Sunday, May 3, 2009

Compton Verney, Warwickshire

Palace of art

When I first came across Compton Verney the place had an air of melancholy mystery. The great 18th-century house can be glimpsed through trees from a road the joins the Fosse Way, the old Roman route that runs northeast from Cirencester to Leicester and on to Lincoln. Rows of sash windows and gigantic corner stones made the place look imposing in the manner of a house by Sir John Vanbrugh, but in the 1970s it all looked rather down at heel. What was this place, and who lived there?

The building that I could make out through the trees had been begun on the site of an older house in the early years of the 18th century for the 12th Lord Willoughby de Broke. The designer isn’t known, but the strongest candidates (apart from Vanbrugh) are William and Francis Smith of Warwick, successful Midlands master builders who often also acted as architects. What is known is that in the 1760 the 14th Lord Willoughby de Broke had the place remodelled by Robert Adam. It was Adam who was responsible for turning what had been a courtyard house into the striking U-shaped building that still exists.

In the 1970s, when I first saw the place, no one lived there. Requisitioned by the army during World War II, Compton Verney had stood empty ever since, and could easily have been one of the hundreds of country houses that were demolished in the years after the war. But the building’s absentee owner held onto it, and it was finally bought and turned into an art gallery with funds from the Peter Moores Foundation. The architectural firm Stanton Williams were commissioned to convert the interior and build an extension – modern in idiom but discreet and complementary to the original building – on the site of former service buildings.

After almost 50 years of neglect, Compton Verney has found a fitting role. The building houses a permanent collection that specializes in a number of interesting areas of art history (highlights: Chinese bronzes, British folk art) and puts on temporary exhibitions that keep one going back. No doubt one day the place will have me blogging again, too. The conservation work, which embraces the Capability Brown landscape in which the house sits, is now turning to the ice house in the grounds. I wonder if they will find a way of showing visitors the impressive sunken brick-domed interior. Anyone for CCTV?

Go here for more about Compton Verney and its history.


Thud said...

I'm happy it survived but I'd much prefer it could one day become a home again.

Peter Ashley said...

Good to see it still there, after not seeing Clumber House on Sunday. Just stables, walled garden, a Gothic chapel and an eerie space where the house was. One of our party asked if the beautiful park had been landscaped by 'Calamity Jane'.

Ed said...

I have been to Compton Verney a few times and have always been impressed by the original house, its setting and the way it has been converted and extended.I particularly enjoyed the Van Gogh and England exhibition and the current one on Diana and Acteon - Kossowski was a revelation.

Your post got me thinking. Is Compton Verney the only example in England of a country house purpose-converted to an art gallery? I can think of country houses that were built to house a collection (e.g. neighbouring Upton House) and can think of examples in Scotland (Duff House) and Wales (Bodelwyddan Castle), but are there any others in England?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ed: That's a good question. I can't think of anywhere comparable off the top of my head. There are places like Upton, purpose built from the start; and houses that have become by default primarily places for the display of works of art – e.g. Kenwood and the Ranger's House on Blackheath which now houses the Wernher Collection (I've not seen it in this latest incarnation). But these are not purpose-converted in the way that Compton Verney was, nor are they quite country houses any more.

I missed the Van Gogh exhibtion, which I've subsequently heard was outstanding. I thought the current one good in parts.