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Arts and Crafts Country House in Oxfordshire

– a project memoir


Written by Jonathan Lees RIBA. Feb 2021

‘…..my main focus was on the creation of a picturesque, Lutyens inspired frontis that was joyful, playful, and most importantly, full of character. I also wanted to develop a design that was very much in the idiom of the Arts and Crafts – rather than a grand, opulent
classically inspired frontage…..’

An aerial view of the completed house by Jonathan Lees Architects LLP 2019

 

This country house started as many simple projects nowadays do, with an email. The client had seen an image that I had painted of a modest, Lutyens inspired country house that had a simple vernacular language with classical features.

An aerial view of the completed house by Jonathan Lees Architects LLP 2019

 

“…….. designed in the early 20th Century by Maberly Smith,
a contemporary of Lutyens”

Inspiration from the existing house

 

A conversation first held on site revealed that the house was designed in the early 20th Century by Maberly Smith, a contemporary of Lutyens, with many features in the house resembling a crude, almost caricature version of Lutyensesque detailing intermingled with some charming accents that were likely developed by the trades working on the site, rather than on the drawing board of the designer.

South Elevation – house photographed on first visit

 

There was enough there to work with. The house had a beautiful oak framed gable to the south elevation, which had been butchered over the many years of redevelopment and alteration, but much still remained intact, revealing a charm that could not be ignored. The interior had been altered beyond recognition, with the once great, double storey hall being separated into a living room on the ground floor and a bedroom on the first, with an odd, pokey storage area to the vaulted ceiling in the roof space. There was a myriad of staircases, and the flow of the rooms created a rabbit warren of spaces that were easy to get lost in. Many of the windows were small and in the wrong locations, perhaps a hangover of a previous design or altered room layouts that occurred in the century since its construction.

a horror of Arts and Crafts, infused with a form of brutalism that was hard to place

North Elevation – house photographed on first visit

 

The north elevation was a horror of Arts and Crafts, infused with a form of brutalism that was hard to place other than to say that it was both austere, ugly and overbearing, with nothing to celebrate other than a charming little single storey wing where the main entrance of the house could be found. And it had to be found, it was by no means a simple building to navigate, despite its relatively small scale, set in the most enchanting beech woodland.

“….the natural background of the woodland gave me inspiration that no building could”

The woodland was the first thing that struck me as I travelled up the rough track, flanked either side by tall, slender beech trees, densely packed into gently sloping banks. The beech trees were planted in an existing ancient woodland at the end of the 19th century, primarily for the joinery trade. The events of the first world war decimated the industry, and the woodland was left to grow of its own accord. The result is a mixture of native trees, with a vast swath of bluebells creating a sea of colour in mid spring, a time of year when it is special to be at this property. My early visits to the house were at this time, and the natural background of the woodland gave me inspiration that no building could. The influence of the woodland on the design and the features of the house would grow throughout the life of the project, and still continue to do so.

West Elevation – house photographed on first visit

 

The small, single storey extension to the west wing of the north elevation was adjoined by a double garage, constructed of timber, plywood and corrugated sheeting. Next to the house on the east side was a rudimentary lean-to, with a barrelled roof set in between thick, dense conifers that towered over the house and blocked out all light. The setting was dreary, even on a sunny day, with a sense of macabre. The architecture sucked the will out of anyone who looked upon it, and I wondered at first, what could be done to tame this beast.

“About the only good thing that I could see was the materials that were used.”

About the only good thing that I could see was the materials that were used. The bricks on the main walls were those from the local brick manufacturers at HG Mathews, as were the oak Fired, hand-made variety that is still in production today. This gave me immediate hope, as although the brickwork was in poor condition due to many years of neglect, I knew that we could match the character of the existing south elevation with any alterations that we carried out. The roof tiles were a charming clay tile, with sprocketed eaves, a favourite and often go-to detail for the creation of picturesque and sweeping roofs that were ever so present in the Arts and Crafts houses of the time. The windows were oak framed with metal inserts, creating a vernacular aesthetic that worked well with the accents of the plastered panels between the oak frame members. The complete saturation of the oak by decades of creosoting meant that the heavy blackness of the frames was half-way between mock Tudor Revival and a simpler, vernacular character that could be found in the surrounding region. Years of neglect had seen most of the materials fade into disrepair, with the occasional clean area of original masonry being bordered by a bodged repair of sand and cement.

“It was at that time, a modest approach to refurbishment and extension. That was soon to change. “

With the scene set, the brief, at that stage, was to beautify the North entrance elevation, design a garage wing to replace the lean to and conifers, and to carry out some modest changes to the interior. All in all, it was at that time, a modest approach to refurbishment and extension. That was soon to change.

Country House Oxfordshire – Sketch Scheme Design in Watercolour

 

“…….. see what you come up with”

Designing and remodelling the house

 

As with all of our projects, we started with a survey of the existing house that I carried out with my team, along with a more robust measured survey carried out by our surveyors. I wanted to get the best possible understanding of the structure and spending a couple of days on site carrying out our own measurements helped us to develop the beginnings of a new layout that would revitalise the house.

The client wanted us to be ambitious but gave us very little to work with in terms of requirements. The brief was quite simple – ‘see what you come up with’.

Perspective – Sketch Scheme Watercolour

 

I cannot fully recall what I started with, but my main focus was on the creation of a picturesque, Lutyens inspired frontis that was joyful, playful, and most importantly, full of character. I also wanted to develop a design that was very much in the idiom of the Arts and Crafts – rather than a grand, opulent classically inspired frontage, I wanted to create a soft, inviting, warm home, that welcomed people in through the doors rather than an overbearing, austere frontage that demanded attention from afar. The edge of the woodland was meters away, and any frontage could not compete with the overhanging, leaf laden boughs of the oak and beech trees. The scale of the trees was impressive and also overwhelming to the house, with the light from the south hitting the woodland edge and creating a depth in the canopy and woodland floor that seemed to go on and on. It reminded me of enchanted forests from the stories that we are all so used to reading.

With the entrance elevation we had a challenge, as it faced directly north, and was flanked on the east by tall trees that the morning sun could not penetrate. To the existing north elevation of the house was a brick built lift shaft on the north west corner of the entrance elevation that was truly the most hideous addition you could possibly see on a house of this nature, and this created its own shadow of foreboding on the ground that sapped the very last drop of happiness from the viewers soul.

“The house felt to me like it had a soul, a story to tell.”

The easy route would have been to suggest to the client that there was only a handful of things to save and that we should call in the bulldozers to help preserve the health and wellbeing of future visitors. But that did not seem right. The house felt to me like it had a soul, a story to tell. As an Architect, I am often laughed at, including by my own family, for suggesting that buildings not only create a sense of space, but they have a sense of their own. It is not to say that new buildings do not have a soul, the ones that are designed properly do, and these are young souls. But this building felt like it had an interesting story to tell and had seen many seasons. It had clearly been attacked by Dr Frankenstein and his followers over the years, but there was enough of the house left to shine through.

So, we set about determining what was good, and should stay, and what was a travesty, and should go. The south wing, with its beautiful bay window, the west wing with its handsome, double storey oak frame and the volume of the core of the building, the heart of the structure, would stay. The rest, the augmentations of later generations, would go.

“this design was immediately going off on a tangent that was heading in a picturesque, classically infused direction…..”

North Entrance Elevation and Courtyard

 

An Arts and Crafts inspired entrance elevation

 

The challenge of the entrance elevation was to make it welcoming. Inspiration came from the likes of Lutyens’ Little Thakeham, Fullbrook and Tigbourne Court along with Baillie Scott, CFA Voysey, Phillip Webb and Norman Shaw. Each have influenced my work in various ways, as have many of the earlier Palladian and Neo-Classical architects of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. However, this design was immediately going off on a tangent that was heading in a picturesque, classically infused direction that would balance a vernacular language with material quality and subtle, classical detailing to gently enhance features.

I knew that the material palette would sing on its own. Hand-made bricks laid in a buff lime mortar, with their irregular shape, coke stains from the firing, pockets and folds, there could not be a better brick to use. I quickly decided that the aggregate in the mortar should be coarse, and most importantly be flush brushed with the face of the brick so that the texture of the brick was complemented by the colour and specs of flint and sand that broke through the mortar, creating a dappled lively character to the walls that makes them feel alive. The colour variation in the brick would enable us to create large, plain areas of wall that would otherwise feel austere and perhaps overbearing, but in this material, with this mortar, these walls popped out and became features in themselves without the need to adorn them with any feature or afterthought.

a horror of Arts and Crafts, infused with a form of brutalism that was hard to place

Handmade Brick Chimney Stacks