Architecture Country Houses

Marble Hill House + Marble Hill Beach Dunfanaghy Donegal

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Architecture Country Houses Design People

Viscount + Viscountess Mersey + Bignor Park West Sussex

Downy Grass with Tufts of Alpine Flowers | Catch the Slow Train to Dawn

Bignor Park is quite simply the most romantic place in the South Downs. Not just the dream of a house, all shell pink walls and shuttered sashes. Nor the parkland like a leaf out of a Humphry Repton Red Book. Nor that it was the home of a seminal Romantic poet. Nor that it is the home of a successful composer. The golden dusk settles it. Romance belongs here in the most literal fashion, for Bignor Park is the setting of 12 weddings a year. Kisses on the wind and then some. “We love hosting them. Such very happy occasions. At the end of the proceedings people get pretty sloshed!” smiles the 14th Lord Nairne, 5th Viscount Mersey of Toxteth, descendent of the Lords of Kerry. Also known as Ned Bigham, the music producer and composer.

That explains the pile of CDs on the drum table in the entrance hall. And the drum kit in the library. He’s an eclectic musician; his CV ranges from producing songs for Amy Winehouse to writing ballads for the Scottish Ensemble. Ned was once drummer for Neneh Cherry. His new album, Staffa, was the highest entry by a living composer in the Classical Charts. “Half my working life is taken up composing; the other half, I’m an estate manager.” Bignor Park is the home of Ned, his elegant wife Clare and their two daughters, Flora and Polly. “In 2006, two momentous events happened in my life. The first was a happy one: the birth of my second daughter Polly. The second was sad: the death of my father one month later.” That meant a change of title (form of address) and a change of title (address).

“We have undertaken major conservation work on the estate with funding from Natural England,” he relates, “restoring acres of heathland, planting new hedges and encouraging the rare Field Cricket. We now have one quarter of the UK population of the European Field Cricket. We’ve also created a wildflower wetland. I remember as a child the lovely cry of the lapwing. We are trying to encourage it back again.” There are 120 hectares of forestry and 320 hectares of organic farmland. And fortunately a few hectares left over for ornamental gardens. A million miles from anywhere. Although a surprising 90 minute drive from London.

Somewhere between the house and the stables and the dovecot and the swimming pool and the orchard and the Quadrangle and the Ceremony Garden and the South Lawn and the Dutch Garden is the Walled Garden. Clare is justifiably pleased with recent improvements: “In January 2011, Louise Elliott and Lisa Rawley of Fleur de Lys, the gold medal winner at the previous year’s Chelsea Flower Show, began an ambitious programme of new planting. Louise now manages the garden with help from Andrea Lock, Kirsten Walker and Peter Sherratt. In the centre of the Walled Garden over the pond is Geoffrey Stinton’s Aeolian harp. It hums quietly when the wind blows. Beyond the low wall is a line of pleached limes. They’re pruned to preserve views of the South Downs.”

Bignor Park is a medieval development originally attached to the Arundel Castle Estate,” according to Ned. “The current house was designed by the Belgravia architect Henry Harrison in the 1820s. It cost £30,000. The architect complained he didn’t make any money out of it! His client John Hawkins brought back some rather wonderful Grecian marble reliefs from his Grand Tour. They hang in the loggia. My great grandfather, the 2nd Viscount Mersey, bought Bignor in 1926. His father was a divorce and maritime judge – quite a combination! – and presided over the Titanic and Lusitania inquiries.” Beyond the entrance hall lies an enfilade of reception rooms: the library | the drawing room | the dining room. They’re incredibly smart. Chic not shabby. “My grandmother came from Bowood –she booted out the old furniture! The Robert Adam drawing room doors are from Lansdowne House.”

As for the poet: “Charlotte Turner Smith lived at Bignor as a child,” explains Ned. “Being a female writer was exceptional for that time. She is considered to be the first ever properly confessional writer of poems and novels.” Married off at 15, after giving birth to 12 children she separated from her feckless husband. Not before she joined him for a sojourn at His Majesty’s Displeasure in a debtor’s prison. Leaving behind the halcyon days of Bignor Park, Charlotte gained plenty of material, no words remain unsaid, for her Sonnet XXXII To Melancholy:

‘When latest autumn spreads her evening veil,

And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,

I love to listen to the hollow sighs,

Thro’ the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale:

For at such hours the shadowy phantom pale,

Oft seems to fleet before the poet’s eyes;

Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,

As of night-wanderers, who their woes bewail!

Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,

Pity’s own Otway I methinks could meet.

And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!

O Melancholy! – such thy magic power,

That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,

And sooth the pensive visionary mind!’

From late 18th century Romance to early 21st century romance. “We aren’t in the business of conveyor belt weddings,” Clare confirms. “What we want people to do is come and have Bignor as their home for the day, whether it’s a marquee on the croquet lawn or a party in the restored stables. Our marvellous Events Promoter Louise Hartley is on hand for bookings.” A breezeless Indian summer’s evening may, just may, add to the colonial air of this most romantic of Regency houses. Such grace, such calm, the smoothest of recesses and gentlest of projections offering fullness of form and precision of proportion. Then there’s Bignor village at the end of the driveway, so chocolate boxy (of the Godiva variety) it’s good enough to eat. Togetherness and nowness, living in the past, present and future. Bignor Park is quite simply the most romantic place in the South Downs.

Architecture Art Country Houses People

Cavanacor House + Cavanacor Gallery Ballindrait Donegal

Weathering Well

An anaemic sun blurred against a bleached sky casts no shadows over the house or garden. Close the cast iron gates and the four hectare estate folds in on itself. Set back from the coast, it’s a rural idyll, but no immunity to destruction is granted in this violent climate. Just a few miles away, a sandstorm is rushing through Marble Hill Beach like a suspended granular mist. The Wild Atlantic Way lives up to its adjective.

The walls of Cavanacor House in Ballindrait are soaked in five centuries of history enveloping five centuries of furniture. Owner Eddie O’Kane squeezes a semi millennium of stories into one hour of erudition. An apron of outbuildings, converted to an art gallery, clambers up a hill behind the house. Between the outbuildings and back of the house stands a one bay two storey building. Except it’s not a building, it’s a fragment. An attached tower of exposed chimneybreasts provides a clue.

“It used to be the tip of the return wing. The previous owner Miss Clarke demolished the middle section of the wing in the 1960s to reduce rates.” In so doing, she unintentionally created a framing device of the garden. “Around the same time, the house was rendered. Only the separated part and outbuildings are still roughcast.” The house was the seat of the same family up until Miss Clarke bought it, but surnames changed from Tasker to Pollock (later shortened to Polk) to Keys to Humfrey through marriage. It’s the ancestral home of the 11th American President James Knox Polk.

Walking round to the front, past the double pile gable, the five bay two storey symmetrical façade gives the impression of a distinguished Georgian house, belying even older origins. No doubt, that was the intention. A Doric columned doorcase with a rectangular fanlight is set in a square monopitched porch. Why have one fanlight when it’s possible to have two? A further fanlighted doorcase flanked by splayed walls leads into the entrance hall.

“An 1820 estate map in the entrance hall shows the house without a porch. But an 1880 map does show it.” Clearly a later addition. Marked on the earlier map is ‘The place where King James crossed’. Protestant armies amassed on the flat plains of Cavanacor, along the strategic route of the Deele River, prior to the Siege of Derry on 20 April 1689. James II dined at Cavanacor with the owner John Keyes. Simultaneously, John’s brothers were inside Londonderry’s walls, getting ready to defend the city against the King’s troops.

“James II dined on the lawn under a sycamore tree. It was an exotic type of tree back then. The sycamore was introduced late to Ireland. The tree had a 24 foot circumference. We were driving home on Boxing Day 1998 during the Great Storm. It was like a disaster movie. Lights were going out as we drove through villages. Trees swaying. We just got back in time to Cavanacor to see the massive sycamore tree burst asunder.” That wild Atlantic weather. “My son Eamon is an artist. He made an art piece out of the shattered tree.”

Eddie is also an artist. He studied painting at Belfast’s renowned Art College (now part of the University of Ulster). His wife Joanna studied sculpture. Art and architecture are a family theme. Joanna’s father was John Lewis-Crosby, Director of the National Trust of Northern Ireland from 1960 to 1979 and Chairman of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in the 1980s.

“The very old glass in the windows is rippled. I’ve noticed when painting indoors it gives a quality of light different from modern glass.” Lugged doorcases on either side of the entrance hall lead through to the main reception roosm. Straight ahead, a pair of arches is separated by a panelled screen. One arch opens into a corridor; the staircase ascends through the other.

“I enjoy doing detective work. Look at the join in the staircase handrail. I think the stairs originally continued below the screen down to the servants’ quarters in the basement.” One of Eddie’s paintings of the garden hangs in the dining room. “The garden looks Victorian with its profusion of foliage. But when there’s a drought, a ghostly path appears through the grass. It looks like an early herb knot garden.”

Eamon O’Kane’s exhibition Exploring Architecture is on show at the Cavanacor Gallery. One section features acrylic paintings of Eileen Gray’s house in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. “Eamon is fascinated by Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray’s professional jealousies. They produced great art and architecture amidst their turbulent personal lives.” Corbu bragged, “Less is more!” Eileen yawned, “Less is bore!” White walls and flagstone floors provide a sense of calm to the gallery, whatever the weather is outside.

Architecture Country Houses People

Lady Colin Campbell + Castle Goring West Sussex

You Might As Well Live

“Yawnsville, dahling, yawnsville!” Known – among many things – for her catchphrases, Lady Colin Campbell is never ever dull. And she doesn’t tolerate dullness in others. Certainly not in her castle in Sussex, at any rate. “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity,” Dorothy Parker once said. Lady C would give Mrs P a run for her money in the quips department. “Oh do put that on the internet!” winks Her Ladyship. Not an early riser, at least not today, she appears makeup free, her high cheekbones unadorned. Traces of confetti on the driveway suggest it’s been a busy weekend.

“I’m me whatever – I’m not playing for the gallery. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and, as you can see, I’m not dead yet!” Lady C gleefully describes her various fundraising activities as “whoring for Goring”. A stint on one celebrity TV programme famously helped pay for the castle’s dome preservation. “My friend Carla, not being English, thinks outside the box and suggested covering the dome with a layer of cling film and carpet protector.” Very Parkeresque: “Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.” Although when confronted with a 10 metre python in one episode she did exclaim, “I’m not prepared to jeopardise my life for the entertainment industry!”

Goring Castle was built by the Shelley family for the poet Shelley,” she explains. “It was sold by his wife Mary who, you know, wrote Frankenstein. I saw the potential immediately and I thought it would be possible if I got my Jamaican workers – which I did. I knew what they were capable of – I am Jamaican!” Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in Italy aged 29. The building is a less compact English version of Northern Ireland’s Castle Ward. Dracu Gothic to the north; Greco Palladian to the south. Either the architect John Biagio-Rebecca or the client had adventurously diverse taste. Or maybe bipolar. “It self evidently hedges its bets with no attempt at unity!” remarks Lady C. As Dotty observed, “Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.”

“Let’s whizz round the outside,” enthuses the châtelaine. “The gothic front looks more like the original Arundel Castle than Arundel Castle itself. The horseshoe staircase on the classical front was bought by the former owners, the Somersets, on a trip to Italy. It cost £30,000. That’s £8 million today. Beyond belief! They could’ve just done it up much cheaper! Above the stairs is the beautiful Shelley coat of arms made of Coade stone.”

Alas, Dorothy Parker’s aphorism resonated with the found state of the castle: “The only dependable law of life – everything is always worse than you thought it was going to be.” Nothing that a few million quid wouldn’t fix, though. “I bought the castle three and a half years ago and after the first year moved in. Mid restoration! The east wing collapsed into the wall. I took down the outside bread oven. Hideous beyond belief! There have been times when I wished I could stop,” Lady C recalls, “and there have been times when there has been too much for me to do. It has been frenzied at times – there are neverending demands, neverending things to do, and lots of problems. But I have always enjoyed it.” She benefits from Dotty’s “keen eye and magnetic memory”.

“It’s worth the trouble.

It’s a magnificent building.

It’s absolutely beautiful.

It’s laden with history.”

The castle with its obligatory west wing is a sprawling 1,450 square metres. That’s the size of 16 three bedroom houses. An elegant sitting room framed by Doric columns opens onto the terrace under the external staircase. Above, three interconnecting staterooms span the length of the piano mobile. “Its architect understood light and the light here is just fantastic,” Lady C observes. On cue, late morning sunlight gilds the curve of the oval staircase hall. A family staircase leads up to top floor private apartments for Lady C and her two sons. Hopefully there’s plenty of storage for Her Ladyship’s five tiaras and couture wardrobe. She affirms, “Just because I happen to have come from a privileged background doesn’t mean I’m not human, even though many people may think I’m not!”

Two springer spaniels, Totty and Nicky, follow their owner around the place. “It’s very different when you’ve inherited furniture. Interior designers want to cover everything with the same fabric. So American. I went to school in New York but I’m not a New Yorker! We have a licence for people to get married here. Very pretty, but of course, the weather…” Her mobile rings. Instead of Dorothy Parker’s “What fresh hell is this?” she answers, “Hi honee. Hi, where are you? We’ll get there, my son!” Dima is busy on a computer on the top floor. That’s several storeys and hallways and lobbies and corridors away.

Lady C reflects: “Well I would say that there are times in life when you realise that if you put in the graft you get the reward. Effort requires effort.” It’s the end of Lady Colin Campbell’s bold and brilliant, wild and whacky, fast and furious tour. “Appreciation, my dear,” her eyebrows arching, “is a wonderful thing.” What would Dotty do? “Tomorrow’s gone – we’ll have tonight!” And there’s more from the original New Yorker, “Oh, life is a glorious cycle | A medley of extemporanea.” We step out of the recessed gothic porch into the rest of our lives.



The Salt Room Afternoon Tea Brighton East Sussex + The Duchess of Bedford

Chips off the Old Block 

Henry James: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not – some people of course never do – the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime.”

Many silvery moons ago we stayed in the Grand Hotel and were pleasantly surprised by this piece of Mayfair-on-Sea. The hotel’s GB1 seafood restaurant is quite simply the Scott’s of Mayfair Brighton. It even has a stadium shaped bar piled high with oysters encircled by diners perched on stools. A delicious morsel of Edwardian Brighton reinvented for the New Elizabethan age. Another prized stretch of coastal real estate, overlooking the tangled silhouette of the darkly skeletal West Pier, has been snatched up by The Salt Room.

This restaurant has gone all Duchess of Bedford. You guessed. It’s started serving afternoon tea (£24.95). The ultimate meal sandwiched between meals hasn’t been so popular since Princess Catherine of Braganza rocked up with a bonanza of tea in her dowry. The interior might be contemporary but the veranda has a natural turn of two centuries ago feel to it. Will it be full of piscatorial pleasures like the Cosentino party’s oysters with gold leafed carb free caviar? Or the black cod canapés at the Aqua Kyoto shindig?

We know our quirky afternoon tea interiors – think Sanderson and sketch – and quirky afternoon tea treats – think Marriott Park Lane’s beetroot finger sandwiches and Marriott County Hall’s cheesy savoury scones – but in this relatively restrained space there are a few new nutritional novelties even to us. Candy floss is a first! And sure enough, Executive Chef Dave Mothersill’s menu is aptly peppered with piscatorial pleasures. Even the wine list includes a Salt + Shell section: organic wines produced on coastal vineyards from Sicily to South Africa:

“Wines influenced by the sea have a real freshness and purity,” explains Dave, “making them the perfect partner to our local seafood. The soils are packed with fossilised seashells which, when you combine with the salty influence of the sea, helps to create wines of real character. All these wines are coastal with the exception of Gavi di Gavi which is planted on an old limestone seabed. We squeezed it on our list because we love it!” Gotcha. Pier pressure continues with crab rarebit, smoked mackerel paté and, oh good, chocolate pebbles. Even the strawberry jam with the scones is laced with vanilla. Maybe an oblique reference to ice cream? Synchronised idiosyncrasy delivers chive butter crumpet, pumpkin fritter with carrot tartare and a glazed mini doughnut

Abruptly, after overindulging on Jing tea, our rose tinted glasses are lifted, and it all becomes black and white to us. The black bathroom with The White Company accessories. Of course. Monochromatic madness. The Salt and Pepper Room. Aha! We’re in a metaphorical chip shop. What could be more Brighton? Our chips are down. Let’s hope it’s not too many ghostly moons till we return to this innocent pastime.

Architecture Art People

Trevor Newton + Dartmouth House Mayfair London

The First September

The new year really starts each autumn. As the first golden leaves fall, where is it possible to see The Wallace Collection, Sir John Soane’s Museum and a swathe of Parisian hôtels particuliers in one room? In the Long Drawing Room of Marchmain Dartmouth House, on the same street where Oscar Wilde once resided in Mayfair, but only if you’re on the exclusive invitation list to the EV (Evening View). This house beautiful is not open to the public. Interior Impressions, a major exhibition of drawings by Trevor Newton is presented and curated by Anne Varick Lauder. It’s the first monographic exhibition of the accomplished artist in eight years.

New York born London based Dr Lauder, who has held curatorial positions in the J Paul Getty Museum, the Louvre and the National Portrait Gallery, announces, “We are delighted to be in the Long Drawing Room for the Private View of new drawings by the English topographical artist Trevor Newton. All 60 new works are of grand or highly individual British and European interiors from Versailles to The Ritz, to the Charleston of the Bloomsbury Group and the intimate Georgian houses of Spitalfields. It is therefore appropriate that this invitation only exhibition should take place in one of the finest private interiors in Britain.” She adds, “Interiors within interiors!” A 21st century – and for real – Charles Ryder.

Trevor studied History of Art at Cambridge, later becoming the first full time teacher of the subject at Eton. A present of The Observer’s Book of Architecture for his eighth birthday spurred a lifelong interest in buildings and their interiors. Rather than pursuing modish photorealism, he sets out to capture impressions of a place, often adding whimsical details imagined or transposed from other sources. His atmospheric renderings experiment with the interplay of light and reflection. Dense layers of mixed media – body colour, pen and ink, wash, watercolour and wax resist crayon – evoke a captivating sense of the aesthetic and nostalgic. His framing portrays a theatrical awareness of view: how the onlooker visually enters the room. There’s an enigmatic absence of people yet signs of habitation: a glass here; a magazine there. Trevor says, “My drawings are attempts to convey the emotions generated by art and architecture.” Emotional revisits. Anne considers, “It’s like he redecorates on page.”

Fellow alumnus Stephen Fry recalls, “While many of his contemporaries at Cambridge were Footlighting or rowing, Trevor seemed to spend much of his time drawing and painting. His specialities then were lavish invitations for May Week parties, illustrated menus for Club and Society dinners, posters and programmes for plays and concerts, along with a highly individual line in architectural fantasy drawn for its own sake and for the amusement of his friends. He managed to combine the frivolous and the baroque in a curious and most engaging manner: Osbert Lancaster meets Tiepolo. Trevor is still drawing and painting as passionately as ever and though the content of his work may be more serious, in style and execution it still has all the youthful energy and verve which characterised it over 30 years ago.”

Dartmouth House is something of a hôtel particulier itself. A château-worthy marble staircase and 18th century French panelling in the reception rooms add to the cunning deceit that just beyond the Louis Quinze style courtyard surely lies the Champs-Élysées. The Franglais appearance isn’t coincidental. In 1890 architect William Allright of Turner Lord knocked together two Georgian townhouses for his client, Edward Baring (of the collapsible bank fame) later Lord Revelstoke, to create a setting for his collection of French furniture and objets d’art. Ornament is prime. Dartmouth House is now the HQ of the English Speaking Union. Except for tonight. When it’s utterly-utterly Great Art Central.