An Indian takeaway: Sezincote, Gloucestershire

We long for an ‘Indian Summer’, whilst sitting in a bungalow drinking tea, eating curry followed by a sorbet and later having a toddy and going to bed in our khaki pyjamas. There are many words, phrases, foods and customs Britain has adopted from our interactions with India, but strangely, despite its strong and vibrant architectural history, the tide of architectural style has been largely one way; Western traditions flowing east, with only scant examples of the ebb bringing Indian influences back. Except, that is, in one small corner of Gloucestershire where the remarkable Sezincote stands as a unique monument to the influence of India – but also leaving the question as to why the Indian (also known as Hindoo or Mughal) style failed to find wider acceptance.

Sezincote House, Gloucestershire - entrance front
Sezincote House, Gloucestershire – East Front

UK country houses have always been a magnet for other influences, the interiors vying with each other to embody ‘fashion’ and be seen to reflect the culture and stature of the owners.  With the advent of travel, particularly what would become recognised as the Grand Tour, architectural styles from across Europe including Roccoco, Classical, Baroque and Palladianism would also find a ready home, being easily adaptable to the English physical and intellectual climate.  Further afield, imperial trade in the late 17th-century carried home Chinese, Persian and Indian influences and evidence of both can be widely found in porcelain, furnishing, fashion and art. Daniel Defoe noted Queen Mary’s ‘love of fine East India calicos‘ which led to an increased popularity for imported textiles, much to the chagrin of domestic mill workers.

"East India House" by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), (Wikipedia / Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
“East India House” by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), (Wikipedia / Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Behind this trade was a British firm which grew to wield power never equalled and with an ability generate wealth in a way few have; the East India Company (EIC).  On the strength of resurgent national confidence following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, merchants gained permission from Queen Elizabeth I to sail to explore the opportunities of the Indian Ocean, with the first ships sailing in 1591. After three abortive attempts, they succeeded in 1600 and the Queen granted the newly formed EIC a 15-year monopoly on trading with the East Indies. After besting their Dutch, French and Portuguese competition both militarily, diplomatically and eventually financially, by the mid-1700s, control of trade in India was under the control of the EIC.

This control was exercised through the EIC’s own staff and enforced by its private army creating a pseudo-state-like entity which offered the chance for rank, prestige and to create a fortune. Back in Britain, many looked at the usual prospects of joining the clergy, law or military service as a dim comparison against the possibilities of India.  As the financial opportunities of India became apparent, so the attractiveness of a position there increased amongst the aristocracy who came, saw, and administered, with the intention of taking their new fortunes home to establish themselves or boost their status in society.

Yet, from an architectural viewpoint, for all the interaction and extended immersion in the rich Indian culture, the complex and beautiful architecture was largely ignored as an appropriate style for country houses back in Britain. This was in stark contrast to the European styles which came back to Britain, like burrs on the coat-tails of the aristocratic Grand Tourists. This makes the domed, florid Sezincote, nestled deep in the Gloucestershire countryside all the more exceptional.

Originally a small 15th-century manor house, it was bought by the Earls of Guildford in 1692 and survived largely unchanged until bought by Colonel John Cockerell in 1775 – but he was not the author of the final version of the house. Sir John was a friend and had been part of the military staff of Warren Hastings, the former Governor-General of Bengal, who was building his own house at nearby Daylesford, and Cockerell probably had the help of his friend, or at least his agent, William Walford, in selecting the estate. In 1797, Cockerell wrote to Walford saying ‘I have many conceits and fancies in regard to Seasoncote [his spelling] for a residence…‘. In reality, the plans were a conventional Georgian remodelling with Sir John looking for someone to complete ‘the plain sort of work I shall mostly want‘. Building work was well under way by 1798 but at the end of the year came to a rather unexpected stop with the death of Sir John.

The half-finished house was inherited equally by his brothers, Charles and Samuel, and his sister. Charles had also made a fortune in India through a combination of official positions and private trading and, having bought out his sibling’s shares in the house for a total of £38,000, decided to embark on a much more radical vision. Seemingly unconstrained in his imagination, Charles decided (in collaboration with Thomas Daniell and his nephew William, the famous painters Indian topographical pictures), to clothe his Georgian house in full Indian robes.

Indian fireplace, Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image from 'Country Houses of Gloucestershire' by Nicholas Kingsley (1992, Phillimore & Co)
Indian fireplace, Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image from ‘Country Houses of Gloucestershire’ by Nicholas Kingsley (1992, Phillimore & Co)

The architect for this grand plan was S.P. Cockerell, his brother, whom Colvin described as ‘original and inventive‘ and this commission would certainly give free reign to both those attributes. Interestingly, this was not Cockerell’s first experience of designing with Indian motifs as he had been employed in 1789-93 to remodel the nearby unfinished Daylesford House, the newly acquired seat of the controversial former Governer-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings. Facing numerous charges of embezzlement, cruelty and abuse of power from 1788-95 (of which he was later cleared), perhaps unsurprisingly the exterior does not laud his Indian experiences, except for a hint in the west front which features a curved bay topped with a copper dome with a ball and spike decoration. Inside, although Hastings owned an exquisite set of gilt ivory Indian furniture, the decoration was restrained though it featured a remarkable fireplace, carved by Sir Thomas Banks in 1792, which depicts an Indian sacrificial scene and Indian female figures on either side.

Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image © altitudepix.co.uk)
Daylesford House, Gloucestershire (Image © altitudepix.co.uk)

At Sezincote, Cockerell had a much less restrained brief and so was able to fully embrace the Indian architectural language but whilst still firmly rooting it in the ideal of the Picturesque – that ability to surprise. The design though is not just collection of Indian forms and details; this is a house built at a time of great interest in this new culture and with a client both well versed in the country and its buildings and with a genuine respect for them. Drawing on both Muslim and Hindu motifs, it reflected such impressive buildings as Humayun’s mausoleum of Emperor Akbar’s mother in Delhi (especially the roof shape of the small turrets), and Sezincote’s entrance front bears some echoes of Akbar’s own mausoleum with the double-height arch.

East Front, Sezincote (Image © Cotswold Journeys)
East Front, Sezincote (Image © Cotswold Journeys)

The south facade is the most playful and graceful; a delicate blend of Anglo-Indian to create something unique in British architecture.  Dominated by a canted bay, the windows are shaped into peacock fantails such as seen in the Jaipur palaces, the chajja or wide over-hanging eaves create shade, with the corners punctuated by chattris, or small minarets, the green balcony railings imitating Indian jali work. The main dome is striking in both its shape and dominance whilst still being proportional to the overall design. The main house then joins the grand curved sweep of the Orangery (possibly to follow the landscape, possibly shaped like a scimitar), with its continuation of the peacock windows, terminating in an elegant pavilion.  It should be noted that the interior was pure Greek Revival, again emphasising the application of Indian design being in the Picturesque tradition of decoration, rather than slavish copying.

Orangery and Pavilion, Sezincote (Image © Sezincote Estate)
Orangery and Pavilion, Sezincote (Image © Sezincote Estate)

Fashion being what it is, news of the building of this extraordinary house travelled far, even reaching the Prince Regent.  The earlier popularity of William Hodges ‘Select Views in India’ (1783) and the six volumes of Daniell brothers ‘Oriental Scenery‘ watercolours (completed 1808), this helped created the brief flourishing of the Anglo-Indian style.  The Prince Regent, ever one for fashion, visited the still unfinished Sezincote in 1807 (probably at the suggestion of Humphrey Repton who was working there) and was so duly taken with this fantasy (supported by one of Repton’s famous Red Books), he resolved to indulge as well and so his new pleasure retreat in Brighton externally adopted the same, creating the iconic Brighton Pavilion.

Hindoo Temple, Melchet Park, Wiltshire c.1800 (Image © British Library)
Hindoo Temple, Melchet Park, Wiltshire c.1800 (Image © British Library)

However, the Anglo-Indian fashion failed to gain widespread popularity beyond the ephemeral (and hidden) interior decorations and fabrics. Architecturally, there were a few examples. In the City of London, George Dance the Younger created one of the early Indian-Gothic designs in 1788 with his entrance to the south front of the Guildhall. Dance also added unspecified Indian elements to Stratton Park, Hampshire (built 1803-06, dem. 1963) for Francis Baring (who made a fortune with the EIC) and at Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire (built 1804-08). It made appearances in various architectural pattern books (e.g. Robert Lugar and Edmund Aikin), leading to some quite isolated ancillary buildings appearing to be influenced by it; a Hindoo temple at Melchet Park, Hampshire, (c.1800) and further afield such as in Ireland with the Copper Lodge, Portlaw, (probably built 1820s, dismantled 1970s), and the Dromona Gate, Co. Waterford, built in 1861.  Back in England, perhaps the most impressive was the dramatic conservatory at Enville Hall, Staffordshire, built in 1854, which mixed Gothic and Indian, and which was sadly blown up for demolition practice during WWII.

Conservatory, Enville Hall, Staffordshire (Image © Historic England)
Conservatory, Enville Hall, Staffordshire (Image © Historic England)

So, despite the inventive opportunities, the widespread cultural exposure and even an element of Royal patronage, why did the Anglo-Indian style not become more popular for country houses?

Probably the most influential element was timing – but also a number of other more negative factors. Fashion is part inspiration, but also heavily dependent on there being a space in popular taste for it to expand into. Although Britain had been involved in India since 1600, achieving the dominant position had been a struggle with a heavy price paid by all participants; financially, militarily but also directly in the mortality rates of the colonial staff sent to this still largely unknown place.

Often, those who were sent to make their fortunes in India were second or third sons, who may have been in the shadow of their elder brother who stood to inherit.  Although the position of Viceroy was considered a significant honour, it was sometimes coveted for the financial advantages it offered to the incumbent: the substantial salary, the state-funded lavish lifestyle and the chance to rent out your own home back in the UK. Also, unless they made their own significant fortune, their time in India was perhaps considered an exotic distraction, possibly combined with ‘moral’ difficulties, considering the stories of the taking of local ‘wives’ and the adoption of local dress and customs, as reflected in the pejorative phrase of ‘going native‘. The ongoing military operations, the accusations of mismanagement, and the reports of massacres by both sides can only have added to the sense that Indian culture and British involvement was not one to be celebrated.

From an architectural perspective, just at the time that the EIC had established its dominance in the mid-18th century, the popularity of Chinoiserie was in ascendance, boosted by Thomas Chippendale’s ‘The gentleman and cabinet-maker’s director‘ (1754) and the architect William Chambers’ influential book ‘Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils‘ (PDF, 15mb) in 1757.  As mentioned before, this fashion culminated in the Prince Regent’s Oriental extravagance, the Brighton Pavilion, completed in 1823, inspired by Sezincote.  However, the unpopularity of the Prince may well have meant that what he favoured, was unfashionable. As fashion was swept along by Gothic Revival and Neo-Classicism, the Anglo-Indian style was politically difficult, architecturally challenging, and increasingly unattractive.

'Designs of Chinese buildings, furniture, dresses, machines, and utensils' - William Chambers (1757) (© Warburg Library)
‘Designs of Chinese buildings, furniture, dresses, machines, and utensils’ – William Chambers (1757) (Image © Warburg Library)

This makes Sezincote all the more remarkable; the determined vision of Charles Cockerell, an educated man who revelled in his experience in the beauty of India, realised with great care and skill. It is also a reminder that architecture is often a product of fashion and both are closely linked with wider society. Today though, thanks to the loving restoration of the Kleinwort family, who bought the estate in 1944, both the house and gardens have been restored back to their former glory; a vision of India, unique in the UK.


For a more in-depth history:

To see Indian influences in the UK:

  • Sezincote, Gloucestershire – gardens often open, house used for events.
  • Powis Castle, Wales – former home of a Viceroy with extensive collection of artifacts.
  • Elvedon Hall, Suffolk – if you can get in on a rare visit, Elevedon was once owned by the Maharaja Dulap Singh and has some impressive Indian rooms added in the 1890s.

Why the long gap between posts?

I last posted in May 2015 on the devastating fire at Clandon Park. In June, I then moved house with the expectation that after a couple of months I’d be unpacked and able to start again. Unfortunately, as with any house, the renovations took far longer than expected (and it’s only a small 1930s semi!) and I’ve had to be very hands-on. More significantly, my father, who had been ill for a while, deteriorated in January and sadly passed away. This blog, in part, exists because he fully supported my interests and enabled me to start collecting books to indulge my passion for country houses, so, for this and many other reasons, I will always be grateful to him.

A labour of love: the restoration of Hammerwood Park

Hammerwood Park, Sussex (Image: South Downs Living)

Once a house has sunk to such a level of dereliction that even the developers won’t take it on, this can easily lead to an application for demolition and the loss of another piece of our architectural heritage.  Yet, as we see in the media, there are often people willing to commit themselves and their money towards saving these beautiful homes – Hammerwood Park is one which certainly falls into this category.

The house was built in 1792 for Benjamin Sperling and is particularly important as the design of the house was the first commission of Benjamin Latrobe (b.1764 – d.1820) who was later to be hugely influential in the direction of American architecture.   Latrobe had studied architecture privately and served for a year from 1789 as an architectural draughtsman in the office of neo-Classical architect S.P. Cockerell. Howard Colvin suggests that Latrobe was also strongly influenced by the work of French architects such as Étienne-Louis Boullée whose own strictly neo-Classical style emphasised the paring back of unnecessary ornamentation and the use of grand scale with repetitive elements.  Through Hammerwood Park it’s possible to see this philosophy in practice with the giant pilasters on the garden front and the miniature temples on the flanking wings.

The early death of Latrobe’s wife in 1793 caused him to abandon Britain and head to America where he made friend’s with President George Washington’s nephew.  It was these contacts which enabled him to obtain further commissions including the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia which has been described as the ‘first monument of the Greek Revival in America’ (dem. 1867).  It was this and his later work designing the first Capitol building in Washington which so greatly influenced the future of American architecture towards the ne0-Classical which is so evident even today.

That a building as interesting as Hammerwood Park was ever allowed to deteriorate to that extent was unfortunately all too common in the post-WWII era. It is only the dedication of it’s current owner, David Pinnegar, that has probably saved the house from conversion or even demolition.  After various owners it was requisitioned during WWII for use by the Army who left it in their usual poor condition.  Post-war, the Chattell family, who then owned the house, sub-divided the house into flats but as dry rot took hold, the residents moved out and the house was sold in 1973 to the rock group Led Zeppelin for use as a country retreat to work on their music. However, touring commitments meant they never moved in (and rumour has it they even forgot they owned it) and whilst empty, thieves took the roof lead leading to massive wet rot outbreaks.  The house was boarded up in 1976 before finally being offered for sale in 1982 in Country Life magazine with the marvellous understatement that it was ‘in need of modernisation’.

David Pinnegar, then only 21, bought the now grade-I listed house and has since dedicated his life to its restoration.  The vast house has revealed many interesting architectural nuances as he and many volunteers have worked through the vast catalogue of repairs. Although he has secured some grants from English Heritage, the vast majority of the work has been financed through day visitors, B&B guests, and its use as location for a wide variety of films and music video shoots.  In many ways, David’s dedication is proof that all houses, no matter how poor their condition, can find a saviour.

Full story: ‘Hammerwood Park, East Grinstead: Whole Lotta Love‘ [South Downs Living]

House website: ‘Hammerwood Park