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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Property details: ‘Burnham Westgate Hall‘ – £7m, 38-acres [Savills]
Detailed listing description: ‘Burnham Westgate Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]
- ‘For Sale: Burnham Westgate Hall‘ [Daily Telegraph]
- ‘An exceptional country estate in Norfolk‘ [Country Life]