Bramham Park (Photo: Steven Spandle)
By Steven Spandle
December 12, 2023
Architect and long-standing member of ICAA, Spandle recently served as co-chair and juror for the exhibition, Enduring Beauty: Works from Emerging Practitioners of the Classical Tradition, held in conjunction with the national conference Enduring Places.
Bramham Park, a private estate located in West Yorkshire, England, is a country house success story propelled by sound family management and an eye toward preservation, environmental awareness, and sustainability. This fall, participants on the ICAA’s Yorkshire, England travel programstudy trip had the privilege of visiting and learning about the property’s compelling history. This estate was an architectural and landscape delight among the roster of exceptional architectural treasures we toured throughout the Yorkshire countryside. Bramham Park was a favorite among the ICAA travelers, and never before visited by many on the trip, it was a wonderful surprise.
Built for Robert Benson, 1st Baron Bingley circa 1710, the magnificent Baroque country house and immense pleasure gardens are best known today for hosting the Bramham International Horse Trials and the Reading and Leeds Festival, a yearly rock music event that draws crowds of upwards 100,000 people. If you have watched the television series Victoria, The Syndicate or Gentleman Jack or the Oscar-winning film The Darkest Hour, you may have even spotted Bramham Park on the screen.
Like many English country houses, Bramham’s past was layered with ups and downs and the estate’s survival and financial stability were not always a forgone conclusion. After a major interior fire in 1828, Bramham house was left to the elements until seventh generation descendant George Lane Fox and his wife Agnes Wood fully restored the structure in circa 1914. Luckily, the façade and interior walls had remained largely intact along with a few architectural elements. In the double story Great Hall, characterized by imposing engaged Corinthian columns, smoke stains remain on the stone walls—evoking an atmospheric reminder of Bramham’s near loss and the family’s commitment to preserving this spectacular structure. Bramham Park’s survival was a triumph and today’s stability and success the result of dedication and hard work of the Lane Fox family, who have now held this historic property for over ten generations.
There has been much speculation and many misattributions regarding Braham’s unique design, Baroque in overall character but having a unique twist of its own. Historical evidence suggests that Robert Benson, 1st Baron Bingley (1675-1731) was his own architect. The composition with a center block and flanking wings connected via colonnades was most probably of his own fancy and inspired by the architectural structures seen on his Grand Tour, completed in 1697. In his 1717 treatise Vitruvius Britannicus, Colen Cambell described the front entrance of Bramham Park as “Of an elegant tho’ plain manner.” He went on to remark that “[t]he low, two storied centre is recessed behind flanking blocks imposed upon the end wings and then linked to duplicate pavilions.” An unusual feature, the “coachway” (or ramp) ushered visitors through the front door directly into the piano nobile. While architectural comparisons can be made, there is no other country house quite like Bramham in its design as well as current state of elegance and preservation.
During Benson's tenure, the elaborate pleasure gardens and immense park surrounding Bramham house were established in the manner made popular in France by Le Nôtre. In 1745, Lady Oxford wrote, “Lord Bingley has adorned a barren country in a most delightful manner with water and wood walks’.” While the house remained in limbo for 78 years after the fire, the seventy-acre formal garden and surrounding woodland parks were continually maintained as originally designed in the early eighteenth century and are a spectacular sight. Architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner proclaimed, “Bramham Park is a grand unusual house, but its gardens are grander and even more unusual” (Yorkshire: The West Riding, 1959). We delighted in wandering through the gardens following a private tour of the house and with each turn were amazed by the many historic follies, water features, and beautifully designed garden rooms.
In 1731, Benson’s daughter Harriet inherited Bramham Park along with a substantial fortune. She married George Fox, who was later ennobled Baron Bingley in 1762, and the estate would remain in this branch of the family. The couple made several architectural additions to the grounds, including the Palladian Chapel and the Ionic Temple (or Rotunda) both designed by architect James Paine. While the architect of the Gothic folly is unknown, its design is taken directly from Batty Langley’s Ancient Architecture (1742). Converted to a water tower in the early 20th century, the structure has recently undergone conservation and restoration. Covering over 500 acres with numerous follies and long avenues, the gardens remain an outstanding example of early eighteenth-century landscape design.
Together with Bramham house, the surrounding gardens and woodlands make for an exceptional history and story of preservation and family perseverance. “To some people landed estates, like Bramham, may seem anachronistic: a relic of England’s feudal past with no place in modern society,” according to the current owners. “Nothing could be further from the truth…The unified management of Bramham Park Estate allows a balanced consideration of all the competing interests and the formulation of a long-term strategy.” With the integration of sustainable land and public-access management practices, the Lane Fox family has impeccably preserved and enhanced the historic and natural assets of Bramham Park Estate.
We were tremendously thankful to the family and staff at Bramham Park for hosting the ICAA’s travelers. Our visit was an inspiring and spectacular stop on the Great House, Estates, and Gardens of Yorkshire, England tour arranged by Classical Excursions.
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