Cobham Dairy stands in the grounds of a great Elizabethan house
The manor of Cobham in Kent dates back to 1208. In 1584, William Brook, the 10th Lord Cobham, remodelled the main hall into a spectacular Elizabethan great house, much of which exists today. Surviving the upheavals of the 17th century intact, in 1720 the estate passed by marriage to John Bligh, a wealthy Irishman, who was elevated to the earldom named after James I's kinsmen, the Darnleys. From 1747, the 3rd Earl of Darnley developed Cobham Hall and its estate further, so that by the time the 4th Earl inherited in 1781, it was once again the main seat of a powerful aristocratic family.
The 4th Earl brought in architect James Wyatt to design his father's spectacular pyramidal mausoleum and to work on the interiors of the hall. In 1790, the great landscape designer Humphry Repton was commissioned to remodel the park, working as so often in partnership with Wyatt.
The romance of a decorative dairy
In 1791 the Earl married Elizabeth Brownlow It was probably as a result of Elizabeth's feminine influence that the idea of a model dairy was born, in gentle strolling distance of the hall. Its pedigree could not be higher.
Supervising the making of cream, butter and cheese was a recognised country pursuit for elegant Georgian ladies. Dairy pursuits personified a nostalgic yearning for simple goodness and simplicity popularised by contemporary writers, as industrial and political revolution gathered pace all around. Marie Antoinette's 1783 dairy at Versailles is often cited as the prototype, yet Queen Mary had a model dairy at Hampton Court in the 1690s.
Model dairies were among the most exquisite estate buildings, fitted out as elegant pavilions with tiled or marble walls, plentiful water, a copper warming pan and charming porcelain vessels, sadly all lost at Cobham, but intact at the other, even smaller dairy in Landmark's care, at Endsleigh.
Designed by 18th-century architect, James Wyatt
James Wyatt was one of the most popular and influential architects of his age and well-known for his romantic country houses. Born in 1746, his early career took him to Italy, where he studied in Venice and Rome. Upon his return to England, he was given the commission to build the Neoclassical Pantheon in Oxford Street, proving to be a huge success and gaining him the attention of the nobility. His other early work included Neo-classical country houses such as Heaton Hall, near Manchester and Heveningham Hall in Suffolk.
Wyatt was appointed surveyor general to the Board of Works in 1796. He was engaged with the restorations of cathedrals in Hereford, Lichfield, Salisbury and Durham, where his controversial plan to remove the Galilee Chapel was reversed by a preservation lobby. He also worked on Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey.
One of Wyatt's most famous creations was Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, an extravagant Gothic fantasy based on mediaeval monastic buildings, designed for William Beckford. The central tower, close to three hundred feet high, collapsed several times over the years and the entire abbey was later completely demolished.
In addition to Cobham Dairy, Wyatt was the designer of another Landmark - The Birdhouse, a Greek-revival pavilion at Badger in Shropshire.
Beginning with the basics of a brick building
Cobham Dairy has been one of our most transformative restorations. When we first saw the Dairy in the 1990s, it was a sad brick outbuilding, boarded up under lowering trees. Empty for decades, essential holding repairs had been carried out in the 1980s by a working party from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. They had re-roofed the building and stripped the slate cladding and put it into storage. The building slept on.
Then in 2014, contact with Landmark was renewed, and so began a most satisfying project. It involved delving deep into lost 18th-century techniques. We were lucky to have James Wyatt’s original 1790s’ drawings at Yale to work from, and also his contemporary work on Cobham Hall surviving across the lawns. The result is a total transformation, back to the gleaming eye-catcher originally intended by Wyatt and the Darnleys, looking for all the world like a little Italianate chapel.
Sensitively restored in the style of James Wyatt
We researched the slate cladding technique in detail, including the notes of an 18th-century builder who used it for Wyatt on Soho House in Birmingham, a technique little used even in the 18th century. Its intention was to transform humble brickwork into a convincing imitation of finely dressed stone. Serviceable salvaged slates were re-used on the sheltered west elevation. The rest has been re-clad in Penrhyn slates, butt-jointed and meticulously shaped for the Gothic window reveals.
The original exterior finish was a stone-coloured oil paint onto which sand had been blown. Its replication required careful trials of paints and sands, and with onward maintenance in mind, we opted for a modern masonry paint into which sand was mixed. Following Wyatt, this finish has been carried through everywhere inside intended to mimic stone.
Wyatt conceived the main chamber like an elaborate chapel honouring the skills of the dairy. A cooling basin played the part of a font, sadly long since lost and anyway inconveniently placed for actually living in such a small area. We have however replaced the still useful Carrara marble shelf that ran round the room.
Restoration of the ribbed and vaulted plaster ceilings was carried out by master plasterer Philip Gaches and his team. Most of the ceilings had gone, but we had one or two oak leaf bosses and a few lengths of ribbing to copy. Scars on the walls showed the original ceiling line. The 1790s work was almost certainly by Francis Bernascone, a leading stuccadore of the day, and we consulted his work in Cobham Hall as well as Wyatt’s drawings.
The stone floors throughout the building were carefully lifted to install underfloor heating. The main chamber floor is an intricate design of limestone lozenges threaded with ribbons of purple sandstone, much of it original and requiring careful matching. Beneath the bedroom floor, once the dairymaid’s, we found a brick vault, a small concession to insulation in a building otherwise designed to stay cool.
Coloured glass windows were a common feature in model dairies and Cobham’s is no exception. All the windows have been remade, the red, yellow and blue border slips carefully match to contemporary glass in Wyatt’s hallway at Cobham Hall. The Darnley arms have been repainted as a central feature.
“Cobham Dairy is a rare and fragile survival. It is uniquely captivating, both as a miniature masterpiece by a brilliant architect, but also as a window onto the hidden world of 18th century women.”
Dr Anna Keay, Director
Watch Anna Keay and architect and television presenter, George Clarke take a tour of Cobham Dairy pre-restoration.
Supporters of Cobham Dairy
We are delighted to welcome heritage insurance specialists, Ecclesiastical, as the lead funders of the project. Ecclesiastical matched the first £200,000 raised from other supporters, securing the first £400,000 of funding for the Dairy. Ecclesiastical also insure Landmark and its buildings. We are hugely grateful for their generosity.
“Ecclesiastical is a special kind of business, giving back to the communities with whom we do our business. As heritage specialists in the insurance world, I am delighted we are partnering the Landmark Trust in saving this important building for the nation and at the same time supporting the specialist craftsmen and women who will benefit from applying their skills in a high-quality restoration project. Ecclesiastical believes in building long-term relationships with its customers, working together for the greater good and making a difference to everyone’s quality of life”. Mark Hews, Group CEO, Ecclesiastical Insurance
Guardians of Cobham Dairy:
Dr and Mrs J Bull, Cobham Hall Heritage Trust, Mr S Conrad, Dr C Guettler, Mr J and Mrs J MacIntyre, and Mr and Mrs M Seale.
Patrons and other generous individuals:
Mrs C Alderson, Mr A Baker, Mr M Caporn, Mrs C Couchman, Ms S Darling, Mr H Eddis, Mr C Giffin, Mrs R Harvey, Mr D Haunton, Mr D Holberton, Mr S and Mrs R Jordan, Mr R Joye, Mr and Mrs R Lockyer, Dr and Mrs C Lott, Mr S Martin, Mr G Neame, Mr M Power, Mr B J Preston, Dr R Schofield, Mr B Sealey, Mr J Sharman, Mrs P Spens, and Mr A Wilson.
Charitable Trusts and Statutory Grants:
The Aall Foundation, Bunbury Charitable Trust, The Leslie Mary Carter Charitable Trust, The Country Houses Foundation, The Eversley Trust, The Greys Charitable Trust, The H B Allen Charitable Trust, The Charles Michael Holloway Charitable Trust, William & Edith Oldham Charitable Trust, The Leche Trust, The Oakdale Trust, The Pilgrim Trust, The Sainer Charity, and the Helen Robertson Charitable Trust.
Gifts in wills:
Mrs S Preston, Mr J Senior, and Mrs P Smith.
£1,500 has been donated to the Cobham Dairy appeal thanks to our tie-up with Waitrose. Donations from sales on a bespoke case of wine and commission from grocery deliveries have generated a healthy contribution towards saving this special building. Sincere thanks to Waitrose and our customers. If you’d like to order groceries and unlock a Waitrose donation there is more detail here
We are also grateful to the generous Guardians, Patrons and other supporters who have chosen to remain anonymous and to everybody else who has already supported the appeal.