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.

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]

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]

The future of the country house? Alderbrook Park, Surrey

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

Within any established pattern there is always the shock of the new. Most people when asked to imagine an English country house will usually think of red-brick Jacobean or light-stone Georgian but the design of new country houses is always in flux and what has gone before is no guarantee of what will come. Following World War II, the aftermath of which led to the demise of many large houses, the fashion changed to have a smaller but more modern house – one which required fewer staff and perhaps used more contemporary architectural language; however much it was derided by others.

Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)
Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)

The nature of architectural innovation has usually been one of gradual change – subtle at first and then growing bolder.  For example, Palladianism is widely seen to have arrived rather dramatically with the building of the Queen’s House in Greenwich in 1616 to a design by Inigo Jones.  Jones had recently studied Palladian architecture in Rome for three years and this commission was his chance to put this into practice.  One can imagine the surprise of Londoners, long used to timber, gables, and red-brick, to the square, stuccoed, and very white, Queen’s House.  Yet Sir John Summerson argues that there is evidence of Palladianism in the plan of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built in the 1590s by Robert Smythson.  Here, the placing of the hall on the central axis of the main entrance and the colonnades between towers front and back, echo the layout of Palladio’s Villa Valmarana featured in his Second Book of Architecture, making Hardwick the first known use of Palladio by an English architect.  This quiet use would have meant that visitors would have become accustomed to a symmetrical, regularised interior, paving the way for the same style to appear externally.

As much as the role of ‘architect’ took time to develop, so to did the responses to their work.  In 1624, Sir Henry Wotton, writing in his ‘Elements of Architecture‘, bemoaned the lack of ‘artificiale tearmes’ – that is, language with which to describe architecture.  Yet William Webb, writing in 1622, managed to praise the then new Crewe Hall in Cheshire, saying that the owner, Sir Randolph Crew;

“…hath brought into these remote parts a modell of that most excellent for of building which is now grown to a degree beyond the building of old times for loftiness, sightlines and pleasant habitation…”

So, ever since we’ve had architects, we’ve had critics (who were also sometimes architects); Jones, Wren, Ruskin, Pugin, Morris, Lutyens, Pevsner, etc have all made their opinions known.  Overseas visitors were also apt to compare what they had seen.  Jean Barnard le Blanc, visiting in 1737-8, was well educated and travelled and critical of the emerging use of Italian designs in England saying;

“These models have not made the English architects more expert; for whenever they attempt to do anything more than barely to copy, they erect nothing but heavy masses of stone, like of Blenheim Palace…”

As the language developed and architecture became more academic it became more rigorous and perhaps dry, with light relief afforded by more waspish commentators such Sacheverell Sitwell.

So why are some houses criticised more than others?  It seems that houses which appear without the ground being prepared before them suffer most.  The shock of the new is unmitigated and particularly where there is a strong local vernacular, the language of the new house will be a greater change.  More broadly, where a house is seen to be breaking with old traditions and what is seen as the ‘appropriate’ style for a family or an area, criticism can be swift and strong.

Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)
Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)

One example of this is Eaton Hall in Cheshire following the unfortunate demolition between 1961-63 of the vast Victorian masterpiece designed by Alfred Waterhouse.  The loss of the house left a gaping hole at the centre of the estate with large gardens and long tree-lined avenues leading to nowhere.  The 5th Duke decided to rebuild and commissioned his brother-in-law, the architect John Dennys, to design a very modern replacement.  The resulting house, although striking, was regarded as unsuccessful, with John Martin Robinson saying,

“The sad fact is that, while from a distance the new Eaton has some of the classic Modern impact of the Corbusier dream…close up it is rather disappointing…”

Yet rather than criticising the house for not being in the traditional language of the English country house, Robinson is saying that it’s not Modern enough.  Others disagreed, with perhaps the most amusing response coming from the Duke of Bedford before it was even built.  Writing in 1970 after the unveiling of the design, he wrote;

“I was interested to see…a sketch model of Eaton Hall.  It seems to me one of the virtues of the Grosvenor family is that they frequently demolish their stately home [Waterhouse’s being the third on the site]. I trust future generations will continue this tradition if this present edifice, that would make a fine office block for a factory on a by-pass, is constructed.”

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

In more recent times, one design which met with critical acclaim but was perhaps a step too far was the Ushida Findlay design for Grafton New Hall, Cheshire.  Their house was a response to a 2001 RIBA competition to ‘design a country house for the 21st century’.  In creating their radical ‘star-fish’ layout they were rejecting the established patterns and trying to create a new response to the same requirements for the functions of a country house.  Yet the house never found a patron and, tellingly, the house now being constructed is a classic of modern Palladianism, designed by the pre-eminent Classical architect, Robert Adam.

There are, of course, many other examples of intelligent but unpopular designs for modern country houses – for example, Wadhurst Park in Sussex for TetraPak billionaire Hans Rausing.  And it’s in this constant stylistic flux into which Lakshmi Mittal has pitched the very radical designs for his new house on the 340-acre Alderbrook Park estate which he bought four years ago for £5.25m.  The original house by Richard Norman Shaw for the Ralli family was demolished in 1956 as too large, with a poor, inadequate substitute built in the 1960s.  The estate was sold with the express intention of demolishing this house and in its place Mittal is proposing a £25m, carbon neutral ‘eco-home’.  To help achieve this, the design of the house is driven by the functional requirements to minimise heat loss, to be cooled by natural ventilation, and have hot water provided by pyramid chimneys which incorporate solar thermal collectors which will help also vent heat in summer.  This house is a rejection of the idea of the house as an aesthetic construct in a particular architectural style but is more Corbusier-like; a ‘machine for living’ – a somewhat depressing prospect.

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

So what does the future hold?  The natural course of the development of the country house has been its adaptation to the whims and preferences of the owners.  As younger generations have taken the reins they’ve chosen different and perhaps more fashionable styles – and without change we wouldn’t have the Georgian mansions or Lutyens to love. However, each of the previous styles could be seen as natural evolution which reused a broad architectural vocabulary which was instantly recognisable as distinctively rural.  What seems to jar with the very modern designs is that they seem to use a more urban, industrial language to interpret the form of the country house.  This seems to sit somewhat uneasily with our preconceived notions as to what a country house should look like – but who knows, perhaps in 50 years maybe it’ll be accepted and appreciated and we’ll be concerned about the next stylistic evolution.  I still prefer Georgian Palladian.

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]

More on this story:

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.

Doddington Hall pyramid proposal

Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: doddingtonhall.com)

The financial pressures of owning a country house usually mean that the priority always has to be the main building with little left over for the kinds of follies, garden buildings and ‘eye-catchers’ which were a common enhancement in previous centuries.

Over the last few decades there have only be a few notable additions to parklands including the strikingly modern garden pavilion designed by I.M. Pei for the Keswicks in Wiltshire.  However even this has a practical use but in the spirit of landscapers such as ‘Capability’ Brown, a proposal has been submitted for a new pyramid to be built as an ‘eye-catcher’ at the end of a 1km walk at Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire.  Doddington is a beautiful, symmetrical, red-brick house designed by the celebrated Elizabethan architect Robert Smythson.  It also has the rare distinction of being one of the few houses to have never been sold since it was completed in 1600.

Fingers crossed that this interesting proposal will be approved and completed to continue an important tradition of folly building in English gardens.

Full story: ‘Plans for pyramid at Doddington Hall‘ [Lincolnshire Echo]