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.”


Will She or Won’t She?

“Good God,” Griffin breathed.

Homage to Diana - Annibale Carracci (circa 1597)

Diana paused as he stopped in his tracks.  Swallowing her impatience, and her hunger, she looked about her as Griffin did, trying to see Northam Park through his eyes.  She supposed he was right to be astonished.  The first-time visitor to the mansion had little warning of its riotous interior.  Not when its exterior was executed in forbidding Palladian style, with its straight lines and rigid symmetry.

Here in the great saloon, and throughout the house’s state apartments, Rococo reigned.

To look at it will put your eyes out, her grandmother, the dowager countess, would say.

Griffin craned his neck to take in the lighthearted, delicate playfulness of intricate, flowing lines, shells, leaves and trees carved in plasterwork that seemed to float through the saloon.  The elegant carvings cascaded across the high ceiling and down pale yellow walls in intricate white traceries.  He went to the carved stone chimney piece with its life-size nude wood nymphs supporting the mantelpiece.

Griffin gestured to the large bas-relief above the mantle of a beautifully sculpted scene from Greek mythology.  In it, the hunting moon goddess considers a gift of white fleece held aloft by the nature god .

“I never noticed Diana and Pan were so popular.”

Diana rolled her eyes.  “Try being named Diana.  Then you notice it every time.”

“Well?” Griffin asked.

“Well, what?”

Griffin’s smile was half-sided.  “Does she accept the gift or not?”

Diana straightened her skirt and looked toward the door.  “It depends on what Pan wants in return, I suppose.”

Northam Park’s interior plays an important part in Notorious Match.  There is a lot of symbolism, both intentional and otherwise, that the characters encounter during their sojourn at the country estate, beginning with the aforementioned saloon.

The saloon is derived from the French Grand Salon — a room of state for receiving visitors.  It was a style set during the Restoration in England and initially attached to the more medieval great hall before replacing it almost entirely by the time of the Regency.  Northam Park’s saloon looks very much like the one at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, the subject of last week’s post.

Ruin of Sutton Scarsdale

The Rococo interior is marvelous.  It can put your eyes out.

The picture to the right is from the ruin of Sutton Scarsdale, discussed in an earlier post.
You can see the remains of the Rococo plasterwork that still clings to the shell of what remains from this once monumental country estate.

Cast out of Olympus

In Notorious Match, Diana struggles against the memory of her lonely childhood.  Barbara Hutton Photo Gallery Page, Photo Album Page

She could so very easily have been the Barbara Hutton of the Regency.  You may recall the tragic life of the Woolworth heiress whose father was the wealthy co-founder of E. F. Hutton, a banking firm.  Remember those funny 80s commercials? “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Not so funny–Barbara’s mother committed suicide and her father abandoned her.  She died after a string of broken marriages, a broken fortune and, some say, a broken heart.

Poor  little rich girl.

My heroine Diana spent most of her unhappy childhood at Northam Park, the seat of her family’s earldom in Leceistershire, England.  When she became countess in her own right, she travelled frequently to her estate but stayed only for a short periods of time.  Each visit she made served as a reminder she was unloved as a child.  In its own way, Northam Park insisted she never forgot.

The mansion at Northam Park was built in 1724 by the English master builder Francis Smith of Warwick for the 28th Earl (yes, you read that correctly–the earldom is at least as old as that of Arundel, held by the Howard family).  Northam Park’s architect designed the house very similarly to his creation of Sutton Scarsdale, built for the earl of that name.  Rivalling Chatsworth House in size and splendor, Northam Park was given a massive east front with nine bays of windows separated by Corinthian pillars.  Crowning the center was a large pediment, almost overwhelming in size and complexity when viewed up close and unmistakeable when spotted from afar.

But the earl of Northam did not want his coat of arms to decorate this central feature as was customary.  Desiring a neo-classical design, the Earl commanded that the pediment of the mansion’s front face depict a curious scene from Greek mythology–the casting out of Hephaestus by his own mother Hera.

The fall from Mount Olympus maimed the god of the forge forever.  What mother could do that to her child?

pediment from Sutton Scarsdale Hall

Whenever Diana is at Northam Park, her eyes are forever drawn to this terrible scene, wrought in sharp relief as clearly as any of the Elgin Marbles that were torn from the Parthenon.  The sight makes her shudder.  It reminds her that inside she is lame and unloveable.

Then a man comes to Northam Park.  The only one who can help her heal.  The only one who can love her for who she is.