Historic Landmark Esher Place House under threat of destruction and over development

Esher Place House is one of the town’s most significant buildings with a long and illustrious history. It has played a key part in growth of Esher.

Until recently it was owned by Unite, the trades union, which used it as a conference centre. It has now been acquired by property developers Birchwood, who have submitted a myriad of planning applications to build mundane, completely inappropriate houses in the grounds, a modernist (poorly designed) rear extension and the evisceration of the main house into 22 flats. See Elmbridge applications: 2020/0437 2020/0438 2020/0439 2020/0440

Local residents are hugely opposed to the desecration of this building and believe, as does the ERA, that all the applications should be seen as one, rather than piecemeal and fear further applications to come.

Local writer Penny Rainbow has submitted a passionate defence of the building and we have her permission to publish elements of her formal objection to Elmbridge Borough Council:

Conversion of Esher Place House to Residential Use – 2020/0567

This current Listed Building Consent application is arguably the most critical (of all the applications) and should have been the first application to be considered, as without consent Birchwood may have dismissed their development scheme for the entire site. 

If the Planning Department and Historic England fail to address and assess the historic significance of Esher Place House prior to considering any development proposals it will be an act of pure irrevocable recklessness and indeed a national travesty.  Unthinkable though this is, if there is such a failing it may become an issue that would benefit from National Media scrutiny, such would be the gravity. 

The current Historic England List (1377431) dated 7th February 1975 solely describes the exterior of the house with no apparent internal appraisal:

House, now conference centre. South wing 1805, the remains of a house by Lapidge, extended in 1895-8 by G.T. Robinson and Duchene for the first Viscount D’Abernon, in C18 French Style. Red brick with stone dressings, hipped slate roofs with irregularly placed stone panelled stacks. Centre block with two wings projecting forward at c 45 degrees to form polygonal courtyard to front. 2 storeys to wings, 3 storeys with 3 bay attic to centre and “bulls’ eye” window in stone, segmental surround above, oval dormer windows under projecting hoods to either side. Stone plinth and cornice over ground floor, deep bracket cornice over first floor centre, dentilled to first floor right. Wing to left of 8 bays, stone dressed casement windows under cambered heads with scroll key-stone, rusticated end bay projecting, first floor set back under moulded eaves. Wing to right- 4 bays end bay projecting. Casement windows in stone strip surrounds, angle bay window rising through 2 floors with balustrade top to junction of wing and main block. Main block: brick bay to right containing arched window in roll moulded surround behind oval stone balcony with wrought iron handrail on 2 moulded brackets to first floor. Circular window below. 3 bay centre to left on stone rusticated plinth, end bays projecting. Articulated with paired Ionic pilasters across the first floor. Arched casement windows with stone surrounds breaking into cornice on first floor, camber head windows with block keystones to outer ground floor bays. Centre bay recessed behind stone balustrade on first floor with central coved cartouche. Triple arched and glazed casement doors below. Garden front: 3 bay centre with quoined edges, 2 circular bays to outer ends. C20 extensions in similar style to left end, further C20 extensions to right. PEVSNER: BUILDINGS OF ENGLAND, SURREY (1971) p223.

                                           Esher Place Historic England (2003)

Historic England acknowledge that “lists of the 1970s … may also contain houses which are under-graded, and/or with outbuildings insufficiently identified in list descriptions; many houses were listed without the benefit of internal inspection which may reveal further claims to special interest.” (Domestic 3: Suburban and Country Houses, Page 22). Unquestionably, this applies to Esher Place House and this wrong must be immediately corrected before irreparable damage is done.

It would seem that Birchwood’s (the developers) advisers have made the inaccurate assumption that the existing Esher Place House is simply a late Victorian refurbished and extended version of the original 1805 Spicer residence, dismissive, not only of the works carried out in the intervening years, but also of its earlier significant past.

The commanding site is of enormous historic interest, as from this very spot, Henry VIII observed the grandiose building works on the opposite banks of the River Thames at Hampton Court, which “compelled the ambitious architect (Cardinal Wolsey) to couch his premeditated presumption, under the finesse that it was intended to be a humble offering from a poor but grateful servant, to his most august liege lord the King.” The offering was accepted, but how little of the intention was believed we will never know, although from this point on, Cardinal Wolsey only visited Hampton Court three times and then as a refugee.

Some two centuries later Esher Place returned to the limelight, when in 1730, following the acquisition of the estate by Henry Pelham, our soon to be Prime Minister, commissioned William Kent to create a property of grandeur and to landscape the extensive grounds, which included a Chinese Bridge, a Belvedere, a Temple, a Hermitage, a Thatched House and a Grotto (the only building to survive today). In this time, the London season was over by the first week of June, when it was the fashion to disperse to one’s country seat. Through the summer Esher Place would have been comparable with today’s Chequers, providing sanctuary and an entertainment venue, but it was also nationally appreciated for its outstanding contemporary artistic significance and inspired landscape design.

Kent’s first proposal for his client was a Palladian style villa in the same position as Esher Place House, although the incorporation of Wayneflete’s gatehouse was the eventual agreed design and, instead, a Belvedere was built on this fine elevated position.   

These images demonstrate the architectural evolution of Esher Place House.

A design for a neo-Classical villa overlooking Wayneflete’s Tower by William Kent

A design for the Belvedere, Esher Place by William Kent

Esher Place with the Belvedere to the left-hand side, 1792 (now the site of Esher Place House)

Esher Place House Designs for John Spicer by Edward Lapidge

1810 Engraving of the Spicer Residence

This is the description of Esher Place that accompanies the above 1828 coloured engraving by George Prosser. “The building is of irregular form… An elegant Ionic portico ornaments the central division of the house, and on each side are circular wings, which greatly contribute to the picturesque effect of the building. The South front is similar in its arrangements, excepting that the portico has the addition of a pediment, and the whole of this front has a greater elevation… The interior comprises; a spacious entrance hall; a dining-room of excellent proportions, with a drawing-room, a library, and dressing rooms. There are several good paintings; amongst which is a portrait of Charles II, when Prince of Wales, by Vandyke; the Philosopher’s, by Jordaens, &c. The whole building is stuccoed, in imitation of stone, and is shewn in fine relief by the surrounding foliage. Connected with the South-west wing are offices: to the westward is the conservatory, and on the other side of the park is the kitchen garden. The Gate-house, as seen in approaching the new mansion, forms a striking and very picturesque object, clad as it now is, with ivy, and surrounded by majestic trees, which form a leading feature in the embellishments of this charming retreat…” 

Spicer was responsible for unceremoniously stripping away all the additions that William Kent had made for Pelham, leaving Wayneflete Tower to stand alone. However, Lapidge’s accounts, which are held at the Surrey History Centre, reveal that the salvaged materials were used for the new building which was sited where the Belvedere stood (this too was also dismantled and the materials reused). Similarly, at nearby Claremont, Lord Clive demolished the Vanbrugh house and commissioned Capability Brown (a pupil of William Kent) and Henry Holland to build a new house to the north-east on higher ground (now occupied by Claremont Fan Court School). By way of further argument, the materials were re-used (including chimneypieces, slates, bricks, paving stones, locks etc) and an expert examination of Esher Place is essential, or the country stands to potentially lose heritage assets of enormous significance. 

Extract from the 1846 Tithe Map

Esher Place House by Robert Taylor Pritchett, 1868

Aerial view of Esher Place circa 1935

Esher Place House, South-West aspect.

Currently, it appears that the interiors of Esher Place House are considered to have little historic significance and relate largely to the late Victorian period, whilst I have always refuted this. A professor from the Courtauld Institute of Art has confirmed my belief that the paintings in Room 27 are 18th century and I wonder at what point Elmbridge Borough Council will commission an expert assessment of Esher Place House as, I believe, is their legal obligation.

Painted panels and walls by Le Prince were mentioned in the 1930’s Sales Particulars as prepared by Giddy & Giddy for Lord and Lady D’Abernon. Potentially, these circular panels may have been painted by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince and specialist assessment is imperative. 

National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) Feb 2019

Clause 187 … Local planning authorities should maintain or have access to a historic environment record. This should be up-to-date evidence about the historic environment in their area and be used to: a) assess the significance of heritage assets and the contribution they make to their environment; and b) predict the likelihood that currently unidentified heritage assets, particularly sites of historic and archaeological interest, will be discovered in the future. Clause 189 … As a minimum the relevant historic environment record should have been consulted and the heritage assets assessed using appropriate expertise where necessary. Please confirm to me at your very earliest convenience what appropriate expertise has been sought. 

Clause 190. Local planning authorities should identify and assess the particular significance of any heritage asset that may be affected by a proposal (including by development affecting the setting of a heritage asset) taking account of the available evidence and any necessary expertise. They should take this into account when considering the impact of a proposal on a heritage asset, to avoid or minimise any conflict between the heritage asset’s conservation and any aspect of the proposal. 

Respectfully, this clause underlines the necessity for the Planning Department to collate all planning applications for Esher Place House as the proposed works must surely be considered as one overall scheme and there are many aspects in respect of the heritage assets to be considered, including the grounds and its antiquities. In addition to obtaining expert opinion in respect of the house and interiors a Landscape Historian’s assessment is also required.  

Clause 200. Local planning authorities should look for opportunities for new development … within the setting of heritage assets, to enhance or better reveal their significance. Proposals that preserve those elements of the setting that make a positive contribution to the asset (or which better reveal its significance) should be treated favourably. As Birchwood’s proposals fail to meet this criterion, I assume the Planning Department will treat them unfavourably and reject them.

Esher Place House’s historical associations with my Grade I Listed home, Wayneflete Tower, are inextricably woven and its current Grade II Listing is clearly inadequate and in need of upgrading, together with a detailed expert room-by-room survey to form an accurate record and I would like the Planning Department’s confirmation that this is in hand. 

By way of example, in 2015, a nearby 1930’s Tudor Revival house with Arts and Crafts influences by Blunden Shadbolt (Cobblestones, 5 More Lane, Esher, KT10 8AJ – historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1425577) was given Listed status, and rightly so. The detailed assessment carried out in this instance is no less than the “particular care and attention” that Esher Place House warrants.  

Sadly, I have only visited Esher Place House on a few occasions with limited admission to ground floor rooms, however, I was struck by the magnificent sweeping stone staircase with iron balustrade and imagined its previous situation in Henry Pelham’s residence. I find it rather astounding that no mention of this highly accomplished architectural feature has been made in the Heritage Statement (save to say page 10 para 5 “stair hall”) especially as it bears William Kent’s signature. Only poor snapshots are included in the Statement of Significance, whilst in the 1805 Sales Particulars it was described as a “Principal Stone Staircase with Iron Ballusters.”

Existing Staircase, Esher Place House

In 1741, Henry Pelham also commissioned William Kent to refurbish his London townhouse overlooking Green Park at 22 Arlington Street and in 2005 it was acquired by the owners of The Ritz, which adjoins the hotel and has since been renamed William Kent House.

William Kent House, The Ritz, London

44 Berkeley Square, staircase designed by William Kent 1742-44

The renowned architects responsible for the evolution of Esher Place – William Kent, Edward Lapidge, George Thomas Robinson, Achille Duchene and Sir Edwin Lutyens – unquestionably determine its fine credentials and national historic interest. However, the endless catalogue of eminent visitors that include royalty, aristocracy, diplomats, prime ministers, cabinet ministers, business leaders, authors, actors and even a Russian ballerina make it an equally remarkable part of English social history too. To name but a few – the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII (Duke of Windsor), King George VI, the Duchess of Albany, Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig Holstein, the Marquis of Soveral, Count Albert von Mensdorff-Pouilly, Lionel de Rothschild, Herbert Henry Asquith, Arthur Balfour, Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill, Austen Chamberlain, Cecil Rhodes, John Morley, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, Jane Austen, Henry James, George Curzon, Edith Wharton and Anna Pavlova are included in this impressive procession of guests. Esher Place encompasses centuries of English history that touches upon both social and political trends that have had a direct bearing on its architectural development all of which are of enormous historic interest.

On account of Esher Place House’s outstanding pedigree all interiors need to be appropriately assessed as there can be no doubt that 18th century interiors have been incorporated within the mansion house and with such remarkable provenance the possibility of identifying works by William Kent and Le Prince cannot be ignored.

The Study

Room 18

The Principal Dining Room

Birchwood are seemingly unaware that the painted panels in the Dining Room are original French boiseries, which were taken from a house in the Faubourg St Germain in Paris and were carved in the mid 18th century. Each panel represents a different musical emblem or instrument. They are of historical importance and expert assessment and recording is required.

The Library 

The Library is positioned in the original footprint of the house and accordingly elements may relate to an earlier date and requires expert assessment perhaps even a dendrochronology analysis. 

The Mandela Room 

Decorative corbel, Wayneflete Tower, design by William Kent

The Bar Lounge

This appears to be the finest of the existing stone fireplaces (but again the photograph is of poor quality) and certainly needs to be examined and considered as of Italian origin. The 1930s Sales Particulars stated that one of the Esher Place House historic fireplaces in grey “Serena” stone was originally brought from Florence.

The below image perfectly demonstrates my belief that indeed early Georgian interiors remain within Esher Place House and are not necessarily situated with their original purpose in mind, but have been incorporated into the interior design for their aesthetic contribution and possibly in recognition of their provenance – a chimneypiece beneath a window is a fair case in point!

The Pelham Urn was seemingly discarded as something of insignificance by Birchwood, save for this atrocious obscure photograph included in their Heritage Statement and yet it is indeed Listed and to this day serves as a wonderful reminder of Esher Place’s incredibly significant historic past. Kent led a revolution in Esher that saw architecture, interior design and the English landscape transformed and his legacy must not be forgotten.

Following the death of Henry Pelham in 1754, his secretary, John Roberts, presented Lady Pelham with this Urn, which is surmounted on a large square plinth, with four scenes in bas-relief.        

Please note that the current Historic England description states a height of 15ft whilst it is more likely to be between 8 -10ft and requires re-assessment and at the same time the title of ‘vase’ should perhaps be more accurately amended  to urn. 

Somewhat prudently, I have contacted the Surrey Gardens Trust to alert them of Birchwood’s planning proposals and alarmingly they had no knowledge of any applications and this despite being on the Council’s list. Lutyens’ grass amphitheatre, where Anna Pavlova danced, the Crouching Venus, the Pelham Urn, the 335 year old Tulip Tree and the grounds that continue to enable the house to be read and understood as a country estate residence need to be suitably Listed and safeguarded. I kindly request that at your earliest convenience I am provided with a list of the heritage organisations that have been notified of Birchwood’s planning proposals (Freedom of Information Act 2000).      

Lady D’Abernon with Pelham’s Urn, Esher Place

Whilst I am in agreement with the conversion of the existing house and its continued architectural evolution, my underlining premise would be that the works are very considered with every attempt being made to ensure that the historical fabric and features of the property are fully preserved, but only once the interiors have been expertly surveyed. Any future development will need to be handled very sensitively and to propose the subdivision of the Grade II Listed Esher Place House to create 22 apartments seems not only excessive, but also highly undesirable. Vertical sub-division will probably be more agreeable with the inclusion of glass, as even the wine cellars are worthy of recognition.  Approximately 50 parking spaces for this individual proposal alone would be required and simultaneously the entrance courtyard would be turned into a superstore type forecourt with any reference to the original formal layout as designed by Duchene being totally lost, not to mention any appreciation and understanding of the house as a former country estate residence.

In conclusion, Elmbridge Council must seek expert assessment and instruct a full investigation into the provenance of the interiors and establish which were brought from Henry Pelham’s 1730’s residence by John Spicer, his building contribution during his tenure and that of Money Wigram and finally Lord and Lady D’Abernon. The findings will in turn need to be forwarded to Historic England’s Listing Department for registration and upgrade application.

Undoubtedly, once more accurate detailed heritage surveys have been carried out a revised proposal will be necessary. However, in light of Birchwood’s other applications that seek to extend the existing house and build on the grounds with total lack of consideration for preserving this property’s historical significance I think they have unquestionably demonstrated their inability to handle a project of this national importance and the damage that they would cause will be irreversible.

Esher Place House requires sensitivity and its future owners need to act as responsible guardians and ensure that its legacy is safeguarded for future generations.

The apparent inaccuracies and missing historical information within the Heritage Statement and Statement of Significance is of enormous concern, but this is also the case in respect of the Arboriculturist’s Report that fails to define T6 as a majestic Tulip tree, reputedly the oldest specimen in Europe. In 2018, it was recorded as measuring 22m high with a diameter of 3.12m and a colossal girth of 9.8m (Diameter at Breast Height), whilst the Arboriculturist for Birchwood has recorded a diameter of 0.9m and girth of 2.83m, which is a huge discrepancy. Have we been intentionally misled or are these professional bodies guilty of serious oversights and incompetence? This is not an accusation, but I do believe it is a justifiable question.

It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and I completely agree with this sentiment. Below is a further image as provided by Birchwood in their Statement of Significance of the Mandela Room.

However, it is beyond my comprehension that stunning architectural corbels (see image below) have not been photographically highlighted and accordingly I have no faith whatsoever in Birchwood’s proposals for Esher Place House as they seemingly have no appreciation for either its historic fabric or interest. It is incomprehensible that specific reference to these fine historic interior details have not been fully detailed and recorded. 

Furthermore, it is somewhat difficult not to suspect that other significant historic features have also been excluded from Birchwood’s statements and this serves to highlight the urgent need for the Planning Department to instruct a Heritage Consultant to carry out a full survey and record of Esher Place House in its entirety. During my research I noted that in 1923 this magnificent chimneypiece was also included within this room (then Billiard Room). 

There is, indeed, a need to balance maintaining the integrity of this heritage asset against making interventions that are needed to make the development financially viable and to ensure it does not slip into a state of decay, but the current proposal is excessive and therefore cannot be said to have achieved a proper balance. Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that the Grade II listing (albeit, in my opinion, totally inadequate) is there to serve to protect Esher Place House’s historical and architectural significance and consent should not be given to a proposal that will diminish this landmark’s importance. 

One assumes that the Latin verse carved into Esher Place House’s stone pediment “Sat me luisistis ludite nunc alios” which translates “You have made enough sport of me: Now make sport of others” refers to Cardinal Wolsey’s message for King Henry VIII, but frankly it seems a rather fitting message for Birchwood.

Penny Rainbow