An architectural adventurer: Richard Norman Shaw

What hideous drawings! Did anyone ever see such Vulgar looking things
– I am quite ashamed of them!

Richard Norman Shaw‘s vehement criticism, annotating a set of drawings created by a clerk in his own office, shows the passion and perfection with which this exacting architect imbued his work and that of his office.  One of the greatest of the Victorian architects, Shaw exemplified the ideals of the age; the ability to create beauty in many architectural forms, but also in the high standards of production and construction. His work helped shape the modern concept of what the Victorian age created, not only through his many urban projects but through the creativity he brought to his country house commissions, including new builds such as Leyswood, East Sussex, or grand additions such as at Chesters, Northumberland.

Adcote House, Shropshire (Image: Gary Wright / wikipedia)
Adcote House, Shropshire (Image: Gary Wright / wikipedia)

Despite his lofty reputation during his lifetime, Shaw’s eclectic use of styles, combined with his own resolute disinterest in letting anyone produce books on his work, meant that by the 1950s, the man and his work had been somewhat forgotten in the then prevailing Modernist fervour.  Thankfully, other architects recognised the singular influence he’d had through his practice and which deserved to be better remembered and appreciated. Shaw was born in 1831, an exciting time at the cusp of the Georgian period as it moved into the variety of the Victorian age.

It has been said that there is no ‘Victorian’ style as what we think of from that age was often derived from earlier forms. For a versatile and thoughtful architect such as Shaw, it was this flexibility which was to give him the scope to develop a skilled yet playful understanding of architectural vocabulary.  Shaw’s work can be broadly categorised as working in ‘Old English’, ‘Gothic, ‘Queen Anne’ and the reformed classicism of his later works.

What Shaw offered his clients was all part of an intelligent English Vernacular, a distinct style which flourished in the Victorian era, which combined local building traditions with skilful use of earlier traditions of English architecture, though primarily influenced by Gothic Revival. Although this movement dominated the latter half of the 19th-century and the first decades of the 20th-century, it was largely ended by the domestic impact of the First World War.  After that, the influence of the Continental movements such as the Bauhaus heralded the ascendancy of Modernism.

Glen Andred, Sussex - designed 1867 (Image: Courtauld Institute of Art)
Glen Andred, Sussex – designed 1867 (Image: Courtauld Institute of Art)

His first new house was a development of the local Sussex vernacular with an intelligent and thoughtful response to the dramatic hilltop site.  Glen Andred, Groombridge, East Sussex (designed 1866-68) was an important influence for the ‘Old English’ Arts & Crafts style, as later practised and developed further by Voysey and Lutyens, in Sussex and Surrey.  One house does not a movement make and it was two related houses nearby which helped push the aesthetic which was to become so widely adopted not only within these counties but across south east England.

Leyswood, Sussex (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Leyswood, Sussex (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Leyswood was designed and built contemporaneously with Glen Andred for a related site in Groombridge, close to Shaw’s first project.  Taking the ideas he had started to develop, Shaw took full advantage of the prominent hill-side site and created a bold re-imagination of the Elizabethan courtyard house, tailored for the needs of the modern Victorian gentleman.  Perched over a rocky incline, Leyswood combined vernacular elements of the English castle, such as the gatehouse, with more domestic features such as the full-height, half-timbered entrance front.  Shaw also indulged what was to be a trademark (and one that can be seen in Lutyens’ work too), that of multiple, tall, finely executed brick chimneys.  These chimneys punctuated the roofline, creating a clear rhythm and emphasis to the house.

Cloverley Hall, Shropshire - demolished 1950s (Image: Lost Heritage)
Cloverley Hall, Shropshire – demolished 1950s (Image: Lost Heritage)

Shaw had clearly been sharing ideas with his fellow student and partner, William Eden Nesfield, who was building Cloverley Hall, Shropshire, between 1866-68, and which was architecturally kin.  Sadly, both Leyswood and Cloverley were both dramatically reduced in size, both losing the principal sections of the house, leaving only the entrance towers and service wings to suggest what was there before.

Still standing in all its glory, thanks to the National Trust, is Shaw’s next commission, Cragside, Northumberland, built 1869-85.  Although technically a rebuilding of an existing lodge, this house was to give Shaw the scope to work at a larger scale for an ambitious and very wealthy client.  For more on this remarkable house, see my earlier article: ‘A theatre of innovation: Cragside, Northumberland

Further houses in this now well developed ‘Old English’ style followed, including Preen Manor, Preen, Shropshire (1869), Hillside, Groombridge, Shropshire (1870-71), and Grims Dyke, Harrow Weald, Middlesex (1870-72).  The latter was praised by John Betjeman in ‘Metroland’ (1972) as ‘a prototype of all suburban houses in southern England‘ – it’s now a hotel so you can appreciate Shaw’s work over a drink.

Grim's Dyke, Middlesex (Image: Grim's Dyke Hotel)
Grim’s Dyke, Middlesex (Image: Grim’s Dyke Hotel)

Other houses in the ‘Old English’ style:

  • Boldre Grange, Boldre, Hampshire (1872)
  • Wispers, Stedham, West Sussex (1874-76)
  • Pierrepont, Frensham, Surrey (1875)
  • Piccards Rough, Guildford, Surrey (1877)
  • Allerton Beeches, Allerton, Liverpool (1883-84)
  • The Hallams, Shamley Green, Surrey (1894-95)

As Shaw explored the use of vernacular, one variation was a more ‘manorial’ interpretation of the ‘Old English’; designs which used a more austere style, primarily of plainer brick elevations, omitting the tile-hanging and half-timbers. These houses took what his biographer Andrew Saint described as drawing on ‘Haddon Hall‘, to create a more castellated, almost defensive style. An early version of this can be seen at Adcote, Shropshire, designed in 1875.  Buttressed walls, punctuated with mullioned windows of various sizes, created the impression of a more medieval property which had grown into a modern country house.

Flete, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Flete, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Perhaps the closest to visually look related to Haddon was Flete House, Devon.  Designed in 1877, the house was commissioned by the wealthiest of Shaw’s clients, H.B. Mildmay, a partner in Barings bank who was determined to emphasise his long Devonian family heritage with a suitably historic house.  Although constrained by having to work with the original 1620s house along with various other restrictions (including the use of battlements, thwarting his usual gables), Shaw was partially successful, though it lacks the assured handling and confidence of equivalent castles by Anthony Salvin such as Peckforton.  Interestingly, Shaw’s pupil, Lutyens, achieved far greater success with Castle Drogo, built four decades later.

In the same vein, Dawpool, Cheshire (1882-86) was built on an exposed site on the Wirral, overlooking the River Dee.  Again, the exterior suffers from Shaw’s attempt to create a gabled castle, but as large sections were in his more familiar style, this felt more effective – though it was the interiors which were the greater success with the impressive picture gallery. Sadly, the house was to last just over 40 years, being demolished in 1927 – a history of the house is on my Lost Heritage website: ‘Dawpool

Dawpool, Cheshire - demolished 1927 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Dawpool, Cheshire – demolished 1927 (Image: Lost Heritage)

The 1870s was a decade in which the fashion for Gothic Revival started to wane with clients looking for a new style.  Shaw’s versatility meant that although he continued to use and develop his ‘Old English’ style, he also explored the use of a more Classical or ‘Queen Anne’ style (aka ‘free-classic’, ‘Re-Renaissance’ or ‘classical freestyle’ – Dr Simon Thurley). Although other architects used it specifically for smaller-scale domestic houses, Shaw adopted and adapted it for both his larger public buildings but also some of the larger private country house commissions.

Shavington Hall, Shropshire (1885-86) shows how quickly the clients taste can change.  The owner, A.P. Heywood-Lonsdale, already owned Cloverley Hall, designed by Shaw’s partner William Eden Nesfield in 1866, and yet just 20-years later, was asking Shaw to rebuild Shavington as a main seat but in the new ‘Queen Anne’ style.  Sadly, again the larger Victorian houses suffered in the austerity of the mid-20th-century and Shavington was demolished c.1960.

Bryanston, Dorset (Image: Bryanston School)
Bryanston, Dorset (Image: Bryanston School)

Another significant commission was a monumental new house, Bryanston, Dorset (1889-94), for Viscount Portman, to replace an existing fine house by James Wyatt at the then vast cost of £200,000 (approx £20m).  In some ways, this was an odd brief from the client; to build a house twice the size of the existing one and in a fashion which was as much about public statement as domestic practicalities. The new Bryanston would not have looked out of place on the Continent, taking on the aspect of a grand French château or German palace, despite the age of aristocratic living on this scale already fraying at the edges.  For all this, Shaw certainly met the challenge, delivering a house that stands as testament to his skill, even if in 1928 the 4th Viscount Portman was forced by death duties to sell the house and 450-acres for just £35,000 for use as a school, which it has successfully done since then.

Other large Classical commissions include Chesters, Northumberland (1890) and Haggerston Castle, Northumberland (1892-97, demolished 1933).

At the core of the success of Shaw’s architectural style was not only his bold imagination and understanding of internal planning but also his keen understanding of self-promotion.  In the days before the internet and Twitter could furnish images of an architect’s work, Shaw ensured that his designs where regularly published in The Building News, the hugely influential weekly magazine which featured plans, layouts and beautiful woodcut impressions of the houses now springing up at that time.  This constant publicity, both in the UK, and internationally, ensured that Shaw’s trademark ‘Old English’ style became almost a standard for the southern home counties and popular even further afield.

Shaw’s fame and reputation were based on a profoundly inventive handling and development of the English Vernacular styles combined with a very astute understanding of how to ensure the widest publicity for his work. Although his fame may have dimmed for a time, it is right that his work be brought firmly into the light.

 


Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London:

Dream, Draw, Work
Architectural Drawings by Norman Shaw RA
30 May — 14 September 2014


The RIBA hold a notable collection of Shaw’s drawings which can be seen online: ‘Richard Norman Shaw‘ [RIBA]


Other major commissions (chronological order):

  • Jesmond Dene House, Newcastle, Northumberland (1870-85)
  • Bannow, St Leonards, Sussex (1877-79)
  • Greenham Lodge, Greenham, Berkshire (1878)
  • Alderbrook, Cranleigh, Surrey (1879)
  • Baldslow Place, Baldslow, East Sussex (1879-82)
  • Holme Grange, Holme Green, Berkshire (1882-8)
  • The Rookery, Bromley Common, Kent (1882)
  • Didlington Hall, Didlington, Norfolk (1882)
  • Walhampton House, Lymington, Hampshire (1883)
  • Banstead Wood, Banstead, Surrey (1884-86)
  • Overbury Court, Overbury, Worcestershire (1887-1900)
  • Addington Park, Addington, Surrey (1898-1900)

Further reading

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]