An award-winning country house was completed in 2014 by Dorset-based architect Stuart Martin. Jeremy Musson explores the themes of this clever and compact design in the Classical tradition. Photographs by Justin Paget.
The best new country houses speak to their landscape setting and should feel as if they had grown out of it. Chitcombe House, completed in 2014, is just such a building, with an uncomplicated, traditional English form appropriate to the quintessential Dorset landscape in which it sits.
The undulating nature of the approach from the village lends expectation to the visitor’s first encounter with the house. It is compactly planned, with façades of cleanly cut Ham-stone and roofs of red-brown handmade clay tiles. To one side are the coursed rubble walls of a courtyard and ancillary buildings step sharply down into the little valley in a satisfying way to create a natural sense of invitation and welcome.
Chitcombe was designed by Stuart Martin, an architect based near Dorchester, who has long specialised in such understated and elegant houses, using good-quality local materials enlivened by well-considered and restrained detailing. Mr Martin’s clients, Roderick and Lydia Wurfbain, are Dutch nationals who have lived in England for decades and whose workbase is London.
They previously owned a farmhouse in the same area, but, with a large family, were looking for a bigger property. The aim was to find something suitable for extended family life that was also an easily manageable base both for weekend hospitality and their enjoyment of country pursuits, so the interiors had to work well for smaller or greater numbers, as occasion demanded.
After a long search, the Wurfbains eventually purchased a small farm with about 500 acres of land. The initial intention was to extend the existing building, but they finally decided to build a new house appropriate to the locality that they loved. In 2008, they interviewed a number of architects before selecting Mr Martin, who has wide experience of working on English country houses.
He learnt much of his craft from his early years with London-based architect Benson & Bryant, for whom he worked in 1989 to 1994, after graduating in architecture from the University of Nottingham. He moved to Dorset to work with the specialist building company Saint Blaise, based in Evershot in Dorset, in 1994–96, where he provided some of the technical drawings for the company’s acclaimed restoration of Prior Park, outside Bath, and oversaw repairs at Wayford Manor, a 16th-century house altered by Harold Peto.
Mr Martin then set up his own practice in 1997, based at Lewcombe Woods Farmhouse, near Evershot in Dorset. Early commissions included the refurbishment and rethinking of a number of historic country houses, including 18th-century Whitfield in Herefordshire, and he was appointed inspecting architect to Longford Castle and estate in 1999, a post he still holds today.
As well as numerous major extensions, designed and executed with artistic sensitivity, he has also completed seven new houses since that date, mostly in the South-West. His buildings are in the Classical tradition and evoke the 17th and early 18th century, but he also draws for inspiration on another golden age of country-house design: the early 20th century. Mr Martin counts Detmar Blow and Edwin Lutyens as particularly important figures in the history of English domestic design and they have shaped his vision of what makes a good building.
The Wurfbains recognised that, although they wanted all the amenities of good 18th-century or early-20th-century houses they had known or admired – including Horn Park near Beaminster in Dorset by Lawrence Dale of 1911, where Mr Martin has also worked—they would not need the large service areas associated with them.
The first design for Chitcombe was ready in 2009. It was not initially successful at the planning stage, but, eventually, permission was granted. Mr Martin explains: ‘I aimed to combine a design that responded to the Wurfbains’ very clear brief and to use materials local to the area, with a Classical sensibility. I was also conscious of Lydia and Roderick’s Dutch background.’
The playfulness we see in the work of Erith and Lutyens seems especially apparent
in the organic feel of the courtyard formed by the house and the L-shape of the service buildings along the east and north sides. There are also quirky touches unlikely in any other period, such as the seemingly ‘floating’ dormer window that lights the steps leading from the entrance courtyard to the garages on the level below.
Mr Martin’s strong grounding in the history of English architecture is manifested in the differentiation of the façades, each devised to make the best of its own particular location, orientation and function. The differences are almost subliminal: the windows are largely of the same character, the materials consistent and each elevation has dormers of the same dimension placed at regular intervals around the roofscape, yet each is quite distinct.
Once you pass between the gate piers that announce the entrance to the front court, the central three bays – of five – on an essentially H-shaped plan are bold and playful: the main entrance door is approached by steps and the doorcase, with its finely detailed ‘Gibbsian’ surrounds, and the sash window above are set in smooth ashlar, enlivened with panels of knapped flint, a local Dorset building material. Two tall sash windows (16 panes over 16) frame the doorcase, with an oval window underneath, each like an inverted lower-case i.
This formulation would never have been thought of in England in the late 17th century, however, it does feel the sort of note struck in designs by Lutyens. Indeed, it loosely echoes, for instance, the window arrangements of Tavistock House, built in 1904 for Country Life in London’s Covent Garden.
The three-bay west front is plainer and with a more conventional mid-18th-century character and looks across to the lake formed in recent landscaping works associated with the house project. Its central bay projects slightly forward, the angles carefully beaded. The south elevation has the two outside bays projecting forward at each end, with the central three bays recessed in a colonnaded loggia creating, in effect, a south-facing garden room after the manner of Repton. Finally, the east elevation has a subtly different character, with a central canted bay rising through two storeys, echoing the more open feel familiar in country houses of the 1930s.
Passing through the front door, the visitor enters an intimate lobby panelled in limed oak with the floor inlaid in Purbeck marble and Portland stone. Beyond is the dining hall that occupies the central three bays of the south side and opens onto the loggia beyond. Mr Wurfbain recalls that they particularly wanted an axial entrance, to arrive in a larger hall and be able to see the full extent of the house from that point. The windows to the south all open in the summer, ‘when we live mostly out of doors,’ observes Mr Wurfbain.
The dining hall is an essential circulation space, linking the drawing room and library on the west side of the house to the kitchen and family room on the east side. It is a light-filled and flexible room that can be opened up for receptions. A series of arched mirrors striking an Art Deco note lines the north wall and reflects back the light of the big windows to the south.
Beyond is the family kitchen, eating space and sitting room, which are all contained in one long room that fills the eastern side of the house. This has views out to the east, south and north. The kitchen end links to utility rooms in the single-storey wing, which forms part of the enclosure of the entrance courtyard.
The main stairs rise to an archway via a semicircular half-landing; at the turn of the stairs is a circular newel post of Doric-column form, with a ball finial. At the top of the stairs, the first-floor corridor is articulated with simplified pilasters.
Mr Martin is responsible for the designs of all the mouldings for the cornice architrave and skirting, as well as panelling and the library bookcases, largely of a late-17th-
century character. He also designed the crisply detailed fireplaces in the hall and drawing room with projecting Doric columns.
This unity of approach helps to explain the comfortable and consistent quality of the interiors, which perhaps have no moments of great theatre, but are rather a sequence of well-modulated and well-lit spaces, which can be enjoyed individually or all opened up together.
The house is solid and well built – the Shaftesbury-based builder was Shean & Hare; the staircase and the panelling of the hall and library are by Mandeville Joinery, based in Melbury Osmond. The Wurfbains also recognise the important contribution of the quantity surveyor Peter Hayter.
Mr Martin comments: ‘I feel the clients and I had a rare understanding and the design changed little from the first sketch plan. Their brief was entirely appropriate to the particular site and I wanted to create a sense of discovery; the house should have a little flourish slightly above what you would expect to encounter in a Dorset combe.’
Mr Martin is being modest – Chitcombe House is designed with a sense of proper solidity, around the light from the passage of the day, using the best of available materials and it is, as a house should be, good to live in and, as a result of this, ‘good to look on’. It is a mark of its success that Chitcombe House was given a Georgian Group Award in 2015 for a new building
in the Classical tradition.
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