Retro: Grandeur and follies of S Yorks stately home

The Whistlejacket Room at Wentworth Woodhouse, dominated by a George Stubbs portrait of the famous racehorse, owned by the Second Marquis of Rockingham
The Whistlejacket Room at Wentworth Woodhouse, dominated by a George Stubbs portrait of the famous racehorse, owned by the Second Marquis of Rockingham
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Wentworth Woodhouse

Wentworth Woodhouse is often described as two 18th-century houses merging into one. Yet the east and west fronts differ in styles.

The west side was completed in 1734 and the east side, having the longest frontage in the country, measuring some 606 feet, was finished sometime after 1750.

Remnants of an even older house from around 1630 were incorporated into the west side around 1723. But only a few features still survive.

Sir Thomas Wentworth built the older house. He later became Earl of Strafford, was a minister of Charles I, President of the Council of the North and Lord Deputy of Ireland.

But he made a number of enemies, and was executed in 1641. After him came the second Earl of Strafford and then the estate passed to his nephew, Thomas Watson.

His son, Thomas Watson Wentworth, built the enormous Wentworth Woodhouse, known as ‘England’s greatest semi’.

Henry Flitcroft (1697–1769) was the architect for the Palladian east front and he also undertook work at Woburn Abbey. The west front is in the Baroque style and incorporates four giant Corinthian pilasters.

Palladian architecture is a style derived from and inspired by the designs of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580).

His work was strongly based on the symmetry, perspective and values of the formal classical temple architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Buildings in the Baroque style include complicated shapes, large curved forms, twisted columns, grand stairways and high domes.

It is claimed that Baroque architecture emerged in England after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Architect Christopher Wren used restrained Baroque styling when he helped rebuild the city.

Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner says of the Wentworth’s east and west sides: “Their centres are nearly, but not entirely, in line, but there is no direct communication around the building.

“Moreover, there is a considerable difference in level between them which amounts to almost a full storey. The differences in character are even more startling.”

He also states that, while the style of the western side is puzzling, it contains motifs which point to south-east Germany, and more specifically, Austria and Bohemia.

Thomas Wentworth, Lord Malton and later first Marquis of Rockingham, died in 1750, before the house was completed.

From 1715 to 1727, he was MP for Malton, and for Yorkshire from 1727 to 1728. In 1725, he was appointed a Knight of the Bath, admitted to the Privy Council of Ireland in 1733 and was Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire from 1733 to 1750.

Thomas’s youngest son Charles, who outlived his four brothers, became the next Marquis of Rockingham.

He was also Prime Minister twice and financed the manufacture of Rockingham pottery at the works in Swinton, near Rotherham.

He died in 1782, about the same time that the house’s wings – originally only one and a half storeys high – were altered by the celebrated architect, John Carr of York.

Several other additions to the house, as well as a mausoleum built in 1788 and stables dating to 1768, were also designed by Carr.

On completion Wentworth boasted 250,000 square feet of floorspace and had 365 rooms (one for every day of the year) and covered an area of more than 2.5 acres (1.0 ha). It is surrounded by a 180-acre (73 ha) park and by an estate of 15,000 acres.

Among the features of the east front ground floor interior are the Pillared Hall, the Painted Drawing Room, the Low Drawing Room, Libraries, Gallery and Chapel.

Climbing up the staircase, placed in a semi-circular wall, the first floor includes the the Marble Saloon, the Statuary Room and the State Dining Room.

Rooms in the west front include the Yellow Bedroom, Yellow Dressing Room, Anteroom, Van Dyck Room and Whistlejacket room.

The most prominent landscape gardener of the time, Humphry Repton (1752–1818), was assigned to lay out the grounds. The work is detailed in his book, Some Observations of the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803).

Within the Wentworth Woodhouse Estate are a number of follies/monuments, built during the 18th century satisfying a contemporary craze for that type of feature.

These include:

n Hoober Stand, a triangular and tapering structure, with a hexagonal lantern extending 518 feet above sea level, was supposedly built in 1748 to commemorate the quelling of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. Others believe its purpose was Lord Melton’s public gratitude for his election to the position of Marquis of Rockingham by George II.

n Keppel’s Column, a Tuscan structure of 115 feet, is said never to look straight and is named in memory of the acquittal, at his court martial, of Lord Rockingham’s friend, Admiral Keppel.

n The Needle’s Eye, dating from 1780, and lying at the edge of Lee Wood, is the smallest of the four major monuments, and its origins still baffle historians.

In 1950, the sprawling Wentworth Woodhouse was turned into a teacher training college.

Under local government reorganisation in 1974, Rotherham Council took control for three years, the college being merged with Sheffield City Polytechnic.

By 1996, the polytechnic no longer required the premises and three years later it became privately occupied once more, and remains so today.