British stately homes are great receptacles of history and less than 30km from central London, the palatial Denham Place in Buckinghamshire has a back story that underpins a price tag of £75 million ($94.5 million) for a would-be new owner.
It has links to royalty and Hollywood, contains secret passageways and intricate ceiling paintings. It has stood for four centuries and has undergone a major restoration project to bring it up to modern expectations.
The original Tudor building on the Denham Place estate, built about 1541 by Sir Edmund Peckham, chief treasurer to Henry VIII – whose daughter Elizabeth I visited in 1586 – has given way to a classic in the William and Mary architectural style.
In the mid-19th century, Denham Place was briefly a royal residence, when it was occupied by Joseph-Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled former king of Naples and Sicily, and Jerome-Napoleon Bonaparte, Prince of Montfort and King of Westphalia, after the defeat of their brother, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, at the Battle of Waterloo almost 30 years earlier.
After the French imperial family came an American banking dynasty, when JP Morgan leased Denham Place for more than 50 years until his death in 1913.
In 1930, the estate began its long association with the British film industry, when Lord Robert Vansittart purchased the property with his wife, Lady Sarita, herself a wealthy heiress.
The couple were close friends with film producer Alexander Korda, who they helped to set up nearby Denham Studios, where Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946) where filmed.
A home with history
The building of the current mansion was commissioned in 1670 by Sir Roger Hill, MP and High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, who was inspired by the architecture and gardens of the Palace of Versailles in France.
About 100 years later, the gardens were landscaped by famous English gardener Lancelot Brown, better known as Capability Brown, who is responsible for crafting the gardens at about 170 stately homes in England, including Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Harewood House and Highclere Castle, the location of the Downton Abbey television series.
Later, the studios were used to record music film scores, including those for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Star Wars.
Because the first James Bond films were being made at nearby Pinewood Studios, the co-producer of the 007 films, Harry Saltzman, leased Denham Place between 1960 and 1977.
During that time, many Hollywood A-list stars visited the estate, including Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Michael Caine, Rudolf Nureyev and Gregory Peck.
The library at Denham Place was replicated at Pinewood studios to become M's office in some of the Bond films.
Current owner, the business tycoon Mike Jatania, bought it in 2000 as he built a fortune in cosmetics, selling the personal-care brand Lornamead to the Chinese conglomerate Li and Fung for almost $200 million a decade ago.
He commissioned an eight-year restoration and renovation, which because of the property's Grade I historical status involved English Heritage and the Georgian Group, was an exercise in how historical research, attention to detail and craftsmanship of the highest order can come together to create something truly spectacular.
“The project was very unusual,” Alexander Kravetz, the interior architect and designer who led the restoration team, told The National.
“It was not just a renovation of the house, it’s actually a full-on restoration of what was always a very important beautiful palace.
“The biggest challenge to deliver something like this, was not only from the point of view of just decoration, but actually forming all the spaces to flow seamlessly from one to the next, incorporating all the modern conveniences and then looking after the heritage that has been here for 400 years.”
Denham Place has a grand 2,650-square-metre manor house with 12 reception rooms, 12 bedroom suites, 14 bathrooms, family and catering kitchens, private chapel, two staircases and a passenger lift to all floors.
The wider 17-hectare estate includes a Grade II-listed coach house, cottages, ancillary buildings and garages. There is planning permission to convert the coach house into a state-of-the-art health spa.
The main mansion has been extensively and painstakingly restored and refurbished — a process that took eight years to complete.
Mr Kravetz's portfolio includes refurbishment work for The Dorchester and Landmark Hotels in London, Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St Moritz and the Imperial Hotel in Vienna.
Mr Kravetz took The National on an exclusive tour of Denham Place, starting in the drawing room, which has a hand-painted ceiling fresco, silk wall panels and curtains by the renowned Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company, a handwoven carpet inspired by one in Buckingham Palace and custom crystal chandeliers by the oldest glassmakers in France, Saint Louis.
The gold-embossed curtains and silk on the walls are a good example of the lengths that Mr Kravetz and his team went to in order to preserve the character of the building.
“The last remaining silk manufacturing factory in England, Gainsborough, was responsible for manufacturing pretty much all the fabrics on this estate,” he said.
“I had to go to the factory and look through all the 17th-century archives to make sure we were historically correct. And Gainsborough reproduced all of the silk fabrics to the colour that was required in the colour scheme for the design.”
Then it was on to the music room, with its gold leaf plasterwork and fresco of music instruments, with the cornices around the ceiling depicting scenes from English country sports in minute detail.
“The music room is widely referenced in many historical publications, so you can see the significance of this room and the history of plasterworks in England,” Mr Kravetz said.
It is also Mr Jatania's favourite room.
“I would sit in the music room and each time I would notice a little detail I may have missed in the plaster,” he told The National.
“The house plays with you all the time, so you’ve got this wonderful relationship. It’s not just bricks and mortar — there’s history, there’s provenance.
“There’s times when you’re listening to music or you’re reading a book about the period and suddenly it brings all of this alive.”
The tapestry or billiards room next to the music room feels somewhat more playful, with its restored fresco depicting Denham village.
“The tapestry room is very different in its appearance in comparison to the music room, because it’s almost naive in its way. It portrays the beautiful village of Denham, which is preserved almost intact from medieval times,” Mr Kravetz said.
The chapel, now dressed as a lounge, has wood panelling brought from Hampton Court Palace during the 1700s.
It is yet another example of the lengths the restoration team went to to bring Denham Place's history back to life. Mr Kravetz spent time at Hampton Court researching the exact shade of blue that featured in some of the wood carvings.
There is a profound sense of serenity and calm in the chapel room and the Jatania family uses it as prayer room.
“It does have that spiritual sense in that room. I feel that, definitely,” Mr Jatania said.
On the first floor are four stately bedroom suites, all with dressing rooms and en suite bathrooms in Italian marble, with interior design and dressing inspired by the royal bedchambers at Versailles.
As such, the principal bedroom suite, by any reckoning, is among the grandest in Britain.
“It’s beautifully decorated and also it allows you to have very substantial accommodation — two bathrooms, walk-in closets, a private study that doubles up as yet another wardrobe with secret interconnecting doors,” Mr Kravetz said.
“Generally, it’s a very unusual accommodation that you will not find in other stately homes.”
Seven further bedrooms take up the second floor, in addition to a penthouse suite that has its own kitchen and living room.
With its movie heritage, Denham Place is geared to entertaining large numbers of guests.
On the ground floor, a banqueting hall that can seat up to 120 diners is currently in use as a home cinema, a gymnasium and an intimate lounge and party room.
“It’s geared for large-scale entertainment, both indoors and outdoors. For example, you could have a banquet for 80 to 120 people just in the basement function rooms,” Mr Kravetz said.
“It’s effectively ready to be moved into and adaptable for whatever use you need.”
Yet more evidence of the lengths gone to and achieved by the refurbishment project is plain to see in the vaulted ceilings of the lower ground floor.
“Those were hand-painted by three artists with great provenance who had done work in the Venice Opera House,” Mr Jatania said.
“They hand-painted it for three years with scaffolding.
“If you want to just get a result, you can do it in many different ways — if you want to create provenance and a story and leave a mark behind you, you’ve got to do it right.”
“Luxury takes time and craftsmen take time.”
Going with the flow
Aside from the astounding attention to detail involved in the restoration, the refurbishment also preserves and improves the flow of the house.
As such, most of the rooms have two entrances, meaning that you can walk through much of the house without having to turn around in a room and exit via the same door through which you entered.
However, the flow at Denham Place is more than where the doors are located — it involves the functions of the rooms, the space within them, their orientation and even the position of the furniture.
“Because the house is built as an H shape, it’s very easy to flow from one part of the house to the next. There is very good interconnection between all the rooms,” Mr Kravetz said.
“It [the flow] is a great USP [unique selling point] and for anyone who’s going to look into the footprint and way this house actually functions.”
That functionality is especially evident when it comes to the operational architecture — or in practical terms, how the staff can move around the building efficiently and discreetly.
The concept of flow applies to these areas as well: the kitchens are connected to serving pantries by means of lifts and hidden doors to the dining rooms.
For example, if needed, a staff member could take a glass of water from the far end of the kitchen on the lower ground floor to the lounge on the other side of the building without having to pass through the banqueting or other guest areas.
“From the very beginning, we designed it as being a very strict separation between the front of house and the back of house,” Mr Kravetz said.
“So, the staff has a substantial amount of floor space for housekeeping and kitchens.
“Everything is easily accessible by lifts in various parts of the house and, therefore, from the point of view of usability, it’s a very easy house to live in and especially if it’s a large amount of people.
“That’s where it differs — many other places are not as well adapted to this kind of lifestyle and grand-scale entertainment.
“The majority of the rooms have double entrances, direct connection to the servicing and everything functions seamlessly.”
But the heritage, restoration and design marvels do not stop with the main house.
At a little more than 17 hectares, the magnificent gardens were restored by renowned landscape architect Lord Kenilworth, who has sculpted a unique balance between gardens, parkland and woodland, with a formal sunken garden, a walled garden, a meadow, an orchard and a lake.
There is planning permission to transform the Grade II-listed coach house into a health spa with a gym, changing rooms, sauna, steam room, lounges, three treatment rooms and two wet-treatment rooms, complete with a 15-metre outdoor swimming pool that could be enclosed in a glass conservatory.
Denham Place also borders the 18-hole Buckinghamshire Golf Club championship course.
Given all this, you would be right to ask why the owner is selling such a trophy.
For Mr Jatania, it's just the right time. The family do not use the house as much as they used to and he feels that, grandeur aside, Denham Place is, at its heart, a family home.
So, while his family has outgrown it, he hopes another can enjoy its delights.
While Denham Place is a unique property in itself, the actual path to market has been unusual as well.
Often in the UK, houses at this end of the market change hands discreetly — few outside a small number of people will know that a particular property is on the market, who has bought it and for how much. Estate agents make hushed enquiries to ultra-high net worth clients.
Not so with Denham Place, which is on the open market through Beauchamp Estates, Savills and Knight Frank. It is listed on Rightmove.com at £75 million.
It is, however, the unique nature of the estate that steered it down the path to the unconventional vending process for a property of this scale and value.
“We felt that it is such a hidden jewel that a lot of potential buyers would not know about this property,” Mr Jatania said.
“And secondly, it was not just another big house being sold. The story and heritage of it did need telling properly and consistently.
“Because with these off-market transactions, lots of whispers go on and we felt that a home like this could be attractive to various people across various parts of the world.
“We’re living in a modern digital world of transparency where you can’t keep secrets any more.”
For James Crawford, head of the super prime team at the country department at Knight Frank, Denham Place ticks all the boxes for ultra-high net worth people looking for a unique home.
“Alongside offering private, tranquil parkland, it is excellently connected, just 30 minutes from central London and Mayfair, while being just six miles [9.6km] from airport base RAF Northolt for using private jets,” he said.
“Short of acquiring one of the Crown Estate royal palaces, there is nothing of this grandeur or provenance so close to central London.”
The high standard of the restoration and completed refurbishment is an important selling point as well, according to Crispin Holborow, country director at Savills Private Office.
“The key point is condition,” he told The National.
“It’s really because most of these buyers are buying a property that they will occupy for a period of time. They don’t therefore want to do major works.
“So, the fact you’ve got a property that’s in immaculate condition is a key driver.”
It is an active time in the higher end of the real estate market in the UK at the moment.
According to Beauchamp Estates, sales of super-prime country houses and estates outside London hit a 15-year high last year, with almost 170 luxury homes outside the capital selling for between £5 million and £125 million.
Denham Place's history, location and immaculate condition make its sale a once-in-a-generation event. After all, over its long history, Denham Place has had only seven owners.
While Mr Jatania is looking forward to passing the estate to its eighth owner, he will look back fondly on his two decades at Denham Place.
“I will miss it, absolutely,” he said.
“But we created memories and that’s the important thing.
“We’ve created great memories in that home and those will always remain with us.
“Irrespective of whether you’ve visited somewhere or owned something, if you’ve created memories, you own them for ever.”