27 Castlegate, YO1 9RN

Fairfax House plaques on the front and back. St George’s Cinema at the front.

Fairfax House as we see it today is largely the creation of Charles Gregory, 9th Viscount Fairfax of Emley (c.1700-1772). It has been described as “the finest Georgian town house in England” and indeed it would be difficult to find another similar modest-sized building of this period with such a wealth of rich plasterwork and wood carving. It was not always thus and the origin of the house is quite obscure.

Winter entertainment season

At the beginning of the 18th century, York was trying to recover some of its lost earlier prosperity. Its precedence as a river port had given way to Hull as ships got bigger and the river silted up. The wool trade, so long a staple industry of the city, had gravitated to the West Riding where abundant coal supplies and water power were available. Something had to be done and a bold initiative was taken by leading citizens in conjunction with the Corporation to transform York into the social centre for the northern gentry and aristocracy. The building of Lord Burlington’s magnificent Assembly Rooms, the creation of the elegant New Walk along the river and the provision of a permanent course for horse racing on the Knavesmire, graced by a splendid grandstand designed by John Carr, were the main incentives to attract the gentry to settle in York for the winter entertainment season. It proved to be a more appealing solution than trailing up to London each winter on a hazardous four-day journey.

The consequence was that a flurry of new building took place with attractive terraces of brick houses transforming many of the city’s medieval streets. Interspersed with these were a number of more important houses, sometimes detached, created for specific affluent noblemen or merchants anxious to settle and make their mark on the city. Unlike some of these grander Georgian buildings, no record of the construction of what later became Fairfax House seems to have survived in the city archives. Some clues do exist, however. Samuel Buck in about 1735 produced his beautiful copper-plate engraving, Prospect of York from Baile Hill, in which he numbers all the prominent buildings. The one in Castlegate that we are interested in is No. 27. It is quite recognisable and described as “Lawyer Barker’s House”. Barker became an important citizen of York and was entering into negotiations for the purchase of land in Castlegate as early as 1704. A man in his position would certainly have wanted a house of some pretension, conveniently close to the Assize Courts. Exactly when the house was built and who built it, for the moment, remains a mystery. A few subsequent owners are known, including the immediate predecessor of Lord Fairfax, “Joseph Marsh of Harrigate” [sic]. He appears to have been a coal merchant who became bankrupt in about 1758, whereupon the property once again came up for sale.

Viscount Fairfax

It is in 1759 that Viscount Fairfax comes on the scene, negotiating for the purchase of the house on behalf of his melancholy daughter, Anne, the only survivor of his family of nine children. He had decided to devote the declining years of his life to the well-being of Anne, but in this he had limited success. Upon her death in 1793, this main line of the family, traceable back to before the Norman Conquest, became extinct. Unlike the other chief branches of the family, they had maintained their Roman Catholic faith staunchly throughout, evidence of which can be clearly seen in Fairfax House.

The Fairfaxes had been prominent citizens of York for many centuries. The branches which became more famous, diverging from the chief line in the late 15th century, acquired land on Bishophill. Here General Thomas Fairfax of Denton, the Commander-in-Chief of Cromwell’s New Model Army, built his great mansion, Buckingham House, in the mid-17th century. Another notable member of the family was Admiral Robert Fairfax of Steeton, instrumental in the taking of Gibraltar in 1704. His town house was in Micklegate.

Charles Gregory, though a member of the senior line, had no such qualifications to bring him to notice except his passionate enthusiasm for building and decorating. As well as embarking on the transformation of his newly-acquired house in York, he was also adding exotic 18th-century embellishments to the Fairfax family seat at Gilling Castle in the Howardian Hills north-east of York. All this activity was to cause him some financial problems.,

Finest Yorkshire craftsmen

For his work at York he commissioned John Carr to carry out his requirements. Carr in turn engaged the finest craftsmen available, mostly from Yorkshire, to bring Charles Gregory’s ambitious project to fruition. Although in scale Fairfax House was nowhere near as monumental as General “Black Tom’s” Buckingham House across the river with its 47 taxable hearths, one suspects that the end result was far more beautiful. Even so, it is sad that the General’s great mansion was already in ruins by the end of the 18th century.

Though there are many tantalising gaps in the story, we are fortunate that a wealth of information on Fairfax’s building activities has survived in the family archives held in the North Yorkshire County Record Office. They tell us many of the names of the craftsmen who worked for the Viscount. Joseph Henderson carried out the magnificent plasterwork but it is likely that Giuseppe Cortese, an outstanding stuccoist from the Italian part of Switzerland, was responsible for the finer detail. His name is not mentioned in connection with Fairfax House but he is recorded as the creator of ceilings at Gilling Castle similar to those at York. His rich rococo embellishments are appropriate for the purpose of each room; portrait busts of literary figures in the library, the figure of Abundance in the dining room, themes of Friendship in the drawing room, and Music in the saloon.

The woodwork in the house is the work of Daniel Shillitoe, a Yorkshireman with a business established in Wakefield. Throughout Fairfax House the carved and painted pine woodwork is of the highest quality, the four door cases on the upper landing surely comparable with the work of Grinling Gibbons. But it is not only the door architraves that have been so treated. The window surrounds, shutters, dado rail and even the skirting display a rich and varied amount of carved detail.

The third important man is Maurice Tobin, also from Wakefield. He was responsible for the ironwork both inside and outside the house. Fortunately his work on the grand staircase with its figure-of-eight design and rosette decoration has survived intact. His external railings have long since disappeared although the modern replacements are based on his designs which have fortunately survived in the form of drawings made by the York architect Ridsdale Tate when the front railings were removed for road widening in 1879.

The work of John Carr and his team was completed in 1762. When her father died in 1772, Anne sold Fairfax House and moved back to Gilling Castle until her death in 1793.

From Lord Fairfax’s death in 1772, Fairfax House changed hands six times. The last resident was Ann Pemberton after whose death in 1865 the house ceased to be a family home. Over the next 100 years it went through a variety of changes in use from which its ultimate rescue and survival is little short of miraculous.

The present entrance was built on the side of the house for the cinema.

Conversion to a cinema

The most dramatic change of all, and potentially the most disastrous, came in 1919 when the house was acquired by a company named St George’s Hall Entertainments (York) Co Ltd for conversion into a cinema. At a time when there was little or no town planning regulation, it was a remarkable achievement on the part of a handful of York conservationists to persuade the cinema company to respect the architectural integrity of the house. To their credit the company kept their promise to a considerable extent and a surprisingly small amount of irreparable damage was done. The house next door was integrated with Fairfax House and the main cinema complex built at the back. The house itself was mainly used for administrative purposes, though the first floor was made into a ballroom. The cinema works did result in the demolition of an L-shaped wing extending from the back of the house comprising the kitchens and servants’ quarters. This loss in architectural terms was probably not too great.

Forty years later, in 1960, the cinema closed. The site was bought by York City Council, primarily because of the special architectural qualities of Fairfax House. However, there was an inherited dancing school tenancy and so, for the next 20 years until the school closed, the council was powerless to effect any proposals for the future of the house. By this time the building was falling into a sorry state of disrepair. It was also very difficult to find a viable use for the premises. Sympathetically aware of the council’s dilemma, the York Civic Trust independently was trying to think of an appropriate affordable solution.

Terry furniture collection

The answer came in 1980 after the death of Noel Terry, chairman of the famous chocolate firm. He was also a founder member and long-serving honorary treasurer of the York Civic Trust. As a keen collector he had spent a lifetime amassing a superb collection of mainly Georgian furniture and clocks said to be one of the finest such collections of this period in private hands. He had always intended to leave this to the York Civic Trust in the expectation that the furniture would remain at Goddards, the family home at Dringhouses, which should be opened to the public. However, he left the final decision to the trustees of the Noel G. Terry Charitable Trust. When Fairfax House came on the market shortly after Noel’s death, his trustees felt that he would agree that this would be a far more appropriate location in the city centre for the collection than Goddards, a house built for Terry in 1926 by Walter Brierley in more Tudor and vernacular style than Georgian. The resulting bequest to the York Civic Trust was made with Noel Terry’s strict condition that the collection should stay as an entity within the city of York.

Restoration of Fairfax House

The formidable task of raising the money and carrying out the restoration of Fairfax House was by far the biggest undertaking ever embarked upon by the Trust. With the help of generous financial support from a number of grant-making organisations, the work of bringing the house back to its former glory began in 1982 under the direction of Francis Johnson, an eminent Yorkshire architect whose unsurpassed knowledge of the Georgian period led to him being described as a latter-day John Carr. The restoration took place over 20 months from 1982 to 1984. It proved as challenging as expected. Following the removal of the cinema auditorium, the rear wall of the house had to be completely rebuilt. The fragility of the Georgian foundations was a major concern as the house had begun to subside. It seemed to be supported mainly by Lord Fairfax’s extensive brick wine cellar some of which it was possible to retain amidst the solid concrete underpinning that was necessary.

All Daniel Shillitoe’s decorative woodwork had to be removed and immersed in tanks of alkaline solution so that centuries of paint could be stripped off, revealing the original carving in almost pristine condition. The ceilings were another matter. There was no alternative but to set about the painstaking task of stripping the paint off by hand with the help of a little heat. It took some 10,000 man hours and cost £45,000 but the resulting disclosure of so much lost detail was a spectacular revelation.

There was even a silver lining in the regrettable loss of some 10 per cent of the decorative architectural features resulting from the cinema company’s insensitive conversion of some rooms. This provided the opportunity to show that there are craftsmen today who are every bit as skilled as their 18th-century predecessors. It is instructive to compare Shillitoe’s work with that carried out in Dick Reid’s York workshop in 1982 – if you can spot any difference! And there will be few who notice, as they ascend the rear staircase, that some of the balustrade is the original work of Maurice Tobin while the rest is that of the firm Moorside Wrought Iron of Kirkbymoorside in 1983. To complete the picture, the striking terracotta cinema entrance of c.1920 has also been restored to its original appearance as a reminder of an interesting phase in the history of the building.

On 30 October 1984, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent performed an opening ceremony marking the completion of the restoration work which had cost some £750,000. The house was revealed in all its glory and opened to the public the next day. Since that time about one million people have passed through its doors and Fairfax House has established itself as one of the jewels in the crown of York’s rich and varied architectural history.

The house was recently purchased by the York Conservation Trust and leased back to the Civic Trust.

The following books are available from the Fairfax House Museum shop – www.fairfaxhouse.co.uk:

Peter Brown, Fairfax House, An Illustrated History and Guide (York, 1989)

Peter Brown, The Noel Terry Collection of Furniture and Clocks (York, 1987)

Hugh Fairfax, Fairfax of Virginia, The Forgotten Story of America’s only Peerage (London, 2017)

Gerry Webb, Fairfax of York, The Life and History of a Noble Family (York, 2001)

© Gerry Webb

Photos: Rachel Semlyen