Stowe House is one of the finest 18th century country houses in Europe. Purcell embarked on an ambitious phased programme of repair and restoration in 1999 and continue to work there.
“One of the most pioneering restoration projects of the twenty-first century.”
- National Trust
Stowe House was built by the powerful Temple-Grenville family and reflected both the family’s rise in status and their political views. Successive generations contributed to the design and enlargement of the house and employed leading architects of the day including Vanbrugh, Adam, Giacomo Leoni, Kent and Soane.
Following a decline in the family fortunes through the 19th century the house was sold and subsequently saved from demolition by the founding of Stowe School. Considering, its appearance remains remarkably unchanged since 1780.
In 1997, the Stowe House Preservation Trust was established and in 1999 it was awarded a major HLF grant. Purcell was appointed as the architecture practice, led by Jane Kennedy, after a thorough selection process.
After three major phases of external repairs, Stowe House is no longer on the Buildings at Risk register, and work has continued to conserve and represent its historic interiors, to increase the number of visitors, improve physical and intellectual access.
Once appointed, we were given a sizeable box of research papers and reports documenting early illustrations of the house, a conservation plan and research on the pathology of the building. An early decision to revive the exterior to its ‘completion’ era of around 1780-1800 required extensive research. Each project involved detailed archaeological recording. Historians, archaeologists and conservators uncovered and documented new findings which assisted the extensive conservation.
The initial grant was to repair the North Front of the house, remove the car park from the forecourt and improve the approach to and appearance of the house.
Approximately 400 feet long, the impressive north front and colonnades had fallen into disrepair. The render was cracked, and water had damaged the soft red bricks underneath. The Trustees required that the façade would not need maintenance for 75 years so a limewash finish was appropriate.
Historic research told us the original mildly hydraulic lime and local sand had been replaced twice with Roman cement. We found a local sand that was quarried at Finmere, formerly a part of Stowe estate and only three miles away. Mixed with lime, it created an attractive cream render so was specified for all subsequent work. We removed harmful salts on the brickwork with poultices before re-rendering.
The roof also had to be re-laid so we sourced local and Westmorland stone slates for the rear slopes of the colonnade roofs, laid neatly by experienced roofers. To recreate the herms, a square stone pillar with a carved head on top, we sourced a workshop in Port Lympne in Kent. Relocating the car park was a challenge but we reintroduced the forecourt grass and completed the work in 2002.
Phase Two, funded by the HLF and World Monuments Fund in Britain, comprised the repair of the spectacular Marble Saloon and structural repairs to the central mansion roof and south portico stonework, including the south steps.
The South Front restoration required the removal of a 1960s aluminium and lead roof over the central mansion house to reveal the dome, supported by timber beams that were badly rotted. We undertook stonework repairs using Bath stone which matched the many local stones used by the original builders. We used their original 18th century technique to stain the stone with diluted ‘copperas’, an iron sulphate, which creates a uniform appearance with a golden hue.
Our philosophy was to replace any stone which was in danger of crumbling away or was dangerous, and to ensure that the designed crisp lines of the classical mouldings and architectural detail were retained. We carefully repaired and conserved the frieze in the South Portico which was then coloured to provide a uniform appearance.
The Marble Saloon required extensive conservation. We repaired the fine coffered ceiling and dome, cleaning, repairing and limewashing the decorative plasterwork. The Roman triumphal bas-relief frieze of a procession scene was damaged, and we replaced missing limbs, spears and facial features. The carrara marble floor and scagliola columns were restored to their former glory.
Classical statuary casts of eight classical figures and four ‘Atheniennes’ with lantern replicas above, all according to the original design, were mounted in the wall niches, organised by a Trustee. Stud walls around the Marble Saloon separated Victorian and 20th century cast iron water tanks. These were removed and replaced to avoid catastrophic leaking damage. The work was completed in 2006.
East and West Pavilions
Continuing work to the South Front, the Western Pavilion, housing the Garter Room and State Dining Room wing, saw masonry repairs. This was followed by re-roofing the State Library, internal repairs and ceiling redecoration. During these works we found many traces of gold leaf and a decision was made to reinstate the original decoration to spectacular effect.
The State Rooms
We continued with further internal conservation including Valdre’s fine decorations of the Music Room, the recreation of the decorative scheme in the Egyptian Hall followed by a recreation of the nineteenth century appearance of the Blue Room with new silk damask to the walls, and careful repair and conservation of the Kent ceiling in the North Hall. We are currently working on a scheme to complete the interior representation of the North hall and the State Dining Room.
Extensive conservation has addressed the practical needs of Stowe House Preservation Trust’s tenants, Stowe School. From the careful upgrade of heating, wiring and fire protection systems to joinery and floor repairs, the estate has been brought up to 21st century standards. Work has been carried on throughout the school terms necessitating careful planning to facilitate the smooth running of the school and the continued welcome to visitors. Many people have contributed to ensure that this extensive project was brought to fruition and Purcell is proud to be an architectural chapter in the history of this important Georgian estate.