The Most Beautiful House in England
A letter to Country Life from Simon Herrtage sets the scene. “What a catalyst for action the ‘Destruction of the Country House‘ exhibition was and how much we owe to Sir Roy Strong for staging it. On visiting it as a young man, I was immensely moved by the plight of these buildings, so when my father died in 1978, I sought out a house in need of help and bought 18th century Island Hall in Cambridgeshire, a fine structure that had been converted into flats following service occupation in the Second World War and subsequently suffered a disastrous fire. With the help of the late Peter Foster of Marshal Sisson Architects, the house was saved and, in return for grant aid from the then Historic Buildings Council, we opened the house to the public and enjoyed several happy years there. Had it not been for the exhibition, who knows what the fate of that house might have been – but, given that it was viewed as ‘beyond reasonable repair’ I think we can guess.”
After this structural restoration was successfully completed, Simon advertised the house in Country Life to allow someone else to carry on the good work as custodian. “Drive on,” warned Lady Linda Vane Percy when her husband Christopher, the distinguished interior designer, purposefully slowed down outside Island Hall in 1983. Two weeks later, they bought it. Christopher had good justification to be interested. The property had previously been in his family’s ownership for almost two centuries save for the rickety 20th century patch when Simon Herrtage rescued it. “We are proud of Island Hall’s war record,” admits Christopher. “In 1943 my grandfather’s cousin was given 48 hours to leave his house. It had been requisitioned. Things unravelled again when it was requisitioned a second time under the Emergency Housing Act. With its odd assortment of tenants it became like a grand version of Rising Damp!”
Things went from bad to worse. “In 1977 a fire broke out in what is now our telly room,” relates Christopher. Hell. “The tenant in this part of the house was a milliner and her materials caught fire.” Lady Linda adds, “I was recently sent an East Anglia Television video of the event. Even now it is rather unnerving seeing what was later to become our home in flames.” Otherwise, conversion into 15 flats wasn’t all bad news for Island Hall. “The alterations looked brutal but architectural features were boxed in which protected panelling and chimneypieces,” he recalls. The Georgian organ visible in an early 1900s photograph of the entrance hall wasn’t so lucky. It ended up on a bonfire. This historic photograph shows the entrance hall crammed full of gas lamps, occasional tables, rugs, prayer chairs, nursing chairs, dining chairs, more chairs. The staircase is shown partitioned off by a bizarre Gothick screen – eclecticism taken a jarring step too far. “The house was waterproofed and almost entirely heated by the time we bought it,” says Christopher. “We quietly worked our way round restoring columns, rerunning cornices, replacing missing chair rails and recovering Georgian colour schemes. The staircase had been repainted bright orange!”
It’s an Irish Georgian Society London Chapter tour and the entrance hall which fills the central three bay block, front to back, is laid out with rows of chairs as it can be for weddings. Island Hall is available for hire. A choir of clocks chimes. “The house was built in the 1740s by a Mr Jackson for his son John’s combined 21st birthday and wedding present. The Jacksons went bust two generations later when another John described his home as ‘this family wreck’. It’s just like Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode engravings in our hallway. Money, fortune, affairs, debts.” Limbo. Christopher continues, “A certain Mr Fisher was a debtee of my great great grandfather Jacob Julian Baumgartner, a naturalised British citizen of Swiss birth. Island Hall was for sale at an auction in nearby Huntingdon and Mr Fisher bought it for £2,008 and 16 shillings. Island Hall fitted the bill, the debt! My ancestor was given the house by Mr Fisher on condition he paid 50 guineas to John Jackson. My family settled here. I come from a long line who did no Victorian or 20th century improvements. John Jackson would recognise the pale green colour of the entrance hall walls.” Save perhaps for the Quinlan Terry style stone dressing up of the central windows sometime in the 19th century. This relative lack of change to the house may be in part explained by a predecessor who didn’t believe in primogeniture, dividing the estate in 1874 between his 11 children. “We’ve been poorer ever since!”
“Even though there are 250 acres of flooding meadow nearby we’re situated above the 100 year flood level,” he continues. “The Georgians knew where to build! Island Hall was built on a brownfield site – a tanner’s yard and two or three timber framed houses. It was positioned to enjoy east and west vistas.” The east vista across the road in front of the entrance front has long been redeveloped but the west vista still stretches across a croquet lawn and on to the rebuilt rococo Chinese Bridge leading to the two acre island after which the house is named. “We redesigned the gardens to incorporate borrowed vistas,” says Christopher. “We’ve had a lot of fun. To quote Sir Roy Strong, ‘At least we didn’t have to resort to flowers!’ Our 32 years living here have gone by in a complete rush.” Topiary sculptures contrast with shady informal corners. Green is the new black.
Grade II* Island Hall is perfectly symmetrical, save for the attached dormered mews house topped by a cupola and weathervane, and unusually both main elevations are the same. No bows, no bays. An architectural spot the difference – trick question, there aren’t any. Its face to the world, village facing, is the same as its face to its owners, island facing. Two storey two bay wings abut a three storey three bay pedimented breakfront. The dentilled pediment floats on plain corbels set in from the corners of the projection. This is just one of many quirky charms of the architecture. Perhaps Mr Jackson himself had a strong say in the design?
The panelled interiors are quintessentially English, grand yet intimate, majoring in studied elegance. Heaven. A metal urn in the hallway piled high with trilby hats balanced at jaunty angles is a foretaste of what’s to come. Mixing toile de jouy wallpaper with mirrored Indian furniture in one bedroom illustrate Christopher’s originality of talent and taste. Debretts, after all, lists President of the International Interior Design Association among his many accomplishments. The first floor drawing room stretches across the middle three bays of the entrance front and is decorated in rich tones of crimson and burgundy. The walls are lined with gilt framed oils of ancestors. Christopher is a direct descendent of the Gunpowder Plotter Thomas Percy. His great grandmother insisted the family add her surname Vane. Lady Linda’s family are the Grosvenors. Her father was the 5th Baron Ebury and her brother is the present Earl of Wilton. “Island Hall is important,” finishes Christopher, “but the people it has nurtured are absorbed into the very fabric of the house.