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