Blackwell House, Cumbria: Built by a millionaire, restored by the Lottery

Robin Barton
Monday 09 July 2001 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


One hundred years ago Sir Edward Holt, a wealthy Manchester brewer, was settling into his new holiday home in the Lake District. High on a hill, with breathtaking views over Windermere the house was designed by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, one of a group of architects in the Arts and Crafts movement who were reappraising the principles of design and lifestyles at the turn of the century.

Most Arts and Crafts houses, precisely because of their intimate domestic scale, have remained in private hands. Unfortunately, following the death of Sir Edward, Blackwell House suffered a change of fortunes, used first as a school during the Second World War and then as offices. But last week, after a £3.25m restoration, it was reopened as perhaps one of the most important examples of an Arts and Crafts house in Britain.

The Lakeland Arts Trust project, led by the architects Allies and Morrison, was kickstarted by £2.25m of Lottery money. It has been money well spent.

Baillie Scott was born into a Kent farming family in 1865 and was primed to take over his father's sheep stations in Australia. He went to agricultural college but became more interested in art and architecture: John Ruskin, with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and William Morris, was a key influence.

Like other Arts and Crafts architects, he designed houses from the inside out, addressing owners' requirements before tackling the exterior. The first two rooms at Blackwell are beautiful. The effect of the rich oak panels and over-sized fireplaces is leavened by light streaming in through delicate south-facing stained-glass windows. There are persistent rural motifs – friezes of wild flowers, berries and animals and tiles by William De Morgan – all clearly inspired by the Lake District but far from rustic. The style is surprisingly modern, even minimal, particularly in the elegant white drawing room.

Baillie Scott used the broad corridor leading to the drawing room to anticipate its uplifting effect, although whether this will remain with a full house of visitors is another matter. But there are plenty of window seats from which to absorb the views across Windermere.

There was difficulty sourcing original Arts and Crafts furniture which was worthy of the interiors; accordingly just a few sympathetic pieces have been selected. Likewise, there are several loaned artworks, including a Henry Moore bronze, sculptures by Sir Jacob Epstein, a Giacometti here and a Lucien Freud there, which enhance the rooms without cluttering them.

The house itself, with slate roofs, rough lime-washed walls, traditional chimneys and sandstone window surrounds, draws on traditional local architecture and materials. However, it is not the only house in the Lake District worthy of a visit. Ruskin's own retreat, Brantwood, is a 45-minute drive away. Less than 10 miles to the north of Coniston is Dove Cottage, the home of William Wordsworth where Samuel Coleridge was a frequent visitor, and the Wordsworth Museum (combined ticket £5) in Grasmere.

The Lake District has been comprehensively mapped by poets and painters, both good and bad, for centuries. Although outbreaks of foot and mouth disease closed the National Park, fell walks are gradually re-opening and the best advice is to visit the Lake District now, before the cagoul-clad masses return.

Blackwell House, Bowness-on-Windermere (015394 46139; www.blackwell. Open daily from 10am. Adults £4.50, children £2.50, family ticket £12. Brantwood, Coniston (015394 41396; uk). Open daily from 11am. Dove Cottage and Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere (015394 35544; Open daily from 9.30am.

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