Apethorpe Hall revealed
The restoration of Apethorpe Hall, a Northamptonshire country house dating back to the 15th century, has revealed the building and its remarkable architectural history.
An impression of what the house might have looked like if the proposed alterations designed by Roger Morris had been completed
Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire has been in the news, both local and national, ever since the public inquiry, held in 2003 as part of the successful compulsory purchase order served on the then owners, ACEL, by the DCMS. In order to understand the importance of this house, which had remained largely hidden and relatively little studied since the second world war, English Heritage began a detailed investigation into its history.
This investigation was converted into a formal study after the property was handed over to English Heritage in 2004. English Heritage set up an interdisciplinary team to carry out this study. It brought together all the skills available within the organisation under John Cattell, the chief buildings historian. The brief was to research the history of the house, the stables, the garden and the wider landscape.
Primarily English Heritage was entrusted with the task of carrying out major repair work on the house and its stables. This is nearing completion. The removal of the scaffolding, both internal and external, late last summer has revealed the house in all its glory. The repair work has concentrated on the south and east ranges around the main courtyard, which contain the state apartment and the long gallery. This section of the house was largely built for Sir Francis and Lady Mary Fane (later 1st Earl and Countess of Westmorland) between 1622 and 1624, at the instigation of James I.
This state apartment, one of the best preserved suites of early 17th century state rooms in England,
Apethorpe Hall today
contains a magnificent series of stone chimney pieces and the elaborate plaster ceilings. All of them have been restored, and the roofs above re-slated. The statue of King David, which vandals had forced from its place on the overmantel in the long gallery, has been restored and returned to its rightful position. The splendid panelling in this room has been removed, cleaned, restored and reinstated, allowing us to once again see it in something approaching its original form.
The restoration of this panelling has also led to the discovery of an earlier panelling scheme, drawn directly on to the plaster walls, which was presumably rejected in favour of the slightly different arrangement of the panelling which survives today. It also showed us that the original panelling scheme included a series of full-length family portraits inserted directly into the panelling – an arrangement not known to have existed in any other contemporary long galleries. Kathryn
C ONTEXT 104 : MAY 2008
Left: The statue of King
David, which had been
forced from its place on
the overmantel in the long
gallery by vandals, has been
restored and returned to its
rightful position.
To p right: The panelling
design drawn on the exposed
walls of the Long Gallery
Bottom right: One of more
than 800 masons’ marks
that have been discovered.
Nick Hill, ‘Jacobean
Joinery: The Panelling
of the Long Gallery
at Apethorpe Hall
Transactions of the
Association for Studies
in the Conservation
of Historic Buildings,
Volume 30, 2007, 10–23.
Morrison’s diligent investigation has even led to the identification of these individual portraits and the tracing of many of the actual pictures. Articles by Nick Hill (see left) and Kathryn Morrison (to be published in the near future) detail these important discoveries.
This policy of investigation and publication has not only included members of the official investigation team. We have also called in experts from a variety of fields to assist us in this work. Claire Gapper, the leading authority on early 17th century plasterwork, was involved as a consultant at an early stage. Her invaluable knowledge, combined with our own investigation, has led to some very intriguing and interesting results which are due to be published in the English Heritage Historical Review for 2008. Similarly Adam White, the leading authority on 17th century sculpture, has prepared an article on the iconography of the sculpture of these chimney pieces, which will be included in the same publication.
A detailed study of the approach taken by the English Heritage investigation team and some of its most important results have already been published under the title ‘The Apethorpe Hall Research Programme’ in Research News, the newsletter of the English Heritage research department, No 5, winter 2006–07. A complementary study of the repairs and their methodology has been published under the title ‘Apethorpe Arising’ in Cornerstone, the magazine of the SPAB, Vol 28, No 2, 2007. The results of this investigation have been collected together into a two-volume report entitled ‘Apethorpe Hall, Apethorpe, Northamptonshire: survey, research and analysis’, English Heritage Research Department Report No 86/2006, which was completed last summer. This report is available on CD (see left).
This thorough assessment of the fabric of the house was complete at the time of writing, but various interesting discoveries have been made since that time. Sections of this report no longer represent our most up-to-date understanding of the fabric of the house.
Allowing necessarily limited public access to the house during the restoration work has been an important part of English Heritage’s policy. Visits by interested experts in all fields of country house studies have produced unexpected and often valuable insights into the history and development of Apethorpe Hall. For example, Peter Brears – a well know authority on historic food and its preparation – has been able to elucidate the use of various spaces within the service section of the late medieval house, which were proving very difficult to understand. Similarly the discovery and transcription (by Esther Godfrey and others) of a number of extremely useful inventories of the house has added enormously to our understanding of how the rooms were used at various periods of its history – although their interpretation has not been easy in a house which is strung out around two courtyards.
The discovery of over 800 masons’ marks, surviving mostly on the early 17th century fabric, has led to their detailed recording, study and analysis by another outside consultant Jennifer S Alexander, a leading expert on medieval masons’ marks. The important results of this work have recently been published in an article entitled ‘Apethorpe Hall and the Workshop of Thomas Thorpe of King’s Cliffe: a study in masons’ marks’ by Jennifer Alexander and Kathryn Morrison in Architectural History, Vol 50, 2007. It is hoped that this initial study will lead to a further study of these relatively overlooked features of building construction in the early 17th century.
Copies of the two-volume
report ‘Apethorpe Hall,
Apethorpe, Northamptonshire:
survey, research and
analysis’, English Heritage
Research Department Report
No 86/2006, are available on
CD only, price £5. Cheques
should be made payable to
English Heritage and sent to
Amanda Atton, 24 Brooklands
Avenue, Cambridge CB2 8BU
CONTEXT 104 : MAY 2008
Sporadic documentary sources have allowed detailed study of the house in the 18th century. My article on ‘The Palladian Palace at Apethorpe’ in English Heritage Historical Review, Vol 2, 2007 has been able to identify the architect of the proposed alterations, Roger Morris, and to reconstruct what the house might have looked like had it been completed. Even here, new research into the surviving paintwork by Helen Hughes, our resident paint expert, suggests that the plasterwork decoration of the white stair was carried out in two distinct stages, something not known when the article went to press.
Repair work itself has produced a number of interesting discoveries. Richard Sheppard carried out a study of the roof structure over the long gallery range while the timbers were exposed during re-slating. This has provided useful information about the problems that the original builders encountered in the early 17th century when attempting to incorporate the surviving roof walk along the eastern side of this roof.
Discoveries of all sorts continue to be made. Recently a complete set of plans of the house dating to 1848 were found among papers in Lord Brassey’s garage. These predate our previous earliest known set of detailed plans by 10 years. They show that significant changes had taken place in that time. For example, the 1848 plans show that the medieval hall at the centre of the house, known to have been used as the servant’s hall from at least the late 17th century, was for a time divided into two separate rooms. A two-storey dividing wall was built across the hall from the high to the low end, separating off a corridor on the eastern side and making the oriel window into a separate room.
These plans do not tell us when this dividing wall was inserted – probably in the late 18th century – but we do know that it had been removed by the time of the later plans of 1858. This may not be the most significant alteration ever made to the house but it is especially interesting in showing how unimportant the hall had become by this date – and how significant this type of documentary evidence can be when features like these have left absolutely no architectural evidence behind.
The return of this house from an institution to a country house has involved recording and removing
the most intrusive additions made for the approved school which occupied the building between 1949 and 1980. This has not meant that we have overlooked this period of the house’s history. It may have been an inappropriate use for such an important historic building, but at least it ensured that the building was not threatened with demolition, unlike so many other country houses at the time.
We have taken our interest in the history of Apethorpe right up to the present day. An oral history project covering the years of its use as an approved school has been carried out by Claire Martin, who was greatly assisted by the opening of the house to the public last summer. We received many enquiries and much information from former members of school staff and former pupils who were willing to share their knowledge and memories.
One of the most important phases of our investigation began with an archaeological dig undertaken last summer. Based on geophysical investigation of the main courtyard, this has produced some surprising results. The most spectacular of these has been the uncovering of a beautifully crafted soak-away, which we have been able to date to the early 17th century. This has solved the very practical problem of how and where the down-pipes taking rainwater from the roofs into this courtyard actually went. Perhaps most interesting, for the general development of the site, has been the uncovering of fragments of walls. These appear to relate to buildings within this court that may well date from the 14th century or earlier, predating the earliest previously known structures on the site.
We intend to continue with the publication of detailed studies of various aspects of the house’s history. A full-scale study of the whole history of the house is under way. It is hoped that this will appear in 2009. For the immediate future, finding a new owner willing and able to complete the restoration of the house – at a likely cost of £3 million – will be the top priority for English Heritage, in accordance with conditions laid down by the DCMS. The architectural investigation of Apethorpe Hall will, it is hoped, continue once a new owner has been found. The further restoration work that will still be needed will inevitably lead to many new discoveries.
Pete Smith is a senior architectural investigator with English Heritage.
Left: The exposed roof over the east, Long Gallery range.
Right: An archaeological dig revealed a beautifully crafted soak-away, dated to the early 17th century.
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