Ever since 1897, the magazine Country Life has published articles about country houses, illustrated with photographs specially taken for the purpose. This archive is a wonderful resource, and of course includes images of fine buildings that no longer exist (the victims, rather too often, of the politics of envy and levellers). David Watkin has drawn upon that resource to illustrate his beautiful and erudite book and demonstrate how Classicism has informed the design of so many of these splendid houses since the beginning of the 17th century.
Classical country houses were products of the conviction that the genesis of Western civilisation lay in Classical antiquity, and the progenies of that belief enhance many places, especially if set in designed landscapes that suggest Arcady as imagined in paintings by a Claude or a Poussin. The remarkable fact that several new houses continue that tradition today is celebrated by Watkin, who, believing in the permanent validity of the Classical language of architecture as opposed to the inarticulate monosyllabic gruntings of Modernism, describes and illustrates them. They include Ferne Park, Dorset (2000-02, designed by Quinlan Terry), in the garden of which is a life-size statue of Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of the Enlightenment, by the great Scottish sculptor, Alexander Stoddart; Tusmore Park, Oxfordshire (2003-05, by Sir William Whitfield); the energy-efficient Solar House, Wakeham, Sussex (1999, by the Winchester architect Robert Adam); and the exquisite Soanesque Ashfold House, Sussex (1988-90, by John Simpson).
Watkin, in his elegant text, takes us from the immensely important influence of Inigo Jones to the Second Palladian revival of Lord Burlington and his circle, which led on to such breathtaking houses as Holkham Hall, Norfolk (1734-65, with its magnificent marble hall that drew on several works of Roman antiquity) and Kedleston, Derbyshire (from 1759, by Matthew Brettingham, James Paine and Robert Adam, which combines a massive Roman temple front, a columned hall, a Pantheon-like rotunda and a triumphal arch with a basic composition derived from the uncompleted Villa Mocenigo by Andrea Palladio).
He visits Packington Hall, Warwickshire (with its internal decorations derived from those of the Domus Aurea and Pompeii), the astonishingly beautiful Pitzhanger Manor, Middlesex (1800-03, by John Soane) and the severely Grecian Grange Park, Hampshire (from 1809, by William Wilkins and others, quoting the Hephaesteion and the Choragic monument of Thrasyllus), before describing several 19th-century houses, all inspired by the Classical ideal, but filtered through an Italian sieve.
Then there is Manderston, Berwickshire (1901-05, by John Kinross) and several houses by that master of the "High Game" of Classicism, Edwin Landseer Lutyens, including the capricious Nashdom, Buckinghamshire (from 1905), the more serene Gledstone Hall, Yorkshire (1925-) and the British Embassy, Washington (1928-30). The book ends with mention of several fine Classical houses in the US and the Bahamas by architects including Anne Fairfax and Richard Sammons, Hugh Petter and Peter Pennoyer.
Watkin rightly emphasises that the Classical movement of today is rooted in scholarship, which is one of the reasons it is dismissed as elitist by those who are incapable of the effort needed to acquire the modicum of expertise necessary to produce Classical buildings. Indeed, it is astonishing that the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana is the only such school in the world that teaches the practice of traditional and Classical architecture, with the result that its graduates are in enormous demand by clients throughout the US. A perusal of Watkin's tome might prompt the observation that if this is elitism, let us have a lot more of it.
The Classical Country House: From the Archives of Country Life
By David Watkin. Aurum Press, 192pp, £40.00. ISBN 9781845135935. Published 25 November 2010