Given the kiss of life

In the sec­ond of two ar­ti­cles, Clive Aslet re­veals how Wilt­shire’s me­dieval Great Chal­field Manor was loved back to life

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Paul High­nam

It was the very eve of the First World War when Coun­try Life last vis­ited Great Chal­field in Wilt­shire: Au­gust 15 and 29, 1914. Hardly could a bet­ter house have been cho­sen for that mo­men­tous time, as the pho­to­graphs show a 15th-cen­tury manor that looks dream­ily im­memo­rial, al­though the re­al­ity, as H. Avray tip­ping ex­plained, was rather dif­fer­ent.

Great Chal­field had just been through a ma­jor restora­tion un­der the hands of the owner Robert Fuller and the ar­chi­tect Sir Harold Brak­s­pear, with another ar­chi­tect, C. H. Bid­dulph-pin­chard, still at work on the back. It says much for both the schol­ar­ship and the vis­ual sen­si­tiv­ity of these men that the spell in which this sleep­ing beauty had been wrapped since Great Chal­field’s de­cline as a gen­tle­man’s seat was not bro­ken.

that de­cline set in early. Lit­tle of ar­chi­tec­tural con­se­quence hap­pened at Great Chal­field af­ter the 17th cen­tury, beyond the ar­rival of in­creas­ing num­bers of wa­ter­colourists and an­ti­quar­ies. In­ter­est was quick­ened by the ap­point­ment of the Rev Richard Warner as rec­tor of the lit­tle parish church. He was an an­ti­quar­ian whose cir­cle in­cluded John Buck­ler. His son and name­sake, J. C. Buck­ler, made six wa­ter­colour draw­ings of Great Chal­field in 1823 and, in 1836, t. L. Walker, a pupil of A. C. Pu­gin,

Fig 3 left: This bed­room oc­cu­pies the up­per floor of the sur­viv­ing west wing of the me­dieval house. It may have orig­i­nally served ei­ther as bed­cham­ber or a win­ter par­lour.

Fig 4 above: The hall, with its new oak screen care­fully mod­elled on draw­ings of its lost pre­de­ces­sor de­stroyed in about 1830 also pro­duced a de­tailed sur­vey vol­ume on the house, pub­lished in 1837 as his Third Se­ries on Gothic Ar­chi­tec­ture.

All this work was com­mis­sioned by the then owner of the house, Sir Harry Bur­rard­neale, a re­tired ad­mi­ral, who, al­though liv­ing in Hamp­shire, prob­a­bly in­tended to re­store the prop­erty. Sir Harry, how­ever, al­ready over 70, did not live to com­plete this project. In­stead, dis­as­ter fol­lowed his death in 1840. Far from be­ing sym­pa­thet­i­cally re­stored, the house was mauled by the then ten­ant. The hall was di­vided by a floor and the en­tire Great Cham­ber range be­hind the north-east

gable façade was de­mol­ished. The ser­vice wing at the back of the house had al­ready gone.

De­spite this mis­treat­ment, Great Chal­field fared bet­ter than some other manor houses. East Bar­sham Manor in Nor­folk, for ex­am­ple, was re­duced to lit­tle more than a façade. Old, in­con­ve­nient and—to Ge­or­gian and Vic­to­rian eyes—dark manor houses did not usu­ally make suit­able seats and yet, be­cause of the work­ings of the en­tail sys­tem that re­stricted the sales that could be made from landed es­tates, they could not be sold. Those not sub­ject to en­tail, like Great Chal­field, of­ten changed hands fre­quently.

As a re­sult, houses of the kind that Thomas Hardy en­shrined as Well­bridge House (based on Wool­bridge Manor) in

Tess of the d’urbervilles—once a ‘fine mano­rial res­i­dence but since its par­tial de­mo­li­tion a farm­house’—were a com­mon sight, par­tic­u­larly in the west of Eng­land.

A change in for­tune came at the end of the 19th cen­tury. Re­form of the en­tail sys­tem through the Set­tled Land Acts of the 1880s co­in­cided with a rise in the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of an­cient, smaller coun­try houses, par­tic­u­larly by the Arts-and-crafts move­ment; to Wil­liam Mor­ris, Kelm­scott Manor, his home in Ox­ford­shire, was a do­mes­tic ideal. Great Chal­field joined the ranks of a grow­ing num­ber of ro­man­ti­cally re­stored manor houses. This was very much the taste of the early Coun­try Life, as Jeremy Mus­son has de­scribed in The English Manor House (1999), and the fledg­ling Na­tional Trust.

The Prince Charm­ing who kissed Great Chal­field awake (Fig 1) was Robert Fuller. His father, Ge­orge Par­giter Fuller, Lib­eral MP for Wilt­shire West, lived at Ne­ston Park, coin­ci­den­tally the prin­ci­pal seat of Great Chal­field’s 15th-cen­tury builder, Thomas Trop­nell. From his father, John Fuller, he had in­her­ited a share in Fuller, Smith & Turner, the brew­ery.

In 1864, he mar­ried Emily, the daugh­ter of the baronet Sir Michael Hicks Beach. G. P. Fuller bought Great Chal­field in 1878 for its farm­land; it seems that he con­tem­plated de­mol­ish­ing more of the house, which was again in a bad way. An im­prov­ing pa­ter­nal­ist, he used the spring at Great Chal­field to pro­vide a wa­ter supply to the neigh­bour­ing vil­lages.

De­mo­li­tion would have ap­palled Philip Webb, Sec­re­tary of the So­ci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of An­cient Build­ings (SPAB), who, in a let­ter of 1881 to his friend Ge­orge Boyce, had been suf­fi­ciently alarmed to hear that ‘an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal so­ci­ety… has been ad­vis­ing Mr Fuller to “re­store” some paint­ing (dec­o­ra­tive) which re­mains at Great Chald­field [sic]’—pre­sum­ably the wall paint­ings in the church (the wall paint­ing in the house was, as yet, un­known).

G. P. Fuller was dis­suaded from his course of de­struc­tion by Robert, his fourth son. Al­though Robert’s el­dest brother, John, ed­u­cated at Winch­ester and Christ Church, Ox­ford, fol­lowed his father into pol­i­tics, be­com­ing an MP, baronet and the Gov­er­nor of Vic­to­ria, Robert pur­sued what, for a son of a landed fam­ily, was a less con­ven­tional course: he trained as an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer, win­ning a gold medal from Fara­day House in 1896.

The fol­low­ing year, he be­came works man­ager of a con­cern that his father had bought in Melk­sham: Avon Rub­ber. At the dawn of the mo­tor age, this made solid tyres as well as con­veyor belts and rail­way com­po­nents. Pneu­matic tyres, at first for bi­cy­cles, came in 1900 and, by the First World War, golf­balls had be­come a suc­cess­ful line (this busi­ness would soon be sold to Dun­lop).

Still a bach­e­lor, one of Robert’s plea­sures was fish­ing, which he pur­sued at Great Chal­field. It was this that in­tro­duced him to the house and he fell in love with it. He per­suaded his father to let him re­vive it.

The ar­chi­tect cho­sen for this project was Sir Harold Brak­s­pear, who lived at Cor­sham in Wilt­shire. Re­search by Paul Jack for a post­grad­u­ate dis­ser­ta­tion for Ox­ford Univer­sity re­veals that Brak­s­pear’s father, Thomas Hay­ward Brak­s­pear, had been a pupil of Charles Barry, ar­chi­tect of the Houses of Par­lia­ment. This had made the elder Brak­s­pear into an en­thu­si­as­tic Goth, who in­stilled a love of monas­tic ar­chi­tec­ture in his son.

How­ever, hav­ing mar­ried his late wife’s sis­ter, against the law of the time, T. H.

‘Few houses are shown to the pub­lic with greater schol­ar­ship’

Brak­s­pear had been forced to leave his home in Manch­ester: that ex­plains both the fam­ily’s pres­ence in a sleepy Wilt­shire town and Harold’s lack of for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. How­ever, nei­ther ob­sta­cle de­terred Harold, born in 1870, from a ca­reer tend­ing old build­ings. These in­cluded Jag­gards, a me­dieval house re­built in the 17th cen­tury, owned by G. P. Fuller near Cor­sham.

By the time Brak­s­pear bi­cy­cled over (one hopes on Avon Rub­ber tyres) to make his first sur­vey draw­ings of Great Chal­field in the win­ter of 1903, he was al­ready at work on La­cock Abbey and very busy.

Af­ter the First World War, Brak­s­pear would em­bark on his great­est projects, the restora­tions of Had­don Hall and St Ge­orge’s Chapel, Wind­sor. When he be­gan on Great Chal­field, how­ever, he was, al­though only 33, al­ready an ar­chi­tect of con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence and proven schol­ar­ship. This did not de­ter Robert Fuller, his ju­nior by five years, from hav­ing his own views on ev­ery de­tail of the project. His pa­pers, held, along with 200 of Brak­s­pear’s draw­ings, at the Wilt­shire and Swin­don His­tory Cen­tre at Chip­pen­ham, con­tain draft let­ters in pen­cil, cov­ered in elab­o­ra­tions in ink and lists of queries to be raised with the ar­chi­tect in per­son.

Nat­u­rally, money was a con­sid­er­a­tion, but both men were driven by a de­sire to do their best by the house. Al­though Brak­s­pear was scrupu­lous in dis­tin­guish­ing his work from the orig­i­nal by the use of a yel­low­er­coloured stone (ac­cord­ing to best SPAB prac­tice), it is not al­ways easy to de­tect what he did, af­ter more than a cen­tury of weath­er­ing. The draw­ings, how­ever, show that he did a great deal, even in the sur­viv­ing west wing.

Gen­er­ally, it was for­tu­nate that the house had been so fully recorded in the early 19th cen­tury. This, how­ever, could be a source of ten­sion be­tween the ar­chi­tect and his client, as the lat­ter wanted as much fidelity to orig­i­nal de­tails as pos­si­ble.

It led to a long and ag­o­nised dis­cus­sion over the re­build­ing of the lost east wing. Fuller de­manded that the win­dow de­tails in the new east wall were copied from the ex­ist­ing fab­ric—and got his way. Brak­s­pear ar­gued for as much sym­me­try as prac­ti­ca­ble in the ar­range­ment of the open­ings— and got his way.

The ground floor of this wing com­prised, even­tu­ally, a smok­ing room and li­brary. The key­stones to the old ground-floor vault were found in the gar­den and some of an El­iz­a­bethan fire­place in a rock­ery: this en­abled the reimag­in­ing of the fire­place on the first floor of the east wing, in what Brak­s­pear called the draw­ing room (Fig 6).

Walker had shown that the old draw­ing room roof was very sim­i­lar, but not iden­ti­cal, to that of the match­ing room in the west wing (Fig 3). There was, for some time, a stand-off be­tween ar­chi­tect and client as to the de­tail of the new work, Brak­s­pear pa­tiently ob­serv­ing that Fuller’s as­sump­tions as to the orig­i­nal forms were not al­ways cor­rect. As a re­sult, the re­build­ing of the wing took five years.

‘Great Chal­field changes while re­main­ing mag­i­cally the same’

Nei­ther client nor ar­chi­tect was slav­ish in fol­low­ing SPAB prin­ci­ples. Ini­tially, Fuller hoped to re­tain 15th-cen­tury wood­work for a new screen in the great hall, but only on grounds of cost—it was de­cided to have it re­carved by Rud­man in ‘best dry wain­scot oak’ for £107 (Fig 4). Brak­s­pear wanted to in­tro­duce glass pan­els to re­duce the gloom, but was over­ruled. He was deal­ing not only with an ar­chi­tec­tural en­thu­si­ast, but an en­gi­neer, who took a de­tailed in­ter­est in steps (Fig 5), sta­bles, pipes, gut­ters, tim­ber de­tails, the ven­ti­la­tion of wa­ter­clos­ets and the in­ser­tion of a bath into an an­cient chest.

The sta­bles and mo­tor house were par­tic­u­larly close to Fuller’s heart; the lat­ter re­quired a fit­ting room with a forge, as spare parts did not come ready made.

In 1907, Fuller com­mis­sioned the artist and gar­dener Al­fred Par­sons to de­sign the gar­den. Par­sons, an early mem­ber of SPAB who had helped to found the Art Worker’s Guild, was a thor­ough Arts-and-crafts man, who would have been in­ter­ested in the restora­tion of the manor house. He cre­ated a scheme of dry-stone walls and paved walks: pairs of yews ei­ther side of one path have now grown into ‘houses’ (Fig 2). Fuller re­jected an Ital­ianate foun­tain, want­ing ‘to stick to purely Bri­tish as far as pos­si­ble’. Plant­ing be­gan in 1910 to a bud­get of £100. The scheme is still es­sen­tially what is now su­perbly gar­dened by Patsy Floyd and her team.

Eight years af­ter Brak­s­pear first dis­cussed the project, Fuller mar­ried Ma­bel Chap­pell. She also had views on the project: hot wa­ter and cen­tral heat­ing now had to be pro­vided to the ser­vants’ rooms as well as the guest rooms. The tempo picked up as the Fullers were anx­ious to move into their home—but this was not achieved with­out fric­tion. On July 1, 1912, Brak­s­pear records a meet­ing with Fuller, ‘who in­forms me that he has got another man and another builder to do the church’. The new ar­chi­tect was C. H. Bid­dulph-pin­chard, who de­signed the chur­chor­gan case, painted by ‘Miss Mau­rice’ (Fig 7).

In 1943, the Fullers gave Great Chal­field to the Na­tional Trust. Their grand­son and his wife, Robert and Patsy Floyd, still live there, gar­den­ing en­er­get­i­cally and open­ing their doors to the many film crews who use it as a lo­ca­tion. Few houses are shown to the pub­lic with greater schol­ar­ship.

One achievement that de­serves com­ment re­lates to a pho­to­graph pub­lished in the 1914

Coun­try Life ar­ti­cles: nearly all the fur­ni­ture shown in that im­age, some of which had been dis­persed, has been re­turned to the place it then oc­cu­pied. Great Chal­field changes while re­main­ing mag­i­cally the same.

Fig 1: The back of the manor house viewed across a fish­pond

Fig 2 above: One the two yew ‘houses’ in the gar­den. Vis­i­ble here is the Great Chal­field parish church with its charm­ing bel­cote spire

Fig 5 above: Fuller took an ex­act­ing in­ter­est in ev­ery as­pect of Brak­s­pear’s re-cre­ation, in­clud­ing the form of the west-wing stair­case. Fig 6 above right: Brak­s­pear’s draw­ing room is an at­tempted re-cre­ation of its lost me­dieval pre­de­ces­sor. The reimag­ined Ja­cobean fire­place was as­sem­bled from frag­ments dis­cov­ered in the gar­den

Fig 7: The manor ap­pears in one of the church-or­gan pan­els painted by Miss Mau­rice

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