This summer I was mesmerised by a visit to Seaton Delaval Hall, Vanbrugh’s late masterpiece, just north of Newcastle.
Although I’d seen photos of the house I suppose I was expecting a grand approach maybe down a long avenue of trees through parkland in the usual country house style. Instead it sits close to the main road and appeared in view suddenly and simply over the hedge from the road.
But what a view!
Having turned into the short and treeless drive I couldn’t help myself saying WWWOOOWWW out loud! The Daily Mail’s description of the house as “The Geordie Versailles” maybe a bit on an exaggeration but there is no doubt it is a triumph that, as an 1887 guidebook put it, “is unsurpassed for grandeur and dignity by any other in the north.”
First impressions can be crucial, and the first impression of the house is dramatic in the extreme. Here “Vanbrugh the man of the theatre was at least as operative as Vanbrugh the architect. In this last work he created a rich stage which, when the footlights were turned down and the smart audience is gone, would adapt itself to any kind of bad acting and if necessary would carry on with the play itself.” (John Piper, Buildings and Prospects, 1948)
Seaton Delaval Hall was constructed between 1721 and 1728 for Admiral George Delaval who was not only a well educated and very well travelled naval officer but distinguished diplomat including having been envoy to the Emperor of Morocco and to the king of Portugal. In 1717 he wrote to his brother “I should tell you that Sir J.Vanbrugh built Castle Howard, and it is from thence I hope to carry him.” Later he was to write: “I intend to persuade Sir John Vanbrugh to see Seaton if possible and to give me a plan of the house, or to alter the old one, which he is most excellent at… So something may be done by degrees and be the entertainment of our old age, or as long as we can live.”
Vanbrugh was indeed persuaded to visit. There was, however, no alteration or remodelling but a complete new building supervised by the York mason William Etty. The existing house – a 14thc tower with Tudor manor and Jacobean extensions was demolished in 1720, its exact location now unknown although the Ordnance Survey map of 1860 does show the ‘supposed site of the Castle’.
Vanbrugh’s plan was published in Vitruvius Britannicus of 1725, along with those for Eastbury in Dorset – see post 30th May 2015 – and Grimsthorpe in Lincolnshire. “The Admiral”, wrote Vanbrugh “is very Gallant in his operations not being dispos’d to starve the Design at all. The result was ” a very fine dwelling” which is an extraordinary composition, mixing and matching different elements with panache. and with the eye unable to rest for more than a moment without being taken in a different direction by some of Vanbrugh’s visual tricks.
There is a full description of the house in William Hutchinson A View of Northumberland, first published in 1777, which can be found at:
The Hall has an impressive although comparatively small [75ft square] central block, containing the principal and state rooms, with two equally impressive arcaded and pedimented wings on either side of a grand courtyard. The east wing housed magnificent stables, while the west accommodated the services. The two porticos provide viewing platforms out over the surrounding landscape.
Since completion of the house in 1728, it has had an unfortunate history. Admiral Delaval did not live to be entertained by it in his old age as he had hoped, but was thrown from his horse in 1723 and died of his injuries. Vanbrugh died in 1727 the year before it was finished. The Admiral’s heir, his nephew Francis, who completed the house, got rather worse for drink and died after he fell down the front steps in 1752.
The Hall was then inherited by his daughter Rhoda, who married into the Astley family, who from 1841 were Barons Hastings. It remained with them until 2009.
While the exterior remains a perfect example of English baroque, the interior of the central section was gutted by fire in 1822. “The heat was so intense that the glass in the windows was reduced to a liquid state and the lead on the roof poured down like water.” [Tomlinson’s Guide to Northumberland, 1889)
It was not restored, but stands, floorless and gaunt testament to the power of Vanbrugh’s design. The effects of the fire are clearly visible in the great hall, originally 30 feet (9.1 m) high but still open to the roof, with blackened walls and muse statues. It is a stunning sight.
After the fire the house was largely deserted for about 160 years, despite some partial restoration in 1862–63 when the central section was re-roofed , and again in 1959. It was not until the 1980s that Edward Delaval Astley, 22nd Baron Hastings moved back to the Hall and converted the old service wing into his home. He remained there until death in 2007.
Subsequently his son, Delaval Astley, the new Lord Hastings, found himself facing an enormous inheritance tax bill and decided to sell the Hall. In September 2008 the National Trust launched an appeal to raise £6.3 million to acquire the house and its surrounds. This took 15 months and the Hall was finally opened in May 2010. It marked a new era for the Trust in more ways than one.
For starters, says Jane Blackburn, a newcomer on the regional committee, the acquisition itself was unique: it came about only after the Trust had consulted 100,000 local people, who then, in six months, in the teeth of a recession, raised nearly £1m of the £3m the organisation needed to find. And this was, she says, “in a part of the country that is not, frankly, one of the wealthiest, and most of whom have never visited a trust property, let alone joined”. [Guardian 10 Feb 2010, link to full article below]
The Daily Mail used news of the sale and the Trusts acquisition of the estate to outline a slightly more rumbustious history which makes fun reading. “Seaton Delaval Hall is so incongruous it’s like finding a WAG in Matalan. This jewel makes the average stately home seem common. It boasts more scandals than a Sunday tabloid – there’s the royal mistress, the bed-hopping MP who blasted bribes from a cannon, the sex-starved heir who died from a chambermaid’s kick in the groin…” Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1127046/How-dusty-old-Seaton-Delaval-Hall-set-Geordie-Versailles–thanks-whip-round-locals.html#ixzz3tSz9YAME
There is a more sober account of the process at the Daily Telegraph:
BUT I hear you muttering what about the gardens!
There is no doubt that Vanbrugh and the Admiral wanted the house to be an integral part of its surroundings, and they must have been designed together. Much of the hard landscaping has survived, although, unsurprisingly much of the layout and the planting has been lost or substantially altered. The National Trust have bought the land around the house which is merely a quarter of the surrounding estate, and so it difficult to appreciate the scale and layout of the original original pleasure grounds and their relationship with the wider landscape. This was obvious to William Hutchinson: “The appearance of Seaton Delaval now engaged the eye; the spreading plantations extended over the plane afforded an agreeable scene, which was beautifully improved by the distant prospect of the ocean.”
The main front of the house faces north and is approached by an avenue, more than a mile long, which runs along the main road. Nearer the house curves sharply round the estate boundary rather than running straight, and has also been cut across by the railway. Originally composed of a double row of limes planted on a mound to avoid the low-lying coastal clay, it was later interplanted with beech. Remnants still survive.
Vanbrugh set the house on the edge of a rectangular fortified garden, which is easy to discern on the OS map of 1865. John Wallis writing in 1767 described what was within: “before the south front is a grass lawn, edged with plantations; and beyond it, a spacious Avenue, with shady walks on each side; a swimming bath about midway; terminated by an obelisk; the ancient ruin of Tynemouth Priory, and the ocean being in sight.”
For Wallis’s full account of the house which he calls “modern” see:
The Avenue has long gone but the views through to the pond and obelisk remain. The area is now grazed and there are a flock of wooden sheep, each carved with quirky reminders of part of the house’s story, to one side of the lawn.
Each corner of The fortified garden has a semi-circular bastion, and they are linked in a rectangle by a ha-ha. All four survive. A diagonal path led from the house to the ones in the SE and SW corners, perhaps survivors from the earlier divisions of the 18thc formal pleasure grounds. As at Bramham Park in Yorkshire They would have led through woodland plantations, much as now, although perhaps slightly more formally and certainly with statuary installed in clearings.
There was a statue on each of the bastions as well – although the surviving 3 have had to be moved from their original sites. A lead figure of Diana, identical to the one by John Cheere at Stourhead survives somewhat the worse for wear, and has now been installed on the NW bastion next to the Parterre garden where Samson and the Philistine also stand.
David and Goliath were stolen but recovered and now stand proudly dominating the front court of the house. The fourth, thought to be a shepherdess, is still missing.
Running from the SE bastion there is the Lady’s Walk or The Sea Walk. It was originally reached by a drawbridge from the bastion over the ha-ha and then through a doorway in the park wall. It is tree-lined and passes a mausoleum [in name and design only since it was never used] which sits on a circular mount, surrounded by a ha-ha and which was presumably reached by a similar drawbridge arrangement.
Dating from 1766 the mausoleum is unfortunately in a parlous state and still on Historic England’s heritage at risk list despite being Grade 2* listed. The path runs down to a natural harbour which was used for the export of coal and salt mainly from the estate but which is now silted up.
Also running from the SE bastion is boundary walk which runs along the eastern side of the fortified garden to the NE bastion. From its heights the visitor looked down at what Wallis described as ” a garden, very handsome with a conservatory or green-house.” This was the kitchen garden extending to 3 acres, although sadly , as so often, now used mainly for the car park.
It doesn’t appear to fit in with the otherwise regular geometry of Vanbrugh’s design, and Richard Wheeler of the National Trust, suggests that it is a left-over from the previous house and estate layout. Certainly the adjoining garden cottage is thought to be mediaeval in origin, perhaps even part of the mediaeval hall, and this gives rise to speculation of what else might survive underground in the vicinity.
The OS map shows what was probably the 18thc kitchen garden layout, with two sets of four quarters divided by fruit trees, and also a rectangular fish-pond. There is also a line of glass lean-tos ranged against the north wall, together with a boiler house. Pevsner ascribed the Orangery to William Etty, suggesting that it was contemporary with the main hall.
In the 19thc the garden and the habitable parts of the hall were let to a market gardener named George Bell. It is possible he is also responsible for what looks like another walled garden enclosure in a sheltered spot just outside the fortified garden beyond near the SE bastion. In 1888 it was noted that “the gardens are elected to a market gardener, and the visitor can buy grapes, flowers, fruit, etc. By the side of the fish-pond, which still contain good many fine carp, are 2 or 3 old statues.”
On the western side of the fortified garden is an area of woodland in which stands the Church of Our Lady (early C12, listed grade I), which was the family’s private chapel until the 1890s. Recently the outline of a bowling green has been discovered on the edge of the woodland and this is in the process of being cleared and investigated.
Although most traces of earlier formal gardens have long gone, a new garden was created in the mid-20thc. It lies to the west of the house, in the NW corner of the fortified garden, and is in a sunken rectangular area that was probably created in the 19th century.
In the immediate aftermath of WW2 Lord Hastings gave James Russell, of Sunningdale Nurseries, his first commission to layout a new garden here. His success at Seaton Delaval led to him on a distinguished career as a nurseryman and garden designer, including, most famously Castle Howard. For more information on Russell see the excellent article in Country Life 20th March 2010:
and our database article:
As I said earlier the acquisition of Seaton Delaval marked a shift in attitudes by the National TRust. The main difference, says Susan Dungworth, a local councillor was that “the National Trust didn’t come here and say it wanted to make Seaton Delaval a major attraction. It didn’t say, this is our finest piece of 18th-century architecture, and here’s what we’re doing with it. It said, we want this place to be a local resource; serve the community.” And on the evidence of visitor numbers, news stories, events and activities centred around the hall it certainly seems to be doing that!
For more on the changing attitude of the Trust see Jon Henley’s article ” How the National Trust is finding its mojo” in the Guardian 10th Feb 2010
For more reading about Seaton Delaval and the family see: Francis Askam, The Gay Delavals (1955); Jeremy Musson, The Country Houses of Sir John Vanbrugh (2008)
For an update on the latest phase of restoration work see The Landscape Lover