Power houses are redolent of the ambition and achievements of their creators. Some of the most luxurious and imposing are now cared for by the National Trust. Siân Evans chooses some of her favourite grand houses.
Medieval castle with collection of Indian treasures
Dominating a narrow ridge, with a commanding panorama of the Severn Valley, Powis Castle is both a venerable fortress and an opulent family home. It was the bastion of the Welsh princes of Powys in the Middle Ages, before its sale to an English nobleman, Sir Edward Herbert, in 1587. The interior was substantially remodelled in the opulent baroque style in the 17th century. The world-famous garden, of tumbling terraces, manicured yews and imaginative planting, interspersed with neo-classical statues, was an 18th-century homage to the formal gardens of France and Italy, with an orangery and aviary. The castle itself perches above. In addition, the marriage in 1784 of Lady Henrietta Herbert to Edward Clive, the son of ‘Clive of India’, united the Powis and Clive estates and brought a superb collection of treasures from the subcontinent to the house. Gorgeous art and artefacts from India and the Far East, including weapons, ivories, textiles and ornamental silver and gold, are on display here in the Clive Museum.
Welshpool, Powys SY21 8RF. Open: March to November, Thursday-Monday. Tel: (01938) 551944.
The last castle to be built in England
On a vast granite outcrop overlooking Dartmoor stands what appears to be a craggy and ancient fortress. In fact, Castle Drogo is an Edwardian folie de grandeur, started in 1910, paid for by the British passion for tea. Julius Drewe, having made his money in the grocery business, wished to acquire the type of ancestral pile his forebears had omitted to leave him. He engaged Edwin Lutyens, the foremost architect of the age, who conjured up a dramatic and romantic Norman-inspired exterior, complete with battlements and a working portcullis, but fitted it out with the best that modern technology could provide, from a telephone system to hydroelectricity generated by the River Teign in the gorge below.
Drewsteignton, nr Exeter, Devon EX6 6PB. Open: daily to 1 November, then limited opening until 23 December. Tel: (01647) 433306.
Inspired by the great châteaux of the Loire Valley
The young Ferdinand de Rothschild, of the famous banking family, commissioned a magnificent palace recreating the elegant splendour of pre-Revolutionary France. Building work started in 1874 on a hill in Buckinghamshire, but there was little that was typically Victorian about Waddesdon Manor, with its pinnacles, mansard roofs and immaculate parterre. Ferdinand bought in fabulous French antiques, from Savonnerie carpets to Marie Antoinette’s marquetry writing-table, and the very best Sèvres and Meissen porcelain. The family’s remarkable wealth secured a superb collection of English 18th-century portraits, including works by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Romney.
Waddesdon, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP18 0JH. Open: April to November, Wednesday-Sunday, and special opening hours up to Christmas. Tel: (01296) 653211.
Robert Adam’s ultimate Palladian showpiece
The wealth and power of the Curzon family and the skills of the most sublime of British architects, Robert Adam, combined to create this magnificent 18th-century neo-classical mansion. The most complete and least-altered sequence of Adam interiors in England provide a home for museumquality furniture, paintings and sculpture. The State Rooms served as the perfect backdrop to the flawless beauty of Keira Knightley: Kedleston was one of the silent stars of The Duchess, and costumes from the film are on display in an exhibition at the house in 2009. The recently redeveloped Eastern Museum is full of fascinating objects collected by Lord Curzon when he was Viceroy of India (1899- 1905), including the famous jewel-encrusted peacock dress worn by Mary, Lady Curzon, at the 1902 Coronation Durbar in Delhi. Kedleston Hall is set in spectacular parkland, with a serpentine lake, a ha-ha, a three-arched bridge, a cascade and a two-storeyed fishing pavilion, also designed by Robert Adam.
Derby, near Quarndon, Derbyshire DE22 5JH. Open: 28 February-1 November, Saturday-Wednesday. Tel: (01332) 842191.
The birthplace of novelist Vita Sackville-West
A complex, beautiful and historically rich mansion, Knole has 365 rooms, one for every day of the year. The house started as a late medieval archbishop’s palace and it became a Renaissance mansion. So magnificent was it that Henry VIII forced Thomas Cranmer, his Archbishop of Canterbury, to hand Knole over to him in 1538. Tradition has it that Elizabeth I gave Knole to her cousin and councillor, Thomas Sackville, a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the country. Successive generations added Stuart furniture and sumptuous textiles. In the 18th century, additions included Old Master paintings bought on the Grand Tour to Italy, and portraits by contemporary artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. The very size of the house is what ensured the survival of its disparate elements – large parts of it were inhabited only intermittently, with decades passing in rooms undisturbed furnished with dustsheets.
Sevenoaks, Kent TN15 0RP Tel: (01732) 450608. Open: March to November Wednesday-Sunday (weekends in March), plus Tuesdays 21 July-31 August.
Polesden Lacey, Surrey
“I want a room fit to entertain Maharajahs in”
So Mrs Margaret Greville informed her interior designers. They installed a sumptuous carved and panelled salon salvaged from an 18th-century Italian palace. Mrs Greville’s immense fortune made her one of the most successful society hostesses for nearly 50 years. Funded by pale ale, and driven by social ambition, in 1906 she had her architects, Mewes and Davis, who had recently created the newly-built Ritz Hotel in London, change this Regency mansion, into an impressive, luxurious country house fit for entertaining politicians, the aristocracy and royalty. Edward VII, Queen Mary and, later, George VI and Queen Elizabeth appreciated the old master paintings, fine furniture and objets d’art, in a setting reminiscent of the very best type of Edwardian hotel. The house is displayed as it was at the time of one of Mrs Greville’s celebrated house parties. Poet and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan had lived here at the end of the 18th century and Polesden Lacey, Surrey “I want a room fit to entertain Maharajahs in” regarded Polesden as a haven from his busy life in London. On the North Downs in Surrey, Polesden Lacey sits in rolling grounds with 30 acres of delightful gardens, terraces and a walled rose garden, and still has the atmosphere of a mansion dedicated to the pursuit of leisure and pleasure.
Great Bookham, near Dorking, Surrey RH5 6BD. Open: March to November, Wednesday-Sunday. Tel: (01372) 458203.
Photographs: National Trust photo library/Andy Williams.