Finest country seats: Mereworth Castle, Kent

Mereworth Castle, Kent (Image: building-a-day via tumblr)
Mereworth Castle, Kent (Image: building-a-day via tumblr)

Many articles on this blog relate to houses which are in the news, on TV, or for sale but in the quieter months it becomes more challenging to find topics.  As I miss writing, this article is the first in an occasional series on country houses I have entirely subjectively chosen (though I’m happy to take suggestions) as being of particular interest and beauty. So, first up, one of my favourite houses; one which simultaneously is both exceptionally rare and beautiful – and one, sadly, I may possibly never get a chance to visit: Mereworth Castle  in Kent.

To understand why this house is so important, it’s necessary to take a brief trip to Italy, specifically, to the Veneto in the north.

Villa Capra, Italy (Image: Marco Bagarella via Wikipedia)
Villa Capra, Italy (Image: Marco Bagarella via Wikipedia)

One of the most influential architects in relation to the style of UK buildings never actually built anything here.  Andrea Palladio (b.1508 – d.1580) invigorated the design of our built environment in a way many architects can only dream of through his innovative work in three areas; the urban palazzo, the rural villa, and churches.  Each, though distinct, shared a common architectural DNA that made Palladio’s work easier to understand which aided its adoption by others.  That’s not to say that his designs were simple or lacking artistic skill; it’s precisely their austere beauty which emphasises the thought which had gone into their proportions and decoration.

Palladio worked exclusively in the Veneto; that area of northern Italy centred around the wealth of Venice, but which had also created other cities which also grew rich and could express this through architecture.  Giovanni Rucellai, Alberti‘s patron, said “I think I have given myself more honour, and my soul more satisfaction, by having spent money than by having earned it, above all with regard to the building I have done.” Numerous trips to Rome, coupled with Palladio’s own diligent work in precisely measuring the Roman buildings and their details whilst he was there, gave him the architectural vocabulary to express what his patrons were trying to say to their neighbours, friends, and society at large.

His fame was well established (and undiminished even though dead) by the time English architect Inigo Jones made his first visit to Italy sometime between 1598–1603, but it was during a probable second trip in 1606 when he thoroughly absorbed the Palladian style, owning copies of Palladio’s most important work ‘I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (‘The Four Books of Architecture‘, published in 1570). Jones returned and, using his influence, especially once he became Surveyor-General of the King’s Work, he started to develop and promote an Anglo-Palladian style.  One of the earliest and finest examples is the beautiful Banqueting House on Whitehall in London, the first neo-Classical building in the country, completed in 1622, which draws heavily on Palladian architecture and principles such as the double-cube.

Whether an architectural style gains traction and popularity depends on its ability to reasonably adapt to different areas and the challenges that this can present in terms of both materials and the climate.  One of the reasons Palladianism spread so far and became so entrenched is that its architectural DNA could evolve to meet the specific challenges of the UK climate – namely, it’s much colder and wetter here than on the sunny plains of Italy. The wide open loggias, small windows, fewer fireplaces and lack of guttering all meant that a literal translation of a Palladio design would quickly prove to be difficult to live in and rapidly deteriorate.

Villa Barbaro, Italy (Image: Marcok via Wikipedia)
Villa Barbaro, Italy (Image: Marcok via Wikipedia) – note the wide-open loggias

The popularity of the Grand Tour with young nobles meant that, for all the challenges, Palladianism was highly sought after as an expression of aristocratic taste and wealth.  The desire for Palladian homes combined with the environmental challenges meant that, in the UK, almost all designs for smaller country houses in that style were derivations of the Veneto originals.  However, for a few owners this was unacceptable – a higher level of architectural accuracy was required.

Mereworth Castle, Kent (Image: from an old postcard)
Mereworth Castle, Kent (Image: from an old postcard)

Mereworth Castle (built c1720-25) was one of these houses, along with Chiswick House, Middlesex (built 1729), Foot’s Cray Place, Kent (built 1754 – demolished 1949), and Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire (built 1757 – demolished 1929). Today, it is still the finest example of the direct translation of Palladio’s Villa Capra (or Rotonda) existing in the UK.  Designed for John Fane, later 7th Earl of Westmorland, by one of the chief proponents of Palladianism in the UK, Colen Campbell, producer of the famous ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘, the book which was both the genesis and the bible for Georgian architecture in the UK and, by influence, Ireland and America.  Yet, as Nigel Nicholson points out in ‘Great Houses of Britain‘ why should ‘…a Scottish architect who had never been to Italy…chose to erect an Italian villa in the Weald of Kent for a patron who has likewise never set eyes on the Rotonda…‘? A good question indeed – and one Nicholson only partially answers.

In many ways the design is really architectural hero-worship.  Colen Campbell had started out working in Glasgow and idolised Palladio and, by extension, his representative in the UK, Inigo Jones.  Campbell had built one of the earliest Palladian country houses – Shawfield House – in 1713 and probably had a hand in the only earlier one; the wonderfully attractive and precocious Wilbury Park, Wiltshire, finished in 1710, designed by William Benson – owner and also architect, according to Campbell.  However, Campbell’s magnum opus wasn’t so much one building as many in the creation and illustration of ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘ which cemented not only his reputation but also this continental style as the most fashionable of architectural choices – which is the most likely explanation for John Fane’s choice.

For all the many Palladian variations Campbell created for his books, Mereworth Castle was the house which remained closest to his idol’s work.  That said, he wasn’t above making alterations, most of which, were improvements.  One of the first things to note is that Mereworth is actually larger in volume than Villa Capra, perhaps for practical reasons but also possibly as a statement by the architect as to his ambition.  The changes he did make do actually indicate that Campbell was an architect of some skill and invention, for example, routing all 24 chimney flues he’d had to include through the double skin of the dome to vent by the lantern, thus avoiding unsightly chimneys ruining the skyline.

Mereworth Castle, Kent with one of the pavilions (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Mereworth Castle, Kent with one of the pavilions (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The exterior has a wonderful rhythm as the porticos rise and fall as you circle the house, the swags decorating the pediments contrasting with the smooth stucco walls.  The setting is further enhanced by the matching pavilions which were added c.1740.  Rarely do additions to a house as sublime as Mereworth actually enhance it but the perfect proportions, placing and styling would make anyone think that Campbell himself designed them.  However, they remain a puzzle as to the architect as Campbell had died in 1729. Nicholson suggests they may have been by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart but Colvin makes a much stronger case for them being by Roger Morris, who worked in Campbell’s office and was certainly skilled enough to have created such brilliant additions.

Long Gallery, Mereworth Castle (Image: 'John Fowler: Prince of Decorators' by Martin Wood)
Long Gallery, Mereworth Castle (Image: ‘John Fowler: Prince of Decorators’ by Martin Wood)

One of the great contrasts is between the pared back exterior and the lavishly decorated interior.  The Palladio homage continues with the house being organised around a soaring central circular hall which rises from the ground floor to the dome.  Fine plasterwork by Giovanni Bagutti decorates the doorcases with separate swags of flowers and fruit on the walls. The decoration of the hall is a preamble for the beauty of the other rooms. The Long Gallery was one of Campbell’s improvements over Palladio’s layout, replacing two smaller rooms with one dramatic space which was then  ‘...ornamented to within an inch of its life with every device in the early eighteenth-century decorator’s armoury…‘ (John Julius Norwich) with a beautiful coved ceiling with sumptuous frescos by Francesco Sleter.

Even Horace Walpole, the arch-Gothick evangelist, conceded when he visited in 1752 that although he thought the hall ‘a dark well‘ that such was the glory of the rest of the house ‘that I must own it has recovered me a little from Gothic‘. From Walpole, that is high praise indeed.

Saloon - Mereworth Castle (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Saloon – Mereworth Castle (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Mereworth Castle is a rich and exciting house – visually stunning, the perfect expression of the Anglo-Palladian villa with the austere exterior balanced by the dramatic interior plan and plasterwork.  That is has survived almost unaltered with only the most sympathetic additions is perhaps a testament to the powerful unity it has as a design.  As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a preference for country houses which retain their original purpose as homes for a wealthy single family. This has certainly been the good fortune which Mereworth has enjoyed, now being owned by Mahdi Al-Tajir, the former United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United Kingdom and owner of the Highland Spring bottled water company who bought it in 1976 for £1.5m.  The unfortunate downside is that we may never get to experience these remarkable houses but, on balance, it’s an acceptable trade if it means that a jewel such as Mereworth Castle is given the care and respect it richly deserves.  That said, perhaps some day I hope I will get the chance on a summer’s day, bathed in the warmest Kentish sunshine, to wander round this most splendid of country villas.

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Listing description: ‘Mereworth Castle‘ [English Heritage]

More photos – exteriors/interiors:

Also of interest:

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.