Guidebook - Harlaxton Manor

Mark Girouard

This excerpt from the history of Harlaxton Manor, its construction, interiors and inhabitants, is reproduced from the Harlaxton Manor Guide Book (©Harlaxton College 1984).

To-day we went to see the house Mr Gregory is building, five miles from here. He is a gentleman of about £12,000 a year, who has a fancy to build a magnificent house in the Elizabethan style, and he is now in the middle of his work, all the shell being finished except one wing. Nothing can be more perfect than it is, both as to the architecture and the ornaments; but it stands on the slope of a hill upon a deep clay soil, with no park around it, very little wood, and scarcely any fine trees. Many years ago, when he first conceived this design, he began to amass money and lived for no other object. He travelled into all parts of Europe collecting objects of curiosity, useful or ornamental, for his projected palace, and he did not begin to build until he had accumulated money enough to complete his design. The grandeur of it is such, and such the tardiness of its progress, that it is about as much as he will do to live till its completion; and as he is not married, has no children, and dislikes the heir on whom his property is entailed, it is the means and not the end to which he looks for gratification. He says that it is his amusement, as hunting or shooting or feasting may be the objects of other people; and as the pursuit leads him into all parts of the world, and to mix with every variety of nation and character, besides engendering tastes pregnant with instruction and curious research, it is not irrational, although he should never inhabit his house, and may be toiling and saving for the benefit of persons he cares nothing about.

The date is 4 January 1838; the house visited is Harlaxton; the quotation comes from the journal of Charles Greville. He was staying at Belvoir Castle and among the party who rode over with him were the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, Lady Salisbury, Lord Aberdeen and Lord John Manners the future hero of Young England.

Greville's description is intriguing enough, but the reality even more extraordinary. Harlaxton has to be seen to be believed; and even when one has seen it, it is not always easy to believe in it. It floats like a vision at the end of its avenue; it rises mysterious out of the snows or ebullient from the late summer cornfields; it changes from season to season, and light to light. It is a work of genius - but whose genius? All the relevant building accounts and family papers, and all but a handful of designs, have disappeared.

Gregory Gregory (1786-1854) for whom it was built was rich, but not all that rich. Greville's £12,000 may have been an underestimate, but his income, which derived from inherited estates in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, is unlikely to have been more than £20,000. Yet Harlaxton suggests an income of at least £50,000; Greville rightly called it a palace, for it is ducal and even royal in its pretensions. One is tempted to look for some extra source of wealth, or history of family or political rivalry to explain it; but Greville's sympathetic account suggests that this is unnecessary. Harlaxton was a personal fantasy, to which Gregory devoted all his energies and most of his life; the £200,000 spread over twenty years, which tradition says he spent on the house, is a perfectly possible sum for a bachelor with no other commitments, whose house appears to have been his only extravagance.

There is, in fact, little doubt that Gregory himself, rather than his architects, is the key figure. John Claudius Loudon, who visited Harlaxton in May 1840 and described it in the July number of the Gardener's Magazine, wrote that 'from entering so completely into both the design and the practical details of execution he may be said to have embodied himself in the edifice, and to live in every feature of it'. Although the house was not started until 1832, he began to collect ideas, money and fittings for it ten years earlier. Ultimately he travelled all over Europe, as far as Constantinople and the Crimea. But to begin with he confined himself to England, for his first plans were limited to building a house in the Jacobean or Elizabethan style. He told Loudon that ('there being, at the time he commenced, few or no books on the subject') he visited and studied, among other buildings, Bramshill, Hardwick, Hatfield, Knole, Burghley, Wollaton, Kirby, Longleat, Temple Newsam, and the Oxford and Cambridge colleges.

In turning his attention to Elizabethan architecture in the 1820s, Gregory was a pioneer, but by no means alone. The publication of Scott's Kenilworth in 1821 no doubt helped to popularise the Elizabethan Age, but it would have come into fashion anyway. Alarmed by industrial and social unrest, the English upper classes were already beginning to look for the kind of benevolent and paternalistic image which Young England was to preach in the 1840s. Elizabethan Manor houses suggested what was called at the time 'Old English hospitality' just as visibly as medieval ones, and without the undertones of violence, superstition and discomfort which put many people off the Middle Ages. Visually, Elizabethan architecture could produce the kind of picturesque skyline and varied modelling that was admired by practitioners of the Picturesque. Moreover, it appealed to patriotic sentiment; it was uniquely English.

On the other hand, the cavalier way in which the Elizabethans distorted or misunderstood the language of Classical architecture was bound to be a stumbling-block to those brought up in the Classical tradition. Architects, in particular, found it hard to stomach what Horace Walpole had described as its 'mongrel character'. The revived 'Old English' manor houses of the 1820S tended to be more Tudor-Gothic than Elizabethan - or, if they were more or less Elizabethan, 'mongrel' Classical detail was left out. Only in the 1830s, when reaction against the purity of Neoclassicism was rampant, did Elizabethan ornament begin to become acceptable.

Country gentlemen may have been less worried by Elizabethan stylistic improprieties than architects. In 1835 it was a committee of landowners, not architects, who coupled Elizabethan with Gothic as one of the two acceptable styles for entries to the competition for the new Houses of Parliament. Gregory's own interests may have been turned to Elizabethan by the fact that he owned an Elizabethan house himself. The old manor house at Harlaxton had not been lived in by the Gregory family for many years, and was falling into ruin; but it was a remarkably picturesque example of the style. Sixty years later Gregory would have devoted his energies to a loving and careful restoration of the old manor house; instead he built himself a superb neo-Elizabethan mansion and kept the old one as a picturesquely decaying feature at the edge of his new park.

It seems to have been in 1831 that the architect Anthony Salvin was called in to, as Loudon put it, 'embody Mr Gregory's ideas in such detail as to fit them for the practical builder'. Salvin was not a surprising choice. Although only at the beginning of his career, he had already established a reputation as a rising country house architect. At Mamhead (1826-37) and Moreby (1827-33) he had already designed two extremely capable Tudor-Gothic houses, and by the 1830s he was probably quite ready to be pushed further along the Elizabethan road. Moreover he was an adept at Picturesque composition; a house designed by him would be sure to fit into its setting.

The house that he designed (no doubt primed by Gregory with innumerable suggestions and possibly even sketch designs) was a masterly combination of ingenious planning and Picturesque composition. It was literally dug into a hillside, with the ground sloping up behind it and to one side, and down on the other two sides. This means that the main rooms could be put on the first floor, and yet open straight on to the garden on the two sides where the house hit the hill; and the service rooms could be in a basement which became a well-lit ground floor on the sides facing the Entrance Court and the Service Yard.

On the basis of this clever plan (which Salvin was later to adapt for Keele and Thoresby) the vocabulary derived from Gregory's extensive tours was used to achieve modelling, intricacy and skyline according to Picturesque principles. Salvin's beautiful elevations, preserved in the RIBA Drawing Collection, show how he thought in terms of light and shade, producing the broader modelling by turrets, chimney-breasts and bay-windows, the intricacy by applied decoration, and the skyline by turrets, gables and chimney-stacks. The Entrance Front was splendidly symmetrical, and clearly inspired by the entrance front at Burghley; the rear facade, facing the hill, was made picturesquely asymmetrical by the irregular fenestration, bold bay-window and prominent chimney-stack of the Great Hall.

Building work started in 1832, the Central Tower was up by 1836, and the house was substantially completed by 1844. But in mid-course two new elements were introduced; Gregory discovered the Baroque, and changed his architect.

Salvin's elevations and a set of brilliant watercolours of about the same date, show a house without a trace of Baroque elements. Had Harlaxton been completed on these lines, it would have been a neoElizabethan house on the grand scale, remarkable enough, but not all that unlike a number of its contemporaries. Behind its uniqueness lies a brilliant new idea: the idea that Elizabethan and Jacobean could be fused with Baroque. The results are epitomised on the Entrance Front. The Elizabethan centre-piece of the house is framed by gigantic gate-piers and pavilions in which Baroque outlines are combined with Jacobean ornament. The resulting impression of power, exuberance and abundance is sensational.

The mixture is continued in varying proportions all through the house. The gargantuan scrolls in the Entrance Hall are, if anything Baroque, but there are Jacobean touches in the detailing of the arches. The stairs that lead up from it to the main floor have Baroque balustrading under a ceiling studded with Elizabethan pendentives. The Great Hall and Dining Room to which it gives access both suggest 'Old English hospitality'; but the roof trusses of the Great Hall are supported by groaning Baroque atlantes. Through the Great Hall is the main staircase, and beyond it the Drawing Room, Anteroom, and Gallery. The decoration of these three rooms is almost entirely Baroque; but the enormous Conservatory into which they both look is an extraordinary mixture of Baroque and Elizabethan shapes and ornament. The Staircase itself is the glory and surprise of Harlaxton's interior. It is entirely and unbelievably Baroque; through struggling atlantes, swarming cherubs, and tasselled festoons of drapery it soars up to an illusionist Baroque heaven, under which more cherubs climb and the figure of Time unrolls a plan of Harlaxton.

The decoration is far more robust and boldly modelled than in most equivalent work of the same date; in particular, the Elizabethan ceilings make any similar ceilings of the 1830s and 1840s seem feeble. Some of the detail, such as the trophies attached to the arches in the Lower Hall, is grotesquely exaggerated in scale, and the general effect is of a bursting and pullulating abundance that has an almost dreamlike quality. The result is like a series of stage sets, linked together with theatrical genius to provide continuous contrasts in shape, size, character and lighting, as one moves from floor to floor, or room to room.

Who designed all this? Was it Salvin, or William Burn, who superseded him, or David Bryce, who was Burn's chief assistant. Dr Jill Allibone has discovered that Salvin was in Munich and Nuremberg in 1835. It is hard to believe that this visit had nothing to do with Harlaxton. The illusionism and some of the detailing of the Cedar Staircase appear to be directly inspired by the Asamkirche in Munich - although, typically, the illusionism which the Baroque used for symbolic and religious purposes is transferred at Harlaxton into a purely secular and Picturesque context. On the other hand the interior decoration at Harlaxton is unlikely to have been started before 1837, and probably went on well into the 1840s; and the Conservatory, Stables, Garden Terraces and Forecourt Gate, all of which have Baroque elements are not mentioned by Loudon and must date from 1840 at the earliest. In 1838, and possibly even in 1837, Salvin ceased to have anything to do with Harlaxton. After an interim period, during which Gregory consulted Blore, Burn took over; he was in charge by at least December 1838.

Burn was well established in Scotland but Harlaxton was his first English commission; indeed, it was the foundation of his great English practice. Its service wings and courtyards may be due to him; certainly nothing like them is shown on the surviving Salvin elevations. On the other hand he was always a dry and at times a dull designer; it is hard to believe that he was responsible for something as ebullient as the detail at Harlaxton. But David Bryce, Burn's chief assistant and from 1841 his partner, was a different matter. Not only was he a much more spirited designer than Burn; unlike Salvin he liked the Baroque. He designed buildings in the Baroque manner, or with Baroque details, on and off from 1835. Did Gregory send or take Salvin to Munich to study Baroque buildings, but replace him because Salvin either could not or would not produce the new mixture that Gregory wanted? Was Burn brought in because he had a clever designer in his office who knew about the Baroque?

Even less is known about the craftmanship at Harlaxton than about the architecture. Apart from Gibbons of Wolverhampton, who signed lavish Rococo-style door furniture throughout the house, and Thomas Willement whose stained-glass windows in the Hall are dated 1838, its decorators are all anonymous. The plasterwork has, almost inevitably, been attributed to foreigners. Gregory's constant travels through Europe certainly put him in a good position to pick up foreign craftsmen. But on the other hand Harlaxton's Baroque relates as much or more to what was going on in England. From the late 1820s onward England experienced a revived fashion for decoration in the Baroque or Rococo manner, sheltering under the blanket title of 'Louis Quatorze'. The stylistic distance between George IVs staterooms at Windsor (1826-30) or Earl de Grey's entire house at Wrest Park (1833-9) and the Drawing Room and Ante-room at Harlaxton is not so very great; the final leap to the Cedar Staircase is much greater, but not impossible. The long established firm of Francis Bernasconi & Son, who modelled the plasterwork at Windsor and probably also at Wrest, would have had the technical competence to produce that at Harlaxton - even the Staircase. In general, many of the English firms who were to flood the Great Exhibition of 1851 with Louis Quatorze (and in some cases even Louis Quatorze combined with Elizabethan) were already flourishing by 1840.

Although Harlaxton was described as 'mostly completed' in the 1842 edition of William White's History, Gazeteer and Directory of Lincolnshire, it continued to be embellished right up to Gregory's death in 1854. Gregory's buildings spread further and further over the surrounding landscape, by way of Stables, Gatehouse, kitchen garden and lodge gates to one side, and terraces, pavilions and grottoes to the other. Everything was in the grand manner, of the best possible quality and richly ornamented in the style of the house. Indoors, Gregory's decorators continued to work until even the attic bedrooms had ornamented ceilings and good fireplaces. The planning and practical aspects were as exhaustively considered as the decoration. Although Gregory never married, had by Victorian standards a modest staff of fourteen servants (as the 1851 Census shows) and seems never to have entertained, everything was prepared for a swarm of servants, children and guests. An elegant family staircase served a family suite at the north end of the house. In addition to the main back stairs, service stairs rose discreetly from the basement to the underneath of the main stairs and to a serving lobby by the Dining Room. Ponderous brass levers under the main stairs opened hot-air grates strategically placed in the main rooms. Coal or wood was brought in at high level from the hilltop and fed by railway through a curving and covered-in viaduct to the top storey from where it was dropped or lowered to collection points in other parts of the house.

Gregory had moved in by the time the 1851 Census was made, but died in 1854. He had hoped that all his property would ultimately go to his friend and neighbour Sir Glynne Welby of Denton. But the major part of it was entailed in another direction; the Welbys inherited many of the contents of Harlaxton, but not Harlaxton itself. After passing through several different hands, and narrowly escaping demolition it was first leased, and finally acquired for the University of Evansville, its present occupant.

Mark Girouard


Last Updated: 23/08/2011 4:51 PM