Fort Brecqhou is the largest house built in Britain for at least two centuries

The ultimate luxury

True privacy is something only serious money can buy

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

When one of the Barclay family bought a 241ft super yacht in 2004, he called it Enigma. This itself allowed a rare glimmer of personality to escape from the curtain wall of anonymity behind which the Barclays — and particularly the billionaire twins, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay — sheltered. 

 For here, it seemed, was a tease aimed at the journalists and gossip-mongers who wanted to penetrate the defences and put their private lives on parade — secrecy that seemed all the more infuriating to their critics, since they had used some of their immense fortune, made from property, to buy newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph, which aren’t shy of airing other people’s dirty laundry in public. 

 But the Barclays remained hidden from view, rarely glimpsed by most of their own employees. Like Wotan in The Ring, they called into being a castle on a Wagnerian scale — “the largest house built in Britain for at least two centuries”, as the late Professor David Watkin described it in his book on its architect Quinlan Terry, Radical Classicism, in 2006.

Like a real fortress that was converted into a country house during the Regency period, Fort Brecqhou hugs a crown of rock on a tiny island next to Sark in the Channel Islands, symbolising both the Barclays’ great wealth and their desire to avoid the merest flicker of limelight. With the death of Sir David Barclay in January, Fort Brecqhou has fallen silent.

Sir David was the marginally more exuberant of the two brothers, who were said to do everything together, even taking their overcoats off in what could have been mistaken for a synchronised routine. Highly focused, they were not, according to Sir David’s obituary in The Times, “easily distracted into casual conversation”. But as is so often the way with country houses, Brecqhou says much about them — a rare and extravagant public act, built at hectic speed during the 1990s by workmen who laboured throughout the night, each having signed a non-disclosure agreement. 

Sir David Barclay (left) and his twin brother Sir Frederick after receiving their knighthoods in 2000

The result is not merely a very large dwelling, in an unlikely location, but a monument, built of load-bearing masonry that could last 1,000 years. You can’t hide a building like that from Google Maps. It’s even obvious from the sea. The inhabitants of Sark, which enjoys a feudal suzerainty over Brecqhou that nobody, before the Barclays, had bothered to repeal, know all about it, because of the constant lawsuits. It was for the Barclays — as the towering folly of Fonthill Abbey had been to the Regency recluse William Beckford — a very visible place in which to be alone.

At the time of building, Brecqhou seemed even more extraordinary than it does now — billionaires were rarer in 1990s Britain than they have since become — but it would be wrong to think of it as eccentric. In a reminiscence of Sir David in the Guardian, Tim Walker revealed that one title considered for the memoirs he had at one point been engaged to ghost was The Man who Built a Castle. This somewhat left Sir Frederick out of the equation and may have been an early indication of the family feud that erupted into the High Court last year when Sir David’s sons planted bugs to overhear business conversations at the Barclay-owned Ritz Hotel in London. 

However, it reveals the importance that castle-building can have for a man of Sir David’s stamp. He came to Terry with a sketch plan of what he wanted: a castle for him and his brother to inhabit, built around the four sides of an internal court. “The design was, of course, developed in a number of ways,” comments Terry, “but the general principles remain exactly as were made clear to me at our first meeting.” Charles Kane, another newspaper mogul, built Xanadu but that was in a film; this would be the real thing.

Castles capture the imagination of the very rich. They always have. In the Middle Ages great castles, built over many generations, were practically beyond human computation. In a world in which every stone had to be quarried, chiselled and put in place by human muscle, they seemed not merely to be buildings but phenomena — infinitely old, they could only have been built by fabulous figures such as King Arthur, Julius Caesar or giants. 

For the elite, they provided the backdrop to the romance of chivalry, that grand game of tournaments, symbolism and courtly love. Medieval battles traditionally ended when a charge of knights swept the losing side from the field. Like a well-defended castle, a man in plate armour was proof against most forms of attack — until gunpowder made him as vulnerable as the meanest foot soldier. Castle walls could be blown up.

Historians will see Brecqhou as a prime example of the revival of country house building that took place at the end of the twentieth century

Chivalry ought to have died; instead, it was brought back to life by Henry VIII. The cavaliers at the court of Charles I also loved it, building castles incuding Lulworth and Bolsover that evoke a fabled past. They lost the English Civil War but at the Restoration, grandees like the Duke of Lauderdale in Scotland built palaces with towers clearly intended to recall castles. In the next century, Horace Walpole praised a sham ruin recently built in Warwickshire as possessing “the true rust of the barons’ war”. A revival of castle architecture was under way. Its greatest twentieth-century expression is Castle Drogo in Devon, built of granite for the founder of a chain of grocery stores, Julius Drewe. Lutyens, his architect, did it under protest: he would have preferred to design something cosier. It was the client who insisted. Unfortunately, due to the innovative reliance on asphalt to stop water penetration, it leaked. But oh my, how sublime. 

Quinlan Terry might have sympathised with Lutyens. He would much rather have given Sir David a nice Classical country house, I suspect — although he had already built a Regency Gothick house in Regent’s Park, which Sir David had admired. But details, details. Country houses are not only about style. The people who build them are invariably very rich and some, over the centuries, have had no qualms about showing off.

 In the Tudor period, they were expected to. There was a word for it: magnificence. Sumptuous clothes made of expensive fabrics sewn with jewels and sideboards groaning with gold and silver vessels, splendid horses in rich caparisons and extravagant building projects were good things. They spread money around, stimulated trade, promoted a stable society by demonstrating the unbridgeable gulf between rich and poor, so vast that there was no point in trying to cross it. 

Strange though it seems in the twenty-first century, when many rich people like to keep below the radar, grandees were applauded for their displays of spectacle, fantasy, luxury and novelty; with magnificence went benevolence and generosity — or so it was said. The Barclay brothers were knighted for their philanthropy. Plus ça change, perhaps. 

Historians of the future will see Brecqhou as a prime example of the revival of country house building that took place at the end of the twentieth century. It is particularly noticeable in Britain, with its long and tenacious tradition of the country house, because so few large houses had been built in the second two quarters of the century. In the 1920s, people like the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, didn’t want the stuffiness, formality and sense of feudal responsibility that went with the immense piles of a previous generation.

North Dumpling Island

Old country houses, following the agricultural depression that set in during the 1870s and lasted until the Second World War, were a struggle to maintain. In Scotland, the once princely Hamilton Palace — undermined in the family’s greed to extract coal — was demolished. So the Prince of Wales chose Fort Belvedere, a folly in Windsor Great Park, for what his father George V called “those damn weekends”. It was a pleasure dome, like the houses he had seen on Long Island, with a tennis court, swimming pool and stable for polo ponies. 

The Second World War did not put an end to the country house, as Evelyn Waugh predicted in Brideshead Revisited. But the story of the decades afterwards was one of retreat. Country houses were demolished, turned into institutions or replaced with smaller, undistinguished modern dwellings that were more convenient to run. Taxes on investment income in the 1970s reached 98 per cent. All that changed with the advent of the Thatcher government. The Barclays were part of that movement. It was in a suite at the Ritz that Lady Thatcher died.

This wasn’t, though, a national story. Whopping great country houses or ranches have been built all over the world. There had always been the money in America for palatial dwellings in suburbs, resorts and seaside places outside the big cities. But the ambition to rival the Gatsby era took off in the 1980s. They often looked back to the golden age of resort construction at the turn of the twentieth century, associated with the great Beaux-Arts firms of McKim, Mead and White, Carrère and Hastings, and Delano & Aldrich. There was a revival of the Shingle Style, alongside numerous daring, assertively Modern homes. 

In a crowded world, privacy has become the ultimate luxury

In 1986, the engineer and inventor Dean Kamen, whose father had worked as an illustrator for the magazine Mad, Weird Science among other publications, went further than most by, like the Barclays, buying an island. The endearingly named North Dumpling Island is smaller than Brecqhou — a mere three acres — and its owner has not shielded himself from the world’s eyes; in fact he has courted publicity by declaring his domain independent from the United States, as well as building a model of Stonehenge.

Kamen may have an impish streak not universally shared by the super-rich, but he speaks for many, one suspects, when justifying his project: “To me Dumpling is the manifestation of a lot of peoples’ hopes and dreams. ‘If I got to do it my way how would I do it?’” 

We know how Michael Jackson did it on his Neverland ranch, in California, with its private funfair for the adult who never grew up. Vladimir Putin’s activities at Cape Idokopas on the Black Sea, the Ceausescu-like dacha known inevitably as Putin’s Palace, are more opaque; indeed Putin denies owning it. It took the suicidally brave opposition leader Alexei Navalny to reveal the scale and unseemly extravagance of the project, producing a receipt for, among other things, a $28,000 leather sofa. The footprint runs to 200,000 square feet, which is only a third of Versailles or the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi and looks like a pimple beside the Royal Palace of Caserta. 

But two of those other palaces are no longer occupied and the Viceroy’s House — now Rashtrapati Bhavan, is the official residence of the President of India — was built to house courts and bureaucracies. Like Fort Belvedere and Brecqhou, Putin’s Palace has been built for his own occupation and pleasure, with a theatre, casino, gigantic swimming pool and a stage with a retractable pole for strippers. Whims of a dictator? The stripper’s pole is not a requirement of every new country house, but in other respects, this outrageous dwelling does share characteristics of other homes of the global elite. It is very large and very private.

Extravagance in domestic architecture is as old as Nero’s Domus Aurea on the Palatine Hill in Rome; the nearby Colosseum takes its name from the 35.5m-high statue of the Emperor that stood outside. But scale was generally kept within bounds during the twentieth century from a shared idea of good taste; only rhinoceros-hided wide boys like Nicholas van Hoogstraten risked the social stigma of being thought too flash. 

Today, size matters. The super-rich need garages for the classic cars, a wing for contemporary art, a basement gym and bar, a master bedroom suite that could occupy a whole floor. Recently I saw a glamorous 1930s house, occupied at one time by John Hay Whitney, then ambassador to the United Kingdom. Following a luxurious makeover by a property developer, it is now twice the size and far more luxurious in materials and finishes. This is a general trend. Expect more post- Covid, as people reassess their personal space after lockdown.

Neverland Ranch

These days privacy for men like Putin is one of the main goals of domestic life. Ordinary mortals expect it as standard. Who wants to share a bathroom in a hotel? When Consuelo Vanderbilt married the ninth Duke of Marlborough in 1895, she entered a world in which ladies’ maids would wait in line outside the bathrooms in a country house, to keep a place for their mistresses. We’re now as jealous of our own space as we are of personal data on the internet. Could it be that the pandemic will make us permanently anxious to keep other people at arm’s length? Shall we ever go back to the pre-Covid way of kiss- kissing and bear-hugging when we greet each other? Or shall we return to the puritanism of my childhood when social kissing was considered French? 

But the richer you get, the more difficult privacy is to achieve. Celebrities loathe the cameras on other peoples’ mobile phones. Hence places like Brecqhou, for in a crowded world, privacy has become the ultimate luxury. How odd that would have seemed in country houses where most people had to live in close, sweaty proximity with other people of different classes. Servants routinely slept outside their masters’ doors. Mistresses shared their beds with servant girls, not from reasons of sexual desire but to keep warm. 

Reports of Georgian adultery trials reveal housemaids, laundry maids, porters and stewards who had made it their business to spy through keyholes, snoop around bedrooms and notice when a lady was at home, and to whom. Several nineteenth-century country-house owners, particularly in Ireland, built tunnels to avoid seeing servants or being themselves seen. These days few people have live-in staff and sexual misconduct doesn’t turn many hairs. But a row between a prime minister and his girlfriend, so easily overheard in the city, can become front-page news. The answer is to buy a country house. Or better, an island. 

Successful men like to leave a mark on the world. Fort Brecqhou is practically indestructible, having been built of two types of Spanish granite. It is, as Watkin excitedly wrote, the real deal: “At any castle, visitors look forward to emerging from dark and winding staircases on to a dramatic roofscape where they will walk along perilous platforms behind crenelated parapets, gazing out on a wild world of sky and sea, their lungs expanding in the strong winds.” In one sense, it is sustainable, in that unlike Modernist architecture it will stand for aeons.

“Putin’s Palace” on the Black Sea

But Sir David, who was 86 when he died, was not a member of the eco generation. For today’s High Net Worths, privacy is often associated with something else in sharp decline: wilderness. So wildlands philanthropy is on the rise. Kristine and the late Doug Tompkins used a fortune built from the Esprit clothing brand to buy more than 2 million acres in Patagonia, some of which will be restored and farmed sustainably, creating jobs for the community. There are many other examples. The San Francisco businessman Richard Goldman has saved the forest on Yakobi Island from the pulp mills that have received so much of the timber from the rest of Alaska. Gordon Moore, co-founder of the silicon chip maker Intel, has funded land acquisitions by the Amazon Conservation Association. 

It’s not only about saving the planet though. Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, has bought Lanai Island in Hawaii, intending to make it a wellness utopia. Other Silicon Valley billionaires have looked even further afield. New Zealand has become a destination for the likes of Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, as a hedge against the predicted climate apocalypse; Thiel has even taken New Zealand citizenship. Sir David Barclay may have seemed peculiar in his privacy fetish; really, he was on trend.

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