Book Review: The Big House: The Story of a Country House and Its Family

The Big House: The Story of a Country House and Its Family Christopher Simon Sykes, (HarperCollins, £14)

This story of a country house is special in two ways, partly because Sledmere itself is unusual. The seat of a Yorkshire baronet, it has the elegant perfection of a European neo-Classical Trianon and an architectural grace and elysian grandeur of setting that has nothing ordinary about it. The author’s father, Sir Richard Sykes, is supposed to have told a girl in a Paris night club in his glorious anglicised French: ‘Je vous avoir savoir que en Yorkshire ou j’habite, je suis an espèce du roi.’

The house is the architectural expression of that point of view. And this book captures that beautifully. The story is also unusual, and all the more enjoyable, for the frankness with which it details the family history. We meet figures such as Uncle Daniel, who deserted from the RAF and was found by the young John Richardson hiding in a cupboard in the Hope-Nicolson’s house in Chelsea painting his toenails red.

He ended his days as an opium addict, having been introduced to the drug by Jean Cocteau. Other unexpected relations appear, including Uncle George, the illegitimate son of the distinguished diplomat and orientalist Sir Mark Sykes, who, poignantly, never even knew that he had produced a child when a 15-year-old schoolboy.

The main thrust of this book, however, is of the power of architecture and of places to influence and to console. ‘A house is more than bricks and mortar. To those who inhabit it, it lives and breathes. It has its moods. It has a smell? For good or for bad, it inhabits my soul.’

This is a record of that family feeling over the generations: the determination to rebuild after the disastrous fire in 1911; the way restoration and opening to the public provided solace and contentment for the late Sir Richard Sykes in his widowhood, or the original Richard’s amazing achievement, during his widowhood, in creating Sledmere in a ‘godforsaken spot high up on the Yorkshire Wolds where wolves had roamed freely less than fifty years before’, and the way in which it was so greatly embellished by Christopher, the second baronet, to his own designs with the advice of a galaxy of talent: Capability Brown, Carr of York, Samuel Wyatt and Joseph Rose.

This book will become one of the rare English house classics, comparable with Vita Sackville-West’s Knole, Ralph Dutton’s Hinton Ampner, or Ketton Cremer’s Felbrigg. It is written with love, knowledge and wit.