The mystery of Beningbrough's missing wings

Matthew Constantine , Cultural Heritage Curator Matthew Constantine Cultural Heritage Curator
A view of the main (north) front of Beningbrough Hall, seen from ground level

Is this historic painting a true representation of how the hall once looked? A way to show off? Or a plan for the future?

Beningbrough Hall

Beningbrough Hall as we see it in the painting above is probably shown essentially as it was constructed in around 1716; the date on the main stairs. Built for John Bourchier snr (1684 - 1736) it's a good example of early 18th century English Baroque architecture – a mix of continental European design ideas externally expressed in a restrained English fashion using local materials.

The north front

This is the north side of the hall, facing the deer park and the parkland that separates the hall from nearby Newton-upon-Ouse village. At this time a public road ran across this side of the parkland heading to the river ferry. We can see the hall is separated off from the road by an enclosure marked by gates, walls and railings. A circular carriageway runs around the enclosure. All this had gone by the mid-19th century.

" A big mystery are the two blocks either side of the enclosure. There is no sign of them today and it remains uncertain if they were really constructed and, if so, if this is an accurate depiction in terms of their scale or number; it could be that one of the blocks did exist, but not necessarily both."
- Matthew Constantine

Fact or fiction?

The painting of the main hall is detailed and accurate, although we can see a few changes:

• The four statues on the roof line are now missing, or never added, though the plinths are there. If they were present, they would have been unfashionable later in the 18th century, which might explain their removal. 

• The downpipes do not seem to feature. Those on the hall now are dated 1760 so may reflect a later improvement to rainwater management from the roof - always a sensible investment in North Yorkshire.

• The sash windows in the hall today are mainly thought to be 18th century but have fewer panes of glass than shown here. Again, this is likely to reflect a later upgrade. 

All these points are explainable, perhaps supporting the idea that the painting is an accurate depiction.

The north front of Beningbrough in around the 19th century
Black and white painting of the north front of Beningbrough
The north front of Beningbrough in around the 19th century

Changes through time

This amateur painting is undated but probably from the early 19th century; perhaps the 1830s or ‘40s after the Dawnay family inherited the house and estate in 1827. It is certainly consistent with the layout shown on an 1841 estate map.

We can see that the forecourt area has been swept away and the carriageway now curves to the front of the hall and then back out towards Newton village. The public road had been rerouted round the parkland in the early 19th century.

There is also no sign of the two buildings that were on east and west edges of the enclosed forecourt in the 1751 painting. This is all in keeping with later 18th century fashion to have a more naturalistic connection between the house and parkland...or did they never exist?


The dramatic north front of the hall today
Long driveway with grass flanks and red bricked hall at the top
The dramatic north front of the hall today

History repeating itself?

Some people think that these two structures are a bit of artistic license, added to make the house look more impressive than it really was, or perhaps to show future plans. However, some architectural historians argue that the style of windows in these buildings would have been old fashioned for a house built around 1716 let alone a painting of 1751.

Does this suggest that they really were there? Interestingly, another painting by these artists of nearby Temple Newsam (near Leeds) also shows side buildings which cannot be seen today. Archaeological research eventually showed they had been there. Are Beningbrough’s also waiting to be found?

The first stables?

The most usual function of such buildings in early 18th century houses seems to have been as extra service blocks for the main house - stables, riding houses (to train horses), or sometimes kitchens (a fire risk to have in the house).

Owning horses was an important sign of social status as well as practical, especially in Yorkshire and the Tees Valley in the later 17th and 18th century where racehorse breeding was an important activity. We know that the Bourchiers were involved in this and perhaps this is why they might have invested in such large structures? 

Earlier the fashion was to have the stables near the house, but later in the 18th century they tended to be moved further away and have the parkland run up to the house. 

This might explain why, presuming they existed, the blocks were demolished and replaced by the more modest stable block that exists today, probably around the 1760s or later.

Micklegate House in York city centre
Red bricked town house with white stone
Micklegate House in York city centre

Commissioned for the city

The painting appears to have been commissioned not for Beningbrough, but especially for a townhouse built, or rebuilt, by John Bourchier jnr (1710 - 59) on Micklegate in York and completed c.1752. The date on the downpipes is still attached to the house.

York was the major social centre of the north and Micklegate an upmarket street and the road leading south to London. This painting would be a way of showing off to visitors the family’s country residence. The house, now called Micklegate House, is still there and is currently a boutique hostel.

More questions still to answer

There is a great deal more to unpick from the painting; the large forecourt and hints at hunting, who are the people and the dog with the distinctive spot? These questions, are for another day and with further archeaological investigations planned, maybe definitive evidence of the existence of the wings. 

The original painting is now part of the National Trust collection at Beningbrough, currently not on show, you can read more about its provenance on the collections database