Sir George Staunton bought the Leigh Park estate in 1820, and set to work remodelling the house and ornamenting the park with an eclectic range of garden buildings. Many are sadly lost today, but a programme of restoration, in what is now Staunton Country Park, is bringing some of the survivors back to life. One of the loveliest of the garden ornaments is this exquisite little Shell-House.
Sir George (1781-1859) travelled to China as a child, and later became a great expert on the country during a career in the East India Service. In 1819 he bought the Leigh Park estate.
The house was then less than 20 years old, and had been extensively remodelled by local architect John Kent at the beginning of the century. The sales particulars described the surrounding park as a ‘perfect ferme ornée’, but its character would soon change as Sir George added ‘numerous objects of decoration and interest’.
The park became home to a Chinese Bridge, Chinese Summerhouse, Turkish Kiosk, and Obelisk, as well as classical temples, rustic shelters and bridges. An artificial lake had three islands – one housed the gardener, one was home to the swans, and the third had a sham fort (with the Chinese flag flown when Sir George was in residence).
James King composed A Poem on Leigh Park in 1829 extolling the virtues of the spot. The Folly Flâneuse will give just a brief taste from the near 40 pages:
The glorious strife of Art and Nature see,
Within thy Paradise, most lovely Leigh,
An art that glows with every nameless grace,
And emulates the charms of Nature’s face,
An art, O Staunton, by thy genius fired,
By thee with sweet variety inspired…
In 1836 a detailed prose account of the house and park was published: Notices of the Leigh Park Estate tells us that the Shell House was built in 1828, and the design was based on a print of the ancient Chichester Market Cross. Sir George used the architect Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871) for many of the parkland structures, and the Shell House is therefore attributed to him.
The building was covered in decorative panels of knapped and coursed flint, each filled with pebbles, and inside the walls were ‘encrusted with shells’. Despite Sir George’s connections with far-off lands, these were not exotic specimens shipped home to England, but the spoils of days on the beach at nearby Hayling Island. The Shell-House was used as a museum to house Sir George’s natural history collection. The Notices gave a complete list of the contents, but to summarise there was an extensive collection of minerals, ceramics including Roman pottery and ‘Wedgewood’s designs’, and a ‘small stuffed crocodile’.
Sir George died in 1859, and his obituary recognised his career in China and his subsequent service as a politician. But the writer felt that above all the local community would remember Sir George for ‘the fact of his beautiful gardens and grounds being open to the inspection of all applicants’.
In the 19th century a later owner, William Stone, demolished a temple which Staunton had built to house busts and dedications honouring his friends and family. A number of the inscribed plaques were removed to the Shell-House, and hence it became known as the ‘Staunton Memorial’.
Leigh Park was requisitioned for use by the Admiralty during the Second World War. In 1946 it was purchased by Portsmouth City Council as land for new housing and a public open space, and in 1959 the house (by then a Victorian replacement) was demolished. Leigh Park was renamed Staunton Country Park in 1987, and as in Sir George’s day visitors are once more welcome to enjoy the grounds.
A 1944 photograph of the Shell-House shows it was largely intact at that date, but as the century progressed vandalism became a major issue, and by the millennium the grade II* listed folly was looking ‘the worse for wear’. All but one of the wall plaques had disappeared, the shellwork was lost, and the roof had collapsed.
Happily, a £3.8 million investment by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Big Lottery Fund and Hampshire County Council has seen the Shell-House and other structures restored by an expert team, including Conservation Architect John Malaiperuman, who first introduced the Folly Flâneuse to this fascinating park.
The Shell-House’s lost lantern was rebuilt in reconstituted Portland Stone, with natural Portland Stone pinnacles, and the missing flint and pebbles have been restored with materials that match the originals.
In July 2021 the restored park was formally opened. There is an excellent Follies Trail, highlighting both extant and lost structures, including the Chinese Bridge and the Belvedere, pictured here. https://www.stauntoncp.co.uk/en/hub/765
UPDATE APRIL 2022: The Folly Flâneuse is always pleased to receive feedback from readers who visit follies as a result of seeing them featured here. But she was particularly delighted to learn that a recent post had inspired something much more exciting than a day trip: Alan and Claire Terrill were so charmed by the recently restored Shell House that Claire challenged Alan to build a miniature version as a house for the family’s tortoises Diogenes, Loosestrife and Ephebe. Whilst the Shell House had an interior embellished with shells, Alan decided to put the his shell decoration on the outside, and when temporarily stumped by the construction of the roof, he turned to Jon Malaiperuman, conservation architect for the restoration of the Shell House, who was happy to help. Alan also decided to incorporate silhouettes of noble tortoises standing on pedestals in the blank arches on the sides, in the manner of the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe. As you can see, the tortoises are already very much at home.
Steve Jones has written a full history of Leigh/Staunton Park, which includes a transcript of the Notices https://thespring.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/94-leigh-park-estate-garden-features-and-follies.pdf
And for all the latest news visit the Friends of Staunton Park website https://foscp.co.uk
Thanks to Matthew Beckett for permission to use the photo of the Victorian mansion before demolition. His ‘Lost Heritage’ website records the lost houses of England and is well worth exploring http://www.lostheritage.org.uk