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 along 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. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Bryan Browning IV: The Stamford Institution

After looking around Bourne Town Hall I popped over to Stamford and the Book Fair being held in the Assembly Room, taking the opportunity to photograph another building by Browning, the former Stamford Institute.
Sadly now disfigured with rubbish bins and cctv monitors (it deserves better!) this rather imposing building was built in 1842 by Moses Peal at the cost of £1,724.  It contained reading rooms, a museum and concert hall, even a laboratory.   The roof boasted a cupola that served as both observatory and camera obscura.  Some of the interiors apparently survive.
The facade is more decorative than is usual with Browning's work, a reflection perhaps of the changing tastes in classical architecture in the 19th century from Greek to Roman and finally Renaissance.  Perhaps also reflecting an interest in the eclectic approach of an architect like C R Cockerell, who happily, and skilfully blended various forms of classicism into a powerful and convincing whole.  There are some lovely details.  I'm particularly impressed not only with the skillful layering of the facade but with the treatment of the basement windows with their blunt primitivist pediments.

Bryan Browning III The interior of Bourne Town Hall

Yesterday I had the opportunity to have a look around the interior of one of Browning's most interesting buildings: Bourne Town Hall.  After lying neglected in recent years after the council had moved out a group of locals have got together to restore the building and open it as a community arts  venue.  They have other plans too such as the restoration of the wooden cupola which burned down between the Wars, and the restoration of the original clock mechanism.  I really hope they succeed.  The town hall is a unique and clever building that deserves, in fact, needs to be preserved and used.  It would also be very good for the town.  Anyway this was my first visit and it was delightful.  There is one main space upstairs and that is the courtroom/council chamber.  It had many of its fittings intact.  I love the chairs with the town coat of arms on and the immense and beautifully lettered Benefaction Board.  To me it looks like the court room could be based upon the Inigo Jones's Queen's Chapel at St James's Palace. I could be wrong! Most lovely of all however was the Magistrates' room (parlour? retiring room?).  It still has some wonderful furniture left.  Quite atmospheric.  Downstairs is the former market hall known as a 'shambles'.  The plan is to use it as an exhibition/market space.  Anyway here are the images I took.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Own work: Life Drawing XXVII

From yesterday's class, two poses with new model.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Houghton Hall I: The Park & Gardens

On the Wednesday we had yet another jaunt.  We drove north into Norfolk, turning off the A10 at Downham Market we headed north-east along the A1122 crossing the Devil's Dyke and on to the market town of Swaffham. After a brief stop for refreshments we headed north through Castle Acre (we must return there sometime) and then along the ancient trackway known as PeddarsWay and through the Massinghams and Harpley.  Norfolk was looking very dry and dusty after the vivid, lush landscape of Wales. Turning off the A148 we found ourselves at the head of a wide avenue of chestnut trees leading gently downhill to a small village, New Houghton - just two neat rows of whitewashed cottages on either side of the road - that was established to house the villagers evicted when the park was extended southwards, leaving the village church marooned in the midst of the park and the villagers with a bit of a schlep every Sunday morning and afternoon.  Ahead of us a pair of great wrought iron gates also painted white.  We had arrived.  Houghton Hall home of the Chmondleys, built by Sir Robert Walpole (1676 - 1745), 1st Earl of Orford, not as a result, but as part of his political ascent.
Through the gates we entered a well wooded park.  The drive swung gently in an arc to approach the Hall at a suitably picturesque angle; the park was originally laid out by Bridgeman in the early 1700s in the Baroque manner, and, as at Wimpole and countless other country houses, it was subsequently altered in the Picturesque landscape tradition.  The alterations were perhaps not as drastic here as elsewhere and three of the four main avenues survive.  The most important runs E-W through the 'state centre' of the house.  A version of Bridgeman's plan is illustrated in the 3rd vol of Colen Campbell's 'Vitruvius Britannicus'.  I've written 'version' because I suspect it does not show the park and gardens as they were actually laid out.
As the house was not open for another half hour we decided to do the gardens first then rather than have lunch.  It was quite the best thing to do.  There are two gardens at Houghton - one beside the house and the second created with the walls of the old kitchen garden, which with the stables is to one side and out of sight of the house. The new gardens were started in 1991 and are the work of the then head gardener, Paul Underwood and, later, the garden designers Julian and Isobel Bannerman.  All three are to be congratulated.  The new gardens are superb; the vast space of the kitchen garden has been divided up into a number of interconnected formal gardens - some practical, some purely for pleasure.  It was a delight to wander about and really are worth a visit in their own right.  The herbaceous borders were amazing even tough we were there past peak season.  I particularly loved the combinations of hot pinks, reds and oranges with blues.  There is a greenhouse too and a fantastical tempietto that references the 'primitive hut' as described by the French Neo-classical architectural theorist the Abbe Laugier. Delightful.
The stables, constructed of brick and the local carstone, are perhaps one of the orangiest building I've seen. They are the work of William Kent, and with all Kent's buildings the Baroque, in the form of Sir John Vanbrugh, is never far away.  They are also very monumental, and form the beginning of the route that visitors, paying, take to enter the house.  It is possible to omit the stables from the route by walking around them but I'd advise against it. The route is so carefully contrived and baroque you have to do it all. Go through the archway nearest the walled garden and the car park, cross the courtyard (or get way laid in the cafe and shop) and through the arch opposite.  On the otherside is a bosquet of densely planted lime trees - take the path.  At the centre a tall sundial, ahead a flight of stone stairs
At the top of the steps you find yourself on the edge of a plateau, a vast Baroque garden that is part original (though most of the original planting was swept away in the 1770s to save money), part Picturesque remodelling and part subsequent restoration of the original plan.  The Baroque predominates. Walk on through the loose planting of trees and then all of sudden this amazing space opens up on either side of you.  Breathtaking.  A real coup du theatre. The scale is colossal, and beyond my limited talents with a camera.
 Essentially an immense rectangle in plan this deeply formal and austere garden (there are no flowers) is bounded on one side (E - to your right) with the house and its flanking pavillions, and on the other three sides by ha-has and terraces.  A great lawn - bloody enormous, actually - runs from the house along the great E-W axis. (To your left) It is lined with double rows of pleached lime trees, echoing  in their bare trunks the columns of the arcades that link the house to its pavillions. The lawn appears to have no end - the ha-ha dissolving the boundary at that point between garden and park.  The avenue of trees shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus' has been removed at some point but the Baroque concept of 'infinite extension' assiduously maintained by the subsequent informal planting.  Behind the lines of pleached trees on either side of the lawn are blocks of bosquets sliced through by radiating avenues and bounded by hedges of either beech or hornbeam.  I wasn't sure which.  Four of the bosquets north of the lawn are hollowed out to form 'cabinets du verdure', in reference to those illustrated in the 'Vitruvius Britannicus', and where Modern sculpture and installations have been sited.  Rachel Whiteread had made a cast of the interior of a garden shed - 'Bit of a one trick pony' said the bf.  It was hard to disagree.  It was pretty underwhelming, as were the rest with the exception of 'Skyspace', 2000, by James Turrell.  (Apologies for ending this post on such a mildly negative note.  Everything else at Houghton though is marvelous!)

Friday, 16 September 2016

Own work: Life Drawing XXVI

The Thursday Life drawing class resumed yesterday after the summer break.  There were four short poses to ease us in.