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

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Pho­to­graphs by Paul High­nam

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

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