Clermont Lodge, Suffolk

Built in the 1770s for the Earl of Clermont as a shooting box and extended by William Pilkington for his nephew in 1812, Clermont Lodge,  was derelict and threatened by demolition when: Mr. Philip Jones bought it in 1973 and restored it.

A trim white stucco Regency villa is an unexpected sight in Norfolk, a county where flint and red brick predominate, superseded by white brick in the 19th century. Yet Clermont Lodge’s unlikely appearance is a direct result of its location on the edge of Breckland, an area of sandy heaths and generally poor farmland that in terms of Georgian land improvement represented frontier territory. Then resent house was built by outsiders, apparently designed in two stages by London architects for successive metropolitan patrons, whose Irish estates were their main bases and support, and whose interest in Norfolk lay, chiefly in its sporting potential.

Things had seemed very different early in the 18th century, when the local family of Knopwood was successfully building up a moderate estate in the area. Robert Knopwood farmed 120 acres, two miles south in the heart of Breckland. Lie died in 1723 and his son, also Robert, rose to become High Sheriff in 1751, the year before his death. He acquired land northwards, buying the Threxton estate in 1724 for £3,200, and then its neighbour, Little Cressingham. The third Robert Knopwood, who succeeded in 1752, died 20 years later leaving the estate heavily mortgaged to the tune of £8,200, principally on account of agricultural improvements. The mortgages were called in and Robert’s widow put the estate up for sale, but not without difficulty. When a neighbour considered buying Cressingham, or which the Knopwood trustees were seeking about £8,500, he was advised that there would be little return for the money needed to rebuild the farm and barns as “they are now in a sad ragged condition”.

This presented no problem for the actual purchaser, Lord Clermont, who was mainly interested in the shooting. It was also only 25 miles from his beloved Newmarket. Clermont, born William Henry Fortescue, was the leading sporting figure of the day and an Irish political personality of some influence, largely due to the dazzling marriage he had made in 1752 to Frances Murray heiress to vast Co. Monaghan estates. Already in control of one Irish parliamentary seat in Co. Louth on the basis of his father’s estates, Fortescue thus gained two more. An MP from 1745, almost invariably of the government’s party, he was appointed to the Irish Privy Council in 1755; secured the sinecure of Postmaster-General for Ireland (worth £1,000 a year) in 1763; and was elevated to the peerage in 1770.

From then on he spent most of his time in England or France, where he formed an unlikely friendship with the French king and queen. Horace Walpole, who had little time for Clermont or his wife, writes of how they were superlatively inflated at the odours which flowed on them” at the French court. In England, the raffish circle that surrounded the Prince of Wales took up Clermont. Sir Nathaniel Wraxall in his Posthumous Memoirs had “scarcely ever known a man more fitted for a companion of Kings and Queens than was Lord Clermont”.

It is as a gamester, great shot and man of the Turf that Clermont is most memorable and attractive. He was prepared to bet on almost anything, as Brooks’s betting book attests. He once shot 50 brace of woodcock in a day and also cut a prominent figure at New-market. By the 1780s, Clermont’s stud was one of the most successful in the country. In 1785, he won the Derby with Aimwell and from 1794 was acknowledged as father of the Turf.

At Little Cressingham, Clermont regularly entertained the Prince of Wales; for his own enjoyment and for entertaining such guests, he built a shooting box, styled Clermont Lodge. Extending 88ft 9in by 33ft 6in and with ground-floor room’s 15ft 6in high, over a sunken basement, it was of tuck-pointed red brick (as became apparent in the recent restoration). Partial accounts for 1777-78 show that the roof tiles were bought second-hand from Oxburgh Hall, where Sir Richard Bedingfeld had started demolition of the hall range in 1775. The accounts followed the death in September 1777 of Robert Freegard, the builder, in the middle of the contract. Samuel Burcham, surveyor, on behalf of Freegard’s executors, measured the work done thus far and W. Hay for Lord Clermont measured further work, restarting in October. Nearly 160,000 bricks were delivered on site and 10,000 carted away, presumably from the demolished former farmhouse.

The new lodge’s basically rectangular plan was enlivened by a canted bay projecting from the two longer fronts: that on the north comparatively shallow and of full height; the opposing one on the south front deeper, but of one storey only, capped by a cornice and balustrade. With an enfilade of doors running from end to end of the house on the south side and a very deep saloon allowing only a shallow hall in the canted entrance bay this ground-floor plan was similar to that at Deepdene, in Surrey, built from l769 to 1775.

William Grove of Piccadilly designed Deepdene, but at Clermont the subsequent employment of William Pilkington may point to the identity 6f its original architect. Pilkington was a pupil and assistant of Sir Robert Taylor, and on his death he succeeded to many of his appointments (including surveyor to the Earl of Radnor, the Duke of Grafton and the Foundling Hospital in London) and afterwards worked or a number of his private clients. Hallmarks of Taylor’s style found at Clermont include the provision of service rooms in the basement, lit and kept dry by a narrow trench encircling the building, and a combination of full-height and single storey canted bays. Although the tucking of the staircase into the northeast angle (rather than its being placed centrally) might seem unlikely for Taylor, the stair at Mount Clare, Surrey (1770-73), is sited similarly.

There is no documentary evidence of Clermont employing Taylor, but there are circumstantial links between them. In the 1770s Taylor was engaged for the Duke of Grafton’s development of 14 houses in Grafton Street, and it was to Grafton as Prime Minister that Fortescue applied for his peerage, contravening established form by going over the head of the viceroy in Ireland. In addition, Lady Clermont was a friend of Mrs. Howe, who not only lived (from1771) in one of Taylor’s Grafton Street houses but also managed the work by Taylor in 1772 at Spencer House and Althorp for Lady Spencer, who stayed with the Clermont’s in Norfolk in 1786 and 1797.

Being childless, Lord Clermont was anxious to secure the continuance of his title. In the trafficking in honours over the Irish general election of 1776, he obtained a viscountcy with special remainder to his brother’s male heirs. The following year he was created Earl of Clermont, but with no special remainder, so that his nephew succeeded as 2nd Viscount Clermont in 1806.

It was the new viscount who called in William Pilkington to extend and remodel the house in 1812. He added the stucco covering and replaced the pantiles with slate. A signed “plan of the New Addition at Clermont’, now in the Norfolk Record Office, confirms that Pilkington added the two pavilion ends to the house. These provided a large dining room with kitchen below and a morning room, besides extra bedrooms. The Venetian windows (with a glazed over-arch) to the south aspect of these rooms arc a development of his master’s ideas, but here lightened by the omission of an entablature over the sidelights. An academic touch is found in the use of the Delos order for the columns of the curious segmental-shaped Tuscan portico.

On Viscount Clermont’s death in 1829, his title became extinct and the estate, along with the Irish estates, passed to his nephew Sir Harry Goodricke, 7th Bt, of Ribston, Yorkshire (I will deal with Harry in a separate document). Goodricke died young in 1833, and while the Irish estates reverted to Fortescue cousins, his English properties were left to his sporting companion of the hunting field, Sir Francis Holyoake; Bt. Clermont was soon for sale. Holyoake withdrew from negotiations with the 5th Lord Walsingham at £60,000 in 1845 on suspicion of Goodricke’s mother’s imminent demise, later selling the estate (no longer encumbered by her life interest) in 1858 to the 2nd Duke of Wellington for £87,000.

The shooting presumably attracted the duke, MP for Norwich from 1837 to 1852, he also bought the neighbouring estate of Hilborough. He subsequently sold them both in 1863 to John Remington Mills, a brewer, whose family held Clermont until 1933. The next owner, Reginald Foster, a tea planter, greatly extended the service quarters to the north-east, introduced a good deal of decoration in fibrous plasterwork and pushed the main bedroom out over the drawing room bay on the south front. His widow sold in 1963 to Sir Richard Prince-Smith, Brt, who was unable to live in the house due to family circumstances, Instead, Clermont, was let to a boys’ school, for which a number of utilitarian alterations were carried out. The school’s sudden departure in 1970 was followed by a period of neglect. Rapidly clogged parapet gutters led to galloping dry rot that was so bad by mid-1972 that a plan was considered to have the army from the neighbouring military training area dynamite the house.

This was prevented by the intervention of Mrs. Charlie Mills. The house was listed and put to auction in 1973, with 20 acres. With no supporting estate, Clermont seemed doomed. The house was derelict, in part open from cellar to roof Space, and many of the fittings had been removed with the fortuitous exception of most of the chimneypieces. Despite this, Mr. Philip Jones, a painter who trained at the Slade under William Coldstream, bought it. During his restoration he later extensions were removed, returning the house to the appearance of Pilkington’s villa, although he south front still sports a hill-height canted bay. Because of rot, all the plaster and door surrounds had to be stripped out, although the original doors were salvaged and, in the dining room, Pilkington’s cornice survives. The arched openings from hall to north corridor were reduced down to door-cases to conserve heat. The one chimneypiece that was lost (in the dining room) has been replaced by a Soanian one from nearby Letton Hall.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s courageous restoration over the past 20 years has, for the first time in its history, rendered the house the principal residence of the family that owns it. Acting as his own decorator, and using his own paintings, notably in the drawing room, Mr. Jones has created a classic country-house interior that belies Clermont’s chequered past.

Edited by Michael B Goodrick 2002