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.

William Kent, the reluctant Gothick

If asked what style of architecture one would associate with William Kent, one of the leading designers of the Georgian era, most would say Palladian and, if pushed, they might argue that his interiors are distinctly Baroque.  Yet Kent is also regarded as the creator of the ‘Gothick’ style of architecture; a blend of historical Gothic elements but applied, initially, within the structure of classical rules. This quickly evolved to have greater historical rigour, laying the groundwork for the more zealous interpretation by Victorians such as A.W.N. Pugin.  However, it could be argued that Kent was merely satisfying the stylistic whims of a patron and in his use of ‘Gothic’ elements, was actually continuing the Elizabethan practice of creating ‘symmetrical Gothic’, a visually impressive approach built on Renaissance principles.

Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)
Design for the east front of Esher Place, c1732 (copyright: Merton Heritage & Local Studies Centre)

William Kent was born in 1685 in Bridlington, North Yorkshire, and displayed an early talent for drawing. Despite his parent’s modest means, he ‘had the good fortune to find some Gentlemen…to promote his studyes‘ who paid for him to travel to Italy in 1709, along with another talented young artist, John Talman.  Whilst there, Kent developed his skills in painting, but also in business as an agent for various young aristocrats on the Grand Tour, including Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, and Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, for whom Kent would help purchase paintings and other works of art. The latter connection with Lord Burlington, first professional, then as a friend, was to launch Kent’s career when they both returned to London in 1719, with Kent as the draughtsman of Burlington’s dream of a Palladian Britain.

It was the need for patronage which kept Kent in the thrall of Burlington and the circle of Palladians. Where Kent was given greater freedom, particularly in designing interiors and furniture, his natural inclination seems to have been towards a more Baroque style; a rich, florid escape from the strictures of the pure and elegant Roman style which Burlington so enthusiastically promoted.  So how did Kent become the father of ‘Gothick’, an architectural style characterised by the playful, historically-inaccurate application of medieval Gothic, the language of the cathedrals?

Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court - detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)
Hampton Court Palace east front of Clock Court – detail of capriccio landscape by William Kent, 1732 (copyright: British Museum)

Kent’s first documented use of Gothick was in 1732-34 at Hampton Court Palace where he was commissioned to rebuild the east front of the Clock Court as accommodation for the Duke of Cumberland.  As a good Palladian, Kent originally proposed a classical scheme but Sir Robert Walpole, who had final approval over the design as First Lord of the Treasury, required that it be in keeping with the existing Tudor Gothic. Although originally there was only a much simpler door, Kent developed this and created a full gatehouse as a central focus of the front. Though now altered, Kent’s design drew on the existing architectural features, using ogee-domed octagonal turrets and a Gothick Venetian window. The interiors were also remodelled but here Kent’s enthusiasm for Gothick waned and he reverted to a more classical style of decoration.

On a side note, there is a suggestion that Kent’s actual first Gothick design was for a church tower at St Martin’s, Houghton in 1727.  Although the drawings in the Houghton archives are by Thomas Ripley, Kent had been involved with designs at Houghton since 1725 for the owner, Sir Robert Walpole, who, as previously mentioned, also instigated the use of Gothick at Hampton Court.

The most complete early use of this novel Gothick for a country house was at Esher Place, Surrey.  Having bought a 14th-century gatehouse, Wayneflete Tower (the only surviving part of a much larger quadrangular mansion) Henry Pelham, Prime Minister from 1743-54, lacked a house on his estate. Again, Kent proposed a Palladian solution – a compact villa which (minus dome and projecting portico) bears similarities with Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House, completed in 1729. Again, Kent was to be over-ruled by the client who wished for Wayneflete Tower to be more than a grand garden ornament – it had to be the centrepiece of the new house and this dictated the style.

Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Sketch design for the east front of Esher Place, William Kent, c1732 (copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)

One can imagine Kent sitting down with pen and paper and, much as if learning a new language, started drawing out his new vocabulary.  Though the initial sketches show two classical wings grafted onto the tower, he also, importantly, was experimenting with a more varied facade, one which pushed forward and receded with canted windows and recessed bays. This movement was to be a key influence in the future, breaking down the more formal, flatter approaches which had previously dominated.  This experimentation also extended to the interiors with rooms taking on greater variety; octagons or rectangular rooms ending in canted bays.

Esher Place, Surrey - John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)
Esher Place, Surrey – John Vardy, after William Kent, c1744 (copyright: London Borough of Lambeth)

Kent’s final design (see at the top of the article) was an elegant solution and created a charming composition of a symmetrical house with the wings dominated by full-height canted bays and grand ogee-capped domes on the central tower. Unfortunately the scheme was watered-down in the execution – John Vardy‘s c.1744 engravings showing more austere wings without the bays and the tower without the domes. Even these were not to last as the new owner of the estate in 1805 pulled down the wings, leaving just the historic tower, before building a new house (the 1805 house is the south wing of the 1895 house) on the hill above – just as Kent had originally proposed to Pelham.

Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)
Proposed alterations to Honingham Hall, Norfolk, 1737, by William Kent (copyright: RIBA British Architectural Library)

After Esher Place, in the next of Kent’s Gothick experiments, in 1737 he produced a design for the remodelling of Honingham Hall, Norfolk, for the second son of Viscount Townshend. A year later, Kent came back with a more detailed plan which removed much of the Jacobean character of the house, which had originally been build c.1605, to dramatically alter the front with a mixture of the bays and recessions. Sadly neither of the designs where executed and the house itself was demolished in 1966.  However, this exercise gave Kent an opportunity to gain greater familiarity with Gothick detailing and elevations.

Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Rousham House, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The only other significant house Kent was to design in this style was Rousham House, Oxfordshire, for Lieutenant General James Dormer in 1737 (note the same year as the first proposed design for Honingham Hall). This was a remodelling of a small, H-plan house built in the 1630s and so Kent’s design had to accommodate the inevitable compromises of an existing building.  This he did by taking elements of the Honingham design, including the crenellations and a central ogee-capped dome, and combining them with classical elements such as the two pavilions which flanked each side. The interiors were a mix of styles; the parlour was purely classical but the library (a drawing room since 1764) was Gothick (or oriental, or Moorish, depending on who you ask). The gardens are the celebrated delight of Rousham and the buildings were designed by Kent at the same time as the house but are almost all classical, bar a Gothick Corn Mill.

North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)
North front of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, 1739 (copyright: private collection)

Other Gothick projects by Kent such as the screens for Westminster and Gloucester Cathedrals, the Choir Fittings at York Minster, and various garden buildings all show a facility but not a fluency with the Gothic language. The same elements are used repeatedly within a variety of layouts and plans but without the detailed study of the original source buildings Kent seemed bound to his limitations.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon - print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830
Mount Edgcumbe, Devon – print drawn by T. Allom, engraved by C. Mottram. 1830

Did Kent ‘create’ Gothick? Yes – and no.  The Elizabethans had long been creating houses which deployed the language of historical Gothic to their houses.  An article by Mark Girouard on ‘Elizabethan Architecture and the Gothic Tradition‘ (SAHGB, 1963) cites Burghley, Lincolnshire, where the house features a west front (built 1577-78) of towers and a turreted gatehouse, a north front (1585) dominated by Tudor-Gothic windows with a Gothic parapet, and the clock tower (1587) has an almost Gothic spire.  The Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses featured an emphasis on the vertical with towers and squared-off bay windows such as Robert Smythson’s Worksop Manor.  Finally, the symmetry that underlies Kent’s work, can be seen in the Renaissance-influenced Elizabethan houses such as Longleat or Mount Edgcumbe.

What Kent did do was apply his natural love of a more lively baroque interpretation of Gothic design to create a style which, although it mainly influenced those he worked with, was an inspiration to a later group of designers such as John Vardy and Batty Langley.  Overall, Kent’s Gothick houses and interiors lack the commitment and historical rigour he displayed to the Palladian style or the verve and passion which characterised his Baroque efforts. Certainly a measure of his success is that Kent did create a new architectural language which fed the wider Georgian passion for the Picturesque. Here, at last, was a style which could break strict Classical regularity and substitute it with a rambling vision of finials and tracery.

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This article was clearly inspired by the superb exhibition: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ (22 March – 13 July 2014). Definitely worth a visit if you are in London.

A brilliant tome (it’s huge) has been produced to coincide with the exhibition but easily works as a standalone reference: ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain‘ by Susan Weber.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has an extensive collection of William Kent drawings

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]

An ambition frustrated: country houses never completed

The delight of a country house is the beautiful meeting of house, setting and contents to create a complete picture.  Yet, for some houses, they never make that stage – finances or death of the instigator usually being the main obstacle to completion.  For some, these half-built aspirations are demolished, others left as a shell which can tantalise us today as to why they failed to achieve their purpose.

In previous generations, the simplicity of construction methods would necessarily mean that in some cases a decade could pass from plans being drawn up to actually moving in. As now, families can go from great wealth to poverty in a short time so to build a substantial country house was a commitment and a statement of the aspirations of the owners as to their future good fortune and health – though sometimes it was not to be.

Many a mansion has been started with grand ambitions which will forever remain unfulfilled (how impressive would Goodwood House in Sussex be if they’d completed the other five sides of the intended octogon?).  However this post is focussed on those which were started and ended only as frustrated shells.

Woodchester Mansion, Gloucestershire (Image: Matthew Lister via Wikipedia)
Woodchester Mansion, Gloucestershire (Image: Matthew Lister via Wikipedia)

One of the most impressive of these is Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire.  Originally built for William Leigh, a wealthy trader, who, inspired by his conversion to Catholicism, sought to create a religious community in the Cotswolds on his estate.  As any good Catholic was inclined to do at the time, he consulted A.W. Pugin, a devout Catholic who believed that Gothic architecture was the only true Christian style.  He produced plans for a grand new house (after naturally condemning the existing house as “…a more hopeless case of repairs I never saw.“) and a church and monastery, and sent his new design for the house with his estimate of £7,118.  Anyone familiar with Pugin’s career will know that he never saw an estimate he couldn’t exceed so Leigh probably had a lucky escape when Pugin resigned the commission in 1846.  Leigh instead turned to another Catholic architect Charles Hansom (b.1817 – d.1888).  Leigh’s religious zeal took priority so the church was completed in 1849 and the monastery in 1853 after which work started on the new house.

However, progress was slow; the workers were occasionally given tasks elsewhere on the estate, funds were inadequate, and Leigh was also a perfectionist who took a close interest which can only have delayed things.  The architect had also changed, with the young and inexperienced Benjamin Bucknall taking over and revising the designs to a combination of Pugin and the French architect Viollet-le-Duc, giving the house a distinctly French influence.  However, Leigh’s declining health overtook the build and he died in 1873 with only the shell complete.  A profligate son, declining family fortunes, the World Wars, and its isolation meant that despite various plans, including completion for use as mental hospital offices, it simply sat in its parkland. Now grade-I listed, the house gives a unique insight into the construction methods of the time.

Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire (Image: Heritage Images)
Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire (Image: Heritage Images)

Perhaps the grandest house never to be completed was the Worksop Manor in Nottinghamshire for the Dukes of Norfolk.  Part of the ‘Dukeries‘, that area of the county formerly rich in ducal seats, the original 500-room Elizabethan Worksop Manor, designed by Robert Smythson, burnt down in 1761 during renovations, destroying £100,000 (approx. £143m) of works of art from the famous Arundel collection.  Although childless, the 9th Duke decided to rebuild for the benefit of his eventual heir.

The plans were colossal and would have been the largest house in the county and maybe the country – if it had been completed.  Even Horace Walpole, who had developed a discerning eye for country houses during his many tours, thought the Duke’s schemes “…so vast and expensive that it is scarcely possible they can be completed.“. Designed by James Paine (b.1717 – d.1789), the aim was to mark the status and learning of the Duke’s family, building only one side, however it alone was 23-bays, 318ft long and featured a fine Corinthian column supported by six columns, with a 37ft x 25ft entrance hall, decorated by Flemish artist Theodore de Bruyn, and a grand drawing room of 50ft x 30ft.

However, following the death of the heir, Edward Howard, the grief-stricken Norfolks abandoned the project and concentrated on their Sussex seat Arundel Castle.  The 10th and 11th Dukes never completed it so it was therefore unsurprising that the 12th Duke decided to sell the house and estate in 1838 to the neighbouring Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyme for £375,000.  With his own palatial house at the nearby Clumber House, the Duke was not interested in the house, just in adding the land to his own. Rather than pay for the upkeep, the Duke sold the fabric of the building before demolishing the rest in June 1841 leaving just the stables and part of the service wing.  It was these that were later restored to make a rather awkward looking new Worksop Manor.

Lyvden New Bield, Northamptonshire (Image: Ed Bramley via Wikipedia)
Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire (Image: Ed Bramley via Wikipedia)

Altogether more mysterious is Lyveden New Beild in Northamptonshire.  Built for the remarkable if oft persecuted Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham (b.? – d.1605), a well-educated and wealthy man who moved in the highest social circles.  Never intended as a main residence (Lyveden Old Bield), this was apparently a summer house, a retreat for the owner during the annual spring clean of his main house.  That said, this is a house with many meanings.  Designed by Robert Stickells (b.? – d.1620) to indulge Tresham’s interest in antiquity and religious symbolism, the house was built in the shape of a cross and other elements aligned or organised according to mystical numbers, often alluding to the Holy Trinity.  Tresham also used the same ideas in his construction of the famous Rushton Triangular Lodge, a small folly also on the estate.

However, the same ardent Catholicism which drove the design of the New Bield and the Lodge also meant that he was regularly persecuted for his faith, frequently being fined huge amounts.  With borrowing his only option, funds were scarce and his estate heavily indebted.  Perhaps surprisingly, this half-finished house, set in fine gardens and parkland, was never bought and completed and so remains an architectural enigma to this day.


Visiting

Woodchester Mansion holds regular open days more details available on their website. The surrounding Park is owned by the National Trust.

Worksop Manor is still very much a private residence and is not open to the public.

Lyveden New Beild is owned by the National Trust and is regularly open.

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]