Surrey's most impressive country houses, past and present
- Credit: Archant
Surrey has been home to some spectacular country houses – some are long forgotten, while others still stand proud. Here, Matthew Beckett from the website lostheritage.org.uk shares his favourites
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This house and a townhouse in Duchess Street, London, are regarded as the cradles of the Regency style, which swept Georgian Britain. Both were owned by one man, Thomas Hope (1769 – 1831), who, having organised his own collections, energetically set about through displays, writing and campaigning to promote a new style to the nation. Deepdene was a crucial part of this plan; originally a plain red-brick villa, Hope transformed it into a Picturesque Italianate mansion, to match the surrounding landscape, which had already been styled into an Italian garden. Sadly, the house was later owned by British Rail who demolished it in 1967, to be replaced by a bland office block.
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Originally owned by Samuel Dicker, who commissioned the famous ‘mathematical bridge’ at Walton-on-Thames, it was rebuilt in grand Italianate style designed by Sir Charles Barry for the 5th Earl of Tankerville. Later owned by the Cook family (of Thomas Cook renown), it then became a hospital in World War One. In the 1920s, it became flats with the ballroom put to various uses, and then in World War Two as a mortuary for victims of the Vickers factory bombing raid, and later for various shows. However, the house deteriorated and, after a serious fire in 1966, was demolished soon after.
What was remarkable about Bramley Park was not the architect, or the design (with its questionable over-use of columns), but the daughter of a family who once lived there. Built in 1837, and designed by an unknown architect, this resolutely neo-Classical temple of a house became the childhood home of the famous garden designer Gertrude Jeykll. Her family moved in when Jeykll was five and she lived there from 1848 to 1868. Although her thoughts on her home are not recorded, her long association with more picturesque Arts & Crafts style suggests it may not have been to her taste.
The most beautiful feature of Gatton Hall near Redhill was the remarkable marble hallway; a space created as a church, which became the centrepiece of the house. The hallway had originally been intended for Charles IV of Spain and was a replica of the Corsini Chapel in Rome, but was bought in 1830 by the 5th Baron Monson for the then huge sum of £10,000. Sadly, he died before it could be completed, but his son finished the project and also added to the huge collection of art, fine fabrics, and furniture. On February 5, 1934, a huge fire gutted the house, destroying not only the Marble Hall but also many fine works in the collections. The house was subsequently rebuilt and is now Royal Alexandra and Albert school.
Witley was a sizeable house but it was controversial earthworks which sparked a remarkable local campaign to save the surrounding landscape. Bought in 1890 by svengali-like financier, Whittaker Wright, he was determined to make his mark and greatly extended the house – but his grandest plans were outside. In his 1,400 acres, which included the Devil’s Punchbowl, he set 600 men to work reshaping the parkland; lowering hills which blocked views and creating lakes. When Wright’s financial misdeeds were exposed he committed suicide and the estate was put up for auction. Worried that another Wright might try to alter the landscape, locals bought the Punchbowl and Hindhead Common before donating them to the National Trust in 1905.
One of the main roles of a country house was as a place for hosting parties and this was something Polesden Lacey excelled at. Built in 1824 to a design by Thomas Cubitt, it was extended in 1906, with wings added by the architect Sir Ambrose Poynter, and lavish interiors by Charles Mewès and Arthur Davis, who had designed The Ritz hotel. The house was at the centre of Edwardian weekend country life with high society mixing at the many parties hosted primarily by Lady Margaret Greville, daughter of a Scottish brewer, who had bought the estate for her. Donated to the National Trust by Lady Margaret in 1942, the house and estate perfectly capture that past era of elegance.
Few houses can claim associations with such grand owners – or as impressive designers. Claremont replaced a smaller house by Sir John Vanbrugh, who also originally laid out the gardens. Bought by Lord Clive of India in the 1760s, he commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, better known as a landscaper, to design a new house on higher ground. Brown worked with a young architect, Henry Holland, on the design, but who had taken on an assistant, John Soane, who later eclipsed them both. The grand house was radical at the time as the raised basement was to create better conditions for the servants. The beautiful elliptical entrance hall, claimed by Soane, is one of his finest rooms. Now Claremont Fan Court School, a further 50-acres of gardens are owned by the National Trust.
Despite being one of the most remarkable houses in the county, Sutton Place is also one of the most private but well-looked after. Originally built in the 1520s, it has a number of features which were exceptionally rare at that time; one of the first unfortified country houses, the strict symmetry of the house and windows, and the use of decorative terracotta. Bought by John Paul Getty in 1959, the estate became his private domain, open to very few. Later owners, Stanley Seeger and then Frederick Koch, opened the house to the public to show their respective art collections, or for concerts. The estate is now closed again, but all the owners have lavished the care which this special and magnificent house deserves.
Marble Hill House
This neat Palladian villa, one of the best examples of the type in the country, can also claim to be one of the most recorded. Sitting close to Thames, innumerable views painted and drawn from Richmond Hill have captured this beautiful house. Built between 1724-1729 for King George II’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, the house was designed by Roger Morris in conjunction with the Earl of Pembroke, a keen ‘gentleman architect’. The design was hugely influential, not only throughout Britain, but also as a model for plantation houses in America. Henrietta quickly created a renowned intellectual circle having established connections with the writers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, who were frequent guests.
One of the truly great country houses, Clandon is a delight on many levels. The wonderfully proportioned house, designed in the 1720s and largely unaltered, sits nestled into a small hill with far-reaching views, the warm red-brick exterior enlivened by grand stonework to create the look of great pillars. Inside, the stunning Marble Hall features plasterwork which almost seems to be climbing out of the ceiling, with other rooms housing a remarkable collection of 18th-century furniture, porcelain and textiles. Given by the Earl of Onslow to the National Trust in 1956, it can now be enjoyed by many more.