The glory of the great hall; Dundarave, Co. Antrim

Dundarave, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland - for sale, June 2012, £5m (Image: Savills)
Dundarave, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland – for sale, June 2014, £5m (Image: Savills)

Where is the centre of a country house? For some it may be a favoured study or library, or a sunlit parlour facing the gardens. Yet, from the time of the earliest large residential buildings, the great hall has often enjoyed that rare status of being at the core of daily life. However, as times changed, so too did the function, becoming less a space for the whole household to meet and eat, more a statement about the wealth and status of the owner.  The Victorians were keen revivalists for the patterns and forms of ancient aristocratic life and although few used their halls for dining, their role as an impressive reception area, both for receiving guests and entertaining, meant that some embraced the opportunity for grandeur, as can be seen in the recently launched for sale, Dundarave, Co. Antrim, in Northern Ireland.

A medieval country house still reflected the social arrangements of a castle with the lord and his family congregating in the central hall as this was safest and also warmest.  As the designs of homes changed from fortifications to the form we recognise today, the family would still wish to be seen and to entertain in the grandest space in the house.  It was also still probably the warmest.  The huge processions of the Tudor monarchs required a large enough area to accommodate the existing household plus the royal retinue and to have such a capacity was a sign of prestige.  The great hall was therefore as much a practical space as it was a statement of the wealth and power of the owner, as shown by the lavish construction, including spectacular hammer-beam roofs, such as at Eltham Palace (built in 1470s) and Burghley (built much later in 1578 – and the last to have an open timberwork roof), and windows with glass.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire - view of the inside of the great hall (Image: © d-kav / flickr)
Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire – view of the inside of the great hall (Image: © d-kav / flickr)

For the Elizabethans, the great hall was becoming increasingly symbolic, with Burghley the last extravagant flourish of that earlier age.  For houses closely associated with the monarchy or the favoured courtiers, the decorative opportunities that a space such as a great hall offered were irresistible.  At Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, built between 1580-88 by the brilliant Robert Smythson, a soaring central tower was designed to not only be topped by a prospect room from which to watch the hunting but also to contain a lofty interior, rising 50ft to a hammer-beam roof (though this one is decorative rather than structural).  Already the role of the great hall as a daily practical space was diminishing in favour of a more exhibitionist one.

Montacute, Somerset - View of the Great Hall, looking towards the screen which separates the Hall from the Screens Passage (Image: ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie)
Montacute, Somerset – View of the Great Hall, looking towards the screen which separates the Hall from the Screens Passage (Image: ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie)

Just over ten years later, in c.1601, the completion of the great hall at Montacute, Somerset, marked the first clear departure in design.  Although at the ground level it still had the same traditional features – porch, screen, bay window, steps at the high end – this hall was only a single story, rejecting the customary double-height space.  The hall was still an important part of the house with the other rooms designed to lead from it, but decisively its role as the daily venue for the entire household to meet and eat together had passed.  Instead the hall became less a space for living and more a space for occasional entertaining; for banquets, balls, and concerts.

Plan showing transverse hall - Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire. c1595 (Image: Andor Gomme / Alison Maguire)
Plan showing transverse hall – Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire. c1595 (Image: Andor Gomme / Alison Maguire)

The hall was often the centrepiece of the ‘polite’ rooms for guests which formed the main front to a house.  This meant that the main entrance would usually lead to a screens passage separating it from one end, with the hall orientated east-west (especially in H-plan houses).  As the overall plan of country houses started adopting the double-pile, this arrangement was increasingly awkward and so the hall was re-orientated to north-south, often running through the centre of the house, as can be seen in one of the earliest examples of a transverse hall at Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire, also designed by Robert Smythson, in c.1595 (which has been shockingly treated over the last 20 years, including a suspicious fire in 2007).  Although exterior fashions were changing to a more austere form, houses such as Forty Hall, Enfield, built in 1629, were still organised internally around a recognisable great hall.

Ham House, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ham House, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The next major change was the elevation of the bedroom into a formal receiving room, a French practice adopted by Charles II after his return at the Restoration in 1660. This is reflected in the layout of Hampton Court Palace, as redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren between 1689–1700, where the state apartments form the centre of the procession towards the presence of the king (though the existing great hall, added in 1532-35, was the last to be built for a monarch).  This fashion had already been adopted by other members of the court, with Charles II’s friend and minister, the Duke of Lauderdale, having created a state apartment  in 1672 at Ham House, Surrey (though, as a rebuilding of an earlier house, it still retained a great hall).

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

With the decline in the importance of the hall, it seemed almost inevitable that it would be used as a convenient setting for the ever grander staircases so beloved by the Georgians or even just as a convenient circulation space to pass through between the fine rooms. The broadening of wealth to those who made their money from trade and therefore preferred to live closer to the cities, led to the development of the villa.  Adapted from the Italian model, most famously those of Palladio and Scamozzi, there was neither space nor the social requirement for a great hall.  Chiswick House, designed in 1726, by the arch-Palladian Lord Burlington, had a central octagonal hall.  In larger houses, such as New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, built 1769-76, is one of the finest examples of the Georgian interpretation of the hall, a cathedral-like space, with curved staircases leading to a columned gallery with a circumference of 144-ft.  Of course, for those favouring the gothic, a great hall was still a core statement of lineal antiquity and so was still included in the plans, leading to beautiful examples such as the Gothic Hall for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Oxford, at Welbeck Abbey in 1751, or as at Ashridge House, Hertfordshire for the Duke of Bridgewater built between 1803-17, decorated with statues of kings.

It was those same intentions to either emphasise a family’s existing heritage or to give the impression that a family had a distinguished past, which led to a broader revival of the great hall in the Victorian era.  By having the benefit of eight centuries of the development of the great hall, a family would be able to design for accuracy, for comfort, but almost always for show. Fuelled by romantic visions of the past by books such as Joseph Nash‘s 4-volume ‘Mansions of England in the Olden Time‘, published in 1839-49,  the hall was now to be a grand display of whatever values they wish to imprint on this most useful of architectural motifs.

A late-Georgian recreation was at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, in 1830, where the Elizabethan great hall was reinstated.  In 1836, two examples were started independently with accurate medieval revival great halls at Alton Towers, Staffordshire for the Earl of Shrewsbury, and the other for Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt at Bayon’s Manor, Lincolnshire.  Each of these represent the two strands to the historic revivalism; Alton Towers being a religious statement, designed by A.W.N. Pugin, and Bayons Manor, of giving substance to a family line. Pugin was one of the keenest exponents for the revival of the great hall. A gothic evangelist who promoted the style as the only true architecture for the country as it was linked to a pre-Reformation England of Roman Catholicism.  The great hall was a symbol of a paternal system which Pugin related strongly to and which could be incorporated into daily life through the use of a great hall where the family could meet and the estate tenants and workers could be fed.

Derelict great hall in 1960s - Bayon's Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: W.T. Jones via Drakes Family)
Derelict great hall in 1960s – Bayon’s Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: W.T. Jones via Drakes Family)

The great hall at Bayons Manor was equally impressive as Pugin’s but was designed by Anthony Salvin. He had probably developed an affection for them whilst working on the restoration of the one at Brancepeth Castle, Co. Durham, in 1829 at the start of his career, throughout which he would create other notable examples including at Harlaxton (1831-38), Mamhead House (1835), and Peckforton Castle (1844). Firmly in the ‘family heritage’ camp is Arundel Castle, West Sussex, where between 1893-98 a vast Baron’s Hall was built, perhaps one of the closest recreations in form and spirit of the medieval great hall.  Although designed by renowned gothic scholar and architect Charles A. Buckler, he worked in exceptionally close co-operation with the 15th Duke, to whom a near constant stream of designs and decisions were passed for his comment and approval. This work was designed to emphasise the great age of the Norfolk family, a re-assertion of their status as one of the premier ducal families.

However, as the nature of the ownership moved increasingly towards those owners whose wealth came from industry and finance rather than landowning, so the need to entertain in large numbers such as the estate workers was less common.  Houses were often for weekend entertaining; smaller groups of business and political associates who would wish to dine in convivial intimacy conducive to discussion.  The role of the great hall moved back towards being a circulation space at the centre of the house, a place where pre-dinner drinks may be served but little more – though, equally, it still had to amaze.

Great Hall - Dundarave, Co. Antrim, N. Ireland (Image: Savills)
Great Hall – Dundarave, Co. Antrim, N. Ireland (Image: Savills)

The hall was often the first room your guests stepped into and so it had to create that all important first impression of your wealth and status.  Lofty, substantial rooms were created with muscular columns, galleries, niches for statues, and space for art.  It’s in this tradition that Dundarave was built between 1846-49 to designs by Sir Charles Lanyon. This top-lit space evokes something of the grand Roman baths and certainly fulfils the requirement to thrill.  The house is currently for sale and I imagine that potential buyers will step through the closed hallway, step out into the great hall and express similar amazement as has been the intention of all owners who have used spaces such as this for centuries; to impress.

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Sales particulars: ‘Dundarave, Co. Antrim‘ [Savills] – £5m, 549-acres

Article: ‘Selling off the holiday home for £5 million‘ [The Irish Times]

William Kent, the reluctant Gothick

If asked what style of architecture one would associate with William Kent, one of the leading designers of the Georgian era, most would say Palladian and, if pushed, they might argue that his interiors are distinctly Baroque.  Yet Kent is also regarded as the creator of the ‘Gothick’ style of architecture; a blend of historical Gothic elements but applied, initially, within the structure of classical rules. This quickly evolved to have greater historical rigour, laying the groundwork for the more zealous interpretation by Victorians such as A.W.N. Pugin.  However, it could be argued that Kent was merely satisfying the stylistic whims of a patron and in his use of ‘Gothic’ elements, was actually continuing the Elizabethan practice of creating ‘symmetrical Gothic’, a visually impressive approach built on Renaissance principles.

Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)
Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)

William Kent was born in 1685 in Bridlington, North Yorkshire, and displayed an early talent for drawing. Despite his parent’s modest means, he ‘had the good fortune to find some Gentlemen…to promote his studyes‘ who paid for him to travel to Italy in 1709, along with another talented young artist, John Talman.  Whilst there, Kent developed his skills in painting, but also in business as an agent for various young aristocrats on the Grand Tour, including Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, and Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, for whom Kent would help purchase paintings and other works of art. The latter connection with Lord Burlington, first professional, then as a friend, was to launch Kent’s career when they both returned to London in 1719, with Kent as the draughtsman of Burlington’s dream of a Palladian Britain.

It was the need for patronage which kept Kent in the thrall of Burlington and the circle of Palladians. Where Kent was given greater freedom, particularly in designing interiors and furniture, his natural inclination seems to have been towards a more Baroque style; a rich, florid escape from the strictures of the pure and elegant Roman style which Burlington so enthusiastically promoted.  So how did Kent become the father of ‘Gothick’, an architectural style characterised by the playful, historically-inaccurate application of medieval Gothic, the language of the cathedrals?

Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court - detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)
Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court – detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)

Kent’s first documented use of Gothick was in 1732-34 at Hampton Court Palace where he was commissioned to rebuild the east front of the Clock Court as accommodation for the Duke of Cumberland.  As a good Palladian, Kent originally proposed a classical scheme but Sir Robert Walpole, who had final approval over the design as First Lord of the Treasury, required that it be in keeping with the existing Tudor Gothic. Although originally there was only a much simpler door, Kent developed this and created a full gatehouse as a central focus of the front. Though now altered, Kent’s design drew on the existing architectural features, using ogee-domed octagonal turrets and a Gothick Venetian window. The interiors were also remodelled but here Kent’s enthusiasm for Gothick waned and he reverted to a more classical style of decoration.

On a side note, there is a suggestion that Kent’s actual first Gothick design was for a church tower at St Martin’s, Houghton in 1727.  Although the drawings in the Houghton archives are by Thomas Ripley, Kent had been involved with designs at Houghton since 1725 for the owner, Sir Robert Walpole, who, as previously mentioned, also instigated the use of Gothick at Hampton Court.

The most complete early use of this novel Gothick for a country house was at Esher Place, Surrey.  Having bought a 14th-century gatehouse, Wayneflete Tower (the only surviving part of a much larger quadrangular mansion) Henry Pelham, Prime Minister from 1743-54, lacked a house on his estate. Again, Kent proposed a Palladian solution – a compact villa which (minus dome and projecting portico) bears similarities with Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House, completed in 1729. Again, Kent was to be over-ruled by the client who wished for Wayneflete Tower to be more than a grand garden ornament – it had to be the centrepiece of the new house and this dictated the style.

Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)

One can imagine Kent sitting down with pen and paper and, much as if learning a new language, started drawing out his new vocabulary.  Though the initial sketches show two classical wings grafted onto the tower, he also, importantly, was experimenting with a more varied facade, one which pushed forward and receded with canted windows and recessed bays. This movement was to be a key influence in the future, breaking down the more formal, flatter approaches which had previously dominated.  This experimentation also extended to the interiors with rooms taking on greater variety; octagons or rectangular rooms ending in canted bays.

Esher Place, Surrey - John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)
Esher Place, Surrey – John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)

Kent’s final design (see at the top of the article) was an elegant solution and created a charming composition of a symmetrical house with the wings dominated by full-height canted bays and grand ogee-capped domes on the central tower. Unfortunately the scheme was watered-down in the execution – John Vardy‘s c.1744 engravings showing more austere wings without the bays and the tower without the domes. Even these were not to last as the new owner of the estate in 1805 pulled down the wings, leaving just the historic tower, before building a new house (the 1805 house is the south wing of the 1895 house) on the hill above – just as Kent had originally proposed to Pelham.

Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)
Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)

After Esher Place, in the next of Kent’s Gothick experiments, in 1737 he produced a design for the remodelling of Honingham Hall, Norfolk, for the second son of Viscount Townshend. A year later, Kent came back with a more detailed plan which removed much of the Jacobean character of the house, which had originally been build c.1605, to dramatically alter the front with a mixture of the bays and recessions. Sadly neither of the designs where executed and the house itself was demolished in 1966.  However, this exercise gave Kent an opportunity to gain greater familiarity with Gothick detailing and elevations.

Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The only other significant house Kent was to design in this style was Rousham House, Oxfordshire, for Lieutenant General James Dormer in 1737 (note the same year as the first proposed design for Honingham Hall). This was a remodelling of a small, H-plan house built in the 1630s and so Kent’s design had to accommodate the inevitable compromises of an existing building.  This he did by taking elements of the Honingham design, including the crenellations and a central ogee-capped dome, and combining them with classical elements such as the two pavilions which flanked each side. The interiors were a mix of styles; the parlour was purely classical but the library (a drawing room since 1764) was Gothick (or oriental, or Moorish, depending on who you ask). The gardens are the celebrated delight of Rousham and the buildings were designed by Kent at the same time as the house but are almost all classical, bar a Gothick Corn Mill.

North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)
North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)

Other Gothick projects by Kent such as the screens for Westminster and Gloucester Cathedrals, the Choir Fittings at York Minster, and various garden buildings all show a facility but not a fluency with the Gothic language. The same elements are used repeatedly within a variety of layouts and plans but without the detailed study of the original source buildings Kent seemed bound to his limitations.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon - print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830
Mount Edgcumbe, Devon – print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830

Did Kent ‘create’ Gothick? Yes – and no.  The Elizabethans had long been creating houses which deployed the language of historical Gothic to their houses.  An article by Mark Girouard on ‘Elizabethan Architecture and the Gothic Tradition‘ (SAHGB, 1963) cites Burghley, Lincolnshire, where the house features a west front (built 1577-78) of towers and a turreted gatehouse, a north front (1585) dominated by Tudor-Gothic windows with a Gothic parapet, and the clock tower (1587) has an almost Gothic spire.  The Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses featured an emphasis on the vertical with towers and squared-off bay windows such as Robert Smythson’s Worksop Manor.  Finally, the symmetry that underlies Kent’s work, can be seen in the Renaissance-influenced Elizabethan houses such as Longleat or Mount Edgcumbe.

What Kent did do was apply his natural love of a more lively baroque interpretation of Gothic design to create a style which, although it mainly influenced those he worked with, was an inspiration to a later group of designers such as John Vardy and Batty Langley.  Overall, Kent’s Gothick houses and interiors lack the commitment and historical rigour he displayed to the Palladian style or the verve and passion which characterised his Baroque efforts. Certainly a measure of his success is that Kent did create a new architectural language which fed the wider Georgian passion for the Picturesque. Here, at last, was a style which could break strict Classical regularity and substitute it with a rambling vision of finials and tracery.

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This article was clearly inspired by the superb exhibition: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ (22 March – 13 July 2014). Definitely worth a visit if you are in London.

A brilliant tome (it’s huge) has been produced to coincide with the exhibition but easily works as a standalone reference: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ by Susan Weber.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has an extensive collection of William Kent drawings

Finest country seats: Mereworth Castle, Kent

Mereworth Castle, Kent (Image: building-a-day via tumblr)
Mereworth Castle, Kent (Image: building-a-day via tumblr)

Many articles on this blog relate to houses which are in the news, on TV, or for sale but in the quieter months it becomes more challenging to find topics.  As I miss writing, this article is the first in an occasional series on country houses I have entirely subjectively chosen (though I’m happy to take suggestions) as being of particular interest and beauty. So, first up, one of my favourite houses; one which simultaneously is both exceptionally rare and beautiful – and one, sadly, I may possibly never get a chance to visit: Mereworth Castle  in Kent.

To understand why this house is so important, it’s necessary to take a brief trip to Italy, specifically, to the Veneto in the north.

Villa Capra, Italy (Image: Marco Bagarella via Wikipedia)
Villa Capra, Italy (Image: Marco Bagarella via Wikipedia)

One of the most influential architects in relation to the style of UK buildings never actually built anything here.  Andrea Palladio (b.1508 – d.1580) invigorated the design of our built environment in a way many architects can only dream of through his innovative work in three areas; the urban palazzo, the rural villa, and churches.  Each, though distinct, shared a common architectural DNA that made Palladio’s work easier to understand which aided its adoption by others.  That’s not to say that his designs were simple or lacking artistic skill; it’s precisely their austere beauty which emphasises the thought which had gone into their proportions and decoration.

Palladio worked exclusively in the Veneto; that area of northern Italy centred around the wealth of Venice, but which had also created other cities which also grew rich and could express this through architecture.  Giovanni Rucellai, Alberti‘s patron, said “I think I have given myself more honour, and my soul more satisfaction, by having spent money than by having earned it, above all with regard to the building I have done.” Numerous trips to Rome, coupled with Palladio’s own diligent work in precisely measuring the Roman buildings and their details whilst he was there, gave him the architectural vocabulary to express what his patrons were trying to say to their neighbours, friends, and society at large.

His fame was well established (and undiminished even though dead) by the time English architect Inigo Jones made his first visit to Italy sometime between 1598–1603, but it was during a probable second trip in 1606 when he thoroughly absorbed the Palladian style, owning copies of Palladio’s most important work ‘I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (‘The Four Books of Architecture‘, published in 1570). Jones returned and, using his influence, especially once he became Surveyor-General of the King’s Work, he started to develop and promote an Anglo-Palladian style.  One of the earliest and finest examples is the beautiful Banqueting House on Whitehall in London, the first neo-Classical building in the country, completed in 1622, which draws heavily on Palladian architecture and principles such as the double-cube.

Whether an architectural style gains traction and popularity depends on its ability to reasonably adapt to different areas and the challenges that this can present in terms of both materials and the climate.  One of the reasons Palladianism spread so far and became so entrenched is that its architectural DNA could evolve to meet the specific challenges of the UK climate – namely, it’s much colder and wetter here than on the sunny plains of Italy. The wide open loggias, small windows, fewer fireplaces and lack of guttering all meant that a literal translation of a Palladio design would quickly prove to be difficult to live in and rapidly deteriorate.

Villa Barbaro, Italy (Image: Marcok via Wikipedia)
Villa Barbaro, Italy (Image: Marcok via Wikipedia) – note the wide-open loggias

The popularity of the Grand Tour with young nobles meant that, for all the challenges, Palladianism was highly sought after as an expression of aristocratic taste and wealth.  The desire for Palladian homes combined with the environmental challenges meant that, in the UK, almost all designs for smaller country houses in that style were derivations of the Veneto originals.  However, for a few owners this was unacceptable – a higher level of architectural accuracy was required.

Mereworth Castle, Kent (Image: from an old postcard)
Mereworth Castle, Kent (Image: from an old postcard)

Mereworth Castle (built c1720-25) was one of these houses, along with Chiswick House, Middlesex (built 1729), Foot’s Cray Place, Kent (built 1754 – demolished 1949), and Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire (built 1757 – demolished 1929). Today, it is still the finest example of the direct translation of Palladio’s Villa Capra (or Rotonda) existing in the UK.  Designed for John Fane, later 7th Earl of Westmorland, by one of the chief proponents of Palladianism in the UK, Colen Campbell, producer of the famous ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘, the book which was both the genesis and the bible for Georgian architecture in the UK and, by influence, Ireland and America.  Yet, as Nigel Nicholson points out in ‘Great Houses of Britain‘ why should ‘…a Scottish architect who had never been to Italy…chose to erect an Italian villa in the Weald of Kent for a patron who has likewise never set eyes on the Rotonda…‘? A good question indeed – and one Nicholson only partially answers.

In many ways the design is really architectural hero-worship.  Colen Campbell had started out working in Glasgow and idolised Palladio and, by extension, his representative in the UK, Inigo Jones.  Campbell had built one of the earliest Palladian country houses – Shawfield House – in 1713 and probably had a hand in the only earlier one; the wonderfully attractive and precocious Wilbury Park, Wiltshire, finished in 1710, designed by William Benson – owner and also architect, according to Campbell.  However, Campbell’s magnum opus wasn’t so much one building as many in the creation and illustration of ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘ which cemented not only his reputation but also this continental style as the most fashionable of architectural choices – which is the most likely explanation for John Fane’s choice.

For all the many Palladian variations Campbell created for his books, Mereworth Castle was the house which remained closest to his idol’s work.  That said, he wasn’t above making alterations, most of which, were improvements.  One of the first things to note is that Mereworth is actually larger in volume than Villa Capra, perhaps for practical reasons but also possibly as a statement by the architect as to his ambition.  The changes he did make do actually indicate that Campbell was an architect of some skill and invention, for example, routing all 24 chimney flues he’d had to include through the double skin of the dome to vent by the lantern, thus avoiding unsightly chimneys ruining the skyline.

Mereworth Castle, Kent with one of the pavilions (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Mereworth Castle, Kent with one of the pavilions (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The exterior has a wonderful rhythm as the porticos rise and fall as you circle the house, the swags decorating the pediments contrasting with the smooth stucco walls.  The setting is further enhanced by the matching pavilions which were added c.1740.  Rarely do additions to a house as sublime as Mereworth actually enhance it but the perfect proportions, placing and styling would make anyone think that Campbell himself designed them.  However, they remain a puzzle as to the architect as Campbell had died in 1729. Nicholson suggests they may have been by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart but Colvin makes a much stronger case for them being by Roger Morris, who worked in Campbell’s office and was certainly skilled enough to have created such brilliant additions.

Long Gallery, Mereworth Castle (Image: 'John Fowler: Prince of Decorators' by Martin Wood)
Long Gallery, Mereworth Castle (Image: ‘John Fowler: Prince of Decorators’ by Martin Wood)

One of the great contrasts is between the pared back exterior and the lavishly decorated interior.  The Palladio homage continues with the house being organised around a soaring central circular hall which rises from the ground floor to the dome.  Fine plasterwork by Giovanni Bagutti decorates the doorcases with separate swags of flowers and fruit on the walls. The decoration of the hall is a preamble for the beauty of the other rooms. The Long Gallery was one of Campbell’s improvements over Palladio’s layout, replacing two smaller rooms with one dramatic space which was then  ‘...ornamented to within an inch of its life with every device in the early eighteenth-century decorator’s armoury…‘ (John Julius Norwich) with a beautiful coved ceiling with sumptuous frescos by Francesco Sleter.

Even Horace Walpole, the arch-Gothick evangelist, conceded when he visited in 1752 that although he thought the hall ‘a dark well‘ that such was the glory of the rest of the house ‘that I must own it has recovered me a little from Gothic‘. From Walpole, that is high praise indeed.

Saloon - Mereworth Castle (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Saloon – Mereworth Castle (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Mereworth Castle is a rich and exciting house – visually stunning, the perfect expression of the Anglo-Palladian villa with the austere exterior balanced by the dramatic interior plan and plasterwork.  That is has survived almost unaltered with only the most sympathetic additions is perhaps a testament to the powerful unity it has as a design.  As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a preference for country houses which retain their original purpose as homes for a wealthy single family. This has certainly been the good fortune which Mereworth has enjoyed, now being owned by Mahdi Al-Tajir, the former United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United Kingdom and owner of the Highland Spring bottled water company who bought it in 1976 for £1.5m.  The unfortunate downside is that we may never get to experience these remarkable houses but, on balance, it’s an acceptable trade if it means that a jewel such as Mereworth Castle is given the care and respect it richly deserves.  That said, perhaps some day I hope I will get the chance on a summer’s day, bathed in the warmest Kentish sunshine, to wander round this most splendid of country villas.

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Listing description: ‘Mereworth Castle‘ [English Heritage]

More photos – exteriors/interiors:

Also of interest:

What goes around; the use of rotunda in UK country houses

The UK aristocracy brought back many souvenirs from their grand tours to Italy – pictures, sculpture, drawings etc – but also a delight in the architecture inspired by the ancient ruins.  This fascination manifested itself in country houses across the UK with a profusion of arches,  Serlian windows, porticos and pediments.  However, one device, despite its impressiveness, has been notable by its relative rarity; the rotunda – that grand circular space often featuring a parade of columns leading the eye up to a spectacular dome.  So why would this grand centrepiece be so infrequently used inside our country houses?

Italy - Villa Capra or 'La Rotonda' (Image: Marco Bagarella / Wikipedia)
Italy - Villa Capra or 'La Rotonda' (Image: Marco Bagarella / Wikipedia)

The most famous rotunda, and that which was so influential on the Anglo-Palladians, was the Pantheon in Rome.  Built in AD 124, this vast space under a 142ft diameter dome was closely studied by Andrea Palladio and became a key destination for UK architects who later travelled to Rome.  Palladio then developed the use of the rotunda as the central circulation space in his residential villas, most famously with the Villa Capra or “La Rotonda” in Vicenza, begun in 1567.

Palladio was not the first to use a rotunda in a residential setting; the artist Mantegna built his own home in Mantua in the 1470s using a layout and scale very similar to that later used at Villa Capra, using a design probably suggested by the architect-engineer Francesco di Giorgio.  Palladio then modified it and used it to great success to create what is regarded as one of his finest houses.  The rotunda would have neatly solved the challenge of the Villa Capra in that a visitor may at any front, thus negating the traditional linear plan which assumed only one main entrance.

Mereworth Castle, Kent
Mereworth Castle, Kent

Looking through Colen Campbell‘s ‘Vitruvius Britanicus’ – a highly regarded collection of plans and prints of the best Georgian houses published between 1715-1725 – that over the three volumes a rotunda is only used twice.  The first is in a proposed (but never executed) design for Goodwood House in Sussex for the Earls of March designed by Colen Campbell in 1724 which featured a 40ft diameter space.  The second is the 35ft diameter version which forms the dramatic central hall of Mereworth Castle in Kent.  Mereworth (built 1722-25) was one of only four Georgian houses to be built in the UK which closely followed the design of the Villa Capra; the others being Chiswick House, Middlesex (1726-29), Foots Cray Place, Kent (1754 – demolished 1949), and Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire (1757 – demolished 1929).

A later use of the rotunda was at the slightly eccentric Ickworth House, Suffolk. Built in 1795 and based on the designs of Mario Asprucci, an Italian architect;  it was later adapted by Francis and his brother Joseph Sandys who also oversaw construction.  This later use of the rotunda showed how it could be employed as a single dramatic centrepiece in its own right, not hidden in the centre of the house.

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

Yet, if it was hidden, it could form a dramatic and surprising irregularity to the procession of square and rectangular rooms which often dominated houses.  One example of this is at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire where Robert Adam was inspired by his own 1764 study of the ‘Ruins of the Palace of the Emporer Diocletian at Spalatro [Split]’ which paired the circular rotunda with a square vestibulum. Adam also later proposed to convert the courtyard at Syon Park into a huge rotunda. Perhaps one of the most impressive and beautiful expressions of the rotunda is the central staircase at New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, designed by James Paine, and built between 1769-1776 and later described by Pevsner as ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’.

So, despite its impressiveness why are most entrances and staircases so determinedly right-angled?  Simple finance can explain it in part; it would be more expensive to create a rotunda as they are more complex, require more space and also usually compromises in the floor plan to include the curvature.

Fashion can also play its part. As architectural taste moved in the Victorian era towards a preference for the gothic, so the opportunities for the use of the rotunda diminished. With its origins in the temple ruins of Classical ancient Rome, the most famous Gothic Revival architect, A.W.N. Pugin (b.1812 – d.1852) considered it part of a more pagan tradition – and therefore completely antithetical to his belief that gothic represented the only true expression of Christianity through architecture. And where Pugin led, others followed.

Or perhaps the answer is more pragmatic.  One of the primary purposes of the country house was to impress visitors.  Often a political power base, the grandest houses were designed to create an impression even before the visitor actually met the owner.  As one of the principal spaces in a house, entrance halls have often played an important role in this domestic ‘theatre’ – and the use of a rotunda requires perhaps too many compromises.

Traditionally the grand rooms where visitors would be met were often on the ground floor and would be processed through, with only the most important visitors reaching the best rooms.  Elizabethan houses changed this with the principal rooms moving to upper floors, such as at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, requiring more impressive staircases which, through the use of heraldic and political symbolism in the carving on balusters and handrail could make many a statement before the guest reached the required floor.

Palladian designs continued this with the preference for the piano nobile which moved the principle rooms to a raised ground floor.  The large empty wall spaces of the staircase also formed a useful space for the display of paintings including family portraits or a large selection to show the owner’s taste and style.  The staircase also provided a way to make a dramatic entrance – think ladies in their evening gowns gliding down to join the party.  Yet if a house used a rotunda it compromised both these features.  A curved wall made it difficult to hang the largest and most impressive works of art and staircases were usually spiral and tucked into the walls in the corners, meaning those coming down would only be seen when they emerged at the ground floor – which would never do.

Henbury Hall, Cheshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Henbury Hall, Cheshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Yet, the rotunda has not died out and those with the vision and wealth can still create these dramatic spaces.  One of the most impressive has to be Henbury Hall in Cheshire, built between 1984-86 for Sebastien de Ferranti and designed by the architect Julian Bicknell from a painting by the artist Felix Kelly. A faithful recreation of Villa Capra, the dome rises to 15m with the principal rooms radiating from the central hall.  Nigel Anderson at Adam Architects also designed a replacement country house in Surrey which, according to them, is based (I’d say loosely – at least externally) on Villa Capra.  Another fine example is that at Tusmore Park in Oxfordshire, winner of the best new building in the classical tradition award from the Georgian Group in 2004 where the scagliola columns in the central rotunda are said to rival those of the imperial palaces of St Petersburg.

These examples show that, although comparatively rare, the impressive traditions of the rotunda are being continued by architects and clients determined to create the most dramatic interiors in contemporary country houses despite the compromises which have perhaps unfairly limited their use in previous centuries.

Cash in the attic: Chatsworth House sale

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)

Usually during times of economic hardship all areas of life suffer as disposable income is held rather than spent.  However, paradoxically the art market is currently on something of a high which has produced record prices at recent auctions.  For the country house owner faced with ever higher bills there has rarely been a better time to re-evaluate collections and contents and see if they too can raise some much needed funds or, as in the case of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, to make space.

The Dukes of Devonshire have always enjoyed a privileged position as one of the UK’s premier aristocratic families.  Their fortune was set with the four advantageous marriages of Bess of Hardwick (b. 1527 – d. 1608) following the early deaths of her rich husbands. OF particular note was her second husband, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who in 1811 had inherited not only the title but eight major houses and estates including Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall (now National Trust), Devonshire House in London (demolished 1924), Chiswick House (now English Heritage), Lismore Castle (still owned by the Devonshires) and Bolton Abbey (owned by Devonshire family trust), Burlington House (now the Royal Academy of Arts), and Londesborough Hall in Yorkshire (demolished in 1819), totalling some 200,000 acres.  Chatsworth was considered her principal seat and has been for the Devonshire family ever since.  This meant that when earlier economically austere times led to the selling of other family properties such as Chiswick House and Devonshire House in London the contents of these houses were largely packed up and brought back to Chatsworth.

The current, 12th, Duke has now decided to follow the recently well-trodden path of the asset-rich aristocracy and clear out some of the accumulated contents of the storage areas and raise some welcome capital which will be ploughed back into the running of the estate.  The 20,000 items include a rare William Kent mantelpiece which is expected to go for around £300,000.  Recently up to £100m of art has been sold including an earlier sale by the Duke of Devonshire for £10m of a bronze statue, Ugolino Imprisoned with his Sons and Grandsons (around 1549), by Leonardo’s nephew Pierino da Vincia, a record-breaking Turner watercolour, Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, from the Earl of Rosebury which made £29.7m, a 1.3-metre long, 81kg wine cooler from the Marquis of Lothian, a variety of works including a Rubens from Earl Spencer, and other sales by the Earl of Wemyss and March, the Earl of Jersey, and Lord Northbrook.

Whilst the current situation continues with rising costs not being met by investment income or from the revenue from opening up houses and estates it’s likely that we will continue to see a steady trickle of art flowing from the galleries of our stately homes into the private collections of the billionaires currently willing to pay record-breaking prices for the finest works.  Although this is in some respects regrettable, as long as the money is spent on the restoration and maintenance of our wonderful country houses then there is little cause for concern.  However, once the attics are empty or all the ‘non-core’ pictures have been sold then we may need to be worried as to what will be sold next. The worst outcome would be to have houses without estates or that we have a fine collection of stately homes in which visitor’s footsteps merely echo around empty state rooms.

More about the Chatsworth sale: ‘Chatsworth’s ‘lost’ treasures up for sale‘ [BBC News]

More about recent art sales: ‘Who is behind the great stately home art sell-off‘ [The Art Newspaper]