In my post about the interior of Belton House I remarked on how close the plan of that house, and innumerable other English country houses are close to the French manner of planning a country house. For all of it's much vaunted Palladianism Houghton is no exception. As Mark Girouard wrote in 'Life in the English Country House' Neo Palladiansim' often represented nothing more than a 'change of uniform'. If anything the plan of piano nobile is closer, in some respects, to the French ideal than Belton. Certainly the plan is much more rational, and in fact is very simple: the 'state centre' runs e-w; at right angles to that are four apartments each one arranged enfilade and occupying' as it were, the corners of the house and separating the apartments are service rooms - stairs, dressing rooms etc. (there are no closets). Each side of the house therefore forms an 'apartement double' - a plan form introduced by Le Vau at Vieux-le-Vicomte (1657-61). There are indeed a number of parallels in the history of both houses. The plan at Houghton also follows that of Ragley in Warwickshire (1679-83) designed by Sir Robert Hooke, and a sketch design of an unbuilt house that it is believed to be by William Talman. Much is often made of the clear contrast the public nature of the piano nobile of a house like this and the domestic of the ground floor 'Rustic'. At Houghton, however, this was never as clear cut. The two southern apartments were used by the family; Sir Robert taking the south west one; and the south west one eventually becoming a common parlour and the bedroom the library. The piano nobile became divided into public and family spaces sharing the 'state centre'. It is an arrangement that was followed, and became formalized, in the construction of Hagley, Worscestershire, (1753-9).
In c.1727 William Kent was brought into decorate the house (raising the interesting possibility he worked with or under James Gibbs) and his work in the state apartments is stunning. His work on the Great Stair less so. Kent was a poor painter, a better architect and a superb interior designer and gardener. Even at Houghton is it is possibly better not look too closely at his painted work. He was a protege of that arch-palladian Lord Burlington, but his work is far more varied and eclectic a designer than his association with milord Burlington would suggest. In fact Kent had trained as a painter in Italy in the Late Baroque tradition, and there is a feeling in his work that he is straining at the leash to be let loose. His work at Houghton is of astonishing richness. The state apartments form a real schatzkammer, even if they do not contain the art that originally decorated the walls. The first room the visitor enters is the Stone Hall - a great 40ft cube of a room, and the eastern of the two rooms that form the 'state centre'. It is the same size as the cube room in the Queens House at Greenwich by Jones. The ceiling has a great Baroque cove to it, based on the sort of cove Inigo Jones used later in his career when he was more influenced by contemporary French taste than Palladio. Ironic really, as it is possible to see Neo-Palladianism as an attempt to dethrone French taste in Britain and replace it with the Italian. The carved detail here and on the Great Stair are based on the details found in Coleshill - a house then thought to be by Jones but was in fact designed Sir Roger Pratt. Beyond that is the salon with its deep walls of Genoa velvet, and a fantastical ceiling that seems to combine that sort of Baroque form favoured by Wren (eg. St Lawrence Jewry) and the English Baroque school, with Renaissance detailing and painted in the manner of Guilo Romano, with a central panel painted in full blooded Italian Baroque. The other State Rooms follow this pattern adding a good dash of contemporary French decoration in the manner of Jean Berain to the mix. The furniture, which Kent also designed, too is a mixture of the Roman Baroque, the Antique and the contemporary French. It all culminates for me in the quite staggering Dining Parlour Kent created out of the withdrawing room in the NE apartment. There he clad the walls in marble and alabaster and decorated the ceiling in the Italian Renaissance style. Almost overwhelming. Kent I suspect, had much more in common with Wren, Hawksmoor and Gibbs than has been suspected. All of them took a stylistically eclectic, pragmatic, and contextual approach to design, and I think Kent did the same.
All of this is in deep contrast to the two rooms in the family side of the house which were open to the public: simple panelling and plaster ceilings. Domestic, and rather pleasing
In 1742 Walpole fell from grace, and three years later he was dead. As his youngest son, Horace, wrote; 'It is certain he is dead very poor; his debts amount to £50,000, his estate a nominal £8,000 a year, much mortgaged.' The family struggled on, but in 1779 the 3rd Earl was forced to sell Sir Robert's entire art collection to Catherine the Great of Russia, and with the death of Sir Robert's youngest son, and 4th Earl, Horace the estate passed to the Chomondeleys.