Cover of the book under review.
Woodchester is a fascinating Gothic mansion in the Cotswolds, unique in its incompleteness. But it has, fortunately, a wealth of surviving documentation. This has enabled author Liz Davenport to study it in great detail, and provide a full chronological and factual account of its history. The result is more a biography of the Leigh family to whom it belonged, than the story of a Gothic folly, and the narrative starts slowly, with an account of how the Leighs amassed their fortune. But in the ninth of Davenport's topic-specific sections, details begin to emerge of the complicated construction of this extraordinary house.
From the start, the process was beset with difficulties: financial mis-management, wide-spread ill-health, a young and inexperienced architect, and the failure of offspring to share their father's aspirations. The pace quickens towards the end, with the demise of the Leigh family, leaving one grandson an alcoholic in a lunatic asylum, and another a drug addict in Australia. When the middle grandson, who inherited the property, advocated making the incomplete mansion his future marital home, the result was perhaps not unexpected — a broken engagement.
The scene is set, then, with an in-depth account of the origins of the Leigh family, depicting their amassment of a fortune, largely gained through generations of overseas foreign trade, and in particular their interest and investments in Australian property from 1837. They were Protestant by birth, but their home was close to Oscott College, now the seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, and they were drawn towards Catholicism. This provided the raison d'être for the building work which they themselves embarked on. Noted for his philanthropy, Leigh initially wished to support the Anglican Church in Australia, but his charitable impulses were diverted towards the growing Catholic population in both Australia and England.
William Leigh (photograph kindly provided by the author).
Chapter III opens with the purchase of Woodchester Park in 1845, where Leigh aimed to create a Catholic community in the Cotswolds. Advice was first sought from A. W. N. Pugin, who described Woodchester Mansion as "wretched" and advocated demolition. Leigh's thoughts then turned to a community, with church and monastery, to be served by the Passionists. Pugin considered all this to be too ambitious for the budget and site, and withdrew from any involvement. However, by this time, Leigh was already consulting Charles Hansom, whose estimate for the church was considerably lower. The foundation stone of the church was laid by Bishop Ullathorne in 1846. Through Ullathorne, Leigh paid for a design by Hansom for work in Australia, seeing it as a model church for "the New World." Others followed. Leigh was careless of cost and had high expectations. The interior of Leigh's Church of the Annunciation near Woodchester, designed by Hansom, "resembled the new House of Lords." The east window above the altar was painted by William Wailes, there is a doom painting above the chancel arch and floor tiles were by Minton. This impacted upon the Mansion, where the builder was personally out of pocket and work was at risk of stopping.
With the death of Father Dominic Barberi, the Passionist Provincial, the Passionists concluded that the Woodchester community was too small to sustain the number of services Leigh sought. Ullathorne suggested replacing them with Dominicans, who were based at Hinckley in Leicestershire, where the Hansoms had previously resided. Their requirements were more costly than the Passionists, which further impacted upon Leigh's work at the Mansion. The final cost, partly funded by Leigh, was around £20,000. As Davenport frequently points out, Leigh was not careful in his budgeting and typically overspent.
Chapter VI gives details of Charles Hansom's background and refers to two plans dated 1857, elevations for "The Great House" for "W. Leigh, Esq., Woodchester Park." They are marked "J. & C. Hansom, Architects, Clifton," and signed by Charles. Two further drawings from the partnership in 1858 show the chimneys and the elevation of a window. Another two, this time marked "J. A. Hansom & Son," are dated August and September 1859. The design went through many changes, with the front and the rear being built at different times. However, slow progress was also dictated by the availability of Leigh's finances, and especially hampered by his perfectionist stance. When he considered work to be inferior, it was undone and re-done. By 1866 Charles had withdrawn from the project, leaving his assistant, Benjamin Bucknall, in charge. The main plans were drawn up by Hansom, but Bucknall was responsible for the ornamentation. He lived at nearby Stroud and converted to Catholicism. Bucknall was greatly influenced by Viollet-le-Duc, who he visited on several occasions and much of whose work he translated into English.
An intricate description of the Mansion, which, apart from necessary remedial work, has remained unchanged over the years, is given in Chapter IX. The property was built almost entirely of rectangular blocks of ashlar limestone, with minimal use of timber and metal, which has aided its long-term survival. Specific features selected by Davenport are the high vaulting, the clock tower and quality sculpture, especially the gargoyles, used to throw the rainwater clear of the foundations. Many of the floor boards have never been installed. Based on Hansom's church at Minchinhampton, the chapel in the mansion is notable for its high tierceron vault. This adds to the monastic-domestic feel of the building.
By 1866 rooms in the South front had been demolished and materials, as well as furniture, sold to raise funds. Despite the sale of Australian property, shortage of funds, deaths of relatives and Leigh's own poor health, meant that work on the mansion drew to a close. Nevertheless, he continued to look after his estate and built further small houses and farm buildings, designed by Bucknall. Work finally ceased with the death of William Leigh in 1873, by which time he had spent £16,000 (around three quarters of a million pounds today) on the mansion. He was concerned for the future of the property as his son refused to make a will. Bucknall suggested either demolishing the chapel to introduce fresh air and overcome stagnation, completing certain wings of the house for letting, or possibly building a new property. He felt leaving an incomplete building would "cast a perpetual gloom over the park." Details of Bucknall's career are given, firstly in Swansea, and thence, for health reasons, relocation to Algiers. Here he changed his style from neo-Gothic to neo-Moorish and successfully built villas for in-coming British residents.
During the 1880s, Willie, Leigh's son, undertook excessive borrowing, doubling his father's debts. He seemed unable to comprehend the seriousness of the situation and continued to overspend. On his death, the property passed to his middle son, Vincent. Due to World War I and declines in value of land and income, the estate was offered for sale in 1921. After completion, it transpired that the actual purchaser was Blanche Leigh, who had gone behind her brother's back, not wishing the property to be lost to the family. Blanche and her sister Beatrice were capable business women, who subsequently managed the local Catholic Primary School. By 1936 it was agreed to put the whole estate on the market. The conditions of sale included a dedicated Catholic House, thus ensuring a strong Catholic element for the future. However war intervened. From 1942 the property was used for military training and then resold. It was granted Grade I listed status in 1987, thus ensuring that basic maintenance is carried out. The property is carefully managed, with a conservation group and SSSI status ensuring the integrity of the grounds and a safe home to renowned colonies of Lesser and Greater Horseshoe Bats.
Davenport, a knowledgeable and devoted Trustee of Woodchester, has made good use of the archives of the late Stephen Leigh, great-great-nephew of William Leigh, adding these to her own extensive researches. She combines a wealth of facts with a sense of a family drama. The incomplete state of the Mansion, largely at the expense of the Catholic community, facilitates an assessment of the methods of construction, how work was planned and how it progressed. It suffered from its damp location, and its design, perhaps due to the involvement of different architects and disjointed progress, is unorthodox. Plumbing was somewhat basic and inadequate. The narrative does not always show Bucknall in a good light, mainly with reference to not coping well with the dampness, poor sanitation and poor design of staircases, though he was working in a very difficult situation. However, Davenport praises his vaulting and high-quality carving.
It would be good to have some more information about the people, the "additional small houses" and general working of the estate, which did, after all support Leigh's indulgences. The method of production might not be favoured by everyone, but external photographs belie the internal state and it does permit the inclusion of numerous illustrations, the cost of which would have been prohibitive in printed format. On balance, Pugin was right — the project was impractical from the start — but the book is well worth investigating. Incidentally, proceeds from it will go to the Woodchester Mansion Trust, registered charity 900315.
(Book under review) Davenport, Liz. Woodchester: A Gothic Vision: The Story of William Leigh, Benjamin Bucknall and the Building of Woodchester Mansion. Kindle Edition. ASIN: B077VSF1J3. £7.50.
Created 28 February 2018