To appreciate fully the gain of the nineteenth century, in the matter of palaces (the word is hardly an exaggeration), owing to Mr. Ernest George, it is best to remember the typical nobleman's country-seat which preceded them. Who does not know the huge square box, with or without a Palladian portico, that figures so largely in illustrated county histories? Portland Place, or even the older clubs in Pall Mall, maintain a certain dignity amid urban surroundings, but a mansion of the same sort set upon a hill, a huge white cube, with dots for windows, is always as hideous an addition to a fine landscape as a white tramcar ticket would be if stuck upon the mid-distance of a painting by Corot or Constable. Nor was the sudden, and fortunately brief, lapse into railway-station Gothic much more fit. True that its streaky walls, and parti-coloured scheme generally, afforded an excuse for ivy and other creepers, and so in the course of years, by dint of hiding its costly beauties, the thing grew less intolerable; yet it was fidgety and harsh in its contour, hardly less in relation to its surroundings than are the preposterous little villas which one sees often enough amid most charmmg scenery from any of the northern railway lines of France. These perky inaisoneltes look no more out of place than the huge compilations in red, black and yellow bricks, with gritty carved capitals and shiny granite columns in the very-Victorian Gothic style of the sixties and seventies, that here and there intrude upon exquisite scenery.
The mansions of Messrs. George & Peto are as far removed from the sham Classic as the sham Gothic. For their progenitors one has not to turn to old Greece, nor to Lombardy, but to England, and "merrie England" at that. The typically English half-timbered farmhouses, the Elizabethan mansions, the almshouses of pious founders, and the palaces of our own kings, present an immense variety of styles and differ in essential features, but all the same they are British by birth, and have fallen harmoniously into our English landscape. Such cottages, or halls, appear hardly more intrusive than the great elms and oaks against which they are so often seen. They do not seem to have been built with the one object of being picturesque, but to have become so by force of circumstances. In short, they look like contemporary portraits of their owners, well-dressed and superbly at ease; not like supers or amateur actors wearing gorgeous finery with a nervous sense that it is unaccustomed and uncomfortable attire.
Among the few modern architects who have succeeded, not once but dozens of times, in the difficult task of rivalling these "stately homes of England," Messrs. Ernest George & Peto are easily first.
Shiplake Court The Great Hall. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]One of the most successful houses — Shiplake Court, Henley-on-Thames — is familiar to frequenters of the stream of pleasure. The size of The Studio page does not admit any adequate view of the whole frontage, but those who wish to refer to it will find drawings by the architect, reproduced in the Building News of May 31, 1889. To study this house, even in the drawings, is in itself a liberal architectural education. The first impression is that it must have grown and developed in accordance with its inmates' tastes and needs, although (I believe) it grew only in the architects' brains, and was built straight away from the working drawings. It seems as if generations might have passed between its first stone and the final touch. Here is a stately oriel casement, with an arcaded porch, opening on a terrace with balustrades and flights of wide steps leading to the river-bank below, a stately architectural faiçade that suggests comfort and luxury without undue display. On the other side the courtyard front seems more home-like, and at least a century earlier in the proportions of its component parts. The square battlemented tower, with its angle turret staircase, and the rows of small square-headed windows recall the quadrangle of a well-known college; but the large half-timbered gable that breaks the line of roof, gives a touch of domesticity which the well-grouped chimney shafts assist no doubt in maintaining.
If in the drawing of the interior of the hall at Shiplake Court it appears too ecclesiastical, or at least too like that of a public building, a photograph of the interior, fully furnished, dispels any such idea. Only those whose good fortune it is to live in high and well-ventilated rooms can realise the simple luxury of ample space, which is at once healthy and imposing. Merely as an architectural triumph this notable room, with its finely proportioned fireplace, its high panelling, and the oak screen at the far end, is so obviously a masterpiece of its kind that to point out its beauties would be a work of supererogation. A fireplace, with tall pilasters above it, the chimney-breast treated sometimes fronted with a cornice, as in Shiplake, and sometimes as in West Dean Park, Singleton, by a semicircular pediment, or still more simply in the Great Hall, Batsford, is distinctly an 'Ernest-Georgian' feature; but perhaps not more typical of the personality of the artist than are his staircases of the type illustrated in Buchan Hill, Sussex, or the hall of North Mymms, Herts. The staircase in each case is made strikingly decorative by its ample proportions and the open arcading which imparts a series of structural support that satisfies you aesthetically and practically. For Mr. Ernest George realises in all his work that the eye must be satisfied as well as the building surveyor. It is not enough that a thing should be permanent and stable, it must look so as well. We all know the feeling of insecurity which certain stone staircases present. To find out how their vast weight is supported is not merely puzzling but almost distressing to an untrained spectator. Yet if the space underneath be filled in by a glazed screen or an iron grille, the average person never feels the lack of pillars to carry the great weight which to him seems stuck upon the wall. In the gallery or balcony which Mr. George also delights in, as in the hall at North Mymms, that at Shiplake Court, or yet another illustrated here - Ball-room of a Country House — we find a feature that is at once practical and picturesque. There is always something romantic in a balcony, whether because of Juliet, or that English memories of minstrels' galleries, watching chambers, and other forms of the indoors balcony still retain a peculiar charm; there is no doubt that even in its most simple forms there is a certain pleasure as you stand upon it in watching people below, or from beneath as you carry on conversation with those aloft.
Left: The Hall, West Dean Court, Singleton. Right: Staircase, Buchan Hall. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
Before leaving the interior of these halls we must not overlook another treatment of the hearth, namely, the great hooded chimney-piece seen in North Mymms and Buchan Hill., a style which is perhaps less English than Mr. George's alternative treatment, but not without precedent in our own land, if more common in foreign chateaux.
Left: Chimney, Buchan Hall. Middle: The Great Hall, North Mymms. Right: Ball-room of a Country House. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
To give a complete list of the more important houses is not possible here. Yet some of them must be referred to individually. Motcombe (Lord Stalbridge) is not less interesting for its plan than its delightfully harmonious façade. In the plan you find a block containing all the reception-rooms and private apartments almost completely detached from the offices, which surround a kitchen court. The Morning Room, Motcombe, with its panelled wall and coffered ceiling, and the hall with its stately chimney-piece and open-raftered flat roof, are among the most delightful of Mr. George's interiors. The exterior of Buchan Hill, Sussex, already referred to, is a trifle more fantastic than most of Mr. George's work, Elizabethan though it be. A slightly French accent seems to have been imparted to it, but in all probability the actual house is far more simple than is its appearance in the black-and-white drawing reproduced in the Building News (July 7, 1887).
Studleigh Court, Devon, is a long and comparatively low building on an L-shaped plan. The hall, which is open to the roof, the full height of the building, has a fine bay window, and others which are set at some height from the ground. The absence of a tower, and the presence of the half-timbered gables, assist in giving a domestic rather than palatial character to the fine building.
Woolpits, Surrey (Sir Henry Doulton), is very unlike the rest of Messrs. George & Peto's work. It is a large house, with a tower capped by a pyramidal spire; severe in its masses and detail, it yet lacks some of the repose we associate with far more ornate Renaissance designs by the same firm. The chimney-shafts, with interlaced arcading, almost Norman, and the treatment of the drip courses above the arches of the piazza at the lefthand side of the hall, all show features rarely present in these architects' designs. Dunley Hill, Dorking (Admiral Maxse), might also fail to be attributed to Messrs. George & Peto at first glance; but the library of one story, which equals the height of the rest of the two-storied structure, and certain minor details betray the authorship after more intimate study. A house at Ascot (Ernest Stoner, Esq.), has the unusual addition — unusual, that is to say, in modern English houses — of a chapel. Possibly its oblique position on the plan is due to that strict orientalisation which English ritual has adopted almost invariably. Nevertheless the whole group lacks the unity and impressive effect of Mr. George's better known mansions.
A superb house, without and within— Glencot, Wells — can hardly be described in words. Its situation on the slope of a hill, with a stream passing beneath an arch of one of its terraces, has been most fully developed. The external staircases (they are too lofty to be considered as flights of steps from one terrace to the other), the deep recesses with balconies, the comparatively small windows, and the curious air of solidity which the great mass of the whole building possesses in unusual degree, might fairly entitle it to be a masterpiece. The interior, as readers of The Studio know, is no less beautiful; indeed, certain rooms still haunt one as perfect, whether you compare them with old or new work in any country. It is a house which might provoke a Diogenes to envy, and make the most contented person covetous.
North Mymms, in the architect's own drawing, seems a veritable Elizabethan house. Its stately courtyard, with a central fountain, its formal garden, and a certain unsymmetrical arrangement of its parts, reveal once again Mr. George's peculiar genius for suggesting a result that has been evolved, rather than invented. The stables and outbuildings are as admirable as the main building, and the whole place a thing to remember. The Knoll, Barton, a far less palatial house, is another well-nigh perfect example of picturesque effect, gained by simple direct use, of features commonplace enough in themselves. A great architect takes these words in every-day use, and makes of them a poem in bricks and mortar — his imitators copy detail by detail, and yet the result is doggerel. But the difference between a poem and a neatly made piece of verse, is often too subtle to be differentiated in a liasty criticism like this. Batsford, Gloucester, must be passed with a brief mention. Littlecroft, New Forest (Morton Peto, Esq.), has been the subject of many illustrations in The British Architect (Dec. 17, 1886); admirers of Messrs. George & Peto's work should refer to the details of this charming house, where not merely the structural features have been sketched by Mr. T. Raffles Davidson, but a sundial, a lantern, even a pair of snuffers finds a record.
Rawdon House, Hoddesdon Dining Room, Rawdon House. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
Rawdon House, an old building restored by these architects, is so fully illustrated here, that in the absence of more information as to the original state of the house, it would be impossible to add anything else of moment. A yacht, The Cuhona (for Sir Andrew Walker), is perhaps less out of place if noticed among country houses than elsewhere. Its interior in The Architect (Oct 6, 1883), must be taken with a grain of salt. No yacht could carry a small town-hall comfortably; but accepting the convention of its perspective, it is instructive to see that the ornate panelling and generally luxurious features which modern taste deems the proper compensation for a floating prison, can be made gorgeous in an artist's hands without being gaudy and hideous. The steamship saloon is usually a triumph of bad taste, splendour that becomes sordid by its too plentiful detail, and a riot of extravagant decoration generally. The same publication (July 6, 1883), contains many sketches by Mr. Raffles Davidson of other fittings and appointments of The Cuhona, with a sketch of the yacht at anchor.
The secret of the work of these architects is surely apparent to all who care to study it. It is not the use of any particular material, adherence to any given style, nor the originality which is eccentricity masquerading under a nobler name, nor abject reverence for precedent which is barely disguised pedantry. Full knowledge of the architecture of the past is kept in its rightly subordinate place by equally full recognition of the modified conditions of the present, and the result is sane and practical work, that also happens to be beautiful because the sanity is that of a scholar, and the practical conduct is dominated by an artist's intuitive sense of the right proportion and the right place to use ornament. To know when to be restrained is not enough, one must also know when to be prodigal; and that Mr. Ernest George's work is proof of his perfectly well-balanced artistry is proved so clearly, even in the drawings reproduced here, that all which has been written does but indicate the lesson which they proclaim openly.
“The Revival of English Domestic Architecture. IV. The Work of Mr. Ernest George.” The Studio. 8 (1896): 204-15. Internet Archive. Web. 3 April 2012
Last modified 3 April 2012