Anglo-Classical Architecture

Is it time that we introduced a new stylistic term to describe the dogged tradition of smaller country houses being built in unaffected, sensitive responses to the Classical tradition? I suggest Anglo-Classical. So lively is this field of design – although wilfully ignored by most of the architectural press that it can hardly be termed merely historicist. Of our Anglo-Classical practitioners under 40 years of age, Stuart Martin, based in Dorset, has already achieved an impressive catalogue of new country houses across Britain.

Mr Martin’s age is relevant. For he belongs to a specific generation that is markedly different from those supported in Country Life in the 1980s. English architects who continued to use Classicism after the Second World War fall into three generations: those active in the 1950s and 1960s were ‘survivals’ trained before the Second World War when architectural history, the Orders, and fine draughtsmanship were still taught in English schools of architecture. They continued doing what they had been taught to do, as can be seen in the work of Francis Johnson, Marshall Sisson, Raymond Erith or Claud Phillimore.

After 1956, when Modernism became dominant in England, taking a lead from the Soviet Congress in Moscow which in that year adopted State Modernism and rejected New Classicism, English architectural schools followed a universal compulsory Modernist agenda with no room for dissent or diversity. Traditional theory and practice were no longer taught. A few New Classicists emerged in revolt against imposed architectural orthodoxy, who were often self-taught or derived their knowledge and inspiration from the pre-war survivals.

Quinlan Terry is a key figure of this generation: a proselytising ‘born again’ Classicist who rejected his Modernist background and training, went to work for Raymond Erith and developed his own successful brand of Neo-Palladianism. Slightly younger architects such as John Simpson and Robert Adam fall into this same category of true believers, having had to fight to establish their ideas and practices in the teeth of a hostile architectural establishment. But a new generation has emerged now which is noticeably different. With the development of a more pluralist society and dramatically more successful economy in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing demand for Classical courses, and a younger generation of architects has emerged who regard Classicism as an English vernacular, ‘the natural outcome of the right approach’.

They see the English Neo-Georgian tradition not so much as a style revealed by God, but as the obvious national, rural, domestic form of architectural expres-sion: good proportions and good quality indigenous materials, capable of being mastered by local apprentice trained builders. They also see this very English Classicism (or Anglo-Classicism?) as a sustainable way of building rather than being expensively put together out of imported, prefabricated, hi-tech components. Their country houses often form part of wider conservation based practices, specialising in the repair of old buildings, as well as creating new ones.

Stuart Martin comes from this school of thought. Trained at Nottingham University, where he gained a First and was shortlisted for the RIBA Bronze Medal by dissembling his Classical preferences, he worked in the office of John Simpson and then for Benson & Bryant. He subsequently ran a conservation-based practice from 1994 to 1996 with St Blaise Ltd, the Dorset-based craft-building conglomerate which made the new staircase at Uppark, re-created the hand-modelled plasterwork at Prior Park, and restored the Wyatt carvings at Windsor after the three fires. He set up on his own in 1996, and has now been in independent practice for 10 years. His early training gave him an understanding of traditional materials and methods, which underpin both his new designs and his restoration projects.

He was the executant architect, with William Bertram, during the restoration of Parnham, Dorset (Country Life, July 2005), and he designed the new timber garage block there with oak Tuscan columns and wide overhanging eaves, an appropriately bucolic Classical exercise; and he continued Anthony Jaggard’s work at Bellamont, Dorset (Country Life, December 2001), with an octagonal dining room and new Gothick entrance porch. His major restoration of an historic country house is Whitfield in Herefordshire (Fig 11), carried out in 1999-2000 for the Hon Edward Clive (né Lennox Boyd), who inherited the estate from a bachelor uncle and needed to adapt it for a young family.

Whitfield is a mid-18th-century house attributed to Anthony Keck, extended in the 19th century and then truncated after the Second World War by Philip Tilden. The 1950s work had left the house with a rather small kitchen in a subdivided space on the piano nobile, a small flat-roofed utilitarian side-extension and a dark, barely used ground floor or basement storey, with five front windows obscured by a later external staircase leading to the elevated front door.

Tilden’s 1950s side extension has been removed and replaced with a new wing, designed by Mr Martin and constructed of handmade brick with a pitched slate roof and sashed windows to contain a back hall, boot room and flower room. The key to the scheme, however, was the re-coloni- sation of the ground floor as a billiard room, estate office, dining room for shoot lunches, and a new main entrance hall. At the same time, the Victorian staircase in the centre of the house was continued down to the ground floor.

The principal storey has also been replanned with the removal of Tilden’s 1950s subdivisions, the creation of a new kitchen, and the opening of a central internal vista with an arch from the staircase. Apart from the new wing, the main external change is the removal of the outside stairs and the insertion of a new front door at ground level. It has a low pediment and Gibbsian rusticated stone surround. These alterations have greatly improved the look of the house, as well as making it much more practicable for family living and entertaining.

Mr Martin’s work for Anthony Sykes at Bella-mont has led to recommendations for several completely new houses. These include Lexbury House, near Marlborough in Wiltshire (Fig 8), for Howard Spooner. The new house there occupies the site of ugly poultry sheds and a post-war ‘chalet bungalow’. In planning terms, the new house counted as a ‘replacement’ dwelling, so avoiding the Russian roulette-like planning hazards of a PPG7 ‘new country house’. Mr Martin, like many other architects, now regards the ‘Gummer Exemption’ as an expensive distraction and prefers not to try it, but to follow more straightforward established planning routes when applying for new houses.

The client was looking for a small Georgian house near to Marlborough School, but was unable to find an old one. So he decided to build his own, and took a successful gamble by buying the failed chicken farm for it. The new house has a distinctive plan with only four main bedrooms upstairs, but incorporates a self-contained flat for the owner’s parents on the ground floor. The entrance front has the door set in a small compact cylindrical bow, flanked by single-storey side wings, ending in Venetian windows.

Lexbury is beautifully built of handmade brick with fine gauged arches and stone dressings, by Ken Biggs of Bath, a firm which specialises in high-quality work and had recently carried out the restoration of Wilbury Park nearby. The interior pays homage to Sir Robert Taylor, Lutyens and Ray-mond Erith with a small circular entrance hall leading to an arched axial corridor [beyond which lies the kitchen, and the main staircase to one side with an octagonal pattern black lacquered balustrade. The drawing room is 28ft long and has raised and fielded panelling and an antique marble chimneypiece, and the dining room has a dado and decorative stucco ceiling.

After Lexbury, Mr Martin was asked to design a new country house at Coptfold, Essex, for Simon Upton after he took over the 1,200-acre estate (which had been in the family since 1907) from his parents. New Coptfold Hall, begun in 2002 and completed in 2005, occupies an old park, origi-nally created for a villa designed by Sir Robert Taylor in 1751. Taylor’s house had been demolished in the 1850s and replaced with a gaunt, red-brick Gothic house for the Petres. The 19th-century stables and small chapel survive on the far side of the new entrance court and help to root the new building.

The main part of the Victorian house was demo-lished in the 1960s and the new house occupies part of the site, with fine views over the mature grounds planted with oak, beech and early 20th-century rhododendrons. The established setting is a great asset. New Coptfold Hall counted in planning terms as a replacement dwelling for the former Victorian service wing, which had been retained in the 1960s and was ‘traded in’ for the new house.

The client wanted a traditional house in the local Georgian manner which would sit well on the old terrace. The entrance elevation is faced in red Ibstock brick with Bath stone details, to harmonise with the Victorian outbuildings facing it, and the other elevations are stuccoed in a stone tint. The hipped roof is clad with red clay tiles. Subtleties of the design include the Lutyens conceit of trompe quoins on the side garden elevations which are suggested only by incised lines, and the careful restraint shown in placing the dormers to avoid an over-windowed look.

The front door is treated as a Serlian feature, and the even spacing of the windows on the entrance elevation reflects the internal plan, with a central oval hall containing the stone cantilevered main staircase, flanked by a large family kitchen on one side, and a library on the other. The centre of the garden front has a spacious stone paved hall, which serves as the formal dining room, flanked by the family sitting room, also opening off the kitchen, and the large drawing room. The rooms lead into each other in enfilades, creating nice axial views, and there is no ground-floor corridor.

New Coptfold combines the appropriate formality of a country house on an established estate with the ease of a modern family home. The architecture perfectly demonstrates Mr Martin’s Classical approach, which follows more the spirit of early-20th-century English Neo-Georgian domesticity than the overtly Palladian character of contemporary Classical architecture. Mr Martin is now working on a new country house at North Hay, Oxfordshire, for Mr and Mrs Schicht. Like Lexbury and Coptfold, it is a ‘replacement dwelling’, but not exactly on the same site as a farmhouse which was demolished to make way for it. This is not a large house, but has a spacious forecourt flanked by subsidiary garage block and guest cottage to increase the mass. The main house is a conscious tribute to early-20th-century Cotswolds tradition.

The design combines good proportions and an Arts-and-Crafts sensibility in the handling of materials with Lutyens references to create a design which looks mainstream Neo-Georgian, as if there had been no post-war hiccup in a continuous Classical architectural story, from the 1880s to the 21st century. It supports the argument that such houses are the English national style.