The beauty that rose out of ruin
Monserrate, Sintra, Portugal In the care of Parques de Sintra Built and adapted by a series of wealthy English owners, this fantastical house and its splendid gardens have been triumphantly restored. Gerald Luckhurst reports
Monserrate is a remarkable monument to British connections with Portugal and has passed through two periods of neglect and decay. Indeed, as we shall see, it was for a period the former kingdom’s most famous ruin. the present Victorian house occupies the site and plan of a predecessor, a superbly sited Gothic castle built in 1791 at a cost of £23,000. Curiously, this castle was never occupied by its builder, Gerard de Visme, an english merchant who had made his fortune through trade with Brazil.
at the time of construction, de Visme’s house was dismissively described by elizabeth, Baroness Craven (née Berkeley), in a letter to the writer, patron and art collector, William Beckford as ‘Montserrat—beautiful situation —but a Vile planned house’. early engravings of the building and its landscape gardens published for the Duke of northumberland in 1793 help explain this judgment and a pencilled note in Beckford’s hand on Lady Craven’s letter in the Bodleian Library, oxford, reads: ‘Perfectly true!’
nevertheless, Beckford coveted the property and, in July 1794, he took out a lease on the unoccupied house and garden. the author of Vathek (1786), who had just returned from his famous excursion to the monasteries of alcobaça and Batalha, Beckford isolated himself in this beautiful spot and waited for inspiration from the genius of the place to repeat his youthful success as an author. the surviving literary fragment from his brief summer residence amounts to a single scribbled page of a pastoral tale. Beckford returned for the summer of 1795 without writing a line and then the house was once more abandoned.
Despite the brevity of his presence and his failure to write there, Beckford’s association with Monserrate was to prove indelible. as early as 1799, he was attributed with having created the domain of the property. this was a fact he vigorously
denied to the end of his life, yet it was repeatedly reasserted by later writers.
Monserrate I, as de Visme’s house is generally described, survived for just 16 years. As a prominent symbol of the British presence in Portugal, the house and gardens were summarily wrecked in December 1807 by French troops commanded by Gen Thomiérs during the first Napoleonic invasion. The inglorious period of fame that Monserrate was to enjoy as a ruin was to endure much longer.
Celebrated as the former residence of Beckford, Monserrate was visited by Byron and Hobhouse in 1809 and described in the epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812). Thereafter, it became an obligatory destination for Romantic Grand Tourists and the newly acquired literary associations were then constantly augmented by the imagination of writers of travelogues and memoirs throughout the 19th century.
The present house—monserrate II— arose from the discovery of these ruins by one such traveller, Francis Cook. He was the son of William Cook, who had established himself as a retail linen draper in Clerkenwell, London, in 1814. The family wholesale textile business, latterly based in St Paul’s Churchyard, grew into the largest concern of its kind in Britain and, after the death of his elder brother in 1852, Francis became heir to a fortune.
From the 1860s, he also began to assemble an immensely important art collection that embraced the whole spectrum of Northern and Southern European art, much of it housed at Doughty House, Richmond Hill, Surrey.
In 1841, Francis married an Angloportuguese merchant’s daughter, Emily Martha Lucas, whom he had met in Lisbon at the end of a year-long Grand Tour of Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East and the Iberian Peninsula. They honeymooned, it is said, at the Quinta de São Bento in Sintra, just a short trip through the woods from Monserrate, and they determined to acquire the roofless, windowless shell of Beckford’s residence.
Portuguese law prevented the sale of the entailed estate, which Cook obtained in 1856 through subrogation, presenting government bonds to the value of 40,000 mil reis to the aristocratic owners in exchange for use of the property. Only in 1863, when the law of entail was abolished and with a further payment of 600,000 mil reis, did he acquire the freehold. The following year, in recognition of his munificence to the poor, he was created Visconde de Monserrate by the king of Portugal. He also later received a British baronetcy.
Cook’s architect for the restoration of Monserrate was James Thomas Knowles, who visited Sintra in 1857 and the following year produced a proposed elevation and longitudinal section that remain today in the possession of the Cook family (Country Life, November 1, 1990). The full integrity of de Visme’s house was retained, but the 18th-century ruins were totally transformed through extensive ornamentation by adding domes and cupolas, together with colonnades and porticos (Fig 3) and elaborate fenestration to the existing towers, walls and Gothic-arched window openings.
Knowles had originally apprenticed as a glazier. Anxious to establish himself as a professional architect, he took an active role in the proceedings of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. His architecture
‘determined Francis Cook and his bride, Emily, to acquire the roofless, windowless shell
showed confidence in the progress of his art by using newly developed building materials. In 1850, he read a paper to the Institute entitled ‘On the Propriety of the Application of Cements or other Artificially-formed Materials to the Exteriors of Buildings’, in which he expressed a strong desire to create durable, comfortable buildings.
During his discourse, he coined a telling phrase for these deceptive materials, accepting their use as alternatives to costly stone, metal and wood, in an attempt to produce architecture that expressed all that was ‘truly grand and beautiful, and original in design’.
Knowles had already worked with Cook on the reconstruction of the Cook, Son & Co warehouses in the City. He was aware of his client’s desire to add something beautiful in form to his buildings, while adhering to their ‘aptness of purpose’. Monserrate was intended as a showplace: the affirmation of these ideas would enable Cook to demonstrate his wealth and taste in Portugal, which he visited every year.
Knowles’s uninhibited use of the materials available to him is amply demonstrated by Monserrate today. The building displays the rich multihued marbles of Sintra: columns of red negrais, stair rails and volutes of the grey-blue marble from São Pedro de Sintra and flooring composed from three colours of Lioz stone quarried nearby at Pero Pinheiro. However, much of the apparent magnificence is derived from less costly resources, principally through the use of stuccoed plaster: as capitals, arches, spandrels, sculpture and wall decoration.
Such was his fearless approach to mixing his material palette that Knowles used ceramics from the Minton factory alongside 16th-century tiles from Seville and fauxbois ceilings of painted paper above an
Fig 1 above: The filigree decoration of the cupola above the central hall was once lined with a dark-red cloth to create a rosycoloured light upon the walls and floor.
Fig 2 facing page: The spectacular main corridor runs the full length of the house
Fig 3 above: The exterior of the house is lined with arcades and porticos overlooking the garden. Fig 4 right: The house is superbly sited on a hill, with views over the garden. Its main dome is apparently inspired by that of the Duomo in Florence