Wentworth Castle, one of the products of the acrimonious family feud discussed in last week’s post, is one of the wonders of Yorkshire, indeed of the whole country. Now a grade 1 listed mansion and a Grade 1 listed landscape, like so many other great estates it was almost lost in the 20thc.
Highlighted in the 1986 Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition “The Country House in Danger”, the great landscape that Horace Walpole had lavishly praised in 1780 was described then as “disturbed and ruinous”. Now, after about 15 years in the hands of the Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust it is being returned slowly but surely to its previous grandeur. And what a wonderful job they are making of it!
Normally I manage to write about a garden in one post, or if it’s particularly historically interesting in two. I managed to exceed my own word limit threefold when researching Wentworth, so since I didn’t want to bore you with a horticultural War and Peace I’m going to be spreading my words of wisdom over no less than 3 posts. Read on to find out why Wentworth Castle is so special!
Last week’s post looked at the work of Thomas Wentworth, the first Earl of Strafford, who died in 1739. His son William, the second Earl of Strafford was, unlike his father, not interested in politics but did share his interest in gardening and landscape improvements. William was a great and imaginative builder adding not just a complete new wing to Wentworth Castle itself but a whole range of follies and garden features as well. On the estate he followed the fashion preference for a more ‘natural’ landscape over the more formal schemes chosen by his father. The result was parkland that combined both open pastureland and large areas of woodland but that had wonderful monuments and buildings carefully dotted across them. However, many of these improvements seem to have been as much a continuation of the family feud as for his own pleasure and amusement.
It is thought that the new earl himself designed the new south west facing Palladian wing, which was built between 1760-65, probably by John Platt of nearby Rotherham. Platt certainly carved the griffin crest on the pediment and is also responsible for the little Corinthian Temple that looks over the south lawn and the valley and parkland beyond. Even the presence of the M1 these days doesn’t distract from the view.
William was a great friend of Horace Walpole, the self-appointed arbiter of national taste, and builder of Strawberry Hill, the Gothick Revival house at Twickenham. Walpole wrote in 1789 that Wentworth Castle shows “the most perfect taste in architecture” and “is my favourite of all great seats; such a variety of ground, of wood and water; and almost all executed and disposed with so much taste by the present Earl…The new front is in my opinion one of the lightest and most beautiful buildings on earth”.[from The letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, vol 6, 1840]
William had married Lady Anne Campbell, daughter of the 2nd Duke of Argyll, and in 1744 he erected a column in memory of his father-in-law. Topped with Minerva, the Greek goddess of wisdom, it stands in an area of woodland but is clearly visible above the trees on the walk to Stainborough Castle from the house.
Further along he also erected a grand triple gateway – Archer’s Hill Gate – marking the entry of an estate road, but offering magnificent views as well.
Still further along the walk to the mock mediaeval castle he commemorated Lady Mary Wortley Montague with an inscription on an elegant column. This is sometimes known as the Sun Monument, because of the golden ball that surmounts it.
Lady Mary was a renowned lady of letters and married to the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire. She was the first woman to write an account of the Islamic Orient and she is also known for introducing and advocating for inoculation against smallpox to Britain after her return from Turkey. Surprisingly William and his siblings were amongst the first to be given this treatment. It is, according to Wentworth Castle Trust, the only landscape monument in England that celebrates the achievement of a then living woman who was not a monarch. The Trust restored the golden ball to the top of the Sun Monument in 2010.
In the parkland William extended the canalised serpentine waterway that his father created, so that, from the house, it gave the impression of a river winding through the trees. He had a Palladian bridge built over it, that takes the drive from the Strafford Gate entrance up to the house.
At the other end of the artificial waterway he built an Ionic rotunda , called by Horace Walpole, the Temple of Tivoli. This has been recently restored.
The rotunda’s setting is, according to Michael Charlesworth, “not dissimilar to that of the Mausoleum at Castle Howard, which preceded it only by a year, and the pictorial scenes evoked were those of Claude Lorrain, whose favourite temple was that at Tivoli. This temple … was an early one, pre-dating the more famous scenes at Stowe and Stourhead.” [for full reference see last week’s post]
An obelisk at Birdwell marking the entrance to the 3 mile drive to the Castle from the local turnpike also survives, but there were also a series of other follies and constructions that have sadly disappeared, some within photographic memory.
A gothic umbrello of 1758, apparently inspired by a mediaeval market cross and probably designed by Horace Walpole’s own architect Richard Bentley, stood in the woodland below the house. It was still there, although in ruins, when Pevsner visited for his Penguin Guide to Yorkshire in 1959 and presumably for the revised edition in 1967. A local farm was gothicised and rechristened Rockley Abbey in 1760, and an eye-catching Gothic Arch was built on top of a nearby hill. The rivalry can be seen in the siting of a splendid pavilion built close to the boundary with Wentworth Woodhouse in 1746, with a large stone pyramid added on the adjoining common in 1769.
There was also a pyramid – locally known as the Smoothing Iron – which stood near the greatest and most eccentric of all of the second earl’s follies. This was a half-mile long wall, complete with seven towers that ran along the ridge of the local common. Visible from the house it was, again a possible sign of rivalry, on the edge of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate.
It was, like his father’s Stainborough Castle, built as a ruin and again like the castle, surely designed to reinforce the dynastic connection with the area. Certainly that was the view of local historian Joseph Wilkinson. “The towers and trees which once stood here gave an air of antiquity and romance to the place, and the observer on contemplating from a distance their fortification-like aspect, was carried back in thought to the days of chivalry and warfare.” (Wilkinson, Worsbrough: Its Historical Associations and Rural Attractions, 1872)
There are still a few remains, notably two of the towers. If you want to know more there is a really interesting much longer account of these ruins and their history, together with more evocative photographs on the blogsite of Andy Hemingway, a landscape photographer which you can find at:
But the second earl was not just a builder he was a collector, and in good company because his wife’s uncle the Earl of Islay was a renowned plantsman too and nicknamed “tree monger” by Walpole. The Wentworth archives are extensive and they show that Strafford corresponded with the head gardeners at Woburn, Cannon Hall and Lord Burlington’s Lonsdale estate. Indeed Thomas Knowlton, Burlington’s gardener considered Strafford one of the most knowledgable landowners about exotic plants that he had encountered.
As a result the gardens and grounds at Wentworth Castle were full of rare and newly imported trees and shrubs, particularly from North America, including two hardy species of magnolia. From the 1740s the bowling green became a flower garden, centred around a Chinese seat. But the earl went further and improved the kitchen gardens too, adding a stove house for tender plants and not one, but two, pineries for his gardener Benjamin White to grow pineapples.
Nevertheless, despite all the second earl’s efforts his branch of the family was still overshadowed and outshone by the Watson-Wenthworths in terms of status and money. His contemporary cousin, the second Marquis of Rockingham was far wealthier and served twice as Prime Minister. Strafford himself died in 1791, childless, and thereafter the disparity between the wealth and status of the two branches continued to increase.
Georgian inheritance rules could be quite complicated and in 1795 a special act of Parliament had to be passed to determine what should happen to the estate. There were 3 heirs in 15 years, and lots of acrimony, but to cut a long story short Wentworth Castle, but not the earldom, passed in 1804 to 9 year old Frederick Vernon, the grandson of Lady Henrietta Vernon, one of the second earl’s sisters.
There was also a lot of salacious scandal going on in the background to the inheritance squabbles which Jane Austen used, even down to the use of the Vernon name, and a major character called Frederica, as the basis for her novella Lady Susan.
You’ll be able to see the story for yourself as it’s about to released as a film : Love and Friendship, [for a preview click on the on youtube link above ] but you can also read more about the links between fact and fiction in Janine Barchas, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, pp.49-53] which thanks to Google Books can found for free at:
More soon on Wentworth in its 19th heyday, and its decline and modern resurrection.