Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Wentworth Woodhouse

I read in The Times on Saturday that the great country house, Wentworth Woodhouse, is going to be on sale at what is, given the scale of the property, a knockdown price of £7 million.

Mind you there is a potential repair bill of £40 million, and an ongoing suit against the Coal Authority for £100 million for subsidence damage caused by coal mining - but more on that below.

    The East Front of Wentworth Woodhouse


    The Times charges to link to articles - so much for freedom of information in Murdoch world - but there is a splendidly illustrated article about the proposed sale in the Daily Mail (yes, I do know house prices are their bread-and-butter, but never mind) which can be read and viewed at Britain's largest stately home Wentworth Woodhouse on sale for £7m.

    Another newpaper article suggests, happily, that a charitable trust aims to buy the house to preserve it and continue to make it accessible in conjunction with the National Trust, that can be read at Charitable trust to take over Wentworth Woodhouse and open its doors to public.That sounds to be very good news, and I wish the project well.

    The website of the current owners, the Newbold family, who have spent more than a decade saving and restoring this masterpiece can be seen at Wentworth Woodhouse - now open for house tours, 

    Wentworth Woodhouse Canvas print by John Biggadike

    Wentworth Woodhouse from the north-east


    Why is this of particular importance? Well Wentworth Woodhouse, in many ways cut off from the world since the end of the 1930s until the recent developments by the Newbold family is, without doubt, is unquestionably one of the very greatest of all English country houses, a building of national and international importance. Its survival may indeed be little short of miraculous. That its long-term future may finally be secured after seventy years of very real threat and danger not to mention neglect and falling out of sight is wonderful news for all concerned with preserving the country's architectural heritage. The pity is that the contents have been removed or sold and the house is, I imagine, unlikely to be presented as it might have been had the collection been left undisturbed.

    Two linked posts from 2010 and 2011, The greatest country house you’ve never heard of: Wentworth Woodhouse and The Country House Revealed – Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire, discuss its history and architecture and the significance of this magnificent house, its two facades built in two entirely different styles only a few years apart. That on the east, the better known, is by Henry Flitcroft in a grand Palladian style, influenced by Colen Campbell.

    Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire - east front (Image: dykwia / flickr)

    The familiar view of the house from the east


    The west front, of only slightly earlier date, is not in alignment with it, and is Baroque - the closest design in Pevsner's view was the Villa America in Prague - and is in brick and stone.

    Wentworth Woodhouse: The 'back front' of Wentworth House. The view that no one sees!

    The little known west front of Wentworth Woodhouse

    Image: tripadvisor.co.uk 

    Two other fairly recent online posts, Wentworth Woodhouse and, from the Daily Telegraph from late last year Fiona Bruce's Britain: Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire, indicate something of the history and fascination of the house. Famous for having the longest front of any house in Britain, if not Europe, and five miles of corridors linking its 365 rooms, and with stories of guests having to leave a trail of confetti in the nineteenth century to find their way back to their room s- or of guests having to be guided by afootman to and from the state rooms, it is the product of the wealth and ambition of the Wentworth-Watson Marquesses of Rockingham and Earls Fitzwilliam, building on and around the house, or site of the house, of King Charles I's minister Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford.

    The eighteenth century interiors are considered to be the finest of their age, and Pevsner devotes a great amount of space to both the exterior and the interiors in his volume on the West Riding in The Buildings of England. Indeed the amount of space he gives the house is unusual amongst his volumes, and points both to their importance and, perhaps, to the threat he perceived facing the building when he wrote in the 1950s.

    Wentworth Woodhouse

    The Marble Hall


    wentworth woodhouse 4

    The Whistlejacket Room

    This takes its mname from Stubbs' masterpiece, now in National Gallery, and replaced here with a reproduction, the painting of the horse Whistlejacket. The room is said to have been designed specifically for the painting.

    Image; statelyhomes.com

    The history of the house is set out in the online account from Wikipedia which can be seen at Wentworth Woodhouse. This brings out the vicious and spiteful assault on the estate by the Attlee government - and worth remembering next time someone gets dewey eyed about it - and also the response of the local mining community. I recall thatmy mother had heard of local dismay at the loss of the parkland at Wentworth. Coal mining in part made the estate,and sustained it under the Fitzwilliams, and coal mining nearly destroyed it, like the similarly grand Hamilton Palace in Scotland, which was literally undermined by the local collieries and demolished in the 1920s.

    The fortunes of the estate and the Fitzwilliam family in the twentieth century down to the death of the tenth and last Earl in 1979 are recounted in Catherine Davies' book Black Diamonds.

    Wentworth Woodhouse is barely twenty miles from my home town, yet I have never seen it. When I lived in the area it was always closed off,a training college, not accessible to the public. Reading about it and seeing photographs in books such as Pevsner made it enticing, fascinating, tantalising, and also endangered. I remember in the 1970s helping to get a young man from the area who was running a group concerned to preserve the threatened and neglected follies and temples which are scattered across the estate to come and speak to the Local History Society in Pontefract, but at that time their future seemed unsure. Of those follies I have visiterd the base of Keppel's Column, and used to know where to look out for Hoober's Stand, but that is all I managed.

    With Wentworth Castle only six miles away, another spectacular house and estate created in rivalry to it, also neglected for too long, but now also happily being restored, this part of the southern West Riding boasts two very remarkable country houses and grounds, and attendent man-made landscape. Both now, thankfully, are being, or look likely to be,restored. Not before time, but better than never. Hopefully too I can sometime finally get to see these great buildings

    wentworth woodhouse 3

    The West Front of Wentworth Woodhouse


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