The foundations of both may have been somewhat undermined in modern times but Britain’s country houses (and their owners) have long understood the value of the institution of matrimony. Delving into the history of long-held country estates, the advantageous marriage is not hard to find, provident alliances historically a key means by which to bolster, sometimes super-charge, an estate’s fortunes. In the C18 ‘financial considerations often determined a family’s marital priorities [with] heiresses regarded as particularly good catches’.¹ And today marriage is once more playing a significant role in sustaining many an ancestral seat as country houses across the land vie to host ‘the wedding of your dreams’.
“I always wondered how people afforded to live in these lovely places. The answer was that many couldn’t. When I suggested weddings most bit my hand off“, said Diana Hastie, the founder of Country House Wedding Venues, recently. This enterprise is now one of many such agencies (1/2/3) whose websites, along with those of the individual properties themselves, today offer a rich source of what has been called ‘country house porn’ (a term, by-the-by, taken a tad literally in the latest edition of Tatler magazine). By way of a purely serendipitous example of the myriad options now available to the happy couple wanting to marry in surroundings to which they are unlikely ever to become accustomed, a simple dropped vowel during researches for this post inadvertantly took Handed on to the dedicated weddings website of Nether Whichendon House.
Deep in the Chilterns, this medieval/Tudor house was romantically Gothicised to his own design by Scrope Bernard in the late C18. Sir Francis Bernard (d.1779) had inherited a somewhat neglected pile late in life and his will instructed that the place be sold. And so it was but the buyer, against advice, was to be his youngest son, Scrope, possibly emboldened by his marriage to Harriet Morland…a banking heiress. Nether Whichendon remains in the family: ‘Timelessly enchanting and fabulous, this venue is absolutely unique and perfect for a truly romantic day and wonderful photographs…‘
…many galleries of which are displayed on their weddings website (there is another detailing public opening times and history). Alongside the pictorial riches afforded by such online marketing, the expansion of the role of the wedding photographer – from cheery snapper to virtual artist-in-residence – has likewise been a great incidental boon for the likes of your humble country house blogger. Gone, seemingly, are those ritualised post-ceremony permutations, now replaced by an immersive, fantasy-tinged photo-documentary of the entire day, often yielding revelatory perspectives of the hosting houses. (Long-standing Handed on readers will appreciate the exciting rarity of these interior images, for example.)
One particularly novel country house vista can be found on the website of ‘the wedding and special events venue’ that is the 1,300-acre Newhouse Estate in Wiltshire. In the view of one visitor, ‘the most extraordinary object on view at Newhouse is the ‘Hare’ picture (r) said to have been painted about 1640 as a satirical attack on the contemporary Court party‘.² Far be it from Handed on to gainsay the mighty Massingberd but this blog recommends the adjacent easel-mounted ariel perspective of this place for closest inspection.
For, however remarkable anything inside Newhouse might be, nothing can surely trump the extraordinariness of the building itself:
No, this is not a trick of photography but two arms of Newhouse’s three-pronged assault on the architectural senses. The seat of the Eyres and their descendants (today Jeffreys) since 1633, Grade 1-listed Newhouse is a remarkable and surprisingly little-documented survival, being one of only two Y-shaped ‘Trinity’ houses in existence (and much the best, the other being this C17 farmhouse in Herefordshire). ‘In late C16 England people were addicted to hidden meanings. Codes, devices and punning allusions were everywhere..entire buildings were constructed in the form of riddles‘.³ And John Thorpe – one of the six architects memorialised on the façade of the Victoria and Albert Museum – was as keen a practitioner as any.
Among the few buildings which can be confidently associated with Thorpe are Thomas Tresham’s triangular lodge in Northamptonshire and the similarly triadic Longford Castle near Salisbury in Wiltshire (r). ‘One of the most freakish Elizabethan houses, [it's] plan based on the shield assigned in medieval heraldry to the Holy Trinity’, Longford has been the seat of the Earls of Radnor since 1717 but had been built in the late C16 for the Gorge family.4 In 1619 Sir Edward Gorge acquired the Newhouse estate a few miles to the S-E, with a ‘Mansion..late erected’, from William Stockman only to sell it again, in 1633, to another local landowner, Giles Eyre. Newhouse would change hands for money one last time in 1660 but on this occasion it was a family deal, Giles’s grandson William selling the place to his cousin, Sir Samuel Eyre, for £2000.
Samuel’s eldest son, lawyer Robert, his inheritance of Newhouse naturally assured, devoted his energies forging a notable parliamentary career. (Younger brother Henry, meanwhile, made his own way, buying in 1733 500 rural acres just outside London called St. John’s Wood. Later developed as a pioneering garden suburb whose character is still policed, the Eyre Estate remains with this branch of the family, the sale in 2011 of a 5.5 acre site yielding some £250 million for the 50 or so present-day beneficiaries of the family trust.)
The house inherited by Sir Robert’s son, also Robert, was still in it’s original form (above): a three-storey central hexagon with radial extensions on alternate sides, the entrance facade crowned by a trio of triangular gables. He would add the N-W wing c.1742 which points towards the stable block (above) erected shortly before he died childless in 1752. Newhouse would eventually go to his cousin Samuel whose matching S-E wing balanced the main facade and houses the ballroom which today ‘will seat a maximum of 102 guests for a wedding breakfast’…
…a point in proceedings still usually characterised by civility and order. Which rarely lasts, of course. Alexander Chancellor, the inheritor of ‘two crumbling Inigo Jones pavilions‘ in Northamptonshire, recently revealed the flipside of the country house wedding hosts’ lot : ‘It’s no fun being here when these noisy parties are going on; nor next morning to find my house surrounded by cars that have been left behind by drivers who have drunk too much the night before. Occasionally, I even find condoms in the flowerbeds.’
No doubt in the quarter of a century during which they have been hosting such events the Jeffreys of Newhouse will likewise have encountered their share of eye-opening goings on. But what is equally certain is that the thousands of wedding-goers who have had the pleasure of being their guests in that time will never have seen anything quite like it either…
1. Beckett, J.V. The aristocracy in England 1660-1914, 1986.
2. Massingberd, H. Newhouse in the shape of a ‘Y’, The Field, 21 June 1986.
3. Asquith, C. Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, 2005.
4. Hussey, C. Longford Castle I/II/III, Country Life, Dec 1931.