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.

An ambition frustrated: country houses never completed

The delight of a country house is the beautiful meeting of house, setting and contents to create a complete picture.  Yet, for some houses, they never make that stage – finances or death of the instigator usually being the main obstacle to completion.  For some, these half-built aspirations are demolished, others left as a shell which can tantalise us today as to why they failed to achieve their purpose.

In previous generations, the simplicity of construction methods would necessarily mean that in some cases a decade could pass from plans being drawn up to actually moving in. As now, families can go from great wealth to poverty in a short time so to build a substantial country house was a commitment and a statement of the aspirations of the owners as to their future good fortune and health – though sometimes it was not to be.

Many a mansion has been started with grand ambitions which will forever remain unfulfilled (how impressive would Goodwood House in Sussex be if they’d completed the other five sides of the intended octogon?).  However this post is focussed on those which were started and ended only as frustrated shells.

Woodchester Mansion, Gloucestershire (Image: Matthew Lister via Wikipedia)
Woodchester Mansion, Gloucestershire (Image: Matthew Lister via Wikipedia)

One of the most impressive of these is Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire.  Originally built for William Leigh, a wealthy trader, who, inspired by his conversion to Catholicism, sought to create a religious community in the Cotswolds on his estate.  As any good Catholic was inclined to do at the time, he consulted A.W. Pugin, a devout Catholic who believed that Gothic architecture was the only true Christian style.  He produced plans for a grand new house (after naturally condemning the existing house as “…a more hopeless case of repairs I never saw.“) and a church and monastery, and sent his new design for the house with his estimate of £7,118.  Anyone familiar with Pugin’s career will know that he never saw an estimate he couldn’t exceed so Leigh probably had a lucky escape when Pugin resigned the commission in 1846.  Leigh instead turned to another Catholic architect Charles Hansom (b.1817 – d.1888).  Leigh’s religious zeal took priority so the church was completed in 1849 and the monastery in 1853 after which work started on the new house.

However, progress was slow; the workers were occasionally given tasks elsewhere on the estate, funds were inadequate, and Leigh was also a perfectionist who took a close interest which can only have delayed things.  The architect had also changed, with the young and inexperienced Benjamin Bucknall taking over and revising the designs to a combination of Pugin and the French architect Viollet-le-Duc, giving the house a distinctly French influence.  However, Leigh’s declining health overtook the build and he died in 1873 with only the shell complete.  A profligate son, declining family fortunes, the World Wars, and its isolation meant that despite various plans, including completion for use as mental hospital offices, it simply sat in its parkland. Now grade-I listed, the house gives a unique insight into the construction methods of the time.

Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire (Image: Heritage Images)
Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire (Image: Heritage Images)

Perhaps the grandest house never to be completed was the Worksop Manor in Nottinghamshire for the Dukes of Norfolk.  Part of the ‘Dukeries‘, that area of the county formerly rich in ducal seats, the original 500-room Elizabethan Worksop Manor, designed by Robert Smythson, burnt down in 1761 during renovations, destroying £100,000 (approx. £143m) of works of art from the famous Arundel collection.  Although childless, the 9th Duke decided to rebuild for the benefit of his eventual heir.

The plans were colossal and would have been the largest house in the county and maybe the country – if it had been completed.  Even Horace Walpole, who had developed a discerning eye for country houses during his many tours, thought the Duke’s schemes “…so vast and expensive that it is scarcely possible they can be completed.“. Designed by James Paine (b.1717 – d.1789), the aim was to mark the status and learning of the Duke’s family, building only one side, however it alone was 23-bays, 318ft long and featured a fine Corinthian column supported by six columns, with a 37ft x 25ft entrance hall, decorated by Flemish artist Theodore de Bruyn, and a grand drawing room of 50ft x 30ft.

However, following the death of the heir, Edward Howard, the grief-stricken Norfolks abandoned the project and concentrated on their Sussex seat Arundel Castle.  The 10th and 11th Dukes never completed it so it was therefore unsurprising that the 12th Duke decided to sell the house and estate in 1838 to the neighbouring Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyme for £375,000.  With his own palatial house at the nearby Clumber House, the Duke was not interested in the house, just in adding the land to his own. Rather than pay for the upkeep, the Duke sold the fabric of the building before demolishing the rest in June 1841 leaving just the stables and part of the service wing.  It was these that were later restored to make a rather awkward looking new Worksop Manor.

Lyvden New Bield, Northamptonshire (Image: Ed Bramley via Wikipedia)
Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire (Image: Ed Bramley via Wikipedia)

Altogether more mysterious is Lyveden New Beild in Northamptonshire.  Built for the remarkable if oft persecuted Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham (b.? – d.1605), a well-educated and wealthy man who moved in the highest social circles.  Never intended as a main residence (Lyveden Old Bield), this was apparently a summer house, a retreat for the owner during the annual spring clean of his main house.  That said, this is a house with many meanings.  Designed by Robert Stickells (b.? – d.1620) to indulge Tresham’s interest in antiquity and religious symbolism, the house was built in the shape of a cross and other elements aligned or organised according to mystical numbers, often alluding to the Holy Trinity.  Tresham also used the same ideas in his construction of the famous Rushton Triangular Lodge, a small folly also on the estate.

However, the same ardent Catholicism which drove the design of the New Bield and the Lodge also meant that he was regularly persecuted for his faith, frequently being fined huge amounts.  With borrowing his only option, funds were scarce and his estate heavily indebted.  Perhaps surprisingly, this half-finished house, set in fine gardens and parkland, was never bought and completed and so remains an architectural enigma to this day.


Visiting

Woodchester Mansion holds regular open days more details available on their website. The surrounding Park is owned by the National Trust.

Worksop Manor is still very much a private residence and is not open to the public.

Lyveden New Beild is owned by the National Trust and is regularly open.