Past Exhibitions

Saving Wotton: the Remarkable Story of a Soane Country House

An Exhibition in the Soane Gallery from 2 July to 25 September 2004

In October 1820, Wotton House, the noble seat of the Grenville family, burned to the ground. The owner, Lord Buckingham, immediately recruited John Soane as architect for the rebuild, and by 1823 a new house had risen from the ashes of the great Queen-Anne mansion. Soane inserted a brilliant sequence of interior spaces within the walls of the original building. His work survives, but only thanks to a painstaking restoration programme began after the house was rescued from demolition in the 1950s. Focusing on Soane's work of the 1820s, this exhibition will be the first to recount Wotton's remarkable story.

Lord Buckingham's desperate letter to Soane survives in the Museum archives, 'Por Wotton is burnd down get one of your foremen ready to set off immediately'. When Soane's surveyor arrived at Wotton House a few days later, he found the magnificent 'cradle' of the Grenville family reduced to a smouldering shell. Soane wasted no time: a week later he was dining with Buckingham, showing him designs for a new house. The project required all of Soane's tact and ingenuity as he sought to retain the 'ancient magnificence' of the house, and yet create an interior incorporating a host of his own distinctive architectural ideas.

This exhibition is based around Soane's exquisite drawings for Wotton which reveal the complex evolution of the new house. The most distinctive element of Soane's design, and the feature which absorbed most of his energies, was the magnificent inner hall, or 'tribune', a light well rising the full height of the house, forming its architectural centrepiece.

The exhibition also explores the post-Soane history of the house, in particular its rescue by Elaine Brunner. Mrs Brunner visited Wotton in 1957 intending to collect some salvaged columns. However, she was enchanted by the great house, then derelict and teetering on the brink of destruction, and bought it for £6,000. With the help of the first ever grant from the Historic Buildings Council, she began the long process of restoration. By the time of her death in 1998 she had succeeded in returning much of the house to its Soanean splendour.

Wotton, currently celebrating its tercentenary year, is very much a living building. Its present owners, Mrs Brunner's daughter and son-in-law, are continuing to restore the house and grounds. The final section of the exhibition will look to the future, in particular to the plans to restore Soane's inner hall or 'tribune' to its original state.

This is the first exhibition to concentrate on a single Soane project and the first time that many of the Wotton drawings have been on public display.

Catalogue available from Museum shop