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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
Listing description: ‘Mereworth Castle‘ [English Heritage]
More photos – exteriors/interiors:
- ‘Mereworth Castle‘ [Country Life Picture Library]
- ‘Mereworth Castle‘ [English Heritage – View Finder]
Also of interest: