THE TITLE of the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974 was definitive: “The Destruction of the Country House, 1875-1975”. A gallery was filled with photos of some of the 1,200 mansions that were demolished in a century – victims of urbanization, taxes and neglect. One thing was clear: the governing elite would never again build piles like Trentham, which the Shah of Persia told the future King Edward VII that it should cost his owner, the Duke of Sutherland, the head on the grounds that he was “too big for a subject “.
This obituary now requires an epilogue. The masons’ chisels are once again chipping off the top of long sidewalks as a new generation of wealthy Britons commission their own stately homes. The recovery in demand has generated a constant supply of architects for whom being a classicist is no longer shameful. “In the 1980s, if you wanted to build a good-looking classic building … there were about two or three architects in the country who could do that,” says George Saumarez Smith, an architect. “Now there are many.”
Just as the old status symbols used to be built for the new rich of that generation, so are the new buildings today. “The pinnacle of many people’s ambition is to own a country house, and that applies not only to the British, but to people who come to Britain,” says Robert Adam, a classic architect who designed Lea House in Surrey (photo), is building two country houses and has three more on order. Its clients include financiers, celebrities and Russians.
Steve Gibson, son of a welder who made money from logistics and now owns the Middlesbrough Football Club, is typical of the new generation. His North Yorkshire home will be the largest in the county for 200 years. Christopher Boyle, a lawyer who helps newcomers to get planning permission, likens them to “18th century turnips” who were eager to show off the empire’s riches. They are, he says, “people of extremely fine taste, who were lucky enough to have a lot of money”.
The scarcity of old batteries on the market, the heavy heating bills and the musty smell they bring make building from scratch a good option. The architecture of the new houses often offers more than a nod to that of their ancestors. Brutalism is not a very preferred style. Mr. Adam likes to present several plans to his clients, but “they almost always choose Palladiano”. Some people consider these houses to be mere pastiches, but they are not carbon copies. For example, while previous generations hid their kitchens at the back of the house or under the stairs, current fiefdoms like to cook and, according to Mr. Saumarez Smith, “want the kitchen in the best part of the house, where they want to enjoy good views. “
And while these big projects can hardly be described as modest, their owners still claim to be. “Usually, the first thing customers say is, ‘We’re just an ordinary family and we just want a beautiful home,'” says Saumarez Smith.■
This article appeared in the UK section of the print edition with the title “Brideshead restarted”