Exploring Britain's private country houses. Easton Neston was completed in 1702 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, but to what extent was its design directed by Christopher Wren?
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Our great country houses.
The most familiar and yet intriguing sights Britain has to offer.
Standing like sentinels in the landscape.
Hundreds of thousands of us visit them every year,
but not all are open to the public.
I've been granted the privileged opportunity to pass through
the portals of six of our greatest country houses,
normally hidden from public view.
They've seen five centuries of British history, up close and personal.
The families who built these houses played their part in great affairs of state.
Central to their dreams, the great house, the ultimate status symbol,
but all too often also, the ultimate money-drainer.
Few of these families went the distance,
but their houses did, with their secrets intact.
This is their story, but it's also our story,
for these houses offer a guided tour of our nation's hidden history.
Easton Neston in Northamptonshire.
What triumphs and disasters this house can bear witness to.
Debts, jewels, family estrangements, fortunes lost,
sometimes at the turn of a card, and fortunes won.
It's a wonderful design. A building with tremendous power and presence -
an architectural masterpiece.
But it's not only a house of beauty. It's also a house of secrets.
Precisely who designed it and when
has been one of the greatest mysteries of British architecture.
Easton Neston is also a house full of history.
It's a testament in stone to more than three centuries
of its owners' wealth, power and privilege.
The ordinary man and woman would have seen the world of the Fermors
as I would see Bill Gates, something so far away.
It's a completely different universe.
The Fermor family kept Easton Neston going thanks to two desperate measures -
mortgage and marriage.
This is the consumer society in the 18th century
and so they increasingly get into debt.
And so one of the ways, of course, to pay that off, their strategy, indeed is to marry.
For ten generations, this family didn't dirty its hands with business,
up until the 1970s, when it went into the motor trade.
Here was a turn-up for the books, if not for the family fortunes.
After all, it's not every country house
that gets to play host to a Formula 1 racing team.
The latest chapter in Easton Neston's history
shows that it has lost none of its power to please.
In 2005, it became the European headquarters of a global fashion brand.
Its new owner isn't an aristocrat,
but a wealthy Los Angeles-based, Russian-born fashion designer
with a liking for traditional English country pursuits.
It was really love at first sight. It was the most beautiful house I have ever seen.
I had to have it right there and then.
Easton Neston is one of the most beautiful examples of a short-lived
but important architectural movement, English baroque.
It only lasted from the 1660s to the 1730s.
For me, it's one of the richest and most glorious styles of our native architecture.
Baroque is based on ancient classical models,
but it's playful, wilful and inventive.
It began in Italy.
Here in England, baroque was more reserved,
less sinuous and feminine.
A little bit more masculine in style, but still sumptuous.
The interior is every bit as imposing as the exterior
and again, it's a masterpiece of the baroque style.
Originally, this wall wasn't here. There were just a pair of columns.
And there was a reason for this.
When the house was built, you would've stepped through the front door
and immediately encountered Easton Neston's first splendour.
This was one of the most famous and spatially surprising
and exciting rooms in early-18th-century Britain.
It's the hall and originally it was double-height,
almost twice as high as it is now.
This ceiling was inserted in the late 19th century.
And here we can see what the hall looked like when first built.
Can you imagine the extraordinary impact this double-height room would've had?
It was one of the greatest glories of the English baroque.
One thing that characterises baroque
is that each new space you encounter is designed to take you by surprise.
The staircase is the architectural high point,
the focus of the interior - indeed, of the house.
It's all to do, of course, with space, light, drama.
This was one of the most admired staircases in the whole of Europe
and with good reason.
The staircase is not just visually beautiful,
it's also something of an engineering marvel.
There are these rebates on the underside of each tread
that lock the treads together
and they ensure that the weight of the staircase is transferred
in a reliable and regular manner, from tread to tread, from top to bottom.
The whole staircase does seem to deny common sense.
It really does float!
Also, I love the fact that most people using this staircase,
bounding up and down it, have no idea what keeps it standing!
And the great staircase has another trick up its sleeve.
As you turn the corner and walk up the second flight of stairs,
the experience is different again.
Looking back towards the mighty window,
the quality of the space is very different.
It becomes a world now of light and shade.
And so to the next part of the tour
and there's another cleverly-worked transition.
From antique gloom to light.
This gallery is, again, a glorious spatial surprise.
It stretches the full depth of the house
and at each end are huge windows.
These windows offer sensational views out.
One can see here that, in fact, this gallery sits astride an axis
through the house, but also extended into the landscape,
this direction and that direction, as far as the eye can see.
So, although this gallery is, in a sense,
the end of the architectural promenade through the house,
it's also a connection to the larger world.
And, of course, the human figures in this landscape
would've been peering back in shock and awe.
This family had arrived, but where had it started from?
The story of Easton Neston starts here,
as a large Tudor house, 150 yards south of the existing house,
which means the mansion was roughly where I'm walking now.
And if you think that Easton Neston sounds like a village,
well it was, but the village was removed in 1499.
All that marks its existence is the medieval parish church.
As for the parishioners themselves, well, it seems they were
simply thrown off the estate. They were in the way.
And here in the church are the tombs of the family which was to own
the estate of Easton Neston from the 1530s until 2005.
The Fermor family had scrabbled its way up through the Tudor ranks
to become important merchants, lawyers and politicians.
Under the Stuarts came formal recognition
of their burgeoning status.
This temple or banqueting house is dated 1641.
Now, it could mark the beginnings of a great ambition, because in 1641,
the same date as it was built, William Fermor was made a baronet!
As Sir William, he may have hankered after a brand-new house
in keeping with his brand-new status.
Could this little garden building
indeed be the beginning of a great building campaign to create
a new classical country house in this style just about here?
If this was the case, then the timing was somewhat unfortunate,
because only a year later, the English Civil War started.
Building an imposing country house suddenly didn't seem
such a pressing priority.
But in 1660, with the restoration of Charles II,
the king's loyal supporters could dust off their chequebooks and start to spend.
Here's the man who finally built the new house,
the second Sir William Fermor.
He was an MP, but he wasn't, like his ancestors, in trade.
The Fermors had left the cutthroat world of the Tudors behind
and reached sunnier pastures.
Fermor's wealth came not from business,
but from a different source altogether - marriage.
Marrying money was a lot quicker
and presumably easier than actually earning it.
In 1671, Sir William Fermor's first wife proved this,
cos she brought him a dowry, or wedding gift, of £7,000.
She soon died, but ten years later he married a second time,
and that wife brought him a dowry of £9,000.
That's inflation for you!
And now, with the money flooding in, the time had come to spend it.
Fermor took a momentous decision.
He resolved to build a grand new house to reflect
the family's rise in fortunes.
For this, an architect would come in handy and, luckily for Fermor,
he was related to one by marriage, Sir Christopher Wren!
There could hardly have been a more prestigious name to call on.
Wren was a wonder of the age, Britain's greatest living architect,
responsible for designing St Paul's Cathedral
and over 50 churches after London's Great Fire of 1666.
He was one of Britain's first superstar architects.
We know for certain that Wren was approached by Fermor,
but how much involvement did he have in the design of Easton Neston?
This seemingly simple question has turned into
one of the longest-running controversies in British architectural history,
but it's one we're hoping to solve!
The first staging post on the Easton Neston trail is here at Oxford.
Wren's career as an architect began at the university.
He was a fellow here at All Souls and a professor,
not of architecture, but of astronomy!
This sundial is his work.
Many of Wren's papers are still kept here at All Souls,
including one that is of particular interest to us.
Here at All Souls is a design that is said to be the first,
or certainly a very early design for Easton Neston
by Sir Christopher Wren.
What's intriguing is that the existing house
is nine windows wide... This is indeed nine windows wide.
So, the scale is similar and broad composition similar...
main block with wings... but much, much more modest!
Much more modest than the existing building.
This seems very clearly to be a design for Easton Neston,
but how come the existing house was not built to Wren's design?
At a certain point,
and frustratingly, we don't know exactly when it was,
Wren handed over the design of Easton Neston
to his talented protege, Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Hawksmoor was born around 1662,
it's thought to a poor farming family in Nottinghamshire.
He came to work for Wren aged 18
and became his clerk, pupil and eventually collaborator.
And what a career Hawksmoor had.
Up to his death in 1736,
he's one of the greatest exponents of the English baroque style.
He also built in a different manner at All Souls.
But his most famous work are the six astonishing churches
he designed in London after 1712, such as Christ Church, Spitalfields.
These are the mature masterpieces of the English baroque,
the culmination of a journey into the sublime that began for Hawksmoor at Easton Neston.
But how did the young Hawksmoor come to be involved
in Easton Neston at all?
And how do we get from this rather modest design...
Clues as to how the design of Easton Neston changed so radically
are to be found here, the north wing.
Originally, there was a matching wing opposite
that contained the stables. That was demolished just over 200 years ago,
leaving only its twin still standing.
It's thought to date from the 1680s and, by tradition, has been called
"the Wren wing" because it's vaguely in the style of Wren.
Few people now believe that it's by Wren -
it is not like his designs that survive in All Souls College
and Hawksmoor called the wing "good for nothing"!
Something he would not have said if it had been by Wren,
his revered master.
So, who did design it? Well, we have absolutely no idea.
What we do know is when the wing was built.
That's because Robert Howard, a dendrochronologist,
has used a tree-ring dating technique to show that the wing was roofed
between 1683 and 1686.
Next, he's going to be dating the roof of the main house.
The wing was all but destroyed by fire in 2002.
It's been restored by the architect Ptolemy Dean,
who also commissioned the tree-ring dating.
After stripping away decades of plywood, paint and plaster,
Ptolemy has uncovered some intriguing secrets
that the building's been keeping to itself.
Looking at the difference between two sets of roof timbers,
it seems that, after the wing was built, six feet were chopped off one end of it!
Then look what happens here.
The end A-bay here is cut short, cut off, and you...
and you can imagine it's because they look out there and they say,
"Goodness me, we've got to have enough room for that house."
Here's the proof! The windows in the roof aren't arranged symmetrically.
If you look behind you at that elevation there,
you'll see one, two, three windows.
-Do you see it's moved in?
-I do. I do.
-Do you see that?
-More space on the right than left.
So, right from the start, there were concerns that not enough room
had been left for the main house.
And when he came to restore the basement,
Ptolemy found that it too had been altered
at some point after it had first been built.
-Here is one of those basement piers.
Just, you know, standard stuff here. It all carries on vaulting here.
And then look, where are we on the plan? We are under the great...
-..staircase. And look at this.
Suddenly, we've got more of this massive Hawksmoor masonry,
this banding, abutting up to the existing...
-..stone piers, and...
-Later, later, later. Yeah.
Later, later, later, and this incredible depth.
And it's not just here. It's there, it's there and here.
It's on the other side. And we deliberately left this area unpainted
so that you can see, clearly,
Hawksmoor coming into this existing basement, saying,
"This, this staircase is not going to be supported
"on the existing, flimsy stone vaulting.
"We need some proper stonemasonry here to make the grand staircase
"for this grand house I'm making above."
So, the vault from the basement corridor was strengthened
by the addition of massive stone arches to help support the great staircase.
And the vaults in the kitchen were also strengthened to support
the weight of a redesigned double-height hall.
It seems that neither of these heavy stone structures
was in prospect when the building of the basement started.
So why did the house get grander in conception?
We need to look at the family history.
In 1687, Sir William Fermor's second wife died.
Perhaps that's why work on the house stopped.
But five years later, he married again and hit the jackpot.
He married the daughter of the Duke of Leeds,
one of the most important grandees in the country.
He was the main Tory sponsor of William and Mary
and became King and Queen after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The Duke wasted no time in pulling strings for his son-in-law.
Within six weeks of his marriage, Sir William Fermor joined the peerage.
He became Lord Leominster, or "Lemster".
The Glorious Revolution had ushered in a golden age for the aristocracy.
To celebrate their increasing wealth and power,
a spate of country-house building now began, Easton Neston included.
The great house was the great statement of a landed family.
And, of course, land was the basis of power, of political power.
Not just of economic power, but political power.
And it was through land that you influenced this
sort of political world around you.
And the development of that estate is an investment in the future
of your family and your descendants, being part of the ruling class.
At the centre of this power network was marriage.
With William Fermor, he has three marriages
and he seems to move upwards.
-He seems to be doing the, the...
-Social ascent. Yeah.
This is about looking for... Marrying into a prestigious lineage.
-So, clearly, money will come with that.
But the social status is of some significance there.
-It gives a power.
-Yes, because they're marrying,
not just into an important lineage, the patronage networks
come with that and that's a way to get all of those sorts of political influence and so on.
Power, patronage and political influence,
though voters were often in their pockets,
were part and parcel of the aristocrat's trappings.
But they were also at pains to show
that they were people of culture and learning.
The country house had also to advertise its owner's taste.
In 1691, with his third marriage in prospect,
Sir William bought a collection of important statues.
They were known as the Arundel Marbles after Lord Arundel,
who had collected them in the early 17th century.
It's the first-ever British collection of statues
from ancient Greece and Rome.
The hall and staircase weren't just the showpieces of the house,
they were also conceived as the setting for the Arundel Marbles.
Sir William Fermor was intent on becoming
the Charles Saatchi of his day,
the possessor of Britain's finest private art collection.
The staircase was, in many ways, designed around the Arundel Marbles,
which occupied these various niches each side of the staircase hall.
Here's a statue, modern addition.
It does the job rather, rather beautifully actually,
but here would have been one of the great, inspirational Arundel Marbles.
And on the wall between the niches where the marbles sat,
is a series of rather stupendous wall paintings,
executed by James Thornhill just after the house was completed.
Thornhill was one of the leading artists of his day.
He also painted the interior of the dome of St Paul's.
The whole thing works as an ascending art gallery.
And that's the point, in a way, this is like a museum, in a way,
these were the pioneers of the public museum,
because in the 18th century,
groups of people came here, two or three groups a week,
to admire the Arundel Marbles,
to be inspired by them, but also to enjoy Thornhill's paintings.
These parts of the house, meant to impress important visitors,
took up a huge amount of space.
Now remember, space was in short supply, because the wings
had already been built.
So how did Hawksmoor fit in the less-spectacular rooms
that were essential for the running of the house?
Luckily, he left a guide to show us just how ingenious he'd been!
Up until 2005, it was at the house.
Now it's at the study centre of the Royal Institute of British Architects
in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Well, the model of Easton Neston.
One of the most important, fascinating
and enigmatic objects in British architectural history.
It dates from the very late 17th century
and, simply, models from that period really do not survive!
Also, of course, it's by one of Britain's greatest architects.
What a fantastic opportunity to see, in the making,
one of Britain's greatest country houses.
Here we can see how the hall
once rose the full height of the building.
But Hawksmoor had to work hard to make room for it.
So, these little bedrooms and service areas,
including these service staircases here,
are really packing the spaces together in a very, very ingenious manner,
because so much of the volume of the house has gone
for the great state rooms, the double-height hall, the great staircase. Here's the clever bit.
There aren't just two storeys set above the basement,
as the garden elevation implies, but four storeys
at the south end of the house and five at the north end!
Cunningly hidden away are mezzanine floors,
into which Hawksmoor crammed staircases for servants
and bedrooms for less-important guests.
On the north elevation, this is made plain!
And here we can see that there was one major difference
between this model and what was actually built.
At this stage in the design, there are two storeys of columns.
But evidently, this didn't satisfy the customer's insatiable demand for ostentation.
He wanted more swank!
And he got it.
Hawksmoor made the building grander and more imposing still,
as travellers on what was the main road to Northampton
might just have noticed.
This is the view the public would have had of the house.
This is why its design got increasingly grand!
And here was the 18th-century equivalent of a heated swimming pool,
palm trees and helipad on the roof.
These columns, which rise the full height of the house,
are in a style made famous by Michelangelo.
They are called the "giant order" and the constitute a giant statement.
Now, the giant order carries many messages
and for Hawksmoor, it would have the stamp of Roman authority.
The client would have loved that association.
Gave him also, of course, the dignity and authority of a Roman senator!
The same swaggering spirit is also present in the Roman design
of the capitals.
But there's a rather curious
and charming variation on antique prototype.
Hawksmoor introduced the head of a lion!
There it is, at the centre, at the top of a complete capital,
a lion's head. But why a lion's head?
Well, because the client had recently been made Lord "Lemster",
or Lord Leominster.
"Leo" for lion.
And to top it all, "Hora E Sempre" - now and always.
There's confidence for you!
Contemporaries raved about the building.
One wrote that, "In the opinion of good judges,
"no seat in Europe exceeds it!"
A resounding triumph for Nicholas Hawksmoor, then?
Alas, it's not so simple.
40 years ago, an eminent architectural historian
set the cat amongst the pigeons.
He suggested that the house was built between 1685 and 1695 in brick,
partly to designs by Nicholas Hawksmoor
and partly to designs by Hawksmoor's old master, Sir Christopher Wren!
Five years later, the argument goes,
Hawksmoor covered the brick house in stone and added the giant order.
This theory, if true, would reduce Hawksmoor's role
in the creation of the house and deny him the full credit
for his first major independent commission.
And now the time has come to test this troublesome theory
against the insights offered by modern science.
Up in the attics, the tree-ring dating specialist Robert Howard
has taken a dozen or so samples from the original roof timbers.
Here, we hope, is the answer once and for all.
You can see the growth rings of this particular tree on this sample
which I've sanded up and polished just to show them.
-And you can see that there are variations in width
over the lifetime of this tree caused by the weather and it is rather like a supermarket bar code.
-So, you feel confident these samples can give a really precise accuracy?
I feel very confident. Prognosis, result, is very good indeed.
Whatever he did or didn't design, Hawksmoor finished
the main fabric of the house in 1702,
and for nearly four decades, the Fermor family lived high on the hog.
In 1721, aged just 24,
the son of the builder of the house became an earl, Earl Pomfret.
To celebrate, he decided to spruce up his collection of marbles.
As is the habit of ancient statues, many torsos were missing limbs.
The earl decided to make good that deficit.
He hired an Italian sculptor named Giovanni Guelfi
to add new heads and limbs.
This book, published in the 1760s,
records the appearance of the Arundel Marbles' various statues
after the First Earl had had his way with them!
What fun they must have had deciding what would go where.
This here, for example - Paris.
Head, legs, parts of the body added.
This was on the staircase.
And throughout the 18th century, this would have been regarded
as an exemplary, inspirational piece of ancient art until tastes changed.
They were for years the family's pride and joy
and the first Lord Leominster specified in his will
that they were to stay in the house forever.
But, they're not here now. What happened?
The answer is that cracks were beginning to appear
in the Fermor facade.
The magnificent image shown to the public was increasingly a lie.
Behind the scenes, in private, the Earl and Countess were going broke.
Easton Neston provided status - it burnt money!
By the late 1730s,
the ink was so red they had to relocate to Italy,
where the living was cheaper, and close Easton Neston down for three years.
And with the next generation, things were to get even worse!
The Fermor family is not very well-known,
but there's a wonderful mosaic of information
lurking in various archives throughout the land.
And, if this information is brought together,
a rather fascinating picture emerges!
In letters and court reports,
we meet the black sheep of the Fermor family,
the son of the First Earl.
He was going broke even quicker than his parents.
In letter after letter, his father pleads with him to economise
and not gamble. Despite all the advice from his father, the son,
George Fermor, did not reform.
He was very much a rake, indeed an extreme example of a Georgian rake.
He was involved, as far as we know, in at least four duels!
And in one, in 1752, he actually killed an opponent,
a fellow guard officer!
They were fighting with swords and he ran the chap through!
Now this was potentially a case of murder.
He was indeed sent to trial at the Old Bailey
and ultimately was found guilty of manslaughter, which, for him,
was very fortunate, otherwise he could have been executed!
On another occasion, we're told he lost £12,000
at a single sitting at cards!
That's 500 times what a labourer earned in a year!
The estate could hardly have gone to a less safe pair of hands.
But the aristocracy were no fools.
Over the years they constructed a built-in safety net
to protect country houses, contents, estates, wealth and status,
from improvident eldest sons.
They did it by various legal methods that prevented the eldest son
selling off the house or estate.
The land had to stay in the family.
Unable to trust his wayward son to provide dowries
for his unmarried sisters, the Earl took drastic action.
He couldn't prevent his eldest son inheriting the house,
but he could stop him getting his hands on the contents.
The Earl duly changed his will and left his movable possessions
to his daughters.
And so when the First Earl died in 1753, there was a huge sale,
in which virtually everything apart from the family portraits was sold off.
When I say everything, I mean everything.
This is a copy of the catalogue for the 1753 sale.
It says here, "Catalogue of some household furniture.
"Brewing vessels, garden rollers, cucumber frames, glasses, etc,
"of the right honourable Earl of Pomfret, deceased."
Great variety of bedsteads, curtains.
But also there are things one would regard as fittings! Lead cisterns.
Kitchen furniture. They were going to sell the kitchen sink!
I imagine when these things were sold, the house was pretty well uninhabitable!
"A large range, two pot hooks. A lead curb round the sink."
It really is the kitchen sink!
These people are desperate for the last penny!
And the Arundel Marbles, the family's pride and joy,
were donated to Oxford, out of the clutches of the Second Earl, as he'd now become.
Imagine, you're the Second Earl in 1754, and your house,
the symbol of your aristocratic status, is echoing,
empty apart from family portraits looking accusingly down from the walls.
And all of this is your fault, the result of your spendthrift habits.
Would you hang your head in shame? I should hope so! Did the Second Earl?
Probably not. What he did was look around for a solution.
And he needed one!
He'd inherited a mortgage of £6,000.
Within ten years, it stood at £30,000.
That's more than seven times the estate's annual rental income!
But then, as bankruptcy beckoned, with one bound,
our hero was free, or at least married!
What we know of Anna Maria is that she was somewhat
on the stout side and very rich.
One contemporary observer
said she was like "a richly-laden treasure ship",
another that "her tonnage was equal to her poundage".
But, whatever her appearance,
she brought much-needed money into the family.
There are no known portraits of the Second Earl, but here,
in the parish church, well away from the altar, we can make his acquaintance.
Here he is, the reckless Georgian rake.
With him is his wife, Anna Maria. An interesting monument, this.
He has his head in his hand,
I suppose worrying about the afterlife, though it does rather look
as if he's worrying about his money troubles.
And she was described in life as looking like a well-laden treasure ship,
here, of course, looking very svelte indeed. Lovely.
What happened to her money? We're not quite sure.
But what we do know is the Earl did not use it
to pay off the mortgage on Easton Neston.
The honour of trying to pay that off went to the son of George
and Anna Maria, the Third Earl.
His tomb is also to be found in the parish church.
Here he is, sitting, looking very composed.
It says here, "George, Third Earl of Pomfret.
"A dutiful son: a most kind brother:
"a father to all his family:
"a beneficent landlord: a beloved master: a sincere Christian."
But it does not say, of course, he was a good and loving husband.
And that's the way it is!
So often with monuments, it is what is not said that says everything.
The Third Earl certainly was a husband.
Indeed, thanks to his mortgage, he took up the family business
with a considerable enthusiasm and, like his father,
snapped up an heiress.
Mary Trollope Browne was the daughter of a rich landowner,
rather stiffly described as "an opulent wine merchant".
No pictures of her exist.
All we know about her is that she was 25
and absolutely loaded, to the tune of nearly £120,000!
A master craftsman might earn £200 a year.
The only problem for the Earl was that, in aristocrat marriages,
the wife's money was usually protected by a marriage settlement,
the prenuptial agreement of its day.
Mary agreed to cough up £30,000 to pay off the mortgage.
The other £90,000, she would keep!
So far, so good.
But then, as so often in the history of a marriage, a mother-in-law throws a spanner into the works,
in this case, by her unexpected death!
Because the mother-in-law dies, her money goes straight to him?
Yes, because she doesn't make a will. Now, if she'd made a will...
-..where she's set that money aside
for her daughter's separate use,
the daughter would have been safe. But because this money goes straight to the husband,
that's one of the complaints that the wife makes...
Which is that once he got his hands on her money, he treated her badly.
With the marriage in meltdown, the Earl and Countess separate
and soon lawyers are called in to establish who is at fault.
The Earl accuses Mary of physical violence and being scruffy.
She accuses him of mental cruelty and adultery.
They do separate, but the Earl still wants his £30,000.
Mary tells him he can whistle for it.
And then finally, 25 years after the marriage,
the Court of Chancery decides in the Earl's favour.
For the first time in 65 years, the family is back in the black!
How did all this affect Easton Neston?
The real change caused by Mary's money wasn't seen in the house,
but in the grounds, the acreage of which was increased.
When the Third Earl came into funds in the early 1820s,
he commissioned this splendid gate and neoclassical screen.
At the same time,
he moves some public roads further away from the main house.
The object, of course, was to increase the splendour
and isolation of the setting of Easton Neston.
But, despite the family motto, "Now And Always", in 1867,
the male Fermor line died out and, through marriage,
Easton Neston passed to a new family, the Heskeths,
who duly became Fermor-Heskeths.
Thanks to marriage
to terrifyingly-rich American heiresses,
the old Fermor formula,
the Heskeths managed to keep the house afloat, and then some.
This was the new money that paid for the hall to be altered in the 1890s.
Meanwhile, daily life in the house continued almost as if in a time capsule.
Trish York began to work as a lady's maid here in 1975 for Lady Hesketh.
At that point, Easton Neston was still very much
in Upstairs, Downstairs mode.
As a young lady's maid, it was my duty to clean these stairs.
-You cleaned the stairs?
-Every bit of the wrought iron, yes.
-And the other thing is...
-Oh, the wrought iron.
And Lady Hesketh used to come along
and she'd inspect every single one
and if it wasn't right, she'd come and tell us or she'd do it herself.
In the '70s, what was life like?
Was it really, as one might imagine,
-a great Victorian country house to be in?
-Yes, it was.
Everybody had their job to do and the butler would preside over us all.
He followed us around and made sure that everything was done.
When we said that a room had been done
or that cushions had been plumped up
when people had gone to dinner, he would come in and check that.
MUSIC: "The Boys Are Back In Town" by Thin Lizzy
But the house was soon to enter a somewhat more informal stage.
In 1973, the present Lord Hesketh set up a Formula 1 racing team.
Here was a chapter every bit as colourful
as anything Easton Neston had yet seen.
When Lord Hesketh was more in control of the house,
your role presumably changed to a degree?
It changed in the different calibre of people that were coming along.
It wasn't gentry that were coming along or aristocrats as much.
They were coming along, but it was generally more everyday people.
-Did they know how to behave though, the guests?
-No, not at all.
-No. That's fascinating.
That's how the world had changed.
-The guests didn't know how to behave!
-No, absolutely not. No.
-Yeah. Interesting, isn't it?
And a lot of them were models and things
that had never been to a big house before
and just suddenly thought, "Oh, I've got people on hand to get me
"a cup of tea and constantly ringing the bell,
"cos they wanted you to come and get them some ice or whatever."
And you'd say, "Well, the ice is in the cupboard just there."
The Hesketh Racing team enjoyed great early success.
In 1974, James Hunt won at Silverstone.
In 1975, Team Hesketh won a Grand Prix,
the last privately-owned team ever to do so.
Mick Broom came to work here at Easton Neston as an engineer.
Can you tell me a bit more about, you know, the Formula 1 days here?
A lot of what will be remembered was
obviously the fact that he was a privateer, he didn't have any backing
but they also approached the racing a lot more different.
They were professional, they worked hard in sort of
producing the car from next to nothing, but they also played hard.
And there's lots and lots of stories around of them
going to Monaco with one car and three yachts,
whereas most people went with one yacht and three cars, you know?
When the racing team folded, that wasn't the end of motor sports
here at Easton Neston.
In a market full of inexpensive Japanese imports,
Lord Hesketh picked up the gauntlet and tried to revive
the ailing British luxury bike industry.
-I built this personally.
-This, actual...this one?
-This, this bike, yes.
It was, it was a labour of love more than anything else in those days,
because we, we were starting from almost raw aluminium.
It was a job which was inspired by the surroundings,
It's not the sort of thing that you normally get when you're working on motorbikes in back sheds.
It was inspired by the building?
Did the beauty of Hawksmoor's house somehow inspire the design?
Yes, basically, because, you know, it all came into the atmosphere.
The atmosphere was definitely different
from a normal commercial exercise.
-It must have been expensive?
-It was expensive because it was a low-volume one.
And it was destined not really to work because,
and this is one of the other advantages of the atmosphere and the fact
that there was a lord involved, because if you'd looked at it
as a solid businessman in the '80s,
when the bike industry was in decline and all the rest of it,
and it was a very expensive bike coming in at the wrong time, you wouldn't do it!
And that in a way, that quirkiness, you know, gave us the bike!
One thing that's remained constant at Easton Neston
throughout its history is the sheer cost of keeping it going.
And in 2005, a long chapter in that history came to an end.
The house's contents went under the hammer.
The sale raised over £8 million, the second-greatest haul
from a country house contents sale in British auction history.
It was masterminded by James Miller of Sotheby's.
Can you tell me, how important was the collection?
Well, it was COLLECTIONS, because it was a collection which had grown
and diminished in the middle of the 18th century and then grown again,
and then put on colossal weight
at the end of the 19th and early 20th century.
And there have been a succession of members of either Fermors
or Heskeths who had both a liking for works of art,
a good eye and the wherewithal to express it.
So it's layer upon layer, accretions of taste.
And, to me, I find that almost more exciting
than having a complete picture. I like a jigsaw puzzle where you put things together.
But it obviously was an important collection insofar as
reflecting the history of this house and the history of the family?
It's important, because you've got a house which was built for a collection, the Arundel,
but I think this house was always meant for display,
so you tended not to be able to get away with what you and I
-might call charming but domestic furniture.
-It's got to earn its keep here.
You can't just put in any old bit of mahogany.
If you were a bad object, you sort of had to go away.
The sale of 2005 has an almost uncanny resemblance to the sale of 1753,
when the house was stripped virtually bare.
Here again, along with great paintings and grand furniture,
there are many far humbler day-to-day objects up for sale.
For example, a child's croquet set, including five balls,
four mallets and six hoops. 40 quid!
And here, a Victorian iron garden roller with loop
and heart-pierced end, indeed.
Heartbreaking. 80 quid!
Everything had to go.
Virtually everything did go.
Not long after the auction, the house itself was sold.
"In a good year," Lord Hesketh said, "the estate lost half a million pounds.
"In a bad year, three times that amount."
Unlike his ancestor, the Second Earl, back in 1753,
Lord Hesketh could sell the family seat, and he did.
The whole estate was put on sale for £50 million,
but there were no takers.
So the land that was, in theory, meant to support the house,
was broken up into smaller pieces.
600 prime acres, plus the house itself, was snapped up
by the Los Angeles-based, Russian-born fashion magnate Leon Max.
Price - £15 million.
I had this romantic idea that I should live
in the country in England, in some beautiful, old, white elephant
of a house, where I could set up a design studio.
And I looked at a few houses.
This one was not quite in the price range,
this was a little too expensive.
But at some point, we made a deal with the Heskeths
and here we are.
So, did he leave you any, any welcoming gifts, Lord Hesketh?
Yes, there was a bottle of vodka with a note, "Welcome, and..."
Having moved into a virtually empty house, Leon Max began the job
of decorating it in the style of the 18th century.
Feels very much a traditional English country house interior.
-Wonderful paintings, all acquired by you!
-Yes, it was interesting.
It sort of became a hobby for me.
Well, I run a dotcom, so I have a lot of very clever boys
on my staff and, and they'd done a model, so we could...
Anything that came up at auction that I thought
was the appropriate piece, would be scaled and placed in that model.
And so it was all done on-line, everything was bought on-line,
and hence everything fits rather well.
And so, from pleasure to business.
-As you can see, this is one of our advertising shots here.
Here, in the restored wing, is Max Studio's European headquarters.
-Oh, good Lord, this is... It's hard to see...
-It does seem a long way from Hawksmoor, doesn't it?
Easton Neston was built to lend glamour and status
to its aristocratic owners, and then did so to a motor sports team!
Now it's being used as a backdrop for the most glamorous business of all - fashion.
And the Hawksmoor design continues to inspire!
I truly believe this is one of, if not THE most,
beautiful design studio in the world.
I think it's impossible to make anything ugly in this setting.
And we're in the business of putting beautiful things
into the world, and so here we are.
Owners come and go, the house lives on.
Easton Neston has entered a new, if unexpected, chapter.
It's one of the greatest buildings in Britain and certainly one of my favourite country houses.
And so it's time, finally,
to solve the mystery of who designed it and when.
Was it begun in the 1680s to a design by Sir Christopher Wren,
or was it Hawksmoor's work alone, built nearer to 1702?
Let's get the verdict of the tree-ring dating!
Well, good to see you.
Let's hear your results!
I'm not sure what date you were really expecting, but I can reveal,
having taken several samples from the timbers, that...
-In the roof?
-In the roof, yes, of the main house, yes,
they were all felled between the spring of 1700 and the spring of 1701.
-Well, that's completely spot-on.
-Just what one would expect.
This has now been solved, put to bed this speculation.
You've answered one of the great questions of English architectural history!
-Such a frustration, that whole question!
Because, actually, now, Hawksmoor reigns supreme in the attics.
Hawksmoor came back here in 1731,
nearly 30 years after the exterior of the house had been completed.
At that point, he was ill and his architecture had fallen from favour.
But, he at least was still pleased with what he saw.
He wrote at the time, "You can hardly avoid loving your own children."
# The stately homes of England
# How beautiful they stand
# To prove the upper classes have still the upper hand
# Though the fact they have to be rebuilt
# And frequently mortgaged to the hilt
# Is inclined to take the gilt off the gingerbread
# And certainly damps the fun of the eldest son
# But still we won't be beaten
# We'll scrimp and screw and save
# The playing fields of Eton
# Have made us frightfully brave
# And though if the Van Dykes have to go
# And we pawn the Bechstein grand
# We'll stand by the stately homes of England. #
Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank explores Britain's finest country houses. Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, was completed in 1702 and is an architectural gem, one of the most beautiful examples of a short-lived but glorious style known as the English Baroque. Work on the house was begun by Sir Christopher Wren and finished by his mysterious protege, Nicholas Hawksmoor. Who designed what, and precisely when, has become a long-running debate. But it's one that, in this programme, is finally put to bed.
Easton Neston's ingenious construction is just one of the secrets hidden behind its elegant facade - the building has had a colourful history. In modern times, it has hosted a Formula One racing team and it is now the headquarters of a global fashion brand.