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The Grange and its park have a colourful history stretching back several hundred years – encompassing a royal tenant, a succession of banking families, requisition during the 2nd World War, and earlier this century the addition of a 570 seat theatre used for an annual opera festival.

The Early Years

In the 1660s a handsome brick mansion was built on the site of the current house for the Henley family who also began to lay out the park. In the 2nd half of the 18th Century it was acquired by the Drummond banking family who further developed the setting. Due to an early death in that family, which left the property in the hands of a minor, a lease was granted in the 1790s to George Prince of Wales, Prince Regent who subsequently was to become George IV. He used  it as a hunting box and for lavish entertainment-and may even have hosted Jane Austen there during this period who dedicated her novel Persuasion to him. At the turn of the century Henry Drummond came of age and took back the house. Influenced by the fashionable interest in antiquities and early architecture he commissioned the architect William Wilkins to remodel the house into a magnificent Neo Classical residence. Drummond however soon tired of the remodel and in 1817 sold the house and park to another member of another banking family, Alexander Baring.

The Barings

Alexander, son of Sir Francis Baring, who had founded the banking firm of Baring Brothers in 1763, was one of the foremost financiers and statesmen of his day, eventually being created Lord Ashburton in 1835. He particularly developed the firm’s business in America where he acquired a very eligible wife – Louisa Bingham from Philadelphia – and also financed the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – a transformational expansion of US territory by the acquisition of a huge tract of land, including The Mississippi Basin from Napoleonic France for US $15 million. At home, Alexander tirelessly developed the estate, more than doubling the size of the house with extensions by Smirke and Cockerell (including the orangerie where the theatre is situated) and extending the plantings and land holdings of the estate. For the next century Alexander’s successors as Lord Ashburton pursued a number of interests outside the bank but by the time his great grandson Francis (5th Lord Ashburton) succeeded in the 1890’s the family acumen and diligence was running short. Francis devoted himself to sailing and shooting (he was a noted Edwardian big shot) and neglected the estate’s finances so that in the 1930’s the majority of the estate had to be sold to clear his debts.

Lost and Found

In 1935 the house and park were acquired by Charles Wallach, an Anglophile Polish American tycoon who had made a fortune in fuel additives. Wallach was an enthusiastic art collector and The Grange provided an impressive backdrop against which to display his work, however in the 1940s the house and grounds were requisitioned as a headquarters for the US 9th army in the run up to D-day with Prime Minister Winston Churchill visiting to receive a briefing from General Dwight Eisenhower in 1944. Wallach took the house back after the war but with the onset of old age retreated to the bachelor wing at the rear (now demolished) and the condition of much of the house deteriorated. Wallach died in the early 60’s without heirs and in 1965 the property returned to the ownership of the Baring family, when John Baring (now 7th Lord Ashburton and grandson of the ancestor who had sold it) acquired it in an auction in Winchester. John Baring’s principle interest was in the land which marched with the remnants of the families original estate. The house remained vacant and deteriorating but in view of its architectural significance it was taken into the guardianship of the Department of the Environment (now English Heritage) in the 1970s, although the freehold remains with the family. In the 1980s the roof was extensively restored and the external structure of the building stabilized.

A New Chapter

The Grange Festival

In 1997 the founders of Grange Park Opera persuaded Lord Ashburton and English Heritage to agree to holding a summer opera festival at The Grange. Originally performances were given in temporary staging and seating, erected within the old orangery, but such was the festival’s success that charitable fundraising in 2000 enabled the construction of the current fully equipped 570 seat theatre. From 2017 a new company, The Grange Festival, under the artistic direction of the renowned counter tenor Michael Chance, took over responsibility for producing opera on the site. Details of this years productions and excellent reviews can be found here