When is a ‘big house’ never quite big enough? Answer: When it has been the inspiration for a classic novel set to be dramatised for television. ”Mr Rochester’s house wins,’ declared Country Life last month, reporting that this year’s HHA Restoration Award had been won by Norton Conyers, ‘the house said to have inspired Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre‘.
Charlotte Bronte’s book has been filmed numerous times, most recently by the BBC in 2006. Did this production feature GII*-listed Norton Conyers (r), charming gabled manor house and seat of the Graham family since 1624? Or, perhaps, that other modestly-proportioned ‘Thornfield’ contender in Yorkshire, Thornton Hall? No, it did not, producers favouring instead – not for the first time – the dramatic Grade I splendour of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire.
When it comes to screen adaptations of the classic ‘country house’ novel, it would seem, size matters.
In period drama’s tendency towards grade inflation (and many other respects) it was ITV’s landmark 1981 serialisation of Brideshead Revisited that raised the bar, aggrandizing mid-sized Madresfield Court, which fired Evelyn Waugh’s imaginings, into the palatial dimensions of Castle Howard. (These days the casting of ‘the house’ has become a mini-industry in itself.) One of the most recent entries into the field was Sir Tom Stoppard’s assured 2012 adaptation for the BBC of Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s end-of-era tetralogy arcing World War One. It starred Benedict Cumberbatch as the central figure Christopher Tietjens, stolid, maddeningly correct and anguished about many things including the destiny of the family pile, Groby Hall.
In his creation of this milieu Ford would draw heavily upon the character and background of his some-time friend Arthur Marwood, a relationship which, though ultimately doomed, had provided the author with a much desired entre into landed society. Arthur was a scion of the Marwoods of Busby Hall, seated here now for well over 400 years. Appropriately, a house on the edge of the North Yorks moors was used as the filming location for the scenes at Groby – but it wasn’t GII* Busby Hall.
‘The only stately home in the North Yorks Moors National Park’, begins this newspaper profile of Duncombe Park, putting Busby, 14 miles to the north and similary just within Park bounds, firmly in it’s place. This Grade I house (r) by local man William Wakefield (heavily cribbing the likes of Vanburgh and Hawksmoor¹) was built in 1713 for the Duncombes, later Earls of Feversham; it and the 13,000-acre Helmsley Estate remain in their hands.
BBC’s Parade’s End was promoted in some quarters as the thinking person’s Downton Abbey but unlike at Highclere Castle, Duncombe Park wasn’t bracing itself for the hordes – the house has been closed to the public since 2010. “It was a difficult decision to close and certainly nothing to do with privacy”, present custodian Jake Duncombe explained. “We were happy to share the house [but], in effect, we were paying people to look around.” Meanwhile, over at the ‘real’ Groby…
… opening to the public has never been on the agenda though if architect John Carr, the Georgian dynamo of the north, had had his way Busby Hall would project a slightly grander, statelier presence. It would be the decisions – pragmatic or emotional, depending upon interpretation – of his one-time client, Mrs Jane Turner, that would determine not only the appearance of the house but also who gets to live there today.
Sitting just below the rising slopes of the Cleveland Hills, with it’s westerly aspect commanding a panoramic vista of the Leven vale, the Busby estate was acquired by William Marwood in 1587. William’s nephew George, created a baronet during his own tenure at Busby, had a son, Henry, and daughter. The latter wed William Metcalfe (remember that name) of Porch House, Northallerton; Henry’s only son and heir George would predecease him, decoupling the title (which a short sequence of childless nephews would consign to extinction) from the estate, the entirety of which would flow to George’s daughter, Jane.
In 1757 Jane lost her husband of 46 years, Cholmley Turner MP, a wealthy landowner with an estate at Kirkleatham, some 12 miles N-E of Busby. With the Turner estates now going to a nephew, Jane returned ‘home’ to Busby. Working drawings for a failed moneyspinning gazeteer of Yorkshire houses c.1720 by entrepreneurial antiquarian John Warburton and his young draughtsman Samuel Buck give an impression of the house she came back to (above). Possibly accustomed to better at Kirkleatham Hall – ‘It is a thousand pities that the Hall was allowed to disappear,’ Pevsner would lament ten years after its demolition – Jane determined that Busby was due a fashionable upgrade.
In the same year she was widowed, Turner did what everyone else in these parts was doing at the time and called in John Carr. The Marwood archive contains the architect’s proposed designs for ‘an elegant new facade of seven bays and two storeys with a 3-bay pediment with Rococo cartouche, and a surprisingly architectural office wing’.²
But, for reasons unclear, Turner would eventually give the job to Kirkleatham builder Robert Corney who, whilst retaining flourishes such as the imperial staircase and it’s illuminating Venetian window, executed a smaller, less extravagant design though one ‘clearly based on the drawings of Carr’.²
Jane Turner’s son died unmarried aged 22 leaving just a daughter, also Jane. But while she herself had inherited Busby as a woman Jane Snr. would see to it that Jane Jnr. most definitely did not. One academic has suggested that Turner’s will, in which everything was to go instead to the sons of a distant relative, Thomas Metcalfe, with a strict male entail requiring adoption of the Marwood name everafter, reflected ‘the belief that land was masculine’.³ But less than fifty years after the event a rather more dramatic explanation of blatant disinheritance was recorded.
In his depiction of an old landed family in crisis in Parade’s End it might seem odd that Ford Madox Ford would create the Tietjens, ‘who came over with Dutch William’. But perhaps the writer had been apprised of this pivotal moment in Busby’s story and was imagining what might have been. For daughter Jane fell in love with and duly married Capt. Philip Van Straubenzee, an officer in the Dutch forces co-opted to resist the Jacobite rebellion. This union, it is said, appalled Jane’s mother whose animus neither the Dutchman’s later British naturalisation nor christening their first born Marwood Turner did anything to temper. Mrs Van Straubenzee and son were out in the cold: ‘It was by her disinheritance that the Metcalfes became the Marwoods of Busby’.
Ironically, the Van Straubenzees have climbed higher than Jane Turner could ever have dreamt. What’s more, her stipulation that subsequent heirs be male would open the doors of Busby Hall to another European emigre family following the premature death at 35 of George Marwood in 1893. Despite having been one of 13 children born to George (Metcalfe) Marwood and wife Frances, an early-C20 interregnum would ensue at Busby due to the practical unavailability of George’s four brothers, being variously: a high-flying career civil servant in London (William); a career soldier in India (Henry); a sickly intellectual (Arthur); dead (Charles). So, not for the first time, the Hall was available to let.
‘The present occupants of Busby Hall are Mr and Mrs Gjers who have done much to improve it and make it one of the most up-to-date country residences in Cleveland,’ noted this 1912 work. A family of innovative Swedish ironmasters who prospered on Teeside, the Gjers’ tenancy at Busby was apparently an unqualified boon for the place which is rather more than can be said of…
…Mrs. Millicent de Bray Pape, the unsuitable American to whom Groby is rented in the final volume of Parade’s End. One act of symbolic barbarism sees the felling of the totemic ‘Groby Great Tree’, a feature inspired by a magnificent chestnut – ‘said to be the largest in England’ – in the gardens of Busby Hall. Now while Duncombe Park may have been able to satisfy television’s predilection for Grade 1 grandeur the producers of Parade’s End had to manufacture their own tree out of polystyrene. Genealogical purists might suggest an element of contrivance, too, about the Marwood family tree but in this respect, of course – much like the Van Straubenzees these days – they’re keeping some very good company…
¹ Hussey, C. Duncombe Park, Country Life, Feb 1957.
² Wragg, B. The life and works of John Carr of York, 2000.
³ Capern, A. Women, land and family in early-modern North Yorkshire [download].