Butterfly house spreads its wings
PUBLISHED: 11:56 10 June 2006 | UPDATED: 21:06 10 January 2011
Book dealer Simon Finch has spent much time and money on restoring a Norfolk mansion to its former glory. Ahead of Voewood's first public event, KEIRON PIM took a tour of High Kelling's Arts and Crafts gem.
Book dealer Simon Finch has spent much time and money on restoring a Norfolk mansion to its former glory. Ahead of Voewood's first public event, Keiron Pim took a tour of High Kelling's Arts and Crafts gem.
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It has been called “far and away the most interesting building in Holt”, which is quite an accolade in a town renowned for its architecture.
But rather than being of the Georgian period for which the North Norfolk town is best known, it represents a glorious example of the Arts and Crafts from the early 20th century.
It was known for some time as Home Place, then as Litchfield Hall, and gradually fell into disrepair until the late 1990s, when rare book dealer Simon Finch decided to buy the property, returning it to its very first name: Voewood.
Since then the house in High Kelling, actually just outside Holt, has been gradually restored in what has been a labour of love for all concerned. And in keeping with the liberal ethos of the Arts and Crafts movement that bore it a century ago, the mansion is about to host its first public event in the form of next month's Voewood Literary Fete.
June 17 will see the house and its Grade I-listed grounds open to a gathering of writers from around the world, who will be reading their work and running public workshops (see panel).
As well as experiencing interesting literature in beautiful surroundings, visitors will be able to tour the house, which has barely been used as a private home until now, and never before by its owner. The first, the Rev Percy Lloyd, had it built by E S Prior between 1903 and 1905 for the sum of £60,000, equivalent to around £4m today.
But Lloyd never lived in it - his wife took exception to its location next to a TB sanatorium, fearing she would catch the disease. He rented it to tenants for a decade, and subsequently it served various purposes for the local authority, acting as a children's cottage hospital and a retirement home. Its secluded qualities proved its downfall, temporarily at least: tucked away down a wooded drive leading from the Cromer Road, the isolated building was left to decline, hidden from public view.
It was the critic Nikolaus Pevsner who gave Voewood the compliment above, writing in his Buildings of England series that “what is far and away the most interesting building in Holt is seen by few and can only be seen if one looks for it”. It is known as a Butterfly House because of the spread of its wings, and Pevsner said the “main front defeats description”, while “the back is no less interesting”.
He concluded: “The whole is full of mannerisms, yet it is inventive and daring, and the inventions sometimes remind one almost of Gaudi.”
The Gaudi comparison is not immediately apparent - perhaps he saw something of Barcelona in the barley-twist chimney-stacks - but it is hard to disagree with his view that it is “a most lavish and at the same time most violently idiosyncratic house”. Pevsner also noted that “Prior's passion for local materials amounted to fanaticism”.
The Arts and Crafts movement formed a reaction against the Victorian age of industry, emphasising the pastoral: think of William Morris' floral patterned prints, or the lush pre-industrial images of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.
In manufacturing and construction the ethos was apparent in the aim, inspired by socialism, of deriving satisfaction from one's labour: seeing a job through from beginning to end, taking a holistic approach, rather than succumbing to the alienation embodied by the assembly line worker who repeats a single routine task in the name of efficiency.
For instance, Prior had more than an acre of land to the front of Voewood excavated to provide flints, gravel for the cement, clay for the bricks and tiles. The main building is constructed from these materials dug from the grounds, and the resulting hole became the garden.
As Simon puts it: “The house grew out of the ground. The stone was quarried, that's why the garden is sunken. It's the whole principle.
“I think it's one of the top five great Arts and Crafts houses. There isn't a house quite like it. There are probably greater houses architecturally, but nowhere quite like it.
“It's a very happy house, it's got a very special feel. I have done it very eclectically. It was divided up, and it needed an amazing amount of work.”
Simon enlisted the help of local artists - Annabel Grey's bright mosaic floors are particularly pretty, and it is no surprise to lean that she was responsible for similar mosaics on the London Underground. They decorated the house in a style that's diverse, not entirely in keeping with the original period, but somehow entirely sympathetic to the atmosphere. Taking a tour of the house and its grounds on a bright spring morning reveals the sensitivity that went into both its original design and its recent renovation. The 15 bedrooms have themes that were intuitively designed to reflect their atmosphere. Some well-lit rooms are relatively bare and flooded with natural light; other, more closeted, chambers are richly and darkly decorated in a more Victorian style.
Kitsch from the 1950s sits alongside abstract modern art, a signed cover of The Clash's LP London Calling on the one hand, and on the other museum-like trays of pinned and mounted insects, stags heads, glass cases of beady-eyed stuffed animals… it is by turns amusing and sombre, light and dark, but always lively and stimulating to the eye.
Work on the main building at Voewood is now complete but Simon, aged 50, hesitates to declare his project finished.
“It's always a work in progress, it will never be finished. There's lots of projects I want to do, like a steam room and a pavilion for yoga outside. It's always work in progress and subject to change. But it's fantastic how it is.”
Simon came to purchase the house after successfully establishing himself as a rare book dealer, with shops at Fish Hill in Holt and London's Bond Street. He spent formative years in Suffolk, was in Norfolk in his late teens and always retained an affinity for East Anglia.
He incorporated the business in 1982 but had been dealing long before that. He bought his first rare book at 12, a signed copy of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, and progressed from there. As well as selling books, he aspires to write them and has a couple of ideas in progress, including a promising-sounding history of fatal sexually-transmitted diseases, to be called Coming and Going.
He plays guitar in a glam rock band called Children of the Revolution, keeps a bar and restaurant in Majorca (where he helps run a literary festival in connection with the late Robert Graves' family), and owns a nightclub in Rathbone Place. He has also maintained an interest in property - “it's a better security for the banks than rare books” - and has a house in London that has just been shortlisted for a Royal Institute of British Architects award.
Voewood is a calm retreat from an otherwise hectic life: “I quite often like being there by myself or just with my girlfriend and my son. It's a place for me to go and be quiet. So I don't need to invite big house parties of people - although we have had some great parties there!”
The fete on June 17 is “the kind of event that I always envisaged happening there”, he says, and it will provide an opportunity for the public to view the house and hear about its restoration. Along with his colleague Indra Strong, who handles Voewood's administration, Simon has always had a long-term vision for the house.
“My business was beginning to do quite well and someone sent me the particulars, and I thought 'What an amazing place'. I impulsively put in an offer,” he says.
“In the redecoration we have done our best to remain true to Prior's vision while interpreting it in a modern idiom. It is a magical house with a very special, indeed unique atmosphere. I really feel I'm just the custodian.”
Voewood is available for retreats, weddings, business seminars, films, photo shoots, dinners and parties. Enquiries and bookings can be made from Monday to Friday between 10.30am and 4pm. Contract Indra Strong on 01263 713029 or 07788 131490, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Voewood Literary Fete will feature readings and workshops with visiting writers, and visitors can bring a picnic for the evening.
EDP Sunday writer Mark Cocker will run a workshop on nature writing, and the fete will feature readings from other British authors including Kathryn Hughes (The Life and Short Times of Mrs Beeton), Tobias Hill and Kate Pullinger. Also reading will be American author Mary Gaitskill, Anita Heiss from Australia, and Russian-born Gary Shteyngart, who lives in America. Writers from Mexico, South Africa, Canada, Central America, India, Europe, Africa and Vietnam will attend.
The afternoon will feature a debate on the question Do Books Matter?, with authors discussing whether books are still important in today's electronic world. The audience will also be invited to participate.
There will be a display of some of Simon Finch's rare books. The fete forms part of this year's New Writing Worlds, an annual literary event run by the Norwich-based New Writing Partnership aimed at establishing Norfolk as a hub of world literature.
This year's theme is Experiment in Literature. Over 40 writers from around the world will celebrate the act of writing and debate the nature of literature across cultures.
t The Voewood Literary Fete takes place on Saturday 17 June, from 3.30pm to 8.30pm.
Tickets are £7 each, under-16s free. Tickets are on sale from the UEA box office - telephone 01603 508050 - and at Voewood on the day.
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