Architecture Art

English Arcadia

Summerson described Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome, built in about 1502, as a perfect piece of architectural prose – a statement clear as a bell. This description might apply equally to Marble Hill House by the Thames at Twickenham. It is rightly regarded as the paradigm of the English Palladian villa.

Although the architecture of the house was based on Palladio’s designs, it is not really possible to say which of Palladio’s villas were copied; it is more likely that the architects based Marble Hill on an amalgam of various of his designs. It has the classic fenestration of Palladio’s villas, namely 1-3-1, with a central saloon (or sala) lit by three windows and side rooms lit by one window. According to Lees-Milne, Palladio’s cubic proportions can be found in the elevations and apartments of Marble Hill, right down to the proportion of windows and chimneypieces. The Great Room is indeed a cube (24’ x 24’ x 24’), the rooms on either side are double cubes and the two rooms behind them are single cubes. At the same time, all the windows are 40” wide and all the spaces between the windows laterally and vertically are 40”, 60”, 80” or 120”, giving a design of perfectly controlled symmetry that is expressly based on a Roman Temple front.

There are deviations: although the hall on the ground floor is clearly based on the Roman atrium, in Italy the atrium was open to the sky. And whereas in Italy there would have been an open loggia, the inhospitable English climate ruled this out at Marble Hill.

These amendments might be taken to be in the spirit of Palladio. While in general terms he sought to base his designs on the antique, he was also designing a modern villa to meet the practical needs of his patrons – in particular, the villas were designed to be working farmhouses. So too at Marble Hill: while the design was based on Palladio, the function of the rooms fitted English and French usage. For example, the gallery on the second floor was a frequent feature of English sixteenth and seventeenth century houses. (The second floor in Palladio’s villas was used as a granary). The fireplace in the Great Room may have been taken from a design by Frenchman, Le Barbet, whose designs were regularly used by Inigo Jones. Above all else, the English Palladian style was not just a duplication of Palladio’s designs but an adaptation of these designs to the needs of the English patron and the English climate.

One reason for the popularity of Palladio’s villas in the sixteenth century was that they were cheap to build, both because of their compact design and the relatively cheap materials, namely stuccoed brick rather than stone. Banal considerations like this also applied in England in the eighteenth century: building a country house was a major financial commitment and, in crude terms, Palladian was cheaper than Baroque. Economy might have appealed to Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, for whom Marble Hill was built between 1724 and 1729. It is small for a country house, more like a villa, and although a villa is usually a secondary home Marble Hill was Henrietta’s principal residence for most of the time that she occupied it.

So who designed Marble Hill? The answer is almost certainly Henry Lord Herbert, later 9th Earl of Pembroke, and Roger Morris. There is no written evidence of Lord Herbert’s involvement, but Horace Walpole, who knew Henrietta well, tells us that she credited him with the design. Roger Morris is regarded as co-architect, rather than just the master builder, for circumstantial reasons: there is a drawing of Marble Hill at Wilton, very similar in style to another unrelated drawing signed by Roger Morris; and his cousin Robert Morris, a leading Palladian theoretician, discussed the ideal Palladian house in his Lectures on Architecture (1734) and acknowledged Roger Morris’ help in the introduction.

Another question is the extent of the influence of Colen Campbell in designing Marble Hill. He was architect to George Prince of Wales and Henrietta was the Prince’s mistress, with the Prince in effect financing the building. Marie Draper suggested in Marble Hill and its Owners (GLC 1970) that the drawing at Wilton of Marble Hill, probably by Roger Morris, was done with Campbell’s help, but this is unsupported conjecture. The illustration of a house at ‘Twittenham’ in Campbell’s third volume of Vitruvius Britannicus is almost certainly Marble Hill, although there are differences between this design and the house as built (in particular, Campbell’s design had a perron but Marble Hill does not) and more significantly Campbell does not name himself (or anyone else) as the architect. Campbell was never slow to promote himself and inscribed Campbell Architectus on all the buildings we know he designed.

One of these was Pembroke House at Whitehall, built shortly before Marble Hill and very similar in style. It was built for Lord Herbert, and Steven Brindle has convincingly argued that both Lord Herbert and Roger Morris were involved. If that is so, both would have had experience in building a Palladian villa similar to Marble Hill and would also have had the opportunity to work together.

Taking all this into account, it is unlikely, in my view, that Colen Campbell had any direct influence on the design of Marble Hill. More probably, Lord Herbert gave him the design of Marble Hill so that he could publish it in Vitruvius Britannicus.

John Moses
Writing for the Marble Hill Society