Just a few kilometres from Stourhead is the historic village of Maiden Bradley; a quiet and unassuming place that many pass through on their way to the Stourhead estate. Here in 1617 was born Edmund Ludlow into a line of politicians. Like his father Henry, Ludlow was a strong advocate of parliament, but also a staunch republican. At the age of 27 he was commanding forces in the English Civil War, and in 1649 was one of the 59 signatories on the warrant of execution for Charles I. His memoirs have become an important historical account of that period.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever read them, but I’d be interested to get inside Edmund’s head to understand his motivation, for in 1644 he and his forces ransacked Stourhead manor house, which was then the property of the Barons of Stourton. Was his action against a neighbour driven by jealousy, justice, religious intolerance (William Stourton was a catholic) or order from Cromwell?
I don’t know the extent of the damage, but in 1714 the Stourtons sold the property, and shortly afterwards in 1717 their manor house was demolished and the new owners (the Hoares) began the development of the estate that we see today.
Taste is a funny thing. Ruskin hated the elaborate decoration of baroque architecture and decoration, but I love it (why else would this atheist spend so much time in Italian churches?). And yet here at Stourhead, everything felt a little de trop. The pillars and mouldings seemed more appropriate to a larger structure. The fireplaces screamed for attention. The architraves too.
The artwork gives some clues. Room after room you see pictures featuring buildings from antiquity, many of them painted in the picturesque and romantic styles and drawing on Burke’s philosophy of the sublime. The Hoares were clearly striving for some ideal which found its way into their house and ultimately their formal gardens.
In 1902 the house suffered a fire which gutted the interior, though many of the heirlooms within were saved. Unlike Studley Royal however Stourton was completely rebuilt and restored to as close a replica of the original as possible. The Hoares need to present themselves to the world as aesthetes was clearly paramount. Their library incidentally contains Lady Alda Hoare’s collection of Thomas Hardy novels, she being a friend of the Wessex writer. (Were country houses the Facebook pages of their day?)
The restoration cost must have been significant, but no matter, for the Hoare family were bankers, and owners of the country’s oldest private bank. Their money couldn’t buy everything however. The last member of the family to own Stourhead, Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare, had outlived his only son and heir who was killed in action during the Great War. He bequeathed what was to become one of their most visited properties to the National Trust in 1946. As for Ludlow, he died in Switzerland in exile following the Restoration.
Unrelated piece of trivia: If you recognise the building you may have been a fan of sixties TV series Thunderbirds; Lady Penelope’s mansion was a scale model copy.