There were strong connections between Kings Weston and Ireland, ever since the estate was bought by Robert Southwell in 1679. Southwell was from a wealth Irish family and was appointed Secretary of State for Ireland by the King. His descendants maintained and strengthened their Irish roots, adding extensive landholdings, marrying into illustrious Irish families, and maintaining the role of Secretary of State through several generations. The Southwell’s’ built extensively on their estates, introducing the latest styles, and during the Georgian era Kings Weston became a frequent staging post for many travellers between the two kingdoms. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Kings Weston might have influenced the direction of architecture in Ireland.
Edward Lovett Pearce is, perhaps, Ireland’s most important 18th Century architect. He was from an Irish family and cousin of Sir John Vanbrugh. Recent research suggests that he worked closely as apprentice to the great architect at Kings Weston. Robert Lynch has identified a striking and idiosyncratic detail of the great stair at Kings Weston repeated in many of Lovett Pearce’s later works: the unusual continuous swan-neck curve of the balustrade handrail, passing continuously up the stair to the landings.
Pearce had become a pupil of Vanbrugh in 1715, following the death of his father, and undoubtedly would have dealt with work at Kings Weston, then in construction. Work on the great staircase is known to have been continuing in 1719, three years after the Southwell’s’ moved into their new mansion, but designs are likely to have been fixed before 1717 when Pearce chose a short-lived career in the dragoons. He may have returned to architecture in around 1722 when Vanbrugh and Southwell had already turned their attention to the Kings Weston parkland, ornamenting it with new ornamental garden buildings.
By chance the “temple” at Emo Court in County Laois caught our attention. It’s not really a temple, but a gateway and gloriette. There’s little evidence dating it. But there’s something familiar about its shape; it bears some resemblance to Penpole Lodge at Kings Weston. A rusticated podium, a central arch with arch and circle recesses either side, a single small room sat crowning the arch, and each accessed by a cramped staircase threaded up through one of the side piers are some of the features shared between the two buildings. Like Kings Weston the Emo Court building was strategically located for picturesque effect from the house it once belonged to. Exploiting a highpoint in its parkland, like Penpole, it would have been silhouetted as a landmark on the horizon, with the arch framing views of open sky from the mansion house, since rebuilt.
With the kind assistance of the Ministry of Works in Ireland we’ve got access to measured drawings of the now ruined Emo Court arch, and have drawn up a simple 3D model to compare with our one of the original Penpole Lodge. Marginally smaller it’s still not too dissimilar in character from Penpole to be able to suggest some sort of kinship.
The designs of Penpole Lodge are dated 1724. It was in this year that Edward Lovett Pearce is believed to have returned to Ireland to begin his own practice and meteoric rise in Irish society. The Irish Georgian Society has tentatively connected Pearce’s name with the Emo Court building, and architectural historian James Horley has made stylistic comparisons between it and other of his works. Regardless of its authorship there are stylistic, political, and logistical reasons to believe that Penpole Lodge might have been the inspiration for Emo Court. Circumstantial evidence for this is strengthened where Pearce’s involvement at Kings Weston is brought into consideration, and a possible direct route for the importation of architectural ideas into Ireland.
Anyone committing to build themselves a house no doubt puts a good deal of thought and research into the design beforehand, and it was no different for Edward Southwell when he was planning his new home at Kings Weston. Although he had appointed the Queen’s architect, Comptroller of the Royal Works, Sir John Vanbrugh to design the building Southwell would have been keen to make sure the designs, and the cost of the project, suited his needs. In appointing Vanbrugh he had already committed himself to the most modern and innovative architecture of the day. It is difficult now to picture quite how revolutionary the architecture was. For comparison, most of the grand houses around Bristol were still largely Tudor structures. At the time, nationally there were relatively few houses that adopted the newly fashionable Classical style we might now associate with grand stately homes. The revolution in style had only really taken hold in the decades after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, and took time to establish after the privations of the Civil War and Commonwealth era. If Southwell was to get inspiration for his new house he had a shallow pool from which to drink.
Seemingly with little plan for what to replace it with Southwell began demolition of his old family home in Spring 1711. By December the same year his sister, Helena le Grand, lamented to family friend John Perceval
“we expect my brother in town the end of the week after filling his belly with the ruins of Kingsweston for I can call it no otherwise.”
Still, in March the following year, Southwell himself confessed to Perceval “Kings Weston house is almost down though I don’t know what to build in the room” – an extraordinary lack of foresight! In the same letter he notes that he is making his gardens there “very fine” though the pressing priority of the house designs continued to elude him.
On April 25th Southwell set off from his London house, Spring Gardens, for ten days at Kings Weston, with an intention to set out the new foundations for the house. Rather than hurry to the building site an itinerary had been devised that would take in many of the most modern house architecture between the Capital and Bristol. Southwell’s own travel journals record the visits made on the four day trip and each short entry is accompanied by very basic notes on the incidence of garden features, architecture and stables. This was a study trip to get inspiration, and perhaps some housebuilding advice.
Beginning on the 25th April Duke Schomberg’s – Uxbridge (Hillingdon House) Sr Roger Hill’s – Denham Place, Buckinghamshire Sr Richard Temple – Stowe, Buckinghamshire Mr Boyle’s – Middleton Stoney, Oxfordshire D. of Shrewsbury – Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire Dodington, (Gloucestershire) This map shows all the stops on the route.
Today many of these buildings are fairly obscure, if not forgotten. Some have been entirely rebuilt or altered, but at the time they represented a good selection of the modern architectural or landscaping works, utilising the most current styles, construction techniques, and building technology.
Hillingdon House is not supposed to have been commenced until 1717, so what Southwell saw there is unknown. Denham Place had been completed in 1701 and was surrounded by fine formal garden compartments, including a long ornamental canal, that set the house in the centre of a lavish pleasure ground. The ornamental garden buildings, gates, and statues added opulence to the house itself, which was built of brick. Well-mannered with good proportions it was in a fairly staid style, perhaps even out of date for its time. Inside, a grand central staircase was one of the finest features along with other finely fitted out rooms; perhaps these were inspiration for what Kings Weston could offer.
Stowe house and gardens are now internationally known, and Vanbrugh later worked to embellish its gardens with ornamental buildings, but Southwell will have seen an earlier, less extravagant, house. Built in 1676 it was similar to Denham in its general plan and style with ‘H’ plan and hipped roofs. Both these houses had balustrade rooftop terraces and architecturally prominent chimneys. Architecturally they were fairly derivative, following almost standardised patterns after Burlington house, London, a building, amongst other fashionable examples, that set the mould for house design at the start to the Restoration era.
Middleton Stoney was built around 1710. Unfortunately it was completely rebuilt in the 1750s and no earlier depiction has been located to know what he saw there.
Heythrop Park was the most architecturally ambitious building visited. Begun in 1706 it was nearing completion when Southwell visited. Not only would it have given him an insight into the modern Baroque style, but he could have sought direct advice from builders and other people involved with the construction. Applied columns in the Corinthian style and ‘Giant Order’, robust window keystones, and an emphasis on the main entrance with its portico have some parallels with what happened at Kings Weston. The unique interiors of this house were lost in a fire in the 1830s.
Cornbury, though much earlier, shared similar features to Heythrop, but is more restrained in its exuberance. Here, on the south east wing, the Portico is engaged with the façade, with bold projections at the cornice. Imagining the frontage without the two end bays, and a silhouette enriched by a rooftop arcade, this building has stronger parallels with Kings Weston than Heythrop. The south-east wing was designed in 1666 by Hugh May, and architect who Vanbrugh admired for the work he’d done at Windsor Castle. The interiors here have been heavily altered, but there was once a double height hall here whose over-scaled fireplace with a Vanbrughn boldness survives.
Most curiously the diversion to Heythrop diverted right around Blenheim Palace, Vanbrugh’s most famous work, that was then in the process of construction. Considering Southwell had hired him as architect an inspection of the works might be expected it to have been an essential highlight. It’s assumed therefore that Southwell had visited at least once before and was already familiar with the project. How Heythrop, or for that matter any of the buildings on the itinerary, were selected can only be speculated upon.
Like Middleton Stoney, Dodington Park was entirely rebuilt in the late 18th century, and little can be ascertained on why it was included on the itinerary. Dyrham Park nearby, finished in around 1711, would already have been very familiar to Southwell, who was close to the Blathwayt family and would marry into it in 1716.
Further research is required to know whether Vanbrugh accompanied his patron on this journey. Was he there directing Southwell to features he thought fitting for Kings Weston, or did he have some influence on the selection of properties to visit? Was Vanbrugh present when Kings Weston was set out and begun?
You might expect that by the time Southwell reached Kings Weston, on the 29th April, and after so much inspiration, he might have at last decided on a new design. Indeed he writes that already “upwards of 60 men preparing stones and digging the foundation of the new house”; but still, in the closing days of May he wrote “I am full of a great anxiety and trouble as to mine (house improvements) which arises from the uncertainty of setting out right, and to this hour my model, I cannot say, is fixed; though it may be and will be by the next week.” Clearly April’s ambition to set out the new building had failed, the study trip perhaps even adding confusion to the process.
This indecision appears to be Southwell’s own, and Vanbrugh is not mentioned at all. The architect must have been working closely with his client on proposals, so whether his designs were rejected and revised, or whether the fault was his, and he’d been slow in furnishing his client with drawings is not known. There are no significant variations in the general design of the new mansion in existing drawings. Eventually plans for the house were agreed, and on 16th of June work on Vanbrugh’s designs for Kings Weston house was begun. In the context of most of the grand houses of its day, particularly in the Bristol Region, it was still a pretty revolutionary piece of architecture. Where Vanbrugh deviates from the rigours of classical architecture with the main front, and experiments with robust modelling of the other three fronts, Kings Weston is particularly unique.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.