Thursday, September 10, 2009

Who designed Ashdown House? - A three hundred and fifty year old historical mystery!

Ashdown House is beautiful - but we don't know for certain who designed and built it because any papers and drawings relating to the design and build are now lost. This presents us with a fascinating historical mystery with a number of possible solutions. I'm a novice when it comes to architectural history but I love a good mystery and I have gathered together some evidence on the suspects/architects. I'll be asking you to vote at the end - or contribute your own theory!

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.


Next up is John Webb. Webb was a pupil (and nephew) of Inigo Jones and as such received a training in classical architecture which enabled him to pursue a very successful career.

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?

3 comments:

Carla said...

It is possible that Webb and Pratt knew each other and worked together. We can't discount the 'attribution to Webb' but we also can't discount the doorway design of Pratt. My guess would be that both were working on the house in some way. I don't think any of the other men are viable even the one that built a house similar to the outside.

Nicola Cornick said...

That's a fascinating thought, Carla. Webb and Pratt certainly did know one another as they were both followers of Inigo Jones and there must be something to back up the original attribution of Ashdown to Webb. As far as I know, Pratt's architectural diaries don't record him working on Ashdown but that might simply be because he was not the prime architect. Perhaps he was in more of a "consultant" role.

Actually that made me think of something else, which is that Edward Pierce, master carver, was the man who worked on the internal decoration of Coleshill House and also worked for Lord Craven. Perhaps he re-used one of his designs on Ashdown that he had previously employed at Coleshill.

Certainly Gerbier seemed to die too early to have taken much of a hand in the work. Lord Craven's estates were only restored to him in 1660, the trees for the roof beams were felled in 1661/62 and Gerbier died that year. He'd been busy with Hamstead Marshall anyway. And Winde was so young, and doing other things with his life at that stage... It's all so intriguing.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you to everyone for the emails and comments I have also had on this topic off the blog. It's nice to know that others share my fascination with historical mysteries like this!