After my disappointment in 2012, this time the house was open when we visited. I even put up with D’s complaints about how far the walk is from the National Trust car park (on D’s first solo trip to Stowe there was a car park actually at the house but since 2012 the only car park for visitors has been at the National Trust end, about a 20-30 minute walk from the house).
Reason to visit: to see the marble hall
The house is now even open when the school is in term, but as we visited during the Easter holidays we were able to see inside a dormitory (if you’re squeamish and really like classical interiors, I suggest you look away quickly when that picture comes up).
So the story goes: the family who built this house had a cushy job, essentially just making money from breathing because they we’re mates with the king, politicians of a political seat with about 12 voters, and able to take a skim off the government’s money. Bloody rich. They refashioned their house as fashions changed, so the house you see today has evolved: wings and porticos being added, new Egyptian entrance halls incorporated, Vanbrugh employed to redesign the front façade (the other façade, the school’s side – not the one you see from the gardens), lead lions on the foot of the stair, copper pots on the railings, masterpieces on the walls, a Gothik library inserted, a marble elliptical entrance hall constructed, suites of furniture bought for the visit of Queen Victoria etc etc. You get the drift.
Eventually they got themselves a title – Duke of Buckingham. They also collected surnames every time they married and were entered in the Guinness Book of Records for having the longest non-hyphenated surname.
And by the second Duke most of the money had been spent. When Queen Victoria visited the bailiffs were actually keeping tabs on the Duke because they feared he might abscond thereafter.
So the contents had to be sold and the house was advertised as having plenty of building materials and a garden full of fine wood. The auction poster on one of the walls is quite poignant.
Just happens, someone who was looking to open a public school saw the house and bought it. The contents went to new homes and many are now in museums.
Turn the clock forward to not too long ago, and a charitable group of like-minded souls started raising cash to restore the house. With the support of the World Heritage Fund and the National Lottery the exterior is pretty much finished – the Lions from the steps that were in a public park in Blackpool are back and new copper spun posts are back on the railings. Waves of new stone has been spun into the façade.
Inside, roofs have been tackled – the green netting which prevented plaster falling on the students’ heads in the library has gone and new gilding has been put up. The marble hall has new replica statues and lanterns. However, against all this is the juxtaposition of the detritus of modern school life – plywood dining chairs, a 21st century canteen. Computer screens next to the new replica Sphinx that will be put on the stairs in the Egyptian entrance hall. I suppose that traditional furniture just isn’t practical but it does highlight how state rooms are a composite of room size, proportion, the artwork, the furniture, the rugs and the colour. When something of quality is put next to something that is in contrast quite naff, it looks even more naff.
So should the rooms have been/be restored? I’m not sure. I can see that the house is of real architectural merit. The marble hall was definitely worth saving. It’s inspirational. I, however, might have been tempted to stop there with the interior (well, maybe a ballroom, but only if I could do it properly) and focus on the exterior, accepted that the building has become a school.
We also popped around the front of the house, in a totally different design (the back of the house to the NT visitor, who approaches via the gardens).
When visited: March 2013
House * out of 5: *** ½