BY CHARLES EVANS
Ascott House was originally a farm house, built in the reign of James I and known as “Ascott Hall”. In 1873 it was acquired by Baron Mayer de Rothschild (of the neighbouring Mentmore Towers estate). The Rothschild family had begun to acquire vast tracts of land in Buckinghamshire earlier in the century, on which they built a series of large mansions from 1852 onwards. Baron Mayer gave the house at Ascott to his nephew Leopold de Rothschild, who transformed it over the following decades into the substantial, but informal, country house it is today.
Leopold de Rothschild, whose principal country residence was Gunnersbury Park, used Ascott at first as a hunting box, but realising the limitations imposed by its modest size, in 1874 he employed the architect George Devey to enlarge it. The present half-timbered house is largely the result of that commission. Devey attempted to design a house that rambled as though it had grown and developed over centuries. The project became a lifetime work for Devey as the house was continually expanded during the remainder of the 19th century. The rambling and climbing shrubs he had planted as part of the design of the facades that Mary Gladstone described in her memoirs are no longer there.
The style of architecture, which could be described as “English cottage meets Tudor Cheshire Manor house” is informal, the ground floor being of red brick, while the floors above are half-timbered. This rustic design no doubt deliberately reflected the house’s original intention as a rural retreat and hunting lodge purely for relaxation and pleasure, and contrasted with the family’s alternative country home, the more classical and thus impressive Gunnersbury Park. Other Rothschild houses in Buckinghamshire were all designed in the more formal styles of architecture, either the classical renaissance such as Mentmore or that of a French chateau as at Waddesdon Manor. The architecture at Ascott was not intended to faithfully reproduce that of an earlier era. Devey was a forerunner of the Arts and Crafts movement and had developed a rustic style of his own. Huge bay windows provide views over the Chiltern Hills. While, multiple gables of varying heights, with roof lines sweeping to different levels resemble those later designed by the more notable Edwin Lutyens.