So without further ado I introduce the first suspect. Step forward Sir Balthazar Gerbier! This is a picture of him by William Dobson (Who is also in the painting along with Sir Charles Cotterell). I'm not sure which of them is which though! There is also a painting of Sir Balthazar Gerbier in the National Portrait Gallery in London but I can't reproduce it here without permission so here is the link!
Sir Balt was quite a character. Born in the Low Countries, he was a courtier, diplomat, art advisor, miniaturist and architectural designer, in his own words fluent in "several languages" with "a good hand in writing, skill in sciences as mathematics, architecture, drawing, painting, contriving of scenes, masques, shows and entertainments for great Princes... as likewise for making of engines useful in war." Never knowingly undersold, he claimed to be descended from the Baron Douvilly although records show that his father was a cloth merchant. He was also said to be a spy. He wrote "A brief Discourse concerning the Three Chief Principals of Magnificent Building (1662) and Counsel and Advise to all Builders (1663) in which he made the famous claim that a staircase of a grand house should be wide enough to allow for a "person of consequence" to have two servants, one on each side as he or she ascended or descended, in case they needed anything!
The evidence in favour of him being the architect of Ashdown House: From 1660 he was working on a house for William Craven at Hamstead Marshall near Newbury, fifteen miles away. Summerson's seminal book on architecture suggests that Ashdown contains design flourishes that are very reminiscent of Gerbier's work.
The evidence against: He died in 1662 with the construction of Hamstead Marshall incomplete. The construction of Ashdown only commenced in 1661/1662. Did he have time to design the house?
Next, the favourite! I couldn't find any pics of Captain William Winde so here is a picture of Belton House, one of the houses that he designed. It looks like Ashdown, doesn't it! Yes, William Winde is the favoured candidate for the role of architect of Ashdown. He was William Craven's godson and one time Usher to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia (which reminds me of the bit in Blackadder when he says "nepotism!" as he is clearing his throat!)
The evidence in favour of Winde: See above! Also, he worked with Balthazar Gerbier on Hamstead Marshall and went on to have a distinguished career as a gentleman architect. He had been abroad during the last years of Cromwell's Protectorate, had seen the architectural styles developing in Holland and France and had studied under the French architect Mansart. Ashdown bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Chateau de Balleroy, which Mansart designed.
The evidence against: He would have been a mere 22 years when he designed and built Ashdown. He did his other domestic architectural work later in life.
Evidence in favour: The Victoria County History states that Ashdown was "attributed to Webb" in the Dictionary of National Biography but I can't find this reference in the current edition.
Evidence against: Without any further evidence to support Webb's candidature this has to be very tenuous indeed.
The wild card: Sir Roger Pratt. Okay, so this is where the plot thickens, the mystery deepens and I, for one (and possibly I am the only one!), am intrigued.
The evidence for: Pratt was the architect of Coleshill House about 10 miles up the road from Ashdown and built in 1658 - 1662. This is the interior decoration of Coleshill (which burned down in 1952). The interior decoration of Ashdown is pictured below, on the right. The decoration above the doorway in the hall at Ashdown is identical to the one over the door at the stop of the stairs at Coleshill. Whilst it is hardly surprising that there are similarities in style between the work of architects designing at the same time and subject to the same influences, would another architect copy Pratt's design to the extent of reproducing it identically? Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Or is Pratt the architect of Ashdown House?
Evidence for: The striking resemblances between Coleshill and Ashdown, the fact that Pratt finished work on Coleshill roughly at the same time that work on Ashdown was started and the fact that Pratt was working locally to Ashdown.
Evidence against: None of the sources identify Pratt as the architect of Ashdown.
So what do you think? On the basis of the evidence, can we state with any certainty who designed Ashdown House? Or will it always remain a mystery?