Remnants of a Regency House

This blog has visited lost houses of England before, mostly the result of scouting for locations that may one day be resurrected as fictional houses in this author’s historical romances. For example: Coleshill House, Cassiobury Park and Sutton Scarsdale.

 A plaster remnant the salvage firm left behind at ruined Sutton Scarsdale – photo via Wikicommons, Phil Sangwell

The stories of Regency-era house demolition are, on the whole, a sad affair. These large mansions with separate worlds of upstairs and downstairs, gardens and parks, coverts and woodlands, employing distinct crafts outside and domestic servants inside, fascinate viewers of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. They fail to survive modern life, however, much as anything else that is labor-intensive to sustain.

When post-war Britain underwent huge economic and social upheaval, what was formerly sacred was broken up, dispersed, or burned on the lawn.

“In 1955, one house was demolished every two and a half days.”

— No Voice from the Hall, by John Harris (1998)

I’m particularly glad Mr. Harris went to great effort to record his own experiences of these vanishing houses. Uffington and Burwell Houses in Lincolnshire, the former already a ruin, the latter to be demolished, gave up vivid remnants of the Regency period.

Uffington was destroyed by fire in 1901. The conservatory remained standing, storing what had been hastily saved from the conflagration but never reclaimed, forgotten for over fifty years.

“..a half-burnt Regency side table, broken gilt picture frames, bits of marble, plaster fragments, a shattered gilt Georgian torchère.”

 1815 Regency torchères for sale  in Houston, Texas of places – photo via 1stDibs

At abandoned Burwell, the author found the house being used as a barn. Sheep exited the manor beneath the Doric entrance as freely as you please. Grain flowed like a vast desert beneath ornate plasterwork ceilings. A massive overmantle frame still containing its two-hundred year-old landscape painting reigned over sightless sacks of potatoes. These were stacked up so high they reached the bottom of family portraits still hanging on the drawing room walls, festooned in spiderwebs.

The ceiling of St. Martin in-the-Fields, designed by Gibbs, influenced the plasterwork ceilings of many Regency-era homes, including Burwell’s. photo via Wikimedia Commons, Steve Cadman photographer

Later, the author returned to Burwell, only to find the “philistine” Lindsey County Council had given consent for its demolition. He arrived in time to see workers hacking away at the rococo plasterwork, a pile of broken marble on the lawn, and a fire burning up the mahogany-carved stair.

“I was black with rage. As a single act of destruction, the burning of a masterpiece from the National Gallery would have been no worse.”

 

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Tremont – The Elizabethan Prodigy

Montacute House - licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 by Mark Robinson

Before the events told in Notorious Match, Lord Griffin Montgomery was forced to sell his Welsh estate that had been bestowed on his family by the Conqueror.  William I rewarded Roger de Montgomerie, Griffin’s Norman ancestor, with the marcher earldom of Shrewsbury along with Tremont and other estates throughout western England and Wales.

Earl Roger’s sons spent a good deal of time fighting the Welsh.  One had succumbed to an attack of Viking pirates on the shore not far from Tremont.  In my story, an estate was established there by a cadet branch of the Montgomery family.  The nearest town is Machynlleth, a real place referred to locally as “Mach” and where one can view fighter jets careening through the Welsh hills as they perform the Mach Loop here.

Griffin’s grandfather, Baron Montgomery, was the last of the family to reside at the estate when he died in 1814.

A year later, Diana, the Countess of Northam, proposed buying it back.

Griffin pivoted to face her.  “Buy Tremont?  Why the devil would you do that?”

Diana raised her eyebrows, clearly puzzled.  “If it’s your pride at issue, I won’t give you the money.  I’ll have the lawyers get it back.  There’s probably some contingency they can find, some forgotten entail or other legal condition that defeats the conveyance.  Most estates have them, to prevent such a sale in the first place.”

The enormity of what she proposed, that any resource be spent on the very place he associated with his iniquity, stunned and upset him.  He tried to restrain those feelings only for them to manifest in his jaw, which ached from being clenched.

“You’ll do no such thing,” he retorted, his voice harsh.

Diana visibly recoiled, the hurt he had dealt her impossible to take back.

Griffin’s Tremont is an Elizabethan prodigy house. Its exterior reminds me of Hardwick Hall, which has an abundance of windows characteristic of the prodigy’s so-called Lantern style. At night, with candles and torches blazing, the great wall of windows would be lit up like lanterns, hence the name. Another house featuring this extravagant style is my favorite, Montacute House, pictured above. You may remember it from 1995 movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the house where Marianne fell ill.

Tremont’s interior, however, is based upon the remarkable Cassiobury Park, ancient seat of the Earls of Essex.  It was extensively rebuilt by the first Earl of Essex in the seventeenth century in honor of the restoration of Charles II.  He hired Hugh May, one of the commissioners for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, to extend the house and fit it up on the inside for an expected visit by His Majesty.  The visit never came, but the expectation was glorious, nevertheless.

May hired the master carver Grinling Gibbons, a Dutch Quaker who was executing the Baroque style in intricate wood carvings that can be seen in Hampton Court, Blenheim and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  He carved many of the fittings at Cassiobury, such as overmantels, cornices, moldings.  It was thought that the main staircase was also his work, and like Cassiobury, Tremont has a magnificent central staircase that is a great, rolling thing of exceptional beauty containing intricate scrollwork that defies modern craftsmanship.

detail - Cassiobury Park staircase

Cassiobury Park was doomed as the twentieth century began.  The 7th Earl of Essex died after being run over by a taxi.  The 8th Earl put the house up for sale since the nearby manufacturing center of Watford was expanding and the parkland of Cassiobury was needed for the “natural” expansion of the town.  All of the fittings, including the carvings, were stripped from the house and sold at auction.  Cassiobury Park was demolished in 1927.

The carved staircase was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on display today in gallery 518.  There it was discovered the carvings were more likely attributed to Edward Pearce, an English carver with a name rather less dramatic than Grinling Gibbons, but just as talented.  Additional images of this masterpiece are available at the museum’s website here.

Oddly, the present heir-presumptive to the earldom of Essex is a retired grocery clerk in Yuba City, California.