Bentley Wood

Overview

Heritage Category:
Listed Building
Grade:
II
List Entry Number:
1468363
Date first listed:
09-Mar-2020
Statutory Address:
Knowle Lane, Halland, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 6PR

Map

Ordnance survey map of Bentley Wood
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Location

Statutory Address:
Knowle Lane, Halland, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 6PR

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County:
East Sussex
District:
Wealden (District Authority)
Parish:
East Hoathly with Halland
National Grid Reference:
TQ4928716569

Summary

House, built 1938 to designs by Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) for himself and his family. The engineer was Felix Samuely and the job architect was Whitfield Lewis.

Reasons for Designation

Bentley Wood, a house of 1938 built to the designs of Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) for himself, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* rigorously rectilinear and carefully proportioned, the building's unaffected play of volume and structure, sensitively relating to its natural setting, define it as a key work of progressive English modernism between the wars;

* full-height sliding doors, split levels and semi-open planning create a sophisticated flow of space through the house and connect it with the wider landscape;

* it is one of a small number of modernist timber houses built before the Second World War, reflecting a romantic turn in English modernism in the late 1930s;

* the house maintains key aspects of its structure, form, plan and material quality, remaining as the realisation of architectural ideas which marked it out amongst its contemporaries from its inception.

Historic interest:

* designed by a major figure in English modernism for himself, it reflects a transition away from his collaborative work in one of the country’s most renowned modernist partnerships towards a distinctive personal style;

* the house attracted interest from architects and critics from the outset and continued to be published after the war; its reception and influence has secured its place within the historiography of English modernism;

* the building’s highly distinctive south elevation has become the enduring image of one of the most celebrated houses of its period.

History

Bentley Wood was built in 1938 to designs by Serge Chermayeff for himself and his family on land purchased from the Bentley Farm estate in East Sussex. Photographs of a lost model show the house for which he originally sought planning approval in 1936. While larger than that which was finally built and approached from the west rather than the east, the orientation of the main house and its grid-like timber construction was established in this first scheme.

Permission for the house was granted only after a planning battle with Uckfield Rural District Council, who rejected it on grounds that, to use modern parlance, it was not sufficiently contextual. Such aesthetic judgments were given planning weight through the Town and Country Planning Act of 1932, intended to tackle ribbon development but used by some local authorities to exercise a prejudice against modern design. Chermayeff successfully challenged the decision and permission was granted in 1937. It was only at this stage that the design of the house was revised to that which was built.

Bentley Wood was one of a small number of modernist timber houses built in England during the 1930s. Timber was increasingly seen as an appropriate material for modern architecture, attractive for its practicality and scope for prefabrication. While this tendency probably began in Germany, its adoption in England in the later part of the 1930s reflects a romantic turn in English modernism which introduced natural or traditional materials to the lexicon. It was also encouraged by the Timber Development Association’s promotion of Empire timber, seen at Bentley Wood in the form of Australian Jarrah wood and Canadian cedar. The frame for Bentley Wood was prefabricated at the Holland, Hannen and Cubitts workshops in Gray’s Inn Road, with engineering by Felix Samuely. Samuely used some novel jointing techniques, possibly informed by recent German practice in timber.

Chermayeff’s house reflected his own distinctive style, which emerged after the dissolution of his architectural partnership with Eric Mendelsohn. It was also a manifestation of his ideas about the integration of aspects of modernist culture. The architecture was in part a frame for art, with paintings and sculpture reflecting his friendships and enthusiasms displayed throughout the house. These included works by John Piper, Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore, whose Recumbent Figure was commissioned for the house. Landscape was another strand of this integration, achieved at Bentley Wood both through Chermayeff’s handling of the architecture, and his collaboration in the design of the grounds with the landscape designer Christopher Tunnard (1910-79). Moore’s sculpture was commissioned for a precise position at the end of the garden terrace, in front of a timber screen which framed the view of the South Downs beyond, Moore described it as ‘a mediator between modern house and ageless land’.

The house was widely admired in architectural circles, Charles Reilly describing it in the Architects’ Journal both as ‘Chermayeff’s lovely crystal’ and ‘a regular ‘Rolls-Royce of a house’. It was visited by Erno Goldfinger and by Frank Lloyd Wright on his first visit to England, as well as by architecture students at the Architectural Association where Chermayeff had lectured. It also featured in the first popular book on modern architecture, J M Richards’ An Introduction to Modern Architecture, published by Penguin in 1940. Sadly, Chermayeff’s bankruptcy in 1939, led him to leave Bentley Wood, and the country, moving to America where he remained for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, the house became regarded as a key work of English modernism, representing the spirit of a softer, less purist approach. Writing in 1959, John Summerson commented that Bentley Wood's 'beautifully sited hollow rectangles suppressed every vanity of 'style'' (Dannatt, Modern Architecture in Britain). Its unaffected architecture and sensitive relationship to natural setting ensured its ongoing relevance after the war, by which time many of its contemporaries seemed dated. Through its continued publication using photographs taken shortly after its completion, Chermayeff’s Bentley Wood lived on in the minds of architects, critics and architectural historians even as the house itself suffered unsympathetic alteration and increasingly diverged from its original ideal.

The house was bought in the 1940s by Sir William Emsley Carr, who added a single storey extension to the west and a first floor extension over the servants’ rooms to the east. The central two bays of the first floor balcony which ran the width of the garden front were in-filled to create extra space in the rooms behind. Between Carr and subsequent owners, other alterations included the removal of the central core of built-in cupboards which ran along the spine wall on the ground floor, the separation of the drawing room and dining room with a wall, the addition of a Tudor style fireplace (later replaced by an Art Deco one) and the addition of a Doric entrance porch with panelled doors, as well as the replacement of all but two of the original windows. The grounds surrounding the house were also altered, most notably with the digging of a large pond to the south and the addition of a swimming pool and tennis court, also to the south. Some of the most grievous of the alterations to the house have since been carefully reversed by the current owner (2020), doing much to resuscitate the spirit of Chermayeff's Bentley Wood.

In 1967 the house was identified by Nikolaus Pevsner in the so-called ‘Pevsner 50’ – a list of interwar buildings which Pevsner drew up at the request of the Historic Buildings Council - as suitable to be included on the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. Interwar buildings had until this point only been added to the List when they came under direct threat, whereas Pevsner’s list represented concerted effort to identify and protect, in his view, the most important buildings of the period. Despite featuring in Pevsner’s top 23 ‘A’ list buildings, Bentley Wood was not amongst the 48 which were eventually listed in 1968. This is possibly because the building had already undergone a significant degree of alteration by this point. Certainly this is the reason it was turned down when a formal assessment for listing was undertaken in 2002.

Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) was an English national of Russian Chechin origin. Born Sergius Ivan Issakovitch, he changed his name by deed poll in 1924. He was educated in London and Harrow and worked as a journalist, illustrator and a full-time professional ballroom dancer before beginning a career in design, working for the furniture manufacturers Waring and Gillow. Much of his early career related to the design of furniture and interiors, including some now lost interiors for the BBC’s Broadcasting House, London (listed Grade II*). Though essentially self-taught, he was at the forefront of the Modern Movement in England from 1930 onwards. In 1933, having been accepted as a fellow of the RIBA, Chermayeff went into partnership with Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), a refugee from Nazism who had built up an extensive practice in Germany. They worked together on a number of projects, all of their surviving buildings are now listed. Their best known building is the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill, East Sussex, 1935 (listed Grade I); the first large public building of the modern movement in England, it attracted considerable attention. The partnership was not a happy one however and dissolved in 1936. Chermayeff continued in practice as an architect until 1939 but increasingly saw himself as architectural teacher and theorist. His personal bankruptcy in 1939 led him to a new career in the USA. In 1947 he became the president of the Institute of Design in Chicago, succeeding László Moholy-Nagy, and he later taught at Harvard and Yale.

Details

House, built 1938 to designs by Serge Chermayeff for himself and his family. The engineer was Felix Samuely and the job architect was Whitfield Lewis.

MATERIALS: the house has a timber frame, part softwood, part Jarrah wood (for the exposed framing on the south front), clad with horizontal boards of Western Red Cedar fixed with copper nails. Later extensions have been clad with vertical cedar boards to distinguish them from original parts of the house. Windows are a mixture of timber and uPVC; all bar two are later replacements of the originals (one original window is in the house, see below, the other is in the garage, now workshop).

PLAN: the house is approached from the east, largely screened by a long brick wall in yellow stocks, laid in offset courses to create a horizontal banding effect. A carriageway under the wall leads into an entrance court, framed to the east by a single-storey range running north/south against the screen wall (originally garaging and plant, latterly office and workshop), and to the south by the two-storey flat-roofed house. An L-shaped covered way runs along the north-facing entrance front of the house, linking it across the carriageway with the garage range.

The house is based on a unit of 2ft 9ins. Each bay is four units wide, making 11ft, with the whole 6-bay frontage being 66ft long. At 33ft deep (excluding a small projection to the north-west) the house is a double square. The plan is divided longitudinally by a spine wall, separating the stair hall and kitchen to the north from the main living areas, three steps lower, to the south. At the lower level, overlooking the garden, are the drawing room and dining room, separated from one another by a brick chimney stack, and at the far west of the plan is a study, spanning both floor levels. Behind the study to the north is a large cloakroom, and to the west is a single-storey, single-volume extension accessed through the study. Beyond the kitchen to the east, built against the screen wall, is what were single-storey servants' quarters and stores. This space has been partially remodelled and a first floor added to create a small self-contained flat. On the first floor of the main house the bedrooms are to the south of the spine wall, overlooking the garden, and the bathrooms and stair landing to the north.

Beneath the house is a small basement.

EXTERIOR: the horizontality of the entrance front composition is emphasised by the orientation of the windows, particularly a long strip window on the first floor, and the boards of soft grey cedar cladding. The front door is tucked into the inside return of the north-west projection, sheltered by the elegant rectilinear timber frame of the covered walkway. A single original window remains on this front, lighting the entrance vestibule. This is a large, square plate glass window in a deep subframe standing proud of the wall face; its size and detailing indicate it was always intended as something of a feature. The other windows, though not original, appear to follow broadly the original pattern of vertical casements grouped into horizontal bands. The most obvious change to the elevation is the second storey over the servants’ accommodation, impacting on the subtle massing of the house.

It is the unmistakable south-facing garden front for which Bentley Wood is best known. The house was widely published and it was the exterior shots of this elevation which created the enduring image of the house, even though it was altered soon after its completion. The exposed white-painted timber frame breaks the elevation vertically into six bays and horizontally into two floors. The ground floor is fully glazed, with sliding windows set just behind the structural frame. The glazing in the second bay to the left is fixed, broken by glazing bars into multiple horizontal panes. The first floor has continuous but not full-height glazing, set further back from the frame to create a balcony running (originally) the full width of the building. The effect is a strongly expressed grid, the solidity of the building dissolving to expose structure, breaking down the distinction between form and space, interior and exterior. While this is still very much legible in the building’s fabric, alterations have had an impact. Most obvious is the infilling of the first floor balcony in the two central bays, bringing the elevation in line with the structural frame at this point. Other alterations include the extension of the roof covering over the balcony, where previously the roof joists here were fully exposed, giving a greater sense of structural transparency, and the renewal of the ground floor windows to a similar glazing pattern but with heavier frames and without the ability of the drawing room windows to slide right back across two bays. The massing has been altered by the addition of the single-storey extension to the west and the second storey to the east. These additions are clad in vertical cedar boards with a small number of conventional window and door openings.

INTERIOR: Chermayeff’s interior is well documented; luxurious but restrained, walls were lined in exotic hardwood veneers, floors laid predominantly in cork. The spine wall was lined with cupboards, providing both storage and acoustic protection. The circulation, plan and spatial character of the interior survives relatively little altered, or has been restored after previous interventions. Fittings, built-in furniture and wall finishes (specifically the veneered walls) however have been more widely lost.

The principal living spaces on the ground floor are connected through floor-to-ceiling openings, with the drawing room and study having full-height sliding doors for privacy when required. The original flooring was cork, with a strip of tiles matching those on the terrace laid inside along the glazed garden front, so that when the windows were pulled back, the room and the outside terrace became one. The original flooring has been over-laid but a contrast of flooring materials remains and though the windows have been replaced, the architectural intention of linking interior with exterior is legible. The simple brick chimney breast and fireplace opening survives in something close to its original character. The immaculately laid soft yellow bricks are exposed, now with panels of oxidised cor-ten steel used to screen damage done by previous interventions. The back of the fireplace opening has been taken out to link it with the dining room on the other side and the hearth has been laid in blue engineering bricks. As well as the full-height glazing to the south, the dining room has a multi-pane boxed-out window facing east, originally overlooking a small pool on the terrace (since in-filled).

The stair is a straight flight, running parallel with and alongside the entrance front. It has an elegant Georgian character, with simple hardwood stick balusters and wreathed handrail. Whitfield Lewis discouraged Chermayeff from his original intention to design ‘something much more ‘fruity’. The risers and treads are cork, inlaid into hardwood (the cork currently covered by carpet). On the first floor landing a bank of cupboards lines the spine wall; the cupboards are original but the sliding doors have been replaced with hinged ones. Built-in cupboards remain on the opposing side of the spine wall, providing storage for the bedrooms. The cupboards survive to varying degree, but again the doors have been altered. In the master bedroom at the far west end, two banks of original cupboards with sliding doors survive. These have unpainted wooden carcasses and white-painted doors with recessed circular metal handles. Despite some reconfiguration of the bathrooms, and the enlargement of the two central rooms through the absorption of the balcony, the overall layout and spatial planning of the first floor is little altered. An elliptical veneered timber column, where recessed doorways to the two central bedrooms break through the spine wall, marks the centre point of the house.

The bathrooms and service rooms of the house, including the kitchen, have all been refitted. Neither of the two extensions have interiors worthy of note.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES The garden terrace serves as a plinth on which the house stands in its landscape. Running along the garden front, it extends southwards at the east end to form an L, terminating originally with the Moore sculpture and the timber and glass screen, both now gone. When the house was extended to the west the terrace was extended too. Originally laid with concrete paving, it is now natural stone. The low retaining walls are of yellow brick laid in offset bands to match the screen wall which encloses the house to the east.

Beyond the terrace to the south is an open-air swimming pool in a walled enclosure and to the east of this is a sunken tennis court. The walls surrounding these features are built with the off-set banding found in the original screen and retaining walls but are later additions of uncertain date.

Sources

Books and journals
Antram, N, Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Sussex East with Brighton and Hove, (2013), pp. 413-4
Dannatt, T, Modern Architecture in Britain, (1959), pp. 13, 17
Gould, J, Modern Houses in Britain 1919-1939, (1977), pp. 24-25
Powers, A, Serge Chermayeff: Designer Architect Teacher, (2001), pp. 118-141
Reilly, C, 'Professor Reilly Speaking' in Architects' Journal, , Vol. 88, (22 September 1938), p, 479
Knobel, L, 'The tragedy of Bentley Wood' in Architectural Review, , Vol. 166, (November 1979), pp. 310-311 (and 275)
Powers, A, 'Modernism with a Classic Eye' in Country Life, , Vol. 195, (19 April 2001), pp. 106-108
'Modern Architecture in the Sussex Landscape' in Architectural Review, , Vol. 85, (February 1939), pp. 61-78
'Serge Chermayeff's Bentley Wood up for sale' in Architects' Journal, , Vol. 215, (21 March 2002), p. 8
Hussey, C, 'A Modern Country House: Bentley, near Halland, Sussex' in Country Life, , Vol. 88, (26 October 1940), pp. 368-371
'House near Halland, Sussex' in Architects' Journal, , Vol. 89, (16 February 1939), pp. 295-302
Hussey, C, 'Bentley, near Halland, Sussex' in Country Life, , Vol. 88, (2 November 1940), pp 390-393
Tilson, B, 'Battle of Bentley Wood' in Thirties Society Journal, (1985), issue 5, pp. 24-31
Kitson, I, 'Christopher Tunnard at Bentley Wood' in Landscape Design, (December 1990/January 1991), issue 196, pp. 10-15

Legal

This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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