Sunday Times – 22 February 2004
John Pawson, the king of pared-down interiors, may not seem an obvious choice to design a Georgian conversion. But when he took on Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, the results were stunning, discovers VICTORIA O’BRIEN
Space is a luxury admits Nigel Tuersley, as he shows me into yet another vast room in the Georgian get that is Wardour Castle.
It is a luxury he understands well, as his own apartment covers 20,000 sq feet (the average Victorian terrace encompasses 1,200 sq feet. Tuersley, 53, bought the Grade I listed house in Tisbury — described by Nikolaus Pevsner as having “the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire" – for just under £1m in 1992, after spotting it while flicking through the page of Country Life.
"I bought it for the views, and for the architecture, says Tuersley. "The place was empty, but it was also tranquil and serene." He and his wife Vanessa casually refer to their home as "the flat", though it actually spans two entire floors of the house. The rest of the 55,000 sq ft building - which originally had 75 rooms - has now been turned into 10 good-sized apartments, all of which Tuersley has sold on. The most expensive is now valued at more thin £1m.
The central rotunda — or the entrance hall to "the fiat" as it has now become known - features eight columns 10 pairs of 9 ft high mahogany doors and an exquisitely detailed domed plasterwork ceiling. Gently tap your foot on the stone floor in the middle of this space, and the echo carries on for what seems like minutes.
The makers of the film Billy Elliot were so captivated that they chose the same stone cantilevered stairway as the setting for the Royal Ballet School audition scenes. It had previously been home to Cranbourne Chase School; I80 girls, plus staff, lived here before Tuersley spent his first night here, all on his own.
What sort of man gets to live in a place like this? Not the kind of man you might expect. Until Tuersley was 12, he lived in a council house; later he went on to study ecology at university in Wales. There is nothing of the Peter Bowles character in To the Manor Born about him. He is not a pinstripe-suited City boy-made-good: it is doubtful, in fact, whether he owns any suits at all. His casual appearance is that of a hippie part time gardener, potter or sculptor.
And yet he has made his money through a succession of well-observed, acutely timed property investments. His first job was painting houses in Canada with a friend during university holidays. They saved enough money to buy up slum-clearance houses in Hull on their return to England ("in 1972, a two up, two-down cost us about £250,” Tuersley explains), which they then rented out and eventually sold on, siphoning off the profits and reinvesting. By the age of 30, Tuersley was putting together consortiums to redevelop large areas of Docklands and Canary Wharf. "I knew I'd make no real money as an ecologist, and I wanted to change things, so I decided early on as a student that I would put myself in a position where I could do just that,” he says.
Wardour Castle , for all its monolithic, inhuman proportions, is devoid of the swags and tails that suffocate so many of our great British houses, and remains all the more awesome for it. With 50 acres of parkland, first landscaped by Capability Brown, the house was originally designed James Paine (often described as one of the most "minimalist" of Georgian architects) for the eighth Lord Arundel, and completed in 1770. At the time, the Arundells were one of the wealthiest families in England.
The ceilings are 24ft high – 60ft in the rotunda — but, as Tuersley is keen to point out, “it was considered inappropriate at the lime to show your wealth in any sort of obvious way", which is why the front door to Wardour Castle is a discreet, humble wood panelled entrance.
This perhaps explains what John Pawson, the world's most celebrated minimalist, responsible for a decade's worth of pared-down, white-on white loft spaces, was doing working on a 18th century Georgian stately home. To Tuersley, Pawson seemed the only person capable of retaining the beauty of what he found there – pure, unadulterated space. Punctuated only by the existing light froth of Georgian decorative plaster work and mouldings.
"Nigel rang me and asked if I would be interested in the job." says Pawson. "Clearly, I knew something of James Paine’s work, that he had himself been described as the minimalist of his day, and that the staircase of the home was considered one of the most beautiful in England.
"But a place of that size, scale and complexity presents a mind boggling challenge. I knew it wouldn't be straightforward, so I agreed to spend the day with him there. The first thing he asked me was, "Would you like a cup of tea?" — which was huge mistake. It took him ages just to get to the kitchen and back again."
Pawson had already worked on the interior conversion of a couple of Georgian homes, including a 12,000 sq ft house on a canal in Amsterdam. The problems there were similar to Wardour, where the layout (how do you live in such a large number of oversized rooms?) and the need to respect the wonderful period detail were paramount.
At Pawson's suggestion, the living rooms and kitchen, plus three main bedrooms and bathrooms, were situated on the upper floor. The four guest bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, plus a garden room and Tuersley's office, are on the ground floor.
Pawson has ensured that even where modem bathroom fittings have been introduced, the concept of a "room within a room" (using glass walls or a series of large, block like sculptural wardrobes as cursory dividing walls) preserves the original scale, proportion and decorative detailing of each interior. The only modern interventions to touch the walls are the Pawson-designed floating benches or shelves.
"My main input at Wardour was a strategy, and direction." says Pawson. "My clients are usually far more severe than me when it comes to living without everyday clutter surrounding them."
Tuersley designed much of the furniture, including the oak tables and some of the while sofas. Apart from a couple of gilded Buddha statues and a hanging globe, bought from a charity auction, there is little else here to define the space.
When not in use, the kitchen facilities virtually disappear within specially built cabinets with retractable doors. Shutters do away with the need for curtains. Sockets are set beneath removable panels in the floorboards. Even light switches have been hidden – taking the form of discreet white buttons set into the sides of the door frames.
Only a glimpse of a toy tractor parked behind one of the pillars gives any indication that children also occupy this space; Nigel and Vanessa's two young children, India and Joseph, have a large playroom on the ground floor, with direct access to the garden.
"This is my shop window." explains Tuersley. "It shows what can be done when you combine the best of classicism with contemporary thinking."
He is now working on the redevelopment of Trowbridge, an 18th-century wool town he describes as "ruined by crude, monolithic 1960s and 1970s car parks and shopping centres". Having acquired property in the town through consortiums, Tuersley's plan involves erecting top quality classical buildings there.
"Minimalism is not a fashion or passing phase," he says. "It's as enduring a design aesthetic as classicism and [Wardour Castle] the two work seamlessly together."