Regency Family Disaster: Fisherwick Hall

Many of the great Regency family disasters had glorious foundations in the Georgian period.

The Chichester family is one such example. They built their finest house, Fisherwick Hall, between 1766 and 1779 upon the foundations of a hall belonging to a long-gone Elizabethan family. Because the name Chichester was to live forever in Staffordshire glory, it made sense to tear down old Fisherwick Hall to make way for a more glorious (and everlasting) successor.

Old Fisherwick Hall

Old Fisherwick Hall

The family’s patriarch at that time was Arthur Chichester, the first marquess of Donegall. It was he who made Fisherwick Hall into “a sumptuous edifice,” designed by Capability Brown:

“The building extends seventy feet each side of (the) portico, and the whole extent of the front is one hundred and eighty feet. The pilasters and decorations of the windows are of the Corinthian order, and the building is composed entirely of durable white stone.

By an easy flight of steps beneath the portico we ascend to a magnificent Hall, ornamented with sixteen pilasters of highly polished marble, the compartments and ceiling interspersed with elegant decorations in stucco.” — A Companion to the Leasowes, Hagley, and Enville: With a Sketch of  Fisherwick, near Lichfield, Volume 3 (1800)

The Sketch goes on to relate the manner of Fisherwick’s interior design. Scagliola chimney pieces and statues filled the Hall, the drawing-room sported Monsieur Rigaud’s frescoes of Apollo and Ariadne, the library held a considerable collection of books, the halls were hung with Gainsborough paintings. Bonomi the Elder designed the furniture and Joseph Rose executed decorative plaster work.

However, the land on which Fisherwick was situated was indifferent at best:

“A flat, infertile heath, such as we see in various parts of this island, and such as never fails to disgust the eye (!)” — On Planting and Rural Ornament, a Practical Treatise, William Marshall (1803)

Fisherwick Hall "a sumptuous edifice"

Fisherwick Hall “a sumptuous edifice”

Happily, the marquess retained Capability Brown to remedy the situation. The result was such that Mr. Marshall waxed eloquent in his description of the landscape’s overall effect. The estate offices situated rather unfortunately at the front of the house had been rendered all but unseen by judicious plantings and a bending driveway that took one quite unconsciously past these pedestrian buildings to the terminus that was Fisherwick’s magnificent portico. A walk was installed which wound through the shrubbery, enabling “ladies to make the entire circuit of the grounds without setting foot on a carriage road.”

And finally, there was a large number of artifacts, some of which remained unopened in their boxes.

The most remarkable of these must have been the virginal instrument belonging to Queen Elizabeth I:

“It is covered in crimson velvet, and richly decorated in front with japan and gilt ornaments, among which are the arms and supporters of Queen Elizabeth at one end, and at the other, a bird, crowned, and holding in its right paw a scepter. It is in shape and size much like a spinet, but opens on the opposite side, and then resembles a common piano-forte.” The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1815

At the beginning of the Regency era, Fisherwick Hall represented the pinnacle of a family’s ambitions.

Pride comes before a fall.

The Virginal of Elizabeth I -- now in the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Virginal of Elizabeth I — now in the Victoria and Albert Museum


Temple of Diana

The principal house featured in my manuscript Notorious Match, Northam Park, boasts a large parkland reaching upwards of one thousand acres.  Much of it was laid out by the eminent landscape architect Capability Brown (1716 – 1783).

A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country. Lancelot Brown is commended throughout the world as the master of the English landscape garden, but at home, he is frequently dismissed as a vandal who destroyed large numbers of illustrious formal gardens. 

–“Great British Garden-Makers:  Lancelot “Capability” Brown,” Country Life, Feb. 20, 2010

Brown’s new style of gardening design eschewed carefully trimmed hedges and formal flower gardens (think Hampton Court) for a more natural environment with grass-covered undulations leading down to carefully installed lakes and trees.  The effect was beautiful, providing a panoramic view from the great Palladian houses being built as country residences for the wealthy.

One of the charactertistics of this new landscaping style was the garden temple, an outdoor feature normally given a classical design although many favored a more Gothic bent with the rise of Romanticism.  These would be placed not far from the main house, but within the natural setting of these “gardenless” gardens.  From them, you could look across the estate through a long-viewer while keeping your eye on the children as they bowl on the manicured lawn nearby.
Many times these beautifully designed structures were simple rotundas, like the one pictured above from Beachborough House in Kent in a painting attributed to Edward Haytley, circa 1745.
Several, like the one at Northam Park, were much more grand and served a variety of functions–greenhouses, etc.
I particularly adore the lovely one used for the shooting party lunch in Robert Altman’s mystery Gosford Park (2001) at 1:40.  Clive Owen, anyone?  Yes, please.
Northam Park’s landscape feature is called Diana’s Temple.  It is very similar to the one of the same name at Weston Park, pictured below.  For a wonderful view of the restored interior, with its remarkable plasterwork, see this exquisite photo from Country Life.  It looks just like a piece from someone’s blue Wedgewood collection.  This temple was designed by James Paine (1717-1789) who also designed the stables at Chatsworth House.

photo copyrighted and licensed by Simon Huguet

The Earl is Dead

In Notorious Match, heroine Diana Wace is strangely conflicted over the tragedy that made her Countess of Northam. 

On the one hand, she rebels against the tremendous wealth and property that are now hers.  She has no lack for suitors, many of them penniless fortune hunters, all of them eager to become the next Earl of Northam.

Diana also suffers from a terrible guilt that arose from the death of her father, the late Earl Reynold.  While he was alive, she was kept hidden away on his northern estate, forgotten and unloved.  With his death came her release from the prison that was Northam Park.

Since then, Diana avoids the estate, fancying it rebukes her still for that secret joy she felt when she was freed from its isolation.  One of the places there that she will never look upon is the abandoned lane where her father died in a borrowed carriage.  No one ventures there anymore, even if they must take an alternate route that goes around the estate.

The lane is one of the most beautiful features of Northam Park.  It was designed and installed for a previous earl by that the great landscape architect, Capability Brown.  Note the picturesque bridge over a water feature the path follows.  If you drive your tillbury too fast along its shaded way, however, such beauty can be deadly.

Northam Park Revisited

Compton Verney – grounds laid out by landscape architect Capability Brown

“Northam Park is Diana’s now.  What she intends to do with it is, perhaps, a subject for a later book.”  Excerpt from my post Northam Park:  Sutton Scarsdale meets Chatsworth Park.

Having wrapped up the series on royal weddings, it’s time now to return to my work in progress–Diana’s story.  The above-referenced post is an introduction to her country estate and the seat of the earldom which she holds as countess in her own right.

Diana’s story is titled Notorious Match. 

For the next several weeks I shall explore the exterior features of Northam Park’s great house, an English country mansion on the grandest scale.  It is a Palladian home inspired by the great Inigo Jones with additions whose designs were wrought by Christopher Wren and Robert Adam.  The grounds of Northam Park were established and according to plans laid out by Capability Brown with numerous external features like the ha-ha, the enormous stable block and a Grecian temple.

Wingerworth Hall, photographed six years before its demolition in 1927 - photo via Wikipedia Commons

Wingerworth Hall, a Baroque creation, photographed six years before its demolition in 1927 – photo via Wikipedia Commons

Nor shall we neglect the great house’s interior.  Inside are rich decorative plaster work and carved staircases.  They favor reason over precedence–the greatest expression of the style we call neo-Classicism.

But we shall also see competing Regency styles in other country estates that are in the vicinity of Northam Park.  Godley Abbey, for instance, is a Gothic fantasy that Lord Byron had once visited and greatly esteemed.  Stansbury Vale is also nearby–a gawky Baroque creation that gives no hint of the beautifully elegant hall it contains.

Baroque, as you know, is unrestrained.  The celebration of ostentation.

I like it.

“In this house reign harmony, peace, and love”

Will Kate and Wills have a country house?

Most royal couples have had them over the past several centuries.  Speculation is rife that they will settle in a newly commissioned house to be built in Herefordshire on the Harewood Estate now owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The most remarkable part of Harewood is its extensive gardens and terraced paths.  They should make a lovely setting for the royal couple’s new home.

Old Harewood Park House

Long gone is old Harewood House, a smaller country house of three stories featuring a porch supported by Tuscan columns.   It had been built on the site of an old Tudor house in 1781.  Some damage from WWII ballistics testing can be seen in the photo to the right.  Harewood House was demolished in 1959.  Information on this and many other lost English country houses can be found here.

Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold also had an English country estate.  Claremont House was a gift to them from an adoring nation.  Happily the house still exists today and the grounds have been restored to their former glory by the National Trust.

Claremont House

The noted classical landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown built the Palladian house with the aid of his future son-in-law Henry Holland to execute the Adam-style interiors.  This site contains a nice collection of images displaying the exterior of Claremont and its extensive gardens.   You can see the classical pediment, the triangular motif so characteristic of the Palladian style, crowning the front of the mansion in the photo to the right.

In 1816, Baron Stockmar, Prince Leopold’s physician and advisor, gives us this account of Princess Charlotte’s life with her new husband at Claremont:

“The Princess in good humour, and then she pleases easily. I thought her dress particularly becoming (September 6th); dark roses in her hair, a short light blue dress without sleeves, with a low round collar,  a white puffed-out Russian chemisette, the sleeves of lace.  I have never yet seen her in any dress which was not both simple and in good taste. The Princess is extremely active and lively, astonishingly impressionable, and nervously sensitive. Intercourse with her husband has had a markedly good effect upon her, and she has gained surprisingly in calmness and self-control, so that one sees more and more how good and noble she really is. She shows many attentions to those around her, but she attributes great value to these attentions, however little she may appear to do so. She never for a moment forgets she is the King’s daughter.

In this house reign harmony, peace, and love— in short, everything that can promote domestic happiness.”