LONDON — England has its glorious ruins — from Tintern Abbey to Tintagel to Hadrian’s Wall — but it also has its architectural ghosts.
Many of these once-lavish mansions and country estates vanished during the 20th century, victims of accidental fire, planned demolition or simple neglect. Taxation, rising death duties, falling rents, the demise of the rich political class and the socio-political repercussions of the first and second world wars also helped bring these houses down, even though some boasted 150 bedrooms and dining rooms that could accommodate 75.
Now Giles Worsley, the architecture correspondent for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, is attempting to recapture these estates in all their glory — at least on paper. His book, “England’s Lost Houses” (Aurum PR Ltd.) is based on photographs — and even some original glass negatives — from the archives of Country Life magazine, which has been snapping fabulous homes and gardens in the U.K. since 1897.
“During the 20th century, the country house lost its fundamental purpose as a symbol of social standing and a power base for the ruling classes,” said Worsley. “At the beginning of the century, the bigger the house, the more land you owned, the more important you appeared to be. Entertaining in these houses was a show of power and influence. For a complex mix of political and economic reasons, all of that changed.”
But “England’s Lost Houses,” published in May, still has plenty of allure. The book, already in its second printing, has been flying off shelves in stores on both sides of the Atlantic. An exhibition of the book’s photographs is running through Sept. 21 at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, and the staff at Country Life are in talks to bring it to New York in the spring.
The homes in the book mirror the social and political history of England. Some, like Drayton Manor in Staffordshire, were built as showy symbols of new Victorian wealth and are sprawling homes built by men who made their fortunes in textiles, shipping or metals. Eaton Hall in Cheshire — a Victorian Gothic mansion owned by the then-Duke of Westminster — was used as an army officers’ training college during World War II. Others are throwbacks to more distant times: Dunsland House in Devon dates back to the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Some houses boast literary connections, including Bayons Manor in Lincolnshire, owned by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s grandfather, George Clayton Tennyson, a successful local solicitor who made his fortune in real estate. Then, of course, there is Castle Howard, the model for Brideshead in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” Fortunately, much of Castle Howard is still standing; it was partially restored after a fire in 1940, opened to the public to help defray its running costs and is still partially occupied by the Howard family.
Architectural styles — Tudor, Restoration, Rococo, Classical, Gothic, Georgian and Elizabethan — spring to life on Worsley’s pages, and the interiors drip with riches. The book describes marble and carved timber staircases, 18th-century Chinese wallpaper, murals by Pellegrini, Chippendale mirrors and canopy bedsteads, Sèvres china and Shakespeare folios.
Worsley compares the demise of the country house culture in the 20th century to the end of the castle during the late Middle Ages and that of the monastic building during the Reformation, as each lost its principal role in society. But that didn’t make the writing any easier.
“Looking at the photographs, I felt I had this overwhelming richness in front of me, but also an overwhelming sadness. So many of these houses are gone, and for no good reason. That’s quite upsetting,” said Worsley. The good news is that while some 1,700 houses were lost between 1900 and 1970, many more survived. Today, preservation laws make it almost impossible to demolish a country house.
Worsley says it was the right time for the book to be released. “It wouldn’t have fit with the whole New Labor and Cool Britannia mood five years ago,” he explains. “But the mood is right, and the timing is good now. It’s the Queen’s Jubilee year, there’s a growing interest in history and, I think, a sense of loss for this vanished Arcadian world.”