The ideal home

Blackwell

Although a regular visitor to the Lake District, the one lake that I seldom visit is Windermere. Windermere is where the unadventurous go, seeking out cake shops, boating trips or Beatrix Potter-themed attractions. The countryside surrounding the vast lake is attractive enough, in a benign way, but the spirit of the lakes lies to the north, around Keswick and the triangle of mountains formed by Skiddaw, Helvellyn and Scarfell Pike. There is nothing rugged or challenging about Windermere.

When the railways opened up the Lake District to the crowds in the nineteenth century, however, Windermere was the primary attraction. Its views were sublime, the approach easy, the sense of escape from industrialised Britain profound. People came here to discover the Wordsworthian idyll; people with money came to live here, in style.

People such as Sir Edward Holt (1849–1928), Manchester brewer and later Lord Mayor of the city, who wanted a holiday home in the Lakes, overlooking Windermere. Handsomely rich, Holt picked an ideal plot midway down the eastern side of the lake, south of Bowness. He then picked an architect, Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott (1865-1945), with a brief to create whatever he thought best.

Floor plans for Blackwell, from Baillie Scott’s book Houses and Gardens (1906)

Baillie Scott, one of the outstanding figures of the Arts and Crafts movement that came out of the ideas of William Morris and John Ruskin (a Lake District resident). For Blackwell, as the house was to be named, Baillie Scott had been given the dream commission. As far as can be judged, Holt granted his architect carte blanche to create a building that would be the ultimate expression of Baillie Scott’s ideals and practices – so long as the Holt family’s essential requirements were provided for. The result, which would be Baillie Scott’s masterpiece, was built over 1898-1900.

The result is astonishing. Large but not particularly prepossessing on the outside (not helped by having some scaffolding up on the day that I visited), inside Blackwell leaves you open-mouthed from the start. It would be hard to think of a clearer expression of artistic vision entirely expressed within a domestic setting. It feels to the eye like the optimum arrangement of light, space and form.

The White Drawing Room

You enter to the right of the visitor desk. A long oak-panelled corridor is simultaneously subterranean in effect and a tunnel of light, leading down the length of the building to the exquisite white reception room. As with each of the main rooms, it is large and filled with light. There is little in the centre beyond a light blue rug, while all around you is white – white walls, white woodwork, white columns, white floral motifs and white light pouring through windows overlooking Windermere and the fells. A blue-tiled fire-place, an immaculate wooden barrel chair, a few books and some artfully-spaced objects (some period, some from today) offset the whiteness. It is like seeing silence.

The main hall

Retrace your steps and you enter the main hall. Again, there is the sense of the optimum use of light within a large space, though with fewer windows this time. The hall is designed like a baronial hall of old, to the extent of having a minstrel’s gallery, yet it is anything but kitsch. It takes the the idea of a grand meeting place and expresses it through an immaculate balance of elements. As with the White room, small details accentuate the acute simplicity of the vision – a frieze of peacocks, an ornate piano, a fireplace with Delft titles, a gentle, cushioned alcove for viewing the grounds. And the gorgeous woodwork, with recurrent motifs of rowan berries and leaves derived from the Holt family crest.

Dining Room

Next door is the dining room. slightly smaller but again made light though astute of south-facing windows (one of the distinctive, even perverse features of Blackwell is that it makes the most of light coming through south-facing windows, when the cherished views of the lake are to the north). The highlight here is the hessian wall-hanging, with birds, daisies and harebells against a background that was once a resonant blue but has faded down the years – something that Baillie Scott anticipated and even incorporated into his design, which therefore allowed for the passing of time (“some colours” he wrote, “while they fade, may end by becoming pleasant tints”).

Detail from the hessian wall-covering

You make your way upstairs via wooden staircase, minstrel’s gallery and stained glass windows. Another long oak-panelled corridor takes you to two bedrooms, with other rooms devoted to an exhibition on Blackwell, displays of modern design works and closed-off office space. The two bedrooms, the Master Bedroom and the Yellow Bedroom, are plainer in style than those below, but enriched by furniture and objects by contemporary designers. One notes the gorgeous wooden bed designed by Baillie Scott, the exquisite white fireplace of the Yellow room, the liquid line of the stained glass design, a handsome box chair positioned hopefully in front of an unlit fireplace, and rather fewer bookshelves than I would want if this were my home.

Chair and fireplace

Outside there are gardens laid out by Arts & Crafts garden designer Thomas Mawson, though understandably not at their best on a cold January day. One looks out over Windermere and the Coniston fells beyond, and the Mancunian industrial magnate in you feels that you have earned this, that this is all yours. What could ever spoil such a dream?

Looking out over Windermere

Blackwell is a beautiful place to visit, especially so if you do so like me in the off-season, where I had every room to myself. Empty of people, the sense of light, space, proportion and harmony is enthralling. It is pure art. But what of the people? Not we the visitors, but the Holts for whom this was their home from home. How did they fit in to Blackwell?

There were two parents, five children and six servants who occupied the place on holidays. According to The Rough Guide to the Lake District, they were not entirely happy with the place. Photographs taken once once it had been furnished show a taste for heavy Victoriana that rather clashed, or at least muted, Baillie Scott’s vision. The people and the people’s stuff spoiled the view. Hence Blackwell today is not as it was lived but as its architect dreamt, with light, space, form and discreet detail, interspersed with some tasteful works of appropriate design (but not too many). There is nothing of the Holts bar their presence in an exhibition room, and the rowan berries.

The Holts visited the place less and less (though their sorrow following the death of the eldest son in the First World War would have played a part in that). The Arts and Crafts look began to be passé. Blackwell was rented to tenants, then became a girls’ school, then office space, until it was purchased by Lakeland Arts in 1999, meticulously restored, and opened to the public in 2001.

The main hall at Blackwell with its original furnishings (from Baillie Scott’s Houses and Gardens, 1906)

The Holts’ disappointment with Blackwell may be exaggerated, but the disconnect between a house and its inhabitants is something to contemplate. Must buildings always be tarnished by the people who occupy them? Did the Holts fail Baillie Scott, or did Baillie Scott fail the Holts? We may dream of the ideal home, but it is difficult to live up to the reality. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard, in his haunting book about the attractions of home, Poetics of Space, has this to say about the future houses of which we may dream:

Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts – serious, sad thoughts – and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.

Baillie Scott, in designing the house of his artistic dreams, created something that could not tolerate any inhabitant – for all that he was working to a brief. The moment you step into a room, you disturb it. You make it about you, instead of about itself, if your intention is to live there (as a mere visitor, you may be forgiven). Rowan motifs notwithstanding, the Holts may have had the same sensation, that they were not living in dreams of their own. Their home was not meant for them. It was meant, as it is now, for no one.

Rowan berries and leaves in the wood panelling

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