When Damien Hirst bought a historic manor in the Cotswolds he had grand plans. The crumbling 19th-century Toddington Manor, which the world’s richest artist bought for £3m in 2005, would be restored to its former glory, turned into his family home and be a spectacular gallery for his personal art collection.
But years 17 years after its purchase, the property remains uninhabited and covered in scaffolding and tarpaulin. Locals have branded it an “eyesore,” a “white blob” and “a blight on the countryside”.
Frustrated local residents in Toddington, 10 miles east of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, are now taking matters in their own hands. This week the parish council will meet to come up with a plan that it hopes will force Hirst to finally make good on his promise to restore the property.
“We want to see what can be done, if anything at all,” said Toddington parish council’s chairman, Nigel Parker. “It is one of the biggest eyesores in the area. People are fed up with it. Damien Hirst has had this property for 17 years now, but it is still clad in scaffolding and tarpaulin, and as far as we can tell there is no restoration in sight.”
Hirst found fame in 1992 when his pickled tiger shark proved to be the centrepiece of the acclaimed Young British Artists exhibition at the Saatchi gallery. A sliced cow and calf, and pickled sheep followed in quick succession, but Hirst’s twin obsession with death and publicity was perhaps best witnessed with his controversial 2007 platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds, which he claimed sold for £50m
Hirst’s work – and the prices it sold for – became synonymous with the new wealth of the late 1990s and 2000s. This reached a climax in September 2008 with the sale of more than 200 of his artworks at Sotheby’s for a total of $200m – on the same day that Lehman Brothers collapsed, sparking a global financial crisis.
Hirst bought the sprawling estate in Gloucestershire, which bankrupted the family that built it, for £3m, with locals told that it was destined to be his family home and a spectacular gallery for his personal art collection.
But in the wake of his split in 2012 from his long-term partner Maia Norman, the mother of his three sons, the project has stalled, with locals complaining they have been kept in the dark.
The property is on Historic England’s “at risk” register and the heritage organisation said it was intending to work with Tewkesbury borough council “to encourage the owner” to press ahead with the restoration.
Malle Hague, who lives near the manor, said: “I wish he would bloody well get on with it. It would be nice if he could at least camouflage this white blob. He’s an artist – he could just paint it.
“It is a blight on the countryside. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty but you can see this for miles. At the start he did a lot of good work but this has gone on too long now.”
Completed in 1840, Toddington Manor took 21 years to construct. It was built by Charles Hanbury-Tracy MP, later Lord Sudeley, and the scale of the undertaking would eventually bankrupt his family in 1893.
Composed of a quadrangle and surrounded by cloisters, the house has a large entrance hall, a grand staircase, a 40ft-long oak-panelled dining room, and two libraries, with intricate stone and wood carving.
It is one of the earliest examples of what became known as Victorian gothic, and when Sudeley helped to select Charles Barry to rebuild the Houses of Parliament, the architect reportedly took Toddington as one of his models.
Councillor John Evetts, chair of Tewkesbury council’s planning committee, said: “It’s been a hell of a long time since he bought it. I am told Hirst has never applied for planning permission.
“As the chair of the local planning committee, as far as I am aware he has never spoken to us. I work in restoration and conservation and I think it could cost Damien Hirst £50m to restore and still not be finished.
“The talk of the town is that when he [split with his partner] he lost interest in this project. As far as I am aware there have been no further planning approaches or further permissions granted. It appears he has just abandoned it or got bored with it. It is the biggest white elephant I have ever seen. In fact ‘folly’ would be a good word.”
Bert Alvis, a local farmer and parish councillor, complained that his repeated inquiries with the estate management company have failed to illicit any answers.
“I have asked the agent, which manages the estate, and they have no idea. We heard he was going to use it as a private house and private gallery for his collection,” he said. “But after the crash, everything stopped. It is odd: no one is telling anybody anything.”
Last year it was revealed that Hirst, who is reportedly worth £315m, had taken out £15m in Covid loans and furloughed staff at the taxpayers’ expense. Although his main company, Prints and Editions, has £188m of art on its books, it has failed to turn a profit since 2016, and Hirst has closed many of his companies in the last four years.
In 2018 it was revealed that Hirst was closing down his high-profile restaurant in Ilfracombe, Devon, just a year after he had shut his gallery in the town.
This was billed as part of a restructuring of his sprawling Science Ltd empire but also drew local criticism that the artist had left some properties vacant.Hirst has built up a formidable property portfolio since he exploded on to the British art scene. Toddington Manor, however, was meant to be his piece de resistance.
A Tewkesbury council spokesman said it was “satisfied there are intentions to repair it”. But he added that there were no current planning application listed and “we are not aware of any work that has taken place”.
Parker, chair of the parish council, said: “After the meeting we may write to Damien Hirst and his representatives, or it may be that Tewkesbury will. But, either way, it is time this was resolved.”