The Destruction of Shardeloes

The Amersham Society Talk on 30 Jan 2019, given by Edward Copisarow, was provocatively entitled “The Destruction of Shardeloes”. It illustrated how a change in public opinion with regards to Britain’s built heritage helped to protect this historic country house.

The report below from our May Newsletter is enhanced by links to online resources including the most recent transcript from the Minute Book related to the Society’s first campaign.

Shardeloes House, Jan 2019
Shardeloes House, Jan 2019


When the Events Team arrange the Amersham Society programme of talks, we realise that attendance at the January talk in particular is, in part at least, always dependant on the weather. And this year we could relax. On a rather miserable and cold evening we were delighted to welcome to the Kings Arms a large number of members and visitors, interested to learn from an expert about another chapter in the history of our local manor house.

In 1950s England, one stately home was demolished each week. Plans to pull down Shardeloes, the iconic home of the Lords of the Manor of Amersham, were at an advanced stage when the Amersham Society was formed to campaign for it to be saved. As everyone present at the Kings Chapel on a frosty evening in 2019 knew, the wrecking ball had never made it to Shardeloes but the talk opened by re-living the arguments on both sides, Peter Borrows assisting with a most Churchillian performance of a speech given in 1956 by the Chairman of Amersham Rural District Council; forcefully advocating the demolition of the building. And so the story was told, with words from the Minute book of the Amersham Society and with images of old press cuttings recently presented to Amersham Museum, of the success of the Society’s first campaign and of how Robert Adam’s first country house commission became the first such house to be saved by being turned into flats.

The binary distinction between demolition and being saved was then considered as a spectrum of degrees of destruction. The title of the talk and the structure of the rest of the presentation were borrowed from “Destruction of the Country House” the ground-breaking 1975 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition had charted not only the demolition of hundreds of building but also the loss of the workplaces, the picture collections, the furniture, the libraries, the parks and the gardens. From the outside we saw images of working stables, the meet of the Old Berkeley Hunt and the exercising of the racing ponies. The tour of the five state rooms inside, illustrated with 18th century drawings by Robert Adam for the plasterwork and woodwork, photographs from the 1870s to 1938 giving the impression of the furnishings, the picture hang and the other contents of the house when still a family home contrasted with those from the National Monument Record in 1956 when the building was under sentence of demolition and more cheerful images of the restored rooms and of some of the dispersed contents Edward had been able to track down.

Shardeloes was one of the more important commissions for the firm of John Linnell, the leading London furniture maker of the 1760s: we saw his costly “coopers”- the dining room urns – most recently sold in 2002, the original design for the hall chairs, the drawing room sofas (since 1947 at Clarence House) and the pier tables and glasses sold to the Reijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1957.

The paintings included a variety of portraits, seascapes and landscapes and the famous Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, 350 years at Shardeloes but recently saved for the nation and now on display at the National Maritime Museum.

The busts of modern worthies in the Hall by John Cheere c1770 after Michael Rysbrack (now at Birmingham Museum) were put to the audience as a quiz, who managed to identify most of them: John Milton, Inigo Jones, Alexander Pope, John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare. In the library, the most valuable books had been sold to pay death duties in the 1920s, many of these had appeared in the catalogue of the library of the old house compiled in 1728 and some could even be traced back to the collection of the Elizabethan bibliophile, Humphrey Dyson. Many of these items are now in the Huntingdon Library in California but one volume, an early Shakespeare folio with the bookplate of Montagu Garrard Drake, had recently been sold again at an auction of just four lots in London – the first four editions of the works of Shakespeare.

The majority of the books had remained in the Library throughout the second world war and, despite a campaign for them to form the basis of a special collection at the County Library, they left the house without trace in 1957.

Returning to the exterior, we saw how the 18th Century ‘pleasure grounds’ had given way to a Victorian flower garden and was now a mixture of lawn, shrubbery and woodland. The park by contrast retained much of the look and feel of the landscape created by Nathaniel Richmond in the 1760s and 1770s and the view from the house remains today much as Humphrey Repton recorded it his watercolours of the 1790s. But the land had been sold off in parcels in the 50’s, much of it bought by John Brazil, the local butcher who had made a fortune by building a meat processing business on the site now occupied by Tesco. Some of his nephews and niece were in the audience and between them still retained the lake and much of the land adjacent to the house, although the water wheel from the outflow of the lake no longer powers the engine which supplied spring water to the house and the residents no longer amuse themselves by boating, fishing or skating as the seasons dictate!

Whilst Shardeloes has lost its original contents and collections and much of its setting is no longer connected to the house, our 21st century eyes see this as an evolution rather than the destruction it would have been considered back in the 1970s. Robert Adam’s first country house where he was able to work both inside and out still stands, the plasterwork survives and the interior layout is almost unaltered and it provides us in Amersham with a starting point from which we can scour the museums, galleries and libraries of the world to put back together, albeit virtually, Amersham’s great treasure house.

Edward Copisarow
May 2019 Newsletter