The Grange wasn't actually completely demolished - though only a much reduced, dilapidated shell remained by 1972 when it became the focus of a campaign by SAVE Britain's Heritage to prevent its complete destruction. Large sections of the house had already been demolished and most of the interior had been gutted or ruined - and it had been announced that the rest was to be dynamited. Today though, following much care and restoration by English Heritage, the house plays host to many concerts and has a new life.
That a house this important architecturally was even considered for demolition is a sad indictment on the callous indifference of government and the dangers of neglect. This house was as radical as Inigo Jones' Banquetting House in London and a forerunner of the Classical revival style that was to so heavily influence English country houses throughout the 18th century and also in Europe. Between the late 17th and early 19th centuries the list who worked on the house was a veritable 'Who's Who' of the leading architects: William Samwell, Robert Adam, Henry Holland, William Wilkins, George Dance, Sir Robert Smirke, and three of the Cockerell's (S.P., C.R. and F.P.) amongst others.
Northington Grange (as it is also known as) was built between 1664 and 1673 by William Samwell who was commissioned by Sir Robert Henley, then master of the King's Bench Office, "to erect a considerable mansion". Horace Walpole wrote that the Samwell interiors as "beautiful models of the purest and most classic antiquity". They included an early example of an Imperial staircase - that is, one flight branching into two.
In 1787 the estate was then bought by Henry Drummond the banker who set about creating the ornamental lakes, by diverting a tributary of the River Itchen, and the landscaped park throughout which elegant Indian pavilions were built. Attention then turned to the house which was transformed into a Greek Temple by William Wilkins between 1804-09. It is rumoured that one of the motivations for such an impressive transformation was the praise heaped on Dance's Greek Revival style portico at Stratton Park built in 1803 which was owned by the Drummonds banking rivals, the newly important Barings. Drummond was apparently determined to build a bigger and better one.
Wilkes transformed the red brick and Portland stone house and also constructed the Orangery which became the Picture Gallery. The interior was also re-modelled with David Watkin describing C.R. Cockerell's impressive dining room as "one of the most elegant and scholarly rooms of the whole Greek Revival. Based ultimately on the cella of the Temple at Bessae, it achieved that jewelled, casket-like quality which we know Cockerell felt was characteristic of Greek design"1. Pevsner2 wrote:
"What largely makes The Grange a national and international architectural monument is William Wilkins’s work. Wilkins added to his encased house a Parthenon portico of tremendous pathos; six Greek Doric columns wide and two deep, facing east and overlooking the lake. This was one of the first determined credos in the coming Grecian mode, highly exacting and far from domestic. Wilkins’s sides are of nine bays with giant pilasters and a centre to the north of square piers. Wreaths in the frieze of the piers and the east portico. Unfortunately, all this is not stone, but rendered brick."
This rather technical description - with the typical Pevsner barb at the end - doesn't really convey what an achievement this transformation was. Many brick houses were rendered with Regency stucco yet the superb building which resulted from Wilkins' work was a triumph. Drawing heavily on his knowledge of Greek architecture, Wilkins had unconventionally added the massive and dramatic portico to the east side of the house, mirroring the traditional layout of a Greek temple.
The house and estate were subsequently sold to the Baring family (also bankers) in 1817. Alexander Baring was created Baron Ashburton in 1835 and, with his wife, The Grange became a literary and political hot spot with Thackeray, Kingsley and Wilberforce all visiting and George IV living here for a time when Prince of Wales.
The Grange was then sold to the millionare industrialist Mr Charles Wallach who intended to furnish the house with fine art and other treasures and then gift the house and contents to the nation. This would have been an ideal and fine end for the house - however, it was not to be.
The Government rejected the gift when suggested in the 1930s - a fact about which he was still bitter nearly 30 years later. WWII also intervened in a most devastating fashion. Wallach owned a superb collection of Old Master paintings; including four landscapes by Goya. However, the prominent position of the house meant that he was warned by his friends that the Luftwaffe were sure to bomb it. More than one hundred paintings - the bulk of the collection - were duly moved to a warehouse in Southampton which, incredibly, was thought to be a safer option! The warehouse was bombed with the loss of all the paintings. A devastated Wallach then retreated from the main house and lived in a few rooms in the connected wing with the sad remnants of his collection. He lived in the house until he died, aged 93, in 1964.
The house was then bought again by the Barings who promptly demolished the rear wing of the main building and, in 1972, proposed to dynamite the remainder. However, the furious correspondence in The Times persuaded the Hon. John Baring to pass the house into the voluntary guardianship of the Department of the Environment with a commitment from the Government to pay for restoration to enable public access. The Government quickly reneged on this and neglected the house until 1978 when, following a vigorous campaign by the SAVE Britain's Heritage, the Government was forced to honour its pledge and, at a cost of £500,000, stopped the decline and secured the house.
The house has now become a venue for the 'Grange Park Opera'. However, with the loss of the interiors and so much of the building, The Grange is now probably the most impressive and beautiful garden ornament in England.
Visitor information: English Heritage - Northington Grange
1 - David Watkin quoted in 'Our Vanishing Heritage' - Marcus Binney (1984, Arlington Books)
2 - 'The Buildings of England (Hampshire edition)' - Nikolaus Pevsner and David Lloyd (1967, Penguin Books)