For houses which are owned by the same family for hundreds of years, the rhythm of their fortunes can often be read in the architecture of the house as it grows and shrinks accordingly. This was certainly the case with South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire, featured last week in ‘The Country House Revealed – A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home‘. Yet the object of our, and Dan Cruickshanks’, affections this week, Kinross House, Kinross-shire, is a more dramatic, and relatively short-term, reflection of the rise and fall in the fortunes of a key Scottish gentleman architect, Sir William Bruce.
Kinross was described in Country Life magazine (February 16, 1951) as ‘the complete expression in stone of the Renaissance in Scotland’ – a not inconsiderable accolade for a man who combined his passion for architecture with a sometimes turbulent career in politics. ‘Sir William, the politician’, was certainly ambitious and profited from the fluctuations in the fortunes of Charles II. Active in the Royalist cause prior to the Restoration, on the King’s return William Bruce, younger son of a small Perthshire laird, was knighted in 1668. Basking in the King’s favour, and under the patronage of the Earl of Lauderdale, he secured a series of minor but lucrative political appointments, the most important as Surveyor-General of the royal works in Scotland.
His political career was matched with equal vigour by ‘Sir William, the architect’ with an enthusiasm for not only architecture but also horticulture, literature, and languages. Yet Sir William’s importance is mainly founded on his country houses, approximately ten in total – two of which where built for his own use, which helped establish his position as one of the most important architects in Scotland by breaking away from the widespread practice for nobles to still live in castles.
His early building work was mainly with existing houses, with his involvement first recorded in the enlargement and remodelling of the once magnificent Leslie House, Fife, between 1667-72. Sir William’s involvement was relatively minor as custodian of the working drawings but he also gave advice with regards to the interior. Sadly, three of the four sides of this quadrangular house burnt down in a fire in 1763 leaving just one side which was later remodelled again to create the currently Leslie House – though this was also severely damaged in a blaze in 2009 whilst undergoing conversion into apartments.
Sir William’s next project is thankfully still visible today, almost unchanged from the day he finished. Balcaskie House, Fife, was bought by Bruce in 1665, and rather than demolish it, between 1668-71 he proceeded to enlarge and improve the existing house. It was here that his official role proved useful, employing some of the plasterers and painters he had also engaged in rebuilding Holyrood Palace, in Edinburgh between 1671-79.
Also in 1670, Sir William undertook several private commissions for his patron, the Duke of Lauderdale, including the remodelling of the Duke’s main Scottish seat at Thirlestane Castle. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work are the interiors which draw heavily on the designs, and indeed the workmen, from Ham House in Richmond, Surrey, owned by the Countess of Dysart, who married the Duke in 1671, bringing that fine and beautiful house into that family.
With so many projects it is unsurprising that Sir William’s next major commission wasn’t until 1676; the construction of a new house at Dunkeld for the 1st Marquess of Atholl, described by the Marquess’ son as ‘…extrodinarly convenient though not larg & and it will not cost much expences ether.‘ This house is important as not only was it his first chance to build on a fresh plot but which shows a clear style of design which was to flourish at Kinross. Sadly the house was pulled down in 1830 as a much larger house had been built for the 4th Duke. Sir William’s next commission in 1679 was Moncreiffe House, near Perth, which was also to display a very similar style. This house has also now been lost; demolished after a devastating fire in November 1957, leaving no surviving house to mark the emergence of these new elements of classical architecture in Scotland.
Sir William’s political star continued to shine, providing a fortune which enabled him to purchase the Kinross estate in 1675, and his first opportunity to give full rein to his architectural skills with only himself as client. Work first started to level the site in 1679 and by 1686 the main outline of the gardens and forecourt were in place, ready for the construction of the house which started in the autumn of that year. What rose up was one of the finest houses in the country but also one of the most important in Scotland.
Sir William was able to introduce new ideas around the layout of a house, drawing on the same ideas that Sir Roger Pratt and Hugh May were also promoting in England to create the form of the country house we know today. Similarities can be seen between the works of these architects, particularly Pratt at Coleshill, Berkshire (tragically burnt down in 1952) and the use of the double-pile layout. Another interesting aspect of the design of Kinross is that it is lined up axially with the ruined island castle of Loch Leven, providing an ‘eye-catcher’ for anyone looking out of the house across the water.
Kinross was to be Sir William’s physical statement of his vision of the country house as the primary stage for the aristocracy to parade. The house was to be part of a whole, made up of the estate, parkland, gardens, exterior and interiors; each playing their part to create a visible record of the owner’s standing and wealth. To do so, Bruce took the architectural fashions of England and combined them with his own knowledge of the works of Palladio and Serlio, and some innovative ideas of his own with regards to the use of mezzanines to create extra rooms and corridors for privacy, to create a design which also reflected the new political realities; classicism being aligned with structure, order and symmetry in society.
Yet just as his costs mounted, his political career waned with the turmoil following the death of Charles II in 1685. Having spent at least £10,000 (approx. £15m) with the house still unfinished, he was forced to scale back the lavish interiors and his ambitions. He now started taking on commissions again, working on Craighall between 1697-99 (ruined by 1793, demolished 1955), Craigiehall c1699, Hopetoun between 1699-1703, Mertoun c.1703-7, and his final contribution being to design the House of Nairne c.1710 (pulled down c.1760), though illness meant he wouldn’t have supervised the construction. Sir William had earlier made over Kinross to his son and moved back to the old Kinross house before moving to Edinburgh at the end of his life, dying there in 1710.
With limited family wealth the house declined until, in 1777, Kinross was bought by George Graham, a Scot merchant who had made a fortune in Jamaica, and since then had passed down through the family (latterly Montgomery after a marriage in 1819). Sadly the house was put up for sale in 2009 having been a family home since it was built and was sold in 2010 along with 75-acres with planning permission for conversion into a hotel – a rather depressing outcome for such an important house.
Book of the series: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Waterstones]
Official listing: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [BBC2]
Note: having watched the first episode it seems that Dan is concentrating more on the family history aspect than the architectural so I hope these entries will balance this out.