2015 marks one hundred years since the death of Philip Webb (1831-1915), the architect of Standen and one of the leading architects of his age. Sometimes the match between architect and client is made in heaven, and sometimes in hell. Webb, the arts and crafts genius, knew both kinds… but at Standen in Sussex both parties were lucky and the result is a homely down-to-earth masterpiece of both house and garden.
The relationship must have been good because when the house was finished his clients James and Margaret Beale presented Webb with a silver snuff box, engraved with the motto: ‘When clients talk irritating nonsense, I take a pinch of snuff’”
Read on to find out more about Webb and the house, Margaret Beale and her garden, and the National Trust’s project to revive the gardens at Standen….
James Beale was a successful solicitor from Birmingham, who relocated to Holland Park in London during the 1870s, to manage the London office of the family firm, Beale & Co. He and his wife purchased three farms, formerly part of the Saint Hill Estate outside East Grinstead with the idea of making a weekend home for themselves and their large family. Clearly creating a garden was a big part of the attraction, because they started work on the garden and commissioned a landscape gardener, George Simpson even before they commissioned an architect.
Very little seems to be known about Simpson but he surveyed the site and produced a gardenesque design, the plans for which are still at Standen. While he was doing that James Beale asked Philip Webb to design a house adjacent to the modest, timber-framed, 15th century Hollybush Farm. It was to be a house in the country rather than a country house – a comfortable and domestic retreat rather a place for grand entertainments and great pomp. It was eventually named Standen after a nearby farmstead which had been demolished.
The site was full of possibilities. It sat high on a hillside overlooking a gentle wide Wealden valley and commanding longer views over to Ashdown Forest. Simpson had already commenced levelling the ground around the existing farm buildings when Webb paid his first visit. Most Victorian architects would have had no hesitation in sweeping away most, if not all, of the ancient but small and outmoded farm houses and all their dependent buildings. That was not Webb’s style. Indeed he refused to work for clients who wanted that approach. He persuaded the Beales that almost all of the existing buildings could be saved and indeed the farmhouse incorporated into their new home. Furthermore the brick, stone tiles and timber of mediaeval Hollybush determined the materials that Webb chose to construct the new house. The stone even came from on a quarry just behind the site of the new building.
The new house was L-shaped with the main part almost at right angles to the existing farm building,and set in further back into the hillside, looking south over the valley but Webb linked the old and the new sections very gently and harmoniously with a low rise service wing that formed one side of a courtyard, so that the bulk of the new house is largely hidden as visitors approach. Building work began in 1892 and was finished two years later at a total cost of £18,065.
It is not in a uniform style but looks as if was developed from the vernacular and enlarged in stages. Sheila Kirk, Webb’s biographer, suggests that his design for Standen was heavily influenced by Compton Wynyates, an early Tudor fortified house. Whatever the case, Standen was one of Webb’s last works and is the most complete surviving example of his country houses. It is listed as Grade 1.
The result was, by Victorian standards, a simple down-to-earth house, without great pretences, comfortable and spacious enough to house a large Victorian/Edwardian family, but at the same time one built with top quality materials, detailing and craftsmanship. Over the years very little needed to be altered in any way. According to The Beale’s granddaughter this was because ‘it ran smoothly and luxuriously yet unpretentiously…and was wonderfully comfortable.”
A detailed analytical study of the house’s architecture by Sheila Kirk can be found at: https://theses.ncl.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/10443/291/1/kirk90.v1.pdf
Webb was a keen and knowledgeable gardener himself and he had very strong views on the gardens that should be put around the houses he designed. Simpson’s gardenesque schemes with their geometric layouts full of colourful flower beds was quietly dropped. Just as in other gardens he had been involved with Webb preferred a more mixed natural style of planting.
Margaret Beale was a plantswoman with an interest in newly introduced plants, and she also corresponded with William Robinson who lived nearby at Gravetye. He influenced some of the planting, particularly the mass planting of bulbs to naturalise in the lawns and banks but elsewhere some of Simpson’s ideas prevailed and the garden had a slightly more exotic, less natural feel than Webb would have chosen if left to his own devices. Yet, with its unpretentious framework of hedges, trellising and informal pathways it blends harmoniously with the landscape and is as typical of the Arts and Crafts movement as the house.
The estate has some 80 acres of meadow and woodland around it so even today the house, although it has 100,000 visitors a year and requires a large car park, has a very bucolic feel. This is because Webb and the Beales chose to deliberately incorporate many of the agricultural features and buildings into the designed landscape setting of the house to reinforce its rural character.
It is approached via the original farm lane, which was hardly altered when it became the drive, apart from the addition of a pair of cottages in the same materials as the house. It brings the visitor to the former farmyard, now an open green area known as Goose Green with the original Hollybush Farm on its north side. The old farm buildings, notably the 17thc weatherboarded barn, and the potting shed stand on the north side. The 12 acres of garden, mainly informal, lie to the south. The main house is only partially visible.
There is an arched entry in the service wing which leads through into the courtyard on the north side of the house and to the formal entrance. The other two sides are steep rocky banks with paths going up to woodland and round to the quarry garden.
The gardens not really designed to be seen or approached from the north side and are most easily reached by passing though the house. There is, however, a narrow path that runs round the side of the house to the Lavender Lawn, then leads to the main Terrace.
The Terrace is the link between the house and garden. It is broad and gravelled simply rather than paved, and runs along the entire southern elevation. The projection which looks like a porch is in fact a window in the drawing room. The large brick arched windows are the conservatory or garden room.
Here Webb refused the blandishments of large panes of glass for the windows believing they gave a false impression of openness, instead preferring small irregular panes which refracted the light very differently and gave a more domestic appearance. However, the roof is all glass on a cast iron frame so that the interior is light-filled.
The main entrance is through a Delft tile-lined porch.
The path then leads in one direction to the lower level of the quarry garden…
where steep steps climb the rocky banks to the upper parts of the garden. This is a very sheltered area, although the gardeners are still taking no chances with their tree ferns.
From the top of the Quarry Garden there are views back to the house and across the valley. The path then leads past the Sloping Lawn, which is planted with naturalised bulbs as recommended by Robinson, to the Top Terrace. These areas can also be accessed by more gentle paths from the other corner of the main house Terrace. The Top Terrace and its summerhouse was designed by Cheal & Sons in 1910 and is rustically formal, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. On the north side is a woodland shelter belt, replanted after the devastation of Great Storm of 1987, and there are wide views across the valley to the south. The whole area is being rejuvenated as part of the Standen Revival project.
The top terrace is a long projection into agricultural land, so visiting it means retracing one’s steps at least partway to the house, before descending to a lower terrace walk that runs at right angles to the house terrace, and parallel with the upper one [it’s not as confusing as it sounds]
Below the main house terrace, and overlooked by the lower terrace is the South Lawn, edged by herbaceous planting and old roses trained on a trellis designed by Webb. Crossing the south lawn and heading east the visitor reaches the Bamboo Garden, also known as the Rose Garden.
About 10 years ago, a group of volunteers discovered a swimming pond whilst clearing out some overgrown bamboo here and this discovery led to a major project to reveal more of the garden’s hidden secrets.
As part of the restoration project the pond is being repaired and replacement rose posts and trellising installed along the pathways.
Paths then lead to a croquet lawn, a rhododendron garden and then into an orchard.
Finally both the orchard and the croquet lawn open onto the Kitchen Garden, which also contains old varieties of apples, pears and quince as well as mulberries. Some of the specimens look ancient!
Margaret Beale kept a garden and weather diary from 1890 until 1935. They reveal the true horticultural significance of her original planting scheme and describe her purchase and planting of a number of rare plants (such as crinodendron hookerianum, the Chilean lantern tree, and camellia japonica “nobilissima”) many of which would have been quite unusual and exotic in the 1920s. The plant catalogues she collected also survive. Many plants were supplied by the Yorkshire firm of James Backhouse and by Waterer’s of Surrey, and receipts detail the numbers and varieties. Working from this information the National Trust embarked in October 2012 on a 5-year £500,000 project to restore the garden, and to recreate Margaret’s original Arts and Crafts-inspired planting scheme. Work should be completed by February 2017.
James Beale died in 1912 leaving the house to a family trust, but after Margaret died in 1936 there was little change. Their two unmarried daughters Helen and Maggie stayed in the house, which became a hospital during the war. Maggie died in 1947 and Helen stayed on alone successfully running the estate as a family farm. Just before she died in 1972, and with great difficulty she persuaded the National Trust to accept Standen.
For more information see the website of The Friends of Standen : http://www.fose.org.uk
and the Standen Blog at: https://standennt.wordpress.com