Harewood House, Yorkshire: A home fit for a princess

Harewood House, Yorkshire: A home fit for a princess

Harewood House is one of the grandest houses in the country. Built with money from the lucrative sugar trade it eventually become a Royal residence when Princess Mary married Henry Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood.

If there’s one thing that impresses about Harewood House, it is scale. From the open grassland that pushes away from the front of the house, the building looks huge. In typical style of the mid to late 1700s, the house screamed power, riches and aristocratic intrigue. ven to the informal eye the symmetry and perfect balance of the building makes you stop, take in a deep breath and wonder how such a magnificent home came to be built.

Big buildings have always been on roughly the same site or close by. The first ‘pile’ to be built was Harewood Castle, a home and defensive work started in the mid-1300s. Those with a nosey nature will still be able to see and marvel at the skills of the 14th century masons through the massive walls, mullioned and arrow slit windows and intricate internal stonework, including the stairs. By 1657 the castle was deemed inhabitable but by then the owners had their eyes on another piece of real estate, the neighbouring Gawthorpe estate with its 13th century manor house. The castle was eventually immortalised by JMW Turner when he painted it in 1798.

It was custom and practice of the times to trade estates, marry into new ones, thus accruing vast wealth through land, or was it a land grab? Marriage, the clever key to wealth at the time, eventually saw the politically powerful Wentworth family take over control of the combined estates. But there was trouble ahead. homas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford was indicted for treason and on Charles I’s order lost his head. This plunged the family into a chasm of debt, the hall, castle and land being sold to a London merchant, and when he died the whole parcel of land and buildings was sold to the Lascelles in 1738. It has been in the family ever since.

The surname Lascelles doesn’t sound very English, does it? That’s because it is Norman French. Checking the family lineage, we find that Picotus de Lacelle stood with William the Conquerer at the Battle of Hastings, but with the battle won he wasn’t rewarded with huge lands or a title, but he got a farm in Yorkshire. The family fortunes didn’t improve until Henry, son of Francis Lascelles, note how the name now includes an ‘s’, who fought in Cromwell’s army, saw an opportunity in the West Indies. It was a time when vast fortunes were being made out of sugar thanks to cheap slave labour.

Henry traded, won Navy contracts, shipped and sold slaves and ended up one of the richest men in Britain. He paid for his son, Edwin, born in the West Indies in 1712, to further his education at Cambridge University, and together they set about building a great country estate. The history books don’t say why, but Henry committed suicide in 1753 and never saw the completion of the house. But the grand stately home you see today would not have been built if Henry hadn’t been such a shrewd sugar trader and businessman. There is no point in looking for a portrait of Henry hanging on the walls of Harewood because there isn’t one.

It has been mentioned that the house had great balance; some big houses don’t with their many ‘add-ons’ over the generations spoiling the symmetry. This isn’t the case at Harewood House and this is probably due to the fact that Edwin knew exactly what he wanted, rejecting the original plans drawn up by William Chambers. He then gave the job to York architect John Carr, the foundation of the house being eventually laid in 1759, and the house being finally completed in 1772.

One bright star who did leave his mark on the building was Scottish architect Robert Adam, who designed the interiors of the Staterooms and seemed to have a passion for styling anything that had a flat surface. Visitors who know their furniture will note that many of the rooms are furnished with Chippendale, while looking through the vast windows you can’t help but be amazed at the landscaping, which works in harmony with the natural countryside, and is the handiwork of England’s greatest landscape designer of the age, Capability Brown.

The house evolved over the following years, the greatest change taking place when the 3rd Earl married Louisa Thynne, the daughter of the Marquis of Bath. She thought the house too small for her family, which included 13 children, so she had another floor added on top of the house, did away with some of Adam’s earlier work and had a number of rooms enlarged. The most impressive addition was the stylish Italianate terrace at the rear of the house, designed by Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament. Missing a generation we meet Henry Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood who turned the house in a Royal household by marrying Princess Mary, daughter of King George and Queen Mary in 1922.

Mary, Countess of Harewood, added many personal touches but during the Second World War much of it had to be packed away because the house became a convalescent hospital. After the war the house was returned to its former glory and Harewood became a Royal household once again. Sadly a few years later Henry died and the title passed to his son, George, the 7th Earl who found, at the age of 24, he was saddled with crippling death duties. It was austere times for the family, land, furniture, valuables and paintings were sold; even Barry’s Italianate parterre was grassed over to save on labour costs.

Like a lot of titled landowners, George had to find other revenue streams to pay for the upkeep of the house, and in 1950 Harewood house and gardens were opened to the public for the first time. Over 35 years later the house and gardens became part of a charitable trust, and with the house back on a sound financial footing major restoration programmes were started, which visitors can appreciate to this day.

Walking round the magnificent house, which projects a mix of family warmth and aristocratic grandeur, it’s easy to forget that the house was originally paid for by a far-seeing Henry Lascelles who saw his fortunes lying in sugar grown on a string of small Caribbean islands on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Mel Russ