Stowe House Restoration: A history

As a 1680s building with many upgrades, expansions and add-ons over the subsequent two hundred years, Stowe House was always going to be a handful for whoever took it on in the 20th century.

The purchase of the Stowe estate by Harry Shaw in 1921 from the Temple-Grenville family was the result of a great aristocratic family’s financial and political gradual fall over the previous century. Mr Shaw, a businessman from Berkshire, initially wanted to present the estate to the nation, either via the National Trust or what became Historic England. However, without an endowment – all his money having been tied up in buying the estate – he was forced to find another option. Although it was rumoured he had thought about turning Stowe into a film studio or racing stud, a short piece in the Pall Mall Gazette suggests that by 1920 there was already the thought of turning it into an educational establishment.

Having sold the estate to the fledgling Martyrs Memorial Fund in October 1922 to create Stowe School, the challenge was to turn a crumbling stately home, which had previously accommodated a small family and a collection of servants, into a school and home for hundreds of schoolboys, masters and their families and estate staff. With 400 rooms in the main mansion there was lots of space, but it needed modernising and adapting. New classrooms needed building and eventually a new chapel was constructed in 1927.

The well-known architectural historian and editor of Country Life, Christopher Hussey, was contacted by Lawrence Whistler in the late 1930s to raise awareness of the forgotten architectural and landscape treasure. A concerted effort was made to put Stowe back into the public domain through a series of articles in 1947. It was clear by this time that the main building in particular was in much need of repair, let alone restoration. Raising this profile resulted in the Historic Buildings Council giving money towards Stowe’s built heritage. It wasn’t much money and still required 50% match funding by the School, but it was the start of the School’s journey to consciously becoming the deserving inheritor of this timeless jewel.

In 1951, the built heritage of the Stowe estate was granted a mixture of Grade I, Grade II and Grade II* historic listings by the then Ministry of Works. This was both a blessing and a curse to the School. Stowe was now recognised as an important addition to the lexicon of historic landscape gardens and an enormous selling point for school recruitment campaigns. However, it was now responsible for an enormous ducal palace and almost 40 monuments and temples. School fees were needed to educate the boys, not prevent 18th century follies from falling down.

Among those affected by Stowe were two young brothers who were among the first few years’ cohort. Michael (Grenville 29) and Benjamin (Grenville 30) Gibbon came as 13-year-olds in 1926 and 1927, respectively. While Michael leaned towards science, Benjamin was clearly an artist. Despite going their separate ways academically when they left, they never lost their love for Stowe.

The next link came when Michael Gibbon’s son was enrolled at Stowe in the 1960s. George Clarke, the Grenville Housemaster and Stowe researcher, got to know Michael as a parent. In 1964, there was a plan to move Bruce House out from the Music Room (then the Bruce Houseroom) and money was found from a trust to renovate it. Michael planned the work and Ben carried it out the next year. It was some of this work which was recognised when Stowe House Preservation Trust (SHPT) conserved the room in 2012.

Despite the room’s use as a Houseroom, the beautiful wall paintings were in good condition. The key centrepiece was a ceiling painting called the Dance of Hours by Valdrè, sold in the 1922 house sale. It came up for sale again in 1976 but the School was unable to buy it back for £7,000. The Gibbon brothers took it upon themselves to make a copy of the painting onto chipboard, on a total of 16 pieces, which adorned the ceiling until the original was found, quite by chance, in 2013 and purchased by SHPT.

George Clarke and Michael Gibbon, alongside their day jobs, researched Stowe and passed information to each other. This led to the collaboration on their seminal articles published in
The Stoic between 1967 and 1977 on the evolution of the garden and the buildings, underlining the extravagance and creativeness of the Temple-Grenville family.

A good example of the need for restoration was the Queen’s Temple. A beautiful early 18th century temple. By the time the School was created, the temple was overgrown and had saplings growing out from the walls. For the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the School a fundraising campaign, led by Roxburgh, was organised. By this time, the challenge was clear – make the space more practical for School use. The ground floor was enclosed and the whole building was used as the Music School (until the new one was built in 2013).

When executing the restoration of the interior (originally by Valdrè) in 1967, Benjamin Gibbon became engrossed. George remembers going to the temple to check on him and found him recreating the scagliola marble pattern on the columns. The background of the columns had been repaired in white and Ben was using a plastic carrot dipped in brown paint to create the marbling effect. For three solid days he barely left the temple, drank milk the whole time and wouldn’t leave until he had finished. George described him as a very intuitive artist. In 1969, the January edition of Country Life ran an article about the Queen’s Temple by Michael.

Another way of preserving one of the most important temples – the Gothic Temple by Gibbs – was taken on by the newly-created Landmark Trust in 1966. The School had used it as the Armoury and it was gradually deteriorating. Michael and Ben Gibbon patiently restored the spectacular colourful ceiling depicting the Temple-Grenville heraldic quarterings in 1970, deducing the details from the sketchy remains. Subsequently, the family tree was discovered in the Huntington Library in California (home to the Stowe family archive since 1926). Michael made copious notes on the exuberant Gothic Temple ceiling, focusing on the origins of the Temple-Grenville family’s coat of arms and wrote an article on the temple for County Life in 1972, extolling the virtues of this unusual building.

However, it was clear to all involved that while all the publicity around the restoration was helping to raise awareness, the School was neither financially nor professionally in a position to look after 40 listed monuments and temples, as well as the main mansion. Negotiations with the National Trust started in the mid-1960s but were only finalised 20 years later with a generous donation from an Old Stoic. The marvellous work by the National Trust on the gardens and temples during that first decade began to then show in the 300 years’ worth of wear and tear on the main mansion. Again, the School was not able to raise and spend pupil’s fees, so The Stowe House Preservation House (SHPT) was created in 1997 to “raise funds for restoration, to carry out the restoration and to open the State Rooms to the public.” This work was started in 2000, sealing the envelope of the main mansion over a number of years, before starting on the State Rooms.

As we finish the State Dining Room in time for the Centenary celebrations, we are grateful to those who have gone before: the risk takers, the visionaries, the donors, the contractors, the architects, the researchers and, most of all, the School masters, pupils, Old Stoics and Headmasters who have supported and recognised over the last 100 years the importance and beauty of Stowe.

Anna McEvoy, House Custodian

Bringing the State Rooms to Life

The SHPT team are working hard to ensure all visitors to Stowe get a real sense of what it is like to be part of this special community. With this in mind, they are looking to ‘bring the State Rooms to life’ through the re-telling of your stories and memories in an interactive manner.

If you have any anecdotes, memories or facts about any of the rooms listed below, that you would be happy to share with the public, please visit here and fill out the form.

  • Blue Room (Grenville Houseroom)
  • Library
  • Music Room (Bruce Houseroom)
  • Marble Saloon
  • North Hall
  • Drawing Room (Temple Houseroom)
  • Dining Room (main Dining Room)
  • Small Dining Room (old Servery)
  • Servery (Garter Room)
  • Egyptian Hall