John Martin Robinson is your guide to an extraordinary place in which peeling away one layer only ever seems to reveal several more. Photographs by Paul Highnam.

Crichel in Dorset is an unusual and fascinatingly complex house, an onion with a central core wrapped round with later layers. John Newman described it in The Buildings of England as an ‘archaeological puzzle’ and Avray Tipping found his analysis for Country Life in 1925 hampered by ‘a complete absence of documentation]. In recent years, the deposit of the estate archives in the Dorset Record Office and John Cornforth’s research into the Napier Sturt bank accounts at Hoare’s have produced some of the missing building accounts.

As yet, however, there are no drawings for the 18th-century phases. William Burn’s Victorian designs for Crichel are at the RIBA Drawings Collection, but there is still little documentary evidence for the substantial neo-Georgian works in the 20th century. As a consequence, much of the history of this remarkable building must be unpicked from the physical and visual evidence.

The dispersement of the estate

Crichel belonged to the Napier and Sturt families for 400 years, but, after the death in 2010 of the late Mary Anna Marten, only daughter of the 3rd and last Lord Alington, the property was sold as she left six children and beneficiaries. The well-managed estate, which comprised 10,000 acres and 150 houses and cottages, was broken up and dispersed in 2012. Fortunately, the main house, with some of its contents, and 1,500 acres including the park and 50 cottages, have been acquired by an anglophile American family, the Chiltons, who have made it their English home and refurbished the interior, restoring several James Wyatt rooms, which can now be seen as the masterpieces they are.

Crichel, Dorset: The south façade, framed by a great cedar on the edge of the lake

Crichel, Dorset: The south façade, framed by a great cedar on the edge of the lake

Much of the rest of the estate has been bought by Lord Phillimore, son of the neo-Georgian architect Claud Phillimore, so cultural disaster has been averted and this beautiful part of Dorset continues to be cherished and managed on traditional lines by sympathetic new owners.

Crichel stands on the site of a Jacobean predecessor that burnt down in 1742. The house was promptly rebuilt ‘in great splendour’ from 1743 to 1747 by Sir William Napier. His architect was John Bastard of Blandford, scion of the leading builder-architects in the area, famous for the handsome early-18th-century buildings they erected in their home town. Bastard was paid as architect in Napier’s bank account at Hoare’s. Payments are also recorded there to Francis Cartwright, another leading Dorset builder, who was probably the contractor executing Bastard’s designs.

Crichel, Dorset: The colonnade is one of the most idiosyncratic elements of Crichel and frames a spectacular view out into the landscape park

Crichel, Dorset: The colonnade is one of the most idiosyncratic elements of Crichel and frames a spectacular view out into the landscape park

The new house was a three-storeyed rectangular block with the staircase and hall on axis and the main entrance on the east side facing the church like its Jacobean predecessor. Its style was the English Baroque perpetuated by the Bastards with moulded window architraves and curly doorway pediments; it can still be seen behind the neo-Classical colonnade on the south front and was recorded in a vignette on an estate map of 1765.

The interior had Rococo plasterwork very similar to the Bastard work in Blandford church, the best of which survives in the West Hall, the original staircase hall, with Napier’s arms in a large cartouche on the ceiling. The 1740s joinery was also of good quality as demonstrated in the turned-oak balusters and carved tread ends of the present staircase reset by Wyatt in the 1770s.

In 1765, the estate was inherited by Humphrey Sturt. He was the nephew and heir of Sir William Napier of Crichel, the last baronet of the Napper or Napier family, which had owned the Crichel estate since the early 17th century. Through his mother’s family, Sturt was the heir to the Alingtons, whose dormant barony was to be re-created for the Victorian owners of Crichel in 1876.

Crichel, Dorset

Crichel, Dorset

The Sturts themselves emerged in the 17th century as rich merchants and aldermen of London. Humphrey’s maternal grandfather was Lord Mayor. When he inherited Crichel, he already owned estates in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Devon, as well as the Sturt family seat at neighbouring Horton in Dorset, which he now gave up and replaced with Crichel.

Sturt was not only very rich as a result of these inheritances, he was also married to the heiress of Hoxton, a London property on the edge of the City that effectively paid for his own grand scheme to transform the house. Arthur Young, the agriculturist, described Sturt as ‘his own architect’ and his changes to Crichel have all the originality and quirkiness to be expected of a Georgian virtuoso-amateur.

In effect, a series of new additions was wrapped around the existing 1740s house, which was retained in the middle: large new rooms were built at each corner and a bedroom storey and Ionic portico or colonnade on the south front, which remains the house’s most idiosyncratic feature. The grounds were landscaped with a large crescent-shaped lake and belts of trees in the manner of Capability Brown.

Crichel, Dorset: The east façade, begun after 1765. The church, possibly by George Alexander, was built in 1850 and has a splendid vaulted chancel

Crichel, Dorset: The church, possibly by George Alexander, was built in 1850 and has a splendid vaulted chancel

Engaging the Wyatts

In his History of Dorset (1774), Hutchins wrote that the house was ‘so immensely enlarged that it has the appearance of a mansion of a prince, more than that of a country gentleman’. The Bastards were used again as the builders. John, William, Benjamin, James and Thomas Bastard II were all paid for work between February 1768 and 1773, but, in 1772, Sturt brought in James Wyatt and his brother Samuel to design superb interiors and finish the project.

Sturt encountered the Wyatts’ architecture through the Pantheon, a ‘Winter Ranelagh’ in Oxford Street, London, which opened to spectacular acclaim in January 1772. Like many other English, Welsh and Irish landowners, Sturt was impressed, and immediately asked the 26-year-old James Wyatt to design the new rooms within the extensions he was constructing. These were mentioned by Hutchins in 1774: ‘The hall, dining room, drawing room, portico, library, the common dining parlour, with all the apartments over them are entirely his [Sturt’s] additions. The staircase is in the middle of the house lighted by an elegant glass dome.’

Crichel, Dorset: The main staircase rises to a long corridor with plaster decoration

Crichel, Dorset: The main staircase rises to a long corridor with plaster decoration

Sturt had already progressed with the dining parlour, library and the new (east) entrance hall, but Wyatt completed the latter and was entirely responsible for the other rooms, including the best dining room and drawing room and the upper storey on the south and east fronts. They are among his finest surviving early rooms in England and parallel other works of his in the early 1770s, such as the interior of Beaudesert in Staffordshire, now destroyed.

As part of his work, he created a grand new staircase hall, removing the ceiling of the Napier entrance hall to make a full-height space and reusing and expanding the old oak staircase from next door.

Wyatt was involved from early in 1772 and was paid £20 on July 16, 1772, probably for his initial drawings. He was paid further sums in April 1775 and July 1778, presumably for visits and additional designs, and a last payment in 1780. Samuel Wyatt, elder brother to James, was also paid £18 4s in July 1778. This was the sort of project James liked and excelled at, in which the owner and a local builder did all the work and supervision on site and he provided beautiful drawings (sadly lost) and remote control from London.

Crichel, Dorset

Crichel, Dorset

The team of craftsmen he had assembled for the Pantheon (partly taken over from Adam at Kedleston) were fully deployed at Crichel. They included Joseph Rose for plasterwork, Biagio Rebecca for wall and ceiling paintings in medallions and panels, John Deval for chimneypieces and Domenico Bartoli for scagliola. Rebecca was paid £147 17s on September 25, 1776, showing that the decoration of the drawing and dining rooms, his and Wyatt’s two great schemes, was finished by then.

John Linnell and Ince & Mayhew, fashionable London firms that often worked with Wyatt, were paid for furnishings from 1776 to 1780, although none of it now remains at Crichel and it is impossible to say whether Wyatt designed it specially or not.

Crichel, Dorset: James Wyatt’s 1770s Drawing Room has been returned to its former splendour. The great Venetian window has been restored and the ceiling been cleaned and retouched where necessary

Crichel, Dorset: James Wyatt’s 1770s Drawing Room has been returned to its former splendour. The great Venetian window has been restored and the ceiling been cleaned and retouched where necessary

The second son who inherited Crichel

Sturt died in 1786. His eldest son inherited Horton, but Crichel was left to his second son, Charles, who let the house. He was a keen yachtsman and lived on Brownsea Island overlooking Poole Harbour. An inventory of the contents of Crichel prepared for letting in 1796 gives an impression of the interior with the family rooms well furnished, but the big rooms largely empty, suggesting they were not much used.

The ‘Best Dining Room’ only had an ‘oval dessert stand’ and a ‘set of mahogany dining tables with circular ends on claws’. The ‘Best Drawing Room had a pair of ‘curious oval claw stands’ and ‘one twelve light lustre richly ornamented’. There were two rooms on the South front behind the portico, the ‘Clouded Bed Chamber’ and ‘White dimity Bed Room’ both with four posters. The private rooms at the North West corner were then called the Portico Parlour (after its colonnaded sideboard end), used as a family dining room, and a Billiard Room, which contained a harpsichord, but not a billiard table.

Crichel, Dorset

Crichel, Dorset

Charles died in 1812 and was succeeded by his son, Henry Charles Sturt (1795–1866). His major change was to switch the main entrance from the east to the west, contriving a new hall on that side designed by Thomas Hopper (famous for the Carlton House conservatory). He also converted the ‘Portico Parlour’ to a library with fitted oak Regency bookcases. Designs by Thomas Evans of Wimborne for Charles exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1824 were probably not executed.

A major 19th-century remodelling of Crichel was carried out by Charles’s son, Henry Gerard Sturt, a Tory MP who was created 1st Lord Alington in 1876. He employed William Burn, the favourite architect of the mid-Victorian aristocracy with a flair for modernising country houses and noted for his sophisticated planning. He cemented the exterior, put plate glass in the windows and architraves round them and added the impressive Roman Doric porte-cochère on the west front in 1868–9.

Crichel, Dorset: The library, with its gargantuan bookcases designed by Humphrey Sturt after 1765. The fine fireplace, with its copy of Van Dyke’s portrait of the Earl of Strafford and his secretary, is probably recycled from another 1740s building

Crichel, Dorset: The library, with its gargantuan bookcases designed by Humphrey Sturt after 1765. The fine fireplace, with its copy of Van Dyke’s portrait of the Earl of Strafford and his secretary, is probably recycled from another 1740s building

He and his nephew, J. Macvicar Anderson, worked at Crichel for three decades, erecting the neo-Norman gateway at the Witchampton gate to the park and building new north wings with private family rooms and additional service accommodation. Much of this Victorianisation was removed or re-Georgianised in the 20th century.

Later changes

As we have seen, Crichel’s unusual, even unconventional, design is substantially the result of the input of its late-18th-century owner Humphrey Sturt. In the past century, however, it has undergone three ambitious phases of neo-Georgian remodelling by his descendants, as well as a recent exemplary restoration by Richard Chilton. These last changes have preserved the integrity of the many-layered history of the house and also re-created a spectacular series of 1770s interiors by James Wyatt.

The 1st Lord Alington died in 1904 and was succeeded by his son, Humphrey. With his wife, Feodorowna, a daughter of the 5th Earl of Hardwicke (‘Champagne Charlie’), he embarked on ambitious improvements to Crichel in 1905, notably the laying out of a very elaborate Italian garden on the south front (removed after the Second World War). It was designed by Harold Peto, who had been in partnership with Sir Ernest George before he focused on garden design after recuperating in Italy from an illness.

 

Crichel, Dorset: The East Hall stands between the Dining Room and Drawing Room. Its Classical landscapes in grisaille, which were probably covered over in the 1830s, and the ceiling have been revealed again during the recent restoration work

Crichel, Dorset: The East Hall stands between the Dining Room and Drawing Room. Its Classical landscapes in grisaille, which were probably covered over in the 1830s, and the ceiling have been revealed again during the recent restoration work

There is no evidence for the architect of the interiors at Crichel of about 1908–14, but they could also have been by Peto as he designed many houses in Chelsea and was responsible for the Georgian interiors of the Cunard liner Mauretania (1912), with panelling by H. H. Martyn of Cheltenham.

This ‘Georgianising’ at Crichel involved the complete remodelling of Burns’s Entrance Hall, Billiard Room and family dining room in a remarkably convincing Georgian manner. It also included the formation of the Long Drawing Room from two pre-existing smaller spaces and the addition of pilasters to Wyatt’s Drawing Room.

Lady Alington seems to have been closely involved in the work and had an eye for Georgian things. She claimed to have rescued the remarkable series of gilt Rococo looking glasses from storage in the stables (several are still in the house) and she was certainly responsible for retrieving heirlooms from her own family house at Wimpole when the Earl of Hardwicke went bankrupt.

The sumptuous Edwardian refurbishment

Many of the Edwardian fittings at Crichel—notably, the chimneypieces in the Entrance Hall and Library—are remarkably convincing in the Flitcroft manner and it is possible that they are genuine 18th-century items rescued from Redlynch in Somerset when that house was remodelled by Lord Ilchester in 1913. Glazing bars were also reinstated in the windows. As recorded by Country Life in 1925, Crichel shows the sumptuous results of the Edwardian refurbishment.

Further work was done by the 3rd and last Lord Alington around about the time of his marriage to a neighbour, Lady Mary Sibell Ashley-Cooper of St Giles, in 1928. This included the installation of central heating and the redecoration of the Wyatt Drawing Room with blue silk on the walls. This was deemed a suitable background for Lord Alington’s Italian picture collection (he was a member of the Magnasco Society, founded in 1924, and a friend of the Sitwells).

Crichel, Dorset: One of the outbuildings

Crichel, Dorset: One of the outbuildings

Unfortunately, at the same time, he removed Wyatt’s splendid Siena scagliola Corinthian columns from the huge Venetian window at the south end of the room, which he thought over-scaled. He also added appropriate painted Classical panels by Cipriani to the lower walls of the Staircase Hall, which came from Arlington Street.

In 1938, the house and estate were requisitioned by the Air Ministry for war training and many of the contents were dispersed at that time. Lord Alington himself died in 1940 while serving in the Royal Air Force, leaving his 11-year-old daughter an heiress. In 1946, the empty house was let to Cranborne Chase School.

After Oxford, Mary Anna married Toby Marten and, together, they embarked on reviving the estate. In 1954, they secured a famous victory, retrieving land on Crichel Down that had been compulsorily requisitioned for war-training purposes. They won the land back in the High Court against the Ministry of Defence, securing the resignation of the Minister responsible, Sir Thomas Dugdale, later 1st Lord Crathorne.

Crichel, Dorset: The 1740s stair was moved and adapted by James Wyatt in the 1770s. The panels by Cipriani are from Arlington Street in London and were installed in the late 1920s

Crichel, Dorset: The 1740s stair was moved and adapted by James Wyatt in the 1770s. The panels by Cipriani are from Arlington Street in London and were installed in the late 1920s

In 1961, Mrs Marten ended the lease to the school (which moved to New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire) and announced her intention to move back in, a significant moment in the postwar history of the English country house, paralleling the move of the Devonshires back into Chatsworth and the Bedfords into Woburn. She immediately embarked on the reduction, repair and redecoration of the house. Her initial intention was to use John Fowler as her adviser, but, when she called at his Brook Street showroom, she found it closed for lunch, so she turned to Malletts instead. Francis Egerton, the senior partner there, advised her on interior decoration and the acquisition of furniture and objects. E. F. Tew of Bath was appointed architect.

Demolition and creation

Under Tew’s direction, the Victorian north wings of the house were demolished and the site rearranged to create a balustraded, sunken courtyard. This reused architectural features from Peto’s Italian Garden, which was grassed over to restore the Georgian landscape setting. All the main rooms (apart from the Drawing Room) were redecorated in the 1960s, making the work at Crichel one of the most comprehensive postwar schemes in any English country house.

A further campaign was undertaken in 1979–80, when Wyatt’s gallery over the south portico was re-created from the guest bedrooms into which it had been sub-divided in the Edwardian period. The top floor became the family apartment, with wonderful views over the park and lake, and was redecorated by John Stefanides.

Crichel, Dorset: The vestibule originally incorporated the staircase of the 1740s house. Visible in the centre of the ceiling is part of a cartouche displaying the Napier coat of arms and crest

Crichel, Dorset: The vestibule originally incorporated the staircase of the 1740s house. Visible in the centre of the ceiling is part of a cartouche displaying the Napier coat of arms and crest

After Mrs Marten’s death, the Chiltons bought the house in 2013, with many of the contents, including the Hardwicke portraits, the Library bookcase, the Classical medallions of Roman emperors in the lobby, the Cipriani panels and chandelier in the Staircase Hall, the gilt Rococo looking glasses in the Long Drawing Room, the chandelier in the drawing room and the large carved mahogany side tables in the dining room.

They have added substantially to these retained contents with their own collection (Mr Chilton was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum and Mrs Chilton president of the New York Botanical Garden), as well as acquiring appropriate late-18th-century furniture specially for the house. Thomas Jayne of New York and his assistant Egan Seward have advised on the decoration and furnishing of the house. New acquisitions include the chandelier, table and chairs in the dining room, all of appropriate scale and character, and the neo-Classical seat furniture in the Wyatt manner in the Drawing Room.

An especially happy new introduction is the blue-background, 18th-century wallpaper in the Long Drawing Room, which has strengthened the character of this Edwardian neo-Georgian room and makes a good counterpoint to the Rococo character of the gilt pier glasses and stucco ceiling. Elsewhere, Mallets decoration and furnishings have been retained, especially in the West Hall and Library.

Crichel, Dorset

Crichel, Dorset

Righting the wrongs of the 1960s

Mr Chilton was keen to reinstate the character of the principal Wyatt state rooms on the east front where 1930s alterations in the Drawing Room had left it bereft of the scagliola columns and Lord Alington’s wall silk was worn out. More seriously, significant elements had been removed from the East Hall and the Dining Room in the 1960s. In the latter, Wyatt’s splendid mahogany doors at the north end—which once led to the serving room and kitchen—had been removed and replaced with a looking glass and the walls had been painted in an unhistorical scheme.

The most significant 1960s Mallets alterations had been made in the East Hall, where Wyatt’s ceiling with painted panels and a small sunken central dome had been replaced with a plain flat ceiling and the frieze and stucco decorations on the upper walls removed—Mrs Marten and her advisors had wrongly thought they were Victorian.

The decision was made to reinstate fully the missing Wyatt elements and colour schemes. Peregrine Bryant was appointed the architect, with Patrick Baty as the specialist paint analyst and Hesp Jones & Co of Beningbrough as the executants. The work was completed in 2015.

In the Dining Room, it proved possible to reinstate Wyatt’s double doors at the north end. The Country Life photographs of 1925 provided useful evidence. A further stroke of luck was the discovery of the original mahogany doors stored in the basement. The missing tympanum painting Homage to Demeter has been copied in the Biagio Rebecca grisaille manner by Christian Corgier. All the trompe bas-relief wall paintings by Rebecca have been cleaned and restored and their Classical subjects of assorted gods and goddesses are now clearly visible. The colouring of the walls formed a significant part of Wyatt’s original scheme, predominantly in characteristic shades of pale green.

 

The doors in the north end of the Dining Room have been reinstated after they were discovered in the basement of the house

The doors in the north end of the Dining Room have been reinstated after they were discovered in the basement of the house

Mr Baty’s paint analysis confirmed all the original colours, especially the complicated scheme on the coved ceiling with its Raphael corner fans and elaborate Joseph Rose stucco of dolphin pedestals supporting vases, medallions and urns, interlacing festoons and paterae. As repainted by Hesp Jones & Co, it is a triumph and the fully restored room is a notable testament to Wyatt’s genius as a decorative designer using a more chaste and refined Raphaelesque vocabulary than that of Robert Adam, whom he sought to emulate and succeed as the most fashionable architect of the day.

East Hall transformation

The transformation in the East Hall is even more dramatic. There, Mr Bryant has re-created the missing frieze and stucco oval wreaths, their outline and scale being apparent under the 1960s decoration, and the Country Life photographs also provided valuable detail of the missing elements. When the inserted 1960s ceiling was removed, the central sunken dome was revealed and provided clear evidence of the Wyatt decoration in green and cream, part trompe and part moulded, similar to his and Rebecca’s scheme in the Saloon at Heveningham.

The painted surrounding panels, also in trompe green, have been re-created from Country Life photographs also by Christian Corgier. An unexpected bonus is the discovery under paper and paint of Classical landscape panels set in the rectangular Palladian architraves round the lower walls. These paintings have been restored, by Jane Rutherfoord, and add liveliness to the architecture.

The restoration of Wyatt’s splendid enfilade has been completed in the Drawing Room. There, the Edwardian pilasters have been removed and the frieze restored. The walls have been re-hung with silk, which was always the intention, but repeating the pattern and colour of the 3rd Lord Alington’s choice. This now forms the background to full-length portraits that were already in the house, as well as landscapes from the Chilton Collection.

The barrel-vaulted ceiling, a masterwork by Wyatt, Rebecca and Rose has been cleaned and touched up with the original—mainly blue and pink—colours ascertained by Mr Baty.

Crichel, Dorset: The vaulted chapel in the church, built in 1850

Crichel, Dorset: The vaulted chapel in the church, built in 1850

Crichel’s place in Wyatt’s legacy

Most important of all, a large Venetian window with scagliola columns that formerly dominated the Drawing Room has been restored on the evidence of the 1925 photographs. The diameter of the columns was clarified by their stone bases, discovered when the floor was opened up, and the Corinthian capitals are Wyatt’s favourite Pantheon model as deployed, for instance, in the hall and library at Heveningham.

Kevin Gannon has created the Siena scagliola of the columns and an early-19th-century white-marble statue of Venus on a plinth before the central arch completes the monumental climax of one of the great suites of neo-Classical rooms of England.

In recent years, Wyatt’s greatest buildings have been reinstated one by one: the Etruscan Temple at Fawley, the Darnley Mausoleum at Cobham, the Egyptian Dining Room at Goodwood and the sculpture galleries in the Gothic Cloisters at Wilton. The state rooms at Crichel are now a worthy addition to this remarkable constellation of scholarly restorations.