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.

A minor prodigy: Brereton Hall for sale

Brereton Hall, Cheshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)
Brereton Hall, Cheshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)

Advancement in Elizabethan society depended largely on being noticed by the Queen. In an age where the monarch wielded enormous powers of patronage and with so many others jostling for her attention, your house and the hospitality you could provide were effectively the biggest advert you could make.  As a result of this, the houses of courtiers became destinations for the monarch as she made her way around the kingdom, and these homes developed both architecturally and stylistically to not only accommodate, but to also impress.  Known as Prodigy houses, they are now some of the most beautiful in England, and a fine smaller example, Brereton Hall in Cheshire, is currently for sale.

Surprisingly, the genesis of the Prodigy house actually lies far from the bucolic charm of the countryside, and instead can be found on the banks of the Thames in central London. Built in 1547-1552 (dem. 1776), the old Somerset House was the home of Lord Protector Somerset, and was the first classical building in the UK – a remarkable symmetrical façade which proclaimed the dawn of a new architectural style.  Although the core of the building was late-medieval, the decoration was resolutely classical; the gateway on the Strand was a development of the Roman triumphal arch, combining the three orders with pedestals and the pairing of windows and pediments.

The influence of Somerset House began to spread with the style adopted by those in the Lord Protector’s circle.  In the 1540s, at Lacock Abbey, Sir William Sharington, who was close to the Lord Protectors brother, added Renaissance features to his newly acquired monastic home.  So although elements of the new language began to be used elsewhere first, Longleat, built in 1572-80 by the Lord Protectors steward, Sir John Thynne, was the first of Prodigy houses; a new, larger style of country house which embraced the classical and which were explicitly designed for show.

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

Few can mistake the remarkable façades of Longleat, a glittering statement of confidence, wealth and architectural learning.  Thynne was part of the Lord Protectors circle and therefore out of favour under Queen Mary’s rule after 1553, so he wisely retired to Wiltshire to concentrate on applying what he had learned of classical architecture to the new house he was building. Sadly, the early results are unknown as the house burnt to the ground in 1567, forcing Thynne to start again. A new model was created in 1568 (this time in conjunction with that genius of the age Robert Smythson), the new façades were added in 1572, and when the Queen visited in 1575, it was complete up to the second floor.  Interestingly, the third floor may have only been completed after his death in 1580, Thynne having spent a lifetime and a fortune creating one of the greatest examples of Elizabethan architecture.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: stuartmcq84 via flickr)
Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: stuartmcq84 via flickr)

Smythson was to become one of the most accomplished of the new breed of specialist; the architect.  Officially his title was ‘Queen’s Master Mason’ but his influence, though the Royal Office of Works, was such that his architectural guidance was to become pre-eminent.  After the success of Longleat, Smythson’s next project was the grand extravaganza that is Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, built between 1580-88.  Sir Francis Willoughby, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, had entertained Her Majesty previously but now wished to create as great a statement as any member of Court.  Drawing on the traditional broad plan of a castle, with all its heraldic and chivalrous echoes, Smythson adapted it to accommodate the new classical language (though even this was inspired by the Poggio Reale in Naples, which Serlio mentions in his third book).  Although the plan of the house still followed the processional structure of royal apartments, the house radically dispensed with the central courtyard arrangement and instead created a huge central ‘keep’, but one without any pretence of defence. This was about glass, power, ornament and display.

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

Wollaton Hall was the last house with a documented link to Smythson but there is strong circumstantial and stylistic evidence that he was linked to two of the other great houses of the age; Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire, and Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, both seats of the Shrewsbury family.  Worksop Manor was another departure for Smythson; another variation of the castle plan but now much more loosely applied.  Completed by 1585, the design was a compressed and heightened version of Longleat and without clear precedent in earlier Italian work.  Hardwick Hall – famously ‘more glass than wall‘ – neatly fits into this narrative of Smythson and the nascent English Renaissance. Built between 1590-97, it is a simplified and reduced version of Worksop – and all the more elegant for it.  Built by Bess of Hardwick, it enjoys a prominent site (as with Longleat and Worksop), to better display its charms.  Where Hardwick can claim renown is as the first house to be built with a cross-hall, running from front-to-back in the centre, a derivation of Palladio‘s Villa Valmarana, and is therefore some of the earliest evidence of the use of Palladio’s teaching.

Palace of Theobalds, Hertfordshire - from an article in the Gentleman's Magazine, 1836
Palace of Theobalds, Hertfordshire – from an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1836

Influential though Longleat was, a wealthy man may always wish to find his own way of expressing conformity and so it proved with another group of the Prodigy houses built by William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley from 1571 (b.1520 – d.1598), the Queen’s Secretary of State and then Lord Treasurer.  Powerful and politically astute, Cecil became one of the most important men in the country and one very close to the Queen.  As such, her progresses often took advantage of his hospitality, leading to the creation of two of the great Prodigy houses.  The first was perhaps one of the largest and grandest non-royal residences ever built; Theobalds in Hertfordshire.  Originally a smaller house, as Burghley said, ‘[it] was begun by me with a mean measure but encreast by occasion of Her Majesty’s often coming‘, and then completely rebuilt in her honour.  It was a grandiose gesture which spread across five courtyards covering a quarter of a mile and anyone seeing it could not fail to be awed by the size and the statement it made of homage to the Queen, who visited 13 times in all, often treating it as one of her own palaces.  Sadly, the house became one of the many casualties of the Commonwealth; listed for disposal, it was largely demolished by 1650.

Burghley House, Lincolnshire (Image: xposurecreative.co.uk via flickr)
Burghley House, Lincolnshire (Image: xposurecreative.co.uk via flickr)

Cecil’s other house, Burghley in Lincolnshire, was more conservative and, in comparison, modest, though still on a grand scale.  Built between 1558-57, the house displayed all the typical Elizabethan swagger but in a compact form with an impressive entrance front which was one of the last to use the style of the high turreted gatehouse and towers at each end. One of the most innovative architectural feature of Burghley is the celebrated three-storey tower which dominates the inner courtyard.  Developed from the gateway at Somerset House, the Burghley tower features stacked arches, surmounted by a clock which acts as a plinth for a huge obelisk.  The house today survives as the seat of descendants of the Cecil family.

New Hall, Essex (Image: New Hall School)
New Hall, Essex (Image: New Hall School)

Though there are many other examples, two other houses are of particular note in this era of extravagant architecture.  One that can still be seen today, though is now enjoyed more by the pupils in its current use as a school, is New Hall in Essex, where the great stretch of the main lodgings is lavishly fenestrated.  Built by Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, around 1573, it was explicitly designed for the Queen’s use with a full suite of royal apartments: great chamber, presence chamber, privy chamber, withdrawing chamber, bed chamber and inner chamber.

Reconstruction of the South front of Holdenby Palace, Northamptonshire (Image: Holdenby Hall)
Reconstruction of the South front of Holdenby Palace, Northamptonshire (Image: Holdenby Hall)

The other, now sadly lost, is the vast palace of Holdenby Hall, Northamptonshire, a house which influenced those who later also wished to build to impress.  A late starter, Sir Christopher Hatton (b.1540 – d.1591), began the construction of his new house in 1571 as a direct, though amicable, challenge to William Cecil, though with an element of flattery in that it sought to mimic Theobalds.  Expressly designed to accommodate a Queen who never actually visited, by the time of its completion in 1583, Holdenby had few equals as possibly the largest house in the country; an enormous Renaissance palace with symmetrical façades stretching 380ft on the garden front, almost all of it glass. Hatton’s ambitions sadly ran far ahead of his wealth and his attempt at establishing himself as Cecil’s successor failed, partly due to being bankrupted by the enormous expense of building Holdenby, but also by his death less than ten years after completing the house.  Holdenby became a royal palace of James I in 1607 but was sold under the Commonwealth and demolished by 1651, with a smaller house later rebuilt as a new Holdenby Hall, one clearly linked architecturally to its more grand forebear.

The plan of the early prodigy houses still owed much to the traditional pattern of the Royal progress which required that courtiers accommodate the monarch and their retinue according to the strict rules of precedence and access practised in London.  This meant a series of courtyards and state apartments, each stepped back with a clear route of progress through them.  This naturally forced compromises in the early use of classical, leading to it being external decoration applied to an essentially medieval plan.  However, change was taking hold and in the now-for-sale Brereton Hall, it was reversed with a non-courtyard layout married to a distinctly historical feature, that of the grand gatehouse entrance.

Brereton Hall, Cheshire - 1819 - from George Ormerod's 'History of the County Palatine and the City of Cheshire'
Brereton Hall, Cheshire – 1819 – from George Ormerod’s ‘History of the County Palatine and the City of Cheshire

Whilst the courtiers were engaged with their vast and expensive projects, others also wished to show their allegiance through architecture, adopting the style of those close to the Queen, but scaled to their own circumstances.  Brereton was completed in 1577 but was in one way, curiously behind the times as it was one of the last to be built with a grand gatehouse (added in 1586) – though it was more impressive than it appears today.  The design was novel in that one tower was, in fact, a staircase leading to a small room in the domed turret (similar to Barlborough Hall, designed by Smythson) but with the addition of a bridge which crossed to a banqueting room in the other turret.

Gatehouse, Brereton Hall (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)
Gatehouse, Brereton Hall (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staff)

The rest of the house is typical of the smaller gentry Elizabethan houses, such as Cobham Manor in Kent (completed 1597), or Easton Lodge in Essex (burnt down 1847), which rejected the local vernacular and instead adopted that of the Court.  In doing so, Brereton was a fine example, decorated with the Queen’s coat of arms both inside and out.  The Brereton line died out in 1722, with the house passing to the Holtes of Aston Hall, before being sold in 1817 to John Howard of Hyde. He unsympathetically set about altering the house, radically changing the internal layout and removing the turrets of the gatehouse, adding instead what, in 1909, Country Life magazine called ‘battlements of outrageous proportions and cumbersome mouldings‘.  The house later became a school which closed in 1992 and then passed to the headmistress’ daughter who, with her husband, carefully and sensitively restored it as a home before it was sold in the late 1990s to a technology millionaire, who then sold it in 2002 for around £2.25m.  The house is now again for sale at £6.5m; certainly expensive, but by comparison with the illustrious and much grander architectural ancestors, not prodigiously so.

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Property details: ‘Brereton Hall, Cheshire‘ [Jackson-Stops & Staff]

Article: ‘Country Houses as Family Homes‘ [Country Life]

Photos of the house in 1909: ‘Brereton Hall‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

Further reading: ‘Prodigy house‘ [RIBA]

“To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul”; the rise of the country house library

Long Library, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire (Image: Eastnor Castle)
Long Library, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire (Image: Eastnor Castle)

In country houses, perhaps the greatest indulgence is to be able to create on a much grander scale. Not for them a few flowers beds; no, there are acres of careful horticulture, nor do they have small dining rooms, or a few pictures.  Yet few rooms in a large country house are as impressive as one which boasts a well-stocked library; regimented rows of bound knowledge, reflecting the interests and passions of generations. Yet libraries are more fluid than many imagine; with their creation sometimes comes their dispersal, but this is a cycle, with those books then finding another shelf, helping build the portrait of their new owner, one title at a time.

Books have always had a greater intrinsic value than just the words or knowledge they contain.  Having developed from clay tablets, via way of papyrus, to animal skins, books became spectacular art works in their own right in the hands of the monasteries whose illuminated manuscripts spoke of their devotion through beautiful calligraphy and iridescent miniature paintings. The effort involved made them scarce so the wider collecting of books largely only became possible due to mass production following the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439.

Although books had formed part of the interests of the royal family since the 14th-century, it wasn’t until the rise of the post-Reformation Tudor bureaucrats who, influenced by the Renaissance, sought to use knowledge, rather than battle prowess, as their means to advancement.  Education was now seen as key and this was reflected in the growth and composition of the gentleman’s library for centuries to come.  Yet, there were still a remarkable number of the gentry who had little interest in books, a trend which grew stronger the further from Court they lived; Girouard notes that in the 1560s, ninety-two out of 146 Northumberland nobles were unable to sign their name, and that in 1601, Bess of Hardwick kept only six books at Hardwick Hall.

Library (1675), Ham House, Surrey (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Library (1675), Ham House, Surrey (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

As intellectual pursuits became more acceptable so too did acquiring books in larger numbers.  Paintings of ‘gentleman’s closets’, which held all things most precious to the man of the house, often showed books, and in quantity; an inventory in 1556 for Sir William More at Loseley in Surrey records that he had amassed 273.  Earlier libraries are recorded for the fifth Earl of Northumberland who had created both ‘Lord’s’ and a ‘Lady’s’ libraries by 1512 at Leconfield Castle (demolished 17th century). By the late 16th-century there is the first written reference to the building of bookcases in the form we recognise today; two French craftsmen were working at Longleat in 1563 fitting out the library there (though it was sadly lost in the fire in 1567).  The earliest dedicated library to survive in a private house is at Ham House, Surrey which dates from 1675, installed for the Duke of Lauderdale.

Long Library, Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Holkham Hall)
Long Library, Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Holkham Hall)

So how did we arrive at the grand, sumptuous libraries which grace many country houses?  As with so much of that which is beautiful, the elevation of the library can be largely attributed to the Georgians.  The right of passage that was the Grand Tour meant that, increasingly, a wealthy young man would return from several years in Italy having (hopefully) spent his days studying ruins, architecture, art, and sculpture – and, as with all good tourists, he accumulated souvenirs.  Not just any old trinkets; these mementos took the form of paintings and freshly faked statuary but also many books, not only for their education, but also as a way of demonstrating to those back home the wonders which they had seen.  This led to the creation of some of the finest libraries in the country, such as the Long Library created by Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall, as the intellectual interests of the owner found expression through the hundreds, if not thousands, of leather-bound tomes which now lined a dedicated room.

Nanswhyden House, Cornwall (Image: courtesy of Charlie Hoblyn)
Nanswhyden House, Cornwall (Image: courtesy of Charlie Hoblyn)

Books were now not just the exclusive interest of the man of the house but had become a resource for the whole family and their guests. With the upper-classes now expecting a certain level of culture from those in their social sphere, education became an important part of polite society. To have a library was a reflection on the owner, who gained from them even if he hadn’t read them. Owners provided access to their books to their guests but, as the works were probably also the only significant source of knowledge for many miles, to a select few in local society.  One notable example was at the grand Nanswhyden House, Cornwall which was built in 1740 by Robert Hoblyn and featured a library which “…occupied two rooms, the longest of which was 36ft in length, 24ft broad and 16ft high…” and contained over 25,000 volumes.  Hoblyn intended that his books were “…designed as a standing library for the county, to which, every clergyman and author, who had the design of publishing, were to have the readiest access.”

Library (before the fire), Sledmere House, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life)
Library (before the fire), Sledmere House, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life)

There was also unofficial access for the staff; at the beautiful Sledmere House, Micheal Kenneally, who arrived as pantry boy and rose to be butler, recalls that when he first arrived he was told to familiarise himself with the house.  In the Library, he noticed a book called ‘Miller’s Sexual Systems‘ on a shelf. “I thought, I’ll read that when I get the  chance. It was seven years before I got the opportunity, and when I opened it, it was the sex life of plants and flowers. After waiting for seven years!“.  The decoration of the Library at Sledmere was designed by the  celebrated plasterer Joseph Rose (b.1723 – d.1780) and completed in 1794.  So proud was Sir Christopher Sykes of this fine and elegant space, he commissioned local draughtsman Thomas Malton to record it.  Two hundred copies of the finished drawing were then created, which Sir Christopher sent to his friends, virally spreading the glory of a spectacular library.  Christopher Hussey, writing about it in 1949, said ‘architecturally designed libraries are a feature of several of Adam’s country houses, notably Kenwood. But this one surpasses them all in majesty of conception, suggesting rather the library of a college or learned and wealthy society; indeed in the space allotted to it, in the amount of shelf room, and in the beauty of its decoration it is surely the climax of the Georgian conception of the library as the heart and soul of the country house‘. Sadly, the original was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1911, though luckily the family still had the original plans, in addition to photographs taken by Country Life in 1897, and so it was rebuilt to exactly the same design as before – after all, how can one improve on such a fine room.

Library, Arundel Castle, Sussex (Image: Country Life)
Library, Arundel Castle, Sussex (Image: Country Life)

The role of the library changed in the Regency and Victorian periods.  During the day it was the informal family sitting room, but during evening entertaining it took the mantle of drawing room for the gentleman, as opposed to the formal drawing room which increasingly became the domain of the ladies.  As such, it reflected the status of the man of the house, becoming more masculine, but also richly decorated and furnished to ensure that guests would be comfortable as they admired their surroundings.  Notable libraries of the period include the gloriously gothic Arundel Castle (see also: article in Country Life), the elegant Tatton Park, and the simply spectacular Eastnor Castle (see image at top of the article).

The county house library perhaps reached its zenith in the 1880s as often stable ownership had accumulated a wealth of some of the finest books ever produced.  The intellectualism of the Georgian and Victorian eras had elevated knowledge and learning and exploited them to create the wealth which now funded the artistic pursuits of the social elite.  For all the appreciation of books, notable libraries such as the collection at Stowe had been auctioned off in the 1820s, and following the agricultural depression of the late 19th-century, many libraries up and down the land were plundered as a source of income.  However, today, many still boast thousands of volumes on myriad topics, each part of the historical collage of the family, and creating what are often one of the most admired and beautiful rooms in any country house.

Feel free to add a comment below sharing which is your favourite country house library.

For lots of photos, the ‘Most Beautiful Libraries of the World’ website has a dedicated section: ‘Country House Libraries‘.

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*NEW* – ‘The Library’ on The Country Seat

To coincide with this I have published a new page on the blog; The Library.  I regularly receive emails asking for book recommendations so this will provide a selection of books on UK country houses which hopefully readers of this blog will find of interest.  The links are to Amazon and I do get a commission if one is bought (though the price you pay is the same) but the money will be re-invested in my library which will benefit the blog.  I now have most of the ‘easier’ books to get hold of and now face the challenge of acquiring the scarcer, more expensive, volumes, so it all helps.