Comfort and convenience
Country Life UK|September 29, 2021
Modernist country houses of the 1930s and post-Second World War period could be stylish buildings that made use of new technology. They deserve to be better known, as Adrian Tinniswood explains
Adrian Tinniswood

WHEN John Dennys’s designs for the 5th Duke of Westminster’s new Eaton Hall were published in 1970, the Duke of Bedford wrote to the editor of the Architectural Association’s AA Notes to say that ‘one of the virtues of the Grosvenor family is that they frequently demolish their stately home. I trust future generations will continue this tradition’.

Dennys’s startling Modernist creation sent shockwaves through the conservative world of country-house connoisseurship.

The previous Eaton Hall, a magnificent Gothic monster designed for the 1st Duke by Alfred Waterhouse in the 1870s, was described by an awestruck Nikolaus Pevsner as a ‘Wagnerian palace [and] the most ambitious instance of Gothic Revival domestic architecture anywhere in the country’. But it had been demolished in 1961. Now, a new Eaton Hall rose like an angular white phoenix in rural Cheshire, gleaming white and flat-roofed.

The Duke of Bedford’s wish soon came true. Only 15 years after it was completed, the 6th Duke of Westminster announced that he had decided to take ‘a long hard look at the design of the house in order to achieve greater harmony with its surroundings’. With rather more directness, an estate spokesman said simply: ‘The building is an eyesore.’ The Cardiff-based Percy Thomas Partnership was brought in to add a new gabled roof, to replace the white marble cladding with local red sandstone, and to redesign the interiors with advice from Hugh Casson ‘in a manner more in keeping with the lifestyle of the landed gentry’.

The sad story of Dennys’s Eaton Hall reminds us that not all post-war country houses looked towards the Georgians for their inspiration. There had been attempts before the war to design country houses in a contemporary idiom: Modernist masterpieces such as Oliver Hill’s Joldwynds in Surrey (1931–33), with its glass staircase tower (Fig 6), or Basil Spence’s magnificent Gribloch House, Stirling (1938– 39), with its startlingly sinuous Art Deco staircase. Such experiments were in a minority and reactions among the arbiters of country-house taste ranged from bewildered fascination to outright hostility. ‘People are finding their conceptions of beauty being strangely changed by all the new shapes and materials around them,’ wrote an uncertain Christopher Hussey in 1934, after a close encounter with Joldwynds’s ivory-coloured entrance hall and its inlays of coral and jade.

After the war—with a few neo-Georgian exceptions: Francis Johnson, Claud Phillimore, Raymond Erith—a generation of younger architects put the past behind them and focused on creating a brave new world of urban utopias, planned towns and high-rise housing.

Building big houses for rich people seemed not only anachronistic, but also politically incorrect. Nevertheless, exciting Modernist houses were built in the country in the first decades of peace: fiercely horizontal boxes in dramatic rural settings with flat roofs, openplan interiors and lots and lots of glass (Fig 5).

The house that architect and planner Derek Lovejoy built for himself on a Surrey hillside in 1960 (and called, in a clear statement of intent, ‘New England’) was one such (Fig 4): its centrepiece was a 40ft living room with two frameless glass walls opposite each other, ‘making this part of the house as transparent as an empty aquarium’, said H. Dalton Clifford, shortly after the house was finished.

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