The Destruction of the Country House' exhibition held at the V&A in 1974.
3 November 2005 – 12 February 2006
Curator: Marcus Binney, President of SAVE Britain’s Heritage
This exhibition celebrated the 30th anniversary of the founding of
SAVE, a campaigning body working to save Britain’s architectural heritage.
The birth of SAVE was sparked by the immense publicity generated by the now legendary exhibition 'The Destruction of the Country House' held at the V&A in 1974. The exhibition’s Hall of Destruction was a fantasy of tumbling columns illustrating a selection of over 1,000 historic country houses demolished over the preceding century. In 1955 one house was demolished every five days. Such was the concern generated by the exhibition that from 1975 demolition of historic country houses came to a virtual halt. A sample of some of the success stories can be seen below.
Denying victory to the vandals
Marcus Binney looks back on a 30-year campaign to prevent the wilful destruction of fine houses by misguided officialdom
From The Times
November 18, 2005
THERE are few more provoking sights than a decent house abandoned and left to rot, whether it’s a grand country mansion or a simple terraced house. The battle to save such buildings is as urgent today as when I and a group of contemporaries set up SAVE Britain’s Heritage 30 years ago. That struggle is relevant because John Prescott and his minions are bent on destroying 160,000 terraced houses in the North of England and the Midlands. They are bamboozling people out of their homes on the say-so of a ten-minute inspection by a surveyor (at times unqualified) who often does not even look inside. These are houses that some couples have lived in for 40 years or more and hoped to die in, and which are excellent starter homes for the young.
SAVE began with a campaign to preserve an entire listed railway village at Bletchley, Buckinghamshire. Outrageously, we lost (and this was in 1975, the so-called European Architectural Heritage Year) but soon after we helped to secure a reprieve for all the pretty, pink brick houses in the early railway village at Derby, as well as a handsome Regency terrace of 29 houses, Shepherdess Walk in Hackney, which local councillors were determined to demolish.
SAVE grew out of a V&A exhibition, The Destruction of the Country House, which John Harris and I organised for Sir Roy Strong in 1974. For this we had compiled a list of no fewer than 1,116 notable country houses demolished in Britain in the preceding century. The ensuing furore brought demolitions to an almost complete halt, but we soon found that there were not just dozens, but hundreds, of interesting country houses standing empty or under threat.
One of our press releases quoted in The Times resoundingly condemned Baroness Birk, the minister responsible for listed buildings, for giving permission to demolish two thirds of Brough Hall in North Yorkshire, a lovely Elizabethan and Palladian house, to make it more “manageable” to restore. Lady Birk was soaring off to the Caribbean on Christmas Eve when she read the article and at once demanded, we heard later, that the plane should turn back.
When we published Tomorrow’s Ruins, our first report on country houses in need of new owners and new uses, we included a small section on fine listed country houses which were for sale. A Norfolk newspaper unfortunately published a picture of one of these, the immaculate East Barsham Manor, under a headline suggesting that it was falling into ruin. The next day I received a stern telephone call from the affronted Scandinavian lady owner saying: “Watch out, Mr Binney, or you will soon be one of tomorrow’s ruins yourself.”
For years it was an almost impossible task to get government and local authorities to do anything to stop wilful decay by eccentric or maverick owners. Sir John Soane’s Pell Wall in Shropshire was actually set on fire by its owner.
Mavisbank, a beautiful Baroque villa just south of Edinburgh, belonged to a monstrous man who had surrounded it with abandoned cars and caravans with the evident purpose of making it such an eyesore that he would win permission to build all over the large park. One morning we received a call saying a Dangerous Structure Notice had been issued and Mavisbank would be demolished in 24 hours. The only hope lay in an emergency hearing in the sheriff court. We promptly put up £500 to support a court action and won the necessary reprieve.
Grange Park in Hampshire, now an aspiring rival to Glyndebourne with its summer season of opera, was another target. When Lord Ashburton (or “Basher” Baring, as he was known in the 1970s) agreed to halt demolition of the house, he went one better and handed it over to the Government as an ancient monument. Yet four years later the house was still falling down, thanks to a particular civil servant who had determined that not a penny of public money should be spent on repairs. We obtained a copy of the guardianship deed in which the Secretary of State solemnly undertook to repair the house and open it to the public. Fat hope! But when our solicitors got fed up with prevaricating answers and said that we would issue next day a writ of mandamus, an order to make a minister do what statute obliges him to do, ministers caved in and the Parthenon-like Greek Doric portico was restored to its original splendour.
No case was more challenging than the 18th-century Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire by Sir Robert Taylor, the architect on whom I had written my dissertation at Cambridge. The chairman of Wedgwood, Sir Arthur Bryan, had taken against the house, which stood on an estate that the company had chosen as the site for its new model factory, boarded the windows up and let the rain pour through the roof. Finally, at the second public inquiry into demolition, Wedgwood’s QC challenged the opposition to buy the house for £1 and restore it ourselves. SAVE promptly took up the challenge and the inspector proffered the 10p deposit.
Over 30 years SAVE’s aim has been not just to protest, but to propose practical solutions. Fine old buildings do not need to be dependants on the state but can be good investments. The best solution in many cases is for them to be restored — or converted — for people to live in.
Marcus Hugh Crofton Binney is the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Francis Crofton Simms MC and his wife, Sonia (née Beresford Whyte). His father was held as a prisoner of war in Italy during the Second World War. His mother worked in code-breaking. Following his father's death and his mother's remarriage to Sir George Binney (DSO) in 1955, Marcus took his stepfather's surname.
Binney was educated at Eton College and read history of art at the University of Cambridge. The architect Walter Ison was a family friend, who encouraged the young Binney to study Sir Robert Taylor for his PhD.
Binney married The Hon. Sara Anne Vanneck, daughter of Sir Gerald Charles Arcedeckne Vanneck, 6th Baron Huntingfield, on 23 August 1966. They were divorced in 1976. She died in 1979. Binney has since remarried to Anne (née Hills).
Binney has two children: Francis Charles Thomas Binney and Christopher George Crofton Binney, a marine biologist and a chef respectively.
Binney was a co-curator of the Destruction of the Country House exhibition, held at the V&A in 1974, with Roy Strong and John Harris, which gave impetus to the movement to conserve British country houses. He was a driving force behind the foundation of SAVE Britain's Heritage (SAVE) the following year, and remains its president. SAVE is devoted to the salvation of Britain's architectural heritage and retention of such buildings for the nation. It campaigns for the preservation and reuse of endangered historic buildings, placing particular emphasis on finding new uses for them.
In 1975 he was awarded the London Conservation Medal. He was also involved in the foundation of the Railway Heritage Trust and the Thirties Society, and SAVE Jersey's Heritage, was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2004, and has been a vice-president of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society since 2005.
Binney was instrumental in saving Calke Abbey and its contents for the nation in 1984; he had highlighted and publicised the loss to the nation of such historic houses following the failure of SAVE's attempts to preserve Mentmore Towers, a decade earlier.
He also writes widely on the conservation of the built environment. From 1977 until 1984 he was Architectural Editor of the British Country Life magazine. He served as Editor from 1984 to 1986 and continues to contribute articles to the magazine. He has been the architectural correspondent of The Times since 1991. He was founding Chairman of Heritage Link in 2002.
Binney is also the author of numerous books, mostly concerned with the preservation of Britain's architectural heritage; while many of these can be typified by such titles as "The Country House: To Be or Not to Be" and "Re-use of Industrial Buildings" he has also written books dealing with the experiences of those involved in secret operations during World War II, such as "Secret War Heroes: The Men of Special Operations" and "The Women Who Lived for Danger". He has lectured on architecture in the USA, and narrated a 39-part television series "Mansions: The Great Houses of Europe" from 1993 to 1997, broadcast widely in North America, the Middle East and the Far East.
In recognition of his services to conservation and Britain's heritage, he was awarded an OBE in 1983, and advanced to CBE in 2006.
John Frederick Harris
John Frederick Harris OBE (1931- ) is an English curator, historian of architecture, gardens and architectural drawings, and the author of more than 25 books and catalogues, and 200 articles. He is a Fellow and Curator Emeritus of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects, founding Trustee of SAVE Britain's Heritage and SAVE Europe's Heritage, and founding member and Honorary Life President of the International Confederation of Architectural Museums.
John Harris left school at the age of 14 in 1946. He travelled and took on miscellaneous jobs, before starting his proper career in 1954 working in an antiques shop, Collin and Winslow. In 1956 he joined the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Library and Drawings Collection in London, becoming curator of its British Architectural Library's Drawings Collection from 1960-86. This included the establishment in 1972 of a permanent home for the Drawings Collection in the James Adam designed house at 21 Portman Square (moved to the V&A Henry Cole Wing in 2002), next door to and sharing with the Courtauld Institute at Home House, 20 Portman Square (moved to Somerset House in 1989). Harris founded and organised 42 exhibitions at the Heinz Gallery, on the ground floor of 21 Portman Square, opened in 1972, designed by Stefan Buzas and Alan Irvine, given by Mr and Mrs Henry J Heinz II, being the first purpose built gallery for the display of architectural drawings in the English speaking world. The Gallery was purchased in 2000 by the Irish Architectural Archive and moved in 2003-4 to the ground floor of their relocated premises at 45 Merrion Square, Dublin, which opened to the public in 2005. RIBA's Drawings Collection Gallery was re-established in 2004 as part of the joint V&A and RIBA Architecture Partnership, creating the Architecture Gallery in Room 128 at the V&A.
Harris was a co-curator of the seminal Destruction of the Country House exhibition held at the V&A in 1974, with Sir Roy Strong and Marcus Binney, which gave impetus to the movement to conserve British country houses and the founding in 1975 of SAVE Britain's Heritage. He was editor of Studies in Architecture 1976-99. In 1996 he was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Center, Getty Villa , Santa Monica. Harris also played a crucial role in the establishment of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal and the Heinz Architecture Centre in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. He was a member for ten years of Mr Paul Mellon’s London Acquisitions Committee. Harris worked on the Victoria and Albert Primary Galleries Project (1996–2001). He has been on the Board of Trustees of The Architecture Foundation. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He is an expert on Palladian architecture, and has written about, among many others, Lord Burlington, William Kent and Sir William Chambers.
Harris is married to American historian and author Dr Eileen Harris (from circa 1961), has a son, Lucian, and a daughter, Georgina, and lives in London and Badminton, Gloucestershire.
Sir Roy Colin Strong
Sir Roy Colin Strong FRSL (born 23 August 1935) is an English art historian, museum curator, writer, broadcaster and landscape designer. He has been director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He was knighted in 1982.
He became assistant keeper of the National Portrait Gallery in 1959, and was its director 1967-73: Sir Roy came to prominence at age 32 when he became the youngest director of the National Portrait Gallery. He set about transforming its conservative image with a series of extrovert shows, including "600 Cecil Beaton portraits 1928-1968." Dedicated to the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, Sir Roy went on to wow audiences at the V&A in 1974 with his collection of fedora hats, kipper ties and maxi coats. By regularly introducing new exhibitions he doubled attendance.
Reflecting on his time as director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sir Roy Strong pinpoints the exhibition "Beaton Portraits 1928-1968" as a turning point in the gallery’s history. Strong chose fashion photographer Cecil Beaton as a catalyst for change says much about the glamour and appeal of the photographer’s work. But even so, it seems unlikely that anyone could have predicted the sheer scale of the exhibition’s success. "The public flocked to the exhibition and its run was extended twice. The queues to get in made national news. The Gallery had arrived", Strong wrote in the catalogue to Beaton Portraits, the more recent exhibition of Beaton that ran at the gallery until 31 May 2004.
In 1973, aged 39, he became the youngest director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London. In his tenure, until 1987, he presided over its The Destruction of the Country House (1974, with Marcus Binney and John Harris), Change and Decay: the future of our churches (1977), and The Garden: a Celebration of a Thousand Years of British Gardening (1979), all of which have been credited with boosting their conservationist agendas. In 1980, "he was awarded the prestigious Shakespeare Prize by the FVS Foundation of Hamburg in recognition of his contribution to the arts in the UK."
After she'd gone
Historian Roy Strong and his wife Julia made a garden that represented their personalities - and their marriage, he writes. When she died, how was he to carry on?
The Guardian, Saturday 21 October 2006
I never warmed to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. They always stuck in my mind as condescending snobs - that feeling fortified by the memory of being snubbed by Nicolson when I was a young man. And yet, in the past three years, I've felt a curious sense of identity with them, for Vita died six years before Harold. Some years ago, I recall editing my hostile view of them on reading an article by the garden designer John Brookes, describing Harold sitting on a garden bench weeping at her loss. With that I can wholly identify.
For 30 years, my late wife, the film, television and theatre designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, and I worked together making the Laskett garden. I have written about this in a book published the week she died, three years ago. As far as I know, Harold never wrote about what he did to Sissinghurst after Vita was no more, but in the case of the Laskett, I most certainly can.
Julia had been brought up to garden, but I hadn't. By some miracle, however, furor hortensis seized me within weeks of acquiring the house, and complete madness set in when the farmer no longer wanted the adjacent three-acre field. That was when delusions of grandeur took over and we struck out to make a huge country house garden.
Although Julia was by profession a distinguished designer, it was I who planned the layout with its many enclosures and vistas. Julia did much of the planting, with a feeling for naturalistic drifts and a close focus approach that was at variance with my bold strokes yet, at the same time, complementary.
The garden was always divided into "his" and "hers" areas: Julia's naturalistic, or concerned with produce in the orchard or kitchen garden; mine with the formal enclosures, parterres, knots, topiary and architectural elements. We never quarrelled over the garden - or, come to that, over anything, really. But Julia was parsimonious, whereas I can be somewhat prodigal, so I always had to conceal, for example, that I'd bought a statue or urn.
A garden may be a happy repository of memory, but what it most forcefully tells you is to move on. In a "his and hers" garden, the problem after Julia died was how to cope with the areas that were wholly hers. Julia was always the better plants person and, in that instance, I was lucky, for Shaun, our wonderful gardener, has a genuine flair for naturalistic and wild planting. He is also deeply respectful of my wife's passions: her snowdrop, pulmonaria, apple and crab apple collections. Much to my relief, he took on the kitchen garden in which Julia had laboured every evening in spring and summer. Even in the first year after her death, it looked ravishing. Shaun had scattered through flowers - dahlias, nasturtiums, cornflowers and tobacco plants - as well as growing a wide variety of squashes just for the beauty of their leaves and fruit. I give him free rein to buy plants, and together we order the bulbs each year, a task that Julia always performed.
So far so good, but marriage is a compromise, and inevitably when one half has gone there is a shift. I suppose that might be summed up in our case as a perpetual battle between clarity and clutter. Julia loved being embowered. The windowsills were covered in plants spiralling upwards, so you could hardly see out. The house was hidden behind a yew hedge and approached not from the front but the side. The paths she had laid were narrow, allowing abundant planting, but making passage through any area an obstacle course. My own instincts were always towards clarity and, above all, opening up the dialogue between the house and the garden. And that - initially tentatively, then latterly quite brusquely - is what I have done. The yew hedge was demolished and a new approach made so that the facade can be seen head-on across the knot garden. Stunning.
There's a new herb garden being made, and an ongoing programme with an arboriculturist. Thirty years on, you have to take stock. Conifers put in when 3ft high are now soaring up 60 or 100ft. One or two have turned their toes up. So we began thinning what was overplanted, something Julia would never have let me do. But now that the light pours in, plants can thrive, and some very beautiful and unexpected new garden vistas have been revealed.
It has also made me think about the garden's fate. I'm in my 72nd year and I'm not immortal. Julia and I had always wished that a wider public could enjoy our life's work. Both of us also felt that we did not want it to be a mummified shrine, but to continue to grow and change. With it would go some 60 volumes of archive, recording its complete history in hundreds, if not thousands, of photos, plans and invoices. To my great delight, I've alighted upon just the right trust to pass it on to. With the garden's future in place and, with luck, quite a stretch of time ahead, I can now apply my creative energies to making this garden even more magical than I believe it already is.