William Kent, the reluctant Gothick

If asked what style of architecture one would associate with William Kent, one of the leading designers of the Georgian era, most would say Palladian and, if pushed, they might argue that his interiors are distinctly Baroque.  Yet Kent is also regarded as the creator of the ‘Gothick’ style of architecture; a blend of historical Gothic elements but applied, initially, within the structure of classical rules. This quickly evolved to have greater historical rigour, laying the groundwork for the more zealous interpretation by Victorians such as A.W.N. Pugin.  However, it could be argued that Kent was merely satisfying the stylistic whims of a patron and in his use of ‘Gothic’ elements, was actually continuing the Elizabethan practice of creating ‘symmetrical Gothic’, a visually impressive approach built on Renaissance principles.

Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)

Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)

William Kent was born in 1685 in Bridlington, North Yorkshire, and displayed an early talent for drawing. Despite his parent’s modest means, he ‘had the good fortune to find some Gentlemen…to promote his studyes‘ who paid for him to travel to Italy in 1709, along with another talented young artist, John Talman.  Whilst there, Kent developed his skills in painting, but also in business as an agent for various young aristocrats on the Grand Tour, including Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, and Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, for whom Kent would help purchase paintings and other works of art. The latter connection with Lord Burlington, first professional, then as a friend, was to launch Kent’s career when they both returned to London in 1719, with Kent as the draughtsman of Burlington’s dream of a Palladian Britain.

It was the need for patronage which kept Kent in the thrall of Burlington and the circle of Palladians. Where Kent was given greater freedom, particularly in designing interiors and furniture, his natural inclination seems to have been towards a more Baroque style; a rich, florid escape from the strictures of the pure and elegant Roman style which Burlington so enthusiastically promoted.  So how did Kent become the father of ‘Gothick’, an architectural style characterised by the playful, historically-inaccurate application of medieval Gothic, the language of the cathedrals?

Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court - detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)

Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court – detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)

Kent’s first documented use of Gothick was in 1732-34 at Hampton Court Palace where he was commissioned to rebuild the east front of the Clock Court as accommodation for the Duke of Cumberland.  As a good Palladian, Kent originally proposed a classical scheme but Sir Robert Walpole, who had final approval over the design as First Lord of the Treasury, required that it be in keeping with the existing Tudor Gothic. Although originally there was only a much simpler door, Kent developed this and created a full gatehouse as a central focus of the front. Though now altered, Kent’s design drew on the existing architectural features, using ogee-domed octagonal turrets and a Gothick Venetian window. The interiors were also remodelled but here Kent’s enthusiasm for Gothick waned and he reverted to a more classical style of decoration.

On a side note, there is a suggestion that Kent’s actual first Gothick design was for a church tower at St Martin’s, Houghton in 1727.  Although the drawings in the Houghton archives are by Thomas Ripley, Kent had been involved with designs at Houghton since 1725 for the owner, Sir Robert Walpole, who, as previously mentioned, also instigated the use of Gothick at Hampton Court.

The most complete early use of this novel Gothick for a country house was at Esher Place, Surrey.  Having bought a 14th-century gatehouse, Wayneflete Tower (the only surviving part of a much larger quadrangular mansion) Henry Pelham, Prime Minister from 1743-54, lacked a house on his estate. Again, Kent proposed a Palladian solution – a compact villa which (minus dome and projecting portico) bears similarities with Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House, completed in 1729. Again, Kent was to be over-ruled by the client who wished for Wayneflete Tower to be more than a grand garden ornament – it had to be the centrepiece of the new house and this dictated the style.

Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)

Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)

One can imagine Kent sitting down with pen and paper and, much as if learning a new language, started drawing out his new vocabulary.  Though the initial sketches show two classical wings grafted onto the tower, he also, importantly, was experimenting with a more varied facade, one which pushed forward and receded with canted windows and recessed bays. This movement was to be a key influence in the future, breaking down the more formal, flatter approaches which had previously dominated.  This experimentation also extended to the interiors with rooms taking on greater variety; octagons or rectangular rooms ending in canted bays.

Esher Place, Surrey - John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)

Esher Place, Surrey – John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)

Kent’s final design (see at the top of the article) was an elegant solution and created a charming composition of a symmetrical house with the wings dominated by full-height canted bays and grand ogee-capped domes on the central tower. Unfortunately the scheme was watered-down in the execution - John Vardy‘s c.1744 engravings showing more austere wings without the bays and the tower without the domes. Even these were not to last as the new owner of the estate in 1805 pulled down the wings, leaving just the historic tower, before building a new house (the 1805 house is the south wing of the 1895 house) on the hill above - just as Kent had originally proposed to Pelham.

Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)

Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)

After Esher Place, in the next of Kent’s Gothick experiments, in 1737 he produced a design for the remodelling of Honingham Hall, Norfolk, for the second son of Viscount Townshend. A year later, Kent came back with a more detailed plan which removed much of the Jacobean character of the house, which had originally been build c.1605, to dramatically alter the front with a mixture of the bays and recessions. Sadly neither of the designs where executed and the house itself was demolished in 1966.  However, this exercise gave Kent an opportunity to gain greater familiarity with Gothick detailing and elevations.

Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The only other significant house Kent was to design in this style was Rousham House, Oxfordshire, for Lieutenant General James Dormer in 1737 (note the same year as the first proposed design for Honingham Hall). This was a remodelling of a small, H-plan house built in the 1630s and so Kent’s design had to accommodate the inevitable compromises of an existing building.  This he did by taking elements of the Honingham design, including the crenellations and a central ogee-capped dome, and combining them with classical elements such as the two pavilions which flanked each side. The interiors were a mix of styles; the parlour was purely classical but the library (a drawing room since 1764) was Gothick (or oriental, or Moorish, depending on who you ask). The gardens are the celebrated delight of Rousham and the buildings were designed by Kent at the same time as the house but are almost all classical, bar a Gothick Corn Mill.

North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)

North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)

Other Gothick projects by Kent such as the screens for Westminster and Gloucester Cathedrals, the Choir Fittings at York Minster, and various garden buildings all show a facility but not a fluency with the Gothic language. The same elements are used repeatedly within a variety of layouts and plans but without the detailed study of the original source buildings Kent seemed bound to his limitations.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon - print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon – print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830

Did Kent ‘create’ Gothick? Yes – and no.  The Elizabethans had long been creating houses which deployed the language of historical Gothic to their houses.  An article by Mark Girouard on ‘Elizabethan Architecture and the Gothic Tradition‘ (SAHGB, 1963) cites Burghley, Lincolnshire, where the house features a west front (built 1577-78) of towers and a turreted gatehouse, a north front (1585) dominated by Tudor-Gothic windows with a Gothic parapet, and the clock tower (1587) has an almost Gothic spire.  The Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses featured an emphasis on the vertical with towers and squared-off bay windows such as Robert Smythson’s Worksop Manor.  Finally, the symmetry that underlies Kent’s work, can be seen in the Renaissance-influenced Elizabethan houses such as Longleat or Mount Edgcumbe.

What Kent did do was apply his natural love of a more lively baroque interpretation of Gothic design to create a style which, although it mainly influenced those he worked with, was an inspiration to a later group of designers such as John Vardy and Batty Langley.  Overall, Kent’s Gothick houses and interiors lack the commitment and historical rigour he displayed to the Palladian style or the verve and passion which characterised his Baroque efforts. Certainly a measure of his success is that Kent did create a new architectural language which fed the wider Georgian passion for the Picturesque. Here, at last, was a style which could break strict Classical regularity and substitute it with a rambling vision of finials and tracery.

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This article was clearly inspired by the superb exhibition: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ (22 March – 13 July 2014). Definitely worth a visit if you are in London.

A brilliant tome (it’s huge) has been produced to coincide with the exhibition but easily works as a standalone reference: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ by Susan Weber.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has an extensive collection of William Kent drawings

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Romancing the stone; country houses built by love

Many a man has been driven to great lengths by love – and architecture is often a rewarding though insatiable mistress for such a passion.  Whether as an expression of love for a wife or a demonstration of a yearning, aching heart, each found that their country houses were caught in that very human desire to make real those Romantic desires which otherwise are sometimes only expressed in far more transient ways. Though sometimes love’s labours are lost to unrequited desires, often country houses were the ideal means to commemorate the passions which had created their happiness.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight - holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)

Osborne House, Isle of Wight – holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)

The motivations behind the choice of architecture or design or even the starting of the construction of a new country house is sometimes overlooked in the literature. The occasion of ennoblement was an important catalyst for a grander house and equally a marriage and new building project are often keen bedfellows – though often the new house was financed through the newly acquired wealth of the husband from his bride and was more an expression of his newly-bolstered financial strength.  With the status of the married woman somewhere equal to that of the china plates, for many, their influence was limited to the running of a home.  The choice of some furnishings and the interiors of the ‘female’ areas of the houses were often the accepted limits of the wife’s contribution – though there were exceptions such as Lady Leicester who, after 1759, was left £2,000 a year to finish several of the state rooms at Holkham Hall (n.b. website annoyingly plays birdsong automatically).

Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)

Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)

The choice of architect, interiors, furnishings, furniture and art were all reserved for the man as an expression of his taste and power. Writing of his design for Kimbolton Castle, the architect Sir John Vanbrugh said, “I’m sure this will make a Noble and Masculine Shew‘, and that in the exterior visitors would “See a Manly beauty in it when tis up…‘. Clearly reflecting the female taste, or even necessarily their comfort, was not high on an architects priorities. Although some enjoyed a level of luxurious indulgence, such as the Dowager Lady Egerton for whom James Wyatt created a sumptuous Pompeiian-style dressing room at Heaton Hall in the 1770s, perhaps the experience of the Duchess of Northumberland was more common.  When Robert Adam remodelled their London seat, Syon House, in the 1760s, he was careful to place the Duke’s private apartments in a separate area, accessed via a private staircase, whilst the Duchess’ dressing room enjoyed a much less secluded arrangement, as it was included in the main circuit of entertaining rooms.

Ham House, Surrey - now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Ham House, Surrey – now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Wives and widows were slowly asserting greater independence, often due to their personal wealth, but slowly changing attitudes did provide greater opportunities for their views and tastes to be heard and seen.  In the 17th-century, couples such as the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale were acting very much in concert together in the design and furnishing of their home, Ham House. It had been the home of the Duchess and her father and she had fiercely held on to it during the dark years of the Civil War when he had been forced to escape abroad. After her marriage in 1672, Ham House became not only a symbol of their wealth, but also a testament to their shared love of travel and the finer things in life.

Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)

Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)

Romance was surely often part of the motivation to build; a golden word that could turn a mere building into architectural poetry. Dobroyd Castle in Todmorden was the creation of a wealthy local mill owner, John Fielden, to honour a promise after his intended bride, Ruth, a poor labourer’s daughter, had said, during their extended courtship, “Build me a castle and I’ll marry you.“.  This can be said with either a romantic or mercenary inflection but, in honour of St Valentine, let’s believe that her request was for a fairytale expression of their marriage.  At least it was not a pre-condition, as they married in 1857 and work started on the castle in 1866 with completion in 1869.  Designed by the little known architect John Gibson, throughout the house the initials of John and Ruth are carved into the building many times as a constant reminder of their love.

Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The desire to do all one can for a wife, especially one who is ill, creates opportunities for love to be the patron of great architecture.  The delicate health of Dorothea Robinson, wife of Charles Hoare, a partner in the eponymous family bank, necessitated a more temperate climate and so an estate outside the small Devon coastal town of Dawlish was purchased. Requiring a house and not lacking in funds, Hoare commissioned the fashionable John Nash and Humphry Repton to create a retreat for rural recuperation.  With Repton’s help, Dorothea chose a most Picturesque site nestled in a secluded valley. Repton then recommended to Nash that it be in the ‘Character of a Castle’, and so Luscombe Castle was built between 1800-1804.  Considered one of the finest Regency houses, the external beauty is matched with a domestically convenient interior; a distilled version of Nash’s rather grander castle designs, but which perfectly suited the location and as a romantic reminder of a husband’s concern for his wife.

Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)

Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)

A love unrequited or thwarted is often a powerful force which can inspire many things.  For some, such as William Bankes, a prominent MP and renowned traveller, his enforced exile to escape a possible death penalty for being caught in a compromising situation with a soldier in Green Park in 1841, meant leaving his life’s work; the building and beautification of his Dorset home, Kingston Lacy. Subject to a punitive ‘outlawry‘ order, Bankes first escaped to France before settling in Venice. Bankes had been forced to give up, under threat of forfeiture, any legal title to his estates and contents to his brothers but he continued to be relatively well-funded and managed the building works at Kingston Lacy via detailed correspondence with the Clerk of Works.  One can only guess at the frustration of Bankes as he could only imagine how his plans were turning out, not only in relation to the building works but also the numerous pieces of art which he sent to Dorset.  Proving that for love, some will risk all, it is thought that Bankes risked imprisonment to be smuggled back into England in 1854 so that he might see his house and collection, which he had only been able to dream of, and give direction as to how it might be finished.

Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)

Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)

By the Victorian era, it was often both the husband and the wife who would take increasingly equal roles, especially as the role of the house was firmly centred on entertaining; a role traditionally taken on by the wife. It also reflected a relatively more accommodating age when women were at last more broadly considered intelligent equals to men.  The increasing importance of women can also be seen in the literature where discussion of the creation of a house now talks more husband and wife, though still often with their roles demarcated to exteriors/interiors.  The wives often had their own circles of interest leading to interesting contributions such as at Wallington Hall in Northumberland where the Pre-Raphaelite painted decoration in the central hall is by the artist William Bell Scott, whom Lady Pauline Trevelyan met through her literary activities.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)

Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous husband and wife architectural collaboration in the Victorian era was the creation of the summer retreat at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight by Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Prince Albert.  With a society leaning towards a more moral aspect, Victoria was determined that the royal family should be seen in step with it and so the planning of Osborne is not only to meet the needs of the family for entertaining but also, equally, that it be a family home. Indeed, writing to her daughter in 1858 from Windsor Castle, she tells how “I long for our cheerful and unpalacelike rooms at Osborne.”.  Her husband’s influence was the Italianate exterior, with the stucco work and belvedere towers, designed by the Prince and the London builder Thomas Cubitt, which matched his passion for Italian art, though Victoria was perhaps also influenced by the design of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire (by Sir Charles Barry) which was the home of her close friend the Duchess of Sutherland.  Osborne became the place she perhaps most associate with her husband and, after his death in 1861, it was one of the places she felt most at ease.

So, the building of a country house isn’t simply to mark ennoblement or new wealth, but can be an expression of love or passion between a couple, which one hopes might be more inspiring.  Certainly a love of country houses is something to be celebrated any day of the year.

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If you know of any other examples (and I’m sure there are many) please do add a comment below.

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Happy Birthday Sir John Vanbrugh; the master of English Baroque

Portrait of John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Image: Wikipedia)

Portrait of John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Image: Wikipedia)

One of the most exciting eras of British architecture was the Baroque; a unique fusion of Continental influences, leavened with a dash of characteristic restraint, which created something elegant, strident and theatrical – words which could equally describe the best known architect of that time, Sir John Vanbrugh, born 350 years ago this month.

Although much is known about his later life, his exact date of birth is not; simply that he was baptised on the 24 January 1664 (though he .  Born into a wealthy and well-connected family (his father was a sugar trader), his schooling and early career are still subject to some debate, with suggestions that he spent time working at a trading post in India.  The first solid evidence is his commission in January 1686 in the Earl of Huntingdon‘s foot regiment, though he was to leave in August that same year. After this, Vanbrugh engaged with the Whig cause and played a minor role in the Glorious Revolution of 1689 – though he was to miss the event itself as he spent four and half years in French prisons, including the Bastille, from September 1688 on (what Kerry Downes believes to be trumped up) charges of spying. Emerging in 1692, he had three months of enforced leisure in Paris until he could return to England, where he promptly joined the Navy, taking part in an attack on the French.  In the mid-1690s, he returned to London and became a playwright but also started developing his architectural career, perhaps in response to the changing social tastes in the late-1690s which found his bawdy Restoration comedies increasingly unacceptable.  A witty, intelligent and convivial character, Vanbrugh was never short of friends or connections.

Once Vanbrugh had decided to be an architect, he appears to have passionately embraced his new vocation – something noted by his contemporaries, including Jonathan Swift, who remarked that ‘Van’s genius, without thought or lecture, Is hugely turn’d to architecture‘. Most architects have to prove their skill with smaller projects but Vanbrugh was to start with possibly one of the most important commissions then available, Castle Howard for the Earl of Carlisle, and make such a dramatic entrance that his reputation was firmly established from then on.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Yorkshire Country House Partnership)

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Yorkshire Country House Partnership)

Broadly, the designs produced by Vanbrugh can be seen as a distillation and development of the work of three other architects; William Talman, Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir Christopher Wren.  Talman had created the first Baroque country house, with his south and east fronts of Chatsworth House, completed in 1696.  Baroque had originated and developed in Italy with architects such Bernini, Borromini and da Cortona using the language of ancient Rome to express the majesty of the Catholic church, and also by French monarchs as a statement of their absolute power. Its use by the resolutely Whig Protestant 1st Duke of Devonshire, was perhaps a carefully calculated statement to both the monarch, to remind him that power now lay with them, and a snub to the Catholic church, that their chosen style across Europe was firmly owned by the Protestants in England.

'Goose Pie House', Whitehall - designed by Sir John Vanbrugh 1700 (Image: copyright of The Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum, London)

‘Goose Pie House’, Whitehall – designed by Sir John Vanbrugh 1700 (Image: copyright of The Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Vanbrugh, although closely allied with the Whigs and sympathetic to their preferred style, also showed a medieval influence, with a clear interest in the military architecture of the period. In both his commissions and his own home in London, ‘Goose Pie House‘ in Whitehall, he incorporated the martial vocabulary of turrets and towers, giving his work a more monumental aspect, a solidity which played well with the aristocratic patrons who wished to evoke their family history but also wished to live in contemporary luxury.

With Baroque as an astute political choice, Vanbrugh was also able to bring his theatrical flair to play with the rich language it provided.  Castle Howard is one of the finest buildings in the world, and certainly one of the grandest in the country – not a bad start for a novice.  Horace Walpole visited in 1772 and afterwards wrote:

Nobody had informed me at one view I should see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being a metropolis of Druids, the noblest lawn fenced by half the horizon and a mausoleum that would tempt me to be buried alive: in short, I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one.

Lord Carlisle was a well-educated and well-travelled man whose Grand Tour had taken him across Europe, including, naturally, Rome.  Although William Talman had been first given the job, his irascible nature led to his firing, and so, in 1699, Carlisle gave his fellow Kit-Cat Club member, Vanbrugh, the chance of a lifetime.

Here, it is worth making clear that Vanbrugh’s houses, and especially Castle Howard, were joint enterprises with another exceptional architect; Nicholas Hawksmoor.  Assistant to Sir Christopher Wren, Hawksmoor was an expert on Classical architecture and drafting and also a sound project manager who helped deliver Vanbrugh’s ideas from paper to stone. Hawksmoor has often been given credit for the designs of Vanbrugh’s houses but it seems that, as John Summerson said, both were exceptional men, and that each was the perfect compliment to the other.

Drawing showing original plan for Castle Howard (Image: via Visiting Houses and Gardens)

Drawing showing original plan for Castle Howard (Image: via Visiting Houses and Gardens)

Construction started on the east wing of Castle Howard in 1699 and was completed by 1703, with the main block finished in 1706, the principal apartments by 1712 and the most important interiors by 1715, at a total cost of £38,000.  And what a house Lord Carlisle got for his money – a composition of low wings, leading to a grand central block, decorated with vibrant stonework, culminating in the first dome to be used on a country house in the UK, with interiors which cleverly used light and space to create a theatrical effect to awe any visitor.  Drawing from an earlier design for Greenwich Hospital by Sir Christopher Wren, Vanbrugh’s imagination had been given full reign to develop a most remarkable response to his client’s commission, fused with the crisp execution of the work overseen by Hawksmoor.  Carlisle was delighted with his new palace – which proved both domestically convenient and warm – but the architectural ripples the house created led to wide admiration, with it even being included in the ‘bible’ of Palladianism, Vitruvius Britannicus.  The additional triumphs of the parkland buildings, also mostly by his hand, cemented the reception of this house and setting as one of the most brilliant to have been created anywhere in the country.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire - entrance front (Image: Blenheim Palace)

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire – entrance front (Image: Blenheim Palace)

Vanbrugh’s success led to his second great commission, Blenheim Palace – though it was to be a much less happy experience for both client and architect. Whilst still working at Castle Howard, construction at Blenheim began in 1705.  Intended as a monumental tribute from a grateful nation to the Duke of Marlborough, it was also supposed to be a home. That demand for something which spoke not only to the stature of the recipient but also the generosity of the Royal patron, was perhaps the perfect commission for Vanbrugh and his imagination.  Sadly, relations between the architect and the Countess of Marlborough were fractious and Vanbrugh was eventually banned from the site and never visited his completed design.

Despite this, the building is an immense display of bravura – a vast testament to the breadth of imagination, which was reflected in the cost which spiralled from the Duke’s original suggestion of £40,000 to £300,000 by the time it was complete.  The design is broadly similar to that of Castle Howard but with an added degree of magnificence which elevates it using not only the sprawling scale but also the extensive decorative martial stonework to attain monumental status.  That the building had to be finished by Hawksmoor – who described himself as ‘a Loving Nurse that almost thinks her child her own‘ – doesn’t detract from one of the defining buildings of that age, a magnificent testament to Vanbrugh’s skill.

Kings Weston House, Bristol (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Kings Weston House, Bristol (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Driven by his interest in military architecture, Vanbrugh’s other country house designs can also be seen to be drawing on his personal preference for the spirit of fortifications.  In 1707, whilst working on Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire, he wrote in a letter ‘…I thought twas absolutely best, to give it Something of the Castle Air, tho’ at the Same time to make it regular‘.  With his next commission, Kings Weston House, in 1709-10, what starts as a compact and elegant villa is given the flavour of a castle above the roofline, with the chimneys grouped together in a central stack, evoking the idea of a keep.  At Lumley Castle it was the reverse, with an Italianate air being applied to a truly ancient castle.

The last three country houses Vanbrugh designed in the years before his death were perhaps some of his finest – concentrated distillations of his ideas but each given its own distinctive approach.  Seaton Delaval Hall is perhaps the best expression of the castle as country house; a central block with a keep-like mass in the centre, a bold entrance taking the form of a gatehouse, flanked by two turrets.  This formula is almost a hallmark of Vanbrugh (bar Kings Weston and Kimbolton which deviate) but the inventiveness of each shows that as with the English language, the architect was also a master of this architectural vocabulary.  Eastbury House in Dorset, merged elements of Blenheim, Kings Weston and Seaton Delaval whilst Grimsthorpe Castle is perhaps the best expression of the blend between that outline and the Classical style, creating a deeply satisfying design which delights to this day.

Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Grimsthorpe estate)

Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Grimsthorpe estate)

Within his lifetime and much later, Vanbrugh was hugely influential, yet the fashion for Baroque was quickly to wane after his death in 1726 – Summerson points out that by 1728 it was the subject of caricature, and by 1730 presumed dead.  Anglo-Baroque offered an attractive stylistic path with a symmetry which felt natural to the British, but combined with a flair that gave real vibrancy wherever it was used.  350 years later, in our more pluralistic and accommodating age, Vanbrugh – and by extension Hawksmoor – would have been able to co-exist with Burlington and Flitcroft and the stage would have been set as with each new building they vied to win the architectural hearts of the nation. Perhaps our greatest regret with regards to Vanbrugh should be that the coming of Palladianism and its zealous evangelism was to end the development of Sir John’s more exciting and theatrical approach but today we can at least admire and fully appreciate his genius in stone.

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Further reading and visiting details

Biographies 

Houses

Castle Howard - still owned by the Lords Carlisle, open to the public

Blenheim Palace – still owned by the Dukes of Marlborough, open to the public

Kimbolton Castle – now a school, occasionally open to the public

Kings Weston House - owned by Bristol Council, leased to a private individual, not open to the public, though the parkland is.

Lumley Castle – now a hotel

Seaton Delaval Hall – owned by the National Trust, open to the public

Eastbury House (demolished bar one wing) – privately owned, not open to the public

Grimsthorpe Castle - owned by a charitable trust for the de Eresby family, open to the public

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A theatre of innovation: Cragside, Northumberland

Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)

Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)

One hundred and fifty years ago, as 1863 drew to a close, the great industrialist Lord Armstrong may have reflected on a year in which innovation was sweeping across so many areas of life and, perhaps, his own future plans for his new country house at Cragside, Northumberland.  Country houses have often been at the nexus of innovation as they contain just the right mix of elements; namely a fashion for novelty, complex issues to be solved and a desire to impress others, along with the resources to experiment.  Cragside was to be a fine example of all these desires, a joint effort between an inventor owner and an inventive architect.

1863 was another year of great industrial developments as diverse as the running of the first Underground trains in London and the patenting of TNT, both of which would have far-reaching consequences.  That driving spirit of creativity spurred the Victorian engineer to look at many challenges, both large and small, seeking solutions which provided greater utility and comfort, though often tempered by the conservatism or financial reluctance of the owner.

Comfort and luxury are not always as synonymous as they are today and tales are legion of freezing country houses where one bathroom (used only for bathing naturally) served a whole house.  Owners of older aristocratic houses often felt little need to modernise; after all, if you had hot and cold running servants ferrying coal and water about the house this was often cheaper than a full refurbishment.  Worse, such improvements might be seen as nouveaux-riche (and therefore vulgar), unhealthy, or, worse, American. By contrast, the new money aristocrats in the Victorian era often had worked their way from less distinguished backgrounds and were keen to use anything which provided a better life – and also gave them the social bragging rights of novelty.

Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)

Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Open fires have been the mainstay of country houses for hundreds of years but central heating – either steam, hot air or hot water – started making a comeback in the late Georgian period (remember the Romans introduced it first). The library at Bowood House, Wiltshire was thought to be the first modern room to be centrally heated when it was introduced in the 1790s (although it wasn’t all that successful).  Other centrally heated single rooms were to be found at Pakenham Hall, Co. Westmeath in 1807 where ‘The immense hall so well-warmed by hot air that the children play in it from morning to night‘.  The first multi-room ducted hot-air arrangements could be found at Coleshill, Berkshire in 1814, and Abercairny, Perthshire in 1829. Steam proved difficult to control (though it was installed by Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in 1823) so other early examples were either hot air (Osmaston Manor – 1846-49, Flixton - 1847, or Tortworth Court - 1849-52) or hot water via radiators (Mentmore Towers – 1850-55).  These systems rarely extended beyond the entrance areas, hallways and main downstairs rooms.

Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)

Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Ventilation was always a challenge and the unpleasant accumulation of stale air and the smell of gas was exacerbated by the higher building standards of the Victorians which reduced drafts.  Many houses such as Kelham Hall, Mentmore, Dobroyd Castle and Wykehurst Place had ventilation shafts fitted in individual rooms but they were fairly inefficient.  One of the most advanced systems was created in 1846-49 for Francis Wright, a wealthy ironmaster, at his home Osmaston Manor in Derbyshire.  A single intake near the kitchen drew air from outside before heating it and distributing it around the house.  Coal fires in individual rooms then drew the stale air towards them but the flues all took the air downwards into a central extractor system which vented though a single huge 150-ft chimney in the kitchen garden, thus eliminating the need for huge chimneys in the main house (though it had smaller ones).  Sadly the house was demolished in 1965, thus denying us the chance to marvel at the ingenuity.

Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)

Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)

Bathrooms and indoor plumbing were often a great source of inconvenience. Even as late as 1873, such a grand house as Carlton Towers, Yorkshire, had no bathrooms with washing still undertaken via hand-filled basins and hip baths.  By contrast, Stoke Rochford Hall in 1839 had fifteen and by 1874 Wykehurst had the then radical innovation of each bedroom being a suite with its own bathroom.  A number of country houses were demolished for reasons of inconvenience with a  lack of bathrooms often cited, especially as the complexities of adding them to older houses was to prove insurmountable, either technically or financially.

Such challenges were often a catalyst for innovation – particularly if the owner was one of the industrial titans of the age, a man as comfortable in the workshop as the boardroom. Although William Armstrong (b.1810 – d.1900), 1st Baron Armstrong (after 1887), started his professional life as a solicitor he was able to turn his analytical mind to practical challenges as much as legal ones.  The genesis of his engineering career stemmed from his love of fishing where he noticed how inefficient waterwheels were and so designed a much more efficient water-powered engine. He successfully showed it could be used to hydraulically power cranes and thus improve the speed of cargo unloading at the docks.  This formed the basis for Armstrong’s engineering firm in 1847 and his first fortune.  The firm’s greatest fame/infamy came due to the later armaments work which Armstrong had turned to when he read that the British Army had difficulties with heavy field guns during the Crimean War. Success here with his revolutionary design and, later naval versions, led to the creation of a shipbuilding firm which won orders throughout the world, generating his second fortune.

The Lodge 'Cragside', dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw's editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)

The Lodge ‘Cragside’, dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw’s editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)

Armstrong’s obviously busy and productive life gave him great status in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and beyond and his main home in the city was a grand, if heavy, suburban creation called Jesmond Dene House.  As befitted any Victorian man of wealth and social stature and due to the pressures of running his businesses, Armstrong sought a country retreat.  Having visited the Rothbury area as a child, he looked there for a suitable estate, eventually buying in 1863 the then small shooting lodge and 20-acres of land which formed part of a steep-sided valley through which ran the Debdon Burn. Over the next few years, as Armstrong came to reduce his involvement in his businesses, Cragside became a passion; a place to retreat but also to enjoy more domestic challenges with the help of one of the most brilliant architects of the age, Richard Norman Shaw. Armstrong eventually came to own 16,000-acres of Northumberland, including Bamburgh Castle, of which 1,759-acres surrounded Cragside in which he had planted over 7m trees and innumerable rhododendrons.

View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

Between 1869-84, Cragside was transformed into a modern Victorian plutocrats palace, but one incorporating all conceivable innovations, powered by his own hydraulic engines. The first challenge was the location, which was ideal for a small lodge but cramped for the house which it eventually supported.  The steep hillside meant that space for expansion either had to be created through excavation or by building up the ground.  What it lost in convenience, it gained in views; spectacular vistas overlooking the remote Northumberland countryside.  Unfortunately, those views – both from and of the house – are now somewhat obscured by some of those same trees planted by Armstrong.

One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)

One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)

It was inside the house that the inventive mind of both owner and architect could really find effect.  For Shaw, Armstrong was an ideal patron, offering none of the conservative reticence he might have found in other clients, able to offer either his innovations or those of his friends. By December 1880, Cragside was the first private house in the UK (and Girouard thinks possibly in the world) to have electric light comprehensively installed, thanks to Armstrong’s friendship with Joseph Swan, with his eponymous filament bulbs throughout. Power for these innovations came from Armstrong’s own hydroelectric engines, running from the Burn below.

With the luxury of his own cheap and apparently limitless power supply, Armstrong and Shaw’s opportunities were myriad.  In addition to the lighting, the central heating system was also driven by a hydraulic engine.  That same power source also enabled the kitchen to boast a hydraulically-powered spit with the heavy pots in the conservatories moved by hydraulic machinery, with an electric sewing machine and electric communication throughout the house and even out to a shooting lodge on the moor.

View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

To his contemporaries, Cragside must have seemed beyond ingenious – a place grown from an inhospitable hillside, packed with innovations.  The house became a significant marketing tool for Armstrong as visits from his prospective customers, including the King of Siam, the Shah of Persia and the Crown Prince of Afghanistan, gave him the chance to demonstrate the advanced technology they could be buying into, a true theatre of innovation.  The Prince and Princess of Wales also visited in August 1884, thus giving the royal seal of approval to such a modern approach to the traditions of the country house.

Cragside passed to the National Trust in 1977, sadly missing the best of Armstrong’s picture collection (sold in 1910), but cared for and open so we can enjoy seeing the products of two great Victorian minds.  Despite being the genesis of domestic hydroelectric power, a gas turbine was installed in 1895 to provide more power before being connected to the National Grid in 1945.  However, in early 2014, the National Trust is again installing a modern hydroelectric screw to once more generate electricity for the house providing a welcome return of innovation.

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Article: ‘Hydro-electricity restoration work starts at Cragside‘ [BBC News]

Official site: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust]

160+ images: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust Images]

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Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Longleat, Wiltshire (Image: Karen Weeks via flickr)

Longleat, Wiltshire in 2009 (Image: Karen Weeks via flickr)

So the National Lottery or an hitherto-unknown-and-childless uncle have again failed to give me the route to my spending a Christmas in front of a roaring fire in my own country house drawing room.  That said, I have had the pleasure of visiting other people’s houses either independently or via such wonderful organisations such as The Georgian Group. Delights of the last year have included:

Each has had a fascinating story to tell; be it the Italianate beauty of the gardens at Iford, the statesmanlike Chevening, the exciting return of the Old Masters collection to Houghton, the sensitive restoration of Heveningham Hall, or the endless architectural complexity and beauty of Apethorpe, to name just a few highlights.  Some stories stretch over centuries, others more recent, but for every one their history is constantly evolving in terms of their past, as more is discovered, and their present and future as new uses show them adapting and evolving today.

Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

It’s this constantly changing nature, like light playing on mother-of-pearl, which makes country houses so endlessly fascinating.  Again, it’s been a pleasure to write the blog (though, as ever, work pressures have prevented greater frequency) and to have experts such as Amicia de Moubray provide articles (‘White knights – the 20th-century castle rescuers‘) – and I hope to have others in 2014.  Interest has remained strong, though slightly less than last year, which is likely due to the lack of TV series such as Country House Rescue.  One of the earliest articles of 2013, which also proved to be one of the most popular, was about a house which never came to be created: Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head. I am working on creating an index to make it easier to find older articles, as there are now hundreds.  Twitter has also proved to be a remarkably effective way of communicating both about and with houses so I would recommend it – even if you just follow @thecountryseat (over 1,900 followers and rising) and any houses of interest.

The year has presented country houses with the usual challenges and some new ones.  The threat posed by the HS2 rail link, and the plans which affected a significant number of houses, has not abated and may yet come to pass.  Country house sales this year have seen some notable examples, including the Grade-I listed Castle Goring and Halswell House (both misleadingly described in press coverage as ‘bargains’), change hands, whilst there has been relatively few of the premier league (exceptions being Kingston Lisle, The Mynde and Tyringham Hall) appearing in the front pages of Country Life, which I take to be a positive indicator.  Signs are that well-managed estates (of which there are thankfully many) are thriving and those which have diversified are finding a sustainable income.  For others, it will still be a challenge, as the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ Report highlighted, and, as has always been the case, some will change hands.  If Scotland chooses independence, this may trigger further sales – and, in theory, some interesting questions for the scope of the blog.

Thank you again for taking the time to share my passion in the UK’s country houses and the architectural history which they embody.  It’s humbling that you visit and subscribe and I hope that I can continue to provide articles and knowledge which you find interesting.  As always, I’m keen for your feedback, including which were your favourite articles (and why) and topics or houses you might like me to have a look at.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and all the best for 2014; a year which I hope will involve further discoveries and delights from the great treasures that are the nation’s country houses.

Kind regards

Matthew

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Articles published in 2013:

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A deceptive bargain: Halswell House, Somerset

Halswell House, Somerset (Image: Clive Emson Auctioneers)

Halswell House, Somerset (Image: Clive Emson Auctioneers)

When newspaper stories appear with headlines such as ‘One of Britain’s ‘finest’ mansions for sale with guide price of £250,000‘, it guarantees that many will immediately start dreaming of exchanging their current home for the life of a country squire.  The auction of Halswell House, Somerset, is the latest chapter in a blighted recent history of the house and the absurdly low guide price should be a warning. This is a house which will require equally deep reserves of money and heritage sensitivity for anyone wishing to take on this important house, a beautiful example of early English Baroque, described by Sir Nikolas Pevsner as ‘the most important house of its date in the country‘.

The Halswell family had been resident in the part of Somerset which took their name since the early 14th-century.  Though no trace of the early building can be seen in Halswell House today, the core – consisting of two rambling gabled wings around a courtyard – dates from the early 16th-century, specifically 1536, when Nicholas Halswell used some of his inheritance to build a new home.  The house and estate passed through the Halswells until 1667, when the then owner, Hugh Halswell, settled the inheritance on his daughter’s 18-year old son, who became, in due course, Sir Halswell Tynte – his daughter having married Sir John Tynte and wisely passing on the family surname as a first name.

It was Sir Halswell who was responsible for the building of the imposing great North wing, completed in 1689; a bold, three-storey addition which was placed so as to hide the older buildings from the view of visitors arriving along the main carriage drive.  As to the identity of the architect; in a letter, dated March 1683, among the Thynne papers at Longleat, a surveyor called William Taylor, states that before he can return to London he needed to visit Sir William Portman at Orchard Portman and then Sir Halswell. In his famous dictionary of architects, Sir Howard Colvin states that Taylor was almost certainly responsible for the rebuilding of Halswell. Taylor had several commissions in the south-west in the 1680s, including Chipley House, Somerset (built 1681-3, rebuilt 1840, later dem.), and in Devon; Wembury House (dem. 1803) and Escot House, which was destroyed in a fire in 1808, but was illustrated in Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus.

Escot House, Devon as shown in Vitruvius Britannicus (vol i, plate 78) - burnt down 1808

Escot House, Devon as shown in Vitruvius Britannicus (vol i, plate 78) – burnt down 1808

The design of Escot has been attributed to Sir Robert Hooke but Colvin quotes that in 1684 Taylor was contracted to ‘contrive, designe, and draw out in paper‘ and supervise the building of the house, for which he was paid £200.  Looking at the design of Escot House, especially the engaged pillars beside the door, the recessed doorway (inspired by Wren’s St Mary-le-Bow, London), surmounted window with pediment,  it’s clear to see the similarities in Taylor’s work at the two houses.  A similar style can be seen at nearby Ston Easton Park, a grand and beautiful house built in 1739, but designed by an unknown architect who appears to have taken inspiration from Halswell.

The importance of Halswell House stems from its very early use of the architectural language of the baroque – some five to ten years before the wider movement took hold in the country.  Sir Christopher Wren had been the midwife to the use of the style but it was only once he had handed over his responsibilities as the Queen’s Surveyor in 1692 that others such as Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh were able to develop their designs into a distinctive school of English Baroque which reached its peak with the grand palaces such as Castle Howard (built 1699-1712) and Blenheim (built 1705-24).  William Taylor was innovative in his use of the style although he was probably copying elements from French pattern books as he lacked the genius of Vanbrugh to bring it to its full expression.

Robin Hood's Hut, Halswell, Somerset (Image: Ian Sumner / Landmark Trust)

Robin Hood’s Hut, Halswell, Somerset (Image: Ian Sumner / Landmark Trust)

After Sir Halswell’s death in 1702, the house continued down the Tynte family line, with his son John’s marriage bringing Welsh wealth into the estate.  It was Sir John’s third son, Sir Charles, who looked beyond the house (completing only minor works there) and instead concentrated his energies on beautifying the parkland.  A series of new lakes, canals and ponds, avenues of trees all grew under his watch, but his best commissions were the hermit’s house on the hill, Robin Hood’s Hut (now restored by the Landmark Trust) and the Temple of Harmony, derived by Thomas Prowse from a Robert Adam design.  Extensive gardens and greenhouses ensured that the table at Halswell was as exotic as it was plentiful.

Sadly, the 19th-century was a time of neglect and disuse for Halswell as, although it was still owned by the family, it had passed to a niece and was regarded as old-fashioned.  It came back into use when Charles Theodore Halswell Kemeys-Tynte succeeded as Lord Wharton in 1916 and the house again became a home.  Any hope that this upward trend in the fortunes of the house could continue were dealt a cruel blow early on 27 October 1923 when Lord Wharton’s valet awoke to smoke seeping under the door to his room at the top of the house.  Despite the efforts of estate staff to both fight the fire and rescue the contents, by breakfast time the grand North wing was gutted, destroying ten bedrooms, the drawing room, reception hall and the dining room.  The local paper reported mournfully that ‘Practically all that remained of the front part of the building were blackened outside walls, the interior being a mass of smouldering debris‘.

The cause of the fire was eventually judged to be a newly-installed electricity supply.  Despite the estate being heavily mortgaged, the house was rebuilt at a cost of £41,534 with the work to such a standard that it was confused for being original.  During WWII, the house became a girls school and the grounds were used as a prisoner of war camp. Halswell House finally passed out of family ownership when it was sold in 1950, after which it was divided into flats (badly) and also used as a furniture store.  The house had a brief respite when it was bought by a businessman in 2004 who lived there and used it as an events venue (sometimes with unexpected results).  However, with the house and estate being repossessed Halswell is again looking for a new owner.

East and North wings, Halswell House (Image: RCHME in 'Some Somerset Country Houses' by David Dunning')

East and North wings, Halswell House (Image: RCHME in ‘Some Somerset Country Houses‘ by David Dunning’)

The auction guide price is simply that – and in this case feels more like a marketing ploy to attract the greatest interest.  It’s likely that bidding will be keen and the final price for the house alone will be multiples of the original guide price, probably nearer £1m, though ideally they will be able to start putting this fractured estate back together, reuniting the parts to create the surroundings that this grade-I listed house deserves.  Beyond the sale price, will also be the certainty that the new owner – if they are the right owner – will need to be willing and able to spend large sums to restore the house, especially the Tudor ranges, to the state it deserves. So, rather than £250,000, this house will easily require £2-4m – and possibly more. Not such a bargain after all.

That said, Halswell House is not simply a home – it’s an important milestone in the development of the English country house and a source of wonder at the beauty and composition of the exterior, married to an equally impressive interior.  Hopefully the house will sell for a price which reflects its value and ideally to someone who will appreciate it and is willing to pour money almost beyond reason into restoring it.  In return, they will be the custodians of one of the finest houses in the country and proud owners of a piece of architectural history.

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Full auction details: ‘HALSWELL HOUSE & THE TUDOR BUILDINGS, HALSWELL PARK‘ [Clive Emson] – auction to be held on 17 December 2013 in Saltash, Cornwall. Halswell House and its five other outbuildings lots will firstly be offered as one lot, then separately if not sold.

Official website: ‘Halswell House

Listing description: ‘Halswell House‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further history: ‘Halswell House‘ [Wikipedia]

Further reading: ‘The bargain-basement mansion: Historic house which has been a school, a PoW camp and even the site of an ORGY goes on sale for just £250,000 after owner went bust‘ [Daily Mail]

Posted in At Risk, Estates, for sale, News | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A minor prodigy: Brereton Hall for sale

Brereton Hall, Cheshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)

Brereton Hall, Cheshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)

Advancement in Elizabethan society depended largely on being noticed by the Queen. In an age where the monarch wielded enormous powers of patronage and with so many others jostling for her attention, your house and the hospitality you could provide were effectively the biggest advert you could make.  As a result of this, the houses of courtiers became destinations for the monarch as she made her way around the kingdom, and these homes developed both architecturally and stylistically to not only accommodate, but to also impress.  Known as Prodigy houses, they are now some of the most beautiful in England, and a fine smaller example, Brereton Hall in Cheshire, is currently for sale.

Surprisingly, the genesis of the Prodigy house actually lies far from the bucolic charm of the countryside, and instead can be found on the banks of the Thames in central London. Built in 1547-1552 (dem. 1776), the old Somerset House was the home of Lord Protector Somerset, and was the first classical building in the UK – a remarkable symmetrical façade which proclaimed the dawn of a new architectural style.  Although the core of the building was late-medieval, the decoration was resolutely classical; the gateway on the Strand was a development of the Roman triumphal arch, combining the three orders with pedestals and the pairing of windows and pediments.

The influence of Somerset House began to spread with the style adopted by those in the Lord Protector’s circle.  In the 1540s, at Lacock Abbey, Sir William Sharington, who was close to the Lord Protectors brother, added Renaissance features to his newly acquired monastic home.  So although elements of the new language began to be used elsewhere first, Longleat, built in 1572-80 by the Lord Protectors steward, Sir John Thynne, was the first of Prodigy houses; a new, larger style of country house which embraced the classical and which were explicitly designed for show.

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)

Few can mistake the remarkable façades of Longleat, a glittering statement of confidence, wealth and architectural learning.  Thynne was part of the Lord Protectors circle and therefore out of favour under Queen Mary’s rule after 1553, so he wisely retired to Wiltshire to concentrate on applying what he had learned of classical architecture to the new house he was building. Sadly, the early results are unknown as the house burnt to the ground in 1567, forcing Thynne to start again. A new model was created in 1568 (this time in conjunction with that genius of the age Robert Smythson), the new façades were added in 1572, and when the Queen visited in 1575, it was complete up to the second floor.  Interestingly, the third floor may have only been completed after his death in 1580, Thynne having spent a lifetime and a fortune creating one of the greatest examples of Elizabethan architecture.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: stuartmcq84 via flickr)

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: stuartmcq84 via flickr)

Smythson was to become one of the most accomplished of the new breed of specialist; the architect.  Officially his title was ‘Queen’s Master Mason’ but his influence, though the Royal Office of Works, was such that his architectural guidance was to become pre-eminent.  After the success of Longleat, Smythson’s next project was the grand extravaganza that is Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, built between 1580-88.  Sir Francis Willoughby, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, had entertained Her Majesty previously but now wished to create as great a statement as any member of Court.  Drawing on the traditional broad plan of a castle, with all its heraldic and chivalrous echoes, Smythson adapted it to accommodate the new classical language (though even this was inspired by the Poggio Reale in Naples, which Serlio mentions in his third book).  Although the plan of the house still followed the processional structure of royal apartments, the house radically dispensed with the central courtyard arrangement and instead created a huge central ‘keep’, but one without any pretence of defence. This was about glass, power, ornament and display.

Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire - burnt down 1761 (Image: Nottinghamshire History)

Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire – burnt down 1761 (Image: Nottinghamshire History)

Wollaton Hall was the last house with a documented link to Smythson but there is strong circumstantial and stylistic evidence that he was linked to two of the other great houses of the age; Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire, and Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, both seats of the Shrewsbury family.  Worksop Manor was another departure for Smythson; another variation of the castle plan but now much more loosely applied.  Completed by 1585, the design was a compressed and heightened version of Longleat and without clear precedent in earlier Italian work.  Hardwick Hall - famously ‘more glass than wall‘ – neatly fits into this narrative of Smythson and the nascent English Renaissance. Built between 1590-97, it is a simplified and reduced version of Worksop – and all the more elegant for it.  Built by Bess of Hardwick, it enjoys a prominent site (as with Longleat and Worksop), to better display its charms.  Where Hardwick can claim renown is as the first house to be built with a cross-hall, running from front-to-back in the centre, a derivation of Palladio‘s Villa Valmarana, and is therefore some of the earliest evidence of the use of Palladio’s teaching.

Palace of Theobalds, Hertfordshire - from an article in the Gentleman's Magazine, 1836

Palace of Theobalds, Hertfordshire – from an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1836

Influential though Longleat was, a wealthy man may always wish to find his own way of expressing conformity and so it proved with another group of the Prodigy houses built by William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley from 1571 (b.1520 – d.1598), the Queen’s Secretary of State and then Lord Treasurer.  Powerful and politically astute, Cecil became one of the most important men in the country and one very close to the Queen.  As such, her progresses often took advantage of his hospitality, leading to the creation of two of the great Prodigy houses.  The first was perhaps one of the largest and grandest non-royal residences ever built; Theobalds in Hertfordshire.  Originally a smaller house, as Burghley said, ‘[it] was begun by me with a mean measure but encreast by occasion of Her Majesty’s often coming‘, and then completely rebuilt in her honour.  It was a grandiose gesture which spread across five courtyards covering a quarter of a mile and anyone seeing it could not fail to be awed by the size and the statement it made of homage to the Queen, who visited 13 times in all, often treating it as one of her own palaces.  Sadly, the house became one of the many casualties of the Commonwealth; listed for disposal, it was largely demolished by 1650.

Burghley House, Lincolnshire (Image: xposurecreative.co.uk via flickr)

Burghley House, Lincolnshire (Image: xposurecreative.co.uk via flickr)

Cecil’s other house, Burghley in Lincolnshire, was more conservative and, in comparison, modest, though still on a grand scale.  Built between 1558-57, the house displayed all the typical Elizabethan swagger but in a compact form with an impressive entrance front which was one of the last to use the style of the high turreted gatehouse and towers at each end. One of the most innovative architectural feature of Burghley is the celebrated three-storey tower which dominates the inner courtyard.  Developed from the gateway at Somerset House, the Burghley tower features stacked arches, surmounted by a clock which acts as a plinth for a huge obelisk.  The house today survives as the seat of descendants of the Cecil family.

New Hall, Essex (Image: New Hall School)

New Hall, Essex (Image: New Hall School)

Though there are many other examples, two other houses are of particular note in this era of extravagant architecture.  One that can still be seen today, though is now enjoyed more by the pupils in its current use as a school, is New Hall in Essex, where the great stretch of the main lodgings is lavishly fenestrated.  Built by Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, around 1573, it was explicitly designed for the Queen’s use with a full suite of royal apartments: great chamber, presence chamber, privy chamber, withdrawing chamber, bed chamber and inner chamber.

Reconstruction of the South front of Holdenby Palace, Northamptonshire (Image: Holdenby Hall)

Reconstruction of the South front of Holdenby Palace, Northamptonshire (Image: Holdenby Hall)

The other, now sadly lost, is the vast palace of Holdenby Hall, Northamptonshire, a house which influenced those who later also wished to build to impress.  A late starter, Sir Christopher Hatton (b.1540 – d.1591), began the construction of his new house in 1571 as a direct, though amicable, challenge to William Cecil, though with an element of flattery in that it sought to mimic Theobalds.  Expressly designed to accommodate a Queen who never actually visited, by the time of its completion in 1583, Holdenby had few equals as possibly the largest house in the country; an enormous Renaissance palace with symmetrical façades stretching 380ft on the garden front, almost all of it glass. Hatton’s ambitions sadly ran far ahead of his wealth and his attempt at establishing himself as Cecil’s successor failed, partly due to being bankrupted by the enormous expense of building Holdenby, but also by his death less than ten years after completing the house.  Holdenby became a royal palace of James I in 1607 but was sold under the Commonwealth and demolished by 1651, with a smaller house later rebuilt as a new Holdenby Hall, one clearly linked architecturally to its more grand forebear.

The plan of the early prodigy houses still owed much to the traditional pattern of the Royal progress which required that courtiers accommodate the monarch and their retinue according to the strict rules of precedence and access practised in London.  This meant a series of courtyards and state apartments, each stepped back with a clear route of progress through them.  This naturally forced compromises in the early use of classical, leading to it being external decoration applied to an essentially medieval plan.  However, change was taking hold and in the now-for-sale Brereton Hall, it was reversed with a non-courtyard layout married to a distinctly historical feature, that of the grand gatehouse entrance.

Brereton Hall, Cheshire - 1819 - from George Ormerod's 'History of the County Palatine and the City of Cheshire'

Brereton Hall, Cheshire – 1819 – from George Ormerod’s ‘History of the County Palatine and the City of Cheshire

Whilst the courtiers were engaged with their vast and expensive projects, others also wished to show their allegiance through architecture, adopting the style of those close to the Queen, but scaled to their own circumstances.  Brereton was completed in 1577 but was in one way, curiously behind the times as it was one of the last to be built with a grand gatehouse (added in 1586) – though it was more impressive than it appears today.  The design was novel in that one tower was, in fact, a staircase leading to a small room in the domed turret (similar to Barlborough Hall, designed by Smythson) but with the addition of a bridge which crossed to a banqueting room in the other turret.

Gatehouse, Brereton Hall (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)

Gatehouse, Brereton Hall (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)

The rest of the house is typical of the smaller gentry Elizabethan houses, such as Cobham Manor in Kent (completed 1597), or Easton Lodge in Essex (burnt down 1847), which rejected the local vernacular and instead adopted that of the Court.  In doing so, Brereton was a fine example, decorated with the Queen’s coat of arms both inside and out.  The Brereton line died out in 1722, with the house passing to the Holtes of Aston Hall, before being sold in 1817 to John Howard of Hyde. He unsympathetically set about altering the house, radically changing the internal layout and removing the turrets of the gatehouse, adding instead what, in 1909, Country Life magazine called ‘battlements of outrageous proportions and cumbersome mouldings‘.  The house later became a school which closed in 1992 and then passed to the headmistress’ daughter who, with her husband, carefully and sensitively restored it as a home before it was sold in the late 1990s to a technology millionaire, who then sold it in 2002 for around £2.25m.  The house is now again for sale at £6.5m; certainly expensive, but by comparison with the illustrious and much grander architectural ancestors, not prodigiously so.

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Property details: ‘Brereton Hall, Cheshire‘ [Jackson-Stops & Staff]

Article: ‘Country Houses as Family Homes‘ [Country Life]

Photos of the house in 1909: ‘Brereton Hall‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

Further reading: ‘Prodigy house‘ [RIBA]

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