A mag­nif­i­cent puz­zle

Crichel, Dorset , part I The Home of Mr and Mrs Richard Chilton, Jr

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

Crichel in Dorset is an un­usual and fas­ci­nat­ingly com­plex house, an onion with a cen­tral core wrapped round with later lay­ers. John New­man de­scribed it in ‘The Build­ings of eng­land’ as an ‘ar­chae­o­log­i­cal puz­zle’ and Avray Tip­ping found his anal­y­sis for

Coun­try Life in 1925 ham­pered by ‘a com­plete ab­sence of doc­u­men­ta­tion’. in re­cent years, the de­posit of the es­tate archives in the Dorset record Of­fice and John corn­forth’s re­search into the Napier Sturt bank ac­counts at hoare’s have pro­duced some of the miss­ing build­ing ac­counts.

As yet, how­ever, there are no draw­ings for the 18th-cen­tury phases. Wil­liam Burn’s Vic­to­rian de­signs for crichel are at the riba Draw­ings col­lec­tion, but there is still lit­tle doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence for the sub­stan­tial neo-ge­or­gian works in the 20th cen­tury. As a con­se­quence, much of the his­tory of this re­mark­able build­ing must be un­picked from the phys­i­cal and visual ev­i­dence.

crichel be­longed to the Napier and Sturt fam­i­lies for 400 years, but, after the death in 2010 of the late Mary Anna Marten, only daugh­ter of the 3rd and last lord Aling­ton, the prop­erty was sold as she left six chil­dren and ben­e­fi­cia­ries. The well-man­aged es­tate, which com­prised 10,000 acres and 150 houses and cot­tages, was bro­ken up and dis­persed in 2012. For­tu­nately, the main house, with some of its con­tents, and 1,300 acres in­clud­ing the park and 30 cot­tages, have been ac­quired by an An­glophile Amer­i­can fam­ily, the chiltons, who have made it their english home and re­fur­bished the in­te­rior, restor­ing sev­eral James Wy­att

In the first of two ar­ti­cles, John Martin Robin­son looks at the Ge­or­gian evo­lu­tion of this ex­tra­or­di­nary build­ing, which has, wrapped within its 1770s ex­te­rior, a 1740s house

rooms, which can now be seen as the mas­ter­pieces they are.

Much of the rest of the es­tate has been bought by Lord Phillimore, son of the neo-Ge­or­gian ar­chi­tect Claud Phillimore, so cul­tural dis­as­ter has been averted and this beau­ti­ful part of Dorset con­tin­ues to be cher­ished and man­aged on tra­di­tional lines by sym­pa­thetic new own­ers.

Crichel stands on the site of a Ja­cobean pre­de­ces­sor that burnt down in 1742. The house was promptly re­built ‘in great splen­dour’ from 1743 to 1747 by Sir Wil­liam Napier

(Fig 2). His ar­chi­tect was John Bas­tard of Bland­ford, scion of the lead­ing builder-ar­chi­tects in the area, fa­mous for the hand­some early-18th-cen­tury build­ings they erected in their home town. Bas­tard was paid as ar­chi­tect in Napier’s bank ac­count at Hoare’s. Pay­ments are also recorded there to Fran­cis Cartwright, an­other lead­ing Dorset builder, who was prob­a­bly the con­trac­tor ex­e­cut­ing Bas­tard’s de­signs.

The new house was a three-storeyed rec­tan­gu­lar block with the stair­case and hall on axis and the main en­trance on the east side fac­ing the church like its Ja­cobean pre­de­ces­sor. Its style was the English Baroque per­pet­u­ated by the Bas­tards with moulded win­dow ar­chi­traves and curly door­way ped­i­ments; it can still be seen be­hind the neo-clas­si­cal colon­nade on the south front and was recorded in a vi­gnette on an es­tate map of 1765.

The in­te­rior had Ro­coco plas­ter­work very sim­i­lar to the Bas­tard work in Bland­ford church, the best of which sur­vives in the vestibule (Fig 1), the orig­i­nal stair­case hall, with Napier’s arms in a large car­touche on the ceil­ing. The 1740s join­ery was also of good qual­ity as demon­strated in the turned-oak balus­ters and carved tread ends of the present stair­case re­set by Wy­att in the 1770s.

In 1765, the es­tate was in­her­ited by Humphrey Sturt. He was the nephew and heir of Sir Wil­liam Napier of Crichel, the last baronet of the Nap­per or Napier fam­ily, which had owned the Crichel es­tate since the early 17th cen­tury. Through his mother’s fam­ily, Sturt was the heir to the Aling­tons, whose dor­mant barony was to be re-cre­ated for the Vic­to­rian own­ers of Crichel in 1876.

‘is Crichel in Dorset an un­usual and fas­ci­nat­ingly com­plex house’

The Sturts them­selves emerged in the 17th cen­tury as rich mer­chants and al­der­men of Lon­don. Humphrey’s ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was Lord Mayor. When he in­her­ited Crichel, he al­ready owned es­tates in Hamp­shire, Wilt­shire and Devon, as well as the Sturt fam­ily seat at neigh­bour­ing Horton in Dorset, which he now gave up and re­placed with Crichel.

Sturt was not only very rich as a re­sult of th­ese in­her­i­tances, he was also mar­ried to the heiress of Hox­ton, a Lon­don prop­erty on the edge of the City that ef­fec­tively paid for his own grand scheme to trans­form the house. Arthur Young, the agri­cul­tur­ist, de­scribed Sturt as ‘his own ar­chi­tect’ and his changes to Crichel have all the orig­i­nal­ity and quirk­i­ness to be ex­pected of a Ge­or­gian vir­tu­oso-am­a­teur.

In ef­fect, a se­ries of new ad­di­tions was wrapped around the ex­ist­ing 1740s house, which was re­tained in the mid­dle: large new rooms were built at each cor­ner and a bed­room storey and Ionic por­tico or colon­nade on the south front (Fig 3), which re­mains the house’s most idio­syn­cratic fea­ture. The grounds were land­scaped with a large cres­cent-shaped lake and belts of trees in the man­ner of Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown (Fig 4).

In his His­tory of Dorset (1774), Hutchins wrote that the house was ‘so im­mensely en­larged that it has the ap­pear­ance of a man­sion of a prince, more than that of a coun­try gen­tle­man’. The Bas­tards were used again as the builders. John, Wil­liam, Ben­jamin, James and Thomas Bas­tard II were all paid for work be­tween Fe­bru­ary 1768 and 1773, but, in 1772, Sturt brought in James Wy­att and his brother Sa­muel to de­sign su­perb in­te­ri­ors and fin­ish the pro­ject.

Sturt en­coun­tered the Wy­atts’ ar­chi­tec­ture through the Pan­theon, a ‘Win­ter Ranelagh’ in Ox­ford Street, Lon­don, which opened to spec­tac­u­lar ac­claim in Jan­uary 1772. Like many other English, Welsh and Ir­ish landown­ers, Sturt was im­pressed and im­me­di­ately asked the 26-year-old James Wy­att to de­sign the new rooms within the ex­ten­sions he was con­struct­ing. Th­ese were men­tioned by Hutchins in 1774: ‘The hall, din­ing room, draw­ing room, por­tico, li­brary, the com­mon din­ing par­lour, with all the apart­ments over them are en­tirely his [Sturt’s] ad­di­tions. The stair­case is in the mid­dle of the house lighted by an el­e­gant glass dome.’

Sturt had al­ready pro­gressed with the din­ing par­lour, li­brary (Fig 6) and the new (east) en­trance hall, but Wy­att com­pleted the lat­ter and was en­tirely re­spon­si­ble for the other rooms, in­clud­ing the best din­ing room and draw­ing room and the up­per storey on the south and east fronts. They are among his finest sur­viv­ing early rooms in Eng­land and par­al­lel other works of his in the early 1770s, such as the in­te­rior of Beaudesert in Stafford­shire, now de­stroyed.

As part of his work, he cre­ated a grand new stair­case hall, re­mov­ing the ceil­ing of the Napier en­trance hall to make a full-height space and reusing and ex­pand­ing the old oak stair­case from next door (Fig 5).

Wy­att was in­volved from early in 1772 and was paid £20 on July 16, 1772, prob­a­bly for his ini­tial draw­ings. He was paid fur­ther sums in April 1775 and July 1778, pre­sum­ably for visits and ad­di­tional de­signs, and a last pay­ment in 1780. Sa­muel Wy­att, el­der brother to James, was also paid £18 4s in July 1778. This was the sort of pro­ject James liked and ex­celled at, in which the owner and a lo­cal builder did all the work and su­per­vi­sion on site and he pro­vided beau­ti­ful draw­ings (sadly lost) and re­mote con­trol from Lon­don.

The team of crafts­men he had as­sem­bled for the Pan­theon (partly taken over from Adam at Kedle­ston) was fully de­ployed at Crichel.

‘more It has the ap­pear­ance of a man­sion of a prince, than that of a coun­try gen­tle­man

They in­cluded Joseph Rose for plas­ter­work, Bi­a­gio Rebecca for wall and ceil­ing paint­ings in medal­lions and pan­els, John De­val for chim­ney­p­ieces and Domenico Bar­toli for scagli­ola. Rebecca was paid £147 17s on Septem­ber 25, 1776, show­ing that the dec­o­ra­tion of the draw­ing and din­ing rooms, his and Wy­att’s two great schemes, was fin­ished by then.

John Lin­nell and Ince & May­hew, fash­ion­able Lon­don firms that of­ten worked with Wy­att, were paid for fur­nish­ings from 1776 to 1780, although none of it now re­mains at Crichel and it is im­pos­si­ble to say whether Wy­att de­signed it spe­cially or not.

Sturt died in 1786. His el­dest son in­her­ited Horton, but Crichel was left to his sec­ond son, Charles, who let the house. He was a keen yachts­man and lived on Brownsea Is­land over­look­ing Poole Har­bour. An in­ven­tory of the con­tents of Crichel pre­pared for let­ting in 1796 gives an im­pres­sion of the in­te­rior with the fam­ily rooms well fur­nished, but the big rooms largely empty, sug­gest­ing they were not much used.

The ‘Best Din­ing Room’ only had an ‘oval dessert stand’ and a ‘set of ma­hogany din­ing ta­bles with cir­cu­lar ends on claws’. The ‘Best Draw­ing Room’ had a pair of ‘cu­ri­ous oval claw stands’ and ‘one twelve light lus­tre richly or­na­mented’. There were two rooms on the south front be­hind the por­tico, the ‘Clouded Bed Cham­ber’ and ‘White dim­ity Bed Room’ both with four posters. The pri­vate rooms at the north-west cor­ner were then called the Por­tico Par­lour (after its colon­naded side­board end), used as a fam­ily din­ing room, and a Bil­liard Room, which con­tained a harp­si­chord, but not a bil­liard ta­ble.

Charles died in 1812 and was suc­ceeded by his son, Henry Charles Sturt (1795– 1866). His ma­jor change was to switch the main en­trance from the east to the west, con­triv­ing a new hall on that side de­signed by Thomas Hop­per (fa­mous for the Carl­ton House con­ser­va­tory). He also con­verted the ‘Por­tico Par­lour’ to a li­brary with fit­ted oak Re­gency book­cases. De­signs by Thomas Evans of Wim­borne for Charles ex­hib­ited at the Royal Academy in 1824 were prob­a­bly not ex­e­cuted.

A ma­jor 19th-cen­tury re­mod­elling of Crichel was car­ried out by Charles’s son, Henry Ger­ard Sturt, a Tory MP who was cre­ated 1st Lord Aling­ton in 1876. He em­ployed Wil­liam Burn, the favourite ar­chi­tect of the mid-vic­to­rian aris­toc­racy with a flair for mod­ernising coun­try houses and noted for his so­phis­ti­cated plan­ning. He ce­mented the ex­te­rior, put plate glass in the win­dows and ar­chi­traves round them and added the im­pres­sive Ro­man Doric

porte-cochère on the west front in 1868–9. He and his nephew, J. Macvicar An­der­son, worked at Crichel for three decades, erect­ing the neo-nor­man gate­way at the Witchamp­ton gate to the park and build­ing new north wings with pri­vate fam­ily rooms and ad­di­tional ser­vice ac­com­mo­da­tion. Much of this Vic­to­ri­an­i­sa­tion was re­moved or re-geor­gianised in the 20th cen­tury, as will be seen in next week’s ar­ti­cle.

Fig 1 above: The vestibule orig­i­nally in­cor­po­rated the stair­case of the 1740s house. Vis­i­ble in the ceil­ing is part of a car­touche dis­play­ing the Napier coat of arms. Fig 2 right: A view of the house across the lake with the sta­ble tower be­hind. The façade of the orig­i­nal house be­fore the 1770s al­ter­ations can be seen be­hind the col­umns of the cen­tral colon­nade

Fig 3: The colon­nade is one of the most idio­syn­cratic el­e­ments of Crichel and frames a spec­tac­u­lar view out into the land­scaped park

Fig 4 above: The east façade, be­gun after 1765. The church, pos­si­bly by Ge­orge Alexander, was built in 1850 and has a splen­did vaulted chan­cel. Fig 5 right: The 1740s stair­case was moved and adapted by James Wy­att in the 1770s. The pan­els by Cipri­ani are from Ar­ling­ton Street in Lon­don and were in­stalled in the late 1920s

Fig 6: The li­brary, with one of its gar­gan­tuan Pal­la­dian book­cases. The fine fire­place, with its copy of Van Dyke’s por­trait of the Earl of Straf­ford and his sec­re­tary, is prob­a­bly re­cy­cled from an­other 1740s build­ing

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