In this exercise I am to imagine I have been asked to advise on the refurbishment of a country house – a building of any period.
While I usually try for an Australian twist I don’t think Australia has quite the same tradition of country houses as Britain. We have farmhouses and beach shacks, but not so many grand country homes. So this time I have chosen an English theme – a new ending to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, so around 1806 – 1810. In this version Henry Crawford has proved constant and won the hand of Fanny Price. Crawford has decided that Everingham, his Norfolk estate, is too far from his new connections (including his sister Mary and her new husband Edward), and has taken Laxton Hall in Northamptonshire as his new home with Fanny. Naturally as a confirmed improver Crawford wants to make his own mark, and has engaged me to advise on a substantial enlargement of the house and landscaping of the grounds. (Modern note: as it happens Laxton Hall did undergo major work in the early 1800s, so I have some solid information to guide me).
Henry Crawford is a modern young man who is keenly interested in improving the property. He has previous experience, with minor improvements to Everingham soon after coming of age, and advising his brother-in-law, Mr Rushworth, on the landscape improvement of Sotherton. Mr Crawford has grand plans and wants all elements of the new design to be in the best of modern taste. I have some fears that he may be subject to sudden changes of opinion and not willing to submit to sober judgement, so may be a challenging client. His ambitions may also be beyond his wealth, reputed at 4,000 pounds per annum – although he has expectations from his uncle the Admiral.
Client’s stated requirements:
The expanded house and its new landscape should be among the best of the best of gentlemen’s country seats. Taste and wealth should be apparent in every room and every vista.
Music room: Mr Crawford is very fond of music. His sister is a talented exponent of the harp. Mr Crawford has spoken fondly of the room used for his sister’s harp in Mr Grant’s parsonage, which includes a tall window giving out to a grassed area where young ladies may stroll.
Library: Mr Crawford’s young bride is a keen reader. Mr Crawford reads aloud extremely well, and while not familiar with classic texts has a natural good taste and judgement in literature. An inviting and commodious library is important to the new household.
Theatre: There is some ambiguity in this requirement. It is both desired, and yet not to be spoken of. I see discretion is required to provide for “spontaneous” private dramatics without actually planning to include a theatre.
Plan for the house:
The existing hall is early 18th century, is three stories plus basement and faces south. The oval entrance hall is flanked by two smaller rooms. The main rooms are in wings on either side.
The first alteration plans were drawn up by Repton. These extended the house to the north, and moved the main entry to the house to that side. However they did not provide the music room and large library deemed necessary by Mr Crawford. There was also a suite of small rooms to the north west (lower left on the plan) which were felt not to provide the grandeur desired.
Further drawings were developed by William Carter and George Dance. The oval and two flanking rooms were thrown together to form a large library. This was further improved by connection to an external terrace and stairs leading out to the park. A music room was provided. The new north entry was made much more imposing with the addition of a porte cochère and an entry hall with a magnificent circular lantern. The major defect of these plans was the relocation of the main stairs to an awkward side location below the library.
My revised plans further enlarge the house to include a stunning central oval stair hall. This brings light and importance to the centre of the house, and provides access to all the major rooms. The north west door leads to a barrel-ceiling passage and to a side room which connects drawing room, music room, and a small terrace to the exterior. A new oval eastern room provides an elegant breakfast chamber. A study for Mr Crawford has been included, with a direct connection the large library first suggested by Carter.
Although not indicated on the plans, the library combined with Mr Crawford’s room would provide ample accommodation for a private theatrics.
Furnishings and appointments:
The house will be appointed in the modern neo-classical style, with particular emphasis on the new eclectic elegance in design introduced by Mr Thomas Hope in his recent volume Household furniture and interior decoration based on his collection of antiquities.
The Music Room is an area dear to Mr Crawford’s heart. His sister is an accomplished player of the harp and he wishes to have a suitable instrument available for Mrs Edmund Bertram whenever she should visit Laxton Hall.Early in his acquaintance with his young bride, Mr Crawford spent happy hours in her company, listening to the music of the harp and watching the two young ladies outlined in the light of the tall windows, the inviting green of the turf just outside. This arrangement should be replicated in Laxton Hall.
Paintings in the room should enhance the sense of intelligent, elegant people enjoying the pleasures of music together.Mr Crawford may chose to commission a portrait of his bride from Sir William Beechey. Other works could celebrate the cultivated arts of England – music, art, poetry, dance, genteel persons in conversation or at leisure.
Paintings and etchings of places of meaning to the family could also be included, for example showing scenes from around Mr Crawford’s boyhood home in Norfolk.I propose that the library should provide a more masculine and energetic environment. A maritime theme would provide a delicate compliment to Mr Crawford’s uncle, the Admiral. It would also celebrate recent English naval successes, and the maritime links of Mrs Crawford’s brother and father. The theme could be carried through into the furnishings. The rope-twist back rail on this chair provides a subtle naval reference. Regardless of the more masculine environment, all the family will use the library and it is important to provide comfort and variety in seating. A pair of couches, mirror image, could face each other either side of the fireplace with high side to the wall to create an attractive setting.
The house is well placed in a high position, with the land falling to the south east.
The existing waterway below the house should be modified to create a lake. Turf over the slope leading to the new lake will open the prospect to view from the house.
The ladies of the household will spend considerable time in the music and drawing rooms, and the house plan provides easy access from there to the gardens. Planting on this side of the house should invite the ladies and provide variety in their daily exercise. The turfed area outside the music room should give onto a rose garden, including shade trees and benches for seating.
Beyond the flower garden should be a “wilderness”, with shady trees and gravel paths. Benches should be provided at intervals, particularly where the fall of land and openings between trees allow a view towards the lake.
The lie of the land to the south west of the Hall provides an area which can be used for additional buildings such as the stables, without impinging on the main views from the house. On this side a walled kitchen garden should be provided.
The approach to the house is from the north. There is an existing oak avenue. Although not entirely in the modern style, the ancient trees are of great value to the new lady of the house, and should be retained. A combination of further planting and a partial rerouting of the road will provide a more pleasing approach, with a series of glimpses of the house and lake beyond from different angles.
Plans and information on Laxton Hall’s actual history: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=126714
Central oval hall based on Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney. See 30-Nov-2013
An online facsimile of Thomas Hope’s book is available from the Smithsonian Libraries Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/Householdfurnit00Hope
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Exercise – Plan a country house refurbishment