This year has been a challenging one for everyone and my thoughts are with anyone who has suffered any direct experience with this dreadful virus. We can only be thankful for the incredible service and sacrifice of those on the front-line, particularly in the NHS, but throughout the entire public sector, who have all played their part.
On a personal level, the blog has been dormant as all my books were in storage whilst we undertook a home extension which, unfortunately, was delayed by the pandemic restrictions. Plus, there is a surprising amount of admin linked to having an extension. Anyway, between the extension, my actual day job, and looking after my family, writing about country houses was just not possible.
Happily, we did manage to visit two during the earlier easing of restrictions: Eltham Palace, Kent, and Athelhampton House, Dorset. Hopefully, once we are able, next year we’ll all be able to visit the many country houses which will need our support more than ever. If you can, it’s well worth to join one or more of the many organisations which have been helping to protect our country houses:
And if you can’t visit in person, the various architectural heritage organisations (who have also been financially disadvantaged), have been magnificent and several have been able to provide online lectures which can attended ‘live’ or watched again later for a very small fee:
Now the good news regarding this blog; there is a new article. In fact, it will be published in three parts as it became rather extensive. The first part will be published today, so that I can say that I have at least managed to publish at least once in 2020.
Thank you again for your interest and support and wishing you all the very best for 2021.
In a time before widespread literacy, a physical representation of what was intended to be built was a powerful aide to help ensure that the vision of the architect became the physical reality crafted by the builder. Yet, the architectural model was more than this. Evolving from being a functional tool, it became an aspirational marketing device to demonstrate the proposed scheme but also as a three-dimensional business card for the architect and striking conversational piece for the wealthy patron who would possess both the miniature fantasy and the full-size reality of the design of their country house.
The role of the architectural model can be traced back to the earliest buildings, particularly the devotional and religious. Some of the oldest were found in Egyptian tombs, dating back over four thousand years, and represented functional spaces which may be required such as granaries or gardens. Later they were often displayed as a record of the beneficence of the donor (rather than skill of an architect), they appear in paintings or decorations being held as offerings (such as the 10th-century Vestibule Mosaic showing Justinian presenting the Hagia Sophia to Mary and Christ), or carved into their funerary monuments or other personal iconography such as portraits; all undoubtedly a handy aide-memoire to St Peter, come the reckoning on Judgement Day.
The creation of models of new buildings is recorded in the 15th-century with the renowned architect and theoretician Leon Battista Alberti (b.1402 – d.1472), stating that,
‘I always recommend the ancient builders’ practice by which not only drawings and pictures but also wooden models are made, so that the projected work can be considered and reconsidered, with the counsel of experts, in its whole and in all its parts.’
The fashion for the creation of architectural models as objects for study and decoration was one which grew with the interest and wider participation in what became known as the Grand Tour, particularly from the 1760s. As wealthy young men would embark on extended study (and, if we’re honest, pleasure) tours of the Mediterranean and Middle East, so too did their desire to bring back a tangible memory of their time to display as a marker of their cultural and worldly sophistication.
Cork established itself as a popular material for the crafting of models of ancient ruins as it was intrinsically similar in its native form to the weathered appearance of the stones it was shaped to resemble. Light and easy to transport, it is easy to imagine that many hundreds of these were shipped back to country houses back in the UK as a reminder and an inspiration. It is interesting to speculate how influential these romantically ruinous models were on the nascent Picturesque movement of the 1780s. The models may have generated not only new buildings but also the incorporation of existing ruins into new landscapes or the building of new ‘old’ ones too, energised by having at hand aesthetically compatible examples, steeped in irregularity and showing the forces of nature providing the finishing touches to the works of man.
For those who wished to show a more idealised representation of architectural purity, clearly the imprecise renderings of cork were not going to match their visions. In the 1780s, to demonstrate the beauty of the finer details of the classical world, entirely white, finely crafted ‘Plaster of Paris’ models started to be created. Almost of these are thought to be the work of two French modellists, Jean-Pierre Fouquet (b.1752 – d.1829) and his son Francois (b.1787 – d.1870), who were based in Paris, trading as Fouquet et Fils.1 For architects, these models presented an alternative version of reality, one which enabled them to present their own schemes in a favourable context to the works of the ancient world.
Beyond the decorative role, the models were also naturally didactic; their representations of the ruins of the ancient world creating opportunities to teach those who would not otherwise be able to travel to see them. Of those who embraced this approach, the most prominent and inventive was Sir John Soane. His collection was one of the largest but who was also able to use them as inspiration, as teaching aids to his pupils and marketing tool for those who visited his home/studio at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, where they can still be seen today in the restored model gallery.
“Many of the most serious disappointments that attend those who build would be avoided if models were previously made of the edifices proposed to be raised. No building – at least none of considerable size or consequence – should be begun until a correct and detailed model of all its parts has been made.”
– Sir John Soane (Royal Academy lecture, 1815)
Soane was drawing on his own experience but what had clearly been a well-established technique within the building trade and architectural profession – but just how frequently were these model houses created as part of the commissioning process? The key challenge is that so few are known to have survived that it’s difficult to draw broad conclusions from such a small selection. However, it is instructive to take a tour of a sample to see the range and skills deployed by architects and craftsmen to not only convince the patron but also to explore proposed designs at a stage when corrections were far easier to make.
One of the earliest known examples (and my thanks to Jeremy Musson for bringing it to my attention), is a beautifully detailed model of Quidenham Hall, Norfolk, dating from the early 1600s. The manor was bought by the Holland family from in 1572 and the model was created for the construction of the first house in 1606 – probably in the same year, as it would act as the visual guide for the builders and masons.
In the context of a less-educated age, the value of the model to the build process becomes more apparent, particularly for more complex designs such as Quidenham, with its detailed elevations including procession, recession, bows, pediments, crenellations, stepped gables, and chimneys. A feature of the architectural models is that they can be explored, with the house dissembling either horizontally including the exterior walls, or just the interior floors, enabling a ‘fly-through’ so beloved of modern property programmes. Clearly, being able to visualise the interior in relation to the exterior provided clarity as to the relationship between the designs for the rooms and their physical placement.
Quidenham Hall was subsequently extensively remodelled in the 18th-century with additional wings and the refacing of the entire house in a unifying neo-classical design. For us today, one value which was unexpected in the original construction of the model is that it allows us to know with a high degree of certainty what the original house looked like, despite these changes.
The degree of craftsmanship which was invested in the models is perhaps best shown in the remarkable model of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Easton Neston, in Northamptonshire. Dating from 1689, it is considered one of the most important models to have survived, due not only to the superb craftsmanship but also because it relates to the design of a house regarded as central to the development of the Anglo-Baroque aesthetic. The model was bought for £180,550 in 2005 when Baron Hesketh sold the contents and house and is now in the RIBA Architecture Study Rooms at the V&A in London.
Sir John Soane’s designs for Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire, are a particularly instructive example as model, drawings and house (the latter with minor later alterations) survive and can therefore be readily compared. Commissioned by the banker William Praed, the house took five years to build from 1793 to 1798, with the model being created in mahogany c.1793-1794 by Joseph Parkins, a joiner working on the project. This sophisticated approach of thoughtful, inventive but ultimately practical designs, high-quality presentation watercolours by Joseph Gandy, and equally polished miniature evocations show the exemplary professionalism of Soane and why he was one of the leading architects of the era and held in such high regard.
A later example was the model created for Pyrgo Park, Essex (demolished c.1940). The house was built for Robert Field, who had inherited a largely derelict Tudor house and estate from his brother in 1836. The remains of the old house were demolished in 1851-52 and a new house built on the same site to a design commissioned from Thomas Allason (b.1790 – d.1852). In light of the architect’s death, in the same year as construction on the new house was due to start, the creation of the model in 1851, now held in the RIBA Collection, would have enabled the work to continue and for a house, faithful to the architect’s design, to be created.
Another architect to use models was George Devey (b.1820 – d. 1896) who produced them as a matter of course when proposing a design to a client. The distinctive feature of Devey’s models, produced by a dedicated, in-house modeller who was ‘in constant work’, was their scale, being produced small enough to fit in custom, briefcase-sized boxes. These often beautiful models allowed Devey to dispense with creating perspective drawings, producing only elevations and plans, which were combined with the physical miniature they would see in front of them.
Two more models are worthy of note due to their size and beautiful detailing. One of the tallest was for Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, the vast Gothic edifice built for William Beckford constructed between 1786-1807. The model was notable not only for its scale (built at a ratio of 1 inch to 10 feet), but also for its own evolutionary construction with the model corresponding in part to the earlier designs from 1799, but overall the composition is similar to the engravings from the 1820s. The irony is that this model, built of fragile card, survived more completely than the ill-fated abbey itself.
Perhaps the most beautiful and largest is the proposed model for a new palace in Richmond, Surrey, designed by William Kent for King George II and Queen Caroline in 1735. Created in pearwood, the model is nearly two and half metres long and is exquisitely detailed, as one would expect of a presentation model to be shown to royalty.
Clearly there is a long history of the use of models, with examples for houses both large and small from multiple notable architects and other evidence that these models were not an uncommon element in the design and construction of country houses. So, why are so few known to have survived? Without more primary, documentary evidence, conclusions necessarily have to be somewhat conjectural.
Some study has been made of architectural models, particularly by Professor John Wilton-Ely, who has stated that although frequently used, they were less used by the end of the eighteenth-century. He also highlights that whilst models found favour with some architects, such as Soane, others such as William Chambers only used them occasionally, Wyatt only appears to have used it Fonthill and Longford Castle, Wiltshire, and that there are no known instances of their use by Robert Adam.
Additionally, one reason so few have survived is their role in the actual construction process; the frequent use on-site and the high-level of wear-and-tear likely to result from such treatment meant that those made from more fragile materials such as plaster or card were always at risk of being worn out and discarded.
For those which survived, their bulky nature would always be a factor in determining whether someone not only had the inclination but also the space to store them. Minutes and correspondence from within the Victoria & Albert Museum shows the ascending and waning fortunes of architectural models. When the V&A first opened (called then, the Museum of Construction), models were given prominent billing and display space – though of the seventy-plus identified2 from the hundred known in the collection, only one is a house, surprisingly dating from 1936. The lack of country houses is stark, reflecting a level of institutional disinterest from the outset and over the lifetime of the collection. Cumbersome and unloved, the collection was removed from display in 1888 and put into store. After ownership was passed unenthusiastically between the various museums, the V&A reluctantly took them in 1916 (‘The items do not for the most part appear to be very desirable for us, either for exhibition or reserve‘) with some being selected for disposal, the minutes recording ‘their cremation‘.
Perhaps the most intriguing method of survival is the most charming – their use as dolls houses. Once the model had served its purpose in design and construction, and perhaps served time as a conversation piece, one can easily imagine the children of the house being given a chance to recreate their lives in miniature. They also would serve as training for one day managing a country house of their own. So if you, or a relative, has an antique but surprisingly good quality or familiar looking dolls house in the attic, take a closer look…!
Perhaps the most impressive (and remarkable) surviving example is that of Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk, dating from the 1660s. The architect of the now grade-I listed house is unconfirmed, particularly as there are no known drawings, but it is thought that the owner, Sir Jacob Astley, may have designed it himself. In such circumstances, the building of a model would have been a prudent step, both in confirming that his design was fit-for-purpose and for subsequent use during construction. The model of the house was then passed through generations of the Astley family children before being donated to the Norfolk Museum Service.
Another dolls house, this time at Greystoke Castle in Cumbria, was discovered to be a proposed eighteenth-century design for the enlargement of the pele tower. Much of the work at Greystoke was completed by Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881) so it is possible that this an example of another architect using models as part of the process.
Today, the architectural model exists but as a method of celebration and display. The model is less a functional representation of what will be and instead is a now a mechanism for the long-term appreciation of the finished building as sculpture. It is curious to note that the model has moved from the purpose of remembrance to aspiration and back to the recreation of what has been lost. The sophistication of modern digital rendering has sadly removed the need for the model to help those commissioning a country house to visualise it. However, in this we have have lost the physicality of the form and the sheer pleasure of the craftsmanship of a country house model; idealised but as yet unrealised.
Known complete models of houses
Do you know of any others? If so, please add a comment with details.
Summary list of examples (architect name and current location of the the model, in brackets, if either are known)
Models of perfection – Meticulously replicated buildings are proving popular commissions to commemorate special occasions or treasured memories. Clive Aslet talks to three master craftsmen about their very individual techniques
When I started the blog in 2009, it was (and remains) a personal interest written in my spare time. I was also single and without children and having written about no country house topics, all were open for me. Having now, in the last two and bit years, married and had two beautiful children, time is somewhat more limited, and, more surprisingly, after nearly three hundred posts, it is actually harder to find topics once an architect or house has been written about. That said, I have an article almost ready to go for January…
Anyway, there are others also writing about country houses in the UK and Ireland so below are a few suggestions you should find very interesting:
If you use Facebook (and this group is pretty much the only reason I still do!), then Country Houses of the UK and Ireland is the gold standard for content and conduct. The chief contributor is the leading country house historian Nicholas Kingsley, who provides, almost daily, a full history of a country house with illustrations. The group is closed but membership is easy to obtain and will repay your interest.
Nicholas also writes a blog on the Landed families of Britain and Ireland which aims to provide a history of each landowning family with a detailed history of each house they have owned – it is truly epic in its scope.
Another blog I rate as one of the very best is Handed On, which provides a detailed history of a country house which is selected on the basis that it is little-known, either by design or accident. The quality of research is impressive and it’s brilliantly written.
Covering the often related but entirely distinctive Irish country houses is The Irish Aesthete, a blog which has helped me enormously to discover more about a fascinating heritage.
Wishing you all again, a Happy New Year and thank you again for your continuing interest and support.
Although principally known as a ‘landscape gardener’ – a job title he invented even if the role was already well-defined – Humphry Repton was clearly a man who understood that an estate was a composition of many parts and that architecture had a vital role to play in the success of his schemes. The challenge in assessing Repton’s contribution to architecture is that of his collaborations; what sprang from his inventive and knowledgeable mind, and what came from those he worked with, including his sons, John and George, and also that leading proponent of the Picturesque, John Nash.
Humphry Repton (b.1752 – d.1818) had a lifelong passion for gardening, but it was not his first career. After starting in business as a general merchant in Norwich, which failed, Repton decided to retire to the countryside and live with his sister and husband in Sustead, near Aylsham, in Norfolk. With his father’s prosperity and sister’s indulgence, he developed his interest in botany and gardening. After a brief period in 1783 as private secretary in Ireland to his neighbour William Windham of Felbrigg (he resigned after a month), Repton took a cottage near Romford, Essex, and decided to focus on turning his interest into a career. Fortunately, circumstances meant that he was well placed to do so with his deep horticultural knowledge, his superlative skills as a watercolourist, which he used to create his visions in his beautifully produced Red Books, plus opportune timing, with the death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783 creating a gap for someone with Repton’s grand ideas.
Although the setting of a house was a key consideration for any architect of the era, few thought of themselves as landscape gardeners (Decimus Burton (b.1800 – d.1881) was something of an exception). However, those who were of that profession seemed to not only have an opinion on architecture but also apparently felt confident that they could also practice in this as well as their primary domain. For Repton, although not trained as an architect, he saw architecture as ‘an inseparable and indispensable auxiliary‘ to his efforts. Repton was usually brought in after the house was complete and his plans would be presented in one of his famous Red Books, leather-bound volumes of his ideas for a specific property, in which he set out his vision of the landscape as it was, including the current house. In it, Repton would often include his criticisms of what was there and include his suggestions for sympathetic alterations which would better enable the house to fit within his vision.
A measure of Repton’s boundless confidence in his own abilities can be seen in whom he felt able to criticise for their architectural efforts, including Sir John Soane, probably the leading architect of his era. Repton was commissioned to create a landscape at several of Soane’s commissions, usually appearing a year or two after completion, including at Mulgrave Castle, Moggerhanger House, Aynhoe Park, Holwood House and Honing Hall. In the case of the latter house, Soane had made extensive alterations in 1788, and in Repton’s Red Book, produced in 1792, he criticised Soane’s work saying:
The proportions of the house are not pleasing, it appears too high for its width, even where seen at any angle presenting two fronts; and the heaviness of a dripping roof always takes away from the elegance of any building above the degree of a farm house; it would not be attended with great expence to add a blocking course to the cornice, and this with a white string course under the windows, would produce such horizontal lines as might in some measure counteract the too great height of the house. There are few cases where I should prefer a red house to a white one, but that at Honing is so evidently disproportioned, that we can only correct the defects by difference of colour, while in good Architecture all lines should depend on depths of shadow produced by proper projections in the original design. (1)
In the illustrations in the Red Book for Honing Hall, Repton boldly showed the house, not as it was, but with his suggested improvements. Repton had form for his criticisms of Soane, having been asked, in 1790, to review the newly completed Tendring Hall, Suffolk, (demolished 1955) where he wrote:
…had I been previously consulted the house would neither have been so lofty in its construction nor so exposed in its situation.
For a man with no formal architectural training to be so forthright in his judgements gives a sense of Repton’s confidence in his own abilities. Luckily (for Repton), it’s likely that the notoriously sensitive Soane never saw these criticisms and they maintained cordial relations for many years. Repton’s comment about rarely preferring a red house to a white one is also corroborated by other Red Books, including the designs for Stansted Hall, and Rivenhall Place, in Essex and Hatchlands Park, Surrey.
Repton’s architectural contributions are often overlooked as he was never enough of an architect to be considered as one, and, in general, those primarily interested in his landscapes are insufficiently interested in his architecture. A prime example of this (not mentioned in Colvin, or Stephen Daniels’ book, except buried in an endnote) is Repton’s vision for Port Eliot, Cornwall, the seat of Lord Eliot. In 1792, in one of his earlier commissions, he was brought in for his advice on the estate. Repton assumed the role of architect and provided, in the Port Eliot Red Book, a broader set of broadly Gothic proposals which brought house, church, estate and even the nearby town into his remit. This expansive approach to his brief was a challenge for Sir John Soane who was asked in 1794 to contribute his ideas – but now within a Gothic framework set by Repton (a style to which Soane was hostile), whose designs had found a level of favour with Lord Eliot, and which he adapted.
One of the key questions when considering the architectural improvements suggested by Repton is to what degree they were his and what had been conceived by his eldest son John Adey Repton (b.1775 – d.1860). J.A. Repton had been a pupil to William Wilkins where he developed a profound understanding of Gothic architecture. He had then moved in 1796 to the office of John Nash, with whom the elder Repton had established an arrangement to pass on any architectural commissions in exchange for 2.5% of the cost of the work – an agreement which Nash failed to honour, leading to the partnership being terminated in 1800.
Nash has a chequered reputation professionally and this extended to those in his office, including J.A. Repton but left to become his father’s assistant when the agreement between Nash and his father ended. Nash was unfortunately a champion of the Picturesque but not of his assistants; he never acknowledged J.A. Repton’s significant contribution in various schemes. Unfortunately, John was to suffer the same issue to a certain extent with his father, though he was later clearly credited for his assistance ‘in the architectural department‘ for designs for a number of houses including Stratton Park, Scarisbrick, Panshanger, and others.
In the Port Eliot Red Book, eighteen of the drawings are signed by the son and are probably his designs, however the scheme as a whole is attributed to the elder Repton, though he may have been angling for this to be a major commission for his son. Unfortunately for the Reptons, their grand vision for Port Eliot was never going to be realised, mainly due to financial constraints, though Soane was to provide an alternative scheme which he diplomatically managed to agree with Lord Eliot – much to Repton’s chagrin, later writing:
my beautiful plan for Port Eliot…my design for bringing together the house and the Abbey did not suit the fancy of my fanciful friend [Soane] (who knows but little about Gothic) so the plan was totally changed.
Repton’s architectural work was significant enough to merit inclusion in Howard Colvin’s seminal reference work, ‘A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840’. The most important was the work at Welbeck Abbey in 1790 to remodel the east and west fronts (and the Red Book contains designs for an entirely new house) but the other entries are relatively insignificant – minor works in 1792 at Honing Hall, the enclosing of the courtyard at Sarsden House in 1795 to create a domed ‘hall of communication’, and a new entrance to Uppark in 1805. Beyond that, his association with John Nash meant he had an insight into the ‘cottage orne’ style and which Repton used in his design for a new ‘lodge of a new and singular description‘ comprising two thatched cottages on the Isle of Wight, one either side of the road.
Beyond that, his architectural contributions were mainly the designs within the books on landscape gardening. The most important of these were ‘Sketches and hints on landscape gardening : collected from designs and observations now in the possession of the different noblemen and gentlemen, for whose use they were originally made : the whole tending to establish fixed principles in the art of laying out ground’, published early in his career in 1794, and the posthumous collection published in 1840, ‘The Landscape Gardening and Landscape Architecture of the late Humphry Repton’.
So, can Repton be considered an architect as well as a landscape gardener? On balance, his position seems to be more that of ‘frustrated architect but successful critic’. Repton doesn’t seem to have been able to establish a reputation as an expert on architecture, possibly because his commentary was often only available in the Red Books, with their naturally limited circulation. Also, his work was usually after the house was already built and often only recently finished, meaning the owner was unlikely to consider making significant changes very quickly, leaving few opportunities for him to showcase the talents he clearly thought he had.
However, his work was influential on the practices of contemporary and later architects, forcing them to acknowledge that their buildings did not exist in splendid isolation and had to be considered as whole; a three-dimensional, interactive, ever-changing landscape painting. Open, expansive parklands had the effect of placing the building on a visual plinth, majestic but with an aloof air. Repton firmly brought all the elements together, blending both Gothic with greenery and the Palladian with the planting. His architectural contributions reflect this sensitivity and with more opportunities he may have been even more influential in the field of architecture, much as he dominated the landscapes represented so beautifully in his famous Red Books.
(1) – Humphry Repton, Red Book for Honing Hall , quoted in ‘The Surprising Discretion of Soane and Repton’ by Gillian Darley, in the Georgian Group Journal vol. XII 2002
Apologies for the long gap between articles – happily, just after I posted the last one in September 2017, our beautiful son was born. Mother and baby were, and remain, fine and his sister clearly loves him. However, as anyone with experience of small children knows, they’re justifiably demanding and, combined with having a day job, it’s meant I haven’t had the time to write, but as he gets a little older hopefully I should now be able to again…at least in some capacity, though they’ll remain sporadic. Tweeting is easier to do regularly, so please do follow @thecountryseat and @lostheritage. OK, on with the show…
William Blake poetically argued that it was possible to ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand’; in the miniature is a reflection of something much greater. With that in mind, to look upon the manifest beauties of a house such as Trafalgar Park in Wiltshire, it could seem strange to argue that one of the most important aspects of it is, in fact, a small hallway in the north wing. Yet, this hallway is one of the earliest architectural examples which form the genesis of neo-classicism; one of the most recognisable and prolific architectural styles which has proved to be enduringly influential in the design of country houses and also has come to dominate civic architecture.
Neo-classical architecture permeates our built environment; banks, council and government buildings, and particularly country houses. Drawing on the ancient monuments of Greece, the structured, hierarchical designs provided a convenient vocabulary that institutions, the state, and individuals could use to express their permanence and place in the natural order of society. Of course, this is the interpretation and not an objective set of laws but neo-classicism’s rationalist perspective, with its reliance on mathematical rigour, gave the impression that architecture and society both shared an underlying harmony in their precision and structure.
The Classical language of architecture had arrived in England through the widely admired and imitated Vitruvian principles as interpreted in Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura. Inigo Jones had adopted this language and had created the foothold for the new style with his the Queen’s House in Greenwich (1616) and Banqueting House in Westminster (1619). However, his sources were Italian; the great monuments of Rome as measured and shown by Palladio. For some, though, this was derivative as the earliest Classical monuments were in Greece.
It ought to remembered that the fashion for the neo-classical was one which swept across Europe, not just the UK. As a rejection of the seemingly frivolous Rococo movement, it sought to instil a more high-minded set of ideals across the arts. To do this, writers such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (regarded as one of the fathers of neo-classicism), stated that ‘The only way to become great is to imitate antiquity’. This required no mere slavish copying but a profound understanding obtained through study which enabled principled use of the Classical architectural language. Books such as Piranesi’s Le Antiquita Romane, a series of topographical views of Rome published in 1748, determined to prove the glory of Rome. However, others such as Richard Dalton (Museum Graecum et Aegyticum, 1751), le Comte de Caylus (Recueil d’Antiquities Eygyptiennes, Etrusques, Grecques et Romaines, 1752) and Julien David Le Roy (Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grece, 1758) argued for the superiority of the Hellenic originals.
If true knowledge of Classical architecture required detailed study the options were limited unless fortunate enough to be able to undertake the arduous and expensive Grand Tour. The Society of Dilettanti, formed in the 1730s as a scholarly drinking club for aristocrats and others who had visited Italy, deliberately sought to influence fashion by sponsoring a more rigorous approach to the recording of the ancient ruins. Scholars had realised the value and fame which could be garnered from publishing books on the ruins they had visited but these were often the Roman versions of the Grecian originals and were often more decorative than accurate delineations.
In contrast, the most successful and influential of these publications was Antiquities of Athens by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and Nicholas Revett, published in three folios in 1762, 1787 and 1794. Sponsored by the Society of Dilettanti, their approach produced detailed, measured architectural drawings from which other architects could accurately reproduce Grecian details. Stuart and Revett were both better known as connoisseurs of painting rather than as architects, but having lived in Rome for ten years prior to their departure in 1751 for Athens, they had a thorough knowledge of Roman artefacts. This was crucial in establishing the authority of Antiquities of Athens when the first folio was published in 1762.
James Stuart (1713-1788) became known as James ‘Athenian’ Stuart on the reputation he established. He originally started his artistic career as a painter of fans and he was to continue with this work even after becoming an architect – the large allegorical ceiling painting in the tapestry room at Hagley Hall, painted in 1758-59, is one notable example. However, having established his fame, his drinking and erratic work habits meant that although he had a steady stream of work, patrons were sometimes reluctant to commission him, leaving his reputation somewhat diminished. This is in contrast to his early years when having arrived in Rome in 1742, he established himself as judge of pictures, acting as a guide to aristocrats on their Grand Tour. In this manner he met Revett when he accompanied him, along with Matthew Brettingham and Gavin Hamilton, to Naples in 1748. That same year, he and Revett drafted their first Proposals for publishing an Accurate Description of the Antiquities of Athens, which, once accepted by the Society who became their sponsors, enabled them to undertake their investigation.
Nicholas Revett (1721-1804) was the second son of minor Suffolk gentry, his father being John Revett of Brandeston Hall. At the age of 21, Nicholas left Suffolk and moved to Rome to study under Marco Benefial, an important early neo-classical painter. It’s unclear where Revett was tutored in the precise skill of architectural drawing but clearly as a man of some talent and training he was undoubtedly proficient and it was he, not Stuart, who was principally responsible for the measured drawings of the monuments. According to one account in the Gentleman’s Magazine of March 1778 ‘Mr Stuart first caught the ideas of that science, in which (quitting the painter’s art) he afterwards made so conspicuous a figure.’ So why is the pupil known better than the master?
One of the key reasons is that although Revett’s name appeared on the title page, before publication he had sold his interest to Stuart after editorial differences. Secondly, Revett, as a gentleman with a private income, wasn’t under the same financial pressure to practice and so his executed architectural commissions are scarce, primarily working for his friends. One such in his circle was Henry Dawkins; owner of Standlynch, later renamed Trafalgar Park.
This commission, in 1766, was limited but Revett drew on his knowledge and the rich seam of material he had accumulated to produce a fine portico, based on the Temple of Apollo, Delos. Revett’s skill was in being able to take the elements of the temple and extend it to create a sophisticated composition. In addition to this, Revett was tasked with creating a vestibule at the junction of the north wing. Within this limited space, Revett chose to create a miniature six-column temple apparently based on the Establishment of the Poseidoniasts, also at Delos, representing one of the (and possibly the) earliest interior use of Greek neo-classical architectural features.
Revett contributed few other architectural examples, working mainly for friends such as Dawkins at Standlynch. Other commissions including adding a grand Ionic portico to the west front of West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, for Sir Francis Dashwood in 1771, and later the Temple of Flora and the Island Temple between 1778-80. Revett’s only other notable contribution is the church at Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, for Sir Lionel Lyde in 1778, which he designed as a temple with small, detached wings, linked with a columnar screen. James Lees-Milne thoroughly disliked it saying ‘It is stark, cold and foreign to its surroundings, in fact admittedly unsympathetic to its ostensible purpose as a christian conventicle in a small and humble parish. Quite frankly it was meant to be enjoyed as an ornamental temple of a nobleman’s park in a focal view from the mansion.’ Which is correct – and probably exactly what Revett had intended.
So if Revett has the garland for earliest neo-classical interior, who can claim the earliest exterior use? Although Antiquities of Athens was published in 1762, the drawings were at the disposal of Stuart and Revett. The earliest Greek revival building is agreed to be the garden temple at Hagley Hall, built for Lord Lyttelton in 1758-59, which Stuart designed was based on The Hephaisteion in Athens. However, in 1985, Giles Worsley identified the earliest use of a Greek architectural element in a building as being two years earlier in 1756 when Earl Harcourt, a prominent member of the Society of Dilettanti, was rebuilding Nuneham House, Oxfordshire. Although the architect of the house is noted as Stiff Leadbetter, Lord Harcourt asserted such influence that the house can be regarded as more by the former than the latter. Writing to a friend he stated that,
I have not placed my Venetian windows under an arch. Instead of springing the arch or compass point of the Venetian window from the cornish as other people have done, I have boldly adventured to follow a design of an old building which I have seen among Mr Stuart’s drawings of Athens, where the arch or circular part springs from the architrave itself, which, besides having a very good effect, obviates an objection which upon some occasions had been made to Venetian windows, that the light is too high in the room.
Harcourt’s inspiration for his variation on the standard Venetian window was Stuart’s drawing of the Aqueduct of Hadrian, a structure largely ruined when he visited and demolished by the end of that century. Stuart would go on to use this form of the window at only three other houses; once at The Belvedere, Kent, c.1775, once at the Prospect House, Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, c.1775, and once at Montagu House, London, c.1775-82, though unfortunately all these have now been demolished.
The 1750s and 1760s saw the idea of architecture drawn from classical sources, whether Greek or Roman, become more widespread. The birth of Greek neo-classicism in the UK can, in part, be traced to these examples and the men behind them, the wider adoption of this stylistic source was relatively slow. Neither Stuart nor Revett appeared to wish to be the figureheads for a new fashion, simply content to work as much as they wished, with Stuart taking more but his delivery tempered by his dissolute habits. Different strands of neo-classicism were being picked up by more ambitious architects such as Robert Adam, who had undertaken his own Grand Tour to Italy and Croatia and whose publication in 1764 of the Ruins of the Palace of the Emporer Diocletian at Spalatro gave his a scholarly foundation from which to launch his own style of neo-classicism which soon supplanted the previous Burlingtonian standard.
The overlooked North Vestibule at Trafalgar Park represents the quiet experimentation which was to plant seeds of the Hellenic neo-classical movement. This would find its true expression in the late-Georgian era when evangelists such as Thomas Hope would create a resurgence in interest and further burnish the reputations of both Stuart and Revett; men whose unequal fame has obscured the contribution which Revett made in enabling architects, regardless of experience or first-hand exposure, to all claim antiquity as their source.
As the costs of owning a country house mounted in the early-twentieth-century and eventually overwhelmed the finances of many families, so they sought alternative uses for their houses. Whether as a care home, school, or any of other myriad uses, few houses or their estates endured the experience unscathed. For those used as offices, the particular indignity of large, modern additions obliterated the immediate setting of a house, occasionally driving it into obscurity. Few who suffered this fate have ever escaped, yet a rare and beautiful survival – Benham Park in Berkshire – has not only escaped, but been wonderfully (partly) restored and is now offered for sale. What is most remarkable though about this house are its connections to some of the most famous names of Georgian architecture, including Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, a young Henry Holland, and an even younger John Soane.
Nestled in a lush parkland, Benham Park is significant as a formative experience, in different ways, for both Holland and Soane; a house where the two would each contribute in different ways, each gaining experience which would serve them well in the future. The noted architectural historian Dorothy Stroud declared Holland ‘a designer of perception and originality’. Her tireless research underpins much of what is known about Holland and his work.
Henry Holland (b.1745 – d.1806) was one of the leading architects during the reign of George III. Today, his reputation has been overshadowed by his contemporaries who were more willing to engage in courting public notice, such as by exhibiting their work at the Royal Academy, which Holland never did. Chiding a friend in 1789, he stated ‘Pray no more public compliments to me. I began the world a very independent man and wish to hold it at arms length…I find myself already more the object of public notice than suits my disposition or plan of life’.
Henry Holland was the son of Henry Holland (1712-1785 – to avoid confusion, the father will be referred to as ‘the elder Holland’, any other mentions of Holland are the son) of Fulham. A successful master builder, he built many important houses in the middle years of the eighteenth-century and worked with architects such as Robert Adam, executing his alterations to Bowood in Wiltshire in 1761 and, in the same year, working at Ashridge House, Hertfordshire. It was this latter commission which was to prove singularly important as it established a professional relationship between Holland senior and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (b.1716 – d.1783), a landscape architect still revered today for his skill and imaginativeness. Brown’s particular ability was to be able to envision a whole landscape as it would be after the planting had reached maturity – to see its ‘capabilities’.
He was also noted architect, with even his rival Humphrey Repton praising the ‘comfort, convenience, taste, and propriety of design in the several mansions and other buildings which he planned’. The houses include Croome Court, Worcestershire (though the design may have been provided by Sanderson Miller), Corsham Court in Wiltshire (1761-64), Broadlands in Hampshire (1766-68), Fisherwick Park in Staffordshire (1766-74 – dem. 1814-16), Redgrave Hall in Suffolk (c.1770 – dem. 1946), Claremont House in Surrey (1771-74), and Cadland in Hampshire (1775-78 – later much enlarged – dem. c.1955).
Although the initial connection was with the elder Holland, Brown would become central to both the professional and personal life of the younger Holland. Although he never undertook a Grand Tour, his education was more practical, working with his father in the family business. Holland displayed aptitude and skill, taking on more responsibility but also his talent for design was becoming clear. With his father’s connections, Holland was taken on as architectural assistant in 1771 by ‘Capability’ Brown who would, in time, hand over much of his design work to Holland, who would use these earlier designs as inspiration. The closeness and respect between the two can be gauged by the marriage of Henry Holland to Brown’s daughter, Bridget, in 1773. Professionally, a measure of the level of joint enterprise between Colvin notes that Claremont and subsequent houses are jointly attributed to Holland.
Benham Park was an easy commission of Brown to secure, though it was likely that he was primarily thinking of his new partner when doing so. The probability that Brown would be commissioned was high as he was already working for the owner of the estate, William Craven, 6th Baron Craven (b. 1738 – d.1791), on another country house for him, Coombe Abbey, Warwickshire. Apparently under pressure from his wife, Elizabeth Berkeley, Lord Craven wrote to Brown saying ‘Lady Craven wishes to make some alterations here and to begin immediately’. Holland and Brown submitted their designs for a house in September 1773 using a similar pattern to Brown’s previous work with a neoclassical, two-storey main house with grand central portico.
The house was built between 1774-75, the final result a sympathetic marriage between an elegant yet imposing house and the Arcadian pleasures of a sculpted landscape. Despite these fine attributes, Benham has been rather overlooked in the histories of both Brown and Holland with the latter clearly learning important lessons from one who designed with practicality in mind, but not to the exclusion of an element of drama. However, Holland was not without his own influence as Stroud notes that from the time he joined Brown’s office, the interior design evolved from a more robust Palladian character to the more restrained yet elegant style which was Holland’s hallmark. Claremont, Cadland, and Benham all display this style, indicating that although the shell of the house was more the work of Brown, the interiors were to Holland’s designs.
What’s remarkable about Holland was his almost precocious drive to build on a grand scale. Backed by his father’s capital and expertise, Holland leased in 1771, aged 26, eighty-nine acres of what is now Chelsea and Knightsbridge, including what is now Cadogan Place, and proceeded to speculatively design and build houses based around a miniature park or garden square. This high profile activity brought Holland his first major solo design for Brook’s club in Mayfair, London, a haunt of the Prince Regent and Whig aristocracy. This would lead to the Prince commissioning two major buildings from Holland; Carlton House and Brighton Pavilion. These two commissions plus Holland’s speculative building cemented his position within the highest social strata, creating future opportunities.
Other significant commissions included the the refurbishment in 1787 of Althrop, Northamptonshire, for the 2nd Earl Spencer, including a full re-casing of the red-brick house in white mathematical tiles with stone dressings, a re-design of the gardens, and inside, a re-ordering of the accommodation including the creation of the noble triple libary, divided into sections by screens of Ionic columns. Another Whig patron was Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford, who had Holland complete some minor works to Bedford House before commissioning more extensive work, also in 1787, at his main house at Woburn Abbey. Holland was back at Broadlands in 1788 creating a new vestibule and inner hallway, the entrance marked by a new grand portico. In 1795, after a sojourn into theatres, Holland returned to grand country houses, with the rebuilding of Southill Park in Bedfordshire for Samuel Whitbread, of brewing fame. Again, as with Althorp, this was a refurbishment to the point of rebuild; the house encased, the accommodation extended and a new portico added. His last commission was again from Lord Spencer in 1801 to rebuilt his Wimbledon house, which had earlier burnt down, with a sophisticated villa in a severely plain style both inside and out. Sadly, this was demolished in 1949.
Benham Park was also important for another young, aspiring architect, Sir John Soane. As a young apprentice, Soane had joined Holland’s office in 1772 as a junior. At Benham, Soane was given the task of measuring up to create the final bills, a task he was to repeat at other locations, giving him a valuable insight into not only the process of building but also the business aspects. Although, sadly, almost all Holland’s papers and drawings were posthumously destroyed by his nephew, one of Holland’s account books is preserved in the Soane collection. Soane seems to have retained it as a valuable record and tool when setting up his independent practice. Benham therefore provided practical, aesthetic and business training to the young architect who no doubt admired Holland’s neo-classical approach before evolving his own distinctive response and style, which was to establish him as one of the leading architects of his age.
Benham survived largely unaltered into the twentieth-century until 1914 when the pediment was removed from the portico and replaced by a balustrade. This was echoed at the roof level where the pitch was lowered and obscured by a pierced stone balustrade. The servants quarters were removed at the same time due to their poor condition. The house and estate remained with the Sutton baronets until 1982 when it as bought and converted into offices in 1983, with additional office blocks built next to the house. These were thankfully demolished as part of the latest restoration of the house and estate.
Benham Park, (Grade II*), is now offered for sale with 130 glorious acres for £26m. Inevitably for a house of such grandeur situated so close to London, there are approved plans for the house to become a ‘wellness’ centre with a huge (though thoughtfully designed) extension to the side and rear. For me, as ever, this is a house which would be best served by being returned to it’s original purpose, that of a family home. For a new owner, they could revel in the knowledge that the house and landscape had been conceived by one of the great Georgian partnerships of Brown and Holland. Standing under the portico today, much as where they and the young John Soane must have once stood, the latter on the cusp of his era-defining career, looking out at Brown’s landscape, they can appreciate this rare combination of architectural genius – truly a prize worth such a princely sum.
The temptation when Country Life magazine arrives each week is to flick through the properties and make tabloid-esque comparisons about how a detached Regency villa in Dorset with space for a family, chickens, and an excitable spaniel, could be had for the price of a tatty flat in London. Yet sometimes these comparisons seem almost too unreal when faced with the exemplary beauty of a country house like Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, which, along with 39 beautifully wooded acres, has just been put up for sale for just £3.5m; the price of a 3-bed terrace house in Chelsea.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Worcestershire lies a house which, either through deliberate privacy or convenient obscurity, is little known to the world. Yet Grade-I listed Ombersley Court is one of the finest houses in Worcestershire, arguably even in the wider region, due not only to the sublime architecture and surrounding estate, but also the fine collection of paintings and artwork. The estate has long been the seat of the Sandys family who acquired the manor in the late sixteenth-century. The current house was originally built for the 1st Lord Sandys (b.1695 – d.1770) between 1723-26, replacing earlier monastic buildings on the site. The house was designed by Francis Smith of Warwick (b.1672 – d.1738), one of the leading regional architects and, working with his brother William (b.1661- d.1724), ‘one of the most successful master builders in English architectural history’ (Colvin).
‘Smith of Warwick’, as Francis was more commonly known, was a clients ideal contractor due to his famous honesty and reliability, able to deliver buildings on time and on budget. His reputation spread amongst the Midlands gentry and aristocracy with almost all his work within a fifty-mile radius of Warwick. Such was his standing that even the fractious Duchess of Marlborough (who had famously fallen out with Vanbrugh over Blenheim), demanded that for her house in Wimbledon, Surrey, ‘that Mr Smith of Warwickshire the Builder may be employed to make Contracts and to Measure the Work and to doe everything in his Way that is necessary to Compleat the Work as far as the Distance he is at will give him Leave to do’ (1732-33).
Smith’s solid reliability also manifested itself in his repetition of his well-developed plans and designs for houses, creating a distinctive style which is quite recognisable as his own. Broadly, this would be a three storey house with the centre section either projected or recessed, consistent fenestration, and relatively sparse external decoration, usually only decorative stone dressings such as keystones, quoins or balustraded parapets. This consistency was perhaps a double-edged sword, with the Hon. Daines Barrington stated in a letter in 1784, that although ‘all of them (are) convenient and handsome […] there is a great sameness in the plans, which proves he had little invention’.
Astrop Park, Northamptonshire (1735-38)
Davenport House, Shropshire (c.1726)
Mawley Hall, Shropshire (1730)
Yet, this is to overlook that Smith was, at heart, a successful commercial builder whose understanding and appreciation for architectural ornament and variety was inevitably tempered by his determination to deliver the commission on time and on budget. As the architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin highlights, the core design is that of a standard seventeenth-century house such as Belton House, Lincolnshire, but with stylistic updates as fashions evolved. ‘Smith’ houses such as Umberslade, Alfreton, and Wingerworth all share this readily accessible style, one which married domestic practicality with exterior grandeur.
Perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement was the tragically now-ruinous Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire; a house with a facade so stately as to rival Chatsworth. Built for the 4th Earl of Scarsdale in 1724, Sutton Scarsdale was one of the finest houses in the country. Although the form is familiar, the masterful control of a palisade of pilasters and columns topped with Corinthian capitals, gives it a gravitas, whilst the detailing such as the scrolled window surrounds to the projecting wings hint at Renaissance motifs; Fausto Rughesi (Santa Maria in Vallicella, 1605/06) filtered through William Talman (design for Thoresby House, 1685, – shown in Vitruvius Britannicus, C1, Pl.91) and James Gibbs (to whose designs Smith was building Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, 1722).
One regret with Ombersley Court is that although the form and plan of the house and much of the superb unaltered early-Georgian internal decoration is still Smith, the exterior is now not his. The original design featured a hipped roof, and what looks to be pilasters, giving it the recognisable ‘Smith’ characteristics. This was lost when the existing brick was refaced with ashlar in 1809 by the architect John Webb for Mary Sandys, the Marchioness of Downshire. In fairness though, this was a lucky escape as John Nash prepared a much more ambitious scheme in 1808, which proposed adding a two-storey pavilion to each side, linked by a seven-bay screen of giant Ionic columns, though this seems to have been rejected on cost.
One of the glories of the house are the interiors and especially the plasterwork and carving. With a desire for privacy which was rarely breached, few had seen the exceptional decorative work, except through the lens of a Country Life profile by Arthur Oswald in 1953. This extolled the virtues of many aspects including The Chippendale Room which featured bamboo framed silk wall pieces, remarking that ‘it is uncommon to find a Regency example as complete as this or as charming’. The rest of the house struck a careful tone of stately refinement; enough decoration to proclaim wealth and taste, but never excessive.
With the death of Lord Sandys in 2013 the house passed to Lady Sandys but following her recent death, concerns were raised and rebutted via letters in Country Life that this wonderful house would be forced (for complicated reasons) to become a care home; a fate which would have despoiled this jewel of a house. Instead, for the first time since it was built in 1724, it has been placed on the market. This is a house created by one of the finest craftsmen of the early-Georgian period, with connections to a wider, distinct Midlands architectural tradition which epitomises all that one would hope to see in a country seat. As an important house which deserves respect, one hopes that the new owner will appreciate this remarkable situation and that perhaps the best approach would simply be to buy the house and contents and perhaps another couple hundred acres to truly secure an Arcadian ideal, one which would be hard to better anywhere in the country.
‘Dear Picture Editor for the 2017 National Trust Handbook
Yours is a challenging job. Faced with selecting one cover image to represent the National Trust for an entire year and with the myriad opportunities presented by having over two hundred country houses (unfortunately now minus Clandon), hundred of thousands of acres of countryside, and 775 miles of coastline, such a welter of natural and man-made beauty makes your task both enviable and daunting.
It’s therefore somewhat odd that the 2017 image is a close-up of a couple and their slightly disdainful-looking dog getting caught in a wave on a beach. The lady in the couple looks distinctly unhappy, the chap is possibly saying a swear word. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that the bloke is wearing a bowler hat. For a walk on a beach. Of course, you would know that the bowler was created in August 1849 by the famous London hat-maker, James Lock, for the Coke family at Holkham Hall to help protect their gamekeepers from branches; both those attached to trees and those wielded by poachers. Holkham Hall, awkwardly, is not one of the many country houses (minus Clandon) under NT care so this image is, on many levels, a bit silly.
For next year, may I personally suggest a country house. Though I fear that they, as a class, appear to somewhat out of favour in the upper echelons of the NT, hopefully by appearing on the cover of the handbook, it may remind them that they are custodians of one of the finest groups of country houses one could dream to care for in perpetuity (minus Clandon).’
Guide books have long been a source of fascination for those who visit country houses. Topographical guides have been written for hundred of years to help those of us fascinated by country houses to determine which we might be able to gain entry to and revel in, whether in splendour or shabbiness.
Country house tourism is not a modern phenomenon. Whether pilgrim or royalty, the idea of visiting houses was an ingrained part of the tapestry of life in the Middle Ages for providing hospitality. One key difference can be seen in the preferences of Henry VIII who largely visited his own houses compared to Elizabeth I who frequently visited those of her favoured courtiers. Thus the concept of the country house (or palace) being built as much for display and prestige as the more mundane practicalities of large scale domestic occupation became a core characteristic of aristocratic life.
In the Georgian era, the burgeoning wealth of the expanded upper classes afforded increased leisure opportunities for travel and cultural pursuits. Their desire to assimilate themselves into the attitudes of the existing aristocracy fuelled a natural curiosity about their lives and tastes. With frequent wars on the Continent often thwarting the traditional Grand Tour destinations, travellers now looked more domestically to visit their extended families and their friends. Even without the wars, it’s likely that the opportunities for women to travel were more restricted and to visit other ‘good’ families in their homes would have been an acceptable way for them to broaden their knowledge and tastes, thus cross-pollinating ideas, styles and fashions.
However, a family’s immediate social circle might contain only a limited number of contemporaries with whom they would be comfortable lodging. Therefore, when visiting an area, either as a family guest or staying in accommodation, for example during the Season in Bath, day trip visits to other country houses was a favoured activity. Despite the expectation that an owner would, as part of their duty to better society, open their house, the key question was how to find them and to determine whether they would even be amenable to visitors, no matter how genteel. Much as today, in fact, and hence the birth of the country house guidebook.
By the latter part of the eighteenth-century, an infrequent stream of visitors had become something of a torrent, if not a flood. Houses near large conurbations were particularly susceptible as Horace Walpole found at his charming neo-Gothic villa at Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, described as ‘the prettiest bauble you ever saw’. Writing to his friend Sir Horace Mann in July 1783, Walpole complained that ‘I am tormented all day and every day by people that come to see my house, and have no enjoyment of it in summer.’ Areas with a higher density of fine houses, which were within a day or two ride of a city or existing tourist destinations, such in as Norfolk, Derbyshire or Wiltshire, were soon part of an unofficial British Grand Tour. This was a natural progression for a society structured around the idea of circuits; domestically through suites of rooms and socially through visiting friend’s houses and at functions and balls.
As the idea of country house visiting grew, so did the need to manage the number of visitors and their conduct whilst in the houses. Some simply refused access – a galling experience for those who might have travelled long distances such John Byng, who despite being just a civil servant, toured widely. On being refused access to Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire, he splenetically cried ‘Let people proclaim that their great houses are not to be view’d, and then travellers will not ride out of their way with false hopes.’ Owners increasingly favoured knowing when visitors may appear and so started having set days of admission. By 1760, Chatsworth was specifically open on two days per week. In 1774, Walpole, though ‘very ready to oblige any curious persons with the sight of his house and collection’ started personally issuing tickets and rules for good conduct.
The internal tours of country houses were usually conducted by the housekeeper who would provide rich accounts of the history of the building and family and details about the works of art – and sometimes the information was even true. Unfortunately many myths about a family’s history and unwarranted artistic attributions for paintings are likely to have been started by the imagination of the unwitting guide. As the hobby of visiting grew in popularity so too did demand for more accurate accounts; giving birth to the new concept of the guidebook. The earliest from the 1730s-40s were more for reference at home rather than from a carriage and usually focused on individual houses, giving a history, a catalogue of art works and sometimes a plan for the route to take through the house. These quickly spawned more democratic versions from competing booksellers, sometimes for the same property such as Benton Seeley’s ‘A Description of the House and Gardens…at Stow‘ (first published 1744, totalling twenty-two subsequent editions)
The guidebooks were both guide and tutor, ushering the visitor through an agreed route around a house but also providing sometimes detailed entries on each individual art work with the expectation that the visitor would view and gain a deeper understanding. This can be seen in ‘The Peak Guide‘ by Stephen Glover  where the entry for the most significant house in the county, Chatsworth, runs to a generous thirty-seven pages. Starting with a description of the immediate vicinity, the bulk of the text runs to great detail on the Cavendish family, the architectural history (including the architects, painters, plasterers, even the plumber’), and the expected walking tour of the house. A typical entry reads
The second Drawing-room is 36ft by 30ft hung with Gobelins’ tapestry, representing the Death of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter and John healing the cripple, and Paul and Barnabas at Lystra. In an oval compartment in the ceiling is painted the discovery of Mars and Venus. In this room are the following portraits, viz. William, first Earl of Devonshire, in his state robes, ascribed to Mytems; and declared by Mr. Walpole to be one of the finest single figures he had ever seen. Two fine whole-length portraits, said to be the Earls of Pembroke, with pointed beards, whiskers, vandyke sleeves and slashed hose; James, Duke of Ormond, and an Earl of Devonshire, in the costume of the seventeenth century
The level of detail created almost the sensation of a virtual tour, allowing those who could afford a copy of the book, or at least get access to one, the chance to imagine inhabiting the palaces and houses which may be socially or physically out of reach.
Guidebooks have evolved continuously as the requirements of owners and visitors have demanded. Early National Trust books were written by noted historians such as John Cornforth and maintained the seventeenth-century principle of guidance and education. However more recent editions have dispensed with much of the in-depth information in lieu of more pictures of daffodils or scones (and let’s not even get started on the paucity of information about the houses on the National Trust website *sigh*). Happily, other private owners have created lavish books very much in the form of those earlier versions – Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and Boughton, Northamptonshire, are notable examples.
Whatever their role, the guidebooks are an essential component to the experience of the country house. Without them, the rooms would simply be an anonymous store of gilded treasures, without context or understanding. The books remain the key which unlocks the secrets of the houses; the owners and their motivations, their collections and tastes.
Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums and Heritage Sites 2017
Content (design/layout): Having now been published for 30 years, the Hudson’s guide is a unique oracle for identifying ‘historic houses & gardens, museums and heritage sites’ for your visiting pleasure. In slightly-larger-than-A4 format, this is a book to be enjoyed as much at home, with full-page entries for leading houses, enhanced by full-colour photos. Bonus features include interviews and number of interestingly varied articles (including location filming / James Paine / The Clive Collection / Indian influences on the Royal Pavilion) and thematic guides such as dog friendly sites, events venues, and which properties have guided tours. If there is any criticism it’s that some of the smaller entries for houses read as though it were copied from their usual leaflet and sounds a little off-key. However, given the comparatively almost lavish space, most sites have an informative, rather than purely functional, write-up with history and details on the art and architectural features.
Comprehensiveness: Unrivalled – the guide is invaluable when in an unfamiliar area and need to plan days out. It includes private properties, National Trust, HHA, plus other heritage sites.
Convenience: The larger-than-A4 format and number of pages means this is not one for the pocket and would be a bit hefty to carry all day. That said, the design means that planning your itinerary is both practical and a pleasure.
Verdict: Even if you get other member handbooks for free, for those wanting more detail or looking to visit a broader range of heritage sites, the Hudson’s guide is unequalled and definitely worth the modest investment. (Available on Amazon or all good bookshops)
*Transparency notice: Hudson’s did send me free copy to review but had no editorial input to any part of this blog post and I’d buy a copy anyway.
National Trust Members Handbook 2017
Content (design/layout): As the product of many years of refinement, the guide is an excellent way to plan your visits. Set out with listings by county, each property or location has a brief write-up though some properties eclectically get more space and further details. All the useful information is in there including opening times and facilities. Bonus content includes a clever themed index highlighting which properties tick boxes for ‘Adventure playground, boat hire, bicycle hire, camping and caravanning, gardens, ghosts, and industrial heritage’. Note that neither ‘art’ nor ‘architecture’ make the cut as categories. Ghosts though, do.
Comprehensiveness: Unsurprisingly, it only covers National Trust properties.
Convenience: About the dimensions of a paperback novel so easy to leave in the glove box of the car or add to a rucksack.
Verdict: A benchmark for member organisation guides – one that marries convenience to practical information to help plan visits. Just wish it felt able to give equal billing to the houses and their contents as much to the playgrounds and cafes.
Historic Houses Association Friend’s Handbook / English Heritage
Unfortunately I’m not a member (there are limits to funds and time, you see) so I haven’t seen a copy of the latest version – but if said organisations would like to send me this year’s edition, I’ll add details to this page.
If anyone can suggest other guides (either members or general) then please do comment below.
The now annual round-up of the richest 1,000 people in the UK (whose wealth can be ascertained…!) has been published today in the Sunday Times (£). Although there are now a few less billionaires than last year in the UK, the minimum required to join the list has risen slightly to £103m. With 80% of the list members having made their own fortunes and having acquired the trappings of status along the way, it’s unsurprising that many will already own a country house. However, some may not and to help them out of this socially embarrassing predicament, below are some of the most interesting country houses for sale today (April 2016).
Ignoring any of the ‘new’ country houses which, unless by Craig Hamilton and a limited few others, are unlikely to be architecturally notable, this entirely subjective selection, focuses on those historic houses which can be regarded as such.
Many of the most impressive country estate sales are often conducted ‘off market’, offers and negotiations concluded in private; never receiving the splendour of an advert in Country Life. However, occasionally, one quietly appears which sets the pulses racing. What will probably be one of the most interesting houses to be offered publicly this year is Hackwood Park, Hampshire, a splendid Classical house (listed Grade-II*) with accompanying 260-acres. Designed by Lewis William Wyatt (1777-1853), nephew to the more famous James Wyatt, Lewis developed a very successful country house practice, especially in Cheshire, including work at Lyme, Heaton and Tatton Parks, but has been rather sadly overlooked in the history of architecture (something I will try to address in another post). Looking through the photos of Hackwood House, his skill and ability in handling of the external form (which was a rebuilding of an earlier house) and the superb interiors demonstrates clearly why he enjoyed a productive career. No price is given for Hackwood House, but given the quality of the house, the location and the estate, I suspect that only those troubling the upper reaches of the Rich List need contact Savills.
Another house which certainly has grandeur in Trafalgar Park, Wiltshire – but it also hides a surprisingly important architectural statement. Built as Standlynch Park in 1733 by John James of Greenwich as a ‘villa’ for Sir Peter Vandeput, it was acquired by the nation in 1814 as a gift to Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté to express England’s gratitude for doing his duty for his country and renamed ‘Trafalgar Park’. Unfortunately for Lord Nelson, as he had famously died in 1805, the house, titles and generous pension were given to his elder brother, the Rev. William Nelson and descended through the family until 1948 when they were no longer able to afford the upkeep when the Attlee government cancelled the Nelson Pension.
After a slightly choppy latter half of the 20th-century, the house was bought in 1997 by Michael Wade who over the years has lavished attention to restore the house in an exemplary fashion but now wishes to move on. I was lucky enough to visit in April 2013 with the Georgian Group and can attest to the quality of the work, especially to the main block. And the surprising architectural statement; the North wing contains a ‘monumental’ hall designed in 1766 by Nicholas Revett who had published in 1762, with James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, ‘The Antiquities of Athens‘ which was the catalyst for the hugely popular Greek Revival style in England. This house therefore contains the genesis for the Greek-influenced ‘Neoclassicism‘ of the Georgian period which is still much admired and copied today. So if your place on the Rich List means you have £12m (plus a few more to finish the restoration, including Revett’s incredibly important corridor and North wing), again, contact Savills.
The phrase ‘comprehensively renovated and extended‘, especially in relation to a grade-II* listed Georgian country house can sometimes send a chill down your spine, fearful that all that made it special has been smothered in the relentlessly, boringly bland ‘international hotel’ style. Thankfully although, Woolmers Park, Hertfordshire, has been restored to within an inch of its life and whilst perhaps too polished for some, overall, the essential charm of the country house and what could be called the Colefax-Fowler ‘look’ makes the main rooms look very elegant. Originally an 18th-century house, it was rebuilt between 1796-1802 for the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, and then again between 1821-3 to designs by C.R. Cockerell, who probably added the Greek Doric colonnade on the south front. Bought by the Earl and Countess of Strathmore in the 1920s, it was then sold to Arthur Smith in 1949 and became home to the Hertfordshire Polo Club before being sold in 1997. Now for sale again with 232-acres, Knight Frank have given it a guide price of £30m (don’t forget the eye-watering £3.5m stamp duty), which reflects that this is a house to which very little will need to be done to enjoy a country lifestyle.
For those a little further down the Rich List, below are some less pricey options but still would give the country house style to which many aspire:
Hall Place, Tonbridge, Kent – an unusually large house for the county, Victorian, with up to 226-acres – £8m [Strutt & Parker]
Manor Hall, Gloucestershire – 15th-century but updated including by the current owner Peter De Savery – £7.95m [Knight Frank]
Guyzance Hall, Northumberland – rebuilt 1894, now with 323-acres – £6m [Knight Frank]
Chedington Court, Dorset – built 1840 and altered 1894 in Jacobean style, now with ~50-acres – £5.95m [Savills]
Brandsby Hall, Yorkshire – built 1760s and well-proportioned, it now has some ‘interesting’ decor and needs a lot of work to fix – £4.25m [Knight Frank]
Howsham Hall, Yorkshire – built 1610, the dramatic facade is dominated by beautiful mullioned windows – £4.25m [Savills]
Personally, if I was in the fortunate position of troubling the Rich List, the house I would beating a path to is the bucolically named, Somerton Randle, Somerset (£5.75m – Knight Frank). A compact grade-II listed country house built in the late 1700s, and now with 88-acres, the interiors are a wonderful example of regional Georgian style and retain an exceptional elegance.
We long for an ‘Indian Summer’, whilst sitting in a bungalow drinking tea, eating curry followed by a sorbet and later having a toddy and going to bed in our khaki pyjamas. There are many words, phrases, foods and customs Britain has adopted from our interactions with India, but strangely, despite its strong and vibrant architectural history, the tide of architectural style has been largely one way; Western traditions flowing east, with only scant examples of the ebb bringing Indian influences back. Except, that is, in one small corner of Gloucestershire where the remarkable Sezincote stands as a unique monument to the influence of India – but also leaving the question as to why the Indian (also known as Hindoo or Mughal) style failed to find wider acceptance.
UK country houses have always been a magnet for other influences, the interiors vying with each other to embody ‘fashion’ and be seen to reflect the culture and stature of the owners. With the advent of travel, particularly what would become recognised as the Grand Tour, architectural styles from across Europe including Roccoco, Classical, Baroque and Palladianism would also find a ready home, being easily adaptable to the English physical and intellectual climate. Further afield, imperial trade in the late 17th-century carried home Chinese, Persian and Indian influences and evidence of both can be widely found in porcelain, furnishing, fashion and art. Daniel Defoe noted Queen Mary’s ‘love of fine East India calicos‘ which led to an increased popularity for imported textiles, much to the chagrin of domestic mill workers.
Behind this trade was a British firm which grew to wield power never equalled and with an ability generate wealth in a way few have; the East India Company (EIC). On the strength of resurgent national confidence following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, merchants gained permission from Queen Elizabeth I to sail to explore the opportunities of the Indian Ocean, with the first ships sailing in 1591. After three abortive attempts, they succeeded in 1600 and the Queen granted the newly formed EIC a 15-year monopoly on trading with the East Indies. After besting their Dutch, French and Portuguese competition both militarily, diplomatically and eventually financially, by the mid-1700s, control of trade in India was under the control of the EIC.
This control was exercised through the EIC’s own staff and enforced by its private army creating a pseudo-state-like entity which offered the chance for rank, prestige and to create a fortune. Back in Britain, many looked at the usual prospects of joining the clergy, law or military service as a dim comparison against the possibilities of India. As the financial opportunities of India became apparent, so the attractiveness of a position there increased amongst the aristocracy who came, saw, and administered, with the intention of taking their new fortunes home to establish themselves or boost their status in society.
Yet, from an architectural viewpoint, for all the interaction and extended immersion in the rich Indian culture, the complex and beautiful architecture was largely ignored as an appropriate style for country houses back in Britain. This was in stark contrast to the European styles which came back to Britain, like burrs on the coat-tails of the aristocratic Grand Tourists. This makes the domed, florid Sezincote, nestled deep in the Gloucestershire countryside all the more exceptional.
Originally a small 15th-century manor house, it was bought by the Earls of Guildford in 1692 and survived largely unchanged until bought by Colonel John Cockerell in 1775 – but he was not the author of the final version of the house. Sir John was a friend and had been part of the military staff of Warren Hastings, the former Governor-General of Bengal, who was building his own house at nearby Daylesford, and Cockerell probably had the help of his friend, or at least his agent, William Walford, in selecting the estate. In 1797, Cockerell wrote to Walford saying ‘I have many conceits and fancies in regard to Seasoncote [his spelling] for a residence…‘. In reality, the plans were a conventional Georgian remodelling with Sir John looking for someone to complete ‘the plain sort of work I shall mostly want‘. Building work was well under way by 1798 but at the end of the year came to a rather unexpected stop with the death of Sir John.
The half-finished house was inherited equally by his brothers, Charles and Samuel, and his sister. Charles had also made a fortune in India through a combination of official positions and private trading and, having bought out his sibling’s shares in the house for a total of £38,000, decided to embark on a much more radical vision. Seemingly unconstrained in his imagination, Charles decided (in collaboration with Thomas Daniell and his nephew William, the famous painters Indian topographical pictures), to clothe his Georgian house in full Indian robes.
The architect for this grand plan was S.P. Cockerell, his brother, whom Colvin described as ‘original and inventive‘ and this commission would certainly give free reign to both those attributes. Interestingly, this was not Cockerell’s first experience of designing with Indian motifs as he had been employed in 1789-93 to remodel the nearby unfinished Daylesford House, the newly acquired seat of the controversial former Governer-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings. Facing numerous charges of embezzlement, cruelty and abuse of power from 1788-95 (of which he was later cleared), perhaps unsurprisingly the exterior does not laud his Indian experiences, except for a hint in the west front which features a curved bay topped with a copper dome with a ball and spike decoration. Inside, although Hastings owned an exquisite set of gilt ivory Indian furniture, the decoration was restrained though it featured a remarkable fireplace, carved by Sir Thomas Banks in 1792, which depicts an Indian sacrificial scene and Indian female figures on either side.
At Sezincote, Cockerell had a much less restrained brief and so was able to fully embrace the Indian architectural language but whilst still firmly rooting it in the ideal of the Picturesque – that ability to surprise. The design though is not just collection of Indian forms and details; this is a house built at a time of great interest in this new culture and with a client both well versed in the country and its buildings and with a genuine respect for them. Drawing on both Muslim and Hindu motifs, it reflected such impressive buildings as Humayun’s mausoleum of Emperor Akbar’s mother in Delhi (especially the roof shape of the small turrets), and Sezincote’s entrance front bears some echoes of Akbar’s own mausoleum with the double-height arch.
The south facade is the most playful and graceful; a delicate blend of Anglo-Indian to create something unique in British architecture. Dominated by a canted bay, the windows are shaped into peacock fantails such as seen in the Jaipur palaces, the chajja or wide over-hanging eaves create shade, with the corners punctuated by chattris, or small minarets, the green balcony railings imitating Indian jali work. The main dome is striking in both its shape and dominance whilst still being proportional to the overall design. The main house then joins the grand curved sweep of the Orangery (possibly to follow the landscape, possibly shaped like a scimitar), with its continuation of the peacock windows, terminating in an elegant pavilion. It should be noted that the interior was pure Greek Revival, again emphasising the application of Indian design being in the Picturesque tradition of decoration, rather than slavish copying.
Fashion being what it is, news of the building of this extraordinary house travelled far, even reaching the Prince Regent. The earlier popularity of William Hodges ‘Select Viewsin India’ (1783) and the six volumes of Daniell brothers ‘Oriental Scenery‘ watercolours (completed 1808), this helped created the brief flourishing of the Anglo-Indian style. The Prince Regent, ever one for fashion, visited the still unfinished Sezincote in 1807 (probably at the suggestion of Humphrey Repton who was working there) and was so duly taken with this fantasy (supported by one of Repton’s famous Red Books), he resolved to indulge as well and so his new pleasure retreat in Brighton externally adopted the same, creating the iconic Brighton Pavilion.
However, the Anglo-Indian fashion failed to gain widespread popularity beyond the ephemeral (and hidden) interior decorations and fabrics. Architecturally, there were a few examples. In the City of London, George Dance the Younger created one of the early Indian-Gothic designs in 1788 with his entrance to the south front of the Guildhall. Dance also added unspecified Indian elements to Stratton Park, Hampshire (built 1803-06, dem. 1963) for Francis Baring (who made a fortune with the EIC) and at Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire (built 1804-08). It made appearances in various architectural pattern books (e.g. Robert Lugar and Edmund Aikin), leading to some quite isolated ancillary buildings appearing to be influenced by it; a Hindoo temple at Melchet Park, Hampshire, (c.1800) and further afield such as in Ireland with the Copper Lodge, Portlaw, (probably built 1820s, dismantled 1970s), and the Dromona Gate, Co. Waterford, built in 1861. Back in England, perhaps the most impressive was the dramatic conservatory at Enville Hall, Staffordshire, built in 1854, which mixed Gothic and Indian, and which was sadly blown up for demolition practice during WWII.
So, despite the inventive opportunities, the widespread cultural exposure and even an element of Royal patronage, why did the Anglo-Indian style not become more popular for country houses?
Probably the most influential element was timing – but also a number of other more negative factors. Fashion is part inspiration, but also heavily dependent on there being a space in popular taste for it to expand into. Although Britain had been involved in India since 1600, achieving the dominant position had been a struggle with a heavy price paid by all participants; financially, militarily but also directly in the mortality rates of the colonial staff sent to this still largely unknown place.
Often, those who were sent to make their fortunes in India were second or third sons, who may have been in the shadow of their elder brother who stood to inherit. Although the position of Viceroy was considered a significant honour, it was sometimes coveted for the financial advantages it offered to the incumbent: the substantial salary, the state-funded lavish lifestyle and the chance to rent out your own home back in the UK. Also, unless they made their own significant fortune, their time in India was perhaps considered an exotic distraction, possibly combined with ‘moral’ difficulties, considering the stories of the taking of local ‘wives’ and the adoption of local dress and customs, as reflected in the pejorative phrase of ‘going native‘. The ongoing military operations, the accusations of mismanagement, and the reports of massacres by both sides can only have added to the sense that Indian culture and British involvement was not one to be celebrated.
From an architectural perspective, just at the time that the EIC had established its dominance in the mid-18th century, the popularity of Chinoiserie was in ascendance, boosted by Thomas Chippendale’s ‘The gentleman and cabinet-maker’s director‘ (1754) and the architect William Chambers’ influential book ‘Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils‘ (PDF, 15mb) in 1757. As mentioned before, this fashion culminated in the Prince Regent’s Oriental extravagance, the Brighton Pavilion, completed in 1823, inspired by Sezincote. However, the unpopularity of the Prince may well have meant that what he favoured, was unfashionable. As fashion was swept along by Gothic Revival and Neo-Classicism, the Anglo-Indian style was politically difficult, architecturally challenging, and increasingly unattractive.
This makes Sezincote all the more remarkable; the determined vision of Charles Cockerell, an educated man who revelled in his experience in the beauty of India, realised with great care and skill. It is also a reminder that architecture is often a product of fashion and both are closely linked with wider society. Today though, thanks to the loving restoration of the Kleinwort family, who bought the estate in 1944, both the house and gardens have been restored back to their former glory; a vision of India, unique in the UK.
I last posted in May 2015 on the devastating fire at Clandon Park. In June, I then moved house with the expectation that after a couple of months I’d be unpacked and able to start again. Unfortunately, as with any house, the renovations took far longer than expected (and it’s only a small 1930s semi!) and I’ve had to be very hands-on. More significantly, my father, who had been ill for a while, deteriorated in January and sadly passed away. This blog, in part, exists because he fully supported my interests and enabled me to start collecting books to indulge my passion for country houses, so, for this and many other reasons, I will always be grateful to him.