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.

Restoration continues inside and out; Wilton House and others

Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)
Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)

Any time of economic difficulties can often lead to any expenditure being put on hold, including vital restoration projects.  So it’s encouraging to see projects still being completed – but as some of these were approved and started back in the heady days of government largesse, perhaps these are the last we’ll see for a while except where private money can fill the gap?

One of the most impressive has been the award-winning restoration of the family dining room at Wilton House, Wiltshire – and maybe all the more impressive as it was funded privately by the owner, the 18th Earl of Pembroke.  Although ranked as joint 574th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2010, with an estimated worth of £115m, most of this wealth is tied up in the value of the house, the contents (including superb paintings by Van Dyck and Rembrandt), and the estate.

Anyone undertaking an architectural project at Wilton is following in some fairly illustrious footsteps.  The main house, one of the finest still in private hands, is unusual in that the scale of the house was a response to the incredible gardens designed by Issac de Caus in 1632.  The design is sometimes attributed to Inigo Jones but a drawing found by Howard Colvin at Worcester College by de Caus showed he was responsible for the original plan for a much larger, 21-bay palace, with a grand central portico, running to a total length of 330-ft.  However, the untimely death of the newly-married Earl in 1636 and the subsequent return of the huge £25,000 marriage dowry (approx £40m today) to the bride’s father, the Duke of Buckingham, meant that the scheme was now too ambitious and so just one half of the original design was built; which is what we see today. The half-a-house was considered plain so Jones became involved, adding the one-storey corner towers to the design.

Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Wilton’s interior, in particular the celebrated set of seven state rooms in the southern facade which includes the famous Double Cube room, were largely the creation of Jones, assisted by his able deputy John Webb.  Yet there are other fine rooms which had become misused over the years and one has now been restored in sumptuous style as a private dining room.  Formerly cluttered with the normal ephemera of family life – CDs, books, old furniture etc – it was  fairly sorry sight.  The current Earl and Countess of Pembroke have spent an undisclosed, but undoubtedly substantial, sum on creating a glorious dining room but which will sadly not be included on the tourist trail.  Tapestries now cover the deep green walls, interspersed with family portraits by Reynolds, completing what James Stourton, chairman of Sotheby’s UK described as “…one of the outstanding country house renovations of the decade.” and winning the 2010 HHA/Sotheby’s Restoration Award.

One of the largest of the recent projects has been the £5.6m restoration of grade-II listed Bedwellty House in Tredegar, south Wales.  Built in 1818 for the owner of the first iron works in Tredegar, it was increasingly at risk of falling into dereliction.  Realising the importance of the building, the local council spent four years securing grants to fund the ambitious programme from organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Welsh Assembly, Blaenau Gwent council, and Cadw [Welsh equivalent to English Heritage] .  The works have included work on the ornate plaster ceilings, the sash windows and shutters, and the main structure.  Work will now continue on the parkland and gardens to bring them back to their former glory.

The grounds of our country houses were also not just a buffer to keep the world from intruding but also a stage on which to create idealised landscapes and views.  To this end they were often populated with follies or architectural creations to catch the eye of those looking out from the house but also those walking the grounds.  Sadly, the isolation of these buildings has often meant that in recent years they have been cut-off from the main house, forgotten, or neglected and vandalised.  Nowadays these wonderful architectural vignettes have been increasingly valued and urgent works undertaken to restore them.  One fine example is the grade-I listed Wentworth Castle Rotunda in Yorkshire.  Started in 1739 and finished in 1742, the design is based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli near Rome.  One of 26 listed buildings in the 500-acre parkland, the temple has now been restored following a grant of £300,000, which has enabled the removal of overgrowing shrubs, and the cleaning and repair of the stonework, roof, and floors.

Thankfully the official organisations don’t have a monopoly on generosity. Perhaps those selling a house in need of some restoration might take a lead from admirable seller of Newberry Hall, Ireland, Richard Robinson.  Realising that the elegant Palladian house with its wonderful flanking pavilions is in dire need of restoration, the elderly owner has put the house on the market but with the offer of a substantial contribution towards the costs of restoration to bring the house back to its former glory.  With such generosity, one hopes a suitably sympathetic buyer can be found who will be willing to take on the project and complete an appropriate restoration.

Restoration has always been expensive so in their straitened times we can only hope that funds for basic care and maintenance are found so that in a few years time we are not faced with a slew of houses and monuments suffering from any short-sighted desire to save a few pence today at the cost of many pounds tomorrow.  Long may the stories be of enhanced glories such as that at Wilton House rather than urgent appeals to save buildings at risk.

Full story: ‘Winner of Historic Houses Restoration Award 2010 Announced‘ [Art Daily]

Full story: ‘Tredegar’s Bedwellty House restoration work unveiled‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Restoration of Wentworth Castle Rotunda completed‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Rotunda is reopened to round of applause for works‘ [Yorkshire Post]

Full story: ‘Deal for buyer who will rescue Kildare demesne‘ [Irish Times]