|Easton Neston House|
Easton Neston House east elevation in July 1987
Easton Neston is a country house near Towcester (pr. "toaster"), Northamptonshire, England, and is part of the Easton Neston parish. It was designed in the Baroque style by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Easton Neston is thought to be the only mansion which was solely the work of Hawksmoor. From circa 1700 Hawksmoor was to work on many buildings, including Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, with Sir John Vanbrugh, often providing the technical knowledge to the less qualified Vanbrugh. Hawksmoor's work, even after their many collaborations, was always more classically severe than Vanbrugh's. However, Easton Neston predates this partnership by some six years. The house is a Listed building Grade I.
Hawksmoor was commissioned to build Easton Neston by Sir William Fermor, later created Lord Leominster; Hawksmoor had been recommended to Fermor by his cousin by marriage Sir Christopher Wren,  who had advised on the building of a new mansion on the site circa 1680. However, no details of quite what Wren envisaged survive, and work seems to have ceased following completion of the two service blocks, of which only one survives. Following Fermor's marriage to an heiress, Catherine Poulett, in 1692, he decided to resurrect the idea of a new mansion, and subsequently Wren's pupil Hawksmoor received the commission circa 1694.
On 29 March 2011 a rare 300-word letter of about 1685 written and signed by Wren, offering advice about the construction of Easton Neston was expected to fetch up to £9,000 at auction but fetched £19,200. The letter was to Sir William Fermor, in or around 1685 or 1686 offering advice on design and building materials for the house.
In May 2011, The BBC broadcast an edition of the programme The Country House Revealed featuring Easton Neston. This raised the question of whether Wren or Hawksmoor designed the building. The programme tested samples of wood from the building's roof and date tests revealed the trees were cut down between 1700–1701 rather than earlier and proving Hawksmoor as the designer.
Fermer had purchase a large collection of marbles from the Arundel collection which decorated the estate. These statues were removed and sold in the distress sale of George Fermor, the 2nd Earl of Pomfret (1722–1785) at which they were bought by his mother and donated to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1755.
The house Hawksmoor built at Easton Neston can be best described as a miniature palace that owes the colossal order of pilasters and crowning balustrade to Michelangelo's palazzi on the Campidoglio at Rome and may in turn have influenced through engravings in Vitruvius Britannicus Gabriel's design of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, which was not to be built for another 50 years. Both main facades are of simple design devoid of ostentation. The rectangular house is on three principal floors. The first is a rusticated basement, with the two floors above appearing to have equal value—nine bays divided by Composite pilasters, each bay containing a tall, slim sash window of the same height on each floor. The central bay contains the entrance, flanked by two Composite full columns. These two columns support a small, round-headed pediment displaying the Fermor arms and motto. Above the door at second floor height is a massive Venetian window. The roof-line is hidden by a balustrade and decorated at the ten intervals, above the pilasters below, by covered stone urns. The design and fenestration of the entrance facade is repeated at the rear on the garden facade (illustration, above), except that the roof balustrade here is undecorated by urns and pediment. The house is built of Helmdon stone, a cream stone of exceptional quality, which has ensured that the carving is as crisp today as it was on completion of the house in 1702.
The two side elevations of the house tell the story of life in a country house before the age of the servants' bell. Until the invention of the distant bell, which could be jangled by a rope from far away, it was necessary to have servants within calling distance. In older houses such as Montacute House servants slept on the floor of the hall or outside the door of their employer's bedchamber; by 17th century this arrangement was becoming undesirable. Houses now began to have corridors, and employers, rather than stepping over sleeping servants, began to tidy them away in small rooms, sometimes shared with their employer's close-stool. However, these small rooms still had to be within calling distance. In a brand-new, luxurious house such as Easton Neston, this was achieved by inserting two very low mezzanine staff floors between each of the two upper floors. Hence at Easton Neston, while the two principal facades (West and East) are of three floors, fenestration of the two less important sides of the house betrays the secret that there are in fact five floors: the windows of the two mezzanines, as befits the humble rooms they light, are a mere half the size of those of the grander rooms above and below them. This makes the fenestration of the side facades a complex but interesting sight.
Some years after completion of the mansion in 1702, Hawksmoor drew some further plans for a huge entrance court. These designs, never fully executed but published in Vitruvius Britannicus, would have flanked the existing rectangular house with two wings, one containing stables and the other service rooms. The fourth side of the courtyard was to have been an elaborate colonnade. Apart from the house no part of this scheme was built and the two pre-existing red-brick wings (themselves perhaps owing something to Christopher Wren) remained, although the western (stable) wing was later demolished after the new stables were built. Some architectural commentators such as Dan Cruickshank feel that Hawksmoor's mansion would, in fact, have been spoilt by this scheme, which owed more to Sir John Vanbrugh's architectural concepts than Hawksmoor's. The whole design was depicted in Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus vol. i (1715, pls 98 – 100) as though it existed. Two large and decayed Ozymandian entrance piers, marooned in the park, are all that remain of this design.
The principal rooms have windows rising almost from the floor to the ceiling. The rooms are large and well proportioned without suffering from the oppressive grandeur that was to be a feature of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor's collaborative work. The massive main staircase, with its wrought iron balustrade in the style of Jean Tijou, is two long, shallow flights ascending to the first floor gallery decorated by grisailles painted by Sir James Thornhill.
Interiors at Easton Neston have undergone some changes since Hawksmoor completed the house. Hawksmoor's great hall, with its high, bare walls and flanking vestibules and Corinthian columns, was sub-divided in the 19th century when Sir Thomas Hesketh inherited the property from his uncle, to create three further bedrooms in its upper storey. The principal drawing room, the only heavily decorated room in the mansion, has also seen change: it contains plasterwork carried out by Artari in the mid-18th century for Lord Leominster's son, created Earl of Pomfret, a high-relief ceiling matched by huge scrolled panels and picture surrounds, and trophies containing hunting emblems that would have delighted the charismatic Hawksmoor.
In the grounds, Hawksmoor also designed a canal in the park to complement the house, known as the Long Water; this is on an axis with the door at the centre of the garden facade. The gardens in the 20th century were further enhanced by the creation of a water terrace, overlooked by the West, or garden facade, by Thomas, 1st Baron Hesketh, the great-nephew of the 5th and last Earl of Pomfret. It is decorated by box topiary and roses surrounding a large pool, which reflects the house.
Easton Neston has always been a private house and never opened to the public; as a consequence it is little known. Until recently the house was owned by Lord Hesketh, whose family is directly descended from the original builder, Sir William Fermor. It was furnished with fine paintings, tapestries, and 18th-century furniture.
In 2004, Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh put the house, and the surrounding estate including Towcester Racecourse, up for sale for an estimated £50 million. In 2005, a portion of the estate, including: the main house, some outlying buildings and 550 acres (2.2 km2) of land; were sold to retail businessman and designer Leon Max for around £15 million. Lord Hesketh, having sold off the farmland and the Gothic village of Hulcote, has retained ownership of the race course. Max plans to use the Wren-designed wing of the building as a base for his European operations, and the Hawksmoor block as his personal residence.
The Hesketh Collection
The library at Easton Neston was formerly the home of a substantial collection of rare books and manuscripts, largely created by the second Baron Hesketh. In 2006, the collection was deposited at the library of Lancaster University. However, these were subsequently withdrawn from the University. The trustees of his Last Will and Testament sold some of his books, manuscripts and letters in 2010 at Sotheby's.
The series from BBC titled The Country House Revealed was accompanied by a full length illustrated companion book published by the BBC which featured Easton Neston as a dedicated chapter appearing as Chapter Three of the book edition. The six chapters of the book correspond to the six episodes of the BBC series.
- Kerry Downes, "Hawksmoor's house at Easton Neston", Architectural History 30 (1987).; Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600–1840, 3rd ed. (Yale University Press), 1995, s.v. "Hawksmoor, Nicholas".
- British listed buildings website, accessed 26 March 2012
- Sir William Fermor, created first Baron Leominster (c.1648 – 7 December 1711), the son of Sir William Fermor, Bart. (1621–1661), a member of the gentry, who inherited the Easton Neston estate in Northamptonshire in 1640 and was created a baronet the following year by Charles I. A staunch royalist, the elder Sir William was a member of the new Privy Council that restored the monarchy in 1660. His son, Sir William Fermor, married 5 March 1692, as his third wife Lady Sophia Osborne, daughter of Sir Thomas Osborne, created first Duke of Leeds. The Peerage.com
- May 2005 auction at Sotheby's. Accessed 26 May 2011[permanent dead link]
- Christopher Wren's Easton Neston letter up for sale for £9,000, Northampton Chronicle & Echo, 13 March 2011
- Rare letter sells for £19,200, Salisbury Journal – includes copy of the letter – 31 March 2011
- BBC i-player accessed 26 May 2011
- The Country House Revealed. BBC i-player accessed 26 May 2011
- Morton, J. The Natural History of Northamptonshire. ISBN 978-1236131171. Retrieved 17 April 2013.
- Empress of Austria – Her visits to Easton Neston from mkheritage.co.uk
- Daily Telegraph 13 July 2005
- "Rag trade to riches" The Times 17 July 2005
- "Lancaster University celebrates the Hesketh Collection". Lancaster University. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
- "Lancaster to lose valuable art collection". Retrieved 2015-09-21.
- "World record as book sells for £7m". Daily Telegraph. 8 December 2010. Retrieved 14 January 2011.
-  The Country House Revealed – Marsh Court, Hampshire
- Nigel Nicolson 1965. Great Houses of Britain George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd.
- Kerry Downes 1979. Hawksmoor Thames and Hudson, London.
- Mark Girouard 1978. Life in the English Country House Yale University
- Easton Neston on the May 2011 BBC2 programme The Country House Revealed with Dan Cruickshank
- NorthamptonToday article on the purchase of Easton Neston by Leon Max
- Money Telegraph article on the sale