Guest blogger: Jeremy Musson – ‘English Ruins: an odyssey in English history’

Having written all nearly 200 posts since I started writing this blog I now thought it would be interesting to try and broaden the voices involved.  So as the first post in this new direction/experiment, I am delighted and honoured that one of our leading architectural historians, Jeremy Musson, kindly agreed to write a piece on country house ruins linked to his new book published this month, ‘English Ruins‘, a fascinating look at their role in shaping our perceptions of the past and our architecture.

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Jeremy Musson
Jeremy Musson

The English landscape is a landscape of ruins. Fragmentary or sometimes only roofless and windowless, these part dismantled buildings stand out to mark our national history in a number of different ways, and above all, provide a sense of historic scenery for our journeys, physical and imagined – and glimpsed from motorways and footpath alike. In this new book, photographer Paul Barker and I wanted to explore something of this particular cultural landscape and through this exploration trace something of how the English see themselves and their past.

I feel that we live in an old country, and the past is always there, to paraphrase T.S.Eliot, “pressing on the future”. Some love the past, some hate it, many are indifferent to it, happy enough to take pleasure in a good day out, with a dash of historic scenery. But the whole process of our encounter with ruins, is somewhat special – a deeply subjective, and in effect, an almost artistic experience. It is personal and often emotional, while it is also formed and shaped by a whole series of sometimes opposing cultural inheritances: Romanticism, anti-establishment, veneration for the classical, veneration for the Gothic, history seen through the very shape of the landscape.

There is something that seems to appeal about ruins to the English imagination over the centuries. Think of how John Aubrey, for instance, the late seventeenth antiquary and author of that amusing volume of English biography Brief Lives, observed that

“the eie and mind is no less affected with these stately ruines than they would be if they were standing and entire. They breed in generous mindes a kind of pittie; and set the thoughts aworke to make out their magnificence as they were in perfection.”

Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)
Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)

During the 18th century, the Grand Tour, part of the expected education of a gentleman or aristocrat, consisted of a journey through Holland and France to visit the great monuments of the Roman world, excited the aesthetic and cultural awareness of the 18th-century English gentleman, who was in turn the patron of artists and architects following the same path in trying to import the drama and excitement of great classical ruins to an English audience. Walk through any major house built in the 18th century, with anything of its original collections still in situ and the ruin is visible in painting after painting, and then echoed in the classical temples of the park.

The phenomenon of creating artificial ruins, in which the English seem to be pioneers, belongs to this period, and while the earliest garden temples seem to be classical, the contrivance of designing ‘ruined’ structures, was largely sourced in England’s own Gothic past. Horace Walpole the 18th-century diarist, who designed his own Gothic style house, Strawberry Hill, hugely admired the work of Sanderson Miller who designed a ruined tower at Hagley Park, with the perhaps slightly teasing phrase that it had “the true rust of the barons’ wars” referring to the Wars of the Roses.

When making this tour of England in tandem with photographer Paul Barker, I could not help noticing that we were often treading in the footsteps of the great landscape painter, J.M.W.Turner, for whom the evocative power of the ruin played a central role in his career, although we perhaps think of him most naturally as a landscape painter, and a painter of skies.

In the last years of the 18th century he exhibited numerous studies of great historical ruins in landscapes, appealing to the Romantic spirit of his audience – characteristically these are the foil for dramatic expositions of sky or sea. He continued to make special studies of ancient ruins, castles and abbeys on tours around the whole of England, for his ambitious Liber Studiorum project, and many were published in different histories, especially in Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales.

Turner looked principally at abbeys and castles, but abandoned country houses have come to be a feature of our landscape too. The dramatic changing status of the country house from the first world war, into the great depression of the late 20s and early 30s, becomes even more intense after the second world war – think of John Harris’s memoir, No Voice from the Hall. This was a period which resulted in so much change in English life, that it is easy to overlook the symbolic collapse of the world of the English country house. This was a feature of interwar life too, with the rise of income tax and death duties, but the upheaval of the Second World War, the widespread institutional use of country houses for military and other government purposes often hastened their subsequent abandonment.

Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)
Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)

Inevitably, given my interest, the country house looms large in our new book. We focus on the story of buildings from different themes and for the ruins of country house, beginning with Cowdray House, in Sussex, a substantial Elizabethan mansion damaged by a fire in the late eighteenth century, and then abandoned, partly as a result of complications over inheritance; but quickly becoming a destination for artists, for instance, Turner visited the ruins while staying at Petworth – it is now looked after by a newly formed trust, and feels like the sets left over from a Grand Opera, standing amongst the meadows and paddocks on the edge of Midhurst.

We also visited the ruin of an elegant early-seventeenth-century lodge at Wothorpe Towers, a lodge once part of the Burghley estate, which was used as a dower house and then, apparently, part dismantled to provide an eye-catcher in the new landscaped park. It was falling into serious decay and has recently been taken on by the Griffin family, who putting the main house into a trust, which is restoring the gardens, are converting the ancillary seventeenth century buildings into a new home.

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)

The classical country house tradition is represented in our book, by 1720s Seaton Delaval Hall, near Newcastle – one of the finest houses by Sir John Vanbrugh, re-roofed after a major fire, the interiors are otherwise the very picture of a ruin. In Derbyshire, we encountered the memorable and mournful spectacle of Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire, also built in the early 18th century. The latter, partly due to its proximity to mine-works, acquired in 1919, by businessman out to profit from its materials and fittings. The panelling was sold United States collectors, and some at least found its way into the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Its demolition was in fact prevented by local landowner Sir Reresby Sitwell, whose family later presented it to the state.

James Lees Milne, looked at the Sutton Scarsdale ruins for the National Trust, but said that “classical ruins in England are much satisfactory than Gothic ones, the lack picturesque gloom.” English Heritage look after it now, as they do Witley Court, a multi-layered great house and former seat of the Earl of Dudley, a splendid Italianiate palace with a vast portico by John Nash, was burnt out in 1937, and by some chance was not demolished during the 1950s, like so many abandoned houses, and it was subject to preservation order in the 1970s, and in the early 70s taken into state protection. Christopher Hussey thought that it conjured the beauties of the classical ruins visited by the Grand Tourist in the 18th century, as much as anything else.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria
Lowther Castle, Cumbria

Forgotten Victorian Gothic mansions such as Lowther Castle in Cumbria, possibly become more Romantic in their ruined state. Lowther, the historic seat of the Earls of Lonsdale, designed by Smirke in Gothic baronial style was not re-occupied after the second world war, and in 1957, de-roofed and only the exterior walls preserved. A haunting presence in the beautiful Cumbrian landscape, a new trust has been created to protect the runs and open them and the overgrown Edwardian gardens to the public, in the course of 2011.

For myself, as a historian of the English country house, there is no doubt that the ruin occupies a special place in English culture; the castle, the abbot’s lodgings, the country houses of the sixteenth century onwards, when they stand open to the elements, draw us in to a dialogue with our history and the mutability of fortune.

Jeremy Musson’s ‘English Ruins‘ with photographer Paul Barker, is published by Merrell publishers.

Text by Jeremy Musson, choice of links and images by Matthew Beckett.

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Dear Readers – as always I welcome your comments and feedback.

Country House Rescue returns for Series 3: Wyresdale Park, Lancashire

Wyresdale Park, Lancashire (Image: Channel 4)
Wyresdale Park, Lancashire (Image: Channel 4)

The history of the country house is sadly often a cycle of rise and fall with the main variable being the speed of each respectively.  The old phrase was ‘one generation made the wealth, the second enjoyed it, and the third lost it’. Over recent decades the trend has changed slightly in that, with longer life expectancies prolonging the older generations, the houses have had fewer chances for the rejuvenation which inheritance often brought.  As an alternative, Ruth Watson uses Country House Rescue as a catalyst for the type of entrepreneurial change which is the only way for these houses to survive – if only the owners would listen!

The first episode in Series 3, to be broadcast at on Channel 4 at 21:00 on 6 March 2011, takes us to Wyresdale Park in Lancashire to meet a father and son who don’t agree on the best way to maximise the obvious potential of the beautiful estate.

Wyresdale Hall was built between 1856-65 for Bolton cotton-magnate-turned-banker, Peter Ormrod, who bought 6,000-acres from the Duke of Hamilton to create his estate.  The house, which cost £50,000 (about £4m at today’s value) at the time, was designed by noted local architect Edward Graham Paley (b.1823 – d.1895) who had an extensive practice, partnering first with his mentor Edmund Sharpe, then, following Sharpe’s retirement, Hubert Austin, before being joined by his son, Henry Paley. The work of Paley & Austin in particular was well-regarded with Pevsner  saying they “did more outstanding work than any other in the county” and was “outstanding in the national as well as the regional context”.

Paley worked on relatively few country houses, being much better known for his ecclesiastical output, with included the design of Lancaster Cathedral.  Paley was brought up in deeply religious home and, working with Edmund Sharpe, who was heavily influenced by Pugin, it was unsurprising that Paley adopted the strict ecclesiastical style with the ‘correct’ use of Gothic elements.  Perhaps looking a little too much like a convent rather than a home, the house is, nonetheless, still a good example of the type of regional interpretations of Pugin’s architectural theories which gained ground in the 19th-century.

The grade-II listed house and estate passed through the Ormrod family before the land was bought by the Whewell family in the 1920s who then bought the house in 1967.  Now the family are facing the usual struggles of a listed house, an extensive list of improvements, and the need to make the changes which sometimes sit uncomfortably with the more traditional older generation.

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Country House Rescue – Series 3

My usual powers have slightly failed me and I haven’t a verified list of all the houses in Series 3 but here are the ones I have identified so far:

See also:

Going to the country: more country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 2

The first part of this series, highlighted the aristocratic background of our early Prime Ministers – Earls and Dukes abound.  This meant that a country house was just where they had been brought up and simply regarded as home rather than the aspirational purchase.  It also highlighted that the architectural tastes of the PMs reflected their political beliefs with a strong preference for the Classical, representing structure and order.

So, to continue the tour of country houses of Prime Ministers, this time those who served  under George III (1760–1820):

Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)
Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)

The first was John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Originally a man of rather limited means who only acquired great wealth following his marriage to the rich heiress, Mary Wortley Montagu. The family seat was Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute; at the time a small Queen Anne house which burnt down in 1877 to be replaced by the Gothic palace we see today.  With his later wealth and prominence the Earl created two fine new country houses.  On his retirement as PM, he bought Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire in 1763 and in 1767 commissioned Robert Adam to create a large neoclassical mansion which, although this was never fully realised, the resulting house (now a hotel) is still sizable.  The wings are a later addition but faithful to Adam’s original conception. Ill health later forced a move to the Dorset coast and having bought a clifftop position he built High Cliff “to command the finest outlook in England.“.  Unfortunately it was a little to fine, the crumbling cliff not only necessitated the demolition of the house in the late 1790s, it also led to the Earl’s death in 1792 due to a fall whilst picking plants.

He was succeeded as PM in 1763 by George Grenville who was born, and lived, at the family seat, Wotton House, Buckinghamshire.  He is one of only nine PMs who did not become a peer on leaving office.

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)
Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)

If there was a competition for the most impressive house of Prime Ministers then Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham would be feeling rather confident.  His family home, Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire, is one of the largest private country houses in Britain with a main front extending to over 600ft. Built over a 25-year period, the house exemplifies the grand palaces which became possible in Georgian England. Faced with the usual pressures on later owners, plus vindictive coal mining, the family moved out and the house was leased as a teacher training college but since 1999 it has been the home of architect Clifford Newbold and his family who have been undertaking a massive and very impressive restoration programme.

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham was brought up in great comfort from the proceeds of the sale of the Regent Diamond by his father.  As the younger son, Pitt would not inherit the family seat and so made his own way, choosing politics and becoming PM in 1766.  His country residence was the relatively modest Hayes Place in Kent, which he had built after he bought the estate in 1757.  He later sold it in 1766 to Horace Walpole who encased the house in white brick and enlarged it before selling back to Pitt in 1768 on his retirement.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished and houses built on the land.

Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)
Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)

Another Prime Ministerial seat to suffer later loss was Euston Hall in Suffolk seat of Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton who succeeded William Pitt.  The Dukes of Grafton were very wealthy with extensive land holdings in Suffolk, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and London.  Euston Hall had been extensively remodelled by the Palladian architect Matthew Brettingham for the 2nd Duke between 1750-56.  The house suffered a devastating fire in 1902 which destroyed the south and west wings, which were subsequently rebuilt on the same plan but then demolished again by the 10th Duke in 1952.  It should also be noted that the Dukes also owned the splendid Wakefield Lodge in Northamptonshire, designed by William Kent, though it was tenanted and therefore the Dukes never lived there.

William Petty-FitzMaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne had the splendid fortune to be brought up in one of the finest of Georgian country houses, Bowood House in Wiltshire, which also became a scandalous loss when it was demolished in 1955/56.  Remodelled for the 1st Earl by Henry Keene between 1755-60, the house also featured interiors by Robert Adam, who also altered Keene’s original portico to create a much grander version.  Afterwards the stables were converted to function as the main house where the 9th Marquess of Lansdowne (as the Earls became) still lives today.

Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)
Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)

The next PM, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland inherited Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, which had also been the home of an earlier PM, his relative Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle.  As stated in Part 1, this is a fascinating house which has often been overlooked due to the fact that it has been rarely open to the in the last 100 years, public tours having finished in 1914. Extensive work was carried out between 1742-46 by the relatively unknown architect John James who reconstructed the south wing and remodelled the west front for Henrietta, Countess of Oxford.  The west front was subsequently changed again in 1790 to designs by Sir Humphry Repton.  The Dukes of Portland also had a southern seat at Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire, though this house was replaced in 1865 by the 12th Duke of Somerset who by then owned the estate.

In contrast to the vast wealth and aristocratic status of the preceeding PM, William Pitt the Younger was able to bring political heritage; his father also having served in the same role. In stark contrast to the size and splendour of Welbeck, his country home was Holwood House in Kent, a modest mansion set in 200-acres for which Pitt paid £7,000 in 1783 before commissioning Sir John Soane to alter and enlarge it in 1786 and 1795.  Soane’s work here led to Pitt recommending him for the work to build what was to be one of Soane’s masterpieces; the Bank of England building which was so sadly demolished in the 1920s.  Holwood was also to be demolished, in 1823, to be replaced by a much grander house designed by Decimus Burton.

The country houses of Henry Addington 1st Viscount Sidmouth have both largely now vanished under the sprawl that is Reading University.  Addington had a low-key record as PM and his houses were equally modest.  Although on becoming PM Addington moved into the beautiful White Lodge in Richmond, his main seat was Woodley House, Berkshire, which had been built in 1777 before being bought by Addington in 1789. At the same time, he also bought the neighbouring estate of Bulmershe Court which was then tenanted, before falling into disrepair in the 19th century leading to two-thirds of it being demolished. Woodley House was used by the Minstry of Defence during WWII but subsequent dereliction led to its demolition in 1960.

William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville, as well as abolishing slavery, also created one of the most elegant of the houses in this series; Dropmore House in Buckinghamshire.  Built in 1795 and designed by Samuel Wyatt (b.1737 – d.1807) with later work by Charles Heathcote Tatham (b.1772 – d.1842), it was Grenville’s refuge, describing it as ‘deep sheltered from the world’s tempestuous strife‘. The grounds were also lavished with attention with Grenville planting 2,500 trees, and creating numerous walks which took in the superb views and even going as far as to remove a hill which blocked the view to Windsor Castle.  Tragically, devastating fires in 1990 and 1997 left a ruined shell but it has been recently rebuilt as a series of luxury apartments.

The only PM to be assassinated, Spencer Perceval, never really had a country seat of his own but had grown up in Enmore Castle, Somerset though he would never inherit as he was the second son of second marriage.  Only a small section of the main house now remains after it was largely demolished in 1833, but originally Enmore, built c1779, was one of the largest houses in the county.  In later life, Perceval lived in a large house called Elm Grove on the south side of Ealing Common in London – though at the time this would have been quite a rural area but not quite enough to classify this as a true country house.

The final PM under George III was Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool who again chose to live close to London, though in a country house, at Coombe House in Kingston upon Thames in Surrey.  Originally Tudor, this brick house was replaced with a Georgian mansion which was later altered by Sir John Soane, including the addition of a library.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished with houses now covering the site.

So although the Gothic revival movement had started in the 1740s and was the main alternative to the dominant Classical architectural style, even by the 1820s, it did not reflect the tastes of any of the Prime Ministers.  Considering the system still echoed the exclusions of the Reformation with its explicit rejection of all things ‘catholic’ (architectural, theological, political) it was unlikely to change, especially as the Catholic Emancipation Bill wasn’t passed until 1828.  Architecture was taken an expression of belief and so to favour the Gothic could potentially have given the wrong signals.

Next: Prime Ministers under George IV and William IV

List of UK Prime Ministers

Going to the country: the country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 1

Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)
Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)

Those in important political roles have often sought to escape the pressures of office by escaping to the calm and tranquillity of the countryside.  This has been particularly true of the holder of the most important role; that of Prime Minister.  With early PMs drawn from the aristocracy, their backgrounds provided them with a seat which became a natural refuge but was also an important part of their political identity.  However, as their origins changed, so too did the nature of the country retreat.  However, for all PMs the country retreat has been a fairly constant feature – though not all aspired to live in grandeur.

To make this broad survey more digestible I’ve split this into PMs by ruling monarch, starting from when the role of Prime Minister was first recognised in 1721 under King George I.

The first holder of the office, Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, was the epitome of the aristocratic leader.  Walpole was born at Houghton Hall in Norfolk – though the house was a more modest one before Sir Robert engaged Colen Campbell in 1722 to rebuild it, creating one of the finest Palladian houses in the country.  The second PM was Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, who also employed Colen Campbell in 1726 to create a more modest home; Compton Place in Sussex.

The seat of Henry Pelham, who became the 3rd PM in 1743, was (according to Howard Colvin) Esher Place in Surrey which he bough in 1729. In 1733, he commissioned William Kent, who was also to create some garden buildings for Claremont for the Duke of Newcastle (see below), to add wings to the original house, Wolsey’s Tower, in a Gothic style.  The wings and garden buildings at Esher have now been demolished but drawings survive in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Pelham was succeeded as PM by his older brother, Thomas Pelham-Holles, the 1st Duke of Newcastle, whose main seat was Claremont in Esher, Surrey which he had bought from Sir John Vanbrugh who had built a ‘very small box’ as his own home.  The Duke then commissioned Vanbrugh to extend the house, adding two large wings.  This house was subsequently demolished as unfashionable by Clive of India who had bought the estate in 1768 following the Duke’s death, before being rebuilt in the Palladian style we see today.   The Duke also had other homes including in Halland, Sussex, an area the Pelham family had dominated since 1595 when they first bought land there.  Halland Place was also sold in 1768 and later demolished for materials.  [Originally I gave Welbeck Abbey as his seat but it was, in fact, inherited by the Holles Earls of Clare branch of the family creating a bitter feud.  A more detailed history of the feud is given by dennis in this comment below (thank you for the correction).]

One of the most fascinating houses in the country, particularly due to the extensive tunnelling work commissioned by the 5th Duke, but also one of the least known due to the reclusiveness of the Bentinck family and then later due to its role as the Army Sixth Form college which ensured military-level privacy. The house was largely the work of Sir Charles Cavendish who was given the house and estate by his mother, the remarkable Bess of Hardwick. [Corrected in response to comment below]

To complete the list of aristocratic PMs during the reign of George I (1714–1727) and George II (1727–1760), the last was William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire who lived in the peerless Chatsworth in Derbyshire – then, as now, one of the finest of our large country houses.  Interestingly, at the same time as he took on the role of PM in 1756, he also engaged in building at Chatsworth employing James Paine to add a new office wing and court (later replaced by Sir Jeffry Wyatville), a stable block, a bridge in the park, a bridge at Beeley, a water mill and also alterations to interiors of the house – though this work was not to be completed until 1767, long after his time as PM finished in 1757.

One notable feature of all the first PMs was they were all Whigs, a party nicknamed the ‘Country Party’ for their support was strongest in the shires and amongst the great landowners.  Unsurprisingly, these leaders were already managing vast estates which naturally came with sizeable houses which reflected their status – which then gave them the authority to aspire to be PM.  At this time, elections were rather crude affairs with the major landowners having MPs in their pockets due to ‘rotten boroughs‘ which gave the landowner a disproportionate, not to mention undemocratic, influence in the Houses of Commons.  Their country houses were therefore not a symptomatic trapping of power, something that they had aspired to and then acquired, but, in fact, were the foundation of the power which had secured them the position in the first place.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Architecturally, the apparently only acceptable styles were either Palladian or Classical which reflected the political nature of the landowners – symmetry, structure, proportion and the use of the correct orders would have appealed to those who were against monarchical absolutism (which would have challenged their own power) but also reflected a societal structure which ensured their wealth and status.  The Whigs were also closely associated with the Church of England and, as such, would not have entertained the idea of building their houses in the ‘Catholic’ Gothic style, and anyway, with the neo-Gothic movement only really starting in the 1740s it would be several decades before it gained real influence.

So the early years of the role of PM was dominated by the existing ruling class; the great landowners who now shifted from trying to solely influence events through the levers of Royal favouritism (though their support of the Hanoverian succession and therefore King George wasn’t overlooked) to the use of Parliament – though on their terms.  The houses which had often been built to attract and impress a visiting monarch in the hope of securing influence now shifted to helping build alliances with other landowners – and what better way than creating a home they would feel comfortable in? Architecture had become a key part of the political landscape; a physical expression of certain values but also part of a supporting cast which would build the alliances which elevated men to be Prime Minister.

Next: a change of King, and a new PM.

List of UK Prime Ministers

Thanks to Andrew for the original suggestion for this survey

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.

A restoration or a recreation: Knightshayes Court, Devon

Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)

For all the wonderful work the National Trust has done over the last hundred years saving numerous country houses from demolition, one criticism that has been levelled at it is the almost artificial atmosphere it has created inside.  A recent visit to Knightshayes Court in Devon has also highlighted an interesting series of judgements as to how far an interior should be restored, even to the point of creating a room which was planned but never executed.

Knightshayes Court sits in an elevated and enviable position above the market town of Tiverton where the Heathcoat Amory family had the factory which generated their wealth.  The family fortune was created by the Loughborough-based John Heathcoat (b.1783 – d.1861) inventor of a revolutionary industrial lace-making machine who moved to Tiverton in 1816 after all 55 machines were smashed by drunken Luddites.  A caring man, he ensured the workers were well-housed and the children educated, and the factory became the largest lace-making factory in the world, employing 1,100 workers.

Knightshayes Court, however, was built by his grandson, John Heathcoat Amory (b.1829 – d.1914), whose father had married the only daughter of John Heathcoat, and had added his father-in-laws surname on inheriting. Although politically active, being knighted in 1874, he had sufficient time to indulge the usual pastimes of the wealthy Victorian aristocrat, particularly hunting.   So why would a provincial hunting gent commission a house from an eccentric medievalist, such as William Burges?

Burges (b.1827 – d.1881) has been described by Mark Girouard as ‘one of the most Gothic of the Gothicists‘.  His spectacular remodelling of Cardiff Castle, and the creation of the fantastical Castell Coch, both for the immensely wealthy 3rd Marquess of Bute, allowed him free reign to indulge his bold and imaginative decorative schemes.  Burges worked to a relatively simple philosophy that “No rule can be deduced except the golden one; whatever looks best is best‘ which combined with his other aphorism ‘Money is only a secondary concern in the production of first rate works…There are no bargains in art‘, meant that his work was never going to be cheap.  Yet Heathcoat Amory chose him – but the suspicion is that it was his wife Henrietta who made the choice, perhaps on the back of family connections which included the 2nd Lord Carrington for whom Burges had remodelled Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire (now flats), in the late 1850s-early 1860s.

Perhaps John Heathcoat Amory had only given broad instructions as to what he wanted and had left his wife to chose the aesthetics – either way, as paymaster, Sir John would later regret not taking perhaps a closer interest in the choice of architect.   Construction of the house started in 1869 and the exterior of the house was built almost exactly to Burges’ original design, with the exception of the reduced height of the great tower and a re-orientation of the billiard room.  With the shell completed in July 1870, at a cost of £14,080 (approx. £1m today), the Architect magazine observed that for completion ‘…the actual cost will be something more.‘ – a classic in the canon of architectural understatements as Burges had reserved his most incredible work for the interior.

In 1873, Burges presented the family with a 57-page album of detailed drawings which depicted everything from floor to ceiling.  Faced with such a grand and lavish scheme the Heathcoat Amorys abandoned Burges’ scheme, apart from the stone and wood carving, and, in 1874, brought in the cheaper but very talented John Diblee Crace.  Crace was the fifth generation of architectural decorators and between 1875 and 1882 he completed the interior of the house in his own more restrained but still colourful designs. The last additions to the house were an extra floor to the service wing in 1885 and a Smoking Room in 1902.

However, in the 1930s and 1950s, when appreciation for Victorian exuberance was at its lowest, the Heathcoat Amorys retreated from the bold colour schemes, removing fireplaces, screen and bookcases and covering or repainting ceilings and walls.  So when the National Trust took over in 1973 the house was very different, and less architecturally interesting, than the one of a century earlier.  The guide book, to its credit, does an admirable job of spelling out what is original, what was originally planned, what Burges executed, what Crace did, and what the National Trust has restored – and, perhaps more controversially, has recreated.

The obvious question when deciding on restoration is what particular period you pick as the ‘authentic’ period.  The National Trust took over Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire in 1987, easily one of the finest Adam houses in the country, but by 1994 the then Lord Scarsdale was complaining that the NT had decided that anything post-1760 had to go.  This led to the emptying of rooms, the repainting of others to how they thought Adam had painted them, and the removal in the grounds of anything not thought to have been put there by the first Lord Scarsdale and Robert Adam.

This is in contrast to the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) who state: “In the architectural context “restoration” means work intended to return an old building to a perfect state. It can be the unnecessary renewal of worn features or the hypothetical reconstruction of whole or missing elements; in either case tidy reproduction is achieved at the expense of genuine but imperfect work.“[source].

The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)
The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)

So was the National Trust wrong to strip back the layers of changes?  In view of the fascinating end result and the relative rarity of Burges country houses it can be argued that this work rescued what remained and cleverly exposed the earlier work.  But whose earlier work?  The guidebook explains that most of the interior is by Crace, and it’s his work which has been restored.  Yet upstairs in ‘The Burges Room’, the National Trust took it a step further and took Burges unexecuted plan for that room and created it as it imagined it would have looked.

So is this mere architectural theme park-ism?  Perhaps as it has be made clear what has been created from scratch there is less risk of confusion, but considering how few read the guidebook in detail (or at all), the National Trust has the unenviable choice between respecting all the changes or presenting a more visually interesting house but with necessary compromises in architectural integrity. On balance, there has to be a very strong case to take such a course of action otherwise we risk seeing recreations of idealised or imagined versions of houses rather than the rich and varied buildings which have honestly adapted and changed as family homes over time.

Visitor information: ‘Knightshayes Court, Devon‘ [National Trust]

Grand attic sale raises £2m

Lord and Lady Gerald Fitzalan Howard of Carlton Towers had hoped to raise £1m to pay for repairs to his family home through the sale of silverware, furniture and paintings from the Towers.  Whilst it’s always sad when the contents of a house are sold to fund repairs, thankfully, the sale went better than expected and raised over £2m which will hopefully secure the future of one of the most interesting Gothic houses of the North East.

Full story: ‘Heritage under the hammer as hall sale raises £2m‘ [Yorkshire Post]

Country house content sales continue

Following on from the recent auction of contents from Powerham Castle in Devon to pay for much needed repairs and maintenance, Lord Gerald Fitzalan Howard, second son of the Duke of Norfolk, is doing the same. Lord Gerald’s home, the Grade-I listed Carlton Towers in Yorkshire, requires approximately £1m spent on essential repairs.  Carlton Towers is a fine example of type of large Victorian Gothic houses which were particularly popular in the North.

With the help of the family archivist and architectural writer John Martin Robinson the family have selected 120 lots including furniture, ceramics, silver – including a set of four silver wine coolers by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, dated 1809 and 1811, and Old Master paintings – including two views of Venice by Canelletto.

The sale is on 4 November at Sothebys, New Bond Street, London.

Catalogue: ‘Carlton Towers‘ [Sothebys]

Floors Castle saved from fire

An alert member of staff (who should get a especially generous Christmas bonus this year) saved Floors Castle near Kelso from a potentially devastating fire.  The largest private house in Scotland was designed by William Adam in the 17th century and then ‘gothicised’ in the 19th century with the addition of many pinnacles.

Smoke from the fire in the private living area of the Duke of Roxburghe, who wasn’t in residence at the time, was spotted and the fire brigade called.  They made their way through the thick smoke and extinguished the blaze which had started in a freezer and had spread to the lath and plaster wall.  Luckily damage was limited to one room with minor smoke damage to a few surrounding ones.

Fire has been a constant danger to country houses with many over the years being reduced to a smoking ruin within hours.  Fire is the most devasting way to lose a house as usually the historic and beautiful contents are destroyed as well.  Thankfully in this case disaster was averted but it again shows the value of having staff in residence who are able to take swift action.

Full story: ‘Castle saved by ‘quick actions” [BBC News]