Despite an illustrious past and a great wealth, Panshanger was condemned by the lack of an heir.
The original Cowper family seat was Cole Green Park near Hertingfordbury, built in about 1720 by Sir William Cowper (1665–1723) who came from a family well-established in Hertfordshire and Kent. A sound intelligence and the right connections ensured that when he joined the Bar, his legal career was a resounding success, eventually gaining the title (and prestige) of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. In October 1706 he became Baron Cowper of Wingham and was raised to Earl Cowper by George I in 1718. He died in October 1723 after catching a severe cold while travelling from London to Cole Green. Commensurate with his prestige, in 1704 he substantially remodelled Cole Green Park and made further alterations in 1711 to create a house with magnificent interiors including ceilings by Louis Laguerre.
The second Earl Cowper was to leave the house largely untouched but commissioned Capability Brown in 1756 to landscape the parkland in which it sat. The third, George Nassau Clavering Cowper (1738–1789), developed the fine Cowper art collections. The Cowper family fortune was well established by his time so, after Eton, Lord Fordwich, as he was styled until his father's death, set out to complete his education by undertaking a Grand Tour of Europe with his tutor. In September 1759 he started buying the first paintings of the collection in Naples and Rome before heading down to Florence. His father desired that he come back to England but Lord Fordwich had become enamoured with an Italian countess and refused to return. In December 1759 his father had him returned as the MP for Hertford to try and lure him back with a sense of duty but he was unsuccessful.
The death of the second Earl brought the earldom and wealth and so helped him gain position in Florentine society. The rest of the third Earl's life was largely spent commissioning or buying paintings including two early Raphaels, portraits by Giuseppe Antonio Fabrini and landscapes from Francesco Zuccarelli, Jakob Philipp Hackert, John Parker, and Hugh Primrose Dean. He later bought Fra Bartolommeo's Holy Family in 1779 and, during the 1780s, he patronized Joseph Plura, Innocenzo Spinazzi, Hugh Douglas Hamilton, and Jacob More. He died in Florence in December 1789. His eldest son, George (b. 1776– d.1799), became the fourth Earl but appears to have led an unremarkable life in England.
On the death of his brother George, Peter (b. 1778 – d.1837) became the fifth Earl and was, by now, the largest landowner in Hertfordshire. Little happened with Cole Green Park until 1801 when he had the house demolished. Earl Cowper sought the advice of Humphrey Repton on the siting and design of the new house which replaced (or possibly incorporated) an Elizabethan farmhouse on the Panshanger estate. Work started in 1806 and was completed in 1809. The site they chose was at the crest of a rise above the River Mimram with mature oaks and other trees framing the view to the other side of the valley. Built of concrete faced bricks (which were made on site) in the fashionable Gothic style it was a final piece in an aristocratic jigsaw combining a beautiful house in a superb location with a fine art collection.
George Augustus Frederick Cowper, the sixth Earl Cowper (1806–1856) appeared to have left the house largely untouched until a fire in 1855 necessitated its rebuilding between 1855 and 1859, though he did not live to see the work completed. The seventh (and final) Earl Cowper, Francis Thomas de Grey, was born in 1834, into what was now one of the leading English families - both financially and politically. His father's mother had one brother who became Prime Minister (the second Viscount Melbourne) and married another, Viscount Palmerston. Her death brought the neighbouring Hertfordshire estate of Brocket Hall along with further properties in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. On his mother's death he came into Wrest Park, near Ampthill in Bedfordshire as well as properties in Lancashire and London. By his middle-age Earl Cowper was easily one of the wealthiest landowners in the country with four country houses and a London residence. By 1883 he owned a total of 37,869 acres bringing him an income of £60,392 (approximately £4.1m - 2006 values) and on his death in 1905 his estate was valued at over £1m (over £70m - 2006).
And yet this house was to vanish within half a century of his death. In October 1870 Cowper had married Katrine Cecilia (1845–1913), eldest daughter of William Compton, fourth marquess of Northampton, but despite their apparently happy marriage there were to be no children. The closest he came to having children was his vitual adoption of his niece, Ethel (Ettie) Fane, following the death of his sister and brother-in-law in 1870 and it was to Ettie (who later became Lady Desborough following her marriage to Baron Desborough) to whom he left Panshanger and the magnificent collections.
Lady Desborough had little need for Panshanger as her main house was her husband's seat, Taplow Court in Buckinghamshire, and so Panshanger became a holiday home which her and her husband visited only two or three times a year. By the end of the nineteenth century the Panshanger estate itself extended to around 660 acres with thousands more nearby. Though Lady Desborough retained many of the lands she inherited after 1913, she did sell via an auction on 30 May 1919, 1,458 acres of land for £51,000 to Ebenezer Howard, a pioneer of the Garden City movement, which eventually became the basis for Welwyn Garden City. Around the same time some other smaller parcels of land were sold and much of the rest let to tenants.
She had also disposed of some of the paintings including the two early Raphaels which were sold for a grand total of $1.4m. The succession and possible survival of this grand collection of houses and art looked to be secure with Lady Desborough's three sons. However it was not to be. Two were killed in the First World War and the third in a car accident in 1926 leaving no obvious heir to the estates.
Following the death of Lady Desborough in May 1952 the sale of her various estates quickly started. Through careful planning she managed to reduce her inheritance tax bill to just £12,426 out of an estate valued at £406,685 mainly by buying significant amounts of agricultural land. The sale of the lands in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire in March 1953 raised over £250,000. The Campsea Ashe estate in Suffolk had been bought in 1949 and was sold for £120,000 in March 1953 (which also led to the demolition of the main house of that estate in the same year). Panshanger itself was sold, along with 89 acres of the park, to a demolition contractor for £17,750 and was demolished over the course of the next 12 months.
So what remains today? Remarkably, aerial photgraphs from Google Maps show that the footprint of the house itself and the immediate parkland around the house remain much the same as when the demolition contractors finished over fifty years ago. The ruins of the Orangery to the west of the main house still remains but is now securely fenced in. This work has been undertaken by LaFarge Aggregates who now own and extract gravel and sand from the Panshanger estate. Repton's landscape seems to have been preserved - as Pevsner wrote "All that is left of Panshanger are remnants of the admirable landscape created after Humphry Repton's plan of 1799....The views from the N of the valley past the trees down to the series of lakes created by the widening of the river Mimram are still superb...". A vigorous local campaign also appears to have curtailed the proposed extension of the works. Who knows, maybe in the future, once there is no more to be extracted and the estate is sold, perhaps another house will rise on the same spot so carefully chosen by Repton and the fifth Earl Cowper. It would be a shame to waste it, because as Pevsner stated, it remains "...one of Repton's most perfect schemes.".