Monthly Archives: February 2021

Sir John Soane and Kings Weston.

A drawing has recently come to our attention in the collections of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Soane (1753-1837) is one of the UK’s most important and influential architects and he greatly admired the work of Sir John Vanbrugh. Soane had been appointed Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, and had drawings specially produced to support a series of lectures he gave there between 1810 and 1820. The drawing in question, of the main front of Vanbrugh’s Kings Weston, was one of a thousand used to illustrate these Lectures.

Portrait of the architect Sir John Soane aged 76 by Thomas Lawrence. (© Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Vanbrugh’s architecture had fallen out of favour as fashions changed over the Eighteenth Century, from the drama of the Baroque to the formality of Palladianism that, in turn, developed into an icily uniform Neoclassical age. His designs, including Kings Weston, were criticised as being heavy and un-academic. Even as late as 1802 Kings Weston was being described in unflattering terms, with the Reverend Richard Warner condemning it in a stinging attack as “disgusting the eye, both within and without, by its weight and clumsiness”. Soane was amongst a new generation of architects who were reappraising Vanbrugh’s work and delighted in its imagination and drama that accorded with the new age of Romanticism. Early in his lecture series he extolled Vanbrugh’s “bold flights of irregular fancy, his powerful mind rises superior to common conceptions, and entitles him to the high distinctive appellation of the Shakespeare of architects”; high praise indeed!

The drawing of Kings Weston was used in Soane’s eleventh lecture, given in 1815. The lecture was varied in its topics, with disparate aspects of design covered, largely concerning decoration and composition. It was illustrated with a wide array of examples, both good and bad. The context for including Kings Weston is curious, and it’s important here to focus on the drawing itself and the others that were used to illustrate the particular point being made. Kings Weston is joined by Cholmondeley Hall, Hampton Court in Herefordshire, and Eaton Hall, Cheshire. All were seemingly taken from volumes of the seminal Vitruvius Britannicus, a monumental series of books produced by Colen Campbell illustrating British architecture at the start of the Eighteenth Century. Curiously all the drawings have been heavily edited from the source material and some in most alarming ways.

The facade of Kings Weston house as drawn by Sir John Soane’s office for use in his XIth lecture. (© Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)
The source for Soane’s lecture drawing is this page from Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus from 1715.

The façade of Kings Weston received perhaps the most slighting amendments: the omission of its characteristic chimney arcade and even its top storey. For the purposes of the lecture these distinctive elements were replaced by a pitched grey roof. Dr Frances Sands, the Curator of Drawings and Books at Sir John Soane’s Museum, notes that Soane was keen on accuracy in his Royal Academy lecture drawings and has expressed surprise to find these obviously deliberate alterations to the drawings. In his lecture Soane even states, somewhat misleadingly, that the drawings are “of buildings actually erected”. It seems particularly odd too that Soane would have altered the Kings Weston drawing to omit such a signature flourish from and architect he so admired.

Eaton Hall in Cheshire as depicted in Vitruvius Britannicus, and as adapted for Soane’s lecture a century later.

To explore the reasons for this we need to go back to the original lecture. On the face of it the four façade drawings, and a fifth of Devonshire House, Piccadilly, are used to illustrate different formulaic arrangements of bay and window rhythms for houses. Soane observes that a simple house will typically have a central door with a window symmetrically arranged one on either side, a larger house with two either side, and Kings Weston forms the next in the series, where a wider façade is divided into a three-aperture central portion with a pediment with outer bays each with two windows. The other illustrated examples show iterations of the same formula carried over ever wider facades with further bays added to the extremities of a pedimented classical centrepiece.

It is this exact formulism that Soane is actually railing against in is lecture. He suggests foreigners complain “Architecture in England is so very deficient in variety, as if all our architects had but one mind and manner” that there is “such a deficiency of variety in the outlines of the exterior”. He complains further of the “neglect of distinctive character” in many houses. These charges against lesser architects could hardly have been reasonably levelled at such idiosyncratic a building as Kings Weston, or of much of Vanbrugh’s output.

Top from left to right: Kings Weston presented alongside Eaton Hall, Cheshire, Cholmondeley Hall, and (Lower line) Shobden Court (mistitled as Hampton Court, Heredfordshire) as they were in Soane’s 1815 lecture. The final image is of Devonshire House that Soane marked out as being “inferior in magnificence” for its variation on the same themes. (© Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Soane required the drawings omit the more distinctive architectural elements that would otherwise have contradicted the point being made in his lecture; certainly the arcade of Kings Weston house would not have fitted comfortably into a talk on sameness and monotony. Striped of their uniqueness the four drawings are given a false consistency, emphasising points in the lecture about the use of a central pediment and bay rhythms that Soane considered generic, repetitious, and without imagination. Perhaps his source books, particularly Vitruvius Britannicus, failed to provide him adequately mundane examples to use, and he was forced to adapt what was available.

Sir John Soane’s designs for his own house on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, london, now the home of his museum. Stacked arcades were once a feature of the stair hall at Kings Weston. (British Museum)

Within just a few paragraphs of his lecture Soane is again celebrating Vanbrugh’s work “who, for invention, has no equal in this country. Boldness of fancy, unlimited variety, and discrimination of character mark all his productions”. By association this must have included Kings Weston that had been visually maligned only shortly before. Had anyone in the lecture recognised the house, noticed the distortion, and known it to have been Vanbrugh’s design they might have been left particularly puzzled.

It’s not known whether Soane ever came to Bristol to see the house for himself. His closest commission was at Piercefield Park near Chepstow. In 1785, when he was working up drawings for Piercefield, Kings Weston would have been on a well-trodden tourist path between the spa towns of Bristol and Bath and the Wye Valley. Excursions across the Severn were well published. In fact, on a clear day, one can look south-west from Piercefield and the Kings Weston escarpment is clearly visible in the distance; It’s quite possible that Soane could have crossed to Gloucestershire to see it. If he visited it would be impossible to say what impact Kings Weston could have had on the 32 year-old architect. On Vanbrugh Soane said “the young architect, by studying the picturesque effects of his works, will learn to avoid the dull monotony of minor artists and learn to think for himself, and acquire a taste of his own”. One might hope that Kings Weston has helped to inspire successive generations of architects in his wake.

Today Sir John Soane’s Piercefield Park house is in ruins

Celebrating our first decade: Part II – To Enhance

In January we began reflecting on KWAG’s achievements of our first decade. This month we look back again to see what’s been achieved in enhancing the estate. Rather than last month’s focus on conservation works these projects have added to and improved the historic estate from where we found it in 2011. Much of this has been achieved thanks to the generosity of our volunteers’ time but sometimes has relied on equally generous financial donations. Again, we don’t seek to make an exhaustive list of everything the group’s achieved, but remember some of the highlights here. 

Volunteers labour through the hard rock to install a bench overlooking Shirehampton Park

A simple insight into the impact we’ve made is demonstrated by the difference in bench numbers. In 2011 there were just two benches within the park, one on Kingsweston Hill and the other close to the Iron Bridge. At one of our early consultation events the need for benches was eagerly expressed by park users, particularly the elderly. To respond to this need we agreed a schedule of new bench locations with Bristol City Council and multiplied two benches into fifteen. We’re grateful to anyone who has sponsored one of these benches, and also to the team of volunteer who have often struggled with rocky ground to install these. Less glamorous, but just as valuable, has been the provision of three new litter bins where only one existed before. The decline in dog waste has been marked and in no small part thanks to the bins we’ve supplied.

One of fourteen new oak benches installed by KWAG volunteers, here on the South Walk

KWAG doesn’t work alone, and where we can we look to work with partners with similar objectives. One of the park’s new benches departed from the standard oak seat and was an artistic celebration of Kings Weston and its place within “A Forgotten Landscape”. This 2018 project was a Heritage Lottery Funded focus on the land along the Severn Estuary and we worked with them to secure an appropriately celebratory design incorporating historic and natural features associated with Kings Weston. It included the arm and anchor of the arms of the Miles family who owned the house and much of the land below it.

The arms of the Miles family integrated within the A Forgotten Landscape bench.

We work in other ways to improve the experience of park visitors old and new, and help share the historic importance of the parkland. In 2012 we began with our first leaflet dispenser at Shirehampton Road car park. This was followed two years later by the map board highlighting the historic landmarks of the estate. This was installed with the assistance of the Avon Gardens Trust. We’re glad to announce here that they have kindly granted money for another in the park which will arrive soon.

Volunteer working parties aren’t just focused on conservation work and some of our biggest enhancements to the estate have been thanks to their efforts. An early success in 2013 was the removal of the derelict tennis court alongside Shirehampton Road, opposite the war memorial. This seems a distant memory now, but at the time it was an unsightly blight of decaying steel fence and undergrowth right at the front of the park. It took a couple of sessions, but its removal opened the park up and allowed the Council to start reincorporating the land back into the grassland.

In 2013 KWAG volunteers removed the disfiguring tennis court from the front of the park. 

Amongst our biggest and most physically challenging achievements must by the flight of 61 steps installed through Penpole Wood. This sought to restore an historic connection between the carriage drive and one of the historic Georgian pleasure walks below. The latter had been formed in the 1760s, but the connection had become impassable. The formation of steps restored an important circular walk. The first three months of 2015 saw most of the work finished, but the need to pile some of the steps into the bedrock required a return the following year to finally complete the job using a different approach. Already popular even before we’d finished building them we hope they will continue to be of benefit for many years yet.

The revived pleasure walk in Penpole Wood fitted out with new steps in 2015. 
A serpentine set of steps gave new accessible access between the Echo and the historic terrace behind.

The skills we’d picked up on the Penpole steps were reemployed in 2017 when we installed another short, but important stretch linking the Echo to the viewing terrace behind it. Although an historic path had existed it had long since vanished, and the going was steep, muddy and impassable for anyone with a wheelchair or unsteady on their feet. A new serpentine set of steps created an accessible route for everyone to enjoy, followed the Georgian path closely, and reconnected two important historic features. We’re grateful for all the volunteers who have helped in these projects, and particularly to Jim Ellis who has organised and provided logistics for many of our grand projects.

As well as installing new infrastructure we’ve enhanced the park in softer ways. In partnership with One Tree per Child we’ve planted hundreds of new saplings within Penpole Wood to help regenerate native woodland. Particular thanks are due to Celia Ellis who has helped coordinate these works and has taken such an active role for both our organisations.

Families came out to help KWAG plant 8000 daffodil bulbs on the Centre in 2019.

Every year since 2013 we’ve carried out our annual Big Bulb Plant, strengthening native wildflower populations and enhancing the park for visitors. In the last eight years we’ve planted over 64,000 bulbs, from daffodils to bluebells, cyclamen, and fritillary. Woodland areas have benefited from bluebells where the choking cherry laurel have been removed, and new displays of daffodils have become a highlight of the Kings Weston year. It’s at The Circle that our efforts to conserve and enhance have converged with greatest effect. In 2011 it was in a poor state, engulfed in brambles with laurels hard behind them. Conservation work pushed back the undergrowth, we followed through with grass seed and diligent maintenance until 2019 when it was planted with 8000 daffodils. The results have been inspiring and we hope for a similar display this year.

Daffodils burst to life on The Circle in March last year

However, probably our greatest planting achievement was the reinstatement of the avenue of lime trees framing the main front of Kings Weston house. This was replanted as a memorial to KWAG’s co-founder, Tim Denning who died in 2012 and was completed as a schools project in January 2014. The avenue of seventeen new trees restores some of the formal relationship between house and grounds, balancing out the existing ancient lime avenue, and restoring a long lost landscape feature.

The memorial avenue planted in 2014 in memory of Tim Denning, one of KWAG’s founders. 
one of three Scots Pines planted last month to replace the historic Sentinels below the Echo.

As part of our tenth anniversary events we will be planting more trees around the estate. In January three new Scots Pine saplings were planted to replace some of the mighty “Sentinels” in the woodland below the Echo. The original trees were planted perhaps two centuries ago, but some are now succumbing to decay. We hope that these three new sentinels will grow to continue the species’ vigil over the estate for many years to come.