Visions of heaven and hell: the Burghley prodigy house

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.

Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys

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.

The Great Hall lives up to its name

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 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.

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!

The Bow Room was the 5th Earl of Exeter’s State Dining Room

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!

The Heaven Room is considered to be Antonio Verrio’s masterpiece, painted around 1697. In the centre of the room is a Queen Anne oval wine cistern dating from 1710

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.

The Hell Staircase, ceiling by Verrio, Murals by Thomas Stathard added later.

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.

Detail from the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, depicting tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat.

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:

Saving Wentworth Woodhouse

“Wentworth Woodhouse…is one of the great houses of England, a mighty work of architecture, a palace of beauty and art and for 300 years both a political power-house and the hub of social and economic life across a swathe of South Yorkshire.” Source: Wentworth Woodhouse Masterplan 2018, p7

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Most British stately homes are big. A few of them are enormous. But the biggest beast of them all, Wentworth Woodhouse, which lies on the outskirts of Rotherham in South Yorkshire, is absolutely HUGE! The East Front (eastern façade), is 606ft (185m) long, twice the length of Buckingham Palace; Usain Bolt in his prime would have taken nearly 20 seconds to sprint past it. The building boasts over 5 miles (8km) of corridors, and more than 300 rooms. “Compact and bijou” is a description that has never been applied to Wentworth Woodhouse.

The East Front. Scaffolding on the far right indicates preservation work currently in progress.

But size isn’t everything, and in the case of Wentworth Woodhouse its size has almost been its downfall. It is simply too big to function as a domestic dwelling, and too expensive to maintain. In recent decades it has fallen into disrepair. But since 2017 it has been owned by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, a charitable organisation determined to bring this once magnificent mansion back from the brink.

East Front pediment

Dating from the second quarter of the 18th century, Wentworth Woodhouse is a Georgian gem. The mansion is an architectural oddity in that it actually comprises two grand houses built back-to-back. The so-called West Front was commissioned by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, the first Marquess of Rockingham, and built of brick in the English Baroque style from 1724-28.

The Pillared Hall staircase

However, the Marquess was disappointed with his new home. It simply wasn’t grand enough for one of the wealthiest and most influential men of his age. To put it in 21st century terms, the Marquess was well up himself! Determined to give himself the home he thought he deserved, he commissioned an add-on to the rear of the West Front. Built in sandstone from 1731-50, and on a scale never seen before or since, the East Front is an imposing, classical Palladian masterpiece. So we get two houses (cleverly joined together) for the price of one, which I suppose is a bargain, but one can’t help thinking that Rockingham should have made his mind up in the first place and saved himself a few quid.

The Marble Saloon

Much of Wentworth’s interior is of exceptional quality and was built with the intention of impressing members of the social and political elite who were frequent guests of the Marquess and his family. One of the rooms – the Marble Saloon – is said by some to be one of the finest Georgian rooms in all of England.

The Whistlejack Room

The second Marquess of Rockingham was Prime Minister in 1765-66, and again in 1782. Upon his death the estate passed to the Earls Fitzwilliam, who retained ownership until the late 20th century. The family made its money primarily from coal mining, and so it comes as no surprise that the nationalisation of the coal mines in 1947 led to a decline in their fortunes. It also threatened the very existence of Wentworth, with Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power, authorising opencast mining to within a hundred yards (91 metres) of the West Front.

Barbarians at the gate! Opencast mining threatens to destroy Wentworth Woodhouse, 1947. IMAGE CREDIT: Illustrated London News, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Following the death of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1948, a greater part of the house was vacated. Between 1950 and 1986 some of it was turned over to education, first as a teacher training college and then as part of Sheffield City Polytechnic. The building fell steadily into disrepair, and was sold to a private purchaser in 1988. However the vast scale and poor condition of the once grand mansion was a problem too hot to handle, and in 1999 it was sold on again. Finally, in 2017, in the nick of time, the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust stepped in to save it.

The Preservation Trust “is committed to delivering an innovative programme of mixed-use regeneration at Wentworth Woodhouse. Using only the highest standards of conservation workmanship, the Trust will create a fully inclusive world class visitor offer of exceptional quality whilst providing training, work experience and job opportunities for the communities of South Yorkshire.”

Source: Wentworth Woodhouse Masterplan 2018, p3

The Green Room

The Preservation Trust’s Masterplan covers a period of 25 years, and recognises that a “mixed-use solution” offers the best prospect for the long-term survival of Wentworth Woodhouse. This means that some parts of the estate will be put to commercial use in order to generate an income stream which will sustain the Grade I listed mansion to the required standards. Projects being planned include transforming the garden’s derelict Grade II* listed Camellia House into a daytime café and events venue, and creating a venue capable of hosting large wedding parties and corporate events for up to 600 people in the now abandoned Stables and Riding School.

The Camellia House will be transformed into an income-generating daytime café and events venue

But these developments are for the future, When the Preservation Trust took ownership of the building the initial focus was to fix the roof. Numerous holes were allowing rainwater to pour into the building, threatening the magnificent internal fabric. Urgent remedial action was required, and a government grant of £7.6m (USD 10.5m) has enabled this to be carried out. The building is now watertight and most of the scaffolding has been removed, buying the Preservation Trust time to further develop its plans and to start generating the funds needed to restore the grand mansion to its former glory.

The Painted Drawing Room

There is still a long, long way to go, but when we visited a few weeks ago there was a buzz about the place. Wentworth Woodhouse has been saved for the nation. Mrs P and I look forward to returning in a couple of years to see how implementation of the Masterplan is progressing.

The West Front

Kedleston Hall – A walk in the park (no peasants allowed!)

Our county of Derbyshire has many exceptional stately homes, where ordinary folk like me can catch a glimpse of what life was like for the English super-rich before inheritance taxes prompted them to modify their extravagant lifestyles. Kedleston Hall, an 18th century Palladian and Neoclassical masterpiece now managed on behalf of us all by the National Trust, isn’t the most famous of these, but it’s definitely one of my favourites.

Rear of Kedleston Hall viewed from the Long Walk, with the C12th All Saints Church to the left. Note also the ha-ha, which is invisible from the Hall and stops wandering sheep getting too close.

Of course, when you’re obscenely rich, conspicuous consumption doesn’t have to end with your palatial mansion – when you’ve spent as much as bad taste will allow on alabaster, marble and gold leaf, you can always throw more of your wealth at the rest of the estate. Kedleston is a case in point. As you wander through the magnificent parkland in which the Hall sits, it’s easy to forget that this is an entirely man-made landscape.

Trees have been selected and positioned to add to the visual appeal of the parkland. The sheep help too!

Kedleston is the ancestral home of the Curzon family, who have lived in the area since the 12th century. Between 1759 and 1775, Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale (1726-1804) commissioned renowned Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) to design an opulent new mansion, flanked to the south and west by an elegant formal garden of trees and shrubs. Surrounding the Hall and garden, and separated from them by a ha ha – a sunken wall which was invisible from within and intended to keep livestock out – was a landscape comprising some 800 acres (324 hectares) of rolling, naturalised parkland.

Robert Adam’s fine three-arched bridge, one of the highlights of Kedleston’s parkland

Once there was a small village at the centre of the estate, clustered around the C12th All Saints Church. However in 1759, as was the custom of the time, the villagers were all evicted to ensure that Baron Scarsdale could go about his daily business on the estate without any danger of coming into contact with representatives of ‘the great unwashed.’

An idyllic landscape, now managed on behalf of the nation by the National Trust

The peasantry having been removed, it was time to set about taming the landscape. Adam put the stream that traverses the estate to good use, moving mountains of earth to create a series of scenic lakes and cascades. To cross the stream he built a fine three-arched bridge, and this remains one of Kedleston’s most impressive features. Other structures to adorn the parkland include a bath-house and a fishing pavilion, although several temples and follies proposed by Adam were never completed.

One of the civil engineering works required to create and manage Kedleston’s lakes

Robert Adam wanted his creation to be enjoyed from all angles, and to this end he designed the Long Walk, a winding three mile circuit through the estate, with views of the rear of the Hall and across the parkland.  It was this walk that Mrs P and I embarked upon a few weeks ago.

The bath-house, designed by Robert Adam

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, lambs frolicked playfully under the watchful eyes of their mothers, and the vistas offered by the Long Walk were uniformly pleasing. After long months confined to our own modest house and garden by the Covid restrictions it was great to escape its confines and to enjoy the wide open spaces that the Kedleston estate offers.

Aaah, cute!

Robert Adam was without doubt a genius: both the Hall (which I shall write about in a future post) and the parkland lift the spirits enormously. But if you ever visit Kedleston do spare a thought for the local peasantry, who lost their homes so that this magical place could be created as an exclusive pleasure ground for Baron Scarsdale and his idle-rich buddies!