For sale: a Soanian springboard – Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk

Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)

Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)

For any architect starting out, the early commissions are perhaps the most important; establishing them both in terms of not only their designs but also how they operate in the execution.  In architectural terms, the early buildings of some architects are sometimes less prized, and therefore protected, than their later works which benefit from the full measure of their developed skill and experience.  In that light, Burnham Westgate Hall deserves to be cherished as not only a fine house but also the first substantial country house project of Sir John Soane.  It provided the springboard for one of our finest architects and is important for the promise shown but also for securing one of the most important prizes in the Georgian era: patronage.

For someone who ended up a knight of the realm, with fame and a noble client list, Sir John Soane (b.1753 – d.1837) had a very ordinary start in life as the son of a bricklayer from Goring-on-Thames, near Reading.  Patronage and connections were to define Soane’s personal and professional life, providing opportunities to establish himself in a way that his competitors, often connected from birth, already enjoyed.  Almost nothing is known of his early life but his obvious talent must have been spotted as he entered the office of George Dance the Younger in 1768, though only starting as errand boy, via an introduction by James Peacock, an employee of Dance who knew Soane’s older brother.

Claremont, Surrey (Image: Claremont Fan Court School)

Claremont, Surrey (Image: Claremont Fan Court School)

His talent and work ethic propelled Soane to join the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, where he quickly won the silver medal for a measured drawing of the facade of Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House.  What was particularly clear during Soane’s time at the Royal Academy was his ambition and an industriousness that was to serve him well in later periods, combined with an attention to detail which proved to be a blessing in his professional life.  In 1776, he won the Academy gold medal, which made him eligible to compete for the highly coveted King’s travelling scholarship which, for someone of Soane’s limited financial means, would be his only chance to see Italy first-hand.  Soane had heard that George III thought him a suitable candidate and so he rashly gave up his position with Henry Holland (where Soane was known to have assisted on three country house commissions: Claremont in Surrey, Benham Park in Berkshire, and Cadland in Hampshire (dem. 1953)) only to find out that Sir Joshua Reynolds had intervened to demand the winner of the scholarship be by vote from the Academicians. This delayed his departure by a year but it was put to good use completing smaller tasks for Henry Holland such as estimating bills and measuring work which exposed him to clients such as Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford; a man of noted taste and an amateur architect who was to prove particularly important in Soane’s career.  Though delayed, in 1777 Soane set off on the single most important trip of his life to Italy; one which was to establish him professionally and socially.

Arch of TItus, Rome - drawing by Sir John Soane

Arch of TItus, Rome – drawing by Sir John Soane

The Grand Tour had become an institution amongst the younger aristocrats as a way of experiencing the glories of classical art and architecture in their native environments.  It was also a fine opportunity for the wealthy to indulge their passion for art collecting but, for novice architects, days were largely spent measuring and recording the wonders of Roman architecture.  On a more practical level, Soane would have seen and experienced during his time with Dance and Holland how useful family and professional networks were in securing commissions.  In Italy, Soane worked assiduously to develop his own connections; travelling with his friend Robert Furze Brettingham (nephew of the famous architect Matthew Brettingham the Elder who had designed the original Burnham Westgate Hall, then called Polstede Hall) and visiting the English Coffee House; a central meeting point for the English nobility abroad, whom Soane courted as clients.

Soane's proposed design for Downhill, Northern Ireland (Image: Sir John Soane's Museum) - click to see full sketchbook page

Soane’s proposed design for Downhill, Northern Ireland (Image: Sir John Soane’s Museum) – click to see full sketchbook page

Patronage could also be a double-edged sword, with the ambitions of the client giving what could turn out to be false hope to an architect.  Of all those Soane met in Italy, Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry, later the 4th Earl of Bristol, was a prime example of the capricious client – though despite the Earl’s failure to deliver, he did introduce Soane, once again, to Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford, and cousin of William Pitt the younger, and who became a lifelong friend, supporter, mentor and patron.  Soane had fallen under the influence of the Earl, a charming, witty aristocrat who had a growing reputation for being a difficult client.  How much Soane knew of this is unclear but after travelling through Naples and Sicily for many weeks together discussing architecture, Soane believed he would be given a handsome commission to improve Downhill (now a ruin), the Earl’s rather bleak seat, set in the coastal hills of County Derry, Northern Ireland. However, after persuading Soane to cut short his travels by a year and luring him over to Ireland in 1780, after six fruitless and frustrating weeks with the disagreeable Earl not committing to any of Soane’s designs, he left Ireland in despair, seriously out of pocket, and with the hopes of his first significant commission of his architectural career in tatters.

Rustic dairy at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Sotheran's)

Rustic dairy at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Sotheran’s)

Back in London, Soane’s wealthy and well-connected friends, particularly those he had made in Italy, and especially Pitt, sought to ease his plight by asking for his designs for smaller estate buildings or their own houses, such as for his friend John Stuart at Allanbank, Berwickshire.  Again, although the smaller projects were built, the larger plans failed to materialise – the only one of significance being some limited  alterations to Petersham Lodge, one of Lord Camelford’s homes.  After this, Soane took on a few smaller commissions from other clients which allowed him to develop his skills as an architect, not just in designing but the delivery of the projects, including the elegant dairy in the fashionable rustique, Rousseau-esque style at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire for the Hon. Philip Yorke, later 3rd Earl of Hardwick – another of his Italy contacts.

Proposed design for Allanbank, Berwickshire by Sir John Soane (Image: Sir John Soane Museum)

Proposed design for Allanbank, Berwickshire by Sir John Soane (Image: Sir John Soane Museum)

However, it was his main supporter, Lord Camelford, who provided the largest commission in 1783, the one which elevated Soane from dreamer of grand plans but only executor of small estate buildings.  Camelford’s wife had inherited Burnham Westgate Hall and now her husband wished to create a seat of suitable standing near to that other fulcrum of political influence in north Norfolk, Holkham Hall, home of the Earl of Leicester.  Burnham Westgate is curious in that it is one of the early examples of Soane’s practice of reusing his designs.  Compare Burham Westgate Hall today with the unexecuted design illustrated right which Soane completed for John Stuart at Allenbank – the overall form of the house is similar, differing only in the striking chimneys and the size of the flanking wings.  Soane seemed to do this less as he grew as an architect but it can be seen in his bow-fronted design for Saxlingham Rectory and enlarged version seen on the south front of Tendring Hall (dem. 1955), and even more directly between Shotesham Hall in Norfolk and Piercefield near Chepstow.

Burnham Westgate Hall has perhaps been a little overlooked in the literature, perhaps suffering from being overshadowed by Soane’s next project: his first solo, entirely new-build house; Letton Hall, which was started in the following year in 1784.  However, the innovation of Letton could only be created on a sound architectural foundation which Soane had spent years building; the smaller commissions of temples, kennels and interiors, before Burnham Westgate gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that he was capable of working on a project of that size.  Bar the limited and hotly contested public works, private country houses were some of the most significant commissions available to any architect and Burnham Westgate was Soane’s calling card; his proof of his ability, imagination and practical ability to deliver a fine house suitable for those in upper society.  That it is a close variation on a earlier design can be forgiven considering the nascent stage of his career; this sale offers a new owner the chance to own the project which gave Sir John Soane the springboard which helped establish this most brilliant of architects.

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Property details: ‘Burnham Westgate Hall‘ – £7m, 38-acres [Savills]

Detailed listing description: ‘Burnham Westgate Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further information:

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About Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat

An amateur architectural historian with a particular love of UK country houses in all their many varied and beautiful forms.
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9 Responses to For sale: a Soanian springboard – Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk

  1. Jeff Aldridge says:

    I have been waiting for a new post and this was well worth it! I was fortunate to visit the London museum a few weeks ago and your post helped me to better understand Soan’s place in the broader landscape of English domestic architecture. Incidentally, I am glad not to have to dust the London museum! While magnificent, his home defines “clutter” making it hard to believe he created such elegant classical houses.

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat says:

      Thank you Jeff – sorry that I haven’t been able to post as frequently as I’d like but unfortunately my day job has been incredibly busy for the last month (and may be until Christmas). However, hopefully in the new year I’ll be able to pick up the pace a bit.

      With regards to clutter, as you’ve probably seen from the interior photos on Savills, the current owners (Baroness Rawlings and her husband Hon. Dr Paul Zuckerman) did a fantastic job of rescuing this house from 60 years of institutional use but have now filled the house in a way which Soane himself would feel at home.

      Matthew

  2. DufferTad says:

    This is perhaps the one house on the planet that anyone would be happy living in, Not too big,not too small, well designed and well placed. It really does tick every box! I love it to pieces, and it looks so tempting every time I go past on the road. Just need £7m…

  3. Andrew says:

    Another wonderful post, reminding us that it is time again to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.

    The first thing I noticed about Burnham Westgate Hall in Norfolk was that it seemed to have only one principle floor (the middle one), with a low-built ground floor, and even smaller top floor. This reminded me of Shrubland Hall in Suffolk, built a decade earlier by James Paine, and sold in January 2010. Presumably the ground floor was where the staff worked, with the top floor being the staff bedrooms, with the family living and sleeping mainly on the middle (first) floor, which had a raised view over the gardens and landscape. However, this lifestyle is very different from today, and the 3 houses you mentioned that Soane worked on previously, where the family bedrooms are on the floor above the reception rooms. Although I appreciate that Soane only remodelled Burnham Westgate Hall, built originally by Matthew Brettingham the Elder (for Thomas Pitt’s father-in-law, Pinckney Wilkinson, in the 1750s), who tended to place the main rooms on the first floor, such as Holkham Hall and Kedleston Hall. Hence, at Burnham Westgate Hall the Drawing Room is strangely on the same floor as the main bedrooms, with the Dining Room below. This may be one reason why both houses have been slow sellers, other than just the high prices.

  4. Joe Marlowe says:

    Good post as ever but (and sorry, there is a but), many people would be a lot more sceptical than Savills have been about the amount of Soane there is Westgate Hall. The stables/Coach house, sure, but the house? A refacing and the saloon and a few fireplaces.

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat says:

      Hi Joe

      Thanks for your comment. The challenge with a rebuild is always the attribution and ideally I’d love to see an image of the original Polstede Hall to see just how different it was. If I was forced to guess, I suspect we’d see typical smaller Georgian country house, rectangular main block, probably three storeys, with some interesting architectural details. What I think Soane has added are certainly the flanking wings but possibly also the end bays of the main house (the spacing of the windows seems slightly too wide?) and with significant changes to the interior to accommodate the enlarged layout. However, the Allanbank design clearly shows that the exterior is very much from Soane, even if the core is an older house.

      Matthew

  5. I am a Soane fan and thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful post!

  6. Pingback: ‘So you made the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List…’ – a selection of country houses for sale | The Country Seat

  7. It is great to read our architectural heritage and for there to be such detail about one individual. This blog post was very informative and an engaging read. I particularly enjoy the ‘Cadland – Hampshire’ estate house. It is unfortunate that it was demolished. Do you mind me asking, was Soane involved in the landscape architecture of these buildings as well, or just the building design?

    Regards,

    Alistair.

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