Tag Archives: country house

Unions, Politics and Country Houses.

Times article

The Sunday Times for 21 April 2013

Whilst flicking through someone else’s copy of The Sunday Times late last week, I found this article (yes, that is my bad attempt at tearing). The link to it is here, but you have to subscribe to read it in full. Nevermind, I can give a brief summary of its finer points, even if the headline was disappointingly misleading.

Basically, the article writers – Isabel Oakeshott and Jack Grimston – report that some of Britain’s militant unions are ‘operating luxurious holiday accommodation and rural retreats where shop stewards and members can enjoy breaks’. ‘Militant unions’ are those with strong left-wing policies, seeking to support the fundamental rights of workers, usually those in low or average income roles typically found in the public sector. I worked in the public sector for a while and my own views of unions was, and still is, a bit of a confused indifference.

However, the things that intrigued me most about this article were the notions of luxury and exuberance which somehow have party political connotations. The views of those mentioned in the article seemed to assume that only those with extensive private wealth independent of employed work should be permitted the enjoyment of large architectural structures with plush décor and coffee machines. Apparently, those who claim to have the needs of the working man as their top priority should not be able to justify the use of such accommodation; they become ‘champagne socialists’. Now, that may be true, and it did make me laugh out loud! But these are terms which get bandied about by opposing parties whenever the time is right to test political convictions. That an article like this has popped up is simply due to the muddle of political ideas in Britain today. A muddle within which we see political commentators attempt to define terms like ‘divisive’ for a week after Margaret Thatcher died.

While it seems absurd that the union representative – the shop steward – should be staying at a 5 star hotel at a discounted rate whilst their fellow colleagues slug it out for 8 hours and endure the commute home, it only serves to show how ridiculous politics can be in Britain. But interestingly, the country house has a role in this too. The article gives four sites as retreats, but only one is a ‘country home’ in the truest sense, that being Stoke Rochford Hall in Lincolnshire which is owned by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), run by Christine Blower.

Stoke Rochford, Lincolnshire

Stoke Rochford, Lincolnshire

Stoke Rochford is entirely commercial and sells itself as a state of the art, hotel, conference and banqueting facility. Finding any meaty historical facts about the place is rather difficult, but the website at least says it was built in the 1840s and has recently undergone a £12million transformation thanks to English Heritage.

So, the question here is not so much about political convictions, but about perceptions of heritage and its accessibility. Certainly this is one of the most regular features of debates surrounding heritage and museums, but I am somehow comforted that a place like Stoke Rochford is still in use. There is the feeling that the ordinary folk still remain excluded though when full rate prices start at £59 for a standard room. I do not know what the solution is since heritage still insists on conjuring up images of class distinction and cultural capital, especially in Britain. Who has access, or who has rights to heritage? It would require a massive shake up of these deep-rooted attitudes in our culture whatever an individual’s financial background and party political stance.

Only days before this article was published did debates over the possibilities of reinstating charges to the national museums begin again. That too was concerned with class and accessibility, and whether the middle classes were making up the visitor numbers by going back more than once rather than the museum attracting new visitors every time.

I’d like to come back to this argument again when economies are brighter and the value of culture is not being undermined.

In the meantime though, there is something I am sure of, and that’s a good old fashioned plot! Many a country house has been host to successful or failed attempts to rid the country of its monarch or particularly unsavoury policymakers. Many were highly destructive volatile acts. The Gunpowder Plot for one got as far as it did because of the links its conspirators had with the elite. Calling like-minded individuals under one roof is a sure fire way of moving things along quicker. Today, those ‘militant unions’ are discussing workers’ strikes and trying to protect pensions, but the sought-after arena has altered little.


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Establishing the English Country House Style; Part I, Nancy Lancaster

‘You never wanted to have only one mouvement thing like the Savonnaire rug that would stand out. You must have mouvement everywhere.’

Nancy Lancaster, ‘Beautiful Houses Remembered’, Architectural Digest, (December 1980) Quoted in Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style. (2005), p. 35


A closet room at Ditchley Park,(watercolour by Alexandre Serebriakoff c.1948)

The English Country House Style was an aesthetic established in the 1920s. Its ideals were founded on elegance, taste and comfort; its colours, themes and arrangements and can still be seen in interior design today. It is Nancy Lancaster who is most associated with the English Country House Style, though there were many others. Many worked together on projects, others established businesses together as interior designers, and some simply socialised with one another. Above all, the English Country House Style was about reinstating the spirit of a place without the trappings of stately opulence. Its Englishness lay in the inspiration found in existing architecture – particularly Palladian country houses and the fondness for clutter and shabby edged upholstery. Its place in time also serves as a reminder of how the English country house and its owner were subject to irreversible financial difficulties during the interwar period and struggled to keep up with a changing society.


          Born and raised a Virginian, Nancy Lancaster (nee Perkins, 1897-1994) already had family connections with England mainly through her aunts – three of the five elegant Langhorne sisters. Her aunt Nancy (1879-1964) married Waldorf Astor (1879-1952) and became Viscountess Astor of Hever and was the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. Phyllis (1880-1937) married Robert Brand (1878-1963) Lord Hampden, later Baron Brand of Eydon in Northamptonshire. Nora (1889-1955) married Paul Phipps, an English architect whose partnership with Oswald Partridge Milne in 1919 provided a practice which consisted mainly of country house work; Nancy would later ’employ’ her uncle to assist with her own projects. Nancy’s own mother was the eldest of the Langhorne sisters, whose own interior designs were, ‘before her time. She papered or painted her rooms in off tones of grey. One range of colour throughout made the space seem larger than  if the rooms were all of different colours.’

           Nancy herself, was married three times, and in many ways the impact of her own interiors and resulting style were the product of these marriages. Firstly she married in early 1917, Henry Field – one of the most eligible bachelors of the day. They would be married for only five months when Henry died of blood poisoning after a routine operation to remove his tonsils. Stricken by grief, and having suffered a probable breakdown, Nancy eventually spent some time in 1918 with family in England. It was on the trip over that she met with Ronald Tree, a cousin of Henry Field, and someone who had previously shown great interest in Nancy. They would be married two years later at St James’s Church in Piccadilly but divorced by 1947. Her third marriage was to Lieutenant Colonel Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster in the summer of 1948. A Member of Parliament for Fylde in Lancashire, ‘Jubie’ was the owner of Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire and had already known Nancy when she and Ronald Tree rented the property for themselves as part of a repairing lease between 1928 and 1933.

          Nancy’s style and tastes had their origins in her family home of Mirador in Albermarle Country, Virginia. Built as a plantation house in the 1830s, Mirador is typical of a Virginian plantation home with four rooms on each floor and a central through hall. It became Nancy’s in 1922 and she set about decorating her home immediately with advice from family friend and architect William Adams Delano (1874-1960). The first

Mirador Entrance Front (Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1926)

improvement to make at Mirador was to restore the entrance front and realign the symmetrical details to give a more ‘neo-classical or Virginian’ aspect. Bigger bathrooms were added, the staircase was opened up with the use of a large skylight, a drawing room was incorporated into the arrangement of rooms on the first floor and each room received a new lick of paint. Crucially, Nancy’s own heritage at Mirador meant that she wished to retain a degree of comfort and a feeling of inherited sensibility. She used several pieces of furniture that had stayed in the house from her grandparents’ day but added faded fabrics and upholstery from neighbourhood sales and antique warehouses. These were arranged in a style influenced by Ogden Codman’s New York townhouse (‘an elegant Parisian ensemble’) which Nancy and Ronald Tree rented when they were first married between 1920 and 1922. Altogether, the stylistic arrangement at Mirador was a mix of two or three influences. On the one hand it was informed by European ideals as viewed by Delano and Codman who had both worked in the Beaux-Arts tradition the characteristics of which consisted of Classical architectural details with heavy influences from French and Italian Baroque. On the other hand, Nancy had a great deal of involvement in retaining the flavours of her family home, partly because of the boundaries set out by her aunts who did not wish to see massive changes, but also because she yearned to improve the house in-keeping with notions that rooms must look as though they had been used and enjoyed for many years – a certain patina. This would be her criteria of ‘design mouvement’ in later years, eventually making it part of a list of seven points which she felt were important for her particular interior design ethos;

I never think that sticking slavishly to one period is successful, a touch of nostalgia adds charm. One needs light and shade because if every piece is perfect the room becomes a museum and lifeless.

        The move to England in 1927 was the result of her second husband Ronald’s attempts to establish himself in elite society. He had never really been successful whilst in America and sought to make the most of his English roots. In 1926 he was offered the joint mastership of the Pytchley Hunt in Northamptonshire – a position which would offer strong connections within the rural community. Nancy was supposedly reluctant to make the move at first, but agreed so long as she could keep Mirador and return to it each year.

          In England, Nancy would be involved in the design of about half a dozen houses, or projects, during the rest of her life including Kelmarsh Hall, Ditchley Park and Haseley Court; with so many connections Nancy renounced her American citizenship in 1948. However, by 1927, the Trees needed a place which projected Ronald’s position in elite society, and to begin with they rented Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire, but Nancy did not feel at home there. After about a year

Kelmarsh Hall

Kelmarsh Hall Entrance Front

they began renting Kelmarsh Hall from Colonel Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster. To Nancy it was perfect and was very much the English version of her beloved Mirador. This was simple Palladian architecture at its best. Built by James Gibbs (1682-1754) in about 1730, its arrangement of rooms was similar to that of Mirador, but its size compared to the Virginian house was far grander and contained far more complex decorative schemes. This was a challenge to Nancy, but her first priority lay with Kelmarsh’s need for modernisation. With the assistance of her uncle Paul Phipps, Kelmarsh gained proper heating, electric light and several bathrooms. As for the main interior furnishings, Nancy enlisted the help of Mrs Guy Bethell a partner in the celebrated shop, E. Elden just off Grosvenor Square in London. The creativity of Nancy, Phipps, Mrs Bethell and the painter Mr Kicks gave Kelmarsh Hall a softened elegance. Nancy had used similar techniques to those she had used at Mirador such as worn fabrics like leather, chintz and silk and odd-shaped furniture, but added Bethell’s chic new trimmings to the bedrooms and saloon. Most important was her use of colour throughout which attempted to replicate some of the original tones found in the house or elsewhere. The pink hue of the hall was inspired by the dining room at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk (demolished in 1961), the greens and greys of the saloon were inspired by Houghton Hall in Norfolk, with the Chinese wallpaper of the drawing room acquired directly from Kimberley Hall, Norfolk.

           Nancy and Ronald left Kelmarsh in 1933 when the Wall Street Crash and the Depression crept across their rural idyll, and Ronald had to resign as Master of the Hunt. Although they had funds in America, the Trees were able to invest in another property – Ditchley Park before the end of the year. Kelmarsh Hall would be granted back to Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster and when the repairing lease was finally up in 1938, much of the furniture was sold at auction. ‘Jubie’ bought considerable lots and restored them to the arrangements set out by Nancy; many still remain in the house today. Ditchley Park would become one of the most celebrated houses connected with Nancy Lancaster, and shall be discussed in Establishing the English Country House Style: Part II, but from the moment Nancy began her modernisation of Mirador in 1922 the ideas were already in motion.


The Hall and Chinese Drawing room at Kelmarsh (Country Life images)

  Nancy Lancaster was by no means the sole designer, and although her name is most synonymous with the English Country House Style, Nancy should be regarded rather more of a facilitator of the style. The scene had been set and merely needed its players; Nancy was the lead in this instance and exploited the drama of an older world at a time when English rural society was on the verge of changing forever. To this style, Nancy brought her fondness for her own Virginian home and an inherited enthusiasm in architecture and interior design. Her own heritage included several links to architects and interior designers, and in every instance there was a hint of country house sophistication and elite elegance. Her social connections led her to further specialists like Mrs Bethell and her shop off Grosvenor Square – an established area of London for all things design related. For Nancy Lancaster, Kelmarsh Hall was only the start, and her design ethos spread rapidly during the Second World War. She would become owner of the decorating business Colefax and Fowler in 1944, regain hold on Kelmarsh, albeit for a short time, and eventually have her own English country house at Haseley Court by 1954. The English Country House Style was a formulation of ideals set out in elite society during the interwar period and reflected the tastes of a generation born at the end of the nineteenth century. Any hint of Englishness was the result of fashionable tastes dictated by those who chose to reminisce about a romantic yet eclectic countryside ideal.



Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style. (2005)


Review of Nancy Lancaster: English Country House Style by Martin Wood (2005) from The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/15/garden/15nancy.html?pagewanted=all

The Houses of Nancy Lancaster article from Southern Accents http://www.southernaccents.com/architecture/architectural-essentials/houses-nancy-lancaster-00400000035775/

Nancy Lancaster obituary, August 1994 from The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/6021150/Nancy-Lancaster.html

Interior designer’s blog with nice piece on Nancy Lancaster, includes some good photos http://littleaugury.blogspot.com/2009/11/tree-inheritance.html and a more whimsical look at the chattels required for the English country house look http://littleaugury.blogspot.com/2009/12/for-christmas-in-tradition-of-nancy.html

Grosvenor Square in modern times – twentieth-century shops and interior design http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=41849

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Wentworth Woodhouse Revisited: 2011 (part 1)

          I realise that I have already written a post on some aspect of Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire, but there is something extremely attractive about this place. In anticipation of Dan Cruickshank’s The Country House Revealed episode on Wentworth Woodhouse, on 31st May (and because I might not have access to a television or computer next week) I wanted to jot down what I believe are crucial points relating to this specific house and its owners. These may be more amateurish in delivery than Cruickshank’s method, but my own studies on Wentworth Woodhouse have revealed some fantastic stories.

Wentworth Woodhouse (copyright Country Life Magazine, May 1946)

          Currently the subject of a court hearing that must seem rather more contentious than others, Wentworth Woodhouse has played host to large elite families, politicians, teachers and students, a businessman, and a self-made architect. Unlike Dan Cruickshank’s previous case studies, Wentworth Woodhouse is better known thanks in the main to Catherine Bailey’s Black Diamonds which discusses the socio-economic circumstances of coal mining on the estate during the twentieth century. Most of Bailey’s book details the often strained relationships between the mine owners – the Earls Fitzwilliam – the local and governmental committees, and the local coal-mining families. Given that Black Diamonds has been well-received and is considered a good piece of scholarly reference, it’s high time the house itself received a bit more recognition.

            I am reliant on several sources for Wentworth Woodhouse since no history of the house has been bound together in the same way a guidebook might present a single biography. This also means compromising on a lot of detail here. For greater discussion of the destructive mining processes and the social impact this had, then Black Diamonds is the best place to start. The focus here however, will be in two parts; the first on the house, and the second part on the families and owners of Wentworth Woodhouse.


           Several authors including Marcus Binney have written articles on the house and its parkland for Country Life magazine.  A few scholars have also produced comprehensive (yet unpublished) studies on the owners and their influences in political and socio-economic spheres (see references below). Arthur Young’s A Six Months Tour Through the North of England (1770) is also a fine contemporary source for eighteenth-century Wentworth Woodhouse relating the agricultural innovations on the estate.

           Yet, in line with Dan Cruickshank’s programme, I would like to draw attention to John Martin Robinson’s article, ‘Realise the Worth of Wentworth Woodhouse’ for Country Life in 1999. Here, Robinson stated the key issues which have affected the house, and to some degree he offered remedies to the many constraints still attached to the house in 2011:

                 The failure of Wentworth Woodhouse to become a ‘stately home’ open to the public after the Second World War and thus to have secured its future … is an architectural tragedy. [However,] it is important to recognise that the value of the house and estate lies in more than its architecture. Wentworth Woodhouse represents as nowhere else the Whig synthesis of political liberty, scientific and economic development, patronage of the arts, landscape gardening, industrial and agricultural improvement.

          John Martin Robinson’s reaction to Wentworth Woodhouse being placed on the open market in 1998 was characteristic of many individuals working in the heritage sector and academia. It is in the capable hands of self-made architect Clifford Newbold and his family these days who has long-term plans of restoration and refurbishment. This episode of the house’s history was the main focus for two editions of Country Life magazine published in February 2010. Whether Newbold’s plans will mean greater public access over the coming years is yet unclear.

          This is what makes Wentworth Woodhouse so unique; people want to see it open and accessible for the very reasons John Martin Robinson states in his article. It is architecturally significant, but it should not be viewed as a shell to be filled with the appropriate chattels in the same way as South Wraxall, Kinross House and Easton Neston. Its foundations were laid as part of a spirited rivalry between family members in the early 1700s and grew in both size and reputation throughout the eighteenth century. Therefore, its ‘working’ history is also relevant as a home and administrative base for the Marquesses of Rockingham, and later the Earls Fitzwilliam. It is of national and regional significance, possibly international too, given the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham’s political role and connection with Colonial America.

Engraving of the west front by John Cole c.1728 (Bodleian Library)

Wentworth Woodhouse is a hybrid of Baroque and Palladianism with an east front longer than that of Buckingham Palace and stretching across 606ft of ground. Its greatest features are certainly its hall or saloon, the lower or pillared hall and Whistlejacket Room. Built for Thomas Wentworth (1693-1750), Lord Malton, later 1st Marquess of Rockingham in two phases, the house can be viewed as two distinct blocks united with courts and interlinked wings. The west front (garden front) was begun in 1725 (incorporating an older seventeenth century house later known as the Clifford Lodgings) in brick with stone dressings in the Baroque style. A neat engraving dating from c.1728 by John Cole shows the west front and its approach (as shown). The east front was underway before the west front was complete in 1734 which has raised questions about the drastic stylistic changes occurring within a continuous building programme. Marcus Binney suggests that the 1st Marquess may have ‘been forced into a stylistic about-turn under pressure from Lord Burlington, Sir Thomas Robinson and other Palladian apostles and converts among Yorkshire landowners.’ This development hid the west front behind a new façade and turned the approach through 180 degrees. No doubt Cruickshank will make this a key point in his episode on Wentworth Woodhouse.

          The designer of the west front may still remain a mystery, but the east front was the product of designs made by R. Tunnicliffe and Henry Flitcroft and completed c.1750. Additions were made at later periods, especially to the Clifford Lodgings by John Carr in the 1760s, who also added an extra storey to parts of the east front, and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart who may have provided plans for some internal design work. The building of Wentworth Woodhouse provides many routes of enquiry for the architectural historian and it would be fantastic to see some of the anomalies pointed out by Dan Cruickshank. To ‘reveal’ the architectural and design details at this house would not only be necessary but a terrible misdemeanour if not explored deeply enough.


Marjorie Bloy, ‘Rockingham and Yorkshire: The Political, Economic and Social Role of Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Second Marquis of Rockingham’ (PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 1986)

Paul James Nunn, ‘The Management of Some South Yorkshire Landed Estates in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Linked with the Central Economic Development of the Area’ (PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 1985)

Country Life articles:

Unknown author, ‘Wentworth Woodhouse: the Seat of Earl Fitzwilliam’, May 10 1946, pp.854-857

Marcus Binney, ‘Wentworth Woodhouse Revisited I’, (March 17 1983), pp.624-627

Marcus Binney, ‘Wentworth Woodhouse Revisited II’, (March 24, 1983), pp.708-711

Marcus Binney, ‘Wentworth Woodhouse,Yorkshire’, (January 24, 1991), pp.60-63

John Martin Robinson, ‘Realise the Worth of Wentworth Woodhouse’, (21 January 1999), pp.58-61

 Also, Country Life produced articles with images from the years 1906, 1924 (5 articles that year), and 1934. See, http://www.countrylifeimages.co.uk/ or scroll to Learning Resources on your right in this blog.


Regional newspaper, The Star on the current inhabitants of Wentworth Woodhouse, 21 May 2011, http://tiny.cc/v21wa

WentworthVillage local history and community pages, http://www.wentworthvillage.net/history/wentworth-woodhouse

Blog ‘The Country Seat’ entry on Wentworth Woodhouse, http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/the-greatest-country-house-youve-never-heard-of-wentworth-woodhouse/

The Wikipedia entry (adapted from the DiCamillo Companion database entry) for Wentworth Woodhouse, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wentworth_Woodhouse

Dr Marjorie Bloy’s website dedicated to the politics of the second half of the eighteenth century including Charles Watson-Wentworth, http://www.historyhome.co.uk/pms/rocky.htm

Stories and Reminiscences: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse was My Home’, http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/sightseeing-national/wentworth-woodhouse-wentworth/1239735/


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Review: The Country House Revealed at Easton Neston


Model of Easton Neston

Victoria and Albert Museum image of Nicholas Hawksmoor's architectural model for Easton Neston

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

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Review: The Country House Revealed

            So, I finally managed a moment of quiet in order to catch up with The Country House Revealed (BBC2 9pm, Tuesdays) and listen to the soft tones of Dan Cruickshank whilst he explored ‘our nation’s hidden history’.

            The first episode set out to establish several introductory points in relation to the chronology of the British country house and its owners against the cultural, socio-economic and political changes within the landscape of the nation. Against a soundtrack which mainly consisted of the Boards of Canada’s Dayvan Cowboy, came sweeping views of South Wraxall in Wiltshire, the first of Cruickshank’s studies. Here was, as Cruickshank suggested a fine example of sixteenth-century status architecture, and although he never uttered the phrase ‘power house’ it was clear that South Wraxall was chosen as an example of wealth; an emblem of authority and the physical base for establishing a dynasty.

South Wraxall (Bradford on Avon Museum image)

            Cruickshank deftly argued that the Long family of South Wraxall were fine examples of how money and the right connections could be beneficial for manipulating the physical environment. We were told of the Longs’ humble beginnings and shady practices of cattle stealing, and how such crooked dexterity gave them recognition as well as money. Through providential marriages the men of the Long family soon became what their last remaining descendant Sara Morrison called ‘efficient breeders and self-serving individuals’. For the sixteenth-century country house this was set in the very fabric of the building itself as Cruickshank returned time and again to the ever more elaborate fireplaces and mantelpieces throughout South Wraxall. The Long family had risen from their dark past with each successive male heir achieving status in the fields of law, politics and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, landownership. The country house was the cultural statement of this achievement and expressed the self-aggrandisement of its owner.
            These themes were a little more complex in Cruickshank’s second episode on Kinross in Scotland. Built by Palladian advocate Sir William Bruce in the 1680s, Kinross came almost 250 years later than South Wraxall. This was, in part due to the political landscape of England and Scotland between these two dates. South Wraxall had begun as parts rather than a whole working manor with outbuildings and a chapel. Extensions were made eventually uniting these parts to create a block of interlinked living spaces. Cruickshank neatly referred to computerised plans of this development on a couple of occasions.

            Yet, it was the style of building which marked the country house out from its predecessor the castle or fortified manor house. Gone were the battlements, towers and winding stairs, and moats. The owners of these new foundations were a part of a different and more stable backdrop. Anything similar in Scotland was delayed until the Restoration when civil war and struggles for outright independence from the English throne had impeded some aspects of cultural flourish. Kinross in this respect was something ‘shockingly new’ on the Scottish landscape and the first house to be inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture in Scotland. While Bruce’s neighbours were still adding to their country piles with turrets and crenellated wings, Kinross represented a side of Scotland’s character which was as Cruickshank exclaimed, eager to ‘shed its Medieval skin’.

Kinross House

          Symbolic of this change was the layout at Kinross inspired by growing needs for privacy and segregation between servants and masters. Cruickshank led us through several rooms, often quite dramatically, in order to demonstrate the route of status from the openly public and formal saloon to that of the intimate and informal chamber and closet. With more humbled gestures we saw him attempt to manoeuvre a water-filled chamber pot down incredibly cramped backstairs. It is difficult to imagine the coquettish Lucy Worsley doing such a thing in If Walls Could Talk, but Dan Cruickshank managed mixed expressions of gratitude and humility once he reached the service corridor below.

            The similarities to South Wraxall lay in Kinross’s purpose. It was a statement as a place for establishing a dynasty and as the cultural hive for the family. A descendant of Bruce, Charles Wemyss reiterates the same sentiments felt by the Long family descendant. Words like ‘opportunistic’, ‘avaricious’ and ‘irrepressible’ merely echo those made by Sara Morrison. Unlike South Wraxall however, Kinross was to prove a heavy drain on one man as Bruce struggled with bad experiences and great misfortune within his political career.

            This was rather more to do with the fickleness of royalty than anything Bruce had said or done but the funds ran out for his building and Kinross was left incomplete. It was at this moment in the episode that Cruickshank’s applied soft tones seemed so appropriate as he read a particularly poignant letter from Bruce’s wife stating her need for decent travelling clothes.

            At his conclusion to the second episode, Dan Cruickshank remarked upon the influence and weight of the past of Kinross upon its owners; a single statement which surely emphasised the reason for the choice of country houses throughout the series and Cruickshank’s book of the same title. The modern-day fate of both South Wraxall and Kinross are the same. They have proved difficult places to live in, they are time-consuming, both are financial drains and labour intensive. This is true of any large establishment (see the previous post here on Wentworth Woodhouse – another of Cruickshank’s later case studies). So how do Cruickshank’s choices differ from those of historians exploring the many country houses welcoming thousands of visitors to walk upon their trodden sacrificial carpets every year?

            Of course, every country house has a different story and it would be foolish to describe all the disadvantageous

Vogue image of Gela Nash-Taylor (second from right) with husband, son and friend Yasmin Le Bon

factors to which many may have succumbed. Yet, Cruickshank implies that there is a stimulus within some houses as well as external factors which impress upon the owner a desire to maintain their country house, perhaps dynastically or as an expression of eccentricity within a nouveau elite. Cruickshank does not use these terms, but none of his case studies remain in the ownership of their founders. South Wraxall is owned by Gela Nash-Taylor, co-founder of Juicy Couture and wife of John Taylor from Duran Duran.

          Kinross was sold at the end of 2010 with plans being made to convert much of it into a hotel. The ‘influence’ of these houses therefore rests with their power to deny absolute dominance. ‘Ownership’ is the title offered to the dweller – the shot of Gela Nash-Taylor shuffling through gravel in 4 inch heels was a delight to see, but does not suggest this family can ever be a part of the building’s fabric. The sheer generosity of the present owners however, has been made into a gift in the hands of Dan Cruickshank who has so far laid bare the vital ingredients of country house histories and their reflection of social and cultural change.

References: Dan Cruickshank, The Country House Revealed: A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home. (BBC books, 2011)

Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History. (Yale University Press, 1978)

Please also see the core reading list provided in this blog, many of these sources will provide further discussion on the building of the country house, including the social and cultural themes offered by Dan Cruickshank.


The Country House Revealed website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01186vq

Kinross: The DiCamillo country house database entry http://www.dicamillocompanion.com/Houses_detail.asp?ID=1181

Articles relating to the sale and plans for Kinross: http://www.perthshireadvertiser.co.uk/perthshire-news/local-news-perthshire/perthshire/2010/12/24/hotel-plans-for-kinross-house-73103-27877815/


South Wraxall: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Wraxall_Manor

Full Vogue USA article 2009: http://www.duranasty.com/scans/vogue_usa_sept_09/vogue_sept_09_jt_gela.htm


Filed under Building the Country House

Belton House, Lincolnshire

       ‘Once inside the house, with its maze of corridors, they could lose her. Then hurrying, they saw her blue cloak. She pushed a huge panelled door and passed through, leaving it open behind her. There was heavy, gleaming furniture, walls lined with gilt-framed pictures, richly draped windows … They were through the second door now, and into an amazing crimson … Minty crossed the room and came into a vast light entrance hall. There on the great black and white diamonds of the floor, was that small blue figure, a chess piece.’

Helen Cresswell Moondial (Puffin books, London 1988) pp.148-9


Belton House (copyright Lincolnian http://www.flickr.com/photos/lincolnian)


       Helen Cresswell (1934-2005) had long been inspired by the house at Belton before she wrote Moondial, and had wanted to pen a children’s novel based on the building and interiors of the house. For her main character Araminta Cane, (Minty) the drama would unfold upon the lawns, amongst the trees and formal gardens. Eventually, the novel was set almost entirely within the grounds rather than the house; the latter then providing scenes which offered the reader uncomfortable moments of claustrophobia and eerie solitude.

        There are  many websites which describe Belton as the backdrop to Moondial, some of which detail the nostalgia of the television series from 1988. A simple internet search will fetch up most of these. Admittedly, this was probably the turning point in my own mind as a child, and Belton suddenly represented the ideal image of all I was interested in as a budding (and probably very nosey) historian. Afterall, social history often exposes the private lives of people – they’re just no longer around to protest against the daring intrusions. What Cresswell thrust upon her young readers was the complexities of country house living throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with its hierarchies and varying degrees of subordination and knowing ‘one’s place’ within four walls as well as in a wider society. Amongst many other themes, the drama of the novel therefore plays on the necessity for escape and the achievement of youthful adventure for its main characters.

        Within this narrative, much of Belton House is lost, or at least a little faded since it is the Caius Gabriel Cibber sundial that steals the show! The house itself is beautifully arranged, and for the country house connoisseur it is certainly a delight to view its symmetry, colour and use of continental influences. Cresswell’s novel provides a supernatural layer to this country house gem; a fictional element which has served to enhance the architecture at Belton and place it within the country house genre of writing.

        Belton House today is cared for by The National Trust, and has been so since the early 1980s when it was given by the 7th Lord Brownlow. Built in the 1680s for Sir John Brownlow to the designs of Captain William Winde (c.1642–1722) Belton has been regarded as the perfect image of an English country house. According to my 1987 guidebook, Belton ‘represents a fitting climax to twenty-five years of Carolean domestic architecture which produced some of the most logically perfect and satisfying dwellings ever built in England.’ The style of architecture is Anglo-Dutch; that of Palladianism but characterised by a marked sobriety and restraint which created establishments set out as those for fine gentlemen rather than that of an aspiring aristocratic elite.

       Arranged in the Elizabethan ‘H’ plan, Belton has a simple structure with large central rooms on the ground floor flanked by smaller reception rooms which lead onto passages giving access to the wings or pavilions with their secondary staircases and further spacious rooms at each end. The interiors are a grand mixture of ornament and decoration ranging from the masculine cold hard marble to that of the softer, warmer tones and textures so distinct within many a country house with 300 years of history and design influences.

The Red Drawing Room (Country Life, December 2004)

       Incidentally, the opening quote from Moondial is not just a collection of typical country house interiors. The huge panelled door to which Cresswell refers guides her characters into the depths of the house through the Breakfast Room, then the Red Drawing Room (pictured above), passing through to the Marble Hall and eventually to the Staircase Hall.

       For a taste of late seventeenth-century country house architecture at its finest, then Belton is worth a visit. The National Trust makes much of the landscaped parkland and formal gardens including the Orangery and sculptures, and its location near to RAF Cranwell also lends a further nostalgic connection to the grand World War II air displays in June with The Belton Spitfire Prom. Yet, once inside the house, it would be unfortunate to miss the rather less conspicuous imagery of Belton’s owners – the Brownlow family and the neo-classical interiors by James Wyatt.

Links. Belton House National Trust site; http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-beltonhouse

The Heritage Trail entry for Belton House; http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/stately%20homes/belton%20house.htm


Surely, the best overall detailing of Belton House on the internet is to be found at The DiCamillo Companion which contains information on style, architects, interiors, ownership and much more. This has also been adapted for the Wikipedia entry for Belton House.

Geoffrey Beard. Architectural History. Vol. 27, ‘Design and Practice in British Architecture: Studies in Architectural History Presented to Howard Colvin’ (1984), pp. 150-162.
Helen Cresswell. Moondial (Puffin, London 1988).
Trevor Lummis and Jan Marsh. The Woman’s Domain: Women and the English Country House. Chapter 3, ‘Land and Lineage’ 34- 64. (1990).
Jonathan Marsden and Andrew Barber. Belton House Guidebook. (The National Trust, 1985 and 1987)
Annabel Westman. ‘Back in the Gold and Red’, Country Life, December 16 /23 (2004) 52-57.


Filed under Spotlight On ....

Life in a German Country House

Excerpts taken from The Leisure Hour: a Family Journal for Instruction and Recreation. (April, 1866). Unknown author.

An 1896 cover for the journal The Leisure Hour

       The journal contained many different items, from biographies to reference information and short stories. Copies were illustrated with scenes from the stories, and many of the editions were headed with a quote by William Cowper; ‘Behold in these what leisure hours demand, – Amusement and true knowledge hand in hand’, which gives an impression as to the aim of the publication. Each edition was originally priced at one penny and published weekly. (See Rooke Books)

       However, I found this piece on Ebay for a couple of pounds! It appears to have been neatly unbound from its original volume at some point and sold on as a separate essay. I haven’t reproduced it here in its entirety as the story is over 6,000 words! So far, it has been impossible to track which house is being discussed – which is disappointing, but the article is fascinating for many other reasons. The language is very conventional for the mid-nineteenth century, and the (female) writer clearly had set ideals concerning daily routines, dress codes and even room settings. (Note the complaints she makes about a type of bedding we now take for granted.) In many instances these are very apparent and she seems rather haughty, or at best slightly naive. Perhaps the best thing about this article is a reader’s comment at the end which questions the original writer’s authority and knowledge on the subject. Clearly, someone wasn’t impressed by the simmering haughtiness and constant cultural comparisons which favoured the English above all else!

There is a short glossary of terms at the end.


Life in a German Country House.

       Our acquaintance with the Von Fersens commenced in a singular way. The Countess broke her arm crossing the Brunig Pass in Switzerland, and was brought to Lungern while we were there. We were able to show them some attention, and were a good deal in their company; in fact, I struck up quite a warm friendship with the twin daughters – very pleasant girls. Some six months after we returned to England a very pressing invitation came for us to pay a visit to the Von Fersens at their home at Havelburg.


       As we drew up, there was a hospitable rush of the whole family outside to receive their guests. Helena and Bertha overwhelmed me with embraces and tears. The Countess, who spoke little English, exclaimed, ‘Very much welcome, my dear mess,’ as she kissed me on both cheeks. ‘Welkommen, ein schones Welkommen,’ said the Count, who knew no English, giving me what he called a right English handshake. My brother Fred was most cordially received, and a tall, long-backed son, Count Albert, duly presented.


       Helena led me up the carpetless stairs, with their massive oak balustrades – stairs so smooth and shining that, running down in a hurry, I more than once narrowly missed a tumble. Going down a broad passage, we entered a pretty room, with two windows overlooking the lake. There was no toilette-table, but a tall, narrow mirror stood between the widows, secured by an ingenious contrivance of ropes. This, being rather rickety, often frightened me as I brushed my hair before it, for I was afraid of the heavy thing tumbling down on me. There was a small piece of carpet – quite a luxury – under a round table in front of the sofa. The small bed was without hangings or drapery. The sofa could, if necessary, be turned into a couch. The washing-stand shut up and formed a table during the day. An antique chest of drawers and a few chairs completed the furniture. I leaned out of the window to enjoy the prospect. How pleasant these foreign windows are in summer: it is so charming to have the whole aperture for light and air, and to lean out without risk of knocking one’s head. In winter give me our close-fitting sashes.


       There was a tap at the door, and Paulina, the young Countess’s maid, entered with a friendly ‘Guten Tag, gnadige Fraulein.’ I soon found out that the servants expected to be greeted with a few civil words on first seeing them in the morning, etc., as much as their masters did. Servants here are by no means the silent automatons we are accustomed to; and, as they talk without forwardness, and give themselves no airs, the greater freedom of intercourse with their employers seems, after all, more natural than our cold English fashion.


       A little before two we assembled in the large drawing-room. Even at this early hour the sisters were in low barege dresses, with a white muslin jacket. The Count offered his arm and we marched into the ‘saal’. The soup came first, which the hostess helped as in England. Everything else was handed round the table being covered with plate and flowers, silver vases at the corners filled with lilac and golden-rain (laburnums), and an epergne with preserved fruit in the centre. Three courses of made dishes followed the soup, very nice, but incomprehensible – most likely veal. Two plates were given us to-day for the apricots, here considered the proper accompaniment for roast pork. When we mentioned apple-sauce as the fashion at home, all the family exclaimed at the strange mixture.


       I thought then and afterwards that dinner lasted a very long time. The interval between each course was immense; but did not find it at all tedious. The young ladies spoke capital English – so idiomatic; Bertha enchanted Fred by coming out with a little mild slang, yet neither had been in England, but as is customary in North Germany, they had had an English governess for several years.


       About half an hour after dinner, old Tegel, the footman, brought round some delicious coffee; and then we all rose and dispersed in different directions. The gentlemen took Fred to look at the farm buildings behind the Schloss. These German land-owners are generally farmers; i.e., they have their land in their own hands, and manage it by means of inspectors (bailiffs). Our system of letting several hundreds of acres to one tenant seems quite the exception. For some miles round, nearly all the land belonged to the Count, and more than a thousand persons lived on his property in two villages. Havel had four hundred inhabitants, and Rosen, three miles off, was larger. Some idea may thus be formed of the number of labourers employed, and of the very large sum disbursed weekly in wages. A German nobleman, therefore, while at his landhaus, leads an extremely active and busy life.


       The garden at Havelburg was a very disappointing place. Count Fersen was considered the wealthiest man in the province, and there was much taste in the laying out of the grounds; but Fred and I were scandalised at the want of order and neatness. In spite of the efforts of several women-gardeners, who were perpetually sweeping and raking, the lawn looked like a young hayfield, while the soi-disant gravel paths were ankle-deep in dust.


       Reader, you may be well acquainted with Rhineland, you may even have done the grand round of German capitals, and still you may know nothing of a genuine German bed. The number of travellers visiting the country have effected a revolution in the chief hotels, and there we find sheets, blankets, and counterpanes much the same as in England or France. The architecture of my bed was on this wise: a spring mattress at the bottom, then a feather bed covered with a sheet, an enormous pillow for the head as big as four of ours rolled into one, and a smaller one for the feet, elevating them in an uncomfortable manner. There was only one lower sheet, and neither blankets nor counterpane. The superstructure was a large feather bed in a case, the duplicate of the one below. The night was oppressively hot, and I trembled at the idea of passing it beneath that mass of feathers. The next morning Fred enquired how I managed, and gave me the benefit of his experience. After a desperate idea of using the towels as sheets, which from their size and dampness he found impracticable, he said he ended by taking the feather bed out of its white covering, and so slept in the great case. Even in winter, when the warmth is grateful, these beds are uncomfortable, as they are apt to roll off, and it is impossible to tuck one’s self up.


       After Sunday dinner the Count asked us to drive to a neighbouring Schloss, which we declined; and then Count Albert made a vain attempt to induce Fred to join in a dance the servants had got up in the lower hall! Of course our scruples were considered unreasonable. In the cool of the evening Helena and I strolled down to the lake, and there she begged me to tell her what the day at home was like. I tried to picture to her the serenity and peace of an English country Sabbath, the rest from toil for man and beast, the quiet, happy family gathering, the freedom from worldly cares, and the holy preparation for the perpetual Sabbath-keeping that remains for the people of God. I suppose in many families there may be better usages, but I record what I saw of ‘Life in a German Country House’.


A reader’s comment.

I have been rather amused lately by an article in ‘The Leisure Hour’ for April, entitled ‘Life in a German Country House’. Though evidently a recollection of ‘auld lang syne,’ the little picture is painted in lively colours, and cannot fail, I am sure to give pleasure even to those who cannot have the same interest which I have in hearing German life described by and English pen.

But while it is only justice to say that this little narrative is amusingly written, it is nevertheless far from giving satisfaction to a German reader; and I cannot refrain from making a few remarks, and protesting, in the name of my countrywomen, against conclusions that might be drawn in too strict accordance with the sample of German country life given here. Besides, it would only have been fair to state how many years ago, and in what part of Northern Germany, the lady may have gathered her experience of German life.

I am quite ready to believe that, many years ago, in some remote part of back Pomerania or Eastern Prussia, things may have been as described in that article, from the absence of the egg-cups and toilet-table up to the dusty garden walks and weedy flower-beds. But I can only say that my experience, which is not based on one case only, is of a very different nature. It is quite true that we Germans do not, happily for us, attach so much importance to all the luxuries of life as is the case in England; but I must say that, though sometimes more than fifteen miles distant from a railway-station, and in houses where there was no pretence to luxury, I never yet found a bedroom so bare as the one described; and that wherever I went I have always been lucky enough to be provided with a well-furnished washing-stand, which was not meant to be anything else during the day.

The narrator must have gone with wonderful notions on her German visit. She seems to have expected a sort of back-woods life! She dwells with considerable length on the good-natured hospitality she everywhere meets. She praises it just as one would praise it in a savage, and is not only astonished to find a certain degree of intellectual culture in German women, but actually quite wonders not to find that they may be only good for knitting stockings and spinning flax.


Glossary of terms

Barege dress: Mainly a gauze dress

Landhaus: Country house, administrative base for estate management

Saal: Dining room

Schloss: Manor house, castle, mansion or stately home.

Soi-disant: Probably meant here as ‘so-called’ or ‘supposedly/allegedly’.

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