After this episode of The Country House Revealed (May 24th, 2011) finished, I felt that this was quite an exhilarating (if not exhausting) journey into the English Baroque and the Fermor family of Easton Neston, Northamptonshire. Ending with Noel Coward’s gentle swipe at the English ruling classes of the inter-war period, ‘The Stately Homes of England’, Dan Cruickshank’s latest offering perfectly summarised the nature of elite living, inheritance, marriage and the complications arising from the two factors when a country seat was at stake.
The main focus was the Fermor, and then later the Hesketh families, and how the house had provided a backdrop to the often comical dramas played out by successive male heirs (particularly George Fermor, 3rd Earl of Pomfret) and their financial gains made by the usual providential marriages. The architectural presence of Easton Neston however, was confined more to the search for its true designer which saw Cruickshank meet up with the floppy-haired Ptolemy Dean (of Restoration fame) who had commissioned a tree-ring dating exercise on the remaining wing of the house as well as in the roof void of the main building. Despite Dean’s jumpy expressiveness whilst demonstrating the altered vaulting in the basement of the house, this exploration proved quite fascinating. For anyone working in the field of architectural preservation, the drilling, chiseling and hammering of beams and walls can seem strangely invigorating if the aim is to reveal another layer of history or, as in this instance to prove a theory.
Primary sources suggest that Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) had had a role to play in its design, perhaps with some contribution by his ‘revered’ mentor and later collaborator Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) who had been approached by Sir William Fermor by 1680 seeking advice for a new house on this site. Cruickshank could be seen at once on the outside of the building viewing the great order of architecture in the massive columns adorning each elevation. Then, he was back inside admiring the great staircase again and an old photograph of the hall with its double height ceiling (diminished in the late nineteenth century). We were then shown a model made by Hawksmoor of Easton Neston at the Royal Institute of British Architects, one of the few architectural models of its type to survive in tact.
Eventually, the tree-ring dating exercise had its results delivered to us by dendrochronologist Robert Howard who offered a clear felling date between the spring of 1700 and the summer of 1701. This somehow eliminated Wren’s involvement in the final design, leaving Hawksmoor as Easton Neston’s prime architect. For Ptolemy Dean this was fantastic news. For enthusiasts of the country house, this was eagerly anticipated; even the Wikipedia entry on Easton Neston was updated the same evening!
For Cruickshank, we had come full circle in terms of the architectural and social history of Easton Neston. The house had seen both subtle and exaggerated changes; summarised well by a former employee of the Heskeths, Trish York who had been a ladies maid in the 1970s, ‘the clientele were different’ she exclaimed when referencing the Heskeths foray into Formula One racing. The house had played host to aristocrats, elite beings and those with political connections. By the 1970s, it was full of young model types, and fast-living young men who did not understand the genteel etiquette required of them as guests in an English country house. Yet, for all its desire for necessary rules and formality, the house proved too expensive for habitation and the Hesketh family sold the house and part of the estate for a supposedly compromising figure of £15 million in 2005 to LA based, Russian born Leon Max, founder of the Max Studio fashion chain. This meant we got to see a handful of more young models draped about furniture and statues throughout the interiors. Dan Cruickshank’s final point was a suggestion that in fact, Easton Neston had been designed for this purpose all along; the models were not the Arundel Marbles once owned by the Earls of Pomfret, but instead represented the ‘fashion’ for being fashionable and cultured. Easton Neston therefore was the requisite type of building for display and ostentation.
The Wikipedia entry on Easton Weston, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easton_Neston
Great Buildings entry for Easton Neston with plans, http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Easton_Neston.html
On the sale of house and parkland in 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/northamptonshire/4551509.stm
The 2005 sale of the contents at Easton Neston managed by James Miller at Sotherby’s, http://www.sothebys.com/liveauctions/sneak/archive/la_easton_0505.html