The Command House, right at the water’s edge and nestled below the tower of St Mary’s Church high on the hill behind, commands long distance views across the River Medway on the approach from Rochester to Chatham. Following a half a million pounds restoration by Stonegate Group, the largest pub company in the UK, it has flung open its eight raised panel triglyph frieze and modillion corniced fluted Doric pilastered door to customers. A bar and restaurant fill the piano nobile and spill out onto the garden stretching across to the river.
Built in the opening decades of the 18th century as The Ordnance Storekeeper’s House for Chatham Gun Wharf and later used as officers’ housing, The Command House is a fine example of the Queen Anne style. The symmetrical river facing façade is a parapeted two storeys over raised basement in height and five bays with single bay flanking lower wings in length. The red brick elevations have stone dressings.
But it is the side elevation overlooking the carpark which has the most interesting feature. An open lunette. It is set in the colossal chimneystack rising over the valley between the double piles of the roof. Sir John Vanbrugh was master of the lunette, void and chimneystack. He brings his sense of drama to all three in Kings Weston House, Bristol. The architect of The Command House is not recorded but clearly had a strong command of the classical architectural language.
We’re tasked with capturing the spirit of the place, its current glory, its essence no less. The present is not a foreign country; they do things better here and now. Although Paris France is our next stop. As Gertrude Stein amusingly muses in Paris France, “You do not mention the relation of French men to French men of French men to French women of French women to French women to French children of French men to French children of French children to French children.” It’s worth mentioning the Frenchman who would become exiled sovereign as his plump features fill a bust and a statue and a painting at Hartwell. The Frenchman who looks down on the dining table of Apsley House on Piccadilly, London, in a portrait by François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard. “But all art is erotic,” prescribes Adolf Loos in his 1908 lecture Ornament and Crime. Erm, not so sure, but we really do agree with his statement “Luxury is a very necessary thing.” And “An English club armchair is an absolutely perfect thing.” His words “Fulfilment awaits us” have a prophetic ring to them. Unerotic art, luxury and English club armchairs await us.
It’s also worth mentioning a certain French woman. A French woman who was Queen of France for 20 minutes. Marie-Thérèse Charlotte Duchess of Angoulême was the eldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The Dauphine joined her uncle to hold court at Hartwell. Her much maligned and misrepresented mother tried to set her daughter on the straight and narrow. On New Year’s Day 1784 the Queen, forgetting cake and remembering the poor, told Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, “The winter is very hard. There is a crowd of unhappy people who have no bread to eat, no clothes to wear, no wood to make a fire. I have given them all my money. I have none left to buy you presents, so there will be none this year.”
First impressions of Hartwell are grand, very grand. And very Jacobean. A feast of late 17th century transomed and mullioned oriels greets us as we swoop down the driveway round the turning circle with its life size statue of Frederick Prince of Wales on horseback and screech the breaks outside the entrance archway. But peeping past the very manicured bush (straight out of a David Inshaw painting) round to the garden front, there’s a perpendicular juxtaposition that would give County Down’s Castle Ward a run for its money. It’s Arcadian Palladian! The wealthy Hampden family built the original house before selling it to the even wealthier Lee family a couple of centuries later. In 1938 the house and 730 hectare estate was bought by conservationist Ernest Cook, grandson of the Victorian pioneer of package holidays Thomas Cook. Not that there’s anything package about bespoke Hartwell House. Ernest Cook saved the ensemble from certain ruin. Historic Hotels owner Richard Broyd would later acquire the leasehold which would in turn would be assigned to the National Trust in 2008 while allowing the house to still be run as a hotel. Lasting impressions of Hartwell are grand, very grand.
The dining room with its pendentive domes and matching Greek key cornice and carpet is more Soaneian than Pitzhanger Manor. The walls are painted lemon sorbet colour and the ceiling lemon ice cream. Contrary to appearances the dining room is 1980s not 1780s. It’s the creation of the architect Eric Throssell who converted Hartwell House from a finishing school to a hotel. A very clever creation at that. The architect amalgamated a closet, secretary’s room, south portico hallway and study to form a coherent space. The closet was reshaped to form an apse balancing that of the former study. French doors are wide open to the terrace. Dinner is served. The menu is elegantly labelled “Hartwell Bill of Fare”. Sourdough and fried tomato bread are followed by a starter of pan seared scallops, apple ketchup, compressed apple and oat crisp. The main course is pan fried turbot, leek spaghetti, sun blush tomatoes, British new potatoes and mussel cream sauce. Pudding is raspberry and elderflower tart, elderflower and mint sorbet. Taste good dining in a good taste dining room. Jacqueline Duncan, Founder of Inchbald School of Design, always reminds us, “I’m interested in taste.” A gentle breeze rustles through the dining room. Such peace and tranquillity. Yet under the fading light outside, tragedy is marked on the lawn. A tiny gravestone reads: “In loving memory of Charmian Patricia baby daughter of Captain and Mrs Conyers Lang died March 30 1924.” Beyond this gravestone, a walled cemetery abuts the estate.
Close to the cemetery a rusted blue sign on the perimeter brick wall reads, “Hartwell, The Church of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary. The present church (replacing a medieval structure) and modelled on the Chapter House at York Minister, was erected by Henry Keene between 1754 and 1756 for Sir William Lee of Hartwell House. It was an early example of Gothic Revival consisting of an octagon with symmetrical towers at the east and west ends. The interior was remarkable for the beauty of its fan tracery vaulting and the lozenged black and white marble pavement. Photographs taken before the church fell into ruin are in the National Monuments Record collection. Shortly after the 1939 to 1945 war the lead was stolen from the roof. This quickly led to the collapse of the vaulting and, after years of disuse, the remains of the building were declared redundant in 1973 and came into the care of the Redundant Churches Fund in July 1975. The elegance of the building’s design was not matched by the soundness of the construction and in order to preserve what was left, the Fund has carried out extensive works over many years under the direction of Mr Roiser of Cheltenham. May 1982.”
The interior of Hartwell House swaggers and sways between styles and centuries, from the baroque great hall and Henry Keene’s rococo morning room to the Georgian drawing room and library and Jacobean staircase hall. The newels and posts of the staircase are formed of historic carved figures. We return to the dining room a few hours later just as dawn is breaking. There may be no E in Hart but there’s eggs-to-see for breakfast. Sunny side up thank you on the sphinx guarded terrace. Poached eggs and crushed avocado on sourdough toast. It’s oh so quiet. Such peace and tranquillity. A sign in the staff courtyard next to the hotel reads “Beware People”. Thankfully the house and estate are so large there are few bodies about except for the discreet staff.
In 1728 James Gibbs published his bestseller A Book of Architecture Containing Designs of Buildings and Ornaments. “What heaps of stone, and even marble,” he complains, “are daily seen in monuments, chimneys, and other ornamental pieces of architecture, without the least symmetry or order?” The architect and author sets out to remedy this dire situation. “In order to prevent the abuses and absurdities hinted at, I have taken the utmost that these designs should be done in the best taste I could form upon the instructions of the greatest masters in Italy, as well as my own observations upon the ancient buildings there, during many years application onto these studies; for a cursory view of those august remains can no more qualify the spectator, or admirer, than the air of the country can inspire him with the knowledge of architecture.”
The Ionic Temple, an eyecatcher viewed from the dining room, is one of several James Gibbs designed parkland features. The rubblestone and ashlar stable block and attached coach house, rebranded Hartwell Court, incorporates parts of a Gibbsian menagerie. Hartwell Court now houses a swimming pool and 16 guest bedrooms in addition to the 32 bedrooms in the main house. It overlooks a private garden guarded by statues of Juno and Zeus. A statue of Hercules remains half hidden in the woodland beyond the church. The Rusticated Arch tunnels under the public road into another walled area known as Hothouse Piece which includes the kitchen garden, orchard and tennis court. A brick plinth marks the location of the Victorian glasshouses.
Restored beyond their former glory under Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s landscape renewal scheme in 1979, the mid to late 18th century gardens, offer up a smorgasbord of visual and historic and horticultural and architectural pleasures, some hidden, some unhidden. The prominently placed statue of Frederick Prince of Wales was rescued from obscurity in a shrubbery. In an early case of reclamation, the two narrow informal lakes lie on either side of the middle span of James Paine’s old Kew Bridge in London of 1782, dismantled in 1898 and auctioned in lots.
In The Age of Bronze, 1822, Lord Byron writes, “Why wouldst thou leave Hartwell’s green abode?” Why, indeed, for it’s both peaceful and fun. Hartwell House is the type of place where anything can happen. And it does. The bellboy hands us a poem printed on hotel headed paper titled The Long Driveway to Hartwell. Bonkers has a new. We nod at the line “seize every moment” and chortle at “chaise longue fizz is swell” and when it comes to “it’s a short life on our Lord’s planet” we pray “thank goodness a decent chunk of it was spent at Hartwell House”.
Kent is pleasant in spring. Well, yes it is, but it’s jolly pleasant in summer too. Especially past the commuter belt, heading for the Weald. Even more especially when it’s one of the prettiest places in the county. Pevsner states, “Matfield grew as a main road hamlet in Brenckley parish. Matfield Green is its heart. Elongated triangle of grass surrounded by pleasant cottages. On the north side, beyond the duck pool, stands a perfect early Georgian group.” Matfield House takes prime position.
Pevsner’s description of Finchcocks says the house “represents the moment when the country house style of Vanbrugh and Archer was slipping down the scale into the hands of local master builders”. So the houses could equally be judicious applications of pattern books.
Back to Pevsner: “Matfield House, the centrepiece of the group, was built for Thomas Marchant in 1728 (initials and date on the rainwater heads). Seven bays by two. Two storeyed, over a basement. The basement sandstone, the red brick, reddish brown on the front, blue headers at the sides. The façade must have been designed by the same man as Finchcocks. The giant Tuscan pilasters, set in from the angles and carrying pieces of white entablature with triglyphs, and the round headed centre windows played off against segmental ones at the sides, are enough to establish that. It is a compact, well calculated design, especially in the quick rhythm of close set windows in the three centre, slightly projecting, bays. Plain parapet, breaking forward between the windows. Three pedimented dormers peep over it, stressing the centre once more. Plain square chimneystacks at the ends. Elaborate lead downpipes. Doorcase, up five steps, on fluted Doric pilasters.”
Indoors, Pevsner notes, “The hall reaches through the depth of the house, and out of it rises an ample staircase, richly endowed with fluted Corinthian colonnettes fluted and one loosely twisted, and all with Ionic capitals tilted to the angle of the handrail. Carved tread ends. Large but self effacing wing of 1884 at the back. Contemporary garden walls and clairvoie. Stables towards the rear. They are plainly of the same date as the house, in spite of 1779 on the weathervane. Charming clock turret, very much too large. ‘Mind the Time’, it says under the clock. The clock face in a surround curving up to a point in the middle, a typical shape of the 1720s. Further east a lower barn to match.”
The current owners John and Sarah are the third generation of the Garthwaite family to live in the house. They’ve worked hard to make a building coming up to its tricentenary fit for modern day use. Most radically a copper clad extension designed by Nicholas Kidwell was added to the Victorian wing, replacing 1930s service quarters. “This cube extension has been added to the western side,” explains Sarah, “and greatly extends the daily living accommodation. It gives a more open and inclusive aspect to the garden, demonstrating what may be accomplished when refurbishing historic structures for modern living.”
While discreetly designed, the copper cladding blending in well with the brick, the extension allows for dramatically semi-alfresco living when the glazed doors are pulled back. “For the first time in its history,” she adds, “the kitchen wing of the house now relates to the garden. Vestiges of the former separation of family and staff can still be seen in the retained internal architectural features and frosted glass of the windows approaching the kitchen, along with the restored call bells.”
“Most of the rooms of the 1728 house have been combined in pairs to make them more usable,” Sarah notes. “We firmly believe in contemporary comfort when it comes to bathrooms!” she suggests. The master bedroom en suite preserves the panelling by having freestanding bathroom pieces. Water for the bath surprisingly spurts out from the ceiling.
Of the original 30 odd acres, there are still 13 attached to the house. It’s like an estate in miniature, gardens in the garden of Kent. Surrounding the “perfect early Georgian group” is a walled garden, decorative pool, swimming pool, croquet lawn and neoclassical seating. Around the corner from Matfield House is The Poet, the best gastropub in Kent. Yep, Kent is pleasant all year round.