Romancing the stone; country houses built by love

Many a man has been driven to great lengths by love – and architecture is often a rewarding though insatiable mistress for such a passion.  Whether as an expression of love for a wife or a demonstration of a yearning, aching heart, each found that their country houses were caught in that very human desire to make real those Romantic desires which otherwise are sometimes only expressed in far more transient ways. Though sometimes love’s labours are lost to unrequited desires, often country houses were the ideal means to commemorate the passions which had created their happiness.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight - holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)
Osborne House, Isle of Wight – holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)

The motivations behind the choice of architecture or design or even the starting of the construction of a new country house is sometimes overlooked in the literature. The occasion of ennoblement was an important catalyst for a grander house and equally a marriage and new building project are often keen bedfellows – though often the new house was financed through the newly acquired wealth of the husband from his bride and was more an expression of his newly-bolstered financial strength.  With the status of the married woman somewhere equal to that of the china plates, for many, their influence was limited to the running of a home.  The choice of some furnishings and the interiors of the ‘female’ areas of the houses were often the accepted limits of the wife’s contribution – though there were exceptions such as Lady Leicester who, after 1759, was left £2,000 a year to finish several of the state rooms at Holkham Hall (n.b. website annoyingly plays birdsong automatically).

Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)
Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)

The choice of architect, interiors, furnishings, furniture and art were all reserved for the man as an expression of his taste and power. Writing of his design for Kimbolton Castle, the architect Sir John Vanbrugh said, “I’m sure this will make a Noble and Masculine Shew‘, and that in the exterior visitors would “See a Manly beauty in it when tis up…‘. Clearly reflecting the female taste, or even necessarily their comfort, was not high on an architects priorities. Although some enjoyed a level of luxurious indulgence, such as the Dowager Lady Egerton for whom James Wyatt created a sumptuous Pompeiian-style dressing room at Heaton Hall in the 1770s, perhaps the experience of the Duchess of Northumberland was more common.  When Robert Adam remodelled their London seat, Syon House, in the 1760s, he was careful to place the Duke’s private apartments in a separate area, accessed via a private staircase, whilst the Duchess’ dressing room enjoyed a much less secluded arrangement, as it was included in the main circuit of entertaining rooms.

Ham House, Surrey - now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ham House, Surrey – now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Wives and widows were slowly asserting greater independence, often due to their personal wealth, but slowly changing attitudes did provide greater opportunities for their views and tastes to be heard and seen.  In the 17th-century, couples such as the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale were acting very much in concert together in the design and furnishing of their home, Ham House. It had been the home of the Duchess and her father and she had fiercely held on to it during the dark years of the Civil War when he had been forced to escape abroad. After her marriage in 1672, Ham House became not only a symbol of their wealth, but also a testament to their shared love of travel and the finer things in life.

Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)

Romance was surely often part of the motivation to build; a golden word that could turn a mere building into architectural poetry. Dobroyd Castle in Todmorden was the creation of a wealthy local mill owner, John Fielden, to honour a promise after his intended bride, Ruth, a poor labourer’s daughter, had said, during their extended courtship, “Build me a castle and I’ll marry you.“.  This can be said with either a romantic or mercenary inflection but, in honour of St Valentine, let’s believe that her request was for a fairytale expression of their marriage.  At least it was not a pre-condition, as they married in 1857 and work started on the castle in 1866 with completion in 1869.  Designed by the little known architect John Gibson, throughout the house the initials of John and Ruth are carved into the building many times as a constant reminder of their love.

Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The desire to do all one can for a wife, especially one who is ill, creates opportunities for love to be the patron of great architecture.  The delicate health of Dorothea Robinson, wife of Charles Hoare, a partner in the eponymous family bank, necessitated a more temperate climate and so an estate outside the small Devon coastal town of Dawlish was purchased. Requiring a house and not lacking in funds, Hoare commissioned the fashionable John Nash and Humphry Repton to create a retreat for rural recuperation.  With Repton’s help, Dorothea chose a most Picturesque site nestled in a secluded valley. Repton then recommended to Nash that it be in the ‘Character of a Castle’, and so Luscombe Castle was built between 1800-1804.  Considered one of the finest Regency houses, the external beauty is matched with a domestically convenient interior; a distilled version of Nash’s rather grander castle designs, but which perfectly suited the location and as a romantic reminder of a husband’s concern for his wife.

Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)
Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)

A love unrequited or thwarted is often a powerful force which can inspire many things.  For some, such as William Bankes, a prominent MP and renowned traveller, his enforced exile to escape a possible death penalty for being caught in a compromising situation with a soldier in Green Park in 1841, meant leaving his life’s work; the building and beautification of his Dorset home, Kingston Lacy. Subject to a punitive ‘outlawry‘ order, Bankes first escaped to France before settling in Venice. Bankes had been forced to give up, under threat of forfeiture, any legal title to his estates and contents to his brothers but he continued to be relatively well-funded and managed the building works at Kingston Lacy via detailed correspondence with the Clerk of Works.  One can only guess at the frustration of Bankes as he could only imagine how his plans were turning out, not only in relation to the building works but also the numerous pieces of art which he sent to Dorset.  Proving that for love, some will risk all, it is thought that Bankes risked imprisonment to be smuggled back into England in 1854 so that he might see his house and collection, which he had only been able to dream of, and give direction as to how it might be finished.

Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)
Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)

By the Victorian era, it was often both the husband and the wife who would take increasingly equal roles, especially as the role of the house was firmly centred on entertaining; a role traditionally taken on by the wife. It also reflected a relatively more accommodating age when women were at last more broadly considered intelligent equals to men.  The increasing importance of women can also be seen in the literature where discussion of the creation of a house now talks more husband and wife, though still often with their roles demarcated to exteriors/interiors.  The wives often had their own circles of interest leading to interesting contributions such as at Wallington Hall in Northumberland where the Pre-Raphaelite painted decoration in the central hall is by the artist William Bell Scott, whom Lady Pauline Trevelyan met through her literary activities.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)
Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous husband and wife architectural collaboration in the Victorian era was the creation of the summer retreat at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight by Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Prince Albert.  With a society leaning towards a more moral aspect, Victoria was determined that the royal family should be seen in step with it and so the planning of Osborne is not only to meet the needs of the family for entertaining but also, equally, that it be a family home. Indeed, writing to her daughter in 1858 from Windsor Castle, she tells how “I long for our cheerful and unpalacelike rooms at Osborne.”.  Her husband’s influence was the Italianate exterior, with the stucco work and belvedere towers, designed by the Prince and the London builder Thomas Cubitt, which matched his passion for Italian art, though Victoria was perhaps also influenced by the design of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire (by Sir Charles Barry) which was the home of her close friend the Duchess of Sutherland.  Osborne became the place she perhaps most associate with her husband and, after his death in 1861, it was one of the places she felt most at ease.

So, the building of a country house isn’t simply to mark ennoblement or new wealth, but can be an expression of love or passion between a couple, which one hopes might be more inspiring.  Certainly a love of country houses is something to be celebrated any day of the year.

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If you know of any other examples (and I’m sure there are many) please do add a comment below.

Happy Birthday Sir John Vanbrugh; the master of English Baroque

Portrait of John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Image: Wikipedia)
Portrait of John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Image: Wikipedia)

One of the most exciting eras of British architecture was the Baroque; a unique fusion of Continental influences, leavened with a dash of characteristic restraint, which created something elegant, strident and theatrical – words which could equally describe the best known architect of that time, Sir John Vanbrugh, born 350 years ago this month.

Although much is known about his later life, his exact date of birth is not; simply that he was baptised on the 24 January 1664 (though he .  Born into a wealthy and well-connected family (his father was a sugar trader), his schooling and early career are still subject to some debate, with suggestions that he spent time working at a trading post in India.  The first solid evidence is his commission in January 1686 in the Earl of Huntingdon‘s foot regiment, though he was to leave in August that same year. After this, Vanbrugh engaged with the Whig cause and played a minor role in the Glorious Revolution of 1689 – though he was to miss the event itself as he spent four and half years in French prisons, including the Bastille, from September 1688 on (what Kerry Downes believes to be trumped up) charges of spying. Emerging in 1692, he had three months of enforced leisure in Paris until he could return to England, where he promptly joined the Navy, taking part in an attack on the French.  In the mid-1690s, he returned to London and became a playwright but also started developing his architectural career, perhaps in response to the changing social tastes in the late-1690s which found his bawdy Restoration comedies increasingly unacceptable.  A witty, intelligent and convivial character, Vanbrugh was never short of friends or connections.

Once Vanbrugh had decided to be an architect, he appears to have passionately embraced his new vocation – something noted by his contemporaries, including Jonathan Swift, who remarked that ‘Van’s genius, without thought or lecture, Is hugely turn’d to architecture‘. Most architects have to prove their skill with smaller projects but Vanbrugh was to start with possibly one of the most important commissions then available, Castle Howard for the Earl of Carlisle, and make such a dramatic entrance that his reputation was firmly established from then on.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Yorkshire Country House Partnership)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Yorkshire Country House Partnership)

Broadly, the designs produced by Vanbrugh can be seen as a distillation and development of the work of three other architects; William Talman, Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir Christopher Wren.  Talman had created the first Baroque country house, with his south and east fronts of Chatsworth House, completed in 1696.  Baroque had originated and developed in Italy with architects such Bernini, Borromini and da Cortona using the language of ancient Rome to express the majesty of the Catholic church, and also by French monarchs as a statement of their absolute power. Its use by the resolutely Whig Protestant 1st Duke of Devonshire, was perhaps a carefully calculated statement to both the monarch, to remind him that power now lay with them, and a snub to the Catholic church, that their chosen style across Europe was firmly owned by the Protestants in England.

'Goose Pie House', Whitehall - designed by Sir John Vanbrugh 1700 (Image: copyright of The Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum, London)
‘Goose Pie House’, Whitehall – designed by Sir John Vanbrugh 1700 (Image: copyright of The Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Vanbrugh, although closely allied with the Whigs and sympathetic to their preferred style, also showed a medieval influence, with a clear interest in the military architecture of the period. In both his commissions and his own home in London, ‘Goose Pie House‘ in Whitehall, he incorporated the martial vocabulary of turrets and towers, giving his work a more monumental aspect, a solidity which played well with the aristocratic patrons who wished to evoke their family history but also wished to live in contemporary luxury.

With Baroque as an astute political choice, Vanbrugh was also able to bring his theatrical flair to play with the rich language it provided.  Castle Howard is one of the finest buildings in the world, and certainly one of the grandest in the country – not a bad start for a novice.  Horace Walpole visited in 1772 and afterwards wrote:

Nobody had informed me at one view I should see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being a metropolis of Druids, the noblest lawn fenced by half the horizon and a mausoleum that would tempt me to be buried alive: in short, I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one.

Lord Carlisle was a well-educated and well-travelled man whose Grand Tour had taken him across Europe, including, naturally, Rome.  Although William Talman had been first given the job, his irascible nature led to his firing, and so, in 1699, Carlisle gave his fellow Kit-Cat Club member, Vanbrugh, the chance of a lifetime.

Here, it is worth making clear that Vanbrugh’s houses, and especially Castle Howard, were joint enterprises with another exceptional architect; Nicholas Hawksmoor.  Assistant to Sir Christopher Wren, Hawksmoor was an expert on Classical architecture and drafting and also a sound project manager who helped deliver Vanbrugh’s ideas from paper to stone. Hawksmoor has often been given credit for the designs of Vanbrugh’s houses but it seems that, as John Summerson said, both were exceptional men, and that each was the perfect compliment to the other.

Drawing showing original plan for Castle Howard (Image: via Visiting Houses and Gardens)
Drawing showing original plan for Castle Howard (Image: via Visiting Houses and Gardens)

Construction started on the east wing of Castle Howard in 1699 and was completed by 1703, with the main block finished in 1706, the principal apartments by 1712 and the most important interiors by 1715, at a total cost of £38,000.  And what a house Lord Carlisle got for his money – a composition of low wings, leading to a grand central block, decorated with vibrant stonework, culminating in the first dome to be used on a country house in the UK, with interiors which cleverly used light and space to create a theatrical effect to awe any visitor.  Drawing from an earlier design for Greenwich Hospital by Sir Christopher Wren, Vanbrugh’s imagination had been given full reign to develop a most remarkable response to his client’s commission, fused with the crisp execution of the work overseen by Hawksmoor.  Carlisle was delighted with his new palace – which proved both domestically convenient and warm – but the architectural ripples the house created led to wide admiration, with it even being included in the ‘bible’ of Palladianism, Vitruvius Britannicus.  The additional triumphs of the parkland buildings, also mostly by his hand, cemented the reception of this house and setting as one of the most brilliant to have been created anywhere in the country.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire - entrance front (Image: Blenheim Palace)
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire – entrance front (Image: Blenheim Palace)

Vanbrugh’s success led to his second great commission, Blenheim Palace – though it was to be a much less happy experience for both client and architect. Whilst still working at Castle Howard, construction at Blenheim began in 1705.  Intended as a monumental tribute from a grateful nation to the Duke of Marlborough, it was also supposed to be a home. That demand for something which spoke not only to the stature of the recipient but also the generosity of the Royal patron, was perhaps the perfect commission for Vanbrugh and his imagination.  Sadly, relations between the architect and the Countess of Marlborough were fractious and Vanbrugh was eventually banned from the site and never visited his completed design.

Despite this, the building is an immense display of bravura – a vast testament to the breadth of imagination, which was reflected in the cost which spiralled from the Duke’s original suggestion of £40,000 to £300,000 by the time it was complete.  The design is broadly similar to that of Castle Howard but with an added degree of magnificence which elevates it using not only the sprawling scale but also the extensive decorative martial stonework to attain monumental status.  That the building had to be finished by Hawksmoor – who described himself as ‘a Loving Nurse that almost thinks her child her own‘ – doesn’t detract from one of the defining buildings of that age, a magnificent testament to Vanbrugh’s skill.

Kings Weston House, Bristol (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Kings Weston House, Bristol (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Driven by his interest in military architecture, Vanbrugh’s other country house designs can also be seen to be drawing on his personal preference for the spirit of fortifications.  In 1707, whilst working on Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire, he wrote in a letter ‘…I thought twas absolutely best, to give it Something of the Castle Air, tho’ at the Same time to make it regular‘.  With his next commission, Kings Weston House, in 1709-10, what starts as a compact and elegant villa is given the flavour of a castle above the roofline, with the chimneys grouped together in a central stack, evoking the idea of a keep.  At Lumley Castle it was the reverse, with an Italianate air being applied to a truly ancient castle.

The last three country houses Vanbrugh designed in the years before his death were perhaps some of his finest – concentrated distillations of his ideas but each given its own distinctive approach.  Seaton Delaval Hall is perhaps the best expression of the castle as country house; a central block with a keep-like mass in the centre, a bold entrance taking the form of a gatehouse, flanked by two turrets.  This formula is almost a hallmark of Vanbrugh (bar Kings Weston and Kimbolton which deviate) but the inventiveness of each shows that as with the English language, the architect was also a master of this architectural vocabulary.  Eastbury House in Dorset, merged elements of Blenheim, Kings Weston and Seaton Delaval whilst Grimsthorpe Castle is perhaps the best expression of the blend between that outline and the Classical style, creating a deeply satisfying design which delights to this day.

Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Grimsthorpe estate)
Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Grimsthorpe estate)

Within his lifetime and much later, Vanbrugh was hugely influential, yet the fashion for Baroque was quickly to wane after his death in 1726 – Summerson points out that by 1728 it was the subject of caricature, and by 1730 presumed dead.  Anglo-Baroque offered an attractive stylistic path with a symmetry which felt natural to the British, but combined with a flair that gave real vibrancy wherever it was used.  350 years later, in our more pluralistic and accommodating age, Vanbrugh – and by extension Hawksmoor – would have been able to co-exist with Burlington and Flitcroft and the stage would have been set as with each new building they vied to win the architectural hearts of the nation. Perhaps our greatest regret with regards to Vanbrugh should be that the coming of Palladianism and its zealous evangelism was to end the development of Sir John’s more exciting and theatrical approach but today we can at least admire and fully appreciate his genius in stone.

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Further reading and visiting details

Biographies 

Houses

Castle Howard – still owned by the Lords Carlisle, open to the public

Blenheim Palace – still owned by the Dukes of Marlborough, open to the public

Kimbolton Castle – now a school, occasionally open to the public

Kings Weston House owned by Bristol Council, leased to a private individual, not open to the public, though the parkland is.

Lumley Castle – now a hotel

Seaton Delaval Hall – owned by the National Trust, open to the public

Eastbury House (demolished bar one wing) – privately owned, not open to the public

Grimsthorpe Castle – owned by a charitable trust for the de Eresby family, open to the public