, hydraulic, hydrostatic, proctic, and styangraphic art.’ In other words, he was experimental!

18th-century contemporary print of Gustavus Katterfelto

18th-century contemporary print of Gustavus Katterfelto

Gustavus Katterfelto was Belgium-born and had been keen to make a name for himself in London using his Solar Microscope with which he claimed the ‘insects’ causing the flu pandemic of 1782 could be seen. By 1784 his shows had attracted royalty. However, Katterfelto wasn’t so great at handling fame when it did catch up with him. The public inevitably raised concerns about the freedom given to his ‘insects’ and whether they were implicit in spreading the flu. Such bad press persuaded Katterfelto to publicise the death of his ‘insects’ in some terrible accident. Within days Katterfelto had suddenly been struck with the flu himself…or so he wanted people to believe. He took to travelling north to Yorkshire and frequently visited Whitby. Throughout the region he attempted to sell elixirs and perform conjuring tricks in the form of lectures in order to maintain an air of scientific capability and mysticism hinting that his powers and the black cats with which he entertained had demonic origins.

katterfelto balloon

The new mail carriers, or Montgolfier and Katterfelto taking an airing in balloons. From The Ramblers Magazine, 1784. The British Museum.

Sabine, Lady Winn (nee d’Herwart) was of Swiss French origin and had come to Nostell Priory in the mid 1760s as the wife of Sir Rowland Winn later the 5th Baronet. Although vivacious and carefree, Sabine struggled to connect with Rowland’s extended family and was perpetually concerned with health matters especially those associated with aging. When Rowland died in an accident in 1785, Sabine withdrew from public life and became reclusive. Katterfelto’s presence in her adopted land must have presented her with a cause to reclaim something of her former self.

Without doubt it was Sabine’s hypochondriac nature that made Katterfelto so attractive a guest. And just like Jonathan Strange and Norrell his occupation brought hope as well as wonderment. Here is a simple snippet, an apology for absence reported in the local press, but Katterfelto would have been well-received at Nostell Priory by the  the reclusive Lady Winn. There is nothing unbecoming or untoward about the meeting – Sabine is difficult to analyse for sure but during her widowhood suffered greatly from sheer detachment – this strange conjurer was something of a curiosity. He came from the continent like Sabine, and had also experienced high society which he too had chosen to dismiss. For five nights they would have discussed these, the borders between conjuring and science, and the study of disease and general maladies.

Having studied Sabine for a long time, I admit it is difficult to see her as a truly compassionate creature. There is something frivolous about her personality. Yet, I like to think that her guest offered a mix of magic and awe, but also philosophical debate which had been dismantled from her social life since the untimely death of her husband. And here is the human condition laid out in similar fashion throughout Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Human frailties – disease, madness, mortality, and loneliness are challenged but to win is to come at a heavy price. We hope that magic can exist when really it is the imagination which provides the best means of survival.

So these men are intellectually alluring as well as captivating in their occupation. What the book and BBC adaptation alludes to so well is the setting and the involvement of the elite in the promotion and manipulation of these characters. Lady Winn plays host to Katterfelto, but she is intrigued by him in the same way any number of wealthy individuals are in the early episodes of the TV drama. Like Mr. Norrell, Katterfelto is invited into sumptuous town houses and country residences. He put himself on display and attempted to champion something loosely based on academic theory and practice.

Dancing for Lost Hope – or in the Great Hall at Wentworth Woodhouse.

Though Nostell doesn’t feature in the BBC drama adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, it struck me that the Yorkshire locations are linked by fine threads. We see furniture made for Nostell in the bookshop (a withdrawing room at Temple Newsam), and the immense facade and austere interiors of the mighty Wentworth Woodhouse – a political base for the Rockinghamites and close friends of the Winn family. Indeed, the majority of locations are interlinked somewhere because they are in Yorkshire and therefore neighbours. Norrell is a Yorkshireman in full stereotype; he is stubborn and earthy, cautious yet outspoken. I wonder what Katterfelto thought of Yorkshire in the end, afterall, he didn’t leave – he died in 1799 and was buried at Bedale Church!

Further reading:

David Paton-Williams, Katterfelto: Prince of Puff (Leicester), 2008


Gustavus Katterfelto and!katterfeltos-live-insects/c1t0t

Jonathan Strange, Mr. Norrell and their creator author Susanna Clarke and

BBC locations for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

General overview of locations for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Filming in Yorkshire…yorkshire

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