Friday, 28 March 2014

Lost houses, surviving pictures

A recent visit to an acquaintance's gallery reminded me of how many houses have been lost over the centuries; not just great country houses and castles but many more humble dwellings.  What this means to the landscape is significant.  It changes the views over the horizon, from the car window, along the footpath and walking down any city or village street.

From an interior design perspective it changes the way we view and use rooms.  The current penchant for open plan living/dining is actually an ancient way of living - but not many ancient structures in England exist to illustrate this - or if they do they are draughty museum preserved rooms minus the mod cons we consider necessities for living well and comfortably today.  If they are not preserved in aspic then they have been repurposed as comfortable rooms, perhaps still large but without lofty ceiling heights. If they are ruins, our imagination cannot often grasp what once was there.

Here are just a few examples of lost houses we've seen and considered of late.

Halsnead Hall, built in 1684, was Sir John Soane's only Lancashire country house, altered by Richard Willis in 1789.  Although drawings survive at the Soane Museum, the house was demolished in 1932.   The painting is attributed to Charles Vincent Barber, a landscape painter from Birmingham who exhibited at The Royal Academy.  Halsnead Hall is at Miles Wynn Cato, picture dealer specialising in Welsh and British pictures.  The house here is undoubtedly grand with its classical portico, but in this picture related to the park surrounding it in a way that gives the painting a pleasing dreamlike quality, the trees and cattle naturalistically represented, reminiscent of Constable. 

View of Halsnead Hall, Lancashire.

A contemporary image depicts the romantic ruin of Clun Castle in South Shropshire.  Built by Robert de Say, this motte and bailey castle was an important stronghold along the Welsh Marches.  Later it was in the hands of the Fitzalan family and continued to be strategically important.  When the family abandoned it as a residence in favour of the more modern and comfortable Arundel, it was used as a hunting lodge before eventually falling into disrepair. What interests me is the powerful effect it has on the landscape and the village of Clun.  The castle commands attention still and in a way, diminishes what is around it, its original purpose still apparent.  This bold image, its outline crudely represented in linocut, backlit by a sulphurous light, captures the visual impact of the building's form.

A contemporary linocut and collage by artist Druscilla Cole

This picture of Horseheath Hall in Cambridgeshire, painted by John Inigo Richards, can be viewed at Daniel Hunt Gallery in London and is a slightly naive painting which appears to have grown around an architectural perspective of the house.  It gives the viewer the impression of being let in on a secret world of beauty and leisure.  The house was originally built in the 1660s by Sir Roger Pratt and had later additions (1720s) and interiors by William Kent, additions that contributed to the mounting debt of the incumbent.

The house was sadly pulled down in the 1770s. All that remains today are a few stately cedars to mark the spot as one wanders along the footpath to enjoy the prospect.  Even the once verdant parkland is covered over with field, its pleasure grounds disappeared beneath the plough and burrows of rabbits.   A pair of large iron gates from the estate were sold to Cambridge and now grace the rear entrance of Trinity College.
Hunting in the grounds of a Horseheath Hall

The farm house depicted below with a few of its barns was a family home.  When I commissioned this painting I gave the artist complete freedom to paint the story he envisioned.  He was armed only with the land survey together with aerial photographs of the house that had been lost to fire in the 1970s.  The composition diminishes the house, subjugating it to its land.  It was actually a very large building, a typical farm house of its time with wide sheltering porches and large, simple rooms.  The artist's view was that the house was submissive to the land, hostage to the vagaries of the weather, the fate of farming, and the eventual fire that would return the building to the earth.  He painted a tear in a window nodding to the loss to the family.  Ironically its demise came at a time of prosperity, its loss due to careless painters working on its exterior.  This house stood for only two hundred years, but the thousands of acres around it are still farmed.  The miles of whitewashed fences once painted annually are gone.  The enormous timber barns, all vanished.  The enormous elms that once lined the mile long drive a receding memory.

 Farm, painted by David Moore Smith

What these pictures share is an idealised vision of something, a moment in time captured for the viewer, a moment that has long passed. Either the owners fell into debt so the houses had to be sold, or they chose to move to a more hospitable or indeed fashionable environment. What will pictures like these of contemporary houses look like to us in the future? Will we long for the past when we view them? Will the hopes and aspirations of the owners shine through, or will the devastation that befell these examples be apparent?