Monthly Archives: September 2011

Halton House, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

Halton House south entrance (Brunel Design Group image)

Here’s a strange place. Once the country home of Alfred de Rothschild, Halton House is now owned by the Royal Air Force and has made many a film and television appearance. Today, its mellow sandstone facings offer a warm welcome for junior officers during the day as they make their trek from the main camp accommodation a few hundred metres away.

Alfred de Rothschild (1842-1918) took over the Halton estate in 1880 with hopes of providing himself with a grand residence to match those of his brothers, brother-in-law and uncles elsewhere in Buckinghamshire (see the links below for more on the Rothschild family). A powerful and wealthy family which had made its mark in the world of high finance and international banking in the late eighteenth century, the Rothschilds were ambitious, discerning and driven. Attracting the attention of European royalty, the family soon gained important patrons in several countries where the males of the family could strengthen the family ties as well as the private purse. Alfred was the grandson of the first ‘English’ Rothschild – Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) and was set to continue in the family business from an early age. His own personal connections with royalty were cemented when studying for a degree in mathematics at Cambridge as he would meet lifelong friend the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (later Edward VII).

The Halton estate had the usual mixed history of ownership; the land belonged to the Monastery of Christchurch, Canterbury, after the dissolution it was bought by the Bradshawe family, then the Winchcombes and Fermors, eventually passing by purchase to the Dashwood family. By the early 1700s there was reportedly a fine Palladian style house on the estate, but by the end of the century it had deteriorated whilst the Dashwoods enjoyed their house at West Wycombe. By the mid-nineteenth century, the estate had been sold to Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879) – Alfred’s father. Upon inheriting his father’s estates, Alfred set to work improving where he could, but his desire for his own residence was great, and the Halton estate provided the answer with its sweeping vistas and command over the Chilterns.

The new Halton House, south view 1883

The architect employed by Alfred may well have been William R. Rogers who was the design partner in the banking

North Drawing Room ceiling vignette (author’s own, 2008)

firm. Yet, Alfred wanted something to mirror the style adopted by his brother-in-law who was completing Waddesdon Manor, a French inspired luxury. At Halton, the French chateaux style was clearly the dominant feature, but Alfred incorporated elements of Italianate, Scottish, and Moorish architectural styles. The result was a large house made up of four floors with an adjoining servants’ wing and winter garden. Inside, architectural flourish was and still is, everywhere; silk damask wall-hangings, parquet flooring, ornate plaster ceilings, gilded swags, frescoes and elaborate skylights.

Halton House Billiard Room, south-east corner (author’s own image, 2008)

It is the layout of Halton House that is so intriguing however, and it is possible to be misled by the size of the rooms simply by looking at the exterior of the building. The central salon, which rises through two floors to 31 feet, is about 48 feet long and 38 feet wide. To the north and south side of the salon are entrances to the garden and drive respectively with adjoining smoking room, boudoir, library and private sitting room spaces. To the west there is an ante room which once led to the winter garden (the latter was demolished in the 1930s to make way for RAF single officers’ accommodation), and to the east, the grand staircase. In each corner, there are large rooms designed as drawing rooms and dining spaces, each measuring about 45 feet long by 26 feet wide (see the billiard room, above).

Attic floor corridor (author’s own, 2008)

The floor above contains the principal bedrooms which are smaller in size to the corresponding rooms below due to the balcony which surrounds the upper edge of the salon. Alfred ensured these rooms were the height of comfort and the four main ‘apartments’ consisted of a bedroom, dressing room and plumbed bathroom – each with radiator. On the second floor, there are extra bedrooms once known as the Bachelors’ Floor also with bathrooms, toilets and dressing rooms. On the third floor (barely visible from the outside) are the attic bedrooms once intended to be used by the servants of visitors to Halton.

Alfred de Rothschild died in 1918 after a short illness. He had continued working in the family business until he grew ill, but had admitted to growing tired and isolated after the death of his brothers in 1915 and 1917. In his will he left a vast number of objects from Halton House to friends and family. The house and estate passed to Alfred’s nephew Mr. Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, because ‘he was the only Rothschild without a country house’, but it was rejected on the grounds that it was not suitable as a residence.

After emptying the house of its remaining contents, Lionel simply sold the whole estate for a nominal sum. Yet, it was not mere chance that the Royal Air Force came to purchase the Halton estate, since its military connection had already been established when Alfred was still alive. During the First World War, many of the staff at Halton left to aid the war effort, while Alfred attempted to support his friends in political and military circles by offering open areas of the estate for use by training engineering personnel. The house and grounds grew ever more decrepit due to a lack of daily care and attention. Worse still, Alfred offered the use of timber from the estate for the trenches in Europe. The old days of entertaining were over, and Halton House was changing. Eventually the training camps changed too and merged with the training schools supporting the Royal Flying Corps. By April 1918, this would be known as the Royal Air Force. It was only a matter of time before the RAF needed to incorporate the remaining facilities under Lord Trenchard’s desire for reorganisation.

Today, Halton House sits awkwardly between these two eras. Modern faces pass through, and yet the old grandeur has not really faded. The winter gardens were removed, some of the fireplaces were blocked up, and the plasterwork needs freshening up. However the house is suffering under great financial restraint. Many will see Halton House as a victim of previous financial mishaps and ‘disagreeable’ social changes, but for those visiting or training today, this kind of building must appear deeply attractive compared to the prefabricated huts and chalets more prevalent on military bases. Certainly, the house has been the backdrop as a television and film set of which the big names include The World is Not Enough, The Duchess, and The Queen but this money goes towards the big MOD pot, and only a small sum goes towards the actual station at Halton. Many rooms are in need of renovation, including the Salon which had its gilding covered in white paint during the 1970s!

Halton House today (aerial view as seen from the north)

I visited on a miserable wet weekend and made several dashes through the grounds in search of the old artificial lake. I was in good company however, as the point of my visit was to cheer on some friends who had completed their RAF training. With some waiting/standing around time, I took my opportunity to disappear on other occasions and sought out an impression of the house and its grounds. We all may prefer the country house museum, since we don’t have to think much about how the house functioned when it was fully habitable for a large family. At Halton however, there is a lot of leg work to be done. I poked my nose into places where I should not have been, and got my guidebook damp as I charged about the parkland! Needless to say, the Ministry of Defence often open up Halton House as part of Heritage Open Days in September. This is one for the more curious!


Beryl E Escott, The Story of Halton House. 4th Edition. (2008)

Mark Girouard, The Victorian Country House. (1979)


Halton House website and on Wikipedia

The Rothschild family, their origins and the growth of high finance, and the English branch of the Rothschilds with a list of key family members

Other Rothschild properties in the Home Counties with links to those including Halton, Waddesdon, Mentmore and Tring

The French taste

And for a bit of fun – MOD film locations archive


Filed under Men and the Country House, Spotlight On ....

Establishing the English Country House Style; Part III, The Legacy

          The English country house style has had a massive impact on interior design since its incarnation in the 1920s. The Colefax and Fowler brand codified the look combining elegance and comfort during the Forties and Fifties, and by the Sixties its principles would become synonymous with luxury.

          For some the style was a heavy influence on their own interior design. Most notable of these was New Jerseyan Sister Parish (born Dorothy May Kinnicut, 1910 -1994). Her granddaughter Susan Bartlett Crater and colleague

The Yellow Oval Room at The White House

Libby Cameron founded Sister Parish Design in 2001 and according to them Sister Parish ‘encouraged bright colors, promoted the use of found items and family heirlooms, and insisted that rooms should center around what people truly enjoyed – not simply what “matched”’. She is well-known for her use of overstuffed armchairs, patchwork quilts, and varied patterns. Her style is beautiful yet homey, stunning yet accessible. All very much in tune with the beliefs of Nancy Lancaster. Her most ‘infamous’ project however was The White House (see the Yellow Oval Room, pictured). Sister Parish had already been employed by Jackie Kennedy in the 1950s and by the time the Kennedys moved into the White House in 1961 Jackie once again approached the designer to update many of the interiors. The two formidable women very soon came to blows, perhaps about payment but it has also been rumoured that Jackie dismissed Sister Parish when the latter reprimanded one of the Kennedy children for putting their feet on the furniture. However, all the ingredients for the English country house style are there; the striking colour, bold shapes, mixed furniture styles and neo-classical motifs.

          Those active around the same time included Keith Irvine (1928-2011) and Mario Buatta (born 1935); their clients have all been to some degree elegant and charismatic. Remarkably, they were linked with fellow designers Sister Parish, John Fowler and each other as well as stars of the silver screen and popular culture. Irvine was a Scotsman who had attempted to start his career after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1955 by writing to John Fowler directly asking for job. He was successful, and would go on to assist Fowler with the interiors of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s Buckinghamshire home and apartment in Eaton Square. Buatta would work with Irvine for one year in the Sixties, but they would grow apart. Buatta does not make it clear as to why the pair eventually became so indignant of each other despite his numerous interviews. Undeniably it was success which had a major role to play as competition for wealthy clients grew stronger and by the end of the Eighties, the two men would become part of a super-decorator class.

A Keith Irvine interior, combining the elements of comfort and elegance so important to the English country house style

          For Irvine, adopting the English country house style was simply the product of working with John Fowler. Irvine claimed he had been influenced by the look and had tried to incorporate it into his early projects – something which Fowler would find a little ingratiating, often remarking how his protegé could have tried harder in his imitation. Yet, the principles of the style were something Irvine would abide by and with which he would identify himself . Furniture had to look as though it had been used by several generations, there had to be mixed textiles and materials, upholstery had to show wear, curtains had to have faded edges, but the whole arrangement had to suggest glamour and ancient elegance.

          Buatta, on the other hand has pointed to several sources as influence over his interior design. The brand of Colefax and Fowler was certainly one of these and Buatta admits to becoming aware of the style whilst working with Irvine. His affection for that ingredient most associated with Fowler however – chintz – was borne out of his appreciation of his Aunt May, “She had summer chintzes and winter chintzes.” He has long been known as the ‘Prince of Chintz’ by those in interior design and the fashionable elite. Of all the designers to have come out of the late 1950s however, Buatta still remains and his English country house style has been sought after by many famous names; he admits his most favourite client to have been Henry Ford II. Others have included the Forbes family, Barbara Walters, and Mariah Carey. His clients do offer an insight into how this style has come full circle since its incarnation in the 1920s, but then they also provide a snapshot of how luxury and taste have infiltrated a style which previously had been synonymous with making do and mending, restoration and alteration. Buatta even states that he prefers his clients to buy the best of everything, so long as it is decorative.

          In its modern-day form, the English country house style has lost some of its kookiness and raw impulsion. The individuality of people like Nancy Lancaster, Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler has softened at the edges so that the resulting look has become too crisp and neat. Sure, it has influenced the shabby chic with its chintzy fabrics and scumbled paint effects but it this style is quite light and breezy compared to the heavier gilded appearance created by Lancaster in the 1920s and 1930s. The overall feel of these styles are different too, they smell different as you enter a room; shabby chic is airy and sweet with billowing fresh cotton drapery, the English country house style is metallic, of plasterwork and thick velvet drapery.

Living space at Mariah Carey's New York apartment designed by Mario Buatta (2000/2001)

          The position of Buatta or any modern interior designer who happens to be inspired by the English country house style represents a shift in the type of clientele and their demands. Buatta’s work on Mariah Carey’s New York triplex apartment could well represent this shift. It is plush, clean (even feminine), and definitely chic. If you were to describe a female A-lister’s New York apartment, this would be it! Each room has vintage and antique inspired pieces including a 1930s torchere, a coromandel screen, and Marilyn Monroe’s white baby grand piano. Carey’s apartment exudes sensuality while Buatta has skillfully drawn upon the symbols of traditional Hollywood glamour.

          It would be wise to tread carefully here as Carey has had a great deal of imput – clearly Buatta knows how to support his clients as well as serve them. He has said, “I learn the way my clients live, and they are completely involved in what I’m  putting together. I don’t like surprises or surprising people; the process is  collaborative” This is what probably draws people to him and makes him so prominent an interior designer. While Carey’s apartment contains elements of the English country house style, Mario Buatta can absolutely pull off the perfect interior of which Nancy Lancaster would be proud and an internet search delivers up some fantastic images. 

          The key components of the style as envisaged by Lancaster, Fowler and Colefax still exist through classicism and comfort, humble elegance and eclecticism. The English country house style may only be 90 years old, but to some extent it has become quite versatile. It dwindled in the late 1980s when interior design sought anything flouncy and gilded, but survived this overindulgence. It has not been a style to suit everyone, but its use of fabrics, colours and textures have been adapted within several styles suited to even the smallest of houses. That ‘themed wall’ in your living room, with its bold wallpaper or dark paint owe a great deal to the English country house style.

Read more:

Sister Parish style

Mario Buatta’s maxims of interior design from Elle Decor

On Mario Buatta and Keith Irvine

‘Fanciful’ English country house style

Obituary for Keith Irvine July 2011

Mariah Carey and Mario Buatta

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Men and the Country House, Women and the Country House