The glory of the great hall; Dundarave, Co. Antrim

Dundarave, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland - for sale, June 2012, £5m (Image: Savills)
Dundarave, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland – for sale, June 2014, £5m (Image: Savills)

Where is the centre of a country house? For some it may be a favoured study or library, or a sunlit parlour facing the gardens. Yet, from the time of the earliest large residential buildings, the great hall has often enjoyed that rare status of being at the core of daily life. However, as times changed, so too did the function, becoming less a space for the whole household to meet and eat, more a statement about the wealth and status of the owner.  The Victorians were keen revivalists for the patterns and forms of ancient aristocratic life and although few used their halls for dining, their role as an impressive reception area, both for receiving guests and entertaining, meant that some embraced the opportunity for grandeur, as can be seen in the recently launched for sale, Dundarave, Co. Antrim, in Northern Ireland.

A medieval country house still reflected the social arrangements of a castle with the lord and his family congregating in the central hall as this was safest and also warmest.  As the designs of homes changed from fortifications to the form we recognise today, the family would still wish to be seen and to entertain in the grandest space in the house.  It was also still probably the warmest.  The huge processions of the Tudor monarchs required a large enough area to accommodate the existing household plus the royal retinue and to have such a capacity was a sign of prestige.  The great hall was therefore as much a practical space as it was a statement of the wealth and power of the owner, as shown by the lavish construction, including spectacular hammer-beam roofs, such as at Eltham Palace (built in 1470s) and Burghley (built much later in 1578 – and the last to have an open timberwork roof), and windows with glass.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire - view of the inside of the great hall (Image: © d-kav / flickr)
Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire – view of the inside of the great hall (Image: © d-kav / flickr)

For the Elizabethans, the great hall was becoming increasingly symbolic, with Burghley the last extravagant flourish of that earlier age.  For houses closely associated with the monarchy or the favoured courtiers, the decorative opportunities that a space such as a great hall offered were irresistible.  At Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, built between 1580-88 by the brilliant Robert Smythson, a soaring central tower was designed to not only be topped by a prospect room from which to watch the hunting but also to contain a lofty interior, rising 50ft to a hammer-beam roof (though this one is decorative rather than structural).  Already the role of the great hall as a daily practical space was diminishing in favour of a more exhibitionist one.

Montacute, Somerset - View of the Great Hall, looking towards the screen which separates the Hall from the Screens Passage (Image: ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie)
Montacute, Somerset – View of the Great Hall, looking towards the screen which separates the Hall from the Screens Passage (Image: ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie)

Just over ten years later, in c.1601, the completion of the great hall at Montacute, Somerset, marked the first clear departure in design.  Although at the ground level it still had the same traditional features – porch, screen, bay window, steps at the high end – this hall was only a single story, rejecting the customary double-height space.  The hall was still an important part of the house with the other rooms designed to lead from it, but decisively its role as the daily venue for the entire household to meet and eat together had passed.  Instead the hall became less a space for living and more a space for occasional entertaining; for banquets, balls, and concerts.

Plan showing transverse hall - Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire. c1595 (Image: Andor Gomme / Alison Maguire)
Plan showing transverse hall – Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire. c1595 (Image: Andor Gomme / Alison Maguire)

The hall was often the centrepiece of the ‘polite’ rooms for guests which formed the main front to a house.  This meant that the main entrance would usually lead to a screens passage separating it from one end, with the hall orientated east-west (especially in H-plan houses).  As the overall plan of country houses started adopting the double-pile, this arrangement was increasingly awkward and so the hall was re-orientated to north-south, often running through the centre of the house, as can be seen in one of the earliest examples of a transverse hall at Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire, also designed by Robert Smythson, in c.1595 (which has been shockingly treated over the last 20 years, including a suspicious fire in 2007).  Although exterior fashions were changing to a more austere form, houses such as Forty Hall, Enfield, built in 1629, were still organised internally around a recognisable great hall.

Ham House, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ham House, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The next major change was the elevation of the bedroom into a formal receiving room, a French practice adopted by Charles II after his return at the Restoration in 1660. This is reflected in the layout of Hampton Court Palace, as redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren between 1689–1700, where the state apartments form the centre of the procession towards the presence of the king (though the existing great hall, added in 1532-35, was the last to be built for a monarch).  This fashion had already been adopted by other members of the court, with Charles II’s friend and minister, the Duke of Lauderdale, having created a state apartment  in 1672 at Ham House, Surrey (though, as a rebuilding of an earlier house, it still retained a great hall).

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

With the decline in the importance of the hall, it seemed almost inevitable that it would be used as a convenient setting for the ever grander staircases so beloved by the Georgians or even just as a convenient circulation space to pass through between the fine rooms. The broadening of wealth to those who made their money from trade and therefore preferred to live closer to the cities, led to the development of the villa.  Adapted from the Italian model, most famously those of Palladio and Scamozzi, there was neither space nor the social requirement for a great hall.  Chiswick House, designed in 1726, by the arch-Palladian Lord Burlington, had a central octagonal hall.  In larger houses, such as New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, built 1769-76, is one of the finest examples of the Georgian interpretation of the hall, a cathedral-like space, with curved staircases leading to a columned gallery with a circumference of 144-ft.  Of course, for those favouring the gothic, a great hall was still a core statement of lineal antiquity and so was still included in the plans, leading to beautiful examples such as the Gothic Hall for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Oxford, at Welbeck Abbey in 1751, or as at Ashridge House, Hertfordshire for the Duke of Bridgewater built between 1803-17, decorated with statues of kings.

It was those same intentions to either emphasise a family’s existing heritage or to give the impression that a family had a distinguished past, which led to a broader revival of the great hall in the Victorian era.  By having the benefit of eight centuries of the development of the great hall, a family would be able to design for accuracy, for comfort, but almost always for show. Fuelled by romantic visions of the past by books such as Joseph Nash‘s 4-volume ‘Mansions of England in the Olden Time‘, published in 1839-49,  the hall was now to be a grand display of whatever values they wish to imprint on this most useful of architectural motifs.

A late-Georgian recreation was at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, in 1830, where the Elizabethan great hall was reinstated.  In 1836, two examples were started independently with accurate medieval revival great halls at Alton Towers, Staffordshire for the Earl of Shrewsbury, and the other for Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt at Bayon’s Manor, Lincolnshire.  Each of these represent the two strands to the historic revivalism; Alton Towers being a religious statement, designed by A.W.N. Pugin, and Bayons Manor, of giving substance to a family line. Pugin was one of the keenest exponents for the revival of the great hall. A gothic evangelist who promoted the style as the only true architecture for the country as it was linked to a pre-Reformation England of Roman Catholicism.  The great hall was a symbol of a paternal system which Pugin related strongly to and which could be incorporated into daily life through the use of a great hall where the family could meet and the estate tenants and workers could be fed.

Derelict great hall in 1960s - Bayon's Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: W.T. Jones via Drakes Family)
Derelict great hall in 1960s – Bayon’s Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: W.T. Jones via Drakes Family)

The great hall at Bayons Manor was equally impressive as Pugin’s but was designed by Anthony Salvin. He had probably developed an affection for them whilst working on the restoration of the one at Brancepeth Castle, Co. Durham, in 1829 at the start of his career, throughout which he would create other notable examples including at Harlaxton (1831-38), Mamhead House (1835), and Peckforton Castle (1844). Firmly in the ‘family heritage’ camp is Arundel Castle, West Sussex, where between 1893-98 a vast Baron’s Hall was built, perhaps one of the closest recreations in form and spirit of the medieval great hall.  Although designed by renowned gothic scholar and architect Charles A. Buckler, he worked in exceptionally close co-operation with the 15th Duke, to whom a near constant stream of designs and decisions were passed for his comment and approval. This work was designed to emphasise the great age of the Norfolk family, a re-assertion of their status as one of the premier ducal families.

However, as the nature of the ownership moved increasingly towards those owners whose wealth came from industry and finance rather than landowning, so the need to entertain in large numbers such as the estate workers was less common.  Houses were often for weekend entertaining; smaller groups of business and political associates who would wish to dine in convivial intimacy conducive to discussion.  The role of the great hall moved back towards being a circulation space at the centre of the house, a place where pre-dinner drinks may be served but little more – though, equally, it still had to amaze.

Great Hall - Dundarave, Co. Antrim, N. Ireland (Image: Savills)
Great Hall – Dundarave, Co. Antrim, N. Ireland (Image: Savills)

The hall was often the first room your guests stepped into and so it had to create that all important first impression of your wealth and status.  Lofty, substantial rooms were created with muscular columns, galleries, niches for statues, and space for art.  It’s in this tradition that Dundarave was built between 1846-49 to designs by Sir Charles Lanyon. This top-lit space evokes something of the grand Roman baths and certainly fulfils the requirement to thrill.  The house is currently for sale and I imagine that potential buyers will step through the closed hallway, step out into the great hall and express similar amazement as has been the intention of all owners who have used spaces such as this for centuries; to impress.

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Sales particulars: ‘Dundarave, Co. Antrim‘ [Savills] – £5m, 549-acres

Article: ‘Selling off the holiday home for £5 million‘ [The Irish Times]

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.