Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Unspoilt England

Ashdown House is in the press again, this time featuring in a list from Candida Lycett Green of the places she loves in England. In her list Candida comments that "Ashdown’s remote downland setting stirs the soul as much as the chalk-white perfection of its architecture." Her article in the Times Online explains in lyrical language the appeal of the unspoilt places that can still be found in this country and describes the romance that thousands of years of history lends to different sites.

Many of the people who work at Ashdown Park or visit the house and estate recognise and understand that it is a very special place. They feel the spirit of the place. From the Bronze Age barrows on the nearby ridge, to the Iron Age hillfort of Alfred's Castle, from the sarsen stones linked by legend to Merlin to the paths through the medieval deer park, from the weathercock on the hill to the little white "palace" at its foot, there is a timeline of thousands of years of history at Ashdown Park that is recorded in the barrows, buildings, holloways and stones that men have placed here down the centuries.

As Candida Lycett Green also comments, these days you sometimes have to dig deep to find unspoilt England. Around here it can sometimes be almost obliterated beneath the bags of litter that people leave on the Ridgeway after a rave at the full moon, no doubt expecting that the mysterious tidy fairies will spirit their rubbish away. Or it can be threatened by the crop circles that appear in the local fields when those pesky "aliens" create something extraordinary without thinking that maybe in the process they are destroying something equally valuable. At times like that it is good to be able to dig deep and connect with the spirit of the place, to stand on the hills above Ashdown Park in a keen breeze and to feel "the continuance of things."

Thursday, 10 September 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?

Heritage Open Days!

The Heritage Open Days for 2009 run from 10th - 13th September and Ashdown House is proud to be a part of the celebration with free admission on Saturday September 12th. Heritage Open Days celebrate England's fantastic architecture and culture and what better way to do so than to visit this unusual and stunningly beautiful seventeenth century hunting lodge, unique amongst the UK's historic buildings. To coincide with this event I will be posting up a blog about the mystery of Ashdown's architect, some information on the different candidates and the evidence supporting each case. It's a real historical mystery! Read the clues - draw your own conclusions on the vision of the man (or woman!) behind Ashdown's brilliant white facade.

All of us who work at Ashdown are extremely proud that this season has seen a huge increase in the number of people coming to see Ashdown House. We are very happy to share this fascinating house and its history with all our visitors. And as we are currently enjoying such lovely late summer weather in Oxfordshire I should put in a word for the Ashdown estate as well. A walk in the woods is the perfect way to spend a sunny September day. Picnic in the grounds, climb to the top of Weathercock Hill for a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, commune with history at Alfred's Castle Iron Age fort or take a walk up to the four Bronze Age barrows and see the whole of the medieval hunting ground spread out before you. The National Trust's little gem of a house is waiting to welcome everyone!