Happy Birthday Sir John Vanbrugh; the master of English Baroque

Portrait of John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Image: Wikipedia)
Portrait of John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Image: Wikipedia)

One of the most exciting eras of British architecture was the Baroque; a unique fusion of Continental influences, leavened with a dash of characteristic restraint, which created something elegant, strident and theatrical – words which could equally describe the best known architect of that time, Sir John Vanbrugh, born 350 years ago this month.

Although much is known about his later life, his exact date of birth is not; simply that he was baptised on the 24 January 1664 (though he .  Born into a wealthy and well-connected family (his father was a sugar trader), his schooling and early career are still subject to some debate, with suggestions that he spent time working at a trading post in India.  The first solid evidence is his commission in January 1686 in the Earl of Huntingdon‘s foot regiment, though he was to leave in August that same year. After this, Vanbrugh engaged with the Whig cause and played a minor role in the Glorious Revolution of 1689 – though he was to miss the event itself as he spent four and half years in French prisons, including the Bastille, from September 1688 on (what Kerry Downes believes to be trumped up) charges of spying. Emerging in 1692, he had three months of enforced leisure in Paris until he could return to England, where he promptly joined the Navy, taking part in an attack on the French.  In the mid-1690s, he returned to London and became a playwright but also started developing his architectural career, perhaps in response to the changing social tastes in the late-1690s which found his bawdy Restoration comedies increasingly unacceptable.  A witty, intelligent and convivial character, Vanbrugh was never short of friends or connections.

Once Vanbrugh had decided to be an architect, he appears to have passionately embraced his new vocation – something noted by his contemporaries, including Jonathan Swift, who remarked that ‘Van’s genius, without thought or lecture, Is hugely turn’d to architecture‘. Most architects have to prove their skill with smaller projects but Vanbrugh was to start with possibly one of the most important commissions then available, Castle Howard for the Earl of Carlisle, and make such a dramatic entrance that his reputation was firmly established from then on.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Yorkshire Country House Partnership)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Yorkshire Country House Partnership)

Broadly, the designs produced by Vanbrugh can be seen as a distillation and development of the work of three other architects; William Talman, Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir Christopher Wren.  Talman had created the first Baroque country house, with his south and east fronts of Chatsworth House, completed in 1696.  Baroque had originated and developed in Italy with architects such Bernini, Borromini and da Cortona using the language of ancient Rome to express the majesty of the Catholic church, and also by French monarchs as a statement of their absolute power. Its use by the resolutely Whig Protestant 1st Duke of Devonshire, was perhaps a carefully calculated statement to both the monarch, to remind him that power now lay with them, and a snub to the Catholic church, that their chosen style across Europe was firmly owned by the Protestants in England.

'Goose Pie House', Whitehall - designed by Sir John Vanbrugh 1700 (Image: copyright of The Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum, London)
‘Goose Pie House’, Whitehall – designed by Sir John Vanbrugh 1700 (Image: copyright of The Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Vanbrugh, although closely allied with the Whigs and sympathetic to their preferred style, also showed a medieval influence, with a clear interest in the military architecture of the period. In both his commissions and his own home in London, ‘Goose Pie House‘ in Whitehall, he incorporated the martial vocabulary of turrets and towers, giving his work a more monumental aspect, a solidity which played well with the aristocratic patrons who wished to evoke their family history but also wished to live in contemporary luxury.

With Baroque as an astute political choice, Vanbrugh was also able to bring his theatrical flair to play with the rich language it provided.  Castle Howard is one of the finest buildings in the world, and certainly one of the grandest in the country – not a bad start for a novice.  Horace Walpole visited in 1772 and afterwards wrote:

Nobody had informed me at one view I should see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being a metropolis of Druids, the noblest lawn fenced by half the horizon and a mausoleum that would tempt me to be buried alive: in short, I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one.

Lord Carlisle was a well-educated and well-travelled man whose Grand Tour had taken him across Europe, including, naturally, Rome.  Although William Talman had been first given the job, his irascible nature led to his firing, and so, in 1699, Carlisle gave his fellow Kit-Cat Club member, Vanbrugh, the chance of a lifetime.

Here, it is worth making clear that Vanbrugh’s houses, and especially Castle Howard, were joint enterprises with another exceptional architect; Nicholas Hawksmoor.  Assistant to Sir Christopher Wren, Hawksmoor was an expert on Classical architecture and drafting and also a sound project manager who helped deliver Vanbrugh’s ideas from paper to stone. Hawksmoor has often been given credit for the designs of Vanbrugh’s houses but it seems that, as John Summerson said, both were exceptional men, and that each was the perfect compliment to the other.

Drawing showing original plan for Castle Howard (Image: via Visiting Houses and Gardens)
Drawing showing original plan for Castle Howard (Image: via Visiting Houses and Gardens)

Construction started on the east wing of Castle Howard in 1699 and was completed by 1703, with the main block finished in 1706, the principal apartments by 1712 and the most important interiors by 1715, at a total cost of £38,000.  And what a house Lord Carlisle got for his money – a composition of low wings, leading to a grand central block, decorated with vibrant stonework, culminating in the first dome to be used on a country house in the UK, with interiors which cleverly used light and space to create a theatrical effect to awe any visitor.  Drawing from an earlier design for Greenwich Hospital by Sir Christopher Wren, Vanbrugh’s imagination had been given full reign to develop a most remarkable response to his client’s commission, fused with the crisp execution of the work overseen by Hawksmoor.  Carlisle was delighted with his new palace – which proved both domestically convenient and warm – but the architectural ripples the house created led to wide admiration, with it even being included in the ‘bible’ of Palladianism, Vitruvius Britannicus.  The additional triumphs of the parkland buildings, also mostly by his hand, cemented the reception of this house and setting as one of the most brilliant to have been created anywhere in the country.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire - entrance front (Image: Blenheim Palace)
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire – entrance front (Image: Blenheim Palace)

Vanbrugh’s success led to his second great commission, Blenheim Palace – though it was to be a much less happy experience for both client and architect. Whilst still working at Castle Howard, construction at Blenheim began in 1705.  Intended as a monumental tribute from a grateful nation to the Duke of Marlborough, it was also supposed to be a home. That demand for something which spoke not only to the stature of the recipient but also the generosity of the Royal patron, was perhaps the perfect commission for Vanbrugh and his imagination.  Sadly, relations between the architect and the Countess of Marlborough were fractious and Vanbrugh was eventually banned from the site and never visited his completed design.

Despite this, the building is an immense display of bravura – a vast testament to the breadth of imagination, which was reflected in the cost which spiralled from the Duke’s original suggestion of £40,000 to £300,000 by the time it was complete.  The design is broadly similar to that of Castle Howard but with an added degree of magnificence which elevates it using not only the sprawling scale but also the extensive decorative martial stonework to attain monumental status.  That the building had to be finished by Hawksmoor – who described himself as ‘a Loving Nurse that almost thinks her child her own‘ – doesn’t detract from one of the defining buildings of that age, a magnificent testament to Vanbrugh’s skill.

Kings Weston House, Bristol (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Kings Weston House, Bristol (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Driven by his interest in military architecture, Vanbrugh’s other country house designs can also be seen to be drawing on his personal preference for the spirit of fortifications.  In 1707, whilst working on Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire, he wrote in a letter ‘…I thought twas absolutely best, to give it Something of the Castle Air, tho’ at the Same time to make it regular‘.  With his next commission, Kings Weston House, in 1709-10, what starts as a compact and elegant villa is given the flavour of a castle above the roofline, with the chimneys grouped together in a central stack, evoking the idea of a keep.  At Lumley Castle it was the reverse, with an Italianate air being applied to a truly ancient castle.

The last three country houses Vanbrugh designed in the years before his death were perhaps some of his finest – concentrated distillations of his ideas but each given its own distinctive approach.  Seaton Delaval Hall is perhaps the best expression of the castle as country house; a central block with a keep-like mass in the centre, a bold entrance taking the form of a gatehouse, flanked by two turrets.  This formula is almost a hallmark of Vanbrugh (bar Kings Weston and Kimbolton which deviate) but the inventiveness of each shows that as with the English language, the architect was also a master of this architectural vocabulary.  Eastbury House in Dorset, merged elements of Blenheim, Kings Weston and Seaton Delaval whilst Grimsthorpe Castle is perhaps the best expression of the blend between that outline and the Classical style, creating a deeply satisfying design which delights to this day.

Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Grimsthorpe estate)
Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Grimsthorpe estate)

Within his lifetime and much later, Vanbrugh was hugely influential, yet the fashion for Baroque was quickly to wane after his death in 1726 – Summerson points out that by 1728 it was the subject of caricature, and by 1730 presumed dead.  Anglo-Baroque offered an attractive stylistic path with a symmetry which felt natural to the British, but combined with a flair that gave real vibrancy wherever it was used.  350 years later, in our more pluralistic and accommodating age, Vanbrugh – and by extension Hawksmoor – would have been able to co-exist with Burlington and Flitcroft and the stage would have been set as with each new building they vied to win the architectural hearts of the nation. Perhaps our greatest regret with regards to Vanbrugh should be that the coming of Palladianism and its zealous evangelism was to end the development of Sir John’s more exciting and theatrical approach but today we can at least admire and fully appreciate his genius in stone.

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Further reading and visiting details

Biographies 

Houses

Castle Howard – still owned by the Lords Carlisle, open to the public

Blenheim Palace – still owned by the Dukes of Marlborough, open to the public

Kimbolton Castle – now a school, occasionally open to the public

Kings Weston House owned by Bristol Council, leased to a private individual, not open to the public, though the parkland is.

Lumley Castle – now a hotel

Seaton Delaval Hall – owned by the National Trust, open to the public

Eastbury House (demolished bar one wing) – privately owned, not open to the public

Grimsthorpe Castle – owned by a charitable trust for the de Eresby family, open to the public

‘A brighter, richer landscape lies display’d’; the battles for the views of country houses

'View of the Thames from Richmond Hill' by Peter Tillemans c.1720-1723 (Image: Government Art Collection)
‘View of the Thames from Richmond Hill’ by Peter Tillemans c.1720-1723 (Image: Government Art Collection)

Looking out from the top of Richmond Hill in south west London,  towards Windsor Castle, is to take in one of the most famous and admired views of the Thames, one that includes glimpses of at least four significant country houses. One of those, the beautiful Marble Hill House, was also the site of a ‘battlefield’; but this is a heritage one, a battle to protect one country house in particular and that spectacular view.  The fight to protect the views surrounding country houses has been fought many times, but two from the modern era in particular, at Witley Park and Marble Hill House, are worth a closer look for the impact they had.

Folly castle in Hagley Park, built c.1747, designed by Sanderson Miller (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Folly castle in Hagley Park, built c.1747, designed by Sanderson Miller (Image: Matthew Beckett)

In earlier centuries, landowners had far greater power to determine what they saw from their drawing room windows.  With the rise of the landscape architect, mere history was an insufficient reason for a tree, stream, building or even an entire village, to be left alone where they interfered with the sight-lines.  With the new emphasis on a view terminating in some object of interest, ever grander follies, bastions, and sham ruins sprang from the ground; from a distance giving an air of ancient decay, but betrayed up close by the drying cement. Yet, ancient buildings also could be pressed into service as ‘eye-catchers’ – but only if they met with the approval of the landscaper and/or the owner.

The first ‘battle’ to be fought to protect a heritage asset which formed part of a view was between a duchess and her husband’s architect, and involved one of grandest houses in the country. Ironically, the battleground was a house built to celebrate a military victory, Blenheim Palace, but a fight almost as vicious was being waged between Sarah, 1st Duchess of Marlborough, and the architect, Sir John Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726), one of the most remarkable men of that era.  Vanbrugh’s design for Blenheim was a tour-de-force of contemporary architecture; a spectacular palace which drew on the Continental Baroque style to create a house which was a set-piece of country house theatre.

Woodstock Manor, Oxfordshire (dem. 1720) (Image: courtesy of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough and Jarrold Publishing via Smithsonian Magazine)
Woodstock Manor, Oxfordshire (dem. 1720) (Image: courtesy of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough and Jarrold Publishing via Smithsonian Magazine)

The battle was fought over the ruins of the original Woodstock Manor, a house where King Henry II had romanced ‘fair Rosamund’ de Clifford, and which formed the original palace on the estate.  Having suffered under bombardment in the Civil War, large parts were in ruins.  However, Vanbrugh saw them not only as a historical artefact, but also as part of the grand conception of the landscaping; a precocious attempt at the Picturesque twenty-five years before William Gilpin conceived it.  Vanbrugh wrote to the Duchess, explaining:

That Part of the Park which is Seen from the North Front of the New Building, has Little Variety of Objects Nor dos the Country beyond it Afford any of Vallue, It therefore Stands in Need of all the helps that can be given, which are only Two; Buildings and Plantations. These rightly dispos’d will indeed Supply all the wants of Nature in that Place: And the Most agreable Disposition is to Mix them: in which this Old Manour gives so happy an Occasion for…So that all the Building left, (which is only the Habitable part and the Chappel) might Appear in Two Risings amongst ’em, it wou’d make One of the Most agreable Objects that the Best of Landskip Painters can invent. And if on the Contrary this Building is taken away; there then remains nothing but an Irregular, Ragged, Ungovernable Hill.

His appeals were in vain and the house razed to the ground in 1720.  The Duchess of Marlborough had a famously low opinion of architects and her dealings with Vanbrugh seemed to entrench this; his own case not helped by secretly making the Manor habitable again for his use but funded by the Duke’s money.  She was also devoted to the Duke and intended Blenheim to be his monument in life and for all time, and so she may not have wished to see another competing memorial to love from her windows.

Little changed in the following two centuries; if a landowner wished to reshape the view of his estate from his dining room, then so he shall.  Perhaps the ultimate expression of that was the occasional removal of an inconveniently sited village such as for Lord Cobham at Stowe c.1730, and Lord Harcourt at Nuneham Courtenay c.1750.

Some of the earliest effective challenges to this power only came much later from Victorian social activism which provided a platform for ideas to be confronted from the perspective of what was good for the people.  A landmark in the campaign for heritage protection of landscape centred around the now-lost mansion of Witley Park in Surrey.

Witley Park, Surrey (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Lost Country Houses)
Witley Park, Surrey (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Lost Country Houses) – click for more images of the house

The man responsible for raising the ire of the locals was one Whitaker Wright. A controversial financier who  made a fortune, lost a fortune, made another fortune and then bought the Witley Park estate and also the neighbouring South Park Farm estate from the Earl of Derby which included Hindhead Common and the famous Devil’s Punch Bowl.  To ‘improve’ the views from the house, Wright set 600 men to work, creating lakes and parkland but more worryingly, raising or levelling hills.  Without the legal frameworks we now rely on to protect the countryside and other areas of outstanding beauty for the common good, there was a real concern that Wright’s grandiose schemes would irreparably alter the local landscape.

Fortunately Wright’s other fanciful plans were his undoing; following the collapse of his companies in 1900 he was charged with fraud, found guilty, and dramatically committed suicide in court just after his sentencing hearing.  With his death the estate was put up for auction, and the locals who had been concerned about his landscaping efforts banded together and bought the sections of the estate which included the Devil’s Punch Bowl and Hindhead Common at auction in 1905. The locals then donated the land to the National Trust in 1906, becoming, in the process, the first Trust property to be managed by a local committee.

The idea that heritage was a national issue for the public good strengthened as organisations such as the National Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who took up the cause.  At the heart of the heritage debate was a widespread concern about the threat to heritage from development – and Marble Hill House was a prime example.

Marble Hill House, Surrey (Image: Maxwell Hamilton via Flickr)
Marble Hill House, Surrey (Image: Maxwell Hamilton via Flickr)

Regarded as one of the finest Palladian villas in the country, the house was built between 1724-29 for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk and former mistress of George II. On her retirement from court, Lady Suffolk created a new one, centred around her and her villa.  Her friendship with the writer Alexander Pope and the ‘man of taste’ Horace Walpole (whose own house, Strawberry Hill is nearby), created a wide ranging literary, political, and artistic circle which only enhanced the reputation of that corner of the Thames.  The bright-white villa was an obvious reference point for those looking down from Richmond Hill and formed ‘this Earthly Elysium‘, appreciated by those without and within.

As Richmond and Twickenham grew as one of the most fashionable places to visit, so too did the number of artists who recorded the view in paintings, engravings, books and pamphlets. Yet, the rural nature of the suburb which had so impressed those who gazed upon it became increasingly threatened as Victorian London moved west.  With the death of the last owner, the widow of General Peel, in 1887, the house was increasingly viewed with avaricious eyes by developers. In 1901, a local newspaper quoted Jonathan Swift’s 1727 poem ‘Pastoral Dialogue between Richmond Lodge and Marble Hill‘:

Some South Sea broker from the City
Will purchase me, and more’s the pity,
Lay all my fine plantations waste
To fit them to his vulgar taste.

The article carried on to warn that ‘It is the demon builder who will in all probability destroy this historical desmesne with his exhibition of latter day villadom‘. That threat took a more concrete form that same year when, having been empty for ten years, it was finally sold to William Cunard (of the shipping family) who lived in nearby Orleans House (dem. 1926).  His plans involved the villa becoming the centrepiece to a suburban development (oh, how depressingly familiar this all sounds!), and so trees were felled and roads laid. However, the prospect of this view being lost galvanised public opinion, causing Cunard to pause.  The Architectural Review highlighted that with regards to the view:

…it is evident that the deep wedge of woodland formed by Marble Hill is its most necessary and indispensable part; that spoiled, the view tumbles to pieces, with an eyesore for its focus.

View from Richmond Hill, 2012 - Ham House can still be seen on the left, the only one now not obscured by trees. (Image: Kam Sanghera via Flickr)
View from Richmond Hill, 2012 – Ham House can still be seen on the left, the only one now not obscured by trees. (Image: Kam Sanghera via Flickr)

In July 1901, the Richmond Hill View Executive Committee was formed and, with continued interest from the press, kept up the pressure until in June 1902, following an Act of Parliament, the house was saved. The (slightly over-the-top) speeches on the day it opened to the public reflected a mood and an understanding of the value of heritage and why many fight to save it.  As the press reports stated:

They felt that a national view was at stake; that a historic view was at stake, nay, that a view that was necessary to the whole world was at stake…  It is not only the glory of London, but the glory of the British Empire; and it is one of those things which struck foreigners visiting this country with amazement and delight.

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Richard Croft via geograph)
Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Richard Croft via geograph)

Looking beyond such giddy prose, those same core beliefs in the value and wonder of heritage can still be seen today.  Following the Marble Hill victory, further action such as in the Tattershall Castle controversy in 1910 showed that it was possible to mount an effective opposition.  Although not strong enough to prevent the worst excesses of the mass destruction of the country houses in the 1920s, 30s and 50s, these victories were critical in providing a cultural foundation, bolstered by wider appreciation through magazines such as Country Life, for the heritage protection movement which, despite many successes, continues to fight those battles today.

‘On behalf of a grateful nation’: country houses given to military leaders

Nations have always found ways to reward those subjects who have rendered some greater or lesser service.  In earlier centuries, this often took the form of positions at Court which came with a salary, prestige, and unrivalled opportunities to feather one’s nest.  Titles have also always been popular, ranging from a baronetcy for those who have hosted the monarch for a weekend, to dukedoms and earldoms for the upper echelons of Court and on the battlefield – and it’s this latter category who have also enjoyed that rare gift of an entire country estate, in recognition of their services.  Such largesse is now unthinkable but the practice of rewarding military leaders in this way only fell from favour perhaps later than might be imagined.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (Image: Blenheim Palace via flickr)
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (Image: Blenheim Palace via flickr)

The grandest and most spectacular of these gifts is Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire – though the intrigues for both monarch, recipient, recipient’s wife, and architect make it something of a mixed blessing.  The recipient was certainly worthy of such a grand prize; John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough had risen through numerous victories to elevate and secure Britain’s place in the world, defeated the ambitions of various European leaders, and created the peace which ushered in the Georgian era.  These glorious victories provoked such a feeling of patriotic pride that even his critics praised him.  So how to reward such a man for such remarkable achievements?

Great Hall and Eastern Corridor, Blenheim Palace (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Great Hall and Eastern Corridor, Blenheim Palace (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Blenheim Palace was to represent many things – explicitly a national monument to the defeat of Louis XIV’s plans for European domination at the Battle of Blindheim in 1704, the considerations of it as a house were somewhat secondary. It embodied the idea that whereas previously the glory of the nation was demonstrated through the palaces of the Monarchy, Blenheim was the first which sought to do this though a private individual.  However, Marlborough’s close ties with Queen Anne would inevitably mean the prestige would reflect onto her and the nation. Work started in 1705 and, writing in 1709, the architect of the house, Sir John Vanbrugh stated,

‘Tho’ ordered to be a Dwelling house for the Duke of Marlborough and his posterity [it was] at the same time by all the world esteemed and looked on as a publick edifice, raised for a Monument of the Queen’s glory.’

The Queen had already resolved to gift the estate at Woodstock but the agreement on paying for the construction of the house was a murkier affair.  Royal patronage could cut both ways as the Marlboroughs and Vanbrugh found out.

Vanbrugh was the ideal choice for a building of this nature.  His background in theatre design gave him an understanding of dramatic effect and his relative inexperience and lack of formal training meant his imagination was bolder than others.  The commission at Blenheim required such a mind; the resulting spectacular building was a monument to power and prestige, incorporating military forms and details to reflect the occasion, but was also one of the most complete expressions of English Baroque.  Yet despite his fabulous wealth, the Duke was determined that the state would show its gratitude by paying for the construction, though he had originally intended the budget to be no more than £40,000 (approx £5m).  Wren had estimated £90,000 – £100,000, however the final cost totalled nearly £300,000 (approx £38m) for which the Treasury eventually was liable (proving that for government projects it was ever thus!).

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Castle Howard)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Castle Howard)

Such overruns were to be expected where the intention had been to build something like Castle Howard – only bigger. However, the Duchess opposed such a scheme saying: ‘I never liked any building so much for the show and vanity, as for its usefulness and convenience.‘ With such an attitude, friction with Vanbrugh was inevitable. Political changes hadn’t helped; a new government and Treasurer in 1710 slowed payments to almost nothing.  In 1711, the Duchess also fell out quite acrimoniously with her childhood friend, the Queen, leading, in part, to the Duke losing his official posts and the Marlborough’s going into self-imposed exile.  The accession of George I in 1714 brought them back into favour and work progressed again, though constant conflict between the Duchess and Vanbrugh led to his resignation in November 1716, saying: “You have your end Madam, for I will never trouble you more.  Unless the Duke of Marlborough recovers so far [he had suffered a stroke in 1716], to shelter me from such intolerable Treatment.‘ Work proceeded under Vanbrugh’s right-hand man, Nicholas Hawksmoor, to the original plans, with the family taking up residence in 1719, and work largely complete by 1725. Sadly though, the Duke never got to see this, having died in 1722; his monument incomplete, his reputation assailed, and his architect grievously estranged from his masterpiece.

It seems only some of the lessons of Blenheim had been remembered by the time the next gift was proposed for an equally illustrious general, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.  Again, a superb leader who had defeated plans for European domination, Wellington – the Iron Duke – was certainly worthy of such a reward. Rather than receiving a direct gift from the monarch, it was decided that the nation would provide £600,000 (approx £38m) for the purchase of an estate and the building of a suitable house. Rather than just provide the money, in 1817, Parliamentary trustees were appointed to oversee the purchase.  The Duke knew his limitations and called upon the architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt (son of James Wyatt) who promptly, even before a site had been found, drew up plans for a ‘Waterloo Palace’ which, in his words, would have “…a very magnificent & imposing effect” without “the monstrous expense of a Fabrick extended to the dimensions of Blenheim [or] Castle Howard“.  Despite his professed aim, this would have been an enormous house; designed around three sides of a courtyard, it featured two flanking pavilions, with the main house centred on a huge domed hall, with suites of grand rooms surrounding it.  Perhaps of particular interest was the severely Neo-Classical decoration, with few of the architectural flourishes which distinguish Blenheim.  This might have reflected the notably austere Duke’s taste but even this plan was rejected.

Stratfield Saye, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Stratfield Saye, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Given the Duke’s preference to be near London, the house and estate chosen was Stratfield Saye in Hampshire, after rejecting Uppark in Sussex due to the poor land, and was bought from the Pitt family for £263,000; a significant portion of the funds available. Though this may have been a factor in the eventual rejection of the plans in 1817, another was that the Duke was in the process of spending £40,000 anonymously purchasing Apsley House in London, for the use of his almost bankrupt brother who had previously lived there with his soon-to-be-ex wife.  That house also required significant work and, faced with the need to maintain two houses, the Duke abandoned the plans for the new palace, and concentrated on updating and modernising the existing house at Stratfield Saye.  Both houses are still lived in by the Wellesley family, though Apsley is now part-owned by English Heritage and open to the public – and absolutely worth a visit if in London.

Bemersyde House, Scotland (Image: Kevin Rae / Geograph)
Bemersyde House, Scotland (Image: Kevin Rae / Geograph)

We may think the practice of the nation buying a country seat for a military leader was the product of the more deferential Georgian and Victorian eras when such actions by government would be less subject to widespread scrutiny, but the latest example occurred in the 1920s.   Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, was a controversial figure as commander of British forces in WWI. Although he won, the horrendous loss of life left him with battered reputation which has only recently been revised. In the immediate aftermath of WWI, we, the victors, did feel grateful and Haig was created the 1st Earl Haig (with a subsidiary viscountcy and a subsidiary barony), given the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, plus £100,000 (though he had asked for £250,000) to enable him to live in the manner befitting a senior peer.  Haig chose Bemersyde House in the Scottish Borders, originally built in 1535 as a pele tower, to become, as it still is, the seat of the Haig family, the purchase funded by the grateful taxpayer.

Cefntilla Court, Monmouthshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Cefntilla Court, Monmouthshire (Image: Knight Frank)

It wasn’t only the ultimate leaders who could benefit from public largesse, though in the case of Cefntilla Court, Wales, the gift missed the mark by a generation.  Field Marshal FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, was the Duke of Wellington’s right-hand man who was later blamed (then exonerated) for the huge losses resulting from the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War.  Lord Raglan’s health suffered from the stress of the campaign and he died whilst on duty in June 1855.  However, such was the admiration for the man that a ‘Raglan Memorial Committee’ was formed and by 1858 was able to present Cefntilla Court, as commemorated by a plaque at the house which reads:

This house with 238 acres of land was purchased by 1623 of the friends, admirers and comrades in arms of the late Field Marshal Lord Raglan GCB and presented by them to his son and his heirs for ever in a lasting memorial of affectionate regard and respect.

Sadly, it seems that ‘for ever’ is a shorter time than they imagined as the house and estate are now for sale following a strange inheritance whereby the 5th Lord Raglan wrote his younger brother, now the 6th Lord Raglan, and the brother’s son, out of his will.  The house was instead left to another nephew, Henry van Moyland, who currently lives in Los Angeles and works as a recruitment consultant. With no deep ties to the estate, he has chosen to sell, splitting the title and estate for the first time since the gift was bestowed.  Legally, there is nothing to be done but it does seem regrettable that the whim of one Lord Raglan should lead to such an outcome, especially as it was the express intention of the donors that it should remain in the family.

That said, it is remarkable that three out of the four houses featured here are still owned by the families who were given them – a continuous link to the thanks of the nation as expressed through architecture and prestige. Though it may not happen now, or again in the future, such gifts are another part of the rich tapestry of our country house history.

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Sales particulars: ‘Cefntilla Court‘ [£2m, 350-acres – Knight Frank]

More details: ‘The disinheritance of Lord Raglan’s nephew and future title holder causes split in family‘ [Wales Online]

Want to lease a Vanbrugh? Kings Weston House, Bristol for sale

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)

For some, the height of connoisseurship is to own a Picasso or a Rembrandt, and, in the same way, one can also aspire to live in a house designed by one of the great architects.  Yet, although some were prolific, the best were often to be found working on the largest projects, limiting their capacity to turn their hands to other projects, making their surviving buildings rare.  The damage and devastation which subsequent generations have wrought on our architectural heritage have also made these special houses all the rarer.  So it is always of particular interest when the opportunity to own one of these houses arises; such as Kings Weston House, Somerset, designed by the wonderful Sir John Vanbrugh.

Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726) was one of the most interesting architects this nation has ever produced.  Yet to think of Vanbrugh is inevitably to also think of Nicholas Hawksmoor (b.1661 – d.1736) who provided the technical support necessary to ensure that Vanbrugh’s flights of architectural fancy were realisable as solid buildings worthy of his aristocratic patrons. However, this was not a partnership which diminished one through association with the other – both were brilliant architects who each gained from their collaboration. As John Summerson put it in Architecture in Britain (1530-1839): ‘The truth can only be that both Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh were very exceptional men.

Vanbrugh was an intensely private person – the few hundred surviving letters in his hand betray few family details or about his early adventures as a soldier, spy, hostage, East India Company trader, or playwright.  His time in the Forces seems to have imbued his style with a tendency towards the militaristic, most clearly expressed in his work in landscapes where huge sham fortified ‘defenses’ march across parkland, defending nothing and fooling few.  Yet this bombastic nature is part of the flamboyant and theatrical nature of the man, part of what gave him the flair to succeed architecturally in an age when statements in stone were as important as any made in print or Parliament.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

In his grandest buildings, Vanbrugh appears to almost be designing monuments which happen to have living accommodation – but he was especially pleased that Castle Howard was as practical as it was impressive. Writing in 1713 to Edward Southall, his client at Kings Weston, he states:

“I am much pleased here (amongst other things) to find Lord Carlisle so thoroughly convinced of the Conveniencys of his new house, now he has had a years tryall of it.”

Proud of how draught-free the house was, which helped retain heat, Vanburgh stated;

“He likewise finds, that all his Rooms, with moderate fires Are Ovens.”

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Kings Weston (built between 1710-19) was to be Vanbrugh’s fourth commission (after Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and Kimbolton Castle) and was a house very much to Vanbrugh’s style, creating a ‘Noble and Masculine Shew‘.  The house, dramatically sited above the Bristol Channel, was built for Sir Edward Southall, a well-educated civil servant, well-versed in architecture who had spent considerable time travelling in Italy. Southall clearly had strong ideas as to the influences and design of his house; and Vanbrugh, with his long history of collaboration, was the ideal architect to work with this knowledgeable client.  That said, this is clearly a Vanbrugh house – the imposing giant pilasters, the strong Classical detailing, the almost military look which is reinforced by the unusual arcaded design of the chimneys which emphasised a castle-like quality of a central bastion.

(By the way, it’s interesting the close similarity between the entrance to Kings Weston and that of the smaller Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire (built 1722-24) by John James, who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren).

The house passed through several generations of Southalls including Edward’s great-grandson who employed Robert Mylne in 1763 to add stables and the Shirehampton Lodge and also remodel the principal rooms. Edward’s son, also Edward, lived there until his death in 1832 without issue. The house was then sold in 1833 to Philip John Miles for £210,000 (approx. £17m today) who became the local MP, as had the Southalls been before him.  Three generations of the Miles family lived there until the death of Philip Napier Miles in 1935, marking the last time the house was used as a home. The house was sold at auction for £9,800 (approx. £500,000) with the intention of using it as a school.  This was interrupted by the Second World War when it became a hospital – a role it has also fulfilled in the Great War.  Post-war, it became the Bristol College School of Architecture, before becoming a Police training centre from 1970-1995.

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects is how the setting of this fine house has been compromised: to the north, a road and housing estate, to the west, more houses, and to the south, a golf course.  This is often the outcome of houses which lack a determined owner with the need to keep a large estate, and particularly of houses which fall into the clutches of local authorities who are only too happy to build over the parkland, often with little sensitivity as to the overall setting.

With the departure of the Police, the house was boarded up, neglected and facing an uncertain future.  However, in 2000, it was bought by a local businessman, John Hardy, who converted the house in to a successful wedding and conference venue, apparently pouring significant funds into the project.  His commitment ultimately cost him his marriage and the remaining lease – probably 115-years – is now for sale for £2m (the freehold is still owned by Bristol City Council).  Although this would still make an ideal family home, Mr Hardy has expressed a desire that it remain open to the public.  Whoever buys Kings Weston will certainly be buying one of the finest houses in the country. Perhaps it will remain open to the public, but it would be equally exciting to see the house restored as a home, a private retreat overlooking the Bristol Channel where the owner can contemplate the genius of Vanbrugh and enjoy knowing that an architectural DNA links their domain with the palaces of Castle Howard and Blenheim, a smaller scale distillation of the grand flamboyance which came to define English Baroque.

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Original story: ‘Bristol’s Kings Weston House up for sale for £2 million to help pay for owner’s divorce‘ [Bristol Evening Post]

More details: ‘Love affair with a £2m mansion that ended in divorce… King Weston House’s owner was ‘totally consumed’ by major Georgian renovation‘ [Daily Mail]

Property details: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Knight Frank] – £2m

More images: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

History of the house: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [kingsweston.com]

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]