His­tory/ar­chi­tec­ture Holkham

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Chris­tine Hiskey (Uni­corn, £60)

There have been sev­eral stud­ies of holkham, but they have con­cen­trated ei­ther on the art and ar­chi­tec­ture or the agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment of the es­tate. This cov­ers both and is a com­pre­hen­sive his­tory of the build­ings, park, farm, fam­ily and es­tate from their foun­da­tion in 1612 by Lord Chief Jus­tice Sir ed­ward Coke, who bought the core of the es­tate in that year, to the present day. It is ded­i­cated to the mem­ory of the late 7th earl of Le­ices­ter, who did so much to re­vive holkham.

The story is based closely on the fam­ily ar­chives (all pre­served in situ). Chris­tine hiskey has looked af­ter these and re­searched them for 40 years, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Dr W. O. husall, li­brar­ian at holkham since the 1930s, who con­ceived the idea for an ar­chives-based his­tory.

The key fig­ures in the cre­ation of holkham are the two Thomas Cokes: the 1st earl of Le­ices­ter, ‘The Builder’ (1697– 1759), and ‘Coke of Nor­folk’, the agri­cul­tur­al­ist (1754–1842). The 1st earl ‘planned, planted, [and] built and dec­o­rated’ holkham’s great mas­ter­piece of an­glo-pal­la­dian ar­chi­tec­ture af­ter an ex­cep­tion­ally long and fruit­ful Grand Tour. It was con­ceived as a com­plete work of art to con­tain his books, paint­ings and an­tique sculp­ture. all this is cov­ered in sev­eral chap­ters that con­firm the con­sen­sus that it was a joint ar­chi­tec­tural en­ter­prise, with Lord Le­ices­ter tak­ing the lead role, Lord Burling­ton and Wil­liam Kent con­tribut­ing and Matthew Bret­ting­ham act­ing as ex­e­cu­tant.

The Builder’s son pre­de­ceased him and, fol­low­ing the 1st earl’s death, his wi­dow com­pleted the house. It passed to a young cousin, Thomas Wen­man Coke; he reigned at holkham for more than 60 years (a record) and made it the most fa­mous agri­cul­tural en­ter­prise in the world. he dou­bled the size of the park and em­ployed Sa­muel Wy­att to de­sign re­mark­able neo-clas­si­cal farm build­ings and model cot­tages (Coun­try Life, Novem­ber 21 and 28, 1974).

al­though these two cre­ators dom­i­nate the story, the book is es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing for high­light­ing un­known as­pects: no­tably the Chief Jus­tice’s de­scen­dants, the two John Cokes, who ex­panded and con­sol­i­dated the es­tate in the 17th cen­tury, and the vic­to­rian 2nd earl, who em­ployed Wil­liam Burn to ex­tend and em­bel­lish the house with ter­races and vast out­build­ings in a man­ner wor­thy of the orig­i­nal.

The cov­er­age of the 20th cen­tury is also fas­ci­nat­ing, ex­plain­ing how the house and es­tate were pre­served through two World Wars, three bouts of death du­ties and other mod­ern trou­bles. The story ends with a glo­ri­ous re­nais­sance dur­ing the past 30 years. This was achieved by ‘ed­die’, the South african-born 7th earl, who was ‘un­tram­melled by tra­di­tion yet re­cep­tive to his­tory’, a com­bi­na­tion that en­abled him to bring a fresh, cre­ative ap­proach to the man­age­ment of a great es­tate and the care of the most im­por­tant Ge­or­gian house in eng­land.

The book has good il­lus­tra­tions and the end pa­pers are in­spired, be­ing de­pic­tions of the lux­u­ri­ous brown-veined al­abaster of the Mar­ble hall. For the first time, this his­tory treats hall and set­ting as an in­te­grated whole, soundly based on archival re­search. It is a well worth­while project and full of new in­for­ma­tion about a place of in­ter­na­tional im­por­tance. John Martin Robin­son

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