Letton Hall, Norfolk
This simple villa of local white Norfolk brick, now owned by the Letton Hall Trust, was Sir John Soane’s first country house commission and the Country Houses Foundation are funding essential repairs to the Georgian sash windows.
Sir John Soane is one of 19th century Britain’s most important architects, remembered today mostly for The Bank of England and for his eponymous Museum of paintings, drawings and antiquities in Holborn. The house he built at Letton Hall in Norfolk has some 19th century additions, particularly a projecting porch on the entrance front, which obscures Soane’s original design, but the interiors and much of the exterior are little altered since the building was conceived in 1783. The importance of this house is clear; it shows how Soane’s style was completely realised even at this early stage of his career. Similar elegant arched windows appear in later Soane buildings including Dulwich Picture Gallery and Soane’s own country house, Pitzhanger Manor. The interior staircase hall retains Soane’s characteristic oval cupola, which sheds light onto a cantilevered staircase, while his entrance Doric pillars still adorn the Victorian entrance porch. Soane used brick repeatedly in his architectural designs. He chose white Norfolk brick again for the three houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields which are now the Sir John Soane Museum.
Letton Hall was built for Brampton Gurdon Dillingham in 1789, refurbished and extended by his descendant Robert Thornagh Gurdon in the 1880s, with the addition of a fine red-brick stable block. The house has been a Christian conference centre and retreat for the past 35 years; a new life which might have pleased the house’s original owners. Brampton Gurdon Dillingham’s obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine claims that though “he had arrived at the age of 80 without any diminution of that placid cheerfulness for which he was remarkable”, he “lived and died the oldest member of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge” while his wife Mary’s memorial celebrates her “fidelity (to) the principles of Christianity”. The house and estate today welcome church groups, youth groups and hundreds of individuals for conferences, training weekends or retreats.
Soane only built 18 country houses and many of these are lost or altered. Letton Hall is a rare and important survival.