Blenheim, Burleigh, Chatsworth and Castle Howard: the English country house is a thing of beauty. Each year millions of us visit these great ancestral piles from a bygone age. One long forgotten house deserves to be returned to the roll call of the greats. More fortunate than some, Wentworth Woodhouse has not survived until today without showing her age. She is, however, even in her present condition, exceptional.
Janus, like the house, is perhaps best described by its two faces. On the west side you have a splendid baroque facade and in the east a majestic neo-palladian front. At over 600ft in length, it’s twice the size of Buckingham Palace. Linking the two is a mixture of rooms and buildings going back to the original Tudor home of Sir Thomas Wentworth.
The interior of the building is described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as a mixture of Rococo and ornate Venetian. Like me, you might want to accept that as a given and focus your energies instead on admiring the beauty before you. From the moment you walk inside the pillared entrance hall through to the splendid cube salon (pictured below), which sits directly above it, what you get through the staterooms and elsewhere is a sense of space and elegant refinement. What you see at Wentworth is not easily found even in some of the better known stately homes.
The former seat of the Marquesses of Rockingham and Earls Fitzwilliam was a palatial statement of power, wealth and privilege in the age of the Whig ascendency. It’s perhaps better known outside its immediate South Yorkshire surroundings for the book Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey. Whatever the truth or otherwise behind the gossipy little book, it doesn’t really feature on the tour.
You can book yourself on a tour using their website. Over two and a half hours we had two fabulous guides. £25 for the most comprehensive tour is a price worth paying to help contribute to the preservation.
Some of the contents including Stubbs masterpiece Whistlejacket after whom a room is named have found their way into museums. The Fitzwilliam descendants though do still have the bulk of the art work in their possession. That holds out a tantalising possibility that the property might not just survive – it might with a fair wind prosper. May contents one day be reunited with their former home?
First though the house must be stabilised in a quite literal sense. The present owners, the Newbold family, have been in a protracted tussle with Government in the guise of the National Coal Board. With the Newbolds having carried the day three times in court there seems little at stake on the Government’s appeal beyond the principle and a corresponding fear of the flood gates opening in respect of subsidence.
Personally I could think of fewer better uses of our taxpayer funds. This house with open cast coal mining going right up to the front door has had more than its fair share of imposition at the hands of the state. It’s now time the British accepts the liabilities however historic this also entails.
Close to both the M1 and A1, the house could with a little luck be a tourist magnet. I would dearly love to return in a couple of years’ time and see the house once again bedecked with its treasures.