Although only a secondary seat for the Dukes of Northumberland, Stanwick
Hall could easily have served as the primary residence for a noble
family. However, it suffered as being one of five seats held by the
Dukes and when the death duties became due, its elegant design and
impressive interiors were not going to save it.
The manor at Stanwick was held by the Knights Templar from 1275 until their dissolution when it passed to the Catterick family who held it from the mid-fifteenth century and who built the Old Hall opposite the church in Aldbrough St John. It then descended through the Catterick family until 1638 when it was sold for £4,000 to Hugh Smithson (b.c1598 - d.1670), a successful 'citizen and haberdasher' of London but also from a long established Yorkshire family. Smithson was subsequently made a Baronet in 1660 for services rendered to the King in the Civil War and seems to have decided to mark his rise in social status with a new house.
The new Stanwick Hall was built around half a mile from the old hall on a new site with work probably starting around 1660 - a rainwater head on the south front was marked 1662 and was probably installed near completion. Samuel Buck, who sketched many houses in Yorkshire, drew the house in 1720 and shows a substantial house with a main front five bays wide but with the two outer ones projecting. The windows are drawn as mullioned and transomed which might indicate that the house was older than 1660 but there is no evidence for this and possibly just indicates that Smithson was somewhat architecturally old-fashioned. The overall plan was broadly H-shaped with small, square-domed turrents rising from each corner.
The house and estate passed through the Smithson sons as their only country seat until Sir Hugh Smithson (b.1714 - d.1786) [portrait] had the good fortune to marry Elizabeth Seymour, daughter and heir of Algernon, Duke of Somerset and Earl of Northumberland. He died without an heir and so Hugh succeeded his father-in-law as Earl of Northumberland in 1749–50 and changed the name of Smithson for that of Percy. After many other honours George III made him Earl Percy and Duke of Northumberland in 1766. Hugh was now the master of the vast Percy family estates and perhaps to emphasise his place in their long history he decided that he and his wife would make the then dilapidated but impressive Alnwick Castle in Northumberland their main seat. Hugh Percy (as he now was) rebuilt the medieval castle in a 'gothick' style as was fashionable but unusually employed Robert Adam, an architect better known for his neo-Classical work, to design the interiors.
However, before he became a Percy, Hugh Smithson embarked on major works to his family seat, Stanwick Park. A rainwater head is dated 1740 giving again a good indication as to the dates of the work. The changes were extensive and transformed the original house into an elegant Palladian composition. Unusually, the architect is not known which has led to some interesting conjecture as to who might have designed such an accomplished house. One interesting suggestion is that Smithson may have had a hand in the designs. Smithson had undertaken a Grand Tour in 1733 and had become a patron of Canelletto, purchasing two large paintings to be hung at Stanwick, and whom he later also commissioned again around 1747 to paint two more canvasses of the new Westminster Bridge. He was also activities such as the 'Society for the Encouragement of Learning' and was it was said he "...spent enormous sums in very costly decorations...and his wise husbandry rendered possible the alterations and decorations at Syon House, Alnwick, and Northumberland."1. It's possible that may have been educating himself and sought to put what he had learned into practice.
That said, the high level of fluency with the language of Palladio indicates a much greater skill was certainly involved and it's probable that the design was from the circle of, or maybe even by, Lord Burlington - Palladianism's chief evangelist in England at the time. Burlington's clerk, Daniel Garrett, was invited to the north by Smithson, Sir Thomas Robinson and the Earl of Carlisle in 1737 but the design seems too good for him - though Garrett did built a decorative Classical column with a statue of the Apollo Belvedere on top for Smithson. Also, there are stylistic similarities between Stanwick and Rokeby Park, which Sir Thomas Robinson had designed for himself, but again, it's just too fluent and well composed. One name from Burlington's circle who would have been capable is that of William Kent (b.1685 - d.1745) and elements of the design do show similarities with his other work such as the use of three open pediments on the west front parapet. However, the way the windows break through the string course are very much against Kent's style. All in all, it's a puzzle and it may be that the house was effectively designed by a committee of friends.
Without knowing of his future elevation, Smithson was determined that his seat would bear well in comparison with other local houses. Grand stables and outbuildings were also constructed and gardens laid out along with carriage drives to ensure that arrival at the house was a suitably impressive affair. Inside, in keeping with the Palladian ideal, the principal rooms were on the first floor, with the saloon in the middle of the south front rising through two storeys. The dining room was on the west front beneath the triple pediments also provides evidence for the involvement of William Kent with the unusual use of heavy console brackets in the ceiling, which Kent had used in the Blue Velvet Room at Chiswick House, Lord Burlington's London retreat. The plasterwork throughout was also of high quality and in particular in the saloon, featuring busts in niches, masks set amongst swags and garlands and other roccoco flourishes. The stair case (of which no photograph is known of) was described by Lady Oxford in 1745 as '...fitted up with painting, stucco and gilding in a very pretty taste.'.
From the mid-18th century Smithson was now Percy and installed in Alnwick Castle, and so Stanwick became a useful subsidiary estate. By the 19th century is was the seat of Algernon Percy, Lord Prudhoe (b.1792 - d.1865), the second son of the 2nd Duke, and who subsequently became the 4th Duke in 1847. In 1839, he commissioned Decimus Burton (b.1800 - d.1881) to extend Stanwick, adding the north and east wings and improving the stables, with work being completed in 1842.
From 1865, Stanwick Park was home to Eleanor Percy, the Dowager Duchess of Northumberland, widow of the 4th Duke who had married Lord Prudhoe in 1842. Following her husband's death in 1865, the 5th Duke had moved into Alnwick Castle, and his distraught and childless widow Eleanor had taken up residence in the home she had probably lived in for the first five years of her married life. Her passion was gardening and she was the one who commissioned the gardens on the south front laid out in an Italian style by the famous and prolific landscape architect William Andrews Nesfield (b.1793 - d.1881). A French-style walled garden was also laid out and until the end of her life, 'Eleanor Duchess' along with her head gardener of over 40 years, William Higgie, she cultivated all manner of flowers including the Stanwick carnation, and fruits such as the Stanwick nectarine. The gardens - over 7 acres of formal gardens and 20 acres of pleasure grounds - were extensively detailed in an article in 'Country Life' magazine in February 1900 in which they receive more attention than the house, probably reflecting the Dowager Duchess' priorities in life2.
The Percy fortune and the careful attentions of Eleanor ensured that Stanwick Hall and grounds were always kept in good condition right up until her death, aged 90, in 1911. Unfortunately, it was as this stage that being a secondary estate weighed against Stanwick Park. Without a family member to take up residence the house was let to a variety of tenants only relieved with occasional occupancy by Earl Percy. The house was briefly used as hospital during WWI but then was let again and although the house may have continued in this reduced situation, the death of the 7th Duke in 1918 was to be the blow which toppled Stanwick Park. The Dukes owned four other significant houses; their primary seat, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Syon Park in Middlesex, Keilder Castle in Northumberland, and Albury Park in Surrey. The family were never going to abandon Alnwick - where the family has been in residence for over 700 years - nor their London seat at Syon Park. Albury Park was also strategically useful as a southern retreat outside of London and Keilder Castle was the hunting lodge for the estate they retained in that area.
The death duties demanded payment and so, in 1921, the house and estate at Stanwick were first offered for sale to the last tenant, one Colonel Wilson, but he wasn't interested in taking it on. The estate was then placed at auction in 1922 but was subsequently withdrawn though the rest of the estate including the farms, cottages and other buildings were subsequently sold. Sadly this was the last chance for the house; with no-one willing to purchase such a large house in the tough economic times of the early 1920s the house was doomed to be demolished.
Though the best furniture had been removed to Alnwick following Eleanor's death, the interior was still very much intact. This attracted the attention of the firm of Robersons who specialised in removing rooms from stately houses being demolished and selling them, mainly to wealthy American individuals and institutions. According to John Harris, Robersons took at least four rooms out of Stanwick Hall; in 1928 one went to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, one to the Frick house in Long Island (now the Nassau Museum of Art), another was taken by the voracious William Randolph Hearst, and the final one to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts3.
The main house was eventually sold for £25,500 (approx £1m - 2008 values) to Mr Tim Place of Northallerton who was described as a timber merchant. Once the valuable wood had been taken from the park and the interiors removed along with any other fixtures and fittings, he sold what remained to Mr Tom Willoughby, also of Northallerton, in 1923 for final demolition. Though work would've started immediately, a photograph from 1932 shows a large pile of rubble still on site. In the intervening years, locals had the opportunity to pick out and purchase interesting architectural features which were then incorporated into their own homes. The demolition process also exposed the original 17th century house including the original windows of which Mr Edelstone of Gainford wrote in 'Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle' (No.21, 1924) 'I came across portions of 50 [sections of the old house], including doors, and five fireplaces' and was '...permitted to remove for preservation specimens of fine plasterwork.'. The remainder of the rubble was slowly sold off for use as the foundations of local roads - a sad end for such an elegant house.
So what remains today? Remarkably, the ghostly outlines of Nesfields gardens are still visible in aerial photos, with the site of the house now just part of the garden for the house behind which was created from the old stables. The rest of the estate buildings are also remarkably intact with the kitchen garden now just lawn and the fish pond to the north west of the house slowly succumbing to the march of the wild plants.
1 - 'Furniture at Alnwick Castle.' - article in 'Country Life' (27 April 1929 pg.617)
2 - 'Country Houses & Gardens, Old & New: Stanwick Park, Yorkshire' - article in 'Country Life' (17 February 1900 pg.208-212)
3 - 'Moving Rooms - The Trade in Architectural Salvages' - John Harris (2007, Yale University Press). This book is the definitive guide to this trade and contains further detail and images of the rooms.
Further details on the life of the Dowager Duchess, the Hall and the life of those who lived and worked there is available from the Aldbrough St John / Stanwick St John website