From Stately Home to Arts Centre
Over the years the various owners of South Hill Park have made their mark on its Grade II listed building. These links with the past are particularly important in the context of a new town where any connection with history is at a premium.
The Early Years
The George Canning and Sir William Hayter Years
- minor alterations to the library and the hall,
- the construction of a conservatory on the south elevation overlooking the garden,
- and adjustments to the service quarters.
The Temple Moore Years
The main display was on the south side overlooking open parkland. Here the façade was not quite symmetrical. The main features were an open arcade of single and coupled Tuscan columns on the ground floor with shallow oriels above.
Sir Arthur died in 1917 and his widow continued to live in the house until she died in 1929. The estate then passed to her nephew, Major Rickman. He was the last private owner of the house and unfortunately shot himself in the gun cupboard in 1940.
As a Quaker he had a strong social conscience and the welfare of the poor concerned him. Using funds supplied by the Prince Regent, he set up the hospital in Margate using sea water to cure the poor of tuberculosis. When the hospital returned to Margate it remained open until the mid-1990s and is now a development of luxury flats.
Without altering the exterior, he converted the interior into different sized, self-contained flats. Some of the larger original rooms remained as communal spaces with the original hall a reception room. There was also a spacious lounge, a library and a restaurant. Horn made the conversion plans in close co-operation with the Berkshire town Planning association. An article in Ideal Home of 1948 was full of praise for the conversion work.
By August 1958 the house was empty of all BBC property. The Bracknell Development Corporation purchased South Hill Park on 19 December 1962. South Hill Park was included in the extension of the designated new town area.
Ferranti leased the site in 1965 and used it as offices and laboratories until early 1972. Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti (1864–1930) set up Ferranti in 1882 to manufacture the alternator. The company specialised in the application of new technology to solve problems. From 1948 they were leaders in the computer industry. Ferranti had opened a research facility in Bracknell in 1963. They developed the first European microprocessor (F-100L) in the town. They went into receivership in 1993.
In 1949 Bracknell became a new town. In 1969 Bracknell Development Corporation started looking into proposals for an arts centre. South Hill Park was one of the sites under consideration for the arts centre. Bracknell Development Corporation selected South Hill Park in 1970. Peter Stark was appointed its first director in the autumn of 1972. A 125-year lease was then granted to south Hill Park Trust who converted the house into an arts centre.
As the building has three floors and close to 60 rooms, conversion was a complicated process. It was divided into two phases. Phase 1 was making the building fit for public use and Phase 2 involved converting the ‘safe shell’ into a functioning centre.
It opened in October 1973 with a range of courses and activities whilst conversion work continued. The terrace bar opened in June 1974. This was despite dry rot, the national energy crisis and the three-day week all causing delays to the project. By the beginning of 1975 all the general facilities were open.
Wilde Theatre, Bracknell Gallery and Dance Studio
The architect was Axel Burrough of the architectural practice Lewitt Bernstein. He and Iain Mackintosh designed the theatre on the principal of a courtyard theatre as used in Shakespeare’s time.
A partnership of the local community and businesses provided the funding. To keep costs down there was never any intention to build in the existing style of South Hill Park. Red bricks, like those in the main house were used though.
Building work began in November 1982. John Amis and Sir Henry Lushington, whose ancestor was an owner of South Hill Park, moved the first sod.
On 15 May 1984 Princess Anne officially opened the theatre. Due to the local association with Oscar Wilde the theatre was named after him. The first performance was “The Importance of Being Earnest”.
From March to May 1984 an exhibition was held in the main gallery to coincide with the theatre opening. The exhibition was called “Rediscovering the Courtyard: The architectural evolution of the Wilde Theatre”.
- a new art gallery,
- dance studio,
- bar extension,
- extra dressing room,
- rehearsal and storage space.
The Bracknell Gallery opened in 1991. The gallery offers a busy programme of contemporary fine art and craft exhibitions. These include many internationally acknowledged artists.
South Hill Park Today
These funds allowed the mansion spaces to re-develop and focus on artistic activity. A new atrium bar opened, allowing for the serving of food and drink to alongside art and music performances.
Artist Martin Donlin created several artworks for the building. These can be seen in the tall hall and the courtyard ceiling.
An additional award of £3.6 million transformed the exterior setting. The works included the following:
- restoration of stonework and metalwork,
- repaving the terrace and restoring the Italian garden and fountain,
- tree management and planting,
- new pathways and signage.
The works made great emphasis on, and attention to, the site’s sensitivity and biodiversity.
As a registered charity South Hill Park offers its guests 3,000 artistic, musical and theatrical events a year. The events feature a range of personalities from internationally renowned to emerging new talents.
South Hill Park also offers artistic residencies in silversmithing, printmaking, ceramics and live art. They contribute to the running of over 2000 courses alongside 250 varied workshops. Visitors can learn anything from salsa dancing to youth drama, from printmaking to digital animation. All this attracts an average 250,000 visitors a year to the park, and ensures many lifelong patrons.
The Ghosts of South Hill Park
South Hill Park is a building steeped in history and as always happens with old buildings, many intriguing stories have been formed around the place as the years have gone by.
The ghosts of South Hill Park have been discussed and speculated about for longer than anyone remembers.
We would like to thank Alison Boyd and Outi Remes for curating the original “The History of South Hill Park” leaflet.
We would also like to thank the following for their contributions to the information above:
Berkshire Record Office, Bracknell Library, Alison Cable, East Kent Archives Centre, Nick Day, Winchester School of Art Library, Robert Elwall, RIBA, Heather Gordon, English Heritage, Victoria Nisbett, Bracknell Forest Borough Council, Susan Palmer, Sir John Soane Museum, Justine Sambrook, Jan Shearsmith, Museum of Science and Industry, Jeff Walden, and BBC Written Archives Caversham.