The enduring English love affair with the Palladian tradition is encapsulated at glorious Henbury Hall in Cheshire, inspired by Villa Capra at Vicenza.
Set against the backdrop of a historic 17th-century landscape, the exquisite neo-Classical Henbury Hall near Macclesfield, Cheshire, was the realisation of a vision long held by its late owner, Sebastian de Ferranti. It was encapsulated in a painting by artist Felix Kelly and brilliantly executed in perfect symmetry by the eminent country-house architect Julian Bicknell. Widely recognised as one of the most important country houses built in England in the 20th century, the Hall and its immaculate, 530-acre estate have been launched onto the market by Savills (020–7016 3780), at a guide price of £20 million for the whole.
A grand house known as Henbury Hall existed in the area in the 1600s. This was replaced by another hall built on the site of the present house in 1742, remodelled in the early 19th century and drastically reduced in size in the 1850s. Following a disastrous flood in 1872, the estate was sold to wealthy local silk manufacturer Thomas Brocklehurst, who also remodelled the hall.
In 1957, Sebastian de Ferranti’s father, Sir Vincent Ziani de Ferranti, whose father founded the Ferranti electrical engineering company in the late 19th century, bought the estate from the Brocklehurst family and demolished the dilapidated main house, by then riddled with dry rot.
The Grade II-listed former Tenants Hall, built in 1770 and originally part of the former mansion, was converted to a house for Sir Vincent, who always toyed with the idea of rebuilding Henbury Hall, although it was left to his son to realise the dream, following his father’s death in 1980.
Writing in Country Life (February 28, 2002), Jeremy Musson highlighted the enduring English love affair with the Palladian tradition, which, for lovers of classic country houses, makes ‘a first sight of the great villas of the Veneto feel like coming home’.
For the distinguished de Ferranti family – an ancestor of which, Sebastiano Ziani, served as Doge of Venice from 1172 to 1178 – the Veneto was home. So the concept that emerged of an elegant new house in the form of a Palladian temple set on a commanding site within Henbury’s historic parkland made perfect sense.
Inspired by Andrea Palladio’s classic Villa Capra (known as La Rotonda) at Vicenza in northern Italy, which served as a model for the early-18th-century Chiswick House in London and Mereworth Castle in Kent, the idea of the new Henbury Hall as a rotunda, which would make the most of the estate’s many splendid vistas, was developed by de Ferranti and Kelly, who, in 1982, produced an oil painting of how such a house might look.
A year later, in 1983, Kelly introduced de Ferranti to Mr Bicknell, whose eventual design for Henbury was, according to Mr Musson, ‘a skilful evolution of the initial idea, meeting the ambitions of the patron for a Palladian villa that satisfied the requirements of modern living… while incorporating much of Kelly’s original painting, with four Ionic columns to each portico, rather than the Palladian model of six’. Henbury Hall’s distinctive dome was modelled on that of 18th-century Mereworth Castle.
With de Ferranti’s hand firmly on the tiller at every stage of the building process, the landmark new house was completed in 1986 and, the following spring, the family moved in.
Built mainly of French limestone with a roof of local stone under its striking lead dome surmounted by a lantern of gun metal and gilded copper, Henbury Hall is by no means large in country-house terms, having little more than 9,000sq ft of internal space, plus 3,300sq ft of cellars from the previous house – but what a glorious space it is.
In line with the Palladian tradition, the ground floor houses the kitchen, utilities, nursery and playrooms, with the elegant, first-floor piano nobile centred around a vast central hall leading to all the main reception rooms – the two largest being the dining room to the east and the drawing room to the west.
These richly decorated rooms, together with the charming library and a pretty sitting room with a painted ceiling, have immensely high ceilings and are separated from the towering central space by tall, polished-oak doors carved in York by Dick Reid. Still on the first floor, six bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, are arranged around a gallery overlooking the piano nobile.
Henbury Hall’s 12 acres of breathtakingly lovely gardens, which predate the present house, are a tribute to successive generations of devoted custodians, among them Gilly de Ferranti, the present vendor and Sebastian’s widow, who has restored the Grade II-listed walled garden, which is now completely organic, growing fruit and vegetables for the house, along with cutting flowers.
To the west of the walled garden is the magnificent pool house, designed and built of curved glass by Francis Machin. Highlights of the gardens, which are beautifully laid out around two central lakes, include extensive Victorian glasshouses by Foster & Pearson. They are still in use and contain many fine and rare specimens of orchids and other plants, which are liberally displayed throughout the house.
However, true to the English ideal of a ‘proper’ country estate, Henbury Hall’s pristine 530 acres are no mere showcase for an architectural masterpiece. With some 394 acres of farmland, including parkland and a polo field, together with 108 acres of woodland, this is a fully functioning farming and sporting unit, with a successful shoot run in conjunction with the neighbouring estate.
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