Easton Neston
Easton Neston is a country house near Towcester (pronounced "Toaster") in Northamptonshire, England. It was designed in the classical style by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Easton Neston is thought to be the only mansion which was solely the work of Hawksmoor. From circa 1700 Hawksmoor was to work on many buildings, including Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, with Sir John Vanbrugh, often providing the technical knowledge to the less qualified Vanbrugh. Hawksmoor's work, even after their many collaborations, was always more classically severe than Vanbrugh's. However, Easton Neston predates this partnership by some six years.

Hawksmoor was commissioned to build Easton Neston by Sir William Fermor, later created Lord Leominster (pronounced "Lemster"); Hawksmoor had been recommended to Fermor by his cousin Sir Christopher Wren, who had advised on the building of a new mansion on the site circa 1680. However, no details of quite what Wren envisaged survive, and work seems to have ceased following completion of the two service blocks, of which only one survives. Following Fermor's marriage to an heiress, Catherine Poulett, in 1692, he decided to resurrect the idea of a new mansion, and subsequently Wren's pupil Hawksmoor received the commission circa 1694.

The statues (originally part of the Arundel collection of marbles) were removed and sold in the distress sale of the 3rd Earl of Pomfret, at which they were bought by his mother and donated to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The house Hawksmoor built at Easton Neston can be best described as a miniature palace that owes the colossal order of pilasters and crowning balustrade to Michelangelo's palazzi on the Campidoglio at Rome and may in turn have influenced through engravings in Vitruvius BritannicusGabriel's design of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, which was not to be built for another 50 years. Both main facades are of simple, clear design devoid of ostentation. The rectangular house is on three principal floors. The first is a rusticated basement, with the two floors above appearing to have equal value—nine bays divided by Composite pilasters, each bay containing a tall, slim sash window of the same height on each floor. The central bay contains the entrance, flanked by two Composite full columns. These two columns support a small, round-headed pediment displaying the Fermor arms and motto. Above the door at second floor height is a massive Venetian window. The roof-line is hidden by a balustrade and decorated at the ten intervals, above the pilasters below, by covered stone urns. The design and fenestration of the entrance facade is repeated at the rear on the garden facade ( illustration, above), except that the roof balustrade here is undecorated by urns and pediment. The house is built of Helmdon stone, a cream stone of exceptional quality, which has ensured that the carving is as crisp today as it was on completion of the house in 1702.

The two side elevations of the house are fascinating to a social historian, as they tell the story of life in a country house before the age of the servants' bell. Until the invention of the distant bell, which could be jangled by a rope from far away, it was necessary to have servants within calling distance. In older houses such as Montacute House servants slept on the floor of the hall or outside the door of their employer's bedchamber; by 17th century this arrangement was becoming undesirable. Houses now began to have corridors, and employers, rather than stepping over sleeping servants, began to tidy them away in small rooms, sometimes shared with their employer's close-stool. However, these small rooms still had to be within calling distance. In a brand-new, luxurious house such as Easton Neston, this was achieved by inserting two very low mezzanine staff floors between each of the two upper floors. Hence at Easton Neston, while the two principal facades (West and East) are of three floors, fenestration of the two less important sides of the house betrays the secret that there are in fact five floors: the windows of the two mezzanines, as befits the humble rooms they light, are a mere half the size of those of the grander rooms above and below them. This makes the fenestration of the side facades a complex but interesting sight.

Some years after completion of the mansion in 1702, Hawksmoor drew some further plans for a huge entrance court. These designs, never fully executed but published in Vitruvius Britannicus, would have flanked the existing rectangular house with two wings, one containing stables and the other service rooms. The fourth side of the courtyard was to have been an elaborate colonnade and etera. Apart from the house the only part of this scheme to have been built was the stable block, but this was demolished less than a century after it was built. Many architectural commentators feel that Hawksmoor's mansion would, in fact, have been spoilt by this scheme, which owed more to Sir John Vanbrugh's architectural concepts than Hawksmoor's. The whole design was depicted in Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus vol. i (1715, pls 98 - 100) as though it existed. Two large and deliciously decayed Ozymandian entrance piers, marooned in the park, are all that remain of this grandiose design.

The interior has the same refinement as the exterior. The principal rooms are light, as the windows rise almost floor to ceiling. The rooms are large and well proportioned without suffering from the oppressive grandeur that was to be a feature of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor's collaborative work. The massive main staircase, with its wrought iron balustrade in the style of Jean Tijou, is two long, shallow flights ascending to the first floor gallery decorated by grisailles painted by Sir James Thornhill (best known for his painting of the dome in St Paul's).

Interiors at Easton Neston have undergone some changes since Hawksmoor completed the house. Hawksmoor's great hall, with its high, bare walls and flanking vestibules and Corinthian columns, was sub-divided in the 19th century when Sir Thomas Hesketh inherited the property from his uncle, to create three further bedrooms in its upper storey. The principal drawing room, the only heavily decorated room in the mansion, has also seen change: it contains plasterwork carried out by Artari in the mid-18th century for Lord Lempster's son, created Earl of Pomfret, a high-relief ceiling matched by huge scrolled panels and picture surrounds, and trophies containing hunting emblems that would have delighted the charismatic Hawksmoor. And yet as is so often the case in English country houses, the varying styles and alterations seem to fit with each other rather than to jar the senses. One exception to this used to be the out-of-scale Library inserted by David Hicks and painted deep spinach green. However, once repainted a less aggressive cream, these bookcases assumed a less aggressive presence.

In the grounds, Hawksmoor also designed a canal in the park to complement the house, known as the Long Water; this is on an axis with the door at the centre of the garden facade. The gardens in the 20th century were further enhanced by the creation of a water terrace, overlooked by the West, or garden facade, by Thomas, 1st Baron Hesketh, the great-nephew of the 5th and last Earl of Pomfret. It is decorated by box topiary and roses surrounding a large pool, which reflects the house. This terrace, to our modern eyes, is a triumphal complement to the house, but one which would never have been dreamt of by the sober Hawksmoor himself. It is through innovations such as this that the English country has evolved, rather than retaining rigidly the concepts of a long-gone age.

Easton Neston has always been a private house and never opened to the public; as a consequence it is little known. Until recently the house was owned by Lord Hesketh, whose family is directly descended from the original builder, Sir William Fermor. It is furnished with fine paintings, tapestries, and 18th-century furniture.

In March 1876, the Empress of Austria visited England and rented Easton Neston House, with its fine stabling for her horses. She used Blisworth station to gain access to London.

In 2004 Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh put the house, and the surrounding estate including Towcester Racecourse, up for sale for an estimated £50,000,000. According to the Daily Telegraph, on 13 July 2005 a portion of the estate, including: the main house, some outlying buildings and 550 acres (2.2 km 2) of land; were sold to Russian-born US retail businessman and designer, Leon Max for around £17,000,000. Lord Hesketh, having sold off the farmland and the Gothick village of Hulcote, has retained ownership of the race course. Max plans to use the Wren-designed wing of the building as a base for his European operations, and the Hawksmoor block as his personal residence. As of early 2009 the racecourse is on the market, with an asking price of £10 million.


20 photos and 1 drawing

Building Activity

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