Monday, 26 September 2016

Houghton Hall II: The House

An apology is in order.  It's been over a week since I posted my first piece on Houghton, a month since my visit.  (Regular readers may even be surprised that I should have even wanted to go to house usually descibed as 'Palladian'.) Since then I've been trying to formulate my response to what is a complex and often ambiguous building.  When I write a piece like this I do some research, however in this case the research hasn't helped clarify anything; for instance in 'Architecture in Britain 1530-1830' (Pelican History of Art, 1953) Sir John Summerson states that James Gibbs took over as architect at Houghton after the death of its designer Colen Campbell.  He also credits Gibbs with the design of the four domes at the corners of the house.  Straight forward enough one would think.  However Campbell died in 1729 and two of the domes are dated 1725 & 1727.  Either Gibbs took over earlier than 1729 or the domes are by somebody else.  The only other candidate is likely to be the on-site architect Thomas Ripley, who shows no talent for design such sophisticated things.  Confusing.  Hence the delay.  I've also pondered about how much detail I should go into the ridiculous complex interplay of architecture and politics in early 18th century Britain.  All equally confusing and contradictory. Thankfully I've decided to largely ignore it.  Sufficient to know that Houghton is one of the three seminal buildings of Neo-Palladiansim, along with Wanstead and Stourhead, all designed by Colen Campbell and which was copied repeatedly during the next forty years.  Politically Campbell, Walpole and Campbell's patron the Duke of Argyll were Whigs, and James Gibbs was a Tory.  The traditional account says Whigs = Palladian, Tories = Baroque.  However Gibbs worked here at Houghton and also for the Duke of Argyll, of all people, at Sudbrooke Park, Petersham, Surrey (now Greater London) - creating there one of the most beautiful and continental of Baroque spaces in Britain.  On top of that there has always been some debate about who actually designed Houghton: general opinion is Campbell, though Isaac Ware said it was Ripley, the Earl of Oxford Gibbs - there is also some evidence that Gibbs had drawn up plans before he took over as architect in the mid 1720s. See what I mean about confusing.... 
And then there are the critical responses to the building: James Lees Milne and Hussey both talk of Houghton as Baroque.  Others as 'pure' Palladian. 'Pure' it is not.

And so, finally, to the house.  As you can see from my photographs it isn't that large a house, but it does have a strong monumental presence in the landscape - a public proclamation of the status of its creator. Work commenced in 1721/22 just as Sir Robert became, what was in effect, Britain's first Prime Minister and at the apogee of his power.  It was Campbell's second major country house after Wanstead. 
Houghton's presence is partially created by the  beautiful stonework: sandstone that was shipped via Whitby to King's Lynn and Heacham from quarries at Aislaby in North Yorkshire, Norfolk having no freestone of its own. From a distance it has a certain fortress like quality, something that the original design for the corner towers might well have heightened. A verticality too that isn't so far removed from the English Baroque tradition, but which is played down on the garden front, at least, by the long low lines of the two wings. The garden facade is the most typically Neo-Palladian of the four: the ground floor, or rustic, is rusticated while the two floors above are plain ashlar.  Basically the wall therefore is inert, there is minimum layering or movement.  In the centre of the facade is a risalto in the form of an engaged temple front - think Roman temple, not Greek.  It stands on a podium ie the rustic.  It is reached by a pair of external stairs known as a perron.  At each end are towers, but I think they may equally called pavilions (in the French manner) because on piano nobile they contain bedrooms - state bedroom to the north, Walpole's to the south.  In fact it is the piano nobile that determines the elevation: the risalto perhaps too weak a feature, articulates the 'State centre'; the withdrawing rooms are represented by the windows between the portico and the pavilions.
Campbell had intended that there should be a proper projecting temple front, which might have given it a stronger presence in what is a long overall composition.  There are other changes too from the design illustrated in 'Vitruvius Britannicus'; both 2nd floor and ground floor windows are longer than the square ones depicted; the perron (a modern-ish replacement for the lost original) has straight flights.  The quadrant collonades were originally to be convex, like the ones Sir William Bruce originally designed at Hopeton in Lothian, and not as they are now, concave. And then there are the towers.  Campbell had intended square attics with pyramid roofs, a homage to the towers at Wilton which were the thought to be the work of Inigo Jones, but are now thought to be the work of John Webb.  As I have written above in the mid 1720's James Gibbs substituted domes and rather fine they are in themselves.  I wonder what Campbell thought about it?  Campbell omitted Gibbs from the 'Vitruvius', so it's obvious the two of them didn't get on in any case. The domes, it has to be said look only marginally more absurd than the intended towers, and this is only when viewed in conjunction with much narrower N & S facades.  They are however far more sophisticated than Campbell's designs.  Towers occur at Ragley and Croombe Court, both of which are based on Houghton, and at both they seem unhappy things.  The towers at Croome, in Worcestershire, where the house is even narrower than Houghton look very wrong. The N & S facades contain elements that very definitely outside the Palladian & Neo-Palladian canon.  Firstly there are the Baroque 2nd floor windows and there is also the arched window in the centre of the piano nobile with its Serlio derived rustication.  It all kind of reminds me of end facades of Sir William Bruce's masterpiece Kinross House.
I am deeply intrigued by the design of the entrance facade.  Firstly there is no central risalto - anything could be going on behind that facade, when actually there was originally nothing different to the eastern side of the house.  The only emphasis is the massive, heavily Mannerist/Baroque door in the middle of facade (now merely a window, as the original perron was removed in the late 18th century to save on the cost of repair).  In fact the architecture of the entire piano nobile is deeply Mannerist, with lots of that sort of blocking found on Palladio's Palazzo Thiene, and which may have been commenced by Guilo Romano.  Either way this sort of architecture derives from Romano or Serlio, and I find the most satisfactory of the facades. That contrast between Palladian and Mannerist facades occurs in another house by Campbell, Stourhead.  However I would never be surprised to find out that it was the work of Gibbs and not Campbell, though at the moment there is no evidence for that.
The wings too are more to my taste. They combine part of Inigo Jones's design for Whitehall Palace and the stable block at Wilton which was, in the early 18th century, thought to be by Jones.  The result is Mannerist, verging on Vanbrughian Baroque. I really should have taken more photographs of them but I guess I was too busy admiring them!  Like a good many wings sprouting from Neo-Palladian houses they're a good deal more fun than the actual houses they serve and which tend to conventionality. 








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