Finest prospects: the artist and the country house (and a challenge)

The country house has always been a trophy to be admired and enjoyed.  Yet, in the age before mass media and transportation made it easier to see these fine houses, often the only way to remind yourself and, more importantly, guests to your London townhouse, of your rural wealth and power was through the rather special branch of art that is the country house portrait.  Though originally European, it found new and invigorating life once it had crossed the Channel, creating an important and fascinating record of the lives, tastes and architecture of the landed classes. We also have a mystery house in a painting to find…

The country house first started appearing in paintings in France, with one of the very earliest depictions being that of the Duc de Berry’s houses and estates in 1416 by Pol de Limbourg.  These paintings served not only as reminders of wealth but also as practical tools for the running of extensive estates. The earliest English contemporary of these paintings is a 15th-century portrait of John of Kentchurch with a view of Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire in the background.  Although the depiction of the country house was a primarily European feature, it was still a relatively niche pursuit until the late 1500s, with painters more usually employed to portray the religious, historical or mythological.

Detail of 'An Aerial View of Tottenham Park, Wiltshire' by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack (after 1737) - this picture hung for many years in the estate office.
Detail of 'An Aerial View of Tottenham Park, Wiltshire' by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack (after 1737) - this picture hung for many years in the estate office.

The trade in country house views was particularly popular in the Netherlands, where a demand for topographical engravings combined with many estates created a ready market.  The genesis of the English tradition is also to be found here as the Royalist aristocracy fled to the region during the Civil War. The connections made at this time were to prove fruitful for the many painters who followed their current and prospective patrons back across the Channel after the the Restoration in 1660. Before then, views of a country house were usually part of an estate survey, bar a few exceptions such as those of Conway Castle in c.1600, Nonsuch Palace and Richmond Palace c.1620, and the ‘King’s houses’ by Alexander Kierincx in 1639-40.  It was the famous engraver Wenceslas Hollar who completed the first significant set; five views of Albury House in Surrey in the late 1630s. Hollar was also significant in establishing the new fashion for these views once confidence was restored in the late 1650s.

The Restoration of Charles II gave new life to the art, with Dutch artists eager to record the newly invigorated estates of the aristocracy.  Without the artistic constraints often found in Europe, the style of the art in England was largely determined by the owner rather than royal preference.  By the 1680s, the country house portrait was as well established, as well  as those of the family, and reflected both pride and change.  Views were often painted to record the old house before it was swept away or remodelled or after the work had finished to showcase their new seat.

One of the finest artists of this period was Leonard Knyff who had arrived in England in around 1676 but whose first country house painting, completed in 1696, is of Dunham Massey, Cheshire.  A few more paintings followed, but his master work was a collection of eighty engraved views published (by Johannes Kip) in 1707 under the title ‘Britannia Illustrata: Or Views of Several of the Queen’s Palaces, also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain…’.  It remains one of the finest records of the country houses of the period – today, even individual prints can sell for hundreds of pounds and full copies of the book for tens of thousands.

Detail of 'Westwood, Worcestershire' published 1709 for "Britannia Illustrata: Or Views of Several of the Queen's Palaces, also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain...." by Johannes Kip & Leonard Knyff
Detail of 'Westwood, Worcestershire' published 1709 for "Britannia Illustrata" by Johannes Kip & Leonard Knyff

From the 1700s, the composition of the paintings shifts to include, and give greater prominence to, sporting activities and also the setting of the house, particularly the gardens. With sports such as riding and hunting being such a key part of the enjoyment and reputation of an estate, it was natural that these should feature in any artistic celebration.   As the fashions for landscaping and elaborate gardens took hold, so to did a desire for these to also be included in such detail that the house became a much smaller element, subsumed into a wider bucolic vision.  The more ‘survey’-like paintings showed in almost cartographic detail the layout of the gardens with the tree-lined rides radiating away from the house.

'Lowther Castle, Westmorland, Seen from a Distance by 'Day' in 1810' - J.M.W. Turner
'Lowther Castle, Westmorland, Seen from a Distance by 'Day' in 1810' - J.M.W. Turner

This trend was not only driven by the owners who were very proud of their new environment but also because it was a natural continuation of the earlier work of these artists, as recorders of landscapes. John Harris argues that it would be difficult to confirm the exact influence which art exerted over landscaping but the popularity of landscape painters such as Claude Lorrain, coincided with the popularity of advocates of the more natural landscape such as Humphrey Repton and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1760s.  Parkland now moved from the more formal ‘boxes’ which Knyff had so accurately portrayed, and was now shown as a more rural, naturalistic form, the landscape now dominating the picture.  How far this style departed from formal country house portraiture can be seen in the works of J.M.W. Turner who frequently reduced the house to a mere smudge in the distance – and even when the house featured clearly, it was subordinate to the overall setting and atmosphere.  That’s not to say that the ‘Claudian’ view was the only one – the preferences of the owners for clear visions of their seats kept artists such as William Hodges, James Barret, William Marlow, and Theodore de Bruyn busy too.

By the mid-1800s there had been a marked decline in the demand for these type of paintings. Improved communications meant that houses were no longer so remote, and with the advent of mass printing, publishing filled the demand for images of the houses as typified by the eleven volumes of J.P. Neale’s ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen‘ (1818-1829).  Owners of houses were also now increasingly from the new wealthy who had their powerbases in cities and the country house was merely a retreat. By 1880, photography was also firmly supplanting oil paint as the medium of choice, as shown by the success of photographers such as Bedford Lemere, and, by the 1900s, the success of magazines such as Country Life which placed a high priority on using only the best photos.

Detail of 'Carclew, Cornwall' by Algernon Newton (house built 1720s, burnt out in 1934) - painting commissioned for the family which owned it at the time of the fire
Detail of 'Carclew, Cornwall' by Algernon Newton (house built 1720s, burnt out in 1934) - painting commissioned for the family which owned it at the time of the fire

However, in the last twenty years, a resurgent interest amongst country house owners has again created a demand for the country house portrait.  Artists such as Algernon Newton, Julian Barrow, James Hart Dyke, Jonathan Warrender, and Marcus May have led the way in continuing the tradition.  One artist has even been responsible for creating a country house which only existed in one of his paintings. Felix Kelly had painted an imaginary scene of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda within an English landscape; inspired by this, Sebastian de Ferranti then commissioned the architect Julian Bicknell to translate this art into reality, completing the house in 1986.

These important paintings are now, for some houses, the only record of how they were before later changes obscured or obliterated them forever. For many others, they are a wonderful reminder of the beauties of architecture and are a unique and invaluable record of our country houses.

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Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken
Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken - click for full painting

The Challenge: can you identify the mystery house in this painting?

Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken
Detail from 'Portrait Group' (1936) - William Bruce Ellis Ranken

The catalyst for this post about country houses in paintings was an email I received from Wendy & Gordon Hawksley who are working to re-establish the reputation of William Bruce Ellis Ranken (1881-1941). A famous artist in his day, he socialised with the great and good and painted many of them before fading into obscurity after his death.  This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1936 (this is also the year it was painted) under the title of ‘Portrait Group’ but as yet it has not been possible to identify either the sitters or the house. And so to the challenge: simply, can we identify the house – almost certainly English or Irish, Palladian, engaged columns to the front (a la Kedleston Hall) with flanking curved colonnaded wings facing a large reflecting pool.  Obviously there may be some degree of artistic licence but it seems likely that this was the home of the subjects of the portrait. Suggestions either via the comments below or via email to me.  No prizes I’m afraid beyond a credit here and the happy thought that art history is slightly richer for your efforts.

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For a more in-depth history and many images (and to which this post is much indebted)  I recommend ‘The Artist and the Country House: from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day‘ by the ever-brilliant John Harris – unfortunately now out of print.

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.