Supermodels: the rise and fall of architectural models of country houses

A William IV Cut-Card Model of an Unidentified Mansion, 1831 by John Bellamy (Image © Christie's - Sale of the Collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson, P.R.A., Sep 17, 2013)
A William IV cut-card model of Newtown Park, Hampshire, dated 1831 by John Bellamy (Image © Christie’s – Sale of the Collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson, P.R.A., Sep 17, 2013)

In a time before widespread literacy, a physical representation of what was intended to be built was a powerful aide to help ensure that the vision of the architect became the physical reality crafted by the builder.  Yet, the architectural model was more than this. Evolving from being a functional tool, it became an aspirational marketing device to demonstrate the proposed scheme but also as a three-dimensional business card for the architect and striking conversational piece for the wealthy patron who would possess both the miniature fantasy and the full-size reality of the design of their country house.

The role of the architectural model can be traced back to the earliest buildings, particularly the devotional and religious. Some of the oldest were found in Egyptian tombs, dating back over four thousand years, and represented functional spaces which may be required such as granaries or gardens. Later they were often displayed as a record of the beneficence of the donor (rather than skill of an architect), they appear in paintings or decorations being held as offerings (such as the 10th-century Vestibule Mosaic showing Justinian presenting the Hagia Sophia to Mary and Christ), or carved into their funerary monuments or other personal iconography such as portraits; all undoubtedly a handy aide-memoire to St Peter, come the reckoning on Judgement Day.

Detail of 17th-century portrait of Queen Marie Thérèse of France, as patron of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris (Studio of Beaubrun brothers) (Image: public domain via Wikipedia)
Detail of 17th-century portrait of Queen Marie Thérèse of France, as patron of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris (Studio of Beaubrun brothers) (Image: public domain via Wikipedia)

The creation of models of new buildings is recorded in the 15th-century with the renowned architect and theoretician Leon Battista Alberti (b.1402 – d.1472), stating that,

‘I always recommend the ancient builders’ practice by which not only drawings and pictures but also wooden models are made, so that the projected work can be considered and reconsidered, with the counsel of experts, in its whole and in all its parts.’

The fashion for the creation of architectural models as objects for study and decoration was one which grew with the interest and wider participation in what became known as the Grand Tour, particularly from the 1760s.  As wealthy young men would embark on extended study (and, if we’re honest, pleasure) tours of the Mediterranean and Middle East, so too did their desire to bring back a tangible memory of their time to display as a marker of their cultural and worldly sophistication.

Cork model of the Temple of Zeus or Apollo, Paestum (c. 1820), attributed to Domenico Padiglione. Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum
Cork model of the Temple of Zeus or Apollo, Paestum (c. 1820), attributed to Domenico Padiglione. ©Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum

Cork established itself as a popular material for the crafting of models of ancient ruins as it was intrinsically similar in its native form to the weathered appearance of the stones it was shaped to resemble. Light and easy to transport, it is easy to imagine that many hundreds of these were shipped back to country houses back in the UK as a reminder and an inspiration.  It is interesting to speculate how influential these romantically ruinous models were on the nascent Picturesque movement of the 1780s. The models may have generated not only new buildings but also the incorporation of existing ruins into new landscapes or the building of new ‘old’ ones too, energised by having at hand aesthetically compatible examples, steeped in irregularity and showing the forces of nature providing the finishing touches to the works of man.

For those who wished to show a more idealised representation of architectural purity, clearly the imprecise renderings of cork were not going to match their visions. In the 1780s, to demonstrate the beauty of the finer details of the classical world, entirely white, finely crafted ‘Plaster of Paris’ models started to be created.  Almost of these are thought to be the work of two French modellists, Jean-Pierre Fouquet (b.1752 – d.1829) and his son Francois (b.1787 – d.1870), who were based in Paris, trading as Fouquet et Fils.1 For architects, these models presented an alternative version of reality, one which enabled them to present their own schemes in a favourable context to the works of the ancient world.

Model of the ancient Greek Ionic temple on the Illisus, near Athens, 'restored', c.1800-1834, plaster of Paris. (Photo: © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)
Model of the ancient Greek Ionic temple on the Illisus, near Athens, ‘restored’, c.1800-1834, plaster of Paris. (Photo: © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Beyond the decorative role, the models were also naturally didactic; their representations of the ruins of the ancient world creating opportunities to teach those who would not otherwise be able to travel to see them. Of those who embraced this approach, the most prominent and inventive was Sir John Soane.  His collection was one of the largest but who was also able to use them as inspiration, as teaching aids to his pupils and marketing tool for those who visited his home/studio at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, where they can still be seen today in the restored model gallery.

“Many of the most serious disappointments that attend those who build would be avoided if models were previously made of the edifices proposed to be raised. No building – at least none of considerable size or consequence – should be begun until a correct and detailed model of all its parts has been made.”
– Sir John Soane (Royal Academy lecture, 1815)

Soane was drawing on his own experience but what had clearly been a well-established technique within the building trade and architectural profession – but just how frequently were these model houses created as part of the commissioning process? The key challenge is that so few are known to have survived that it’s difficult to draw broad conclusions from such a small selection. However, it is instructive to take a tour of a sample to see the range and skills deployed by architects and craftsmen to not only convince the patron but also to explore proposed designs at a stage when corrections were far easier to make.

Quidenham Hall, Norfolk - architectural model of c.1606 (Norwich Museum Service)
Quidenham Hall, Norfolk – architectural model of c.1606 (Norwich Museum Service)

One of the earliest known examples (and my thanks to Jeremy Musson for bringing it to my attention), is a beautifully detailed model of Quidenham Hall, Norfolk, dating from the early 1600s. The manor was bought by the Holland family from in 1572 and the model was created for the construction of the first house in 1606 – probably in the same year, as it would act as the visual guide for the builders and masons.

In the context of a less-educated age, the value of the model to the build process becomes more apparent, particularly for more complex designs such as Quidenham, with its detailed elevations including procession, recession, bows, pediments, crenellations, stepped gables, and chimneys.  A feature of the architectural models is that they can be explored, with the house dissembling either horizontally including the exterior walls, or just the interior floors, enabling a ‘fly-through’ so beloved of modern property programmes.  Clearly, being able to visualise the interior in relation to the exterior provided clarity as to the relationship between the designs for the rooms and their physical placement.

Quidenham Hall was subsequently extensively remodelled in the 18th-century with additional wings and the refacing of the entire house in a unifying neo-classical design. For us today, one value which was unexpected in the original construction of the model is that it allows us to know with a high degree of certainty what the original house looked like, despite these changes.

Model of Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, 1689 (Images © The Art Fund)
Model of Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, 1689 (Images © RIBA Collections)

The degree of craftsmanship which was invested in the models is perhaps best shown in the remarkable model of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Easton Neston, in Northamptonshire. Dating from 1689, it is considered one of the most important models to have survived, due not only to the superb craftsmanship but also because it relates to the design of a house regarded as central to the development of the Anglo-Baroque aesthetic. The model was bought for £180,550 in 2005 when Baron Hesketh sold the contents and house and is now in the RIBA Architecture Study Rooms at the V&A in London.

Model for Tyringham, Buckinghamshire, (designed by Sir John Soane), made by Joseph Parkins, c.1793-1794, wood (© Sir John Soane Museum - number: X236)
Model for Tyringham, Buckinghamshire, (designed by Sir John Soane), made by Joseph Parkins, c.1793-1794, wood (© Sir John Soane Museum – number: X236)
Tyringham Entrance Front 3/5/13, (© Sir John Soane Museum)
Tyringham Entrance Front 3/5/13, (Image © Sir John Soane Museum)

Sir John Soane’s designs for Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire, are a particularly instructive example as model, drawings and house (the latter with minor later alterations) survive and can therefore be readily compared. Commissioned by the banker William Praed, the house took five years to build from 1793 to 1798, with the model being created in mahogany c.1793-1794 by Joseph Parkins, a joiner working on the project. This sophisticated approach of thoughtful, inventive but ultimately practical designs, high-quality presentation watercolours by Joseph Gandy, and equally polished miniature evocations show the exemplary professionalism of Soane and why he was one of the leading architects of the era and held in such high regard.

Model of Pyrgo Park, Romford, London (RIBA Collections)
Model of Pyrgo Park, Romford, London, 1851 (RIBA Collections)

A later example was the model created for Pyrgo Park, Essex (demolished c.1940). The house was built for Robert Field, who had inherited a largely derelict Tudor house and estate from his brother in 1836. The remains of the old house were demolished in 1851-52 and a new house built on the same site to a design commissioned from Thomas Allason (b.1790 – d.1852). In light of the architect’s death, in the same year as construction on the new house was due to start, the creation of the model in 1851, now held in the RIBA Collection, would have enabled the work to continue and for a house, faithful to the architect’s design, to be created.

Another architect to use models was George Devey (b.1820 – d. 1896) who produced them as a matter of course when proposing a design to a client.  The distinctive feature of Devey’s models, produced by a dedicated, in-house modeller who was ‘in constant work’, was their scale, being produced small enough to fit in custom, briefcase-sized boxes. These often beautiful models allowed Devey to dispense with creating perspective drawings, producing only elevations and plans, which were combined with the physical miniature they would see in front of them.

The Ledgers, model of proposed alterations - George Devey, c.1882 (Image © Jill Allibone)
The Ledgers, Surrey, model of proposed alterations – George Devey, c.1882 (Image © Jill Allibone)
Barton Manor, model of proposed alterations to the stables - George Devey, c.1873-74 (Image © Jill Allibone)
Barton Manor, model of proposed alterations to the stables – George Devey, c.1873-74 (Image © Jill Allibone)

Two more models are worthy of note due to their size and beautiful detailing. One of the tallest was for Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, the vast Gothic edifice built for William Beckford constructed between 1786-1807. The model was notable not only for its scale (built at a ratio of 1 inch to 10 feet), but also for its own evolutionary construction with the model corresponding in part to the earlier designs from 1799, but overall the composition is similar to the engravings from the 1820s. The irony is that this model, built of fragile card, survived more completely than the ill-fated abbey itself.

Model of Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt. (Image © British Library)
Model of Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt. (Image © British Library)

Perhaps the most beautiful and largest is the proposed model for a new palace in Richmond, Surrey, designed by William Kent for King George II and Queen Caroline in 1735. Created in pearwood, the model is nearly two and half metres long and is exquisitely detailed, as one would expect of a presentation model to be shown to royalty.

Model of a proposed new palace for Richmond, 1735, designed by William Kent. (Image © The Royal Collection)
Model of a proposed new palace for Richmond, 1735, designed by William Kent. (Image © The Royal Collection)

Clearly there is a long history of the use of models, with examples for houses both large and small from multiple notable architects and other evidence that these models were not an uncommon element in the design and construction of country houses. So, why are so few known to have survived? Without more primary, documentary evidence, conclusions necessarily have to be somewhat conjectural.

Some study has been made of architectural models, particularly by Professor John Wilton-Ely, who has stated that although frequently used, they were less used by the end of the eighteenth-century.  He also highlights that whilst models found favour with some architects, such as Soane, others such as William Chambers only used them occasionally, Wyatt only appears to have used it Fonthill and Longford Castle, Wiltshire, and that there are no known instances of their use by Robert Adam.

Additionally, one reason so few have survived is their role in the actual construction process; the frequent use on-site and the high-level of wear-and-tear likely to result from such treatment meant that those made from more fragile materials such as plaster or card were always at risk of being worn out and discarded.

For those which survived, their bulky nature would always be a factor in determining whether someone not only had the inclination but also the space to store them. Minutes and correspondence from within the Victoria & Albert Museum shows the ascending and waning fortunes of architectural models.  When the V&A first opened (called then, the Museum of Construction), models were given prominent billing and display space – though of the seventy-plus identified2 from the hundred known in the collection, only one is a house, surprisingly dating from 1936. The lack of country houses is stark, reflecting a level of  institutional disinterest from the outset and over the lifetime of the collection.  Cumbersome and unloved, the collection was removed from display in 1888 and put into store. After ownership was passed unenthusiastically between the various museums, the V&A reluctantly took them in 1916 (‘The items do not for the most part appear to be very desirable for us, either for exhibition or reserve‘) with some being selected for disposal, the minutes recording ‘their cremation‘.

Perhaps the most intriguing method of survival is the most charming – their use as dolls houses.  Once the model had served its purpose in design and construction, and perhaps served time as a conversation piece, one can easily imagine the children of the house being given a chance to recreate their lives in miniature. They also would serve as training for one day managing a country house of their own. So if you, or a relative, has an antique but surprisingly good quality or familiar looking dolls house in the attic, take a closer look…!

Melton Constable Hall Model (NWHCM : 1971.386) (Image © Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse - Norfolk Museums)
Melton Constable Hall Model (NWHCM : 1971.386) (Image © Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse – Norfolk Museums)

Perhaps the most impressive (and remarkable) surviving example is that of Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk, dating from the 1660s.  The architect of the now grade-I listed house is unconfirmed, particularly as there are no known drawings, but it is thought that the owner, Sir Jacob Astley, may have designed it himself. In such circumstances, the building of a model would have been a prudent step, both in confirming that his design was fit-for-purpose and for subsequent use during construction. The model of the house was then passed through generations of the Astley family children before being donated to the Norfolk Museum Service.

Another dolls house, this time at Greystoke Castle in Cumbria, was discovered to be a proposed eighteenth-century design for the enlargement of the pele tower.  Much of the work at Greystoke was completed by Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881) so it is possible that this an example of another architect using models as part of the process.

Today, the architectural model exists but as a method of celebration and display.  The model is less a functional representation of what will be and instead is a now a mechanism for the long-term appreciation of the finished building as sculpture.  It is curious to note that the model has moved from the purpose of remembrance to aspiration and back to the recreation of what has been lost. The sophistication of modern digital rendering has sadly removed the need for the model to help those commissioning a country house to visualise it.  However, in this we have have lost the physicality of the form and the sheer pleasure of the craftsmanship of a country house model; idealised but as yet unrealised.

Known complete models of houses

Do you know of any others? If so, please add a comment with details.

Summary list of examples (architect name and current location of the the model, in brackets, if either are known)


1 – ‘Plaster Casts: Making, Collecting and Displaying from Classical Antiquity to the Present’ – Rune Frederiksen, Eckart Marchand (Walter de Gruyter, 27 Sep 2010)

2 – Inside Outside: Changing Attitudes Towards Architectural Models in the Museums at South Kensington’ – LeslieFiona, Architectural History47 (2004), pp. 159200

Further reading

Rothschild-shire: the lost, the ‘cottage’, and the home (3/3)

Having seen the glories of the prodigiously grand Mentmore Towers and Waddesdon Manor in the previous article on ‘Rothschild-shire’, that part of Buckinghamshire which became the domain of the Rothschild family from the 1850s, this final one looks at the remaining three: the lost Aston Clinton House, the ‘cottage’, Ascott House, and the family home, Eythrope.

Aston Clinton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Lost Heritage) - Click for more images
Aston Clinton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Lost Heritage) – Click for more images

One of the tragedies of the history of the UK’s country houses has been the wholesale destruction of so many, mainly between 1930-1960.  Often, as a family fell on financial hard times, the house contents would be sold, followed later by the building itself, in the hope they could retain the estate.  Although, wealth was clearly not an issue for the Rothschilds, one of their houses, Aston Clinton House, has since been demolished – though, admittedly, long after they had left.

Possibly one of the (relatively) smaller of the Rothschild’s houses, Aston Clinton House was also unusual in that it grew from a smaller one, through a series of additions, to be a substantial home, rather than being a new build.  The original house was built sometime between 1770-1789 for General Gerard Lake, who laboured under the geographically diverse title of 1st Viscount of Delhi and Laswary and of Aston Clinton in the County of Buckingham. Never a grand seat, it was built in the style of a small hunting lodge, and passed through the Lake family until 1838 when the house and the accompanying 1,055-acres were sold for £23,426 to the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, who saw the productive estate as a good investment.

Aston Clinton House Bucks, just before demolition (Image: Lost Heritage)
Aston Clinton House Bucks, just before demolition (Image: Lost Heritage)

After the Duke’s death, it was initially put up for auction, largely unaltered, by the Duke’s son in 1848 but was withdrawn – but not before it had attracted the attention of the Rothschilds. Though “It is not like a fancy place”, it was bought for £26,000 as more of an investment but Sir Anthony Rothschild and his family moved in in 1853. Lady de Rothschild immediately took against the ‘small’ size and so Sir Anthony commissioned G.H. Stokes (Sir Joseph Paxton’s son-in-law, and who had previously worked at Mentmore) to significantly enlarge it, with works completed by the early 1860s.  The architect George Devey, who was to build his career around the Rothschilds, undertook more work between 1864-1877, on both the house and estate.

The house and estate passed through the family until it was sold in 1923, having served in WWI as the HQ for the Commanding Officer of the Twenty-First Division, then based at the nearby Halton estate (c.f. Halton House in part 1). Sold for just £15,000, it became a school – where Evelyn Waugh started his teaching career – before serving as a corporate HQ, then as a hotel in various guises before being bought by Buckinghamshire County Council and demolished c.1960. A training centre was built in its place, with only a few buildings remaining as a reminder of grander days.

Outcome: commercial use, demolished as surplus to requirements.

Ascott House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)
Ascott House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)

George Devey was to play an important role in the Rothschilds’ architectural plans, as were the family central to his own success.  One of his most successful designs was for Ascott House, for Leopold de Rothschild, for whom he extended a small house dating from 1606 to create a rambling, many-gabled ‘cottage’ (though one with 30 bedrooms) as a more rural retreat than Leopold’s other seat at Gunnersbury Park (see Part 1). Although initially used just for hunting and recreation (with an emphasis on the outdoors as the house was built without a library, though one was later added), Leopold quickly realised that he needed more space for entertaining and so, in 1874, started a program of extensions which would continue until c.1888 with Devey, but also beyond, into the 1930s.

Ascott House, main door (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)
Ascott House, main door (Image: Peter J Dean via flickr)

Devey was an unusual Victorian architect in that he never exhibited his work or allowed his designs to be published, so secure was he in a bubble of aristocratic and wealthy clients who kept him constantly employed.  Mark Girouard regarded the houses Devey designed as the most interesting outside of the ShawNesfieldWebb circle, especially as he was regarded as having successfully developed a way of incorporating vernacular styles into his work.  He particularly favoured the idea of making houses look as though they had developed over time – and ideally that they be covered in ivy. Mary Gladstone (daughter of the Prime Minister) visiting in 1880, approvingly described Ascott as ‘a palace-like cottage, the most luxurious and lovely I ever saw‘. The flip-side to the accretive approach is that some of the layouts for his houses seem to stretch for long distances; at Goldings, Hertfordshire, it covered approximately 350ft from end-to-end (the house is now flats with sprawling, unimaginative development in the immediate grounds).

Ascott was inherited by Anthony Gustav de Rothschild from his mother in 1937 (Leopold having died in 1917) and he and his wife made further additions, including converting the billiard room into a library.  Although Anthony was very much involved with the family business he was also a renowned collector and the house is a treasure trove of fine paintings (including works by Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds and Cuyp), 18th-century English furniture, books and over 400 pieces of Chinese ceramics. The house, gardens, and a small part of estate were donated by Anthony to the National Trust in 1947.  Much of the collection and the surrounding 3,200-acre estate is still owned by the family, and Sir Anthony’s son, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild still lives in part of the house, keeping the connection to the original creator alive.

Outcome: owned by the National Trust, family still partially in residence

Eythrope, Buckinghamshire (Image: John S. Pipkin via flickr)
Eythrope, Buckinghamshire (Image: John S. Pipkin via flickr)

And so to Eythrope, in Waddesdon, a house strangely  built without bedrooms as it was primarily intended as the daytime retreat for Alice de Rothschild, sister of  Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, with whom she came to live.  Alice was independently wealthy (having inherited a large estate in Germany), strong-willed, and opinionated – all useful qualities, but less so to her brother, who was very similar. To reduce familial friction, Ferdinand suggested she build somewhere to while away the days and Eythrope was the solution. Alice bought the estate for £180,000 in 1875, and chose to build her ‘Pavilion’, as it was called, in a curve in the river.  As Alice had suffered from rheumatic fever, the damp of the river might have been dangerous had she been tempted to spend too long there so the design included no bedrooms. Problem solved.

The original house on the site had been built in the 1500s and was eventually inherited by Philip Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Chesterfield (d. 1726), but had been demolished in 1810—11 by Philip Stanhope, 5th Earl of Chesterfield.

Eythrope, Bucks - garden front (Image: crazybiker via flickr)
Eythrope, Bucks – garden front (Image: crazybiker via flickr)

As if to emphasise that this was Alice’s project, she chose not to use Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, who was then working for her brother at Waddesdon. Instead, the new house at Eythrope was another commission for George Devey who had worked at various Rothschild houses including Mentmore, Ascott, Aston Clinton, and Tring Park – but Eythorpe is his most complete work for the family.  In rejecting her brother’s grandiose French style (though not totally as there are flashes of the French Renaissance), Alice opted for what Pevsner described as a ‘free neo-Tudor style’ creating a delightful rambling house framed by the river. Passed down from Alice de Rothschild (who inherited and also became the forthright guardian of Waddesdon after the death of her brother), it was inherited, along with Waddesdon, in 1922 by Dorothy and James A. de Rothschild, who added a large wing with bedrooms and bathrooms. After James’ death in 1957, and having given Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust, Dorothy moved to Eythrope and lived there for forty years.  On her death, the house and estate were inherited by her husband’s great nephew, Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild, whose home it remains today.

Outcome: the only house built by the Rothschilds and still wholly owned, and lived in, by them


Although slightly off the usual ‘patch’, the Exbury estate, Hampshire, was another house where a Rothschild, Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, could give full rein to a passion; this time it was plants, specifically, rhododendrons and azaleas.  With a passion from an early age, the garden was always going to be spectacular, but Exbury House is also impressive and perhaps to be included in a future article.


Previous articles in the series on the Rothschild’s houses:


Fascinating ‘Lunch with the FT’ with Lord Rothschild at Eythrope

Visit Ascott House [National Trust]