On the way to a family wedding last weekend I stopped off at Harlaxton near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Like John Claudius Loudon before me I “had heard much of this place from various architects and amateurs for several years.”
For Loudon ” its proprietor, Gregory Gregory, Esq… kindly acceded to our wish to see the works going forward on the new site chosen by him for the family residence.” For me, although Gregory Gregory has long gone, the new proprietors were having one of their rare open days over Easter so we could see what was left of the works that Gregory had started.
All I can say is that Gregory Gregory must have had a vivid imagination, a great interest in history and a strong sense of his own importance because what he created is simply sensational.
The photos are mine unless otherwise acknowledged.
First impressions of a country house and its grounds are often somewhat theatrical, with distant views unfolding step by step as you approach. But I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as dramatic as Harlaxton. It can be seen for miles, remains in view as you get closer and without any Reptonian winding diversions that just offer glimpses of the house through carefully placed clumps of trees.
There is a relatively modest [compared with what is to come!] entry arch on the main road that opens onto a mile-long straight drive. The house looms ever larger as the road leads across a bridge, under a gatehouse that straddles the road, past the massive walled kitchen garden before arriving at the entry screen of the court of honour and the towering face of the manor house itself.
Going inside you feel, as John Goodall remarked in a recent article in Country Life, like Gulliver exploring Brobdingnag, the kingdom of giants. The whole effect is almost too good to be true.
Harlaxton archive’s website spells out the history of the site really well, so rather than paraphrase and precis it I’ll skip through it and add links where appropriate.
Although it dates back to before Domesday our interest in Harlaxton and its gardens really begins with Gregory Williams. Born in 1786 he followed the usual path of the only son of a wealthy landed family. Two years, but no degree, at Christ Church, Oxford and then the local militia becoming Lieutenant Colonel by 1813. He took part in public duties too and in 1825, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he became the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. But you can also see his own interests emerging as by 1823 he had become a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society and by 1831 a fellow of the Zoological Society of London.
In 1814, he succeeded to his father’s estates at Rempstone, in Leicestershire and then in 1822 he inherited his uncle’s property – including Harlaxton – with a seat at Hungerton Hall. It came with about 6,000 acres of land, and stakes in canals, mines and the new-fangled railways.
He added his uncle’s name to his own becoming Gregory Gregory. Matters were somewhat complicated because his uncle settled his estates so that if the direct line of succession failed then his property was to a distant relation who was also the family solicitor. This was later to lead, in echoes of Jarndyce and Jarndyce from Dicken’s Bleak House, to long-drawn out legal disputes.I wonder if inheriting so much land and money went to young Gregory’s head because he set off for Europe where he spent three years in the 1820s collecting art treasures and filled Hungerton with them when he came back. But Hungerton proved merely a staging post because as the Stamford Mercury reported on 11th March 1831 “Gregory Gregory, Esq. of Hungerton… is about to commence the erection of a splendid mansion on his estate at Harlaxton, of the Elizabethan style of domestic architecture.” This was instead of restoring the existing Elizabethan manor House in the village which was left as a romantic ruin, although it was demolished soon after his death.
The style of the new house was not a random choice. This is the dawning of the age of romantic historical revivals. Walter Scott’s Kenilworth published in 1821 gave the fashion for all things Elizabethan a kick start but it became popular because, as Mark Girouard says in The Victorian Country House it was “uniquely English” and tied in with contemporary political trends. Gregory is known to have taken his architectural research seriously. He told Loudon that “he studied the subject for several years previous to commencing it. He visited almost every part of Europe, and part of Asia; and, having determined to adopt the style of James I, and there being, at the time he commenced, in 1822, few or no books on the subject, he examined personally most of the houses in Britain in that style, or bearing a close analogy to it.” This was not only the well-known prodigy houses like Burghley, Hardwick, Kirby and Wollaton but many of the smaller manor houses of the period, as well as Oxford and Cambridge colleges.
Next he chose an architect who despite his comparative youth was already experienced in building new houses in the same revivalist style. This was Anthony Salvin who although only just over 30 had already designed Mamhead in Devon and Moreby Park in Yorkshire and worked with Edward Hussey at Scotney.
Salvin’s scheme was based loosely on two of the houses that Gregory had seen: Montacute and Hengrave, but had the additional advantage – or perhaps disadvantage – of having to be cut into a steep hillside, [For more on that see Mark Girouard, The Victorian Country House ]
It has an H-shaped plan, with cross-ranges of apartments flanking a central block which is two rooms deep. Unlike the rambling Gothic houses of a generation earlier, the façade is symmetrical, with a huge central entrance tower dated 1837.
While Salvin did the initial designs there’s no doubt that Gregory kept a controlling hand on things himself and there was definitely an element of one-upmanship in the design. Harlaxton is said to have one more room than Belvoir Castle, the seat of the Dukes of Rutland, which can be seen from the house across the Vale of Belvoir. His name is literally over the door, his face appears in a roundel on the staircase and his double G monogram is everywhere.
Work started in 1832 but although Salvin oversaw the completion of the main house exteriors and the “topping out” of Harlaxton in 1836 when the central tower was finished, two years later he was replaced with William Burn, and his assistant David Byrne, who specialized in more florid Louis Quatorze and Baroque styles. They became largely responsible for the interiors, some of the exterior ornamentation which blended “Jacobean” with “Baroque” and most of the garden buildings. Salvin’s plans for the gardens were not implemented and it’s thought that Gregory may have designed them himself.
Loudon’s visit was in 1840 during the construction of the house and landscaping of its immediate surroundings so much of his description is written in the future tense.
He noted that both the drawing room and “a gallery library… will look into a conservatory, 90 ft. long, and 26 ft. wide… the whole forming a considerable extent of garden walk under glass, and including Cape and Australian plants in one part, palms and Scitamineas in another, and Orchidacese in a third.”
Designed by Byrne it was heated by hot water pipes running under the floor.
It had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s but a 3 year restoration project was completed in 1980. Although it is no longer economic to heat the structure it is maintained frost free and so does still support a wide range pf tender plants, some of which were donated by Kew.
An underground railway would supply coal to heat the house and conservatory, and remove the ashes. There were also mod-cons such as “rising cupboards” and “bell-wires”, chimneys wide enough to be cleaned without climbing-boys, and drains sufficiently large for a man to walk upright through them.
Loudon also commented that “Mr. Gregory superintends every part of these improvements very much himself, both as respects the design and detail”.
The intended layout of the gardens was ‘exhibited in a model of clay’. “The terraced gardens will be on seven different levels, communicating with flights of steps, ornamented with vases, figures and numerous other suitable objects; and, in appropriate places, there will be canals, basins, and fountains, summer-houses, shrubs clipped into artificial forms, &c. The upper terrace will be 150 ft. higher than the house, and will form a winding plateau, extending along the ridge of the hill on which the house stands, and commanding, on one side, a very rich view over a fine agricultural and wooded district, and, on the other, the mountains of Derbyshire, forty miles distant. The two extremities of the terrace-gardens will gradually be united to broad walks on the same levels as the terraces, in extensive woods already existing.” Today all this remains impressively extant.
The whole thought Loudon “will create what may be called an atmosphere of highly artificial garden scenery in the geometric style, round and overhanging the mansion.” To ornament it “Mr. Gregory possesses an ample stock of vases, statues, and other sculptural ornaments, and of rich gates, and other iron work, collected by him on all parts of the Continent, soon after the peace of 1815.” As the landscaping continued it “will gradually unite … not with modern shrubbery walks, but with the picturesque woods already existing, harmonising these woods with the artificial scenery by the introduction of foreign plants.”
Some parts of the garden had clearly already been started, with Loudon reporting that “all the underground drains, and most of the foundations of the parapet walls, steps, pedestals for statues, summer-houses, &c., are already made.” These features were finished during the early 1840s and include an Italian colonnade and The Folly .
Planting too was underway although mainly in the nearby woodland behind and to the sides of the house where “Mr. Gregory has introduced masses of rhododendrons, holly, periwinkle, tutsan, laurel, and other evergreen shrubs; and a great many sorts of herbaceous plants, including bulbs and Californian annuals.”
This was a time of severe agricultural depression. Gregory regularly returned around 15% of the rent to his tenants, paid for a grand dinner in the local inn every year for all his workmen and still managed to spend between £10-15,000 a year on the house and grounds for over twenty years. He also “improved” the estate village and Loudon is full of praise for his efforts, as were other visitors.
“The Village of Harlaxton is, if possible, more interesting to us than even the new mansion and gardens. We have seen many ornamented villages, both at home and abroad, but none so original, and so much to our taste, as this of Mr. Gregory’s.”
Most of the houses had been built by his predecessor and were “in the plainest possible style… but comfortable” with ” ample gardens.” The improvements followed strict principles so that “all the leading features have some kind of relation to use, [rather] than as ornaments put on to render them beautiful.” William Burn added such things as new porches, chimneys and gables, fences and well-heads while Gregory’s gardener supervised the their gardens.
[Images from Google Streetview]
By 1851 the new manor house was nearing completion inside and was already “regarded as one of the wonders of the time [so] an hotel had to be erected for the accommodation of the numerous visitors.” It was visited by aristocratic parties staying at nearby Belvoir Castle, and even visited by royalty.
Yet despite building such a magnificent palace Gregory was not particularly sociable and had few visitors. In fact because he had severe mobility issues caused by gout he actually only used a few rooms on the ground floor. This might explain why the 1851 census only shows 14 servants at the house, although admittedly others were living nearby, including Richard Wade the gardener who he had bought from Hungerton.
I’ll continue the story of Harlaxton next week but leave you with the obvious question. If he was unmarried and childless, and a fairly anti-social loner why on earth did he spend twenty years and more building Harlaxton? Answers on a postcard please….
There is a wealth of material about Harlaxton much of researched and written up by the college itself, and available via their archive blog and I’ll provide a full reference list at the end of next week’s post.