Georgian Group Architectural Awards 2014

2014 Georgian Group Architectural Awards - hosted by Christies, sponsored by Savills (Image: Nick Harvey)
2014 Georgian Group Architectural Awards – hosted by Christies, sponsored by Savills (Image: Nick Harvey)

The efforts of those who choose, or inherit, the responsibility for the care of our nation’s heritage are often unacknowledged – and yet the custodians continue regardless.  Their dedication is such that they will make significant sacrifices in terms of time, personal comfort, and money to not only rescue buildings at risk but also just to keep others in good repair.  Now in its 12th year, the Georgian Group Architectural Awards (hosted by Christie’s, sponsored by Savills) take the opportunity to assess and recognise those who have done such sterling work, primarily in the restoration and re-use of Georgian buildings but also new buildings built in a sympathetic style.

The first category awarded is the main prize – Restoration of a Georgian Country House – which this year was jointly won by Hendre House, Carnarvonshire and St Giles House, Dorset.  These two projects are both remarkable as each house was in a parlous state and only through the dogged efforts of each owner have they been rescued and are now beautiful homes again.

Hendre House, Carnarvonshire, Wales (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life)
Hendre House, Carnarvonshire, Wales (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life)
Drawing Room, Hendre House, Carnarvonshire, Wales
Drawing Room, Hendre House, Carnarvonshire, Wales

Hendre House enjoys an enviable position on the side of the Conwy valley, yet by the mid-20th century it had become a ruin after being abandoned in 1932.  In 2001, the derelict house was bought by Michael Tree, a man who had done much to raise awareness of the threats to Welsh architectural heritage and also on a practical level with the restoration of Trevor Hall. Hendre is a Regency gem which had been built in 1802 as a compact villa, orientated to take advantage of the stunning views. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the project is that Mr Tree decided to do much of the work himself, working with a local builder. The sensitive interior restoration involved the re-instatement of various elements which had been stripped out and were still on-site or recreated from existing fabric.  The shade of green used in the dining room is based on a paint fragment obtained from the ruined Edwinsford Hall and then used by Patrick Baty to create a new shade called ‘Edwinsford Green‘. Overall, this is a remarkable achievement both in terms of the scale but also the sensitivity brought to the restoration, allowing Hendre to re-join the sadly depleted ranks of Welsh country houses. (Country Life have a great gallery of photos of Hendre)

St Giles House, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)
St Giles House, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Considering the competition, one can appreciate why the committee decided that joint winners was the only way to recognise both Hendre and St Giles House, Dorset.  Now the seat of the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the restoration is one not only of the physical fabric of the house but also of the family in the life of the area.  The core of St Giles House dates from 1660, but with later additions, some of which were removed by the current Earl’s father in the 1970s.  This programme of work was not completed, and although it reduced the house to a more manageable size, left unresolved the scars of where the additions had been removed.  The house was put into hibernation for a number of years before the current Earl moved back after unexpectedly inheriting both the title and the estate.

One of the fine rooms, St Giles House, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)
One of the fine rooms, St Giles House, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Faced with the scale of work, others may have sold up and moved on, but all credit to Lord Shaftesbury (working with architect Philip Hughes), he has enthusiastically embraced the project which has comprised a complete restoration, to create not only living accommodation for the family but also to enable the rest of the house to function as a wedding and events venue.  Today, the quality of the interior  and sensitive exterior works belies the challenging state in which he took it on and enables the estate to once again become part of the fabric of local life.

Also on the shortlist in this category was the restoration of Corngreaves Hall, West Midlands by the private developer, Gr8space.  As regular readers of this blog will know that I’m very critical of developers who purchase ‘at risk’ country houses then submit huge ‘enabling development’ schemes far in excess of what’s required to restore the house, then build an estate, often unsympathetically, and then ‘forget’ to restore the house. Thankfully, in this case, although they didn’t win, the developer should be commended for their restoration of Corngreaves Hall.

Newly repainted Library, Kenwood House, London (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Newly repainted Library, Kenwood House, London (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The winner of the next category – Restoration of a Georgian Interior – was rightly awarded for the exemplary work carried out at Kenwood House, north London.  The house is one of Robert Adam’s best works, the marriage of a wonderfully proportioned and detailed country house, with a series of elegant interiors.  Now in the care of English Heritage, the restoration took a rigorous approach to the investigation of the original decoration and having determined the scheme implemented by Adam, then sought to replace the more garish 19th-century decoration. The replacement of the extensive gilt work with the more historically accurate scheme, particularly in the Library, has created a dramatic interior space which brings home just how bold and creative Adam was in his designs.

Llanelly House, Carmarthenshire, Wales
Llanelly House, Carmarthenshire, Wales

Llanelly House justifiably won the Restoration of a Georgian Building in an Urban Setting category. An important townhouse, built in 1714, it had become a much misused building, hemmed in by busy town-centre roads and cut off from the parish church opposite. Under the inspired guidance of Craig Hamilton Architects and with some thankfully enlightened support from the local council, not only has the house been restored and found a use as a genealogy centre, but wider townscape changes have re-routed the roads and created a delightful urban space with this historic building proudly taking pride of place.

The category of Reuse of a Georgian Building was won by St George’s Church, Great Yarmouth, which has found a new life as a theatre.

Painshill Landscape Garden, Surrey (Image: Painshill Trust)
Painshill Landscape Garden, Surrey (Image: Painshill Trust)

Painshill Landscape Garden, Surrey, has long been recognised as a fine example of a Georgian ‘country house’ parkland, even if it was created without a house at the centre. Winning the Restoration of a Georgian Garden or Landscape category recognises the exceptional work of the Painshill Trust in preserving what remains and the restoration of the many important garden buildings it contains.

Entrance front, Chitcombe House, Dorset (Image: Stuart Martin Architects)
Entrance front, Chitcombe House, Dorset (Image: Stuart Martin Architects)

One of the most exciting categories is the New Building in the Classical Tradition which was also awarded to joint winners. This category is the one which should demonstrate that the language of Classical architecture is still as relevant today and that its use does not automatically mean pastiche or unthinking decoration.  Chitcombe House, Dorset, designed by Stuart Martin Architects, won (in my humble opinion) on the strength and style of the entrance front.  Displaying a Dutch influence, with shades of Lutyens, it certainly creates the sense of arrival one would wish to have at a country house. However, the other side (for which I can’t find an image one now found [PDF] – thanks Tom) has two projecting bays connected by a loggia which seems almost an anti-climax after the interest created by the entrance.

Crucis Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Yiangou Architects)
Crucis Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Yiangou Architects)

The other winner is a superb design which marries both elegant proportions with fine and thoughtful detailing.  Crucis Park, Gloucestershire by Yiangou Architects, replaced a 1960s house with a compact house which draws on the traditions of local architecture but within the broader context of Queen Anne styling.   Although the two main fronts share the same historical form (a square with projecting centre – see Puslinch), the variations of the bold broken pediment above the front door, and the engaged colonnade on the other, create distinctive styling which subtly elevates the quality of the house. The interiors also feature some beautiful fireplaces and staircase.  This is the type of smaller country house architecture which should be encouraged as the correct continuation of the Classical tradition.

Overall, a very successful evening and credit should be given to the Georgian Group who have created awards that have established themselves as a benchmark by which Georgian restoration can be judged.  The annual event – made possible through the vital sponsorship of Savills (who had kindly invited me – thanks!) – not only rightly give praise and recognition to those directly engaged, but also generally raise the standard and awareness of architectural heritage and the huge efforts required to maintain it.  If there were space for one more award, I would like to see one to recognise ‘Restoration of Georgian Building by a Public Body’ to encourage the care of heritage within the public sector where it can sadly be all too often lacking.

Successive governments have retreated from their duties to help support the owners as custodians, not only by withdrawing grant support but equally with hostile measures such as applying full-rate VAT to repairs.  Consequently, the Georgian Group play a key role in acting as a ‘cheerleader’ for this vital part of the nation’s history, economy and, most importantly, our common heritage, which although mostly privately owned, enriches us all.

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Further information from The Georgian Group:

The first architect? 400 years on from death of Robert Smythson

To be regarded as the first architect is quite an accolade and, in the UK, Robert Smythson is widely viewed as holding this title – but as with many things, this is not quite the whole story.  With competition from others interested in developing the idea of architecture, Smythson might have lost the crown of being first – though with buildings such as Wollaton Hall and Hardwick Hall he would have undoubtedly still been regarded as one of the finest architects the nation has produced.  October 2014 is the 400th anniversary of his death, an apt opportunity to look at both his career and the house which launched him, Longleat.

Longleat, Wiltshire (Image: jetstoneblue via flickr)
Longleat, Wiltshire (Image: jetstoneblue via flickr)

Little is known of Smythson’s early life – even his date of birth is only narrowed down to either 1534 or 1535. There is some suspicion that his ancestors may have been masons but his level of schooling or training is a mystery.  The first documented mention of Robert Smythson is his arrival at Longleat, Wiltshire in March 1568 to work as Chief Mason for Sir John Thynne.  He bore a letter from Humphrey Lovell, the Queen’s Master Mason, stating that he was ‘not doubting him but to be a man fit for your worship‘. Smythson had previously been working at the now distantly lost house of Sir Francis Knollys at Caversham, Berkshire, built in the 1550s-60s, but described as ruinous by the diarist John Evelyn in 1654.

Although Smythson was a master, leading his own team of masons, Longleat was to prove to be his education and a spring-board for his own genius for design.  The house was an architectural onion; layers of building, wrapping each phase around the earlier one. The core was formed of the original monastery buildings which had been bought by Sir John Thynne, in 1540, using wealth accumulated in his job as Secretary to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who, as Lord Protector (albeit briefly), was one of the most powerful men in the country.

The first changes to Longleat took place between 1547-53, followed by a more extensive programme between 1553-67, which including adding a grand suite of rooms.  The original building was firmly in the existing Gothic tradition, whilst the second phase added a layer of Classical ornament.  This evolving house was an experiment in merging the existing English tradition with Italian and French influences which would have been somewhat confusing to those who saw it – or as Mark Girouard described it; ‘a kind of degenerate Gothic cake, enriched with occasional classical cherries‘.  We shall never know quite how successful this look was as on 21 April 1567 almost the entire house was destroyed in a fire which burned for 17 hours, leaving just the blackened walls.

Although clearly a serious blow to Sir John, work immediately started to rebuild the house, creating the third Longleat.  It was this project which Robert Smythson joined in March 1658 as a master mason – though not yet as an architect.  The design for the new Longleat is credited to Adrian Gaunt, a French joiner who, in December 1567, was paid for ‘making ye modell for ye house of Longleate‘ – a wooden mock-up (now sadly lost), and the first recorded instance of this in the UK.

So what was Smythson’s involvement in the design of Longleat? If looking at the third Longleat, it would be very little as both the layout and external appearance had been decided and was built as a two-storey house in the style of the previous one. However, in 1572, Sir John decided that his new house needed to be grander still and so embarked on a fourth distinct phase – this was a chance to create a more unified appearance, more in keeping with his classical ideas.

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)
Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)

Over the next eight years, the new building wrapped itself around Longleat, enclosing the two-storey Gothic house in a three-storey Classical cloak.  Most dramatically, the new fronts featured impressive pilastered bay windows which incorporated the Ancient Greek classical orders; Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.  Throughout all this work, Sir John had remained closely involved, with hundreds of letters passing between him and the workforce with his instructions. This was a man who had decided that although his status prevented him adopting the trade of architect, it was certainly not going to stop him acting like one.

However, the documentary evidence of both letters and drawings indicates that it was largely Smythson and a French sculptor, Alan Maynard, who had been working at Longleat since 1563, as the principal designers of the new house.  Girouard believes the division of labour to be that whilst the decoration of the house is Maynard’s, the overall plan and elevations are Smythson’s, who developed the possibilities of the existing compact courtyard house; to turn it outward, and present a most dramatic façade to the world. What Thynne brought to the mix was his passion and critical eye (and huge wealth) which drove and inspired his architects to create a house which matched his ambitions.  Despite all this effort, Thynne barely saw the house complete before he died in May 1580.

Corsham Court, Wiltshire (Image: IBBC)
Corsham Court, Wiltshire (Image: IBBC)

Whilst working at Longleat, Smythson was already developing his architectural career with a commission nearby at Corsham Court, started in the mid-1570s.  Lacking both the budget and passion of the work at Longleat, it is, nonetheless, an interesting and successful fusing of Tudor and Classical.

Around the same time as he was working at Longleat, Smythson had also taken on a substantial side-project; working for Sir Matthew Arundell at Wardour Castle.  Although now a ruin after suffering during the Civil War, Smythson had been employed to refurbish the 14th-century castle, creating a modern house.  Taking what he had learned at Longleat, Wardour’s walls were punctured with windows and classical decoration added to the gateway and doorcases – though the windows were Gothic to keep in style.

Old Wardour Castle (Image: Old Rare Prints)
Old Wardour Castle (Image: Old Rare Prints)

If an architect was to wish for a monument to their work, few could hope for one even half-as-fine as Smythson has in his next commission at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire.  Work started in 1580 for Sir Francis Willoughby, Arundell’s cousin and brother-in-law, and although Smythson’s name first appears in the accounts in March 1582, it is highly likely that he was involved from the beginning – and was still working there when he died in 1614.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire - evening sun showing the lantern effect of the design (Image: adamzy via flickr)
Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire – evening sun showing the lantern effect of the design (Image: adamzy via flickr)

Wollaton is almost a topographical expression of the Elizabethan idea of the internal progression which determined the layout of their houses.  As one of the first houses sited on a prominent hilltop for aesthetic rather than military reasons, it would have been highly visible to all around. Yet, as visitors moved closer they would have been delighted by the gardens and pavilions, before arriving at the highly-decorated Renaissance jewel at the heart of the scheme.

Wollaton is an exceptional house mainly due to the extravagance, but also for having survived. The layout of the house – square with four corner towers and the unusual tall central hall with clerestory windows – had been seen before at Michelgrove in Sussex and Mount Edgcumbe, Cornwall.  What was innovative was the bold play of Renaissance architectural motifs into such dramatic overall impression, creating an almost overwhelming effect – teetering on the verge of being just a bit too much.  Little wonder that after Smythson’s death the inscription on his monument in the parish church reads ‘Architecter and Surveyor unto the most worthy house of Wollaton with divers others of great account‘.

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

Although Smythson continued to be employed at Wollaton, he was also engaged elsewhere.  One of his most successful projects was the remodelling of the hunting lodge of the Earl of Shrewsbury in the 1580s.  Built as a show of Elizabethan machismo in riposte to Wollaton, Worksop Manor would have been one of the most glorious of the houses of that age, but was consumed by fire in 1761. Again, this was a house set on a prominent site and heavily glazed, catching the sun to dazzling effect.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)

The house which did survive and is rightly considered the high-point of Elizabethan architecture is Hardwick Hall, built between 1590-97.  Tantalisingly, there is no documentary evidence to link Smythson (or by this point, his son John who had also joined the family business) to being paid for the design of Hardwick. However, a series of designs in the Smythson archive which are similar to the executed details of Hardwick, combined with a 1597 accounts book listing a ‘gift’ to Robert and his son John, do suggest that they were closely involved. Most of all, the design of Hardwick Hall is a distilled version of the ideas and experience that Robert Smythson had accumulated over the course of his career. Hardwick is a house with the thoughtful layout of Worksop, combined with technical flair of Wollaton but now moderated and toned down to an elegant finish.

Pontefract New Hall, Lancashire - built 1591, demolished late 1950s (image: Pontefract Heritage Group via flickr)
Pontefract New Hall, Lancashire – built 1591, demolished late 1950s (image: Pontefract Heritage Group via flickr)

After reaching such sublime heights with Hardwick many an architect would have considered their work done and retired. However, for Robert Smythson, the 1590s were a fertile period where he started developing another form of country house, one which combined a compact form but much of the style of Hardwick.  The best example was Pontefract New Hall, built in 1591 and again paid for by Bess of Hardwick, but for her stepson, Edward Talbot. This house took the form of the central core with projecting corner towers but added further recession to the façade to create a complex movement, anticipating designs such as Holland House and Hatfield.  New Hall was derelict by the 20th-century before being sadly demolished in the late 1950s, with the rubble reputedly becoming the A1 motorway.

Chastleton House, Oxfordshire (Image: Brian @ Bury St Edmunds via flickr)
Chastleton House, Oxfordshire (Image: Brian @ Bury St Edmunds via flickr)

Smythson was also involved in designing houses at Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Owlcotes in Derbyshire, an un-executed design for a house at Slingsby for Charles Cavendish (a form of which was created at Caverswall Castle, Staffordshire), who then implemented a small part of a grand rebuilding plan Smythson produced for Welbeck Abbey. Girouard also claims that Burton Agnes Hall is also by Robert Smythson.  Other houses linked stylistically or conjecturally include Chastleton House, Gawthorpe Hall, Fountains Hall and possibly Howsham Hall.

Smythson can certainly be regarded as the parent to the style we would now call ‘Elizabethan’, with buildings which delighted in their inventiveness.  Although the early buildings may have owed a debt to the direction of others, as Smythson became more confident in his mastery of the forms and language, so to do his designs become more skilful, even if he wasn’t always able to restrain the extravagance.  Certainly there were others who were also looking to develop the idea of a professional designer of buildings, but Smythson was the first who we can securely say created a coherent and recognisable style, each house showing the evolution of his skill, each contributing to his claim as the first architect.

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Related article: ‘A minor prodigy: Brereton Hall for sale‘ – looking at the wider context of the Prodigy houses.