The present Compton Verney House was built by the 12th Baron Willoughby de Broke in the early eighteenth century. George, the 12th Lord Willoughby, lived to December 1728 and was succeeded by his elder surviving son, Richard, who died in 1752 without issue. The barony then reverted to his nephew John Peyto, 14th Baron, born in 1738. He was created Gentleman of the Bedchamber, and in 1761 married Louisa, the sister of Lord North of Wroxton Abbey, Oxfordshire. At the same time he commissioned plans from Robert Adam (1728-92) for the extension of the house, while in 1768 Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-83) prepared plans for the surrounding landscape. John Peyto lived until 1816. His son, the 15th Baron, died in 1820, when he was succeeded by his brother, Henry Peyto, who lived until 1852. Robert, the 17th Baron died in 1862 and his death brought about a new era of alterations.
The architect John Gibson was called in by Henry, the 18th Lord Willoughby to make changes to the interior of the house and to build lodges on the estate; Gibson had earlier worked for Lord Willoughby’s sister-in-law, Mary Elizabeth Lucy, at Charlecote, Warwickshire.
Financial circumstances forced the family to let the house from 1887 and finally to sell it in July 1921 to the Leeds soap magnate Joseph Watson (later 1st Baron Manton of Compton Verney). He however never lived there having died in March of the following year. His business affairs were sufficiently complex to prevent the sale of the estate until June 1929. The house was bought by Samuel Lamb, a cotton magnate, who spent a great deal of time running his mills in Manchester. His wife, Gita, however, lived in the house when not in London. During the 1930s the Lambs hosted lavish weekend parties, which were attended by, amongst other people, Hitler’s Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop and other influential, pro-German members of British society.
In 1940 the house was requisitioned by the Ministry of Home Security and became a research establishment which was concerned with the production of smoke for camouflage. By September 1941 that work was moved to Leamington Spa and the house was used as a training school for the operators of smoke screen generators. It appears that during this time the Adam Hall was used as a mess hall in spite of part of the ceiling having fallen down. The Army de-requisitioned the house in January 1948.
The Lambs never returned to Compton Verney, eventually selling it in 1957. The house was stripped of its contents and left as a shell. It was in this condition that it was bought in March 1958 by Harry Ellard a millionaire businessman with a factory near Wolverhampton. He seems to have done very little to the house apart from allowing it to be used occasionally as a film set, one of which – a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – required the building of a grand staircase in the Hall. This took place in November 1968.
Ellard eventually became a recluse living in a single room in a house that he had converted into a restaurant and banqueting complex called the Regency Club, in Solihull. This had by then become known locally as ‘Harry’s Folly’. He died in 1983 leaving an estate of over five million pounds, mostly bequeathed to Freemason charities. Some small gifts were left to his family, his Wolverhampton employees and certain Regency Club staff who had looked after him. Following his funeral on 3rd January 1984, his ashes were buried on the site of the old chapel by the lake at Compton Verney.
In 1984 the house was sold to Period and Country Houses Ltd. The directors submitted many planning applications over the next few years. One of these was for the conversion of the stable block into houses. At the same time proposals were made for the building of an opera house adjacent to the ‘Adam’ bridge – nothing came of these.
In 1993 the Peter Moores Foundation bought Compton Verney. The Compton Verney House Trust was established to transform the mansion into a gallery of international standard where visitors could enjoy art in a welcoming, accessible environment. However, the house and grounds were in a such a state of decay after decades of neglect that major work was required. Rodney Melville & Partners were appointed to carry out the conservation work while architects Stanton Williams were building the new extension. After the first phase of restoration and building work, part of the house was opened to the public for a six-month ‘preview season’ in April 1998. Since then, although the gallery closed for a second phase of building, Compton Verney ran a series of outdoor and off-site projects.
The new Compton Verney Art Gallery was opened by Prince Charles on March 23rd 2004 with gallery spaces on three floors, a shop and café, and a purpose-built learning centre.
The permanent collections are: Naples (1600-1800), German (1450-1600), British portraits, China (8000BC-2000BC), British Folk Art, and the Marx-Lambert collection.
I was asked to carry out an investigation of the decoration in the entrance hall, which was designed by Robert Adam and the ‘Capability’ Brown-designed chapel.
The Hall was designed by Robert Adam in the early 1760s. The ceiling centre is his, but the cove was reworked in 1863 by John Gibson. The large entrance door is also thought to be by Gibson.
The original chapel was removed in 1772 and Arthur Bolton thought that the new one dated from that time and was probably designed by Robert Adam. He wrote:
“There would be no reason to suppose that it was not by Adam, if Neale and Repton had not, on the authority of Holland, included it in a list of ‘Capability’ Brown’s works. As, however, Adam was still in full practice, and in 1771 was publishing designs of Compton Verney, it seems more than likely that Brown merely carried out a design by Adam.”
However, it is now believed that the chapel at Compton Verney was designed by Brown and built between 1776-80 as part of the re-landscaping of the site. It is one of the few surviving Georgian chapels in Britain and the very few remaining architectural works by ‘Capability’ Brown. Some of the tombs of earlier Verneys were moved to the new chapel, which was used in the past by the family who owned the estate.
Bolton went on to describe the Chapel:
“The West front is a very successful piece of unadorned architecture. A simple arcaded and rusticated base, agreeing with the height of the internal western gallery, and a plain steep pedimented upper storey in ashlar work, constitute the entire façade. Three quietly treated blank windows, or recesses, are the leading features of the principal stage.”
“Internally, the flat panelled ceiling rests on a simple cove, intersected in relation to the round arched side windows and to the larger Venetian opening of the eastern end. In the side windows the deep splayed jambs are panelled with rosette centres, forming a very effective piece of plasterwork.”
“The western gallery rests on coupled columns of a simple Doric type which carry a plain frieze architrave adorned with graceful swags. The western wall is panelled at the back and there are two quadrant fans to the angles of the centre panel, and an unmistakable Adam mantelpiece for the comfort of the gallery occupants.”
“There is nothing to show what the reredos was like, but the plain deal and oak-grained pews and pulpit are all probably original. There are two tombs of exceptional interest, the altar tomb by Nicholas Stone the elder, who noted in his Diary: “In 1630 I made a tomb for Sir Richard Varney and his Lady set up at Compton Verney for the which he had paid me £90.” The other is a black and white marble wall tomb of Sir Greville Verney, Knight, 1668, with a portrait bust. The interesting Munich glass in the chapel was obtained abroad about 1660, fitted in the windows of the old chapel, and then readapted to those of the new. On a book in one of the pieces is the date 1602.”
The medieval stained glass, which had originally come from the earlier chapel when that was demolished in the 1770s, was removed by the 2nd Baron Manton prior to vacating the house in 1929, and in 1931 it was sold in four lots at Christie’s. Some of it is now housed at The Burrell Collection in Glasgow and another lot can be found in the County Museum at Warwick. The whereabouts of the rest is unknown.
This has been taken from a variety of sources, including:
1) English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest and quoted HERE;
2) Warwickshire Photo Gallery;
3) Arthur T. Bolton. “Compton Verney, Warwickshire. A Seat of Lord Willoughby de Broke.” Country Life. October 18th 1913. 528-535, and
4) Robert Bearman (ed.). Compton Verney. A History of the House and its Owners. Stratford Upon Avon. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. 2000.
A slideshow of my recent visit can be seen here:
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