FOLLIES, FEUDS AND EUROPE’S LONGEST FACADE
Wentworth Woodhouse is unique for having two fronts. One, completed in 1734, is in the ornate Baroque style and was already regarded as unfashionable and out-of date by the time it was completed. So the Wentworth family decided to start again, this time in the 18th century Palladian style, with a new front facing in the opposite direction. The East Front is now the longest country house facade in Europe.
The house was the family seat of Charles WatsonWentworth, the second Marquess of Rockingham, who was prime minister in the
1760s and again in the 1780s. Follies were built around the vast grounds, including a pyramid, a Tuscan column, a three- storey mausoleum and a bear pit guarded by the statues of Roman soldiers.
The house was passed through the PM’s sister to the Fourth Earl Fitzwilliam in 1782, and remained in the family for two centuries. But generations of the Fitzwilliams feuded against themselves endlessly. The Sixth Earl wanted his epileptic son to die without marrying – instead, the boy grew up to be a famous explorer. By the time the Sixth Earl died, in 1902, his grandson was the heir, and the house had become a sort of living grave: no heating, no electric lights, all but a handful of rooms shut off. Yet the family fortune was incalculable, worth billions today, thanks to the coal fields owned by the Fitzwilliams.
During the Second World War, the house became a headquarters for intelligence work. Later, the Labour Party wanted to take over the estate and mine the coal in what was seen as an act of class-war spite. Open-cast mining continued almost up to the house’s doors, and included the lawns, woods – and the driveway. Despite the harsh conditions they had endured for decades, the miners protested against the destruction.
After the last Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1979, the house was briefly used as an education centre by Sheffield Poly, and then sold to a businessman and then a London architect. It is now owned by a preservation trust, thanks to a stopgap investment of £7.6 million in 2016 by the Treasury, to stop the roof from collapsing. Whether the house can ever regain its former grandeur remains to be seen.
Above: a pyramid in the grounds. Left: the mausoleum
The stunning Palladian East Front of Wentworth Woodhouse