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.

—————————————————————————

Listing description: ‘Mereworth Castle‘ [English Heritage]

More photos – exteriors/interiors:

Also of interest:

Ripples of Palladio: Forcett Hall, Yorkshire for sale

Forcett Hall, Yorkshire (Image: GSC Chartered Surveyors)
Forcett Hall, Yorkshire (Image: GSC Chartered Surveyors)

For those of us who love our country houses, the weekly delight of the new Country Life magazine are the many pages of houses for sale.  Although the space is usually dominated by the major players such as Knight Frank, Savills etc, a particular joy is when you discover, tucked away with a smaller agent, an especially good house which deserves to be better known.

One recent house which falls neatly into this category is Forcett Hall, near Richmond in North Yorkshire.  Grade-I listed, this house forms part of the spread northwards of the fashionable ideas of Lord Burlington and the Palladians. ‘Palladianism’ (as it became known) formed a new movement and became the dominant architectural taste from around 1710 until around 1750 but which is still very popular and influential today.

The Palladians were largely influenced by the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (b.1508 – d.1580) whose work, particularly around Vicenza, drew heavily on the ancient classical form of Roman architecture.  The ideas were spread to Britain initially through the work of Inigo Jones, a multi-talented theatrical designer to the Court who also became the Royal Surveyor of Works which gave him the platform to spread the ideas of Italian Renaissance architectural classicism to these shores, starting with the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London.

Wanstead House, Essex
Wanstead House, Essex

Key to the spread of these new ideas were two books, volumes 1 & 2 of ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘, which took the form of a folio of one hundred classical buildings, published by the architect Colen Campbell.  Campbell also created one of the most important buildings of early Palladianism, Wanstead House in Essex, (dem. 1824) which re-interpreted the form of Vanbrugh‘s Baroque Castle Howard but in a new, more austere architectural language.  This was then followed by Wilbury House, Wiltshire, designed and built in 1710 by William Benson who succeeded Sir Christopher Wren as Surveyor of Works.  Wanstead inspired several derivatives in the years following its completion including Moor Park, Hertfordshire (1720s by Thornhill and Leoni), Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (alterations of 1733 by Flitcroft), Nostell Priory, Yorkshire (1733 by Paine) and Prior Park, Wiltshire (1735 by John Wood I).

Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)
Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)

Richard Boyle (b.1694 – d.1753), the 3rd Lord Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork, played a  significant role in firmly establishing Palladianism as a movement through his own influence, patronage and his circle of followers.  Burlington employed Colen Campbell to remodel his London house (taking over the work started by his rival James Gibbs) but Burlington was also a skilled architect, building the beautiful Chiswick House, in west London, in 1729, not so much as a home (it contains only state rooms) but as an architectural statement of his new principles.

One of Burlington’s protégés who assisted him as clerk of works on some of his earlier projects was Daniel Garrett (b.? – d.1753).  A measure of his competency can be seen in a letter sent in 1737 by Sir Thomas Robinson to Lord Carlisle regarding proposed works to complete the Mausoleum at Castle Howard:

“My Lord Burlington has a much better opinion of Mr Garrett’s knowledge and judgement than of Mr Flitcroft’s or any person whatever, except Mr [William] Kent…”

Stanwick Park, Yorkshire - dem. 1923 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Stanwick Park, Yorkshire - dem. 1923 (Image: Lost Heritage)

However, despite his skill, Garrett was dismissed from his role in the Office of Works in 1737 for ‘not attending his duty’.  This was probably related to his absences caused by his own growing architectural practice in the north of England.  In 1735 he was remodelling Wallington Hall, Northumberland for Sir Walter Blackett, in 1736 he was at Castle Howard, and in 1737 he was working for Lord Derby, and between 1739-40 working for Sir Hugh Smithson, Bart, (later 1st Duke of Northumberland) on the rebuilding of Stanwick Park, Yorkshire (sadly demolished in 1923). He was later to work at other distinguished houses including Raby Castle in Co. Durham, Warwick Castle, Northumberland House in London (dem. 1874), Horton House in Northamptonshire (dem. 1936), Uppark in Sussex, Kippax Park in Yorkshire (dem. 1956-59) and most notably Foots Cray Place in Kent (dem. 1950).

This gives a measure of Garrett’s skill and his client list.  It was following his work at Stanwick that he started work at Forcett Hall in 1740 – though there does seem to be some debate as to what he did.  A list at Alnwick Castle says that the house is by ‘Mr Garrett for Mr Shuttleworth’, the latter being Richard Shuttleworth, the local MP who commissioned the house, whose family owned the estate between 1582-1785.  Although the estate agents state that the design of the house can be attributed to him as a rebuild following a fire in 1726, Howard Colvin thought him an unoriginal architect but skilled in providing handsome houses and instead only gives him a now demolished part of the east wing, the lodges and park entrance, the ceiling of the saloon (copied from the dining room at Chiswick House), and the grotto.

Forcett Hall, Yorkshire - as drawn by Samuel Buck
Forcett Hall, Yorkshire - as drawn by Samuel Buck

So if he didn’t design the main block, here’s an alternative theory; the house wasn’t completely burnt down in 1726 but was just seriously damaged, and Garrett gave a Palladian flavour to the house as part of the restoration.  The south front of the original house was drawn by Samuel Buck in his usual technically flawed idiosyncratic style (see right).  This is the same view in the picture of the house at the top of the post but the current house lacks the projecting wings but it does share the exact same form of three storeys over a semi-sunken basement.  Looking at the main house now (there’s an excellent picture on flickr: Forcett Hall – and also see the paintings in the comments), it could be argued that the elements of Palladianism – Ionic pilasters, quoins, external staircase have merely been applied to the house rather than forming a fundamental part of the design.  By excavating the semi-sunken basement (note the level of the lawn to the left), Garrett creates not only the appearance of a piano nobile, but also creates the space to add the staircase which is also in a typical Palladian style (and appears to be a modified form of the one at Stourhead as shown in ‘Vitruvius Britannicus) – but which seems to be an addition rather than a focus.  Elements such as the pilasters with their Scamozzi Ionic capitals almost seem to be copied from the entrance front of Marble Hill House in Twickenham (built 1724-29 by Roger Morris). Conversely, the north (entrance) front of Forcett is almost a different house; looking far more like an Italian villa than a Yorkshire country house (and I’m sure I recognise it from somewhere…).  Or perhaps I’m completely wrong and it is a new house, the design of which exposed the limitations of the architect.

This is a fascinating house, well worthy of it’s grade-I listing, though the photos on flickr show it’s in need of some care and restoration to fully bring out the beauty of this wonderful house.  The interior boasts some fine plasterwork and the house is set in a perfect small park which includes a 17-acre lake, no public footpaths and a grotto.  If someone is looking for a house with privacy but also a history to be explored there are few better houses available.

Property details: ‘Forcett Hall‘ [GSC Chartered Surveyors] – comes with over 230-acres, guide price £5.5m.

Property brochure [PDF]: ‘Forcett Hall‘ [GSC Chartered Surveyors]

——————————————————————————

British and Irish Stately Homes blog – more property for sale

This is also a good point to highlight another blog you should find interesting.  British and Irish Stately Homes is written by Andrew who is a frequent contributor to the comments in this parish.   Featuring houses for sale, TV programmes involving country houses, books on the topic plus much more it covers some more of the areas I just don’t have time to!  Do bookmark it, subscribe and let Andrew know if you spot anything you think ought to be added.