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