A mod­ern Clas­si­cal cre­ation

Jeremy Mus­son ex­plores the award­win­ning Chit­combe House in Dorset, which was cre­ated in 2014 in the Clas­si­cal tra­di­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Justin Paget

The best new coun­try houses speak to their land­scape set­ting and should feel as if they had grown out of it. Chit­combe house, com­pleted in 2014, is just such a build­ing, with an un­com­pli­cated, tra­di­tional english form ap­pro­pri­ate to the quin­tes­sen­tial Dorset land­scape in which it sits.

The un­du­lat­ing na­ture of the ap­proach from the vil­lage lends ex­pec­ta­tion to the vis­i­tor’s first en­counter with the house. It is com­pactly planned, with façades of cleanly cut ham-stone and roofs of red-brown hand­made clay tiles. To one side are the coursed rub­ble walls of a court­yard and an­cil­lary build­ings step sharply down into the lit­tle val­ley in a sat­is­fy­ing way to cre­ate a nat­u­ral sense of in­vi­ta­tion and wel­come (Fig 1).

Chit­combe was de­signed by Stu­art Martin, an ar­chi­tect based near Dorch­ester, who has long spe­cialised in such un­der­stated and el­e­gant houses, us­ing good-qual­ity local ma­te­ri­als en­livened by well-con­sid­ered and re­strained de­tail­ing. Mr Martin’s clients, Rod­er­ick and Ly­dia Wurf­bain, are Dutch na­tion­als who have lived in eng­land for decades and whose work­base is London.

They pre­vi­ously owned a farm­house in the same area, but, with a large fam­ily, were

look­ing for a big­ger prop­erty. The aim was to find some­thing suit­able for ex­tended fam­ily life that was also an eas­ily man­age­able base both for week­end hos­pi­tal­ity and their en­joy­ment of coun­try pur­suits, so the in­te­ri­ors had to work well for smaller or greater num­bers, as oc­ca­sion de­manded.

Af­ter a long search, the Wurf­bains even­tu­ally pur­chased a small farm with about 500 acres of land. The ini­tial in­ten­tion was to ex­tend the ex­ist­ing build­ing, but they fi­nally de­cided to build a new house ap­pro­pri­ate to the lo­cal­ity that they loved. In 2008, they in­ter­viewed a num­ber of ar­chi­tects be­fore se­lect­ing Mr Martin, who has wide ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing on English coun­try houses.

He learnt much of his craft from his early years with London-based ar­chi­tect Ben­son & Bryant, for whom he worked in 1989 to 1994, af­ter grad­u­at­ing in ar­chi­tec­ture from the University of Not­ting­ham. He moved to Dorset to work with the spe­cial­ist build­ing com­pany Saint Blaise, based in Ever­shot in Dorset, in 1994–96, where he pro­vided some of the tech­ni­cal draw­ings for the com­pany’s ac­claimed restora­tion of Prior Park, out­side Bath, and over­saw re­pairs at Way­ford Manor, a 16th-cen­tury house al­tered by Harold Peto.

Mr Martin then set up his own prac­tice in 1997, based at Lew­combe Woods Farm­house, near Ever­shot in Dorset. Early com­mis­sions in­cluded the re­fur­bish­ment and re­think­ing of a num­ber of his­toric coun­try houses, in­clud­ing 18th-cen­tury Whit­field in Here­ford­shire, and he was ap­pointed in­spect­ing ar­chi­tect to Long­ford Cas­tle and es­tate in 1999, a post he still holds to­day.

As well as nu­mer­ous ma­jor ex­ten­sions, de­signed and ex­e­cuted with artis­tic sen­si­tiv­ity, he has also com­pleted seven new houses since that date, mostly in the South­West. His build­ings are in the Clas­si­cal tra­di­tion and evoke the 17th and early 18th cen­tury, but he also draws for in­spi­ra­tion on an­other golden age of coun­try-house de­sign: the early 20th cen­tury. Mr Martin counts Det­mar Blow and Ed­win Lu­tyens as par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant fig­ures in the his­tory of English do­mes­tic de­sign and they have shaped his vi­sion of what makes a good build­ing.

The Wurf­bains recog­nised that, al­though they wanted all the ameni­ties of good 18th­cen­tury or early-20th-cen­tury houses they had known or ad­mired—in­clud­ing Horn Park near Beamin­ster in Dorset by Lawrence Dale of 1911, where Mr Martin has also worked—they would not need the large service ar­eas as­so­ci­ated with them.

The first de­sign for Chit­combe was ready in 2009. It was not ini­tially suc­cess­ful at the plan­ning stage, but, even­tu­ally, per­mis­sion was granted. Mr Martin ex­plains: ‘I aimed to com­bine a de­sign that re­sponded to the Wurf­bains’ very clear brief and to use ma­te­ri­als local to the area, with a Clas­si­cal sen­si­bil­ity.

‘Chit­combe House is de­signed with a sense of proper so­lid­ity

I was also con­scious of Ly­dia and Rod­er­ick’s Dutch back­ground.’

The play­ful­ness we see in the work of Erith and Lu­tyens seems es­pe­cially ap­par­ent in the or­ganic feel of the court­yard formed by the house and the L-shape of the service build­ings along the east and north sides. There are also quirky touches un­likely in any other pe­riod, such as the seem­ingly ‘float­ing’ dormer win­dow that lights the steps lead­ing from the en­trance court­yard to the garages on the level be­low.

Mr Martin’s strong ground­ing in the his­tory of English ar­chi­tec­ture is man­i­fested in the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of the façades, each de­vised to make the best of its own par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tion, ori­en­ta­tion and func­tion. The dif­fer­ences are al­most sub­lim­i­nal: the win­dows are largely of the same char­ac­ter, the ma­te­ri­als con­sis­tent and each el­e­va­tion has dorm­ers of the same di­men­sion placed at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals around the roof­s­cape, yet each is quite dis­tinct.

Once you pass be­tween the gate piers that an­nounce the en­trance to the front court, the cen­tral three bays—of five—on an es­sen­tially H-shaped plan are bold and play­ful: the main en­trance door is ap­proached by steps and the door­case, with its finely de­tailed ‘Gibb­sian’ sur­rounds, and the sash win­dow above are set in smooth ash­lar, en­livened with pan­els of knapped flint, a local Dorset build­ing ma­te­rial (Fig 4). Two tall sash win­dows (16 panes over 16) frame the door­case, with an oval win­dow un­der­neath, each like an in­verted lower-case i.

This for­mu­la­tion would never have been thought of in Eng­land in the late 17th cen­tury, how­ever, it does feel the sort of note struck in de­signs by Lu­tyens. In­deed, it loosely echoes, for in­stance, the win­dow ar­range­ments of Tav­i­s­tock House, built in 1904 for

Coun­try Life in London’s Covent Gar­den.

Fig 1: The house is ap­proached obliquely, with a court­yard of service build­ings dis­creetly nes­tled be­neath it

Fig 2: The din­ing room is di­rectly ac­ces­si­ble from the kitchen. Its French win­dows open onto a colon­naded log­gia and ter­race

Fig 3 above: The pan­elled en­trance lobby. Fig 4 above right: The front en­trance is en­closed within a court­yard. Fig 5 right: The log­gia cre­ates a gar­den room

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