There has always been a certain madness about Toddington Manor, the Victorian Gothic extravaganza owned by artist Damien Hirst that has dominated the Gloucestershire village for the past 200 years.
Take the bewildering scale and over-the-top style, with a vast, ridiculously ornate stonework facade that provided the inspiration for the Palace of Westminster — and reportedly got singer Madonna‘s heart racing.
Outside, it is a huge sprawl of quadrangles, cloisters and towers. Inside, there are more than 300 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, two libraries, a 40 ft oak-panelled dining room, countless staircases and an exquisitely designed indoor ‘riding loop’ a quarter of a mile long — just to keep the horses dry on a grey day.
Damien Hirst and Sophie Cannell in 2018. The artist owns Toddington Manor, a stunning Victorian Gothic extravaganza
Experts describe the Grade I-listed pile, which took 20 years to build from 1820, as ‘one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture anywhere’.
So it seems a bit of a shame that, for the past 17 years — in fact, pretty much ever since Hirst snapped it up for about £3.1 million in 2005 — the whole thing has been encased in scaffolding, shrouded with acres of white plastic sheeting and, other than a quick flurry of work in the early years, left largely untouched and uninhabited for more than a decade.
No builders, say locals, no project manager, no contractors, no noise — and according to councillor and chair of Tewkesbury council’s planning committee, John Evetts, no planning applications.
And, perhaps most importantly, no sight of all that Gothic splendour, either. Just a lot of flapping white plastic gleaming in the sun and dominating the landscape — in the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, of all places.
Frustrated locals in the pristine village of Toddington, ten miles east of Tewkesbury, refer to it as an ‘eyesore’ and a ‘white blob’.
‘Apparently, it’s the largest free-standing scaffolding of its kind in Britain,’ says Malle Hague, 74, who lives with her husband in the manor’s restored carriage house, which sits outside the grounds.
‘It’s this big white block, blighting the landscape. I wish he’d do something. He’s an artist. Can’t he just paint it green or something?’
At the Toddington Parish Council meeting this week, members were desperate for answers after a decade-long blank, not just in progress but also in communications.
Toddington Manor in 2005. Inside, there are more than 300 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, two libraries and a 40 ft oak-panelled dining room
‘We were told it would take four to five, or even maybe ten years,’ says chairman, Nigel Parker.
‘But it has been 17 and still nothing’s happening. We don’t even know how to get hold of him, or anyone, to find out.’
The pity is that it all started so promisingly back in 2005.
Left uninhabited for 20 years by the previous owner, it was a mess and in need of an owner with ambition, stamina and bucketloads of money.
From a distance, it was still a great — albeit ostentatious —beauty and very dear to the locals’ hearts.
But up close, it had dry rot, wet rot, needed a new roof and complete refurbishment after being used as a £5,000-a-year school for overseas students.
Meanwhile, Hirst — estimated to be worth £315 million — was at the peak of his success and awash with vim and vision.
First, it was going to be a family home for him, his long-term partner Maia Norman and their three sons. There were whispers, too, of an art factory or perhaps a specialist centre for him to cast his bronzes.
The riding loop was to double as a spectacular art gallery to display his personal collection. The great salons would be buzzing again as they were in the heyday of the 1900s.
Yes, the works were likely to cost £50 million or so, but that was small change to Hirst, the high priest of what became known as Britart in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Toddington Manor today. Frustrated locals in the pristine village of Toddington, ten miles east of Tewkesbury, refer to it as an ‘eyesore’ and a ‘white blob’
He shot to fame in 1992 when his 14 ft tiger shark pickled in formaldehyde became the focal point of the Saatchi Gallery Young British Artists (YBA’s) exhibition. Next came a pickled sheep and a sliced cross-section of a cow and calf, and three years later he won the Turner Prize.
Charles Saatchi loved Hirst’s art and did an excellent job of inflating prices. But countless critics dismissed it as a classic case of the Emperor’s New Clothes — suggesting it was a gigantic con on the art world, exploiting the pretentiousness of some art-lovers, while no one had the guts to call him out.
Meanwhile, tales of bad boy Hirst, self-appointed leader of the pack of YBAs (which included Tracey Emin), were forever popping up in the news; his wild partying, his coke-fuelled rampages, how he would get so drunk he would end up breaking into his own home and a particularly unpleasant-sounding party trick he performed over and again involving a part of his anatomy and a 50 pence piece.
But his success meant that he was one of the very few people with the wherewithal to rescue Toddington.
So, presumably, English Heritage was thrilled when the multi-millionaire celebrity bought the manor, along with Historic England, which has the properly on its ‘at risk’ list.
But not quite as happy as the villagers of Toddington who, the year before, had railed hard against a planning application for a rather dismal-looking hotel on the 200-acre site.
‘Warner Leisure Hotels submitted horrible extension plans,’ says Malle Hague. ‘The hotel would have tripled our peaceful village population, and the facilities were only for hotel residents.’
Villagers were also still smarting after having their hopes raised and dashed when Madonna looked around and then thought better of it.
‘She turned it down because the land area was too small,’ says Malle’s husband Chris Hague. ‘I think she wanted it for shooting and, apparently, 200 acres wasn’t enough for that.’
Hirst’s controversial 2007 platinum skull encrusted with diamonds reportedly went for £50 million, and the year after he sold more than 200 of his artworks at Sotheby’s for £140 million before the Britart bubble burst
So when Hirst, now 56, stepped up, the parish council wrote a very warm letter of welcome to their new saviour, expressing their collective delight.
He responded by pledging £10,000 towards the £683,000 construction costs of the new village hall and agreed to open the parkland gates for guest parking at village weddings.
Work started on the manor almost immediately. The rot was dealt with, the roof replaced, the electricity and plumbing were fixed, the original floorplan restored and extensive restorations undertaken to the hand-carved wood panelling and stonework.
Meanwhile, in the grounds, the ruins of the previous manor were stabilised and the sprawling acres whipped into shape by a team of groundsmen.
Hirst himself was pretty much printing money at the time, despite doing his best to court controversy.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attack, he likened the terrorists to performance artists, saying ‘they’ve achieved something which nobody would have thought possible…So on one level, they need congratulating…’
(He later apologised ‘unreservedly’ for the remarks.)
He was also stalked by claims of plagiarism, and further ruffled feathers in 2003 by declaring: ‘I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.’
But nothing could quite dent his appeal.
His controversial 2007 platinum skull encrusted with diamonds reportedly went for £50 million, and the year after he sold more than 200 of his artworks at Sotheby’s for £140 million before the Britart bubble burst.
He was wildly excited about Toddington, forever buzzing in and out by helicopter, supervising the work and coming up with new ideas.
Until suddenly he wasn’t.
‘He was often back and forth — his pilot used to come over for dinner,’ says John Evetts. ‘But then he stopped. No one has seen him for maybe ten years.’
The work on the house halted, too.
Perhaps because the artist — once flying so very high — was suddenly having a rather torrid time himself.
After 19 years of sharing a roller-coaster lifestyle — indulging in drink and drugs (he once put his £25,000 Turner Prize winnings behind the bar at the Groucho Club and with a few pals drank the lot), and latterly living soberly in a Devon farmhouse — his partner, Maia, left him for a former lieutenant colonel in the Scots Guards.
Hirst was devastated. They had met in 1993, when she was dating renowned art dealer Jay Jopling, and never married, but had always referred to each other as husband and wife.
Maybe without Maia by his side, the project lost its joy. And who would blame his current partner — 27-year-old ballerina Sophie Cannell — if she didn’t fancy embracing a huge Gothic money pit in the country.
‘Maybe some completely lunatic bachelor would fancy it, but I cannot believe any woman would want to live there,’ says Mr Evetts. ‘It’s not a home, it’s a socking great pile. A monster of a house.’
Or maybe, just like the Hanbury-Tracy family 150 years before, Hirst finally realised that the house was just too vast to justify the expenditure.
As former construction boss Dave Phillips, whose garden backs on to the sweeping lawns, puts it: ‘The manor is a huge problem — as much for Damien as anyone else.
‘The problem is that, after spending between £50 million and £75 million to repair it, it’s probably only going to be worth £25 million.’
It certainly did for the Hanbury-Tracy family, whose fortune and luck dwindled from the day Charles laid the first stone in the spring of 1820. Bankruptcy ensured the loss of the family seat in 1893.
Hirst in 2012. He shot to fame in 1992 when his 14 ft tiger shark pickled in formaldehyde became the focal point of the Saatchi Gallery Young British Artists (YBA’s) exhibition
It wasn’t just the construction cost — £150,000 (equivalent to more than £10 million today) — but the freakish size, the upkeep, the staffing and fuel.
It was never even properly finished. The grand staircases sit in huge stone voids. The windows in many of the 40 bedrooms are too high to see out of.
‘It was built to look fantastic from the outside, not from the inside,’ adds John Evetts. ‘It was all about show. An ambitious vanity project. I can’t believe any sane person would buy it.’
Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself with Hirst — whose representatives did not respond to the Mail’s requests for comment on this article.
Last year, despite being reportedly worth £315 million, he took out £15 million in Covid loans and accessed the furlough scheme for some of his employees at his art-trading firm.
‘It’s a white elephant — it’s very white and very, very large,’ says John Evetts.
‘He’ll never sell it in this state. It’s a monster to restore and if he simply lets it fall down, he’ll be in a world of pain with Historic England.’
To be fair to Hirst, the restoration was never intended to be a rush job.
‘Somewhere towards the end of my life we’ll have it open to the public,’ he said in 2006.
And to give credit to the long-suffering villagers, while they are frustrated at the great white blot on the landscape and yearn to admire those extraordinary Gothic spires again, they insist they are on Hirst’s side.
‘We’re happy to wait, however long it takes,’ says Nigel Parker. ‘If only he’ll stick with it.’
But most of all, they just want the courtesy of an update — a communication, message, some certainty, anything — from their rather unlikely lord of the manor who has vanished into thin air. Over to you, Mr Hirst…