William Kent, the reluctant Gothick

If asked what style of architecture one would associate with William Kent, one of the leading designers of the Georgian era, most would say Palladian and, if pushed, they might argue that his interiors are distinctly Baroque.  Yet Kent is also regarded as the creator of the ‘Gothick’ style of architecture; a blend of historical Gothic elements but applied, initially, within the structure of classical rules. This quickly evolved to have greater historical rigour, laying the groundwork for the more zealous interpretation by Victorians such as A.W.N. Pugin.  However, it could be argued that Kent was merely satisfying the stylistic whims of a patron and in his use of ‘Gothic’ elements, was actually continuing the Elizabethan practice of creating ‘symmetrical Gothic’, a visually impressive approach built on Renaissance principles.

Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)
Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)

William Kent was born in 1685 in Bridlington, North Yorkshire, and displayed an early talent for drawing. Despite his parent’s modest means, he ‘had the good fortune to find some Gentlemen…to promote his studyes‘ who paid for him to travel to Italy in 1709, along with another talented young artist, John Talman.  Whilst there, Kent developed his skills in painting, but also in business as an agent for various young aristocrats on the Grand Tour, including Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, and Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, for whom Kent would help purchase paintings and other works of art. The latter connection with Lord Burlington, first professional, then as a friend, was to launch Kent’s career when they both returned to London in 1719, with Kent as the draughtsman of Burlington’s dream of a Palladian Britain.

It was the need for patronage which kept Kent in the thrall of Burlington and the circle of Palladians. Where Kent was given greater freedom, particularly in designing interiors and furniture, his natural inclination seems to have been towards a more Baroque style; a rich, florid escape from the strictures of the pure and elegant Roman style which Burlington so enthusiastically promoted.  So how did Kent become the father of ‘Gothick’, an architectural style characterised by the playful, historically-inaccurate application of medieval Gothic, the language of the cathedrals?

Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court - detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)
Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court – detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)

Kent’s first documented use of Gothick was in 1732-34 at Hampton Court Palace where he was commissioned to rebuild the east front of the Clock Court as accommodation for the Duke of Cumberland.  As a good Palladian, Kent originally proposed a classical scheme but Sir Robert Walpole, who had final approval over the design as First Lord of the Treasury, required that it be in keeping with the existing Tudor Gothic. Although originally there was only a much simpler door, Kent developed this and created a full gatehouse as a central focus of the front. Though now altered, Kent’s design drew on the existing architectural features, using ogee-domed octagonal turrets and a Gothick Venetian window. The interiors were also remodelled but here Kent’s enthusiasm for Gothick waned and he reverted to a more classical style of decoration.

On a side note, there is a suggestion that Kent’s actual first Gothick design was for a church tower at St Martin’s, Houghton in 1727.  Although the drawings in the Houghton archives are by Thomas Ripley, Kent had been involved with designs at Houghton since 1725 for the owner, Sir Robert Walpole, who, as previously mentioned, also instigated the use of Gothick at Hampton Court.

The most complete early use of this novel Gothick for a country house was at Esher Place, Surrey.  Having bought a 14th-century gatehouse, Wayneflete Tower (the only surviving part of a much larger quadrangular mansion) Henry Pelham, Prime Minister from 1743-54, lacked a house on his estate. Again, Kent proposed a Palladian solution – a compact villa which (minus dome and projecting portico) bears similarities with Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House, completed in 1729. Again, Kent was to be over-ruled by the client who wished for Wayneflete Tower to be more than a grand garden ornament – it had to be the centrepiece of the new house and this dictated the style.

Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)

One can imagine Kent sitting down with pen and paper and, much as if learning a new language, started drawing out his new vocabulary.  Though the initial sketches show two classical wings grafted onto the tower, he also, importantly, was experimenting with a more varied facade, one which pushed forward and receded with canted windows and recessed bays. This movement was to be a key influence in the future, breaking down the more formal, flatter approaches which had previously dominated.  This experimentation also extended to the interiors with rooms taking on greater variety; octagons or rectangular rooms ending in canted bays.

Esher Place, Surrey - John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)
Esher Place, Surrey – John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)

Kent’s final design (see at the top of the article) was an elegant solution and created a charming composition of a symmetrical house with the wings dominated by full-height canted bays and grand ogee-capped domes on the central tower. Unfortunately the scheme was watered-down in the execution – John Vardy‘s c.1744 engravings showing more austere wings without the bays and the tower without the domes. Even these were not to last as the new owner of the estate in 1805 pulled down the wings, leaving just the historic tower, before building a new house (the 1805 house is the south wing of the 1895 house) on the hill above – just as Kent had originally proposed to Pelham.

Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)
Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)

After Esher Place, in the next of Kent’s Gothick experiments, in 1737 he produced a design for the remodelling of Honingham Hall, Norfolk, for the second son of Viscount Townshend. A year later, Kent came back with a more detailed plan which removed much of the Jacobean character of the house, which had originally been build c.1605, to dramatically alter the front with a mixture of the bays and recessions. Sadly neither of the designs where executed and the house itself was demolished in 1966.  However, this exercise gave Kent an opportunity to gain greater familiarity with Gothick detailing and elevations.

Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The only other significant house Kent was to design in this style was Rousham House, Oxfordshire, for Lieutenant General James Dormer in 1737 (note the same year as the first proposed design for Honingham Hall). This was a remodelling of a small, H-plan house built in the 1630s and so Kent’s design had to accommodate the inevitable compromises of an existing building.  This he did by taking elements of the Honingham design, including the crenellations and a central ogee-capped dome, and combining them with classical elements such as the two pavilions which flanked each side. The interiors were a mix of styles; the parlour was purely classical but the library (a drawing room since 1764) was Gothick (or oriental, or Moorish, depending on who you ask). The gardens are the celebrated delight of Rousham and the buildings were designed by Kent at the same time as the house but are almost all classical, bar a Gothick Corn Mill.

North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)
North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)

Other Gothick projects by Kent such as the screens for Westminster and Gloucester Cathedrals, the Choir Fittings at York Minster, and various garden buildings all show a facility but not a fluency with the Gothic language. The same elements are used repeatedly within a variety of layouts and plans but without the detailed study of the original source buildings Kent seemed bound to his limitations.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon - print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830
Mount Edgcumbe, Devon – print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830

Did Kent ‘create’ Gothick? Yes – and no.  The Elizabethans had long been creating houses which deployed the language of historical Gothic to their houses.  An article by Mark Girouard on ‘Elizabethan Architecture and the Gothic Tradition‘ (SAHGB, 1963) cites Burghley, Lincolnshire, where the house features a west front (built 1577-78) of towers and a turreted gatehouse, a north front (1585) dominated by Tudor-Gothic windows with a Gothic parapet, and the clock tower (1587) has an almost Gothic spire.  The Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses featured an emphasis on the vertical with towers and squared-off bay windows such as Robert Smythson’s Worksop Manor.  Finally, the symmetry that underlies Kent’s work, can be seen in the Renaissance-influenced Elizabethan houses such as Longleat or Mount Edgcumbe.

What Kent did do was apply his natural love of a more lively baroque interpretation of Gothic design to create a style which, although it mainly influenced those he worked with, was an inspiration to a later group of designers such as John Vardy and Batty Langley.  Overall, Kent’s Gothick houses and interiors lack the commitment and historical rigour he displayed to the Palladian style or the verve and passion which characterised his Baroque efforts. Certainly a measure of his success is that Kent did create a new architectural language which fed the wider Georgian passion for the Picturesque. Here, at last, was a style which could break strict Classical regularity and substitute it with a rambling vision of finials and tracery.

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This article was clearly inspired by the superb exhibition: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ (22 March – 13 July 2014). Definitely worth a visit if you are in London.

A brilliant tome (it’s huge) has been produced to coincide with the exhibition but easily works as a standalone reference: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ by Susan Weber.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has an extensive collection of William Kent drawings

Littoral translation: country houses on the coast

The very name ‘country house’ implies a certain rural solitude; a fine house surrounded by its own acres.  Yet, some owners, for reasons of preference or amenity, chose to site their country house on the coast – and the recent quick sale of Barton Manor on the Isle of Wight, despite the generally slow market, has proved that the lure of the sea is still as strong as ever.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon (Image: Brownie Bear via flickr)
Mount Edgcumbe, Devon (Image: Brownie Bear via flickr)

Some areas, particularly in the south of England, have a long tradition of country houses being built to take advantage of some beautiful coastal scenery.  The harsh, combative weather of the north may have discouraged some owners, bar those living in castles, into seeking calmer situations further inland.  Yet in the balmier south, with more clement weather, landowners have long sought peninsulas and headlands to build their manors.  Cornwall has many examples of just such situations. One of the earliest was Mount Edgcumbe, built  in 1550, for the Edgcumbe family, in a commanding position overlooking Plymouth Sound. Devastated by a bomb meant for the docks in WWII, the house was rebuilt by the 6th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, even though his son had been killed in the war.  Inherited by distant relations, it was finally sold in 1987 to the local councils and is now a museum – but standing in the grounds one can imagine the attraction of the location which drew the first Edgcumbe to build there.

Prideaux Place, Cornwall (Image: Ute&Hajo via flickr)
Prideaux Place, Cornwall (Image: Ute&Hajo via flickr)

Forty years after Mount Edgcumbe was built, in 1592 the Prideaux family chose an equally dramatic spot, a hill overlooking Padstow, to raise their beautiful house, Prideaux Place, which is still looked after by the family.

Yet for less dramatic locations, what’s the lure? For most of the very grandest estates, the house was the focal point; the termination of roads, views and rides – the landscape emphasising the dominance of the owner.  To compete with natural beauty of nature, even a more benign one, the house would have to equal to the challenge.  The coast at Holkham can hardly said to be dramatic, but the house, Holkham Hall, is certainly spectacular – an architectural tour de force of neo-Palladianism.

Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: About Britain)
Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: About Britain)

The builder of Holkham, Thomas Coke, (b.1697 – d.1759) 1st Earl of Leicester (fifth creation), was a passionate follower of the ideals of Palladio, and he was determined that his own house should follow the strict rules of Palladianism.  The archivist at Holkham, Christine Hiskey, confirmed that she is unaware of any specific mention of the sea in his choice of location and has suggested that he might have been simply very attached to the original manor house, the seat of the Holkham branch of the family since 1612, and his childhood home until the age of 10.  In fact, even while building the new Hall, he lived for most of his life in the old house – it was linked by a passage to the first wing of the new Hall and demolished only in 1756, three years before Coke, then Earl of Leicester, died. Perhaps though, he was looking for a location similar to the Ventian plains where Palladio had completed many of his commissions.  Certainly his friends, Sir Thomas Robinson and Lord Hervey, could not understand why he had chosen such a wind-whipped position.

Yet, even here, the house was surrounded by a manufactured landscape as a foil to the rather austere provisions of the natural world. Initially created by Thomas Coke, the builder of Holkham (in conjunction with the famed designer William Kent), a later Coke, another Thomas, 1st Earl of Leicester (seventh creation), on inheriting the 30,000-acre estate in 1776, commissioned Humphry Repton to contribute proposals towards his own plans.  Repton devised a complex series of paths, snaking through the woods, along the lakes, and around the estate, but curiously, not to the sea, tolerating only a view of it from a particular point.  His designs perhaps reflected the unease Coke of Norfolk felt at the location; he is quoted as complaining that:

“It is a melancholy thing to stand alone in one’s own country. I look around, not a house to be seen but my own. I am Giant of Giant Castle, and have ate up all my neighbours – my nearest neighbour is the King of Denmark.”

Lacking his ancestors affection for the sea, Coke of Norfolk seems to have employed Repton to create an alternative landscape which tries to almost ignore it.

Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)
Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)

Another group for whom such glum thoughts may also have played on their minds were those whose trade relied on shipping.  In the same way that traditional country estates were at the heart of agricultural production, so too, with the rapid growth of overseas trade in the Georgian period, ship-owners wished to be able to see their vessels returning to port, or, at least, the source of their wealth.  This led to a number of houses being built along the coastal areas leading up to major ports such as Bristol, Liverpool, and Hull; though, sadly, many have been lost as the cities have expanded.  The sea could also provide the vantage point from which to select the site of a house, with Tapeley Park,  (previously featured in this blog when it appeared in Country House Rescue)  situated on hill overlooking Bideford in Devon, chosen by a captain returning home.

Other influences were also coming  to bear, not least the concept of the ‘Picturesque’ which provided a renewed appreciation of the power of nature. One effect of these ideas was the reversal of the role of the house from being the focal point of the view, instead now emphasising the importance of view from the house. Advances in transportation technology such as more comfortable sprung carriages, enabled the Georgian wealthy to travel greater distances in shorter times, so the coast became more accessible.

Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Soon country houses were taking advantage of the dramatic possibilities; perhaps none more so than Culzean Castle, Ayrshire.  Perched on the edge of a cliff, the castle, built between built 1777-1792 for David, 10th Earl of Cassillis, was an architecturally forceful response to an spectacular location.  The architect was the talented Scotsman, Robert Adam, whose interior style is so recognisable as to have become a named genre.  Adam, as an architect, was also skilled in making the best use of locations and having been originally commissioned for some minor additions to the original, smaller tower house, Adam realised the potential of the site and convinced his patron to add the massive round tower in 1785 with its circular Saloon, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, which open onto a balcony overlooking the cliff and crashing waves below. Less dramatically sited, but also impressive, was Hooton Hall, Cheshire, built in 1788 to designs by Samuel Wyatt which was described as “…a beautiful structure, standing on a gentle eminence, and commanding an extensive view of the river [Mersey], and of the entire coast of Cheshire and Lancashire…“. Sadly, such charms were not enough to save the house which, after serving time as a WWI airfield officer’s mess, was demolished in 1932 and later replaced by a Vauxhall car factory.

Highcliffe Castle, Dorset (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Highcliffe Castle, Dorset (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Fifty years later, the lure of the sea was still strong.  Highcliffe Castle in Dorset was the result of the long-harboured dream of Lord Stuart de Rothesay, a distinguished diplomat, to build a home once he had finished his overseas duties. Drawing on happy childhood memories, he went back to a site he had known as a boy and, in 1840, built Highcliffe Castle, a classic evocation of the Pictureseque and Romantic architectural ideals in a smaller country house and which incorporated significant quantities of carved Medieval stone from the Norman Benedictine Abbey of St Peter at Jumieges and the Grande Maison des Andelys which had become derelict after the French revolution.

As with many popular Victorian trends, a house by the sea gained widespread fashionable credibility through the support of Queen Victoria and Price Albert.  Early in her reign  the Queen had decided to purchase a summer retreat and favoured the Isle of Wight having stayed at Norris Castle as a young girl. In March 1844, she bought the neighbouring Osbourne House, but decided that it was insufficient and so should be rebuilt, the foundation stone being laid in June 1845, and was finished in 1848.  The architect was Sir Charles Barry, who had built other houses which the Queen had stayed at such as Trentham Hall (demolished 1912).  The prominent position and royal patronage made this a hugely influential design; the style and elements from it can be seen in many country houses from the 1840s-1870s.  The loggias, choice of axis to maximise the views and the terraced gardens all emphasise the coastal attractions which had originally brought the Queen to the Isle of Wight (as it did many others, including the architect John Nash, who built his own Picturesque home, East Cowes Castle, (dem. 1960) there as well).

Barton Manor, Isle of Wight (Image: Sotheby's International Realty)
Barton Manor, Isle of Wight (Image: Sotheby’s International Realty) – listing still available but house has been sold. Click for more images.

The launch of Barton Manor, Isle of Wight in the March 14 issue of Country Life was considered the first of the major residential estates to be offered in 2012.  Built on the site of a priory, the estate, was bought by Queen Victoria in 1845 at the same time as neighbouring Osbourne, and then had it completely rebuilt in 1853, reusing the old stone.  Although the Queen herself had an apartment there, it was mainly used as supplementary accommodation for visitors to Osbourne House. With the royal connections, well-proportioned house, superb gardens and fine coastal location it was no surprise that the 202-acre estate sold within a month, proving the enduring lure of the littoral is still a powerful attraction.

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My thanks to Christine Hiskey, archivist at Holkham Hall, and James Crawford at Knight Frank (agents for Barton Manor) for their help with this article.

As always, dear Readers, delays between posting caused by pressures of work – apologies.

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]

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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.