Wednesday, 4 January 2012

News - Court fight over a stately treasure (Wentworth Woodhouse)

Clifford Newbold, owner of Wentworth Woodhouse, in the marble hall. Picture by Chris Lawton
Clifford Newbold, owner of Wentworth Woodhouse, in the marble hall. Picture by Chris Lawton
ONE Sunday more than a decade ago, retired architect Clifford Newbold and his son Giles embarked on a project to give new life to one of Yorkshire’s most neglected stately homes after reading about its plight in a newspaper.
Mr Newbold, who had spent much of his life working in London, was involved in the design of the capital’s iconic Millbank Tower. But his new project, which he took on in his mid-70s, would prove even more challenging.
The father-and-son team spent 10 years labouring to bring Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, back into use, and their plans for a museum, hotel, spa and conference centre are now ready to begin.
But no work will start until the outcome of a court case against the Coal Authority is complete, because it is claimed that the stunning building, built by the Earls Fitzwilliam in the 1700s, is breaking up because of subsidence.
The irony of the situation is that the Grade I-listed house itself was built using the profits made from coal, with thousands of tonnes still lying in seams hundreds of metres below the estate.
Wentworth Woodhouse’s history is defined by its troubled relationship with the fossil fuel, with the last Earl to live there forced to watch as a 1940s Labour government ripped up his garden for opencast mining.
As Giles Newbold talks about that episode, in which Fuel Minister Manny Shinwell laid waste to the estate, there is real anger in his voice, and he describes what happened as vandalism.
For both men, the vision is to move the house away from its past and build a new future, based on more illustrious stories of its place at the centre of a thriving community.
Showing pictures taken by the RAF of the opencast devastation, Giles Newbold, a 36-year-old building surveyor, said: “They actually used explosives and blew up the bedrock within a few metres of the walls of the house.
“The holes were up to 40m deep. One area had a planted woodland which contained every species of tree found in northern Europe. It was just felled and the ground dug for coal. We want to restore that.
“We are in a position where we could start in six months, but we just need to get the case with the Coal Authority settled.”
Many of the house’s contents, commissioned and built up by successive Earls, were taken by the Government in lieu of death duties when the last Earl died.
Many family portraits are now held by the National Portrait Gallery, while other artworks and statues from the house are scattered around the globe.
A painting by George Stubbs of famous estate racehorse Whistlejacket was commissioned in the 1760s for one of the rooms, but is now in the National Gallery. A facsimile currently hangs in the Whistlejacket Room.
Mr Newbold junior said: “We want to bring those works of art back.
“Many of these pieces were commissioned for Yorkshire and they should be here to be enjoyed by the people of Yorkshire.”
When the Newbolds bought the house for £1.5m it was “stripped clean” and Mr Newbold senior said an “enormous sum” had already been spent tracking down simple items.
One fire grate from the house was found in a London saleroom, while the bell board, which told servants where to go in the house, was discovered in Dublin.
Despite what has happened, the stunning interiors of Wentworth Woodhouse have stood their many tests, and the splendid state rooms, including the Pillared Hall which contains empty plinths where statues once stood, will form the museum.
Meanwhile, the Newbolds have already started welcoming some visitors to the house, including students both past and present,
Mr Newbold senior, 85, said: “There has been a great deal of interest from architecture students at Sheffield University.
“For them it is a fantastic opportunity because this house hasn’t had a lot of reports written on it and hasn’t been extensively studied in the way that others around the country have.
“We also recently hosted a group who were here when it was a training college for teachers.
“They reverted to being girls again and started looking for the rooms they remembered. We want to welcome more people and for this place to be part of the community as it once was.”
A High Court ruling on the Coal Authority case is expected in the next few weeks.

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