Cas­tle with the Exe fac­tor

An an­ces­tral West Coun­try home that has passed through the hands of one fam­ily for the past 600 years has, since the 18th cen­tury, de­vel­oped a dazzling suc­ces­sion of in­te­ri­ors, as John Goodall re­veals

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

John Goodall vis­its the dazzling in­te­ri­ors of Pow­der­ham Cas­tle in Devon

The rail­way line south from ex­eter to Dawlish runs im­me­di­ately be­side the mouth of the River exe. To one side are views across the wa­ter and, on the other, is the tur­reted out­line of a cas­tle set in an ex­pan­sive park­land. This is Pow­der­ham, the seat of the earls of Devon and one of the many cas­tles in the county cre­ated by this large and an­cient fam­ily dur­ing the course of the Mid­dle Ages.

Pow­der­ham is first men­tioned as a set­tle­ment in the Domes­day sur­vey of 1086. The ear­li­est parts of the present build­ing, how­ever, have long been at­trib­uted—with­out ex­plicit doc­u­men­tary sup­port—to Sir Philip Courtenay, the sixth son of 17 chil­dren born to hugh Courtenay, 2nd earl of Devon, and his wife, Mar­garet de Bo­hun. She was both the grand­daugh­ter of ed­ward I and the great aunt of henry V’s mother, dy­nas­tic con­nec­tions that placed the fam­ily at the heart of english pol­i­tics un­der the Lan­cas­trian kings.

Sir Philip was ac­tive in the ser­vice of both Richard II and henry IV, although he fell from favour with the for­mer af­ter 1395. In­deed, strik­ingly, he never re­ceived a ti­tle. his in­ter­ests were fo­cused in the South-west, where the Courte­nays had en­joyed enor­mous power since the late 11th cen­tury, although he also served as Lieu­tenant of Ire­land. Anec­do­tal ev­i­dence about his abuse of power, his dis­re­gard for the law and his cru­elty ex­plains the

His­tory of Par­lia­ment as­sess­ment of him as ‘a man of en­ergy and abil­ity in na­tional and lo­cal af­fairs whose predil­ic­tion for vi­o­lence and thug­gery was ex­treme even by me­dieval stan­dards’.

Pow­der­ham came to Sir Philip in 1391 as part of a wider in­her­i­tance of land from his mother. The cas­tle he cre­ated, pre­sum­ably be­tween 1391 and his death in 1406, was placed on a spur be­tween the mouth of the River exe and its smaller trib­u­tary, the River Kenn

(Fig 1). It was set amid marsh­land and not only com­manded the haven of the river, but, by ex­ten­sion, the mer­can­tile for­tunes of the nearby city of ex­eter. Re­search by James Clark at ex­eter Univer­sity in­di­cates that Pow­der­ham was prox­i­mate to two cen­tres of Courtenay power, an ur­ban de­vel­op­ment at Ken­ford and the fam­ily’s ad­min­is­tra­tive base in the Clu­niac pri­ory of Cow­ick. he has also sug­gested that Sir Philip’s son and heir, Richard, who be­came Bishop of Nor­wich and a close friend of henry V, may have worked on the build­ing.

The cas­tle re­sisted a siege in 1455 dur­ing the Wars of the Roses and, in about 1540, the an­ti­quar­ian John Le­land de­scribed it as ‘strong, and hath a bar­bican or bul­wark to bete the haven’. This bul­wark was per­haps an at­tached ar­tillery em­place­ment ly­ing be­yond the gate.

The res­i­dence that Sir Philip con­structed (pos­si­bly with Bishop Richard’s help) was com­pactly planned on a fa­mil­iar me­dieval lay­out, although per­haps built taller and with more tur­rets than is usual. Its cen­tral hall was en­tered through a tower-like porch, a com­mon fea­ture in Devon. To one end of the hall were a kitchen and ser­vices and, be­side them, a small, free­stand­ing range, now the chapel.

At the other was a pro­ject­ing north wing in­cor­po­rat­ing the with­draw­ing apart­ments of the house. This had two fur­ther at­tached tow­ers and formed, with the cor­re­spond­ing chapel range, the sides of a walled fore­court. En­trance to this was through a small gatehouse, which over­looked the river.

There is ev­i­dence that the cas­tle was adapted in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, but there re­mains lit­tle to show for this pe­riod in the fab­ric of the house. A Buck view en­graved in 1734 shows a build­ing that Sir Philip would prob­a­bly have recog­nised, although, by this time, the cas­tle was al­ready in the process of a se­ries of dazzling 18th­cen­tury in­ter­nal alterations. The nar­ra­tive of this work was first set out by Mark Girouard

(Coun­try Life, July 4, 11 and 18, 1963) and fur­ther re­search by Cor­ner­stone Her­itage at Ply­mouth Univer­sity and in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia is un­der way. Prof Daniel Maudlin and Richard Hewl­ings have gen­er­ously made avail­able its pre­lim­i­nary find­ings.

Be­tween 1710 and 1727, an Ex­eter brick­layer, John Moyle ‘the builder’ (re­cently also iden­ti­fied as the de­signer of the south front of Polti­more House north of Ex­eter), was paid the huge sum of £1,500 for work on Pow­der­ham. This was ap­par­ently fo­cused on alterations and en­large­ments to the me­dieval wing to the north end of the hall, the

north front of which now be­came the main façade. The house ste­ward (and lo­cal an­ti­quar­ian) Wil­liam Chap­ple re­ported, in 1752, that the wing con­tained ‘a neat Chapel re­built and beau­ti­fied ad1717 over which is a well-fur­nished li­brary’.

Work to the for­mer must have been un­der­taken by Wil­liam Courtenay, 2nd Baronet, but the lat­ter (Fig 5) was com­pleted by his son, also Wil­liam, fol­low­ing his in­her­i­tance in 1735: its plas­ter­work ceil­ing was ex­e­cuted by How­ell Jenk­ings in 1739 and, the fol­low­ing year, John Chan­non, a Lon­don joiner who be­gan his ca­reer in Ex­eter, sup­plied two mag­nif­i­cent rose­wood book­cases for the room that sur­vive in the house.

It was prob­a­bly also in about 1740 that Stephen Wright, an as­sis­tant of Wil­liam Kent, pro­posed fur­ther changes to the east front in a draw­ing re­cently iden­ti­fied by Richard Hewl­ings. He worked in the Pal­la­dian id­iom and may have de­signed the su­perb li­brary chim­ney­p­iece.

The 3rd Baronet was a Ja­co­bite, listed in a French gov­ern­ment re­port of 1743 as one of the Pre­tender’s most im­por­tant sup­port­ers, with an es­ti­mated an­nual in­come of £14,000. A house­hold list dated Au­gust 15, 1749, of­fers a vivid in­sight into his style of life. It en­rolls the names of 28 male ser­vants and 14 women ser­vants in the house be­sides farm ser­vants and the crew to man his yacht,

Dol­phin. Cu­ri­ously, we know from records of a widow’s pen­sion that one yachts­men was killed by a can­non on­board. The gun now sits in a porch of the house.

The won­der must be that Sir Wil­liam did not just re­place the cas­tle al­to­gether with a new house. Ev­i­dently, the an­tiq­uity of the seat and his fam­ily’s long as­so­ci­a­tion with it stayed his hand.

In 1754, work be­gan to the great stair­case of the house (Fig 4). It oc­cu­pies one half of the me­dieval hall and its stu­pen­dous plas­ter­work was by a cer­tain John Jenk­ins ‘of Ex­eter’ —pos­si­bly the son of How­ell, who worked on the li­brary (the em­ploy­ment of gen­er­a­tions of lo­cal spe­cial­ists is a re­cur­rent fea­ture of the Pow­der­ham ac­counts)—with two Lon­don as­sis­tants, Wil­liam Brown and Stephen Coney. The ex­tra­or­di­nary dis­play they cre­ated cost the enor­mous sum of £355 14s, nearly £140 more than their orig­i­nal es­ti­mate. It was aug­mented in the 1830s and the lantern added (Fig 3).

James Gar­ret, joiner of Ex­eter, made the stair it­self. As it was com­pleted in 1756, the por­traitist Thomas Hud­son, an­other lo­cal who had long been associated with the fam­ily, com­pleted a large paint­ing of Sir Wil­liam with his fam­ily that hangs to­day in the hall.

On May 6, 1762, just 10 days be­fore he died, Sir Wil­liam was cre­ated 1st Vis­count Courtenay. His son suc­ceeded to the ti­tle and the es­tate as a mi­nor, but launched straight into the re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of the house when he came of age in 1763. His ini­tial fo­cus was on the ap­pear­ance of the cas­tle and the cre­ation of an ap­pro­pri­ately ro­man­tic park­land set­ting. He prob­a­bly de­mol­ished the me­dieval en­trance court with its gatehouse and over­saw the drainage of the marsh­land around the build­ing, cre­at­ing the spa­cious park drop­ping to the wa­ter that it en­joys to­day.

‘We know from records of a widow’s pen­sion that one yachts­men was killed by can­non

From 1766, how­ever, there be­gan alterations to the in­te­rior un­der the se­quen­tial di­rec­tion of James Dal­ton and, af­ter 1768, Wil­liam Spring ‘of the City of Ex­eter, Builder’. The lat­ter re­built the me­dieval tower porch to the house. This was now flanked with new rooms by pro­ject­ing bay win­dows, part of a wider re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of the ground floor to ac­com­mo­date a proper suite of en­ter­tain­ing cham­bers. To this end, the chapel in the north wing, re­mod­elled in 1717, was con­verted into a draw­ing room (Fig 6).

All the new in­te­ri­ors were el­e­gantly dec­o­rated with stucco work that shows no con­scious­ness of the neo-clas­si­cal stylis­tic revo­lu­tion al­ready be­gun by Adam in Lon­don. In 1777, Spring was also con­tracted to re­build the sta­bles of the house.

In Septem­ber 1784, Pow­der­ham was the set­ting of a no­to­ri­ous en­counter be­tween the heir to the cas­tle and its es­tate, the fa­mously beau­ti­ful Wil­liam Courtenay, and the cel­e­brated col­lec­tor and writer Wil­liam Beck­ford. It is not re­ally clear what hap­pened. One ac­count states that Beck­ford horse­whipped the boy for let­ting slip a com­pro­mis­ing let­ter. What is clear, how­ever, is that Beck­ford opened him­self up to ac­cu­sa­tions of sodomy and was forced to flee the coun­try. Wil­liam him­self in­her­ited the

es­tate four years later, in 1788, and man­aged it dili­gently de­spite his ab­sence.

It was pos­si­bly through Beck­ford’s in­flu­ence that, when Wil­liam came of age in 1789, he de­ter­mined to cel­e­brate by com­mis­sion­ing a new mu­sic room from the most suc­cess­ful cos­mopoli­tan ar­chi­tect of the mo­ment, James Wyatt. He and his 11 sis­ters were all clearly ob­sessed by mu­sic and this splen­did in­te­rior is a mon­u­ment to their en­thu­si­asm (Fig 7).

In his mono­graph on the ar­chi­tect, John Martin Robin­son ob­serves that Wyatt never vis­ited Pow­der­ham. In­stead, con­struc­tion was over­seen by Richard West­ma­cott, also the sculp­tor of the su­perb fire­place. The two men re­spec­tively re­ceived pay­ments of £623 and £4,383. Wil­liam’s sis­ters painted the Clas­si­cal roundels in­set within the walls.

In 1810, the 3rd Vis­count left Eng­land, never to re­turn, trav­el­ling first to Amer­ica and then Paris, where he died in 1835. Four years be­fore this event, a cousin, also called Wil­liam, suc­cess­fully brought to com­ple­tion a long-run­ning le­gal case to re­vive the Earl­dom of Devon.

He was the son of a for­mer Bishop of Ex­eter and pre­sum­ably knew Pow­der­ham well. Cer­tainly, he ap­pears to have acted with an eye to the fu­ture. The earl­dom, which had fallen into abeyance in 1556, was first be­stowed on the Vis­count, whose prop­erty and in­come were now suf­fer­ing from the com­bined ef­fects of his ab­sence and ex­trav­a­gance. Then, in 1835, the cousin in­her­ited all the Courtenay es­tates in Ire­land and Eng­land, along with the fam­ily seat of Pow­der­ham.

In the process, for the first time in its his­tory as a Courtenay house, Pow­der­ham Cas­tle prop­erly be­came the seat of the Earls of Devon.

As a con­se­quence, and de­spite the in­her­ited fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties un­der which he laboured, the new 10th Earl of Devon de­ter­mined to im­prove Pow­der­ham and give it the char­ac­ter of ‘an an­cient cas­tle’. He turned to the ar­chi­tect Charles Fowler, who had been born at Cul­lomp­ton in Devon and had made his name as the builder of cov­ered mar­kets, in­clud­ing Covent Gar­den, Lon­don. Fowler re­cast the build­ing in its present form, ex­pand­ing the ser­vices and me­dieval­is­ing its ex­te­rior again.

He also turned the whole build­ing around, cre­at­ing its present ap­proach from the land- ward side through a gated fore­court. To ag­gran­dise this ap­proach, a new hall was added on this side of the build­ing, its in­te­rior warmed by a copy of a me­dieval fire­place the Earl must have re­mem­bered from his fa­ther’s house in the bishop’s palace at Ex­eter (Fig 2). The orig­i­nal had been, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, com­mis­sioned by Peter Courtenay, Bishop of Ex­eter in 1478. Fowler also sym­pa­thet­i­cally al­tered the Ge­or­gian in­te­ri­ors, no­tably the great stair.

Af­ter the Earl’s death in 1859, work con­tin­ued to the dec­o­ra­tion of the hall un­der the di­rec­tion of his son and heir, yet an­other Wil­liam, who turned it into a tem­ple to the fam­ily’s gid­dy­ing an­ces­try. The 11th Earl also cre­ated the present chapel, which was li­censed for use in Au­gust 1861.

The 20th cen­tury was not an easy one for the cas­tle, with the es­tate di­min­ished by death du­ties and the fam­ily at­tempt­ing to find new sources of in­come. Their work has been slow and steady, but, de­spite some failed ini­tia­tives, it has been cu­mu­la­tively suc­cess­ful.

The present and 19th Earl, Char­lie, in­her­ited from his fa­ther in Au­gust 2015 and has moved in to Pow­der­ham with his wife, Al­li­son Joy Langer, and their young fam­ily. Build­ing on his fa­ther’s work, Char­lie now hosts wed­dings and a busy di­ary of festivals and events, in­clud­ing rock con­certs. He has also en­cour­aged re­search into the build­ing, which prom­ises to trans­form our un­der­stand­ing of it. More than six cen­turies on, the Courte­nays are still thriv­ing at Pow­der­ham.

Visit www.pow­der­ham.co.uk for fur­ther in­for­ma­tion

Pho­to­graphs by Will Pryce

Fig 1: The cas­tle set on a spur over­look­ing the mouth of the Exe. The land­ward ap­proach and gatehouse were cre­ated in the 1830s

Fig 2: The great hall, added by the 1st Earl in the 1830s and fur­nished by his son, pro­claims the Courte­nays’ long an­ces­try

Fig 3 above: Hav­ing blocked the 18th-cen­tury stair­case win­dows, Fowler filled out the Ge­or­gian dec­o­ra­tive scheme in the 1830s and crowned the in­te­rior with this sky­light

Fig 4 right: The main stair (1754–6) with its plas­ter­work by John Jenk­ins. Orig­i­nally, the in­te­rior would have been dis­tem­pered. The blue is a strik­ing 20th-cen­tury touch

Fig 6 above: The ground-floor rooms of the north wing, one of them for­merly a chapel, were opened out in the 1760s. Fig 7 right: James Wyatt’s splen­did Mu­sic Room, with its vast Axmin­ster car­pet and su­perb fire­place by Richard West­ma­cott

Fig 5: The 1717 li­brary, with its mag­nif­i­cent fire­place, prob­a­bly the work of Stephen Wright, who trained in the of­fice of Wil­liam Kent. The fine bed is of circa 1800

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