When Damien Hirst bought a historic country house in the Cotswolds, he had big plans. The crumbling 19th-century Toddington Manor, which the world’s richest artist bought for £3 million in 2005, would be restored to its former glory, turned into his childhood home and become a spectacular gallery for his personal art collection.
But 17 years after the purchase, the property remains uninhabited and covered with scaffolding and tarpaulin. Locals have branded it an “thorn in the side”, a “white blob” and “a scourge in the countryside”.
Frustrated local residents in Toddington, 10 miles east of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, are now taking matters into their own hands. This week the parish council is meeting to come up with a plan that he hopes will force Hirst to finally deliver on his promise to restore the property.
“We want to see what can be done, or nothing at all,” said Nigel Parker, Toddington Parish Council president. “It is one of the biggest eyesores in the area. People are fed up. Damien Hirst has owned this property for 17 years but it still stands with scaffolding and tarpaulin and to our knowledge no recovery is in sight.”
Hirst rose to fame in 1992 when his pickled tiger shark turned out to be the centerpiece of the acclaimed Young British Artists exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. A carved cow and calf, and pickled sheep followed in quick succession, but Hirst’s double obsession with death and publicity was perhaps best seen with his controversial 2007 platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds, which he claimed was worth £15.00. 50 million was sold
Hirst’s work—and the prices it sold for—became synonymous with the newfound wealth of the late 1990s and 2000s. This peaked in September 2008 with the sale of more than 200 of his artworks at Sotheby’s for a total of $US 200 million – the same day Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering a global financial crisis.
Hirst bought the sprawling Gloucestershire estate, bankrupting the family who built it, for £3 million, telling locals it was destined to become his childhood home and a spectacular gallery for his personal art collection.
But in the wake of his 2012 split from his long-term partner Maia Norman, the mother of his three sons, the project has stalled, with locals complaining they’ve been kept in limbo.
The property is on Historic England’s “at risk” register and the heritage organization said it planned to work with Tewkesbury City Council “to encourage the owner” to continue with the restoration.
Malle Hague, who lives near the mansion, said: “I wish he’d go through with it damn well. It would be nice if he could at least camouflage this white blob. He’s an artist – he would just paint.
“It is a plague in the countryside. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty, but you can see it for miles. In the beginning he did a lot of good work, but this is taking too long now.”
Completed in 1840, Toddington Manor took 21 years to build. It was built by Charles Hanbury-Tracy MP, later Lord Sudeley, and the size of the venture would eventually drive his family out of business in 1893.
The house consists of a quadrangle and is surrounded by cloisters. It has a grand entrance hall, a grand staircase, a 40m oak paneled dining room and two libraries with intricate stone and wood carvings.
It is one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as Victorian Gothic, and when Sudeley helped select Charles Barry to rebuild the Houses of Parliament, the architect reportedly took Toddington as one of his models.
Councilor John Evetts, chairman of the Tewkesbury Town Planning Committee, said: “It’s been a very long time since he bought it. I heard that Hirst never applied for a building permit.
“As chairman of the local planning committee, as far as I know, he has never spoken to us. I work in restoration and conservation and I think it could cost Damien Hirst £50million to restore and still be unfinished.
“The talk of the day is that when he… [split with his partner] he lost interest in this project. To the best of my knowledge, no further planning approach or further permissions have been granted. Looks like he just gave up or got bored with it. It is the largest white elephant I have ever seen. In fact, ‘foolishness’ would be a good word.”
Bert Alvis, a local farmer and councillor, complained that his repeated inquiries with the estate’s management company had not yielded an unauthorized response.
“I have asked the estate agent who manages the estate and they have no idea. We heard he was going to use it as a private home and private gallery for his collection,” he said. “But after the crash everything stopped. It’s strange: nobody tells anyone anything.”
Last year it was revealed that Hirst, who is reportedly worth £315m, had taken out £15m in Covid loans and laid off staff at taxpayers’ expense. Although his main company, Prints and Editions, has £188 million worth of art on its books, it has not made a profit since 2016 and Hirst has closed many of his businesses over the past four years.
In 2018 it was revealed that Hirst would be closing his high profile restaurant in Ilfracombe, Devon, just a year after closing his gallery in the city.
This was announced as part of a restructuring of his sprawling Science Ltd empire, but also faced local criticism that the artist had left some properties vacant. Hirst has built a formidable property portfolio since exploding on the British art scene. However, Toddington Manor was intended to be his piece of resistance.
A spokesman for the council in Tewkesbury said it was “satisfied that there are plans to fix it”. But he added that no current planning application was listed and “we are not aware of any work that has taken place”.
Parker, parish council president, said: “After the meeting we can write to Damien Hirst and his representatives, or Tewkesbury will. Anyway, it’s time to get this resolved.”