Tag Archives: estate management

BBC News: Who holds the keys to our mansions? March 2015

Here’s an important debate currently passing through academic and property consultancy circles – the foreign buyer of the country house (the full article follows further below).

There is quite a lot to say here, and I’m not sure what my own thoughts are on this just yet. Ultimately this is all about money, and the spending power of those with a great deal of existing capital. Perhaps it has nothing to do with the ‘occidental’ nature of the buyer at all, but on the other hand, it does raise questions about the future of a part of Britain’s cultural identity.

In the first instance, a willing buyer with the adequate funds to purchase any of the empty country houses in Britain should be a good thing as it brings these buildings back into use. However, the article highlights how a purchase does not always guarantee that a house will even become occupied. Such a purchase is about increasing personal capital – or misguided investment. Where the argument concerns the finances of the buyer, we must consider how the country house as residence has infiltrated our psyche. Inheritance, estate income and family matters have to offer stability within a setting of high staff turnover, regional and national economies and possible political influence. The country house as residence is therefore an administrative centre and must have a business model if it is to survive. Having the correct funds to purchase must be accompanied by such, otherwise the country house just becomes another new toy to be discarded when it looks worn out and dirty.

Where the argument concerns the origin of the buyer, things become much murkier. The Downton Abbey effect reassures many of a past world nostalgia which is somehow uniquely British. The TV series makes itself known everywhere – it makes a cameo in Iron Man 3, and animated children’s television show Arthur even celebrated its existence with one episode dedicated to ancestral awakenings! Though Downton has not single-handedly drawn wealthy magnates to the British county house, it has surely provided a vast influence over individual desires. Thus, cultural identity comes into play: Downton Abbey isn’t real, of course, but it is pivotal in this argument because it has skewed both native and foreign visions of country house living. Are we really threatened by a foreign buyer because they might bring some ‘otherness’ to the mix, or is it really because we would feel excluded from the process and be denied some sort of access past the front door? Lest we forget, these are private establishments and not all museums and depositories for collections of statuary or paintings and furniture.

The cultural identity of the British country house is awkward because it represents both sides of the social strata. We have come to expect greater access to them as visitors, but often do not realise that many houses are still true residences. Some are open to the public or offered up as conference or wedding venues, others are simply homes. That the buyer is foreign – and provided they know their business model – it should have no bearing on how we negotiate past their new house. The privacy of the country house and its family has been sought after since the end of the seventeenth century, culturally a foreign buyer wouldn’t be changing anything, so perhaps it’s best to sit tight and remain optimistic.

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The east front of Apethorpe HallApethorpe Hall was once a favourite haunt of King James I.

A stately home which was once a haunt of the rich and royal has been sold to a French baron. It’s the latest in a string of mansions sold to international buyers, raising questions about the safety of England’s heritage. But does it matter who holds the keys?

Author Henry James once said: “Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character, the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details… is the well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country house.”

It was an opinion shared by many when the stately home was the highest symbol of aristocratic wealth. However, in the early 20th Century the English upper classes began to lose their grip on their palaces.

Not unlike the scenes in TV’s Downton Abbey, the fight to save the country home was a very real concern for the landed gentry in the face of heavy taxation.

It was this chink in the armour of England’s upper classes that gave some international buyers a first class ticket to tradition and class.

“At the beginning of the 20th Century there were a lot of historic houses and people married rich American wives,” said Dr Timothy Brittain-Catlin, lecturer in architecture at the University of Kent.

“In the 1920s and 1930s there was a lot more money in America and if it wasn’t for them, the houses would have been demolished.

“Everyone [here] was broke and houses weren’t protected and many of them were bought up by people like [American] William Randolph Hearst.

“Some were remodelled and rebuilt and in England it led to a serious conservation lobby, so in a way it was a good thing because it made people aware.”

Minley ManorMinley Manor was sold by the Ministry of Defence for a figure exceeding the £5m guide price

It is estimated that between 1880 and 1980, about 2,000 country homes across England, Wales and Scotland were demolished. But the grass of the English countryside has always appeared greener to international buyers.

“A lot of people regard England as a safe haven of heritage,” said Jasper Feilding, of property consultants Carter Jonas which dealt with the sale in November of Minley Manor in Hampshire.

“You can buy a schloss in Germany or a chateau in France which may be equally as important from a historical point of view.

“But they’re not making any more country houses and if you’re looking for a trophy property there’s more kudos in buying something in England which has that historical importance.”

There have been a number of high profile sales of country homes to overseas buyers in recent months.

A bidding war in January 2014 saw the sale of Hadspen House in Somerset to an international buyer – rumoured to be Hollywood star, Johnny Depp – for a reported £12m, while Dunstall Hall in Staffordshire was sold to a Middle Eastern businessman for £4m in July. In January of this year, Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire was sold to French academic, Baron von Pfetten.

Dunstall HallDunstall Hall is just one in a long list of country properties bought by overseas buyers

“There’s definitely been some kind of movement towards foreign buyers purchasing country houses and in recent months there has been something of a trend,” said Mike Fox, from Save Britain’s Heritage.

“Providing the houses don’t suffer as a result of them being bought by international buyers, we’ve got no problem.

“But the concern is if they’re just bought up as trophy properties and then left. There are a number of houses where that has happened.”

Apethorpe, which was once a favourite haunt of King James I, is a prime example of a property left to rot.

Apethorpe HallApethorpe Hall’s new owner said he hopes it will regain a place in British history
The sunken garden at Apethorpe HallThe grounds features a number of green spaces including the sunken garden

The Jacobean country house was bought by a Libyan businessman in 1983, who neither lived in it or maintained it and left it to crumble for almost two decades.

It was eventually bought by the government in 2001 and handed to English Heritage in 2005, who sold it following £8m worth of restoration work.

Its new owner has agreed to open the doors to the public for 50 days a year to help it “regain the place in British history it deserves”.

“The house was bought for a foreign owner who let it fall to pieces and now has another foreign owner,” said Dr Brittain-Catlin.

“Conservationists will tell you that they have lost a manor, but on the other hand, an important house has now been saved by someone who is living in it and appreciates it.

“The [nationality] of the buyer isn’t the important thing, it’s that the buyer looks after it,” he added.

Highclere CastleHighclere Castle has found fame as the home of Downton Abbey…
Montacute House, Somerset…while the grounds of Montacute House provided the backdrop for scenes in Wolf Hall

Despite attempts to preserve these quintessentially British properties, the Historic House Association says times are still tough for owners, with about 60% of members opening their homes to the public and offering them as film sets for TV programmes like Wolf Hall and Downton Abbey.

“These are very uncertain times for historic houses and gardens,” said Richard Compton, president of the HHA. “Competition to attract visitors with disposable incomes has increased; at the same time, costs have also risen.

“Many historic house businesses face threats to their very survival.”

A question mark currently hangs over the future of one of Europe’s biggest private stately homes.

Wentworth WoodhouseWentworth Woodhouse requires millions of pounds worth of repairs

Wentworth Woodhouse, in South Yorkshire, has been open to the public for more than 25 years but its owners are planning to put the Grade I listed property on the market.

It means anyone who can afford the reputed £7m price tag plus the £40m needed for repairs could snap up a piece of England’s heritage.

But Mr Fox hopes the house can be purchased by a preservation trust which has so far raised £3.5m in pledges.

“The family need to consider their options and that includes putting it on the market,” he said, “But we remain confident we can do some kind of deal

Links given in the article:

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Filed under Architecture and Design, In the News, The running of the country house

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.

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           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.
 

References: 

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.

Links:         

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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