Seaton Delaval, Northumberland
Funds have been granted to the National Trust by the Country Houses Foundation for the restoration of the West Staircase, part of a major restoration project at Seaton Delaval Hall which will open up new parts of this palace of the English Baroque to visitors.
Neither Seaton Delaval Hall’s builder, Admiral Sir George Delaval nor its architect Sir John Vanbrugh lived to see it completed in 1718. Vanbrugh died of an asthma attack at his London home, aged 62 after a long and celebrated career as a playwright and architect. Admiral George, however, was not so lucky – he was killed in a fall from his horse a few hundred yards from his uncompleted home. If this suggests a curse, it might have visited the next owner, the Admiral’s nephew Francis Blake Delaval. He died of injuries sustained falling down the steps of the house itself in 1752. His son, another Francis Blake, died of a stroke having successfully exchanged the house for an annuity from his brother which helped pay off his gambling debts, probably a lucky solution for him.
Although Francis’ brother, John Hussey Delaval, lived to the ripe old age of 80, his son and heir, John, was already dead aged 19. Young John was the victim of his own lack of self-control, dying after being kicked by a Seaton Delaval laundry maid who was trying to escape his unwanted advances. The house passed to his brother Sir Edward Hussey Delaval, a man who made a name for himself at the Royal Society by experimenting, among other things. with the musical qualities of glass. With Sir Edward, the Delaval line died out and the house became a secondary seat for cousins, the Astley family. Disaster struck in 1822 when fire destroyed the whole central block and the house was left open to the elements for 40 years. Not a happy history.
This is the last great house built by the inventor of the English Baroque and builder of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. Though smaller than either, it is still every bit a palace, with a distinctive and dramatic skyline built round a three-sided courtyard. In a perfect synergy, the Delaval family themselves lived up to the theatrical appearance of the house. Francis Blake Delaval II had a particularly fun time here. As a child, he would play practical jokes on visitors, who risked being tipped from bed into a tub of cold water or waking up in a room arranged upside down so that they appeared to be sleeping on the ceiling.
Francis grew up to be a gambler and the lover of several actresses. He won a bet by building a house for his mistress within a day and was sued by his wife for adultery. Eventually, Parliament intervened to pass his property to his brother to offlay his debts. There’s still evidence of the legendary parties held at Seaton Delaval in the 1760s as some of the statues in the Great Hall appear to have been shot.
The 21st century however has served the house better. It deserves it. Edward Delaval Astley, Lord Hastings spent 51 years restoring the house and moved into the West wing in 1990. After his death, the National Trust have taken up the restoration challenge. Possibly the most beautiful surviving elements of Vanbrugh’s interior design are the staircases off the central hall, open steps supporting delicate decorative ironwork which spiral up towards the light. This is Vanbrugh’s interpretation of the baroque at its most refined. The Country Houses Foundation grant will be spent restoring the West Staircase and bringing back some of the style of the house’s heyday.