THE TITLE of the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974 was definitive: “The Destruction of the Country House, 1875-1975″. A gallery was lined with photos of some of the 1,200 mansions that had been demolished in a century, victims of urbanization, taxes and neglect. One thing was clear: never again would the ruling elite build piles like Trentham, which the Shah of Persia told the future King Edward VII would cost its owner, the Duke of Sutherland, his head on the grounds that he was ” too big for a subject “.
This obituary now requires an epilogue. Stonemasons’ scissors scrape atop the long driveways once again as a new generation of funded Britons order their own stately homes. The rebound in demand has resulted in a constant supply of architects for whom being a classicist is no longer shameful. “In the 1980s, if you wanted to build a beautiful classic building… there were about two or three architects in the country who could do it,” says George Saumarez Smith, an architect. “Now there are a lot of them.”
Just as the status symbols of the old were often constructed for the nouveau riche of this generation, so too are the new builds of today. “The apex of a lot of people’s ambition is to have a country house, and that applies not only to the British but also to people who come to Britain,” says Robert Adam, a classical architect who designed Lea House in Surrey (pictured), is currently building two country houses and has three more on order. His clients include self-taught financiers, celebrities and Russians.
Typical of the new breed is Steve Gibson, the son of a welder who made money in logistics and now owns Middlesbrough Football Club. His home in North Yorkshire will be the county’s largest house for 200 years. Christopher Boyle, a lawyer who helps newcomers obtain building permits, likens them to “18th century moguls” eager to show off the riches of the empire. They are, he says, “extremely fine-tasting people, who happened to be lucky enough to have a lot of money.”
The scarcity of old batteries in the market, the high heating bills, and the musty smells they accompany make building from scratch a good option. The architecture of new homes generally offers more than a nod to that of their ancestors. Brutalism is not a very popular style. Mr. Adam likes to set up multiple plans for his clients, but “they almost always go for the Palladian plan.” Some people consider these houses to be mere pastiches, but they are not carbon copies. For example, while previous generations hid their kitchens in the back of the house or under the stairs, today’s manor lords love to cook and, according to Mr. Saumarez Smith, “want the kitchen in the best part. from the house, where they enjoy beautiful views.
And while these big projects can hardly be described as modest, their owners still claim so. “Normally the first thing customers say is, ‘we’re just a regular family and we just want a nice house,’” says Saumarez Smith.■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Brideshead rebooted”