The house with two faces: Wentworth Woodhouse

The West front

The East front

Wentworth Woodhouse is unique in many ways. It claims to be the largest private house in the UK, and its East front length of 180m makes it the longest country house façade in Europe. As if that isn’t enough it is set in a stunning landscape garden with  many additional features worthy of attention such as temples, follies, lodges and an orangery. Yet this house keeps on giving, as in fact its two different houses, built back to back. The difference in the two structures is striking, especially if one considers that the East front of the house was commissioned in 1734, even before the West front was finished. The reason for this rather odd arrangement is based in family rivalry and political ambition. The history and development of the building was the subject of a documentary by Dan Cruickshank for BBC 2 in 2012 in the series ‘The Country House Revealed’. I would recommend watching the documentary before planning a visit, as the guided tour provided on site was undoubtedly one of the worst I’ve ever been on. This shouldn’t stop you from visiting the house, as the experience is quite breathtaking.

The West Front

The West Front

The West front of the house is the slightly earlier building and is very much in the French Baroque style. This choice for the Baroque didn’t sit well with leading members of the Whig party, and therefore the ‘extension’  of the house (which dwarfs the original building in size) was planned in the Palladian fashion much favoured by the arbiter of Whig taste, Lord Burlington. Colen Campbell’s Wanstead House was used as a model for the East front, but is was greatly extended.

The pillared hall

The pillared hall

When great houses such as these are institutionalised they tend to lose many of the most interesting features of their interiors. The largest part of the house was used as a college between 1949-1979, but evidently they took great care of the place. Although the collections and furnishings are long gone, the interiors retain many important elements. The pillared hall is at once a impressive and functional, with a forest of columns that simultaneously support the Marble Hall which is directly above.

Ornate carving in one of the ground floor interiors, the paintwork is for a BBC production.

Ornate carving in one of the ground floor interiors, the paintwork is for a BBC production.

The current owners, the Newbold family, have slowly but surely been restoring many of the interiors. And although this might not have been entirely successful in every case, one cannot fault the time, effort and money spent on such a vast project. Some interiors have been used for film productions, and have retained some of the set decoration. In such an enormous house this seems to work very well as a way to bring some of the spaces back to life. Interestingly, my own research case study, Kirby Hall, retained the film décor of the 1999 production of Mansfield Park for a very long time.

The splendid Marble Hall

The splendid Marble Hall

The enfilade of reception rooms in the East wing are undoubtedly the greatest asset. Most splendid of all is the Marble Hall, where on our tour we were treated to a wonderful impromptu piano performance. I highly recommend a visit, but am conscious that the tours might not supply a moderately interested country house visitor with relevant information. The house has only been open for two years, and there are clearly some ideas that still need to be worked out. As there is currently no collection to speak of on view in most of the interiors that are on view it might be better if they consider creating a route through the house that one can navigate alone, accompanied only by the sound of a piano playing in the Marble Hall .

The Newbolds are currently battling the former Coal Board in the courts in an attempt to receive compensation for the rather vindictive open cast mining that went on on the estate, which has caused considerable problems of subsidence. The plans for the house at the moment are that the East front will be transformed into a grand location for weddings and receptions, with a museum function added into that. This is not always a happy marriage of functions for a historic house, and there is a  danger that the house will become something of a stage set, like some of the rooms that have already been in that capacity.

Wentworth Woodhouse deserves the loving attention that the current owners spend on it, and I sincerely hope that the project continues to thrive.