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.

Despite objections, Forty Hall renovation to proceed as planned

Forty Hall, Enfield (Image: Enfield Independent)

Despite objections from the Victorian Society, the plans for the extensive works at Forty Hall planned and then self-approved by Enfield Council will start later this year.  As reported earlier (‘Forty Hall ‘renovation’ gets approval from council but probably not from everyone else‘) the council proposed to make some significant alterations to the Grade-I listed house which seem to threaten the interiors but the latest story gives a very rosy view of the plans.

It seems that little has been changed from the original plans and the council will proceed with the plans despite the various concerns about the proposals.   Official bodies have a long history of believing themselves to be right despite credible evidence to the contrary so this determined attitude is not unsurprising.  It does seem a shame that heritage protection has now been superseded by a belief that the ends justify the means – with one of the most used phrases being that the changes will promote ‘community access’.  However, any plans should always bear in mind that the house is not simply a resource to be used but a vital part of local heritage which is not simply for this generation to (mis-)use as they might see fit.  It will be interesting to see whether the council can deliver an architecturally sensitive project or whether the warnings and concerns of others will be proved valid.

More details: ‘Enfield’s crown jewel, Forty Hall, to be restored from next year‘ [This is Local London]

The hunt for the lost contents of Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill, Middlesex (Image: World Monuments Fund)

Although Horace Walpole’s large and impressive art collection initially remained at Strawberry Hill after his death in 1797, it was later sold off by his heir in a 24-day sale in 1842.  With the sale, one of the best collections of it’s time of art, furniture, cermanics, glassware and manuscripts was scattered.

Now the Strawberry Hill Trust who look after the house are trying to find some of the objects in the collection with a view to borrowing or even purchasing some of the items.  In particular, if you know the whereabouts of:

  • Roman funerary urn;
  • mirror with portrait of Viscount Malpas;
  • ornate Turkish dagger;
  • Gothic dining table;
  • basalt Bust of Vespasian

For more details about each of the items, see the story at The Art Newspaper:

Full story: ‘Strawberry Hill on the hunt for lost Walpole treasures‘ [The Art Newspaper]

Forty Hall ‘renovation’ gets approval from council but probably not from everyone else

Forty Hall, Enfield (Image: Enfield Independent)

Enfield Council’s proposed renovation plan for Forty Hall in Enfield has been given the go-ahead by the council planners. However, the plan seems to verge on invasive and to contravene best practice guidelines from organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient  Buildings which recommend preserving as much historic material as possible to show how a building has developed.  The changes are part of plan funded with nearly £2m in grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Grade-I listed house was originally built in 1629 for Sir Nicholas Rainton, a City Alderman, President of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Lord Mayor of London.  The house passed through various owners until bought in 1895 by Major Henry Bowles who  made many changes including a new staircase with stained glass incorporating his family’s coat of arms.

However, rather than respect it as an important example of one of the many smaller mansions built on the edges of the then city but now subsumed into the suburbs, the council seem determined to make their own extensive changes.  An illuminating quote was given when the HLF grant was announced: “This gives us a unique chance to re-model the Hall completely to make sure that every aspect of it is planned and coordinated to make it the top visitor attraction that it should be.” [enfield.gov.uk].  Among the changes the council have proposed are:

  • installation of a lift shaft,
  • removal of the entrance porch,
  • construction of a glazed roof to the central courtyard, and
  • replacement of the main staircase.

It’s the latter that seems to be the most worrying change as the staircase was an important part of the history of the house.  The Victorian Society has raised their objection to this loss.  Interestingly, the press release inspired news story doesn’t mention whether English Heritage or the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings have given their approval.

Also of concern is the intention to redocorate the interior which will be carried out “by detailed investigation of historic finishes” – which doesn’t say that they will follow the evidence of the past.

All in all this seems to be a council who have approved their own plans to make many insensitive and substantial changes to a Grade-I listed building in an attempt to create a  ‘theme-park’ pastiche of an old house.  Perhaps a more considered approach would not only preserve more of the historic fabric the council seem so willing to rip out but would also offer cost savings.

The plans still require approval from the Secretary of State, John Denham, before they can be implemented so there is hope yet that this apparently inappropriate scheme might yet be modified so that whilst still meeting the council’s aim of increasing access and improving facilites it’s much more sensitive to this elegant house.

Full story: ‘Forty Hall renovation gets thumbs up from planners‘ [Enfield Independent]