Have you ever heard of prodigy houses? No? Me neither until very recently, but although the terminology was foreign to me the buildings themselves are achingly familiar. I’ve trudged around numerous examples over the years, my eyes goggling at the ostentatious excesses to which previous generations of the idle rich would resort in order to show off to their peers. None, I would suggest, is more ostentatious than Burghley House.
Prodigy houses were large, extravagant country houses commissioned by the English aristocracy and noveau riche, particularly between about 1570 and 1620. They were the projects of families that had thrived under the Tudor dynasty, and were built with the intention of impressing visiting monarchs.
And yes, if you were a prominent, rich English subject your king or queen might well come a-calling. At this time in our history the sovereign, sundry family members and a large entourage of flunkies and hangers-on were in the habit of touring the realm every year on journeys known as summer progresses.
During these elaborate processional trips through the English shires Elizabeth I, and her Stuart successor James I, demanded to stay in the homes of their most wealthy, high status subjects. They expected to be entertained in the lavish style to which they were accustomed, and to avoid the risk of social humiliation – or perhaps much worse – their hosts invested in elaborate prodigy houses that simply oozed with the wow factor.
And nowhere did the wow factor ooze more copiously than at Burghley House, situated on the northern tip of Cambridgeshire close to the boundaries of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It was built and mostly designed by William Cecil (later Baron Burghley, 1520 – 1598), who looked after the royal finances for many years as Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.
The main part of the House has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. In addition there are more than 80 lesser rooms, as well as numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas. William Cecil may have been dimly aware of the concepts of modesty and frugality, but plainly wanted nothing to do with them.
The exterior of Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys. Its intention is clear, to communicate a blunt message to anyone approaching the vast mansion: here lives a family that has more wealth, power and influence than you can possibly imagine!
Burghley’s interior, much of it remodelled during the late 17th century, is every bit as grand as the exterior promises. The Great Hall, for example, lives up to its name, while the rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the house’s owners and royal guests.
But it’s the painted ceilings and full height murals, many of them depicting scenes from Roman mythology, that really take the breath away. The Bow Room, for example, the work of the French painter Louis Laguerre (1663 – 1721) in 1697, is stunning. But can you imagine eating your dinner beneath that gaudy ceiling and surrounded by those huge, lurid murals? Plainly the 5th Earl of Exeter, a descendant of William Cecil could: it was his State Dining Room!
Meanwhile, another of the impressive state rooms, known as the Heaven Room, is reckoned to be the greatest masterpiece of the Italian artist Antonio Verrio (c1636 – 1707). It depicts a classical view of heavenly life, one in which countless fit, scantily clad gods and goddesses spend their days lounging around having a thoroughly good time.
Verrio was also responsible for the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, but its subject matter is altogether more sombre. Here we see the tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat. Definitely the stuff of nightmares.
I really don’t know what to make of Burghley House, but maybe – just like Verrio’s ceilings – it is a vision of both of heaven and hell. On one level the building and its contents are undoubtedly magnificent, and although much of it isn’t to my taste I can appreciate the quality of the artwork.
But on the other hand, isn’t it all a bit over the top, just too excessive to take seriously? Restraint, subtlety and simplicity are in painfully short supply, and may indeed be altogether extinct at Burghley. Less is sometimes more, and if there’d been a bit less of it I would probably have appreciated it even more.
However there’s more to Burghley than just the house, thanks to an inspiring sculpture garden in the surrounding parkland. The contrast between the overblown baroque excesses of the house and the pared-back, thought-provoking and sometimes witty and whimsical sculptures is stark. Taken as a whole, the combination of house and sculpture garden is enticing, and make Burghley well worth a visit.
In my next post I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of Burghley’s sculpture garden. Meanwhile, here’s a taster to whet your appetite: