No it isn’t a disused rural railway station! Instead this intriguing arcaded house is all that remains of one of Baroque architect Sir John Vanbrugh’s greatest buildings.
Vastly expensive and taking over 20 years to complete, Eastbury at Tarrant Gunville in Dorset was only used for about 20 years before standing empty another 20 and then being dynamited because no-one could be found who wanted to live in it – even if they were paid!
Read on to find out more about Vanbrugh’s lost Dorset palace, its elaborate gardens designed by Charles Bridgman, and its owner George Bubb Dodington who was according to Horace Walpole: ” vain, fickle, ambitious, servile, and corrupt.” (Memoirs of the Reign of George II, vol 1, p.437).
The house was commissioned from Vanbrugh in 1716 by George Dodington, a cousin of Lord Cobham of Stowe, and Paymaster to the Navy. Given a blank canvas because it was a completely new estate Vanbrugh designed an enormous mansion only exceeded in size by Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. There are a series of his alternative ground plans and drawings in the V&A.
Commissioning James Thornhill to design the interiors Vanbrugh then called in Charles Bridgeman with whom he had worked at Blenheim and Stowe to design the gardens.
The initial plans for elaborate formal gardens and for the surrounding park were provided by Bridgeman in about 1717, and those on the east side were laid out while the house was under construction.
Bridgeman’s drawings are in the Gough collection at the Bodleian Library. Both Vanbrugh’s plans for the mansion, and a modified version of Bridgeman’s plans for the gardens and park, were subsequently published in 1725 by Colen Campbell in Vitruvius Britannicus.
Work was nowhere near completion when Dodington died in 1720. The estate was then inherited by his nephew George Bubb, who assumed the additional name of Dodington, and it was to become his overriding passion. Work resumed in 1724 but was not completed until 1738 with reputed cost of over £140,000.
The son of a Weymouth apothecary, George Bubb Dodington was a social-climbing Whig politician whose diaries are a gossipy source of detail for the period.
Apart from having a seat in the Commons he also served as envoy to Spain in 1715-17, and held several lucrative government positions, notably Treasurer of the Navy. He was probably the model for the bloated and corrupt politician seen being carried in “Chairing the Members” one of Hogarth’s satirical Election series of paintings now in the Sir John Soane Museum.
According to Richard Cumberland, secretary to Lord Halifax, who knew him well (perhaps for Dodington’s reputation, too well) : “Being a man of humble birth, he seemed to have an innate respect for titles, and none bowed with more devotion to the robes and fasces of high rank and office.”
George also stuck to the fashions of his youth and Cumberland unkindly commented that ‘his bulk and corpulency gave full display to a vast expanse and profusion of brocade and embroidery.’ This could lead on occasions to ‘wardrobe malfunction’, as when he met the Queen and “approached to kiss her hand in an embroidered suit of silk, with a lilac waistcoat and breeches, the latter of which in the act of kneeling down, forgot their duty, and broke loose from their moorings in a very indecorous and uncourtly manner.”
Dodington used Eastbury to show off his enormous wealth, and to serve as a staging post in his political and social career. Sadly no images survive of its interior but it is clear that no expense was spared in its decoration, and that George surrounded himself with the showiest trappings that money could buy. He “was not to be approached but through a suite of apartments, and rarely seated but under painted ceilings and gilt entablatures… He slept in a bed encanopied with peacocks feathers in the style of Mrs Montague.” For more on her see the earlier post at:
Dodington entertained on a grand scale and several visitors recorded their impressions. Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys stayed in 1760 and noted in her diary that “the house, Gardens, and Park… are 8 miles in circumference. When we got to the park, choosing to walk, we quitted the vehicle. The building, as you see thro’ a fine lawn, may be styl’d an elegant fabrick;’ Tis of stone, extending in length 570 feet, of which the main body of the house takes up only 144; the rest is arcades and offices…having ascended a grand flight of steps, you come under a Doric portico…from thence you enter a noble hall, adorn’d by statues and busts, the saloon painted olive, the ornaments…rich gilt; the sofas in this apartment are very fine tapestry.’ To read the rest of her description see:
The 1742 edition of Defoe’s Tour thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain gives another flattering description of the approach and the interior of one of “the largest and most stately Fabricks in the Kingdom, I mean the House, or rather Palace belonging to the Right Hon. George Doddington Esq.” The full version can be found at:
Richard Cumberland also left an account of his, and Lord Halifax’s, long stay at Eastbury in 1756. It echoed Mrs Powys’ view of its scale and splendour adding: “There were turrets and wings that went I know not whither, though now they are levelled with the ground, and gone to more ignoble uses.” Cumberland also left a very lengthy commentary on Dodington, his Hammersmith villa [later the home of Queen Caroline] and his circle of friends which you can find at:
Peter Willis in his magnum opus Charles Bridgeman and the English Landscape Garden [1977 and 2002] suggests the house [bottom centre of the plan above] would have dominated the garden, standing as it did at the end of the main axis that leads from the parterres up to the Vanbrugh’s Temple on the rise ahead.
The layout has an overall coherence centred round the canal and the round pond, offset by the mounts on one side and the amphitheatre on the other. Bridgeman was, of course, to use the amphitheatre form again elsewhere most famously at both Claremont and Rousham.
Viewed from the house the formal gardens slope down to the circular pond and then up again to Vanbrugh’s distant temple. Ornamented in Corinthian style this commanded a splendid view out over the surrounding landscape as well as back over the garden.
There was also a large bagnio or bathhouse in the Ionic style placed in the garden wall on one side. Both are illustrated by Campbell in Vitruvius Britannicus.
However, Willis also points up the differences between Campbell’s very formal depiction of the gardens and Bridgeman’s own slightly looser designs which can be seen in the Bodleian. These show some winding walks in the outer areas and the use of ha-has both to define the gardens but, at the same time, also allow a greater integration with the surrounding parkland. This slight relaxation of rigidity also enabled him to set Vanbrugh’s garden buildings within woodland groves and parkland, although of course the underlying layout remains essentially formal.
Bridgeman’s gardens became the setting for the literary and artistic circles, particularly poets, who gathered round Dodington at Eastbury. This included James Thomson, author of The Seasons, who dedicated Summer (1727) to his host at Eastbury, and described the gardens in Autumn (1730), praising the `green delightful walks’ and the diverse vistas across the surrounding landscape. The poem which now seems turgid and verbose beyond measure was extremely popular in its day and inspired many other writers and musicians including Haydn. The full text can be found at:
However Dodington’s circle did not include Alexander Pope who despised him: ‘He is too much a half-wit to love a true wit, and too much half-honest to esteem any entire merit…I must affront him to be rid of him.’
The gardens were, like the house, generally admired by visitors. The updater of Defoe’s Tour says they were laid out “with surprising Art: but what is most remarkable in them is the vast Collection of foreign Trees of various Kinds, the beautiful Verdure of the Walks, in the midst of a Country whose Turf is of another Colour, especially in summer.” The turf was also noted by Lady Hervey who wrote:”this is a most delightful place, and, from the uncommon dryness of the soil, fineness and smoothness of the turf all about us, particularly adapted to the constitution and tender feet of a gouty person.”(the letters of Lady Hervey, 12 September 1757). However, Mrs Powys was less impressed by the grounds than she was by the house: “the gardens are laid out as well as is possible without a view of water.”
By the time that Joseph Banks visited in 1767 Vanbrugh’s architecture was going out of fashion, and although he described Eastbury as ‘fitted up magnificently with a good deal of gilding and ceilings painted after the antique.” He then added “Upon the whole the inside is much more convenient as well as more elegant than the outside gives us any hopes of.” (“A Journal of an Excursion to Eastbury” , Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History Field Club, vol.16). Nevertheless John Hutchins’s, History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset, still described Eastbury in 1774 as ‘one of the grandest and most superb in the county, and indeed in the Kingdom.’ and the gardens as ‘very extensive and beautiful, adorned with vistas and plantations of trees; many of which were removed hither some miles off, after fifty years growth, and weighed 3 tons.’ He found the park and gardens gave ‘a very grand appearance’.
Dodington’s obsequious persistence finally gained a reward in 1760 when he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Melcombe, just in time to take part in the Coronation procession of George III. Unfortunately for him he did not live long to enjoy his title, dying the following year. For more about George Bubb Dodington a good place to start is Lloyd Sanders, Patron and Place Hunter: a study of George Bubb Doddington, 1919, which can be found at:
Eastbury then passed to his cousin, Earl Temple of Stowe, who of course, had no need of yet another vast mansion.
Having tried in vain to find either a purchaser or tenant for the estate, in about 1782 his heir, the 1st Marquis of Buckingham even offered to pay an annuity of £200 a year to anyone who would live there, but still had no takers. In the end demolition seemed the only answer and the greater part of the mansion was apparently dynamited, although there are disputed versions of the story.
All that remained were the kitchen wing and the eastern end of the kitchen court to the north of the main house. This remnant was let to a series of tenants, including, from 1800 to 1805, Josiah Wedgwood II, the son of the potter. For more on Wedgwood and gardens see earlier post at
In 1806, the estate was sold to the noted sportsman, James John Farquharson, with whose descendants it remained throughout the 19th and 20th century. This did not go down well with everyone and in ‘A Tribute to Dorset’, in 1831, the Rev. W. Smith Marriott wrote about Eastbury being used for the hounds of the local hunt:
‘And Eastbury – where Thompson’s name,
Gave to thy Downs a tuneful fame.
Where are the Bowers once so sweet
For Druid Bard – a lov’d retreat!
Dismantled now, without a trope you see
‘Gone to the dogs’ – in stern reality’
Despite the atmospheric photographs taken last year by someone from Pentreath & Hall and which I have ‘borrowed’ from their blog, I’m afraid they were trespassing because Eastbury still remains in private ownership and is not open to the public.
The demolition meant, however, that Bridgeman’s garden layout remains largely intact and can be traced on the ground, and seen from the air, as can be seen from the survey published by the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments in 1972.
This was accompanied by a very detailed description of the various features. Their report can be found in its entirety at:
There are also interesting articles about Eastbury in Dorset Life
But perhaps the most telling and poignant image of Eastbury is of the arched entrance to the stable block which shows a wonderful mixture of architecture and natural planting!