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