The first architect? 400 years on from death of Robert Smythson

To be regarded as the first architect is quite an accolade and, in the UK, Robert Smythson is widely viewed as holding this title – but as with many things, this is not quite the whole story.  With competition from others interested in developing the idea of architecture, Smythson might have lost the crown of being first – though with buildings such as Wollaton Hall and Hardwick Hall he would have undoubtedly still been regarded as one of the finest architects the nation has produced.  October 2014 is the 400th anniversary of his death, an apt opportunity to look at both his career and the house which launched him, Longleat.

Longleat, Wiltshire (Image: jetstoneblue via flickr)
Longleat, Wiltshire (Image: jetstoneblue via flickr)

Little is known of Smythson’s early life – even his date of birth is only narrowed down to either 1534 or 1535. There is some suspicion that his ancestors may have been masons but his level of schooling or training is a mystery.  The first documented mention of Robert Smythson is his arrival at Longleat, Wiltshire in March 1568 to work as Chief Mason for Sir John Thynne.  He bore a letter from Humphrey Lovell, the Queen’s Master Mason, stating that he was ‘not doubting him but to be a man fit for your worship‘. Smythson had previously been working at the now distantly lost house of Sir Francis Knollys at Caversham, Berkshire, built in the 1550s-60s, but described as ruinous by the diarist John Evelyn in 1654.

Although Smythson was a master, leading his own team of masons, Longleat was to prove to be his education and a spring-board for his own genius for design.  The house was an architectural onion; layers of building, wrapping each phase around the earlier one. The core was formed of the original monastery buildings which had been bought by Sir John Thynne, in 1540, using wealth accumulated in his job as Secretary to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who, as Lord Protector (albeit briefly), was one of the most powerful men in the country.

The first changes to Longleat took place between 1547-53, followed by a more extensive programme between 1553-67, which including adding a grand suite of rooms.  The original building was firmly in the existing Gothic tradition, whilst the second phase added a layer of Classical ornament.  This evolving house was an experiment in merging the existing English tradition with Italian and French influences which would have been somewhat confusing to those who saw it – or as Mark Girouard described it; ‘a kind of degenerate Gothic cake, enriched with occasional classical cherries‘.  We shall never know quite how successful this look was as on 21 April 1567 almost the entire house was destroyed in a fire which burned for 17 hours, leaving just the blackened walls.

Although clearly a serious blow to Sir John, work immediately started to rebuild the house, creating the third Longleat.  It was this project which Robert Smythson joined in March 1658 as a master mason – though not yet as an architect.  The design for the new Longleat is credited to Adrian Gaunt, a French joiner who, in December 1567, was paid for ‘making ye modell for ye house of Longleate‘ – a wooden mock-up (now sadly lost), and the first recorded instance of this in the UK.

So what was Smythson’s involvement in the design of Longleat? If looking at the third Longleat, it would be very little as both the layout and external appearance had been decided and was built as a two-storey house in the style of the previous one. However, in 1572, Sir John decided that his new house needed to be grander still and so embarked on a fourth distinct phase – this was a chance to create a more unified appearance, more in keeping with his classical ideas.

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)
Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: Christ Church Association)

Over the next eight years, the new building wrapped itself around Longleat, enclosing the two-storey Gothic house in a three-storey Classical cloak.  Most dramatically, the new fronts featured impressive pilastered bay windows which incorporated the Ancient Greek classical orders; Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.  Throughout all this work, Sir John had remained closely involved, with hundreds of letters passing between him and the workforce with his instructions. This was a man who had decided that although his status prevented him adopting the trade of architect, it was certainly not going to stop him acting like one.

However, the documentary evidence of both letters and drawings indicates that it was largely Smythson and a French sculptor, Alan Maynard, who had been working at Longleat since 1563, as the principal designers of the new house.  Girouard believes the division of labour to be that whilst the decoration of the house is Maynard’s, the overall plan and elevations are Smythson’s, who developed the possibilities of the existing compact courtyard house; to turn it outward, and present a most dramatic façade to the world. What Thynne brought to the mix was his passion and critical eye (and huge wealth) which drove and inspired his architects to create a house which matched his ambitions.  Despite all this effort, Thynne barely saw the house complete before he died in May 1580.

Corsham Court, Wiltshire (Image: IBBC)
Corsham Court, Wiltshire (Image: IBBC)

Whilst working at Longleat, Smythson was already developing his architectural career with a commission nearby at Corsham Court, started in the mid-1570s.  Lacking both the budget and passion of the work at Longleat, it is, nonetheless, an interesting and successful fusing of Tudor and Classical.

Around the same time as he was working at Longleat, Smythson had also taken on a substantial side-project; working for Sir Matthew Arundell at Wardour Castle.  Although now a ruin after suffering during the Civil War, Smythson had been employed to refurbish the 14th-century castle, creating a modern house.  Taking what he had learned at Longleat, Wardour’s walls were punctured with windows and classical decoration added to the gateway and doorcases – though the windows were Gothic to keep in style.

Old Wardour Castle (Image: Old Rare Prints)
Old Wardour Castle (Image: Old Rare Prints)

If an architect was to wish for a monument to their work, few could hope for one even half-as-fine as Smythson has in his next commission at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire.  Work started in 1580 for Sir Francis Willoughby, Arundell’s cousin and brother-in-law, and although Smythson’s name first appears in the accounts in March 1582, it is highly likely that he was involved from the beginning – and was still working there when he died in 1614.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire - evening sun showing the lantern effect of the design (Image: adamzy via flickr)
Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire – evening sun showing the lantern effect of the design (Image: adamzy via flickr)

Wollaton is almost a topographical expression of the Elizabethan idea of the internal progression which determined the layout of their houses.  As one of the first houses sited on a prominent hilltop for aesthetic rather than military reasons, it would have been highly visible to all around. Yet, as visitors moved closer they would have been delighted by the gardens and pavilions, before arriving at the highly-decorated Renaissance jewel at the heart of the scheme.

Wollaton is an exceptional house mainly due to the extravagance, but also for having survived. The layout of the house – square with four corner towers and the unusual tall central hall with clerestory windows – had been seen before at Michelgrove in Sussex and Mount Edgcumbe, Cornwall.  What was innovative was the bold play of Renaissance architectural motifs into such dramatic overall impression, creating an almost overwhelming effect – teetering on the verge of being just a bit too much.  Little wonder that after Smythson’s death the inscription on his monument in the parish church reads ‘Architecter and Surveyor unto the most worthy house of Wollaton with divers others of great account‘.

Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire - burnt down 1761 (Image: Nottinghamshire History)
Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire – burnt down 1761 (Image: Nottinghamshire History)

Although Smythson continued to be employed at Wollaton, he was also engaged elsewhere.  One of his most successful projects was the remodelling of the hunting lodge of the Earl of Shrewsbury in the 1580s.  Built as a show of Elizabethan machismo in riposte to Wollaton, Worksop Manor would have been one of the most glorious of the houses of that age, but was consumed by fire in 1761. Again, this was a house set on a prominent site and heavily glazed, catching the sun to dazzling effect.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)

The house which did survive and is rightly considered the high-point of Elizabethan architecture is Hardwick Hall, built between 1590-97.  Tantalisingly, there is no documentary evidence to link Smythson (or by this point, his son John who had also joined the family business) to being paid for the design of Hardwick. However, a series of designs in the Smythson archive which are similar to the executed details of Hardwick, combined with a 1597 accounts book listing a ‘gift’ to Robert and his son John, do suggest that they were closely involved. Most of all, the design of Hardwick Hall is a distilled version of the ideas and experience that Robert Smythson had accumulated over the course of his career. Hardwick is a house with the thoughtful layout of Worksop, combined with technical flair of Wollaton but now moderated and toned down to an elegant finish.

Pontefract New Hall, Lancashire - built 1591, demolished late 1950s (image: Pontefract Heritage Group via flickr)
Pontefract New Hall, Lancashire – built 1591, demolished late 1950s (image: Pontefract Heritage Group via flickr)

After reaching such sublime heights with Hardwick many an architect would have considered their work done and retired. However, for Robert Smythson, the 1590s were a fertile period where he started developing another form of country house, one which combined a compact form but much of the style of Hardwick.  The best example was Pontefract New Hall, built in 1591 and again paid for by Bess of Hardwick, but for her stepson, Edward Talbot. This house took the form of the central core with projecting corner towers but added further recession to the façade to create a complex movement, anticipating designs such as Holland House and Hatfield.  New Hall was derelict by the 20th-century before being sadly demolished in the late 1950s, with the rubble reputedly becoming the A1 motorway.

Chastleton House, Oxfordshire (Image: Brian @ Bury St Edmunds via flickr)
Chastleton House, Oxfordshire (Image: Brian @ Bury St Edmunds via flickr)

Smythson was also involved in designing houses at Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Owlcotes in Derbyshire, an un-executed design for a house at Slingsby for Charles Cavendish (a form of which was created at Caverswall Castle, Staffordshire), who then implemented a small part of a grand rebuilding plan Smythson produced for Welbeck Abbey. Girouard also claims that Burton Agnes Hall is also by Robert Smythson.  Other houses linked stylistically or conjecturally include Chastleton House, Gawthorpe Hall, Fountains Hall and possibly Howsham Hall.

Smythson can certainly be regarded as the parent to the style we would now call ‘Elizabethan’, with buildings which delighted in their inventiveness.  Although the early buildings may have owed a debt to the direction of others, as Smythson became more confident in his mastery of the forms and language, so to do his designs become more skilful, even if he wasn’t always able to restrain the extravagance.  Certainly there were others who were also looking to develop the idea of a professional designer of buildings, but Smythson was the first who we can securely say created a coherent and recognisable style, each house showing the evolution of his skill, each contributing to his claim as the first architect.

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Related article: ‘A minor prodigy: Brereton Hall for sale‘ – looking at the wider context of the Prodigy houses.

HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 1 – Birmingham to Leeds: good for some, bad for others

One of the major UK infrastructure projects of the next 20-30 years, assuming it gets the go-ahead, will be the construction of the long-awaited High-Speed 2 (HS2) railway line, linking London with some of the major cities of the North.  Any construction project on this scale was always going to upset someone, and the initial route for the first phase managed to rile not just those in the towns and cities but also those who care about the rural areas and our wonderful country houses, which faced being blighted by the new trains rushing through their once peaceful idylls.  With the announcement of the route of the next sections beyond Birmingham, have the planners learnt their lessons?

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab) - threatened by the initial London-Birmingham plan with a serious visual impact, the route was moved in the final announcement
Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab) – threatened by the initial London-Birmingham plan with a serious visual impact, the route was moved in the final announcement

There are undoubted merits in encouraging the use of greener transport options such as rail over other forms such as cars or planes. However, by their nature, high-speed trains rely on longer straight stretches and the easiest way to achieve this is by picking the most efficient route.  The particular challenge arises when that route involves beautiful countryside and an adverse impact on some of our finest country houses – and it was always going to cause a row.  An initial examination of the route in an earlier post (‘The price of progress: country houses and the High Speed 2 rail project‘) highlighted how surprisingly damaging some of the route choices had been.  When the final announcement came, although not perfect, the route was much improved and had mitigated many of the earlier concerns (‘The axe falls: route of High Speed 2 rail line announced‘).

The good news is that the route for the new HS2 Birmingham to Leeds route shows a greater sensitivity than was shown in the first phase and, after skirting past the sites of the long-vanished Hams Hall (dem. 1920) and Willesley Hall (dem. 1953), it wisely follows existing major roads, minimising the blight to areas already affected.

However, there are a number of houses which are significantly affected as the line moves north and the meanderings of the road network are ironed out into straighter lines for the high-speed trains.  One of the first is the smaller Grade-II* manor house of Pooley Hall, on the edge of Polesworth, as the line cuts to the south of the motorway it takes it within a hundred metres, sacrificed to save the Pooley Fields country park.

Langley Priory, Derbyshire (Image: Langley Priory)
Langley Priory, Derbyshire (Image: Langley Priory)

The first significant country house to be affected is the attractive Grade-II* Langley Priory, near Diseworth, with the line cutting a rather dramatic slash through their 500-acre parkland, barely 200-metres to the west of  the main house.  Even the addition of a significant railway cutting, the close proximity of the house will inevitably have an adverse impact on what is currently a secluded and rural estate.  This will be an interesting test case for the generosity of the compensation scheme and how tightly it draws its boundaries and criteria for deciding the level of awards.

Further north, the line slices off the tail end of the western parkland at Thrumpton Hall, a wonderful Jacobean house with links to the Gunpowder Plot, which is the family home of the writer Miranda Seymour.  The house itself faces north and with the line passing nearly a kilometre to the west, the effect on this house should be minimal – and if one was to worry about existing blights, look south-west and the rather dramatic bulk of the Ratcliffe Soar power station dominates the skyline.

As HS2 emerges from Long Eaton, the route thankfully passes far to the west of the spectacular Wollaton Hall, but nearby, two smaller country houses which have so far escaped the ravaging pressures of urban development will now be drastically affected by this new development.  The first is Trowell Hall, originally built as a rectory in 1846 in a Jacobean Revival style, possibly by the architect Thomas Chambers Hine, it was then sold to a racehorse breeder in 1927.  It later became a dormitory for the workers at the M1 service station before again becoming a private home.  The new line will pass within 500-metres, though a high embankment may mitigate some of the effects. (Listing description: Trowell Hall, Nottinghamshire)

Strelley Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: Strelley Hall website)
Strelley Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: Strelley Hall website)

For Strelley Hall, a rather elegant smaller manor house, tucked away next to the local church, and now used as serviced offices, the route lines up almost straight past their back door but will dive into a tunnel just over the road.  Unfortunately for them, it appears that their newly built B&B business lies directly in the path of the new ‘cut & cover’ tunnel and so will have to be demolished.  Hopefully, once the work is over, and the trees and other planting have taken effect, the disturbance from the trains should be lessened but the disruption during the construction will be significant, especially with the loss of the B&B business.

The line now weaves a path through the outer edges of Nottingham passing far to the west of the impressive former home of Lord Byron, Newstead Abbey, but a bit closer to that long ‘At Risk’ country house, Annesley Hall, though still far enough to not be a concern.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)

The next section sees a routing decision which seems highly likely to be motivated by a desire to protect a country house.  Considering the scale of the project it would have to be a special house and it is; the line switches from the east side of the M1 [PDF] to continue on the west side, thus avoiding the need to go near the wonder that is Hardwick Hall, the incredible Grade-I listed seat of Bess of Hardwick, and which was famously immortalised in rhyme as ‘Hardwick Hall, more window than wall‘ (Pevsner preferred that version). Now owned by the National Trust, they must be relieved the planners have not chosen to pick a battle with them (unlike with parts of the first phase of HS2).

The line now heads out past the forlorn but still discernible grandeur of Sutton Scarsdale before nipping between the village of Renishaw and the railway line, thankfully preserving the parkland to the west of Renishaw Hall, seat of the famous Sitwell family and portrayed so beautifully by John Piper. After Sheffield, the village of Thorpe Hesley perhaps forces the line to the west, conveniently taking it further from the breathtaking Wentworth Woodhouse.  The last section up to the final destination of Leeds, skirts the various large towns, diving into green spaces and across parkland, such as at Methley, where if the grand Methley Hall had not been demolished in 1963, it might now look out on the final junction for the new HS2 Birmingham to Leeds branch.

All in all, the planners have seemingly learnt the lessons from their initial bruising encounters and have sought to find a route which deals more sensitively with the natural and built environment which already exists.  There are inevitably some houses which will be adversely affected and wherever possible this should be challenged to ensure that each intrusion can be fully justified, and where sustained, that appropriate compensation is paid.

This is just the first of the extensions to be examined; we will see shortly if the Birmingham to Manchester route holds any further threats to our country houses.

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Source for route: ‘HS2 phase two initial preferred route plan and profile maps‘ [Department for Transport/HS2 Limited]

The future of the country house? Alderbrook Park, Surrey

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

Within any established pattern there is always the shock of the new. Most people when asked to imagine an English country house will usually think of red-brick Jacobean or light-stone Georgian but the design of new country houses is always in flux and what has gone before is no guarantee of what will come. Following World War II, the aftermath of which led to the demise of many large houses, the fashion changed to have a smaller but more modern house – one which required fewer staff and perhaps used more contemporary architectural language; however much it was derided by others.

Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)
Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)

The nature of architectural innovation has usually been one of gradual change – subtle at first and then growing bolder.  For example, Palladianism is widely seen to have arrived rather dramatically with the building of the Queen’s House in Greenwich in 1616 to a design by Inigo Jones.  Jones had recently studied Palladian architecture in Rome for three years and this commission was his chance to put this into practice.  One can imagine the surprise of Londoners, long used to timber, gables, and red-brick, to the square, stuccoed, and very white, Queen’s House.  Yet Sir John Summerson argues that there is evidence of Palladianism in the plan of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built in the 1590s by Robert Smythson.  Here, the placing of the hall on the central axis of the main entrance and the colonnades between towers front and back, echo the layout of Palladio’s Villa Valmarana featured in his Second Book of Architecture, making Hardwick the first known use of Palladio by an English architect.  This quiet use would have meant that visitors would have become accustomed to a symmetrical, regularised interior, paving the way for the same style to appear externally.

As much as the role of ‘architect’ took time to develop, so to did the responses to their work.  In 1624, Sir Henry Wotton, writing in his ‘Elements of Architecture‘, bemoaned the lack of ‘artificiale tearmes’ – that is, language with which to describe architecture.  Yet William Webb, writing in 1622, managed to praise the then new Crewe Hall in Cheshire, saying that the owner, Sir Randolph Crew;

“…hath brought into these remote parts a modell of that most excellent for of building which is now grown to a degree beyond the building of old times for loftiness, sightlines and pleasant habitation…”

So, ever since we’ve had architects, we’ve had critics (who were also sometimes architects); Jones, Wren, Ruskin, Pugin, Morris, Lutyens, Pevsner, etc have all made their opinions known.  Overseas visitors were also apt to compare what they had seen.  Jean Barnard le Blanc, visiting in 1737-8, was well educated and travelled and critical of the emerging use of Italian designs in England saying;

“These models have not made the English architects more expert; for whenever they attempt to do anything more than barely to copy, they erect nothing but heavy masses of stone, like of Blenheim Palace…”

As the language developed and architecture became more academic it became more rigorous and perhaps dry, with light relief afforded by more waspish commentators such Sacheverell Sitwell.

So why are some houses criticised more than others?  It seems that houses which appear without the ground being prepared before them suffer most.  The shock of the new is unmitigated and particularly where there is a strong local vernacular, the language of the new house will be a greater change.  More broadly, where a house is seen to be breaking with old traditions and what is seen as the ‘appropriate’ style for a family or an area, criticism can be swift and strong.

Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)
Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)

One example of this is Eaton Hall in Cheshire following the unfortunate demolition between 1961-63 of the vast Victorian masterpiece designed by Alfred Waterhouse.  The loss of the house left a gaping hole at the centre of the estate with large gardens and long tree-lined avenues leading to nowhere.  The 5th Duke decided to rebuild and commissioned his brother-in-law, the architect John Dennys, to design a very modern replacement.  The resulting house, although striking, was regarded as unsuccessful, with John Martin Robinson saying,

“The sad fact is that, while from a distance the new Eaton has some of the classic Modern impact of the Corbusier dream…close up it is rather disappointing…”

Yet rather than criticising the house for not being in the traditional language of the English country house, Robinson is saying that it’s not Modern enough.  Others disagreed, with perhaps the most amusing response coming from the Duke of Bedford before it was even built.  Writing in 1970 after the unveiling of the design, he wrote;

“I was interested to see…a sketch model of Eaton Hall.  It seems to me one of the virtues of the Grosvenor family is that they frequently demolish their stately home [Waterhouse’s being the third on the site]. I trust future generations will continue this tradition if this present edifice, that would make a fine office block for a factory on a by-pass, is constructed.”

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

In more recent times, one design which met with critical acclaim but was perhaps a step too far was the Ushida Findlay design for Grafton New Hall, Cheshire.  Their house was a response to a 2001 RIBA competition to ‘design a country house for the 21st century’.  In creating their radical ‘star-fish’ layout they were rejecting the established patterns and trying to create a new response to the same requirements for the functions of a country house.  Yet the house never found a patron and, tellingly, the house now being constructed is a classic of modern Palladianism, designed by the pre-eminent Classical architect, Robert Adam.

There are, of course, many other examples of intelligent but unpopular designs for modern country houses – for example, Wadhurst Park in Sussex for TetraPak billionaire Hans Rausing.  And it’s in this constant stylistic flux into which Lakshmi Mittal has pitched the very radical designs for his new house on the 340-acre Alderbrook Park estate which he bought four years ago for £5.25m.  The original house by Richard Norman Shaw for the Ralli family was demolished in 1956 as too large, with a poor, inadequate substitute built in the 1960s.  The estate was sold with the express intention of demolishing this house and in its place Mittal is proposing a £25m, carbon neutral ‘eco-home’.  To help achieve this, the design of the house is driven by the functional requirements to minimise heat loss, to be cooled by natural ventilation, and have hot water provided by pyramid chimneys which incorporate solar thermal collectors which will help also vent heat in summer.  This house is a rejection of the idea of the house as an aesthetic construct in a particular architectural style but is more Corbusier-like; a ‘machine for living’ – a somewhat depressing prospect.

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

So what does the future hold?  The natural course of the development of the country house has been its adaptation to the whims and preferences of the owners.  As younger generations have taken the reins they’ve chosen different and perhaps more fashionable styles – and without change we wouldn’t have the Georgian mansions or Lutyens to love. However, each of the previous styles could be seen as natural evolution which reused a broad architectural vocabulary which was instantly recognisable as distinctively rural.  What seems to jar with the very modern designs is that they seem to use a more urban, industrial language to interpret the form of the country house.  This seems to sit somewhat uneasily with our preconceived notions as to what a country house should look like – but who knows, perhaps in 50 years maybe it’ll be accepted and appreciated and we’ll be concerned about the next stylistic evolution.  I still prefer Georgian Palladian.

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.

Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale

Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)
Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)

Run-down or derelict country houses are often an enticing prospect for a developer, especially where the house still retains some land, on which they can propose ‘enabling development’.  In theory this is the correct use of this exemption but frequently the developer will suggest too many houses or ignore the fact that the house has too little land to avoid any development compromising the setting of the house.  When this happens, it is often the house which suffers as the developers wait for appeals or a change in policy whilst allowing the house to deteriorate further.  So in the case of Ruperra Castle in Wales it’s encouraging that the owner has decided to bow out giving someone else the chance to restore this architecturally interesting house.

Ruperra is an early example of the ‘mock’ castles which became fashionable in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras and were an example of life imitating art as the idea of these houses drew from the ‘pageant castles’ as featured in court entertainment of the time.  These stage castles formed the centrepiece to the royal ‘masques’ and were laden with allegorical symbolism as they might be populated by damsels (signifying virtue) but successfully defended against attacking knights (signifying baser desires).  Works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (published in 1590 and 1596) also fed a fashion for chivalry and heraldic forms. Importantly, the long period of domestic peace during Elizabeth’s reign meant that the design of houses moved from being primarily military and defensive to more simply domestic with the look of a house increasingly dictated by aesthetics.

Ruperra wasn’t quite the first of it’s type; that distinction could be said to be held by houses such as Michaelgrove in Sussex built for the Shelley family in 1536 (dem. 1830s), and Mount Edgcumbe in Devon, built between 1547 – 1554, which also were not fortresses and featured a square or rectangular central block with drum or square towers on each corner.  This was followed by the fabulous Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, begun in 1580, which was an altogether more grandiose statement of power but broadly followed the same layout – as did Hardwick Hall, although in an adapted form. However, the Renaissance ornamentation of Robert Smythson‘s design at Wollaton contrasted dramatically with more austere designs of the true ‘mock’ castles which harked back to the earlier simplicity of decorated castles such as Herstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, begun in 1440, with its many windows and regularised defensive elements (such as the arrow loops) making them almost decorative.

Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The design for Ruperra Castle was clearly based on that for Lulworth Castle, just 100 miles away in Dorset, and built between 1603-05.  Always called a ‘castle’ but built with the instruction from Lord Howard of Bindon that it ‘prove pretty’, it was never military.  Indeed, Thomas Gerard writing in 1630 described it as ‘well seated for prospect and pleasure; but of little other use’. Bought by the Weld family from Lord Howard it remained their family seat until a devastating fire in 1929 completely gutted the interior – as it remains today, although the building itself has been restored.  Another house thought to have been built around 1612 is Compton Bassett House in Wiltshire (dem. c1929) which clearly shared a similar layout although the corner turrents were square.

The builder of Ruperra Castle was Thomas Morgan (b.1564 – d.1632), who made his fortune as the Steward for the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton House, Wiltshire.  Morgan would have been regularly exposed to court life and would have been very aware of the latest architectural fashions.  Hence when he came to build his own house, which was finished in 1626, he deliberately drew on the latest architectural fashions and created one of the first of the ‘modern’ country houses.  The layout was a significant departure as the rooms were orientated to the outside to make the most of views – hence Ruperra’s elevated site chosen for its beauty rather than defensibility.  Interestingly the ‘castle’ design seemed to fall quite quickly from favour and so there are few other examples of this type – though one late example was Beaurepaire Park in Hampshire built in 1777 (sadly burnt down in 1942).

Ruperra Castle remained as part of the Morgan’s vast Tredegar estate and was traditionally used to house the eldest son before he inherited Tredegar House, the family’s principal seat.  The castle originally had dormers but these were removed during the rebuilding after a fire in 1785 and replaced with the crenellations there today.  It was last inhabited during World War II when a searchlight battery requisitioned it and they were there when the terrible fire caused by faulty wiring broke out in 1941.  Despite best efforts, the house was completely gutted and was eventually sold, along with the rest of the 52,000-acre Tredegar estate in 1952.

Since then, constant promises of restoration have come to nothing and it has steadily deteriorated, most dramatically when, in 1982, the south east tower largely collapsed.  Sold to the current vendor, Mr Ashraf Barakat, in 1998 he had hoped to convert the house into 11 flats and build 18 more houses in the 14-acre grounds that remained with the house.  After a final rejection at a public enquiry in 2009, Mr Barakat has now, wisely, put the still grade-II* listed Ruperra Castle on the market for £1.5m, rather than holding on and letting the house deteriorate further.  This should not be considered a development opportunity, so hopefully now someone with deep pockets will come forward to restore, as a single family house, this architecturally important building.  Its rescue would once again connect the modern history of country house design in Wales, bringing life back to a house which, when it was built, was the most sophisticated in the country.

Property details: ‘Ruperra Castle, Lower Machen, Gwent, Wales‘ [Savills]

More on this story:

More information:

Credit: I’m indebted to the prior work of Mark Girouard (‘Elizabethan Architecture‘ 2009) and the late Andor Gomme for their knowledge of Elizabethan architecture.

A salute to determination: Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire

Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Goldsborough Hall)
Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Goldsborough Hall)

Love is a strange emotion which by chance can leave a person very attached to something.  For Clare and Mark Oglesby the object of their affections is the elegant Goldsborough Hall in Yorkshire, which, after five years hard work and a substantial budget has been rescued from dereliction and possible development.

Goldsborough Hall was built between 1601-1625 for Sir Richard Hutton, a London judge who used his wealth to establish himself in Yorkshire and was High Sheriff in 1623.  The internal plan of the house is interesting as it features a lateral corridor on all three floors and originally included fashionable features Sir Richard probably learnt of from his London friends such as a long gallery which useful for exercise in the inclement weather. Slightly unusually it was on the first floor (though not uniquely as Beaudesert, Condover Hall, and Treowen House also have this) when they were normally on the upper floors as, high up, their excess of glass gave visitors the most impressive view of the house – see, most famously, ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’.

The house was then rebuilt in the mid 18th-century for Richard Byerley before being bought by the Earls of Harewood, the Lascelles family, who employed the famous architect John Carr of York to remodel the interior in 1764-5, whilst he was also working on their main house, Harewood.  Goldsborough features numerous mementos of the family with their crest embedded in rainwater heads and in stained glass.  The house remained in the Lascelles family until 1965 when it was sold to pay death duties.  It then became a school, a private home, a hotel and then nursing home before being put up for sale in 2003 when the Oglesby’s first saw it but had their offer rejected.  At that time the house was still in good condition but this had changed dramatically when the estate agent contacted them again in 2005 to say it was between them and a developer. They successfully bid but now, just two years later, water was running down the 17th-century oak staircase and the panelling in the library, and the house lacked heating or working plumbing.  Undaunted, over the last five years they have spent around £2m on the restoration which has now rescued this wonderful house from ruin and is back to being a family home which pays it way by hosting weddings.

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)
Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)

Another house which needed work and has now been restored explicitly as a wedding venue and family home is Rise Hall, also in Yorkshire.  Set in a beautiful small park laid in the 1770s, the grade-II* listed seat of the Bethell family was rebuilt between 1815-25, though the architect is disputed with some claiming it’s by Robert Abraham (whose eldest daughter was conveniently married to the owner, Baron Westbury) but more likely, as given by Howard Colvin, it was by Watson & Pritchard who also designed a Doric lodge for the house in 1818.  The slightly austere, 9-bay ashlar Georgian facade is dramatically enlivened by a full-height, tetra-style Ionic portico.  Inside the house features a top-lit staircase hall and some neoclassical decoration with an Adam-style dining room.  The house remained in the Bethell family until 1946 when they moved into the former rectory, now Rise Park, and let the house to the Canonesses Regular of St. Augustine, who ran a Catholic boarding school there until 1998.

The house was then bought as a second home by Sarah Beeny, star of many property restoration TV shows.  She and her husband used the house for many years but realised that the 97-room house was simply too large to function as just a weekend retreat and it also needed to pay for its own restoration. Beeny seems to take a rather hard-headed approach – unsurprisingly given her background – but is committed to achieving the right result. The location ruled out use as a hotel so they decided that they would convert it into a wedding venue in just eight months as part of a TV show called ‘Beeny’s Folly‘ which will be broadcast in Autumn 2010 on Channel 4.  This will be a chance for the wider public to get a real insight into just how much work is required to restore and maintain a stately home.  Who knows, it might even inspire someone with deep pockets and hopefully a sympathetic attitude, to find and fall in love with a one of our other country houses at risk and bring it back to life as a home.

Full story on Goldsborough Hall: ‘We’ve moved from our 4-bed detached to an 80-room stately home‘ [Daily Express]

Official website: ‘Goldsborough Hall

Detailed architectural description: ‘Rise Hall, Yorkshire

More buildings at risk: ‘Live and Let Die – 2010 Buildings at Risk Register‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

Our best motorways draw us through beautiful landscapes, by turns revealing hills, valleys, broad vistas and narrow glimpses, sometimes punctuated with a country house.  Yet, country house owners have long fought many battles to keep the roads from carving up their precious parks and ruining the Arcadian views.

A recent article in the Guardian (‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘) highlighted three great houses of Derbyshire each visible from the M1 motorway: Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale, and Hardwick Hall.  In our haste to get to destinations it’s easy to forget that where we drive was once part of great estates and previous owners would have wielded sufficient political power to ensure roads were routed away from their domains.  The echoes of this power can still be seen today if you look at aerial views of some of the great houses – major roads circle the gardens and immediate parkland such as at Chatsworth, Eaton Hall, and Clumber Park (though for the latter the house was demolished in 1938).

Yet, in other cases, officials either due to sheer bureaucratic efficiency, malice, or philistinism have carved roads through some historic parklands, cutting off the house from its setting, sometimes playing their part in step towards the eventual demise of the house. Sometimes the motorway is the gravestone; tarmac lies across the original sites of two lost houses so spare a thought for Tong Castle as you drive northbound just past junction 3 on the M54, or for Nuthall Temple, just north of junction 26 on the M1.

For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate which often borders a town.  From their perspective, taking on just single owner seems the easiest option, especially as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.

One country house owner who has had several run-ins with roads is the National Trust, with varying degrees of success.  When they accepted Saltram House in Devon in 1957 they knew that a road was proposed which would cut across the parkland to the east of the house.  However, as a matter of principle they had to fight when finally earmarked for action in 1968, particularly as the road was much wider than originally proposed – though ultimately they were unsuccessful. For the private owners of Levens Hall in Cumbria, it was their research which prevented a link road to the M6 cutting across an avenue by proving it was originally planted in 1694 by garden designer Guillaume de Beaumont.  Yet other battles were lost; Capability Brown’s work at Chillington, Staffordshire was butchered by the M54, with the road now running just 35 yards from the grade-I listed Greek Temple.  At Tring Park in Hertfordshire the A41 slashes through the original tree-lined avenue.

The longest running, and most successful battle has been by the National Trust at Petworth House in Sussex.  The Trust has long accepted evolutionary changes but opposes drastic alterations regardless of the possible benefits to the local area – convenience does not trump heritage.  The village of Petworth suffers from heavy traffic so in the 1970s a four-lane bypass was approved which would run through the middle of the 700-acre, Capability Brown parkland, forever destroying the celebrated views painted by J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800s.  After objections were raised, an alternative, but equally damaging plan was suggested which used a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel – causing just as much destruction, particularly to the gardens, but then hiding their vandalism.  However, after a spirited public campaign, which included a dramatic poster showing the house with tyre tracks rolling over it (designed by David Gentleman for SAVE Britain’s Heritage), the plan was blocked and has almost certainly been killed off permanently.

So although the motorway has helped us to visit our wonderful country houses they also have, and continue to, pose a threat to them.  Thanksfully, stronger planning legislation which recognises the value of historic parkland has made it harder for the planners to simply draw a line between A and B without regard for the beautiful and important landscapes they would destroy.

Article: ‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘ [The Guardian]

Cash in the attic: Chatsworth House sale

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)

Usually during times of economic hardship all areas of life suffer as disposable income is held rather than spent.  However, paradoxically the art market is currently on something of a high which has produced record prices at recent auctions.  For the country house owner faced with ever higher bills there has rarely been a better time to re-evaluate collections and contents and see if they too can raise some much needed funds or, as in the case of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, to make space.

The Dukes of Devonshire have always enjoyed a privileged position as one of the UK’s premier aristocratic families.  Their fortune was set with the four advantageous marriages of Bess of Hardwick (b. 1527 – d. 1608) following the early deaths of her rich husbands. OF particular note was her second husband, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who in 1811 had inherited not only the title but eight major houses and estates including Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall (now National Trust), Devonshire House in London (demolished 1924), Chiswick House (now English Heritage), Lismore Castle (still owned by the Devonshires) and Bolton Abbey (owned by Devonshire family trust), Burlington House (now the Royal Academy of Arts), and Londesborough Hall in Yorkshire (demolished in 1819), totalling some 200,000 acres.  Chatsworth was considered her principal seat and has been for the Devonshire family ever since.  This meant that when earlier economically austere times led to the selling of other family properties such as Chiswick House and Devonshire House in London the contents of these houses were largely packed up and brought back to Chatsworth.

The current, 12th, Duke has now decided to follow the recently well-trodden path of the asset-rich aristocracy and clear out some of the accumulated contents of the storage areas and raise some welcome capital which will be ploughed back into the running of the estate.  The 20,000 items include a rare William Kent mantelpiece which is expected to go for around £300,000.  Recently up to £100m of art has been sold including an earlier sale by the Duke of Devonshire for £10m of a bronze statue, Ugolino Imprisoned with his Sons and Grandsons (around 1549), by Leonardo’s nephew Pierino da Vincia, a record-breaking Turner watercolour, Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, from the Earl of Rosebury which made £29.7m, a 1.3-metre long, 81kg wine cooler from the Marquis of Lothian, a variety of works including a Rubens from Earl Spencer, and other sales by the Earl of Wemyss and March, the Earl of Jersey, and Lord Northbrook.

Whilst the current situation continues with rising costs not being met by investment income or from the revenue from opening up houses and estates it’s likely that we will continue to see a steady trickle of art flowing from the galleries of our stately homes into the private collections of the billionaires currently willing to pay record-breaking prices for the finest works.  Although this is in some respects regrettable, as long as the money is spent on the restoration and maintenance of our wonderful country houses then there is little cause for concern.  However, once the attics are empty or all the ‘non-core’ pictures have been sold then we may need to be worried as to what will be sold next. The worst outcome would be to have houses without estates or that we have a fine collection of stately homes in which visitor’s footsteps merely echo around empty state rooms.

More about the Chatsworth sale: ‘Chatsworth’s ‘lost’ treasures up for sale‘ [BBC News]

More about recent art sales: ‘Who is behind the great stately home art sell-off‘ [The Art Newspaper]