Inside the ‘blank canvas’ mansion on the market for the first time in 80 years

One man’s old school is another man’s renovation project. That’s certainly the case at Sherborne House, the grand, 18th-century mansion named after the picturesque Dorset town in which it sits.

The house, which once played host to Charles Dickens, is now on the open market for the first time in 80 years, giving those members of the public with a few million in their pocket the opportunity to make their mark on the historic building. It is for sale at £2 million with Chesters Commercial.

The story of Sherborne House starts in 1570, when a Tudor manor house stood on the site. In 1720, the land was bought by politician Henry Seymour Portman. He demolished the Tudor building, apart from the west wing that still stands today, and commissioned Dorset architect Benjamin Bastard to design him a new Palladian house. The finished product is a Baroque-Palladian masterpiece that combines the tall, slim windows of the English Baroque style with the simple façade of the Palladian tradition.

Sherborne House has a mural depicting a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, painted by Sir James Thornhill, better known for his work on the murals of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and on the ceiling of the Great Hall at Blenheim Palace

During the 1850s, it was the home of English actor William Charles ­Macready, a contemporary of Charles Dickens, who visited the property in 1854, performing a private reading of his work in the drawing room. The local council bought the house in the Thirties for use as Lord Digby’s Grammar School for Girls, before leasing it to an arts group in 1992.

Fifteen years later, the house was put on the market once more after plans to turn it into an arts centre fell through. Local developer Redcliffe Homes secured planning permission in 2011 to build 44 houses in the manor’s former walled garden. The house itself was included in the deal. “Part of our arrangement with the council was that we would refurbish and do all the structural work for Sherborne House as well,” says Tom O’Connor, Redcliffe’s managing director. “It was in a pretty sad and sorry state.”

The 44 houses are complete and Sherborne House has been bolstered from within. “It needed fairly major work to the roof and the main walls,” O’Connor says. “All of the structural walls were in considerable disrepair, and all the beadwork had to be taken off the roof and renewed.” Now that the core work has been done, the building is in “very fine fettle,” he says. “All of the windows have been overhauled, and it has got lots of light and space.”

The house in its current state is a blank canvas, Foot says, ready to be decorated according to the tastes of the new owner

David Foot, a director at Chesters Commercial, says the house represents an exciting project for the right buyer. “It’s important that we find someone who loves the building, and is going to do what’s best for it,” he says.

“It will be a labour of love. If it were a concrete/glass structure, the costs would be far lower – whoever takes this on will have to do the work incredibly sympathetically, and clearly that is going to come at a cost. This isn’t a quick-fix deal.”

The house in its current state is a blank canvas, Foot says, ready to be decorated according to the tastes of the new owner – be they an owner-occupier or a commercial venture. But there’s one element of the property that is far from blank: the staircase is surrounded by a Baroque mural depicting a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It was painted by Sir James Thornhill, better known for his work on the murals of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and on the ceiling of the Great Hall at Blenheim Palace.

The Sherborne mural has been painstakingly restored by Richard Pelter’s team at International Fine Art Conservation Studios. “The biggest amount of damage was in the floor above, where there was quite a lot of woodworm,” Pelter says. “During the Victorian period they’d built a fireplace in that particular room, which we took out and stabilised, and then stabilised the ceiling itself.”

The modern rear of Sherborne House

His team is usually asked to do work that will last 100 years, so it is unlikely that the next owner of Sherborne House will have too much to worry about. However, custodians of such pieces of art must keep an eye on them. “You can’t just say they’re OK now,” he says. “You’ve got to look after these things.”

At £2 million for 13,000 sq ft over three storeys – with three principal reception rooms downstairs, space for at least five large bedroom suites upstairs, and 1.8 acres of gardens – the property is competitively priced for its size for this part of the country.

The average detached property costs £431,129, according to Rightmove, but some properties in these West Country town centres are racking up much higher prices, says Foot. A Grade II listed detached house with six bedrooms in the centre of Sherborne is £1.495 million with Savills and Knight Frank, or the same amount could buy a three-bedroom flat in the Royal Pavilion at Poundbury, Prince Charles’ new town.

Richard Pelter’s team at International Fine Art Conservation Studios restored the murals

For the buyer with a little more in their pocket, a modern four-bedroom property between Dorchester and Weymouth, with landscaped gardens and a swimming pool, is on the market for £1.8 million with estate agency Domvs, while eight miles from Sherborne, in East Coker, an eight-bedroom farmhouse with 50 acres and extensive equestrian facilities is listed with Symonds & Sampson for £1.875 million.

In comparison, “Sherborne House is being sold as a large contemporary townhouse with easy access to everything and minimal maintenance,” says Ben Horne from Middleton Advisors. “Each type of property attracts a very different type of buyer.”

The size, presentation, and scale of Sherborne House fits the “big house” rural market, but without land, it can’t really compete, says Foot. “Historically, if you wanted a big house in the West Country, you could expect it to be in some parkland setting, but I think that trend is changing, given the success of Poundbury. I wouldn’t dismiss the fact that just because it hasn’t got any land it means that someone wouldn’t want a large, grand house.”

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