Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Art, manufacturing and science - the legacy of Belmont

An artist’s impression of Belmont

PROTECTIVELY wrapped, Belmont, at the corner of Cobb Road and Pound Street in Lyme Regis, is preparing for a future as interesting as its past.

Belmont is architecturally important for its origins as a Georgian maritime villa, most notably its embellishments in Coade stone - the durable, finely-detailed, ceramic artificial stone used by leading architects of the day for ornaments, statues and decoration. 

For 50 years, Eleanor Coade, the remarkable businesswoman who developed the Coade stone process, owned and ran its Lambeth manufactory. Given Belmont by her uncle in 1784, soon after its completion, she kept it until she died in 1821. With its Coade stone urns, friezes, quoins and heads, Belmont was a dazzling advertisement for her products. 

Except for Neptune above the front door, all the decorative heads are of women, which may tell us something else about Eleanor Coade’s progressive qualities.

Dr Richard Bangay, local GP, geologist, botanist and astronomer, bought the house in 1883, extending it greatly - including the octagonal observatory tower which still stands, the winding gear that rotates its roof intact. 

Belmont’s last owner was author John Fowles, who lived and wrote there from 1968 until his death in 2005. He described Eleanor Coade as “that very rare thing, both an artist and a successful early woman industrialist”. On moving in, he observed “a kind of female feel” to Belmont, and “almost a gratitude that something is going to happen after its ten empty years”. 

Near the end of his life, hoping that Belmont’s history would be preserved and that it might also be an inspirational residence for young writers, Fowles approached The Landmark Trust for help. With a generous bequest from a Dorset resident, it bought the house in 2007.

The Trust rescues important historic houses, covering upkeep and running costs through holiday letting. Belmont was a challenge. Could sufficient restoration funds be found before the building deteriorated beyond recovery? Was there time to research Belmont’s structural history, and for the complex planning procedures required? Should the house revert to its original Georgian or later Victorian form? How should the trust represent the different histories of Coade, Bangay and Fowles?

Belmont’s Grade II* listing reflects the importance of the Coade stone façade and the associations with Eleanor Coade; only remnants of the Victorian extensions remained, the rest having been removed in the 1960s. So architectural integrity led the trust to restore the elegant clarity that Eleanor Coade knew, removing what remained of the Victorian additions but keeping Bangay’s unusual observatory tower. 

With the original window arrangements on the south and east reinstated, John Fowles’ writing room on the first floor overlooking the Cobb, with a library of his books, will be the centrepiece of the house.          

Being guided around by project manager Carole Paton and site manager Stuart Leavy was a revelation. Work began in October last year. With much of the roof at risk, the blue lias masonry fracturing in many places, the rear wall in danger of collapse, the front leaning badly at the top, and many of the Coade stone features threatened by decay of their iron fixings, it wasn’t a moment too soon.

Following good conservation practice - minimising intervention, retaining original features wherever possible, using authentic materials for necessary replacement - the external walls are secured and the strengthened roof re-slated. From expert scrutiny of structural clues, the original room layout is returning.  

Where the Coade stone has already been cleaned and repaired, its intricate patterns and detailed clarity are wondrous. Meticulous care is evident throughout the restoration. 

Historical accuracy, appropriate materials, specialists working with traditional craft skills, time and quality: these explain the £1.8million price tag, raised from over a thousand individuals and a number of charitable grant-making trusts.

By the autumn of 2015, Lyme Regis will once again see a delightful Georgian villa, its lime-based rendering washed the original delicate pink and its Coade stone crisp and fresh; John Fowles’ spirit in the writing-room; the garden back to its small 18th century domesticity with woodland running down to Lister Gardens; the house and observatory visible again from the Cobb.

A single let for up to eight people, Belmont will also be used for two intensive free weeks each year by MA students from the University of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing School. On occasional weekends the house will be open, free of charge, to the public. At these times Bangay’s observatory will be accessible, too, so we can see the mechanical renovation of its revolving roof, being carried out this autumn by four volunteers from the local U3A SciTech group.

The stable block, entered from Pound Street, will become an interpretation centre, open several afternoons a week through the summer season, celebrating the lives of Eleanor Coade, Richard Bangay and John Fowles.

Belmont’s three important owners - combining science, the arts, manufacture and commerce, and reflecting the “enlightenment” values from which the house originated - will continue to infuse its spirit. 

I finished my visit knowing that it is possible, given sufficient determination, energy and care, to rescue a significant historic building in Lyme while respecting its architectural, cultural and human history. 

Conservation work in progress

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