Villa returns to its former glory
Last month, under the Civic Trust's Heritage Weekend programme, the public had a rare chance to view an historic building in St Mary Cray which is being restored privately without outside financial help.
LUCYA SZACHNOWSKI reports on what visitors found at Kevington Hall ...
THE estate of Kevington can be traced back to medieval times, when it was held by the Manning family.
Richard Manning, the last in possession, died without issue in 1753 and left the estate to his nephew, Denzil Onslow. His son, Middleton Onslow, sold it to a prosperous London merchant Herman Behrens, of Amsterdam, who had Kevington Hall built.
Kevington Hall is a Palladian villa, square in plan with Victorian additions, originally designed by architect Sir Robert Taylor in 1767 to 1769 at a cost of £6,192.10s, according to estate accounts.
Taylor trained initially as a sculptor. He visited Rome and later carved the pediment on the Mansion House, London.
Turning to architecture, he worked on a wide range of projects across the country. Although he was inspired by Andrea Palladio's compact, square villas, he was not simply a copyist. From humble beginnings and through hard work, Taylor became a major architect, rivalling Robert Adam.
Kevington Hall is a good example of his work. Set in a commanding position, it has views to the north east over a field and copse and, to the south west, over green belt land.
The staircase at Kevington is off-centre and serves the four main rooms the hall, library, dining room and drawing room. The main bedrooms are on the first floor and there is also a sub-basement.
The house has fine cornicing in all the principal ground floor rooms, that in the dining room being the most elaborate.
By the 1760s, Taylor's interior decoration was evolving in similar ways to Robert Adam's.
Impressive as it is externally, the full-height bay window was a later addition, introduced by Joseph Berens (the name modifying from Behrens).
Prior to this, the house would have had simple "square" form. There is a simple entablature and cornice which gives the house a flat, neo-classical character. The shallow-pitched roof is hidden from the ground by a low parapet which refers to an earlier 18th-century style. The white window surrounds which contrast strongly against the red brick walls.
Kevington Hall was the private home of the Berens family until the Second World War, at which time it was requisitioned by the Government to house Canadian troops.
Sold to Kent County Council at the end of the war, it was used as a primary school until the early 1980s.
Many institutional features were added including an unsightly iron fire escape. The cornicing in the dining room was badly damaged to insert heating pipes and the hall banisters were cut and boarded.
Also during this time, a Livorno marble fireplace (matching the existing library fireplace) was removed from the drawing room for "safekeeping" and its whereabouts are unknown.
Yet, in spite of insensitive alterations carried out at this period, Kevington may well have survived because of council ownership.
The property was sold in 1987 as being surplus to educational needs and was bought by a private family with the aim of restoring it as a fine example of Taylor's architecture.
Since then, much has been done to improve the property's condition. The roof has been made watertight, a new central heating system has been fitted, the water system has been pressurised and placed in the cellar. Before this, the house had tons of water lying in the attic.
Current owner Janet Jackson and her son Jonathan are working hard but the villa still requires huge expenditure to fully restore it and secure its future under private ownership.
Mrs Jackson said: "Jonathan has done extensive research in the last year. We have a lot of material from archives and managed to contact the Berens family, who built the property.
"We have restored the main reception rooms on the ground floor, which are really beautiful."
Work on the exterior, which urgently needs attention, is due to begin in spring, 2003. Mrs Jackson is also trying to raise funds.
She said: "English Heritage is unable to provide any funds, which is a major problem, so it is all being funded privately."
Mrs Jackson would like to hear from anyone who has any photographs, documents or information about the history of Kevington Hall, or who can help with fundraising. Write to her at Kevington Hall, Crockenhall Road, St Mary Cray BR5 4EP.
3:18pm Monday 7th October 2002