Monthly Archives: August 2017

Palladian design for living

Henbury Hall, Cheshire

Henbury Hall, Cheshire

A very myopic estate agent might describe Henbury Hall, Cheshire, as a six-bedroom detached house with every modern convenience, set in a spacious garden.

An architectural historian would see it as a spectacular modern version of Andrea Palladio’s celebrated Villa Capra (1567-1585), which stands on a hill outside Vicenza in northern Italy.

Palladio’s masterpiece is mounted on a rusticated basement and capped by a magnificent dome. Its plan is a square with a hexastyle (six-columned) portico on each side, and the rooms open from the central hall, allowing breezes in the hot Italian summer, and offering shade at all times of the day.

The British architect Julian Bicknell (b 1945) conceived Henbury Hall as a scaled-down version of the Villa Capra, 56 feet square, with tetrastyle (four-columned) Ionic porticos, and a more intimate interior, appropriate to the colder English climate.

The house was designed for Sebastian de Ferranti (1927-2015), grandson of the founder of the electronics company.  Mr de Ferranti’s father, Sir Vincent de Ferranti, had purchased the Henbury Hall estate in 1957, demolished the existing eighteenth-century house and converted the Tenants’ Hall of 1770 into a residence.

His great contribution to Henbury is the garden, twelve acres of extensive views across two lakes, now restored with its walled garden and Victorian glasshouses and a magnificent Pool House.

The family originated from Venice, and after Sir Vincent’s death in 1980, Mr de Ferranti asked the painter Felix Kelly to visualise a Palladian eye-catcher in place of the lost Henbury Hall.

The result was realised by Julian Bicknell in French limestone with a lead dome surmounted by a lantern, built between 1983 and 1986 over the extensive cellars of the eighteenth-century house.

The interior was decorated by the prestigious designer David Mlinaric (b 1939) with carving by the York master carver Dick Reid.

The ground floor, the “rustic” in architectural terminology, contains the domestic quarters in the Palladian tradition – the kitchen, breakfast room and utilities – and the customary entrance.

The formal piano nobile floor consists of an axial space running beneath the dome from north to south, with drawing room and dining room spaces on the opposite east-west axis to make an open cruciform space for living.  The southern corner rooms are intimate, despite their classical proportions – a study and a sitting room.  The northern corners contain respectively an elegant cantilevered spiral staircase and two lifts.

Above are six bedrooms with en suite bathrooms.

Here is proof that the design for living that Palladio offered his Venetian clients in the sixteen century remains practical 450 years later.

Henbury Hall Gardens are open to the public by arrangement:

Henbury Hall itself is strictly private.

Lord Burlington’s bauble

Chiswick House, Middlesex:  entrance portico

Chiswick House, Middlesex: entrance portico

When Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) was building his exquisite villas across the Venetian terra firma, English architects were constructing such weird confections as Wollaton Hall (1580-1588), Barlborough Hall (c1583-1584), Hardwick Hall (1597) and Burton Agnes Hall (c1600).

In the late sixteenth century England was segregated from Catholic Europe, where the Renaissance had been flourishing for generations.  Builders in England could only understand the vocabulary of classical architecture through pattern books – and often got the proportions wrong.

Only Inigo Jones (1573-1652) had the good fortune to travel on the continent, and returned with the capability to design the Queen’s House at Greenwich (1616-9/1630-5), the Banqueting House at Whitehall (1619-22), St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden (1631), and Wilton House, Wiltshire (1633-40).

The man who eventually brought Palladian architecture to Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century was Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork (1694-1753).

In his early twenties he made three Grand Tour visits to Europe, and on the third, in 1719, he took with him a copy of Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura, which catalogues the Italian’s built and unbuilt designs.

On his return he added a pavilion to the Jacobean family seat, Chiswick House, then in a rural setting a little less than ten miles from the City of London.

This exquisite little building – which is now known as Chiswick House, the Jacobean building having long since disappeared – was completed in 1729, and was described by Lord Hervey (Alexander Pope’s ‘Lord Fanny’) as “Too small to live in, and too big to hang to a watch”.

It derives obviously from Palladio’s Villa Capra, but with only two porticos instead of four, a taller dome more in keeping with Palladio’s intention, and obelisks that serve as chimneys, a necessity in England but not in the Mediterranean.

The villa and the surrounding garden were carefully designed to suggest a Roman original, based on Palladio’s patterns rather than direct archaeology.

It represented a huge departure from the heavier Baroque buildings that had been erected in the late seventeenth century – Chatsworth, Blenheim, Castle Howard – and it became the precedent for elegant buildings for a generation.

Lord Burlington’s social status and aesthetic authority enabled him to promote a coterie of architects – Colen Campbell, William Kent, Matthew Brettingham, Henry Flitcroft, John Wood the elder, James Paine and John Carr of York – who designed the great houses of the early eighteenth century, such as Holkham Hall, Houghton Hall, Stourhead House, Prior Park and – most of all – Wentworth Woodhouse where an old-fashioned west wing is concealed by the magnificent Palladian east wing.

The long line of classical beauty, ultimately derived from the Greeks and the Romans, passes from the Roman writer Vitruvius to Palladio, then to Lord Burlington, and it continues to the present day, if you know where to look.

La Rotonda

Villa Capra, "La Rotonda", Vicenza, Italy

Villa Capra, “La Rotonda”, Vicenza, Italy

One of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen is Andrea Palladio’s Villa Capra, otherwise called La Rotonda, on the outskirts of Vicenza.

Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) was the Italian architect who, during the second half of the sixteenth century, studied and revived the principles of proportion and decorum that distinguished classical Roman architecture, designing and building villas across the rural Veneto, and churches, public buildings and palaces in Vicenza and Venice.

Strictly, La Rotonda is not a villa:  it was not intended to have ancillary farm buildings, and Palladio himself referred to it as a palazzo.  It was built within reach of the city as a retirement residence for a Vatican priest, Paolo Almerico, who died in 1589 before the building was completed.

The house passed to two brothers, Odorico and Marco Capra, who engaged Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616), to finish the project, lowering the profile of the Palladio’s intended dome to resemble the Pantheon in Rome, though with a cupola instead of an open oculus.

The Villa Capra’s aesthetic perfection is founded on practicality.  The square footprint is set at 45° to the cardinal directions of the compass, so that the corners point north, south, east and west, and the layout of the four porticos and the rooms within is intended to provide shade throughout the day.

The house stands on a small hill, approached by a carriage drive to the north-west portico, so that the other three porticos each present a distinctive view across the surrounding plain.

Within each portico vestibules lead to the double-height circular central hall, which has a balcony above and is lit by the cupola that surmounts the dome.  The walls are covered in sumptuous trompe d’oeil decoration and frescoes by Alessandro and Giambattista Maganza and Anselmo Canera.

Had he lived, Paolo Almerico would have enjoyed a degree of state to echo his working life in the Vatican.

This treasure of classical architecture has survived intact, and is regularly open to visitors: