Bentley Wood (also known as The House at Halland)4979

Framfield, Wealden, East Sussex, England

Brief Description

Bentley Wood was an influential house and garden, a prime example of modernist design and as such significant in a national context. It was designed by architect Serge Chermayeff in collaboration with the landscape architect Christopher Tunnard. Sensitive restoration by the current owners is planned.

History

In 1935 the Russian-born architect Serge Chermayeff bought around 52 hectares of land from the Bentley Farm Estate to build a country house for himself and his young family. Chermayeff was declared bankrupt in 1939 resulting in the sale of Bentley Wood and his emigration in 1940 to the United States.

Detailed Description

Bentley Wood is situated in an elevated, rural position in the Low Weald, the land sloping gently towards the south-west and commanding views south, south-west and north-west over the South Downs and surrounding countryside. The approximately 22.5 hectare site lies on the west side of Knowle Lane, 1.2 kilometres to the west of the village of Halland, 20 kilometres north-east of Lewes and some 900 metres to the south of the A22 Eastbourne to London road. The site is bounded on the north-east by Knowle Lane and surrounded by wooded pastureland on the north-west, west, south and east.

Bentley Wood is approached on its eastern side from the west side of Knowle Lane across a cattle grid flanked by a one metre high, white-painted, picket fences attached to a five-bar gate. A 120 metre long, rolled gravel drive (now, 2005, widened and resurfaced from the original plain concrete) curves from the entrance in a south-westerly direction and is bordered by wide lawns with shrub and tree planting. Immediately inside the gate on the east side is a mature oak planted on a mound, beyond which is a kitchen garden and orchard enclosed by a 1.5 metre high beech hedge.

On the west side of the drive, hidden by rhododendrons, is the entrance to a water-filled quarry. After 30 metres the drive curves west for 60 metres, the views south to the Downs shown in contemporary photographs (eg Tunnard, 1939) now (2005) obscured by conifer planting. The drive finally curves gently north-west to approach the gravelled entrance forecourt on the north front of the house through a rectangular arch in a two metre high wall, which screens the forecourt from the east. The forecourt is bounded on the south side by the house, a service area on the east side and a low curving brick retaining wall on the north and west sides. Beyond the retaining walls there is a grass bank leading to glades and woodland.

From the south front of the house sliding doors open onto a raised terrace running the length of the house (now, 2005, extended by around 20 metres to the west to also serve the late-20th-century single-storey extension). Chermayeff's original concrete paving on the terrace has since been replaced by York stone (now, 2005, with self-sown plants and in poor condition). From the terrace, wide-sweeping views south-west to the Downs remain, but are marred by the earthworks of a lake (now, 2005, partly drained) constructed in an expanse of rough grass around 50 metres south of the house and, 30 metres to the south-east, by a brick-built swimming pool enclosure.

At the eastern end of the terrace, there is a sheltered eating area (8 metres x 8 metres). A rectangular pool, sited by Chermayeff in the angle between the building and screen wall, has been removed (2005), but an approximately 16 metre long terrace walk, his original ‘catwalk' path, now (2005) broadened and paved in York stone, has survived. Shrub planting and a grassed area beneath the screen wall enclosing the east side of this terrace walk also survive, as does a mature oak at its end, but Chermayeff's wooden screen to frame views to the countryside beyond the garden was destroyed in the 1987 storm.

The sculpture plinth has been removed (the sculpture was returned to Moore when the Chermayeffs sold Bentley Wood and is now the property of Tate Britain), and adjoining steps re-positioned to the south edge of the terrace walk. These steps lead south down to the rough grassland surrounding the drained lake and, to its east, the swimming pool enclosure. Adjoining the pool on its east is a wire-enclosed, sunken, hard tennis court. From here, an adjacent mown path leads through glades of semi-mature conifer and broadleaf trees around 100 metres along the eastern site boundary offering views across pasture to the kitchen garden.

From the west end of the terrace, a set of stone steps (late-20th-century) leads down to a curving path of concrete stepping stones set in the rough grass west of the house. The path, running for approximately 13 metres, leads south-west through light woodland before continuing as a grass path alongside a stream (now, 2005, mostly dry) bordered by low shrubs and woodland plants. This was originally Tunnard's ‘planted dell'. After around 150 metres the course of the stream opens out into a pool (now, 2005, concrete lined and dry) before continuing its course as a plant-filled, damp streambed, towards a wooded area around 200 metres from the house, which comprises the uncleared section of Bentley Wood.

Description written: August 2005

Features
  • Lake
  • Description: A fishing lake was developed in the south garden.
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  • Outdoor Swimming Pool
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  • Modernist House (featured building)
  • Description: Described in a contemporary review as `a regular Rolls Royce of a house? (Architects? Journal, 1938) and later as `the most aristocratic building of the decade? (Summerson), Bentley Wood is a rectangular two-storey timber structure with an upper balcony under a flat roof, designed by the architect Serge Chermeyeff from 1935. Weather-boarded in `lovely, crystal, white and golden cedar? (Architects? Journal, 1938) now (2005) painted grey, the main house has six bays, each bay being based on four 2 feet 9 inches wide units. The whole frontage is 66 feet long and 33 feet in depth. On the north-east end, a single-storey link, designed to join the main body of the house to a two metre high, grey brick wall that extends northwards to mask a service wing (now, 2005, garages and stores) and southwards to screen the garden terrace, now (2005) has a second storey above. The L-shaped enclosure formed by the house and the service wing is defined by a simple wooden pergola, once glazed along the top to form a covered walkway between the two. A single-storey extension has been added to the west end of the house.
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  • Drive
  • Description: 120 metre long rolled gravel drive.
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  • Specimen Tree
  • Description: Mature oak planted on a mound.
  • Kitchen Garden
  • Description: The kitchen garden is enclosed by a beech hedge.
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  • Orchard
  • Description: The orchard is enclosed by a beech hedge.
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  • Hedge
  • Description: Beech hedge enclosing the kitchen garden and orchard.
  • Terrace
  • Description: From the south front of the house sliding doors open onto a raised terrace running the length of the house
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  • Walk
  • Description: An approximately 16 metre long terrace walk, his original `catwalk' path, now (2005) broadened and paved in York stone, has survived.
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  • Steps
  • Description: From the west end of the terrace, a set of stone steps (late-20th-century) leads down to a curving path of concrete stepping stones.
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Stream
Authorities

Civil Parish

  • Framfield
History

Detailed History

In 1935 the Russian-born architect Serge Chermayeff bought around 52 hectares of land from the Bentley Farm Estate to build a country house for himself and his young family. The site had been owned in the 19th century by Viscount Gage (Horsfield). Nineteen hectares was woodland called Bentley Wood (3rd edition Ordnance Survey map), from which the house eventually took its name, after being called New Bentley, The Knoll and Halland (Powers).

A committed modernist, Chermayeff submitted designs for a timber house with flat roof, balconies and rectangular geometry set on a wooded slope overlooking the South Downs. The Bentley Wood scheme was rejected by Uckfield Rural District Council on the grounds that the design was out of keeping with the local area, but their decision was reversed after an enquiry.

Revised designs, including transferring a service wing and garage extension to the opposite end of the house to continue the line of a pergola and boundary wall, and altering the gardens were agreed in 1937 (Tilson). Work began immediately on the landscape to create a ‘frame' for the house, in particular thinning trees, planting bulbs (mainly daffodils) and adding new native trees and shrubs, bringing the countryside right up to the house (RIBA).

Although Chermayeff himself planned the house and garden as an integrated design, the Canadian-born landscape architect Christopher Tunnard, a promoter of modernist garden design philosophy (Tunnard, 1938, 1948), was consulted at an early stage. Tunnard advocated aesthetically appropriate and functional settings for houses. At Bentley Wood he proposed a decluttered ‘atmospheric' setting drawing on the pasture, wood and shaw of the surrounding Low Weald landscape. He describes plans for ‘a lawn with irregular but carefully planned boundaries'. There were to be paving stones leading from the house to a ‘planted dell kept damp by the overflow of the house water supply from a windmill' with ‘primulas, water grasses, astilbes and iris... along its course', and ‘natural drifts of bluebells, primroses and foxgloves in the wood below' (Tunnard, 1939).

Chermayeff's revised designs included a long terrace the full width of the house with a sheltered outdoor eating area on the south front. The terrace design led to the idea of using sculpture in a new way, to form ‘a mediator between modern house and ageless land' (James). Henry Moore was commissioned to provide a recumbent garden form (Recumbent Figure 1938) to be sited on a plinth at the far end of the terrace, backed by a partly-glazed wooden trellis to frame the view of the Downs.

Chermayeff was declared bankrupt in 1939 resulting in the sale of Bentley Wood and his emigration in 1940 to the United States. During the 1940s the house became the property of Sir William Emsley Carr, who sold some of the woodland, enclosed the previously open central bays on the upper floor and added a single storey extension on the west side of the house.

New owners bought the property in 1979, making changes to both the house and garden, including constructing a tennis court and swimming pool south-east of the house, changing the layout and paving on the terrace and planting a number of evergreens. Much of the woodland canopy was lost in the October 1987 storms. Bentley Wood changed hands in 1999 (when a fishing lake was developed in the south garden) and again in 2002. The house and around 22.5 hectares of gardens remain in single, private ownership.

Associated People

People associated to Bentley Wood

References

References

Contributors

  • Sussex Gardens Trust

  • Barbara Simms

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