Thomas Archer: the unsung master of English Baroque, and the revival of Roehampton House

Roehampton House, SW London - Thomas Archer, 1712 (Image: St James)
Roehampton House, SW London – Thomas Archer, 1712 (Image: St James)

Thomas Archer is described as the most European, and certainly one of the most accomplished, of the English Baroque architects.  His later relative obscurity was mainly due to the misfortune that his contemporaries were some of the greatest British architects of any era.  However, looking at the examples we do have of his work, we can clearly see his virtuoso skill and creative talent written into the fabric of the buildings.  The recent restoration of Roehampton House, London, and its conversion into apartments, is a rare chance to live in an example of his work.

Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Fine & Country estate agents)
Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Fine & Country estate agents) – a house not designed by Thomas Archer.

In many ways, Thomas Archer (b.1668 – d.1743) was the quintessential ‘gentleman architect’. The youngest son of Thomas Archer M.P. of Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire, he studied at Trinity College, Oxford, but clearly had broader horizons as, after graduating in 1689, he immediately undertook a four-year Grand Tour, heading to Italy via Germany and Austria.  Almost nothing is known of his time in Italy, yet he must have studied the architecture and been influenced so heavily that this became his chosen profession.  However, as a man of independent means, for Archer, this was less about earning a living and more about the translation of a recognisably ‘European’ form of Baroque to his native country. His architectural career was to be one of successive highlights; broadly, each commission was for a notable patron and the work produced of exceptional quality.

North front, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: bronndave via flickr)
North front, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: bronndave via flickr)

Archer’s gentry origins and Whig affiliations secured him a place at Court where he came to know one of the most powerful aristocrats, William Cavendish, the 4th Earl (1st Duke from 1694) of Devonshire.  Retiring to his estates during the reign of James II, in 1686 the Earl embarked on a programme to rebuild Chatsworth.  In doing so, he elevated the status and grandeur of the private country house to a level not seen since the Elizabethan Prodigy houses – but with the key difference that this was explicitly for non-Royal appreciation. The Duke found in Thomas Archer an enthusiastic collaborator, but one with the advantage of direct experience of the style of grand Italian architecture he so admired.  Chatsworth grew in phases, with the majestic south front begun in 1686, the east front in 1693 (both designed by William Talman), the west front in 1696 (possibly designed by the Duke), with Archer finally being given his opportunity, the north front, in 1705.  As the final phase, Archer had to unite the mismatched lengths of the east and west fronts, which he brilliantly achieved though the use of a visual distraction; a bowed central projection. The use of curves was to become a stylistic hallmark of Archer, one used repeatedly and almost uniquely in the work of the English Baroque architects.

No sooner had Archer secured his first commission than he simultaneously acquired his second; Heythrop House, Oxfordshire, for Charles Talbot, 1st Duke of Shrewsbury.  Unusually for a Talbot, the 1st (and only) Duke of Shrewsbury had converted from his Roman Catholic upbringing to Church of England, and had found favour at Court under Charles II, but he was required to live abroad between 1700-1706 and spent time in Italy.  Whilst there, his diary in 1704 records that he was given a draft plan for a house by Paolo Falconieri, Chamberlain to Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany, and occasional amateur architect. Marcus Whiffen believes that it was this draft which was given to Archer and on which he based his design for Heythrop.  One piece of evidence for the Italian origins of the designs were the very large rooms (e.g. the hall being 32ft x 27ft, a drawing room of 47ft x 25ft) which take little account of the colder English climate.

Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire - Thomas Archer, 1706 (Image: Heythrop Park Hotel)
Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire – Thomas Archer, 1706 (Image: Heythrop Park Hotel)

Heythrop is a confident work which clearly draws its inspiration from the Italian Baroque, with an energetically decorated façade, showing stylistic connections to Bernini’s rejected design for the Louvre.  The grand Oxfordshire palazzo was probably completed by the early 1720s – though sadly the Duke did not live to see this, having died in 1718.  The interiors were designed by James Gibbs but were tragically lost in the huge fire which completely gutted the house in 1831. It remained a shell until 1870 when it was bought by Thomas Brassey as a wedding present for his third son and commissioned Alfred Waterhouse to rebuild the interior. Sold in 1926, it became a Jesuit college until 1969, when it then became the Natwest Bank training college (the latter two uses leading to the construction of extensive ancillary buildings), and then in 1999, it was sold again to become the hotel it remains today.

Top: Pavilion at Wrest Park - plan from Colen Campbell (Vitruvius Britannicus)  Bottom: S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome - plan by Michelanglo, from J. von Sandrart (Insignum Romae Templorum Prospectus)
Top: Pavilion at Wrest Park – plan from Colen Campbell (Vitruvius Britannicus)
Bottom: S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome – plan by Michelanglo, from J. von Sandrart (Insignum Romae Templorum Prospectus)

Although Thomas Archer was not responsible for the design of the main house at Wrest Park (the later house we see today was designed by the then owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey), he did create one of the finest garden pavilions in the country.  In 1711, Archer was commissioned by Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent, to build an elaborate pavilion to terminate the axial view, looking down the Long Canal, from the main house.  Again, Archer demonstrated his familiarity with Rome, using a version of Michelanglo’s unexecuted plan for the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. This is still one of the most exciting buildings in the country; a distillation of Michelanglo, filtered through the English Baroque.

Continuing what must have been a busy period by Archer’s standards, in 1712 he also designed Roehampton House, south-west London, for Thomas Cary. To call the original design ‘dramatic’ is something of an understatement as the plate in Vitruvius Britannicus shows it with a grand, full-width broken pediment – though whether this was actually built or was, but later removed, is unclear.  The plan of the house itself was double-pile with flanking wings, though these were not built originally.  The house then passed through a number of aristocratic owners before being bought in 1910 by Canadian banker Arthur Morton Grenfell. It was Grenfell who commissioned Lutyens to extend the house – though the efforts were not to benefit him as he was declared bankrupt in 1914, before the interiors could be fully completed.

Archer’s next commission, also in 1712, was for Hurstbourne Priors [Park], Hampshire, though, intriguingly, the plan does not match the house that was built – two surviving pictures by John Griffier show a much plainer design.  Proving just what Archer intended and any differences to what was built would be almost impossible as the house was rebuilt by James Wyatt in c. 1780-85, then again by Beeston & Burmester after a fire in 1894 and finally demolished in 1965.  Intriguingly, Tim Mowl suggested that the ‘Bee House’ aka Andover Lodge, was also by Archer and represents an experiment with architectural forms.

Having achieved such success in his life, in 1715, Archer turned to designing his own home. The result was Hale Park, Hampshire, though the house which survives today is much altered following work by Henry Holland Junior in 1770, and further changes in the early and late 19th-century, which covered the brick in (a now unfortunately peachy) render, added a portico and raised the level of the forecourt. Also of note was Archer’s redesign of Hale Church, creating a slice of a Roman church in Hampshire.

After 1715, Archer seems to have curtailed his architectural work as he was given the lucrative post of ‘Controller of Customs’ at Newcastle and largely retired.  He is known to have designed Harcourt House for Robert Benson, Baron Bingley, which stood on the south side of Cavendish Square, London, until it was demolished in 1906.

Chettle House, Dorset (Image: Chettle House)
Chettle House, Dorset (Image: Chettle House)

One of Archer’s last commissions, Chettle House in Dorset, could be argued to be his finest. Built c.1730, for George Chafin, who was a neighbour of Archer’s after he bought the nearby Hale Park, the house is a striking summary of the various elements which Archer had used so well in other buildings, but which here achieve a perfect balance.  The curved corners of the exterior (though raised later), along with the projection on the entrance front combine to make the house truly sculptural.

However, there are a number of other intriguing attributions, which Archer may have worked on during his career, with varying degrees of certainty.

  • Welford Park, Berkshire – Thomas married into the Archer family (no relation) and was asked to re-model the house; adding an extra storey and grand Ionic pilasters.
  • Chicheley Hall, Buckinghamshire – c.1703 – suggested by Arthur Oswald in Country Life but not given in Colvin.  Various elements such as the materials and certain details used on other Archer houses strongly indicate his involvement. Interiors now terribly ‘bland-ified’ as a conference venue.
  • Aynhoe Park, Northamptonshire – between 1707-11 – on stylistic grounds and the evidence of a payment to him from Hoare’s Bank of £39 15s. 6d. by Thomas Cartwright.  This work included the addition of a library, conservatory, stables, and a coach-house – though the first two were later altered by Soane in 1800-1.
  • Bramham Park, Yorkshire – c.1710 – no evidence but stylistically possible. Designed for Robert Benson, who we know commissioned Harcourt House in London.
  • Kingston Maurward, Dorset – c.1717-20 – suggested by Howard Colvin.
  • Marlow House, Buckinghamshire, built c.1720, is now largely agreed to have been by Archer due to the use of particular elements and that it was commissioned by John Wallop, 1st Earl of Portsmouth, for whom he had designed Hurstbourne Priors.
  • Serle’s House, Hampshire – built in 1730, this house has clear stylistic similarities with Archer’s earlier work. Now the Royal Hampshire Regiment museum.
  • Addiscombe House, Surrey – Marcus Whiffen argues that it is undoubtedly Archer, and it could well be, but unfortunately further inspection is frustrated by its demolition in the early 1860s. Images are shown on pages 42 & 44 of a PDF of a local book [note: 10mb download].

The challenge with looking at Archer’s work is that there is relatively little of it.  Without the financial pressures to work, he was able to be very selective in what he chose to do, and due to that scarcity, his work was under-appreciated and occasionally altered or demolished.  In what we do have we can see an exceptionally talented architect who, although living in the shadow of the more productive Wren, Vanbrugh, and Hawksmoor, nevertheless developed a distinctive and influential blend of English and continental Baroque architecture.

Roehampton House, Surrey (Image: St James)
Roehampton House, Surrey (Image: St James)

Roehampton House offers a rare chance to experience both the genius of Archer and Lutyens – though here, clearly, the latter is happy to defer to the work of former and sympathetically embraces and extends it.  Though this is a house which has been ill-used in the past and suffered some damage in WWII, the latest phase has created what appears to be a fine restoration and conversion with a careful re-use of the interior features which have survived.  Although there are too many other buildings built too close to it, the quality of the original architecture has been allowed to shine to ensure that we can again see the work of Thomas Archer, one of the finest English architects we have heard too little about.

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Disclosure: neither the developers, St James, nor their PR company, Luchford APM, have had any editorial input or control over this article, nor have I received anything. However, they have provided some details about the current project and the exterior photos. As always, topics and text on the blog are my choice and discretion.

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A more detailed history can be found on historic paint consultant Patrick Baty’s page on Roehampton House

If you do fancy living there, prices start from £1.35m: Roehampton House [St James]

Peckforton Castle, Cheshire, seriously damaged in arson attack

Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)
Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)

In the early hours of Sunday (19 June 2011) a serious fire broke out in the Drawing Room of grade-I listed Peckforton Castle and has gutted all three floors of that wing, affecting approximately 25% of the building. Sadly, it appears that this terrible destruction in one of the finest mock castles in the country is reported to be the result of an arson attack by the groom, apparently over the wedding bill.  That such a wonderful building could be damaged over something so stupid is beyond belief.  The full extent of the damage – and credit to the fire service for preventing it spreading – will only become truly apparent over the next few days.

Peckforton Castle sits on a Cheshire hill-top, facing down the medieval Beeston Castle on the neighbouring peak.  Yet, Peckforton is a Victorian creation for the 1st Lord Tollemache, who had commissioned Anthony Salvin to marry the conveniences demanded by a Victorian landowner with a scholarly re-creation of an ancient castle, creating the muscular skyline so visible today.  The style of the castle is a reflection of the character of Tollemache – vigorous sportsman, statesman, father to 24 children, and, above, benevolent landlord.  Tollemache had inherited the 26,000-acre estate through his grandmother, co-heiress of the 4th Earl of Dysart, and had particularly Victorian vision of how an estate should be run, saying “The only lasting pleasure to be derived from the possession of a landed estate is to witness the improvement of the social condition of those residing on it.” To this end, he reduced the size of each farm to 200-acres and rebuilt every farmhouse and labourers cottage on the estate at a cost of £280,000 (approx. £20m) and to each cottage he allocated a further 3-acres to help them grow their own produce.

The estate lacked a main house and so Tollemache went against the prevailing fashion of the time and commissioned an authentic re-creation of a medieval castle which was built between 1844 and 1850.  The fashion for sham castles had grown out of the Georgian Picturesque movement which applauded such visions of a castle – symbol of ancient chivalry – and landscape combined to create an aesthetically pleasing view. Yet, in demanding an accurate castle, Tollemache rejected many of the compromises that had previously characterised the lesser shams, such as having a great gatehouse but also acres of glass, which were being roundly criticised by architects such as Pugin who demanded architectural authenticity.

Courtyard, Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: Bob W / flickr)
Courtyard, Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: Bob W / flickr)

Tollemache’s architect was Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881), who, on the strength of the success of Peckforton, was commissioned to also work on Alnwick Castle and the Tower of London, and many more.  Salvin was the perfect architect for the job with his Victorian understanding of the romance of castles and the appeal of the Middle Ages but also a sound practical training with John Nash which gave him the skill to successfully, as Alfred Waterhouse wrote to Lord Tollemache in 1878, “…combine the exterior and plan of an Edwardian [Edward I] Castle with nineteenth-century elegance and comfort.

Castle Drogo, Devon (Image: wikipedia)
Castle Drogo, Devon (Image: wikipedia)

Faced with the choice between architectural accuracy and convenience most of Tollemache’s contemporaries opted for more fashionable styles leaving relatively few of these large-scale re-creations.  Other examples of ‘real’ sham castles include William Burges‘ designs for Lord Bute at Castell Coch, Belvoir Castle for the Dukes of Rutland, and the powerfully brooding Penryhn Castle, built between 1840-50, for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant.  The demand for an authentic castle then largely abates until Julius Drewe’s commission, built in the 1910s and 1920s, for Sir Edwin Lutyens which results in the wonderful Castle Drogo.  By their very nature, their stern exteriors make them untraditional country houses yet they hark back to the oldest form of home for the landed gentry, and a symbol of power and prestige.

Sadly, arson attacks on country houses are not unknown – witness the terrible devastation brought to Hafodunos Hall in Wales by two bored idiots in 2004. With Peckforton Castle, the success of the design, both as an exterior composition, but also for the practical yet impressive interiors is why the house is such an important part of the nation’s architectural heritage.  The house was only recently subject to a £1.7m restoration programme by the Naylor family who own it and have worked immensely hard to bring to life a house that had been empty since WWII.  Hopefully the damage will not turn out to be as extensive as feared – though estimates for restoration are already said to be around £1m.  The strength of the construction means that it will almost certainly be restorable and will hopefully again rise soon from the ashes of this terrible fire.

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News stories:

Listing description: ‘Peckforton Castle‘ [britishlistedbuildings]

The future of the country house? Alderbrook Park, Surrey

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

Within any established pattern there is always the shock of the new. Most people when asked to imagine an English country house will usually think of red-brick Jacobean or light-stone Georgian but the design of new country houses is always in flux and what has gone before is no guarantee of what will come. Following World War II, the aftermath of which led to the demise of many large houses, the fashion changed to have a smaller but more modern house – one which required fewer staff and perhaps used more contemporary architectural language; however much it was derided by others.

Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)
Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)

The nature of architectural innovation has usually been one of gradual change – subtle at first and then growing bolder.  For example, Palladianism is widely seen to have arrived rather dramatically with the building of the Queen’s House in Greenwich in 1616 to a design by Inigo Jones.  Jones had recently studied Palladian architecture in Rome for three years and this commission was his chance to put this into practice.  One can imagine the surprise of Londoners, long used to timber, gables, and red-brick, to the square, stuccoed, and very white, Queen’s House.  Yet Sir John Summerson argues that there is evidence of Palladianism in the plan of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built in the 1590s by Robert Smythson.  Here, the placing of the hall on the central axis of the main entrance and the colonnades between towers front and back, echo the layout of Palladio’s Villa Valmarana featured in his Second Book of Architecture, making Hardwick the first known use of Palladio by an English architect.  This quiet use would have meant that visitors would have become accustomed to a symmetrical, regularised interior, paving the way for the same style to appear externally.

As much as the role of ‘architect’ took time to develop, so to did the responses to their work.  In 1624, Sir Henry Wotton, writing in his ‘Elements of Architecture‘, bemoaned the lack of ‘artificiale tearmes’ – that is, language with which to describe architecture.  Yet William Webb, writing in 1622, managed to praise the then new Crewe Hall in Cheshire, saying that the owner, Sir Randolph Crew;

“…hath brought into these remote parts a modell of that most excellent for of building which is now grown to a degree beyond the building of old times for loftiness, sightlines and pleasant habitation…”

So, ever since we’ve had architects, we’ve had critics (who were also sometimes architects); Jones, Wren, Ruskin, Pugin, Morris, Lutyens, Pevsner, etc have all made their opinions known.  Overseas visitors were also apt to compare what they had seen.  Jean Barnard le Blanc, visiting in 1737-8, was well educated and travelled and critical of the emerging use of Italian designs in England saying;

“These models have not made the English architects more expert; for whenever they attempt to do anything more than barely to copy, they erect nothing but heavy masses of stone, like of Blenheim Palace…”

As the language developed and architecture became more academic it became more rigorous and perhaps dry, with light relief afforded by more waspish commentators such Sacheverell Sitwell.

So why are some houses criticised more than others?  It seems that houses which appear without the ground being prepared before them suffer most.  The shock of the new is unmitigated and particularly where there is a strong local vernacular, the language of the new house will be a greater change.  More broadly, where a house is seen to be breaking with old traditions and what is seen as the ‘appropriate’ style for a family or an area, criticism can be swift and strong.

Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)
Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)

One example of this is Eaton Hall in Cheshire following the unfortunate demolition between 1961-63 of the vast Victorian masterpiece designed by Alfred Waterhouse.  The loss of the house left a gaping hole at the centre of the estate with large gardens and long tree-lined avenues leading to nowhere.  The 5th Duke decided to rebuild and commissioned his brother-in-law, the architect John Dennys, to design a very modern replacement.  The resulting house, although striking, was regarded as unsuccessful, with John Martin Robinson saying,

“The sad fact is that, while from a distance the new Eaton has some of the classic Modern impact of the Corbusier dream…close up it is rather disappointing…”

Yet rather than criticising the house for not being in the traditional language of the English country house, Robinson is saying that it’s not Modern enough.  Others disagreed, with perhaps the most amusing response coming from the Duke of Bedford before it was even built.  Writing in 1970 after the unveiling of the design, he wrote;

“I was interested to see…a sketch model of Eaton Hall.  It seems to me one of the virtues of the Grosvenor family is that they frequently demolish their stately home [Waterhouse’s being the third on the site]. I trust future generations will continue this tradition if this present edifice, that would make a fine office block for a factory on a by-pass, is constructed.”

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

In more recent times, one design which met with critical acclaim but was perhaps a step too far was the Ushida Findlay design for Grafton New Hall, Cheshire.  Their house was a response to a 2001 RIBA competition to ‘design a country house for the 21st century’.  In creating their radical ‘star-fish’ layout they were rejecting the established patterns and trying to create a new response to the same requirements for the functions of a country house.  Yet the house never found a patron and, tellingly, the house now being constructed is a classic of modern Palladianism, designed by the pre-eminent Classical architect, Robert Adam.

There are, of course, many other examples of intelligent but unpopular designs for modern country houses – for example, Wadhurst Park in Sussex for TetraPak billionaire Hans Rausing.  And it’s in this constant stylistic flux into which Lakshmi Mittal has pitched the very radical designs for his new house on the 340-acre Alderbrook Park estate which he bought four years ago for £5.25m.  The original house by Richard Norman Shaw for the Ralli family was demolished in 1956 as too large, with a poor, inadequate substitute built in the 1960s.  The estate was sold with the express intention of demolishing this house and in its place Mittal is proposing a £25m, carbon neutral ‘eco-home’.  To help achieve this, the design of the house is driven by the functional requirements to minimise heat loss, to be cooled by natural ventilation, and have hot water provided by pyramid chimneys which incorporate solar thermal collectors which will help also vent heat in summer.  This house is a rejection of the idea of the house as an aesthetic construct in a particular architectural style but is more Corbusier-like; a ‘machine for living’ – a somewhat depressing prospect.

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

So what does the future hold?  The natural course of the development of the country house has been its adaptation to the whims and preferences of the owners.  As younger generations have taken the reins they’ve chosen different and perhaps more fashionable styles – and without change we wouldn’t have the Georgian mansions or Lutyens to love. However, each of the previous styles could be seen as natural evolution which reused a broad architectural vocabulary which was instantly recognisable as distinctively rural.  What seems to jar with the very modern designs is that they seem to use a more urban, industrial language to interpret the form of the country house.  This seems to sit somewhat uneasily with our preconceived notions as to what a country house should look like – but who knows, perhaps in 50 years maybe it’ll be accepted and appreciated and we’ll be concerned about the next stylistic evolution.  I still prefer Georgian Palladian.

The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

For all the traditional antipathy towards the French, the influence of their architecture has been felt throughout Britain’s country houses.  Although initially the use of the French architectural vocabulary was a sign of wealth and education only available to the best families, the style was regarded as sullied by the later, more energetic, constructions of the Victorians – an association which still sadly lingers today.

The first wave of Anglo-French design started in the Elizabethan period; a time when it was acceptable to display one’s knowledge conspicuously. The French style, with its dramatic rooflines, dovetailed with the traditional English manor house and its own profusion of gables and chimneys.  Houses such as Burghley in Northamptonshire made dramatic use of the style with the central, three-storey pavilion, dated 1585, based on the French triumphal arch but oddly includes a traditional mullioned window on the third floor. Burghley was the product of the owner, Lord Burghley, an architectural enthusiast who as far back as 1568 was known to have been writing to France to obtain specific architectural books.

This early use of the French style was relatively restrained – probably more by the conservatism of the ruling gentry who were most likely to be building these houses.  Yet, our impressions now are more strongly influenced by the bolder, more assertive French style which was so popular during the Victorian era – though this same popularity was to also lead to it being derided.

The first of the Victorian nouveau-riche were keen to be accepted by society and so built houses which largely followed the same designs used by the local families.  The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 led to a rush across the Channel leading to a revival of interest in French design, particularly in relation to interiors, such as the Elizabeth Saloon at Belvoir Castle, Rutland, built c.1825.  By the mid-nineteenth century this was being more confidently expressed in dramatic houses which sought to boldly make their mark.

The second French Renaissance was influenced by lavish works such as the new block at the Louvre in Paris, built between 1852-70.   However, there were earlier examples such as the complete Louis XV chateau at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, designed by the owner Earl de Grey, built in 1834-39, and Anthony Salvin’s French roofs added to Oxonhoath in Kent in 1846-47.  Yet, after the Louvre, the fashion gathered pace with designs such as R.C. Carpenter’s redesign of Bedgebury in Kent in 1854-55, and Salvin’s work at Marbury Hall in Cheshire in 1856-8.  Less successfully, the architect Benjamin Ferrey built Wynnstay in Denbighshire for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn which, for all its dramatic high roofs and pavilions, was thought rather gloomy.  Another dramatic, albeit slightly awkward, design was that of Plas Rhianfa, Wales, built in 1849, which seems to mix both Scots baronial and French, whilst Sir Charles Barry completed a more successful use of the two styles at Dunrobin Castle for the Dukes of Sutherland in 1845.  Also of note was Nesfield’s design for Kinmel Hall, described as a Welsh ‘Versailles’.

These houses were largely for the existing gentry who found the impressive skylines met their needs for a dramatic statement as was fashionable at the time.  With the fashion spreading into London and being used for luxury hotels, clubs and offices it was inevitable that the newly wealthy would wish to emulate in the country the world they already enjoyed.  The last burst of ‘aristocratic French’ could be seen in the designs for Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, 1865-68 for Lord Boston, Alfred Waterhouse’s Eaton Hall in Cheshire, 1870-72 for the Duke of Westminster, and T.H. Wyatt’s Nuneham Paddox in Warwickshire for the Earl of Denbigh, built in 1875.  From around this time, its fashionability declined.

One of the earliest of this new wave was Normanhurst in Sussex, built in 1867 for Thomas Brassey, son of the famous railway contractor.  Reputedly, Lady Ashburnham from nearby Ashburnham Place (note the very different architectural style of house) would snootily refer to him as ‘that train driver over the hill’.  In Worcestershire, the equally dramatic red-brick Impney Hall – later Chateau Impney – was built in 1869-75 for local salt tycoon John Corbett, who employed Auguste Tonquois, who had extensive experience around Paris.  In County Durham, the foundation stone of the Bowes Museum, originally designed to be part-home also, was laid in 1869 for John and Josephine Bowes.  Designed by Jules Pellechet with J.E. Watson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the house reflected their love of France but also made a statement as to their wealth – and possibly sought to hide their less-than-solid social position as illegitimate son of an Earl and an actress.  In Yorkshire, the additions to Warter Priory were considered unsuccessful, either due to the strange proportions or because the style had simply fallen out of favour.  More successfully, St Leonard’s Hill, Berkshire, was transformed from a Georgian house in the mid-1870s to create a dramatic chateau visible from Windsor Castle.

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

Interestingly though, perhaps the most famous of the English chateau was also one of the latest.  Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire was built in 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to a design by French architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, mixing elements from various famous French chateaux such as Blois, Chambord and Anet.  The last of these grand French imports was Halton House, designed by William R. Rogers and built in 1882-88, also in Buckinghamshire and also for a Rothschild, Alfred Charles; Baron Ferdinand’s cousin.  Equally grand, this house also featured a wonderful winter garden, though this was sadly demolished to make way for an accommodation block for the RAF who bought the house and turned it into an officer’s mess.

Perhaps one of the final straws as to the desirability of the French style was the spectacular collapse of the Victorian financier Baron Grant who, in 1875, spent over £270,000 (approx. £20m) building a huge house in Kensington before his crimes were exposed in 1879 with the subsequent public disgrace, and the demolition the house in 1883.  Such a high-profile scandal and its flash monument would have been felt in society and tarnished the style for no-one would wish to be associated with such disgrace.  However, fashion would have played a more significant role, with taste moving on to new styles, leaving these extravagant mementos to an earlier, brasher architectural exuberance which now give us an unexpected glimpse of France in the British countryside.


Credit: a wonderful insight into the period is Mark Girouard’s ‘The Victorian Country House’ which was most useful in the research for this post.

For more information on Chateau Impney; ‘Chateau Impney – the story of a Victorian country house’ by John Hodges