York is exceptionally rich in 18th-century houses of superlative quality, not the least of which is Middlethorpe Hall. It is a perfect William and Mary country house built in c.1699-1701 of beautifully laid mellow red brick with limestone dressing and panelled interiors of excellent joinery.
It was built for Thomas Barlow, a prosperous master cutler who bought the Middlethorpe estate in 1698 as a bid to establish himself as a country gentleman, a familiar pattern in English life. The house he built is curiously close to the road for a seat of such architectural consequence, though convenient now that it is a hotel.
Like all Queen Ann houses, Middlethorpe is influenced indirectly by the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren, especially his Hampton Court of the 1690's with its horizontal skyline and its pattern of red brick, white sash windows and stone quoins and window surrounds; all features taken up at Middlethorpe. The handsome north entrance front of seven bays and three full storeys plus a basement is surrounded by a proud stone eagle, the Barlow family crest. The pedimented porch over the front door is early 19th century addition, while the attractive curved railings and gates enclosing the forecourt were added by the present owners in 1983.
The south front, the main facade of the house, is surmounted by a raised stone parapet of three panels containing carved festoons and crowned by another stone eagle. It is more impressive than the north front because of the flaking wings added in the mid 18th century by Francis Barlow, High Sheriff of Yorkshire. The bays of these one-storeyed additions are divided by pilasters with well carved composite capitals and are surmounted by a balustraded parapet.
The front door leads straight into the stone-flagged entrance hall, as in a medieval house. Beyond to the south is the honest feature of the interior, the magnificent carved oak staircase with its fluted and foliated balusters, a typical York motif, standing on steps with scrolled panelled ends. The staircase, supported at one point by a fine Corinthian column, has an odd relation to the adjacent doors and windows. It is probably mid 18th century and may not be quite in its original position. The floor is paved with black and white marble squares. Passing through the panelled drawing room we reach the enormous ballroom occupying the western of the two wings added in c.1750. The dining room dates from the original period of the house and has the finest panelling incorporating round head panels flanked by Ionic pilasters. The reception room and bedrooms throughout the house have been decorated by the present owners in a historically accurate manner and have been provided by appropriate furniture and pictures of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Expert historical advice has been taken where it was desirable to remove later decorative accretion and reinstate panelling, chimney pieces and door cases.
The same care and imagination have been exercised in improving and restoring the grounds and outbuildings; hundreds of trees have been planted, a ha-ha constructed, a lake formed, the ruinous late 17th century dovecote restored, the kitchen garden bought back and replanted, the stable buildings tactfully converted and extended so as to provide additional hotel accommodation. The splendid result is that Middlethorpe, which has variously been used as a girls’ boarding school and a night club, once again looks as it ought always: a handsomely appointed and beautifully furnished country house with excellent kitchens, a fine cellar, perfect service, and a green English garden.
Dr. David Watkin
In September 2008 HISTORIC HOUSE HOTELS LTD and all its interests in MIDDLETHORPE HALL and the other two Historic House Hotels, HARTWELL HOUSE and BODYSGALLEN HALL, became the property of the NATIONAL TRUST, by donation, with all profits henceforward benefiting the houses and the charity.