Wilton House

Posted: July 31, 2013 in Historic Buildings


Wilton House is an English country house situated at Wilton near Salisbury in Wiltshire. It has been the country seat of the Earls of Pembroke for over 400 years.
The first recorded building on the site of Wilton House was a priory founded by King Egbert circa 871. Later, this priory, due to the munificence of King Alfred, was granted lands and manors until it became wealthy and powerful. However, by the time Wilton Abbey was dissolved during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII of England, its prosperity was already on the wane — following the seizure of the abbey, King Henry presented it and the estates to William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke (in the 1551 creation) in c.1544.
William Herbert, the scion of a distinguished family in the Welsh marches, was a favourite of the King. Following a recommendation to King Henry by King Francis I of France, whom Herbert had served as a soldier of fortune, Herbert was granted arms after only two years. In 1538, Herbert married Anne Parr, daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and sister of King Henry VIII’s last Queen, Catherine Parr and William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton. The granting of an estate such as the Abbey of Wilton to Herbert was an accolade and evidence of his position at court.
Herbert immediately began to transform the deserted abbey into a fine house and symbol of his wealth. It had been thought that the old abbey had been completely demolished; however, following renovations after World War II traces of the old abbey were found at lower levels of the existing walls.
Today only one other part of the Tudor mansion survives: the great tower in the centre of the east facade. With its central arch (once giving access to the court beyond) and three floors of oriel windows above, the tower is slightly reminiscent of the entrance at Hampton Court. Flanked today by two wings in a loose Georgian style — each topped by an Italianate pavilion tower, this Tudor centrepiece of the facade appears not in the least incongruous, merely displaying the accepted appearance of a great English country house, which has evolved over the centuries.
The Tudor house built by William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, in 1551 was to last but eighty years. On the succession of the 4th Earl in 1630, he decided to pull down the southern wing and erect a new complex of staterooms in its place.
The architecture of the south front is in severe Palladian style, described at the time as in the ‘Italian Style’; built of the local stone, softened by climbing shrubs, it is quintessentially English to our eyes today. While the remainder of the house is on three floors of equal value in the English style, the South Front has a low rusticated ground floor, almost suggesting a semi-basement, where three small porches project at this level, one at the centre, and one at each end of the facade, providing small balconies to the windows above. The next floor is the piano nobile, at its centre the great double-height Venetian window, ornamented at second floor level by the Pembroke arms in stone relief. This central window is flanked by four tall sash windows on each side. These windows have low flat pediments. Each end of the facade is defined by ‘corner stone’ decoration giving a suggestion that the single-bay wings project forward. The single windows here are topped by a true pointed pediment. Above this floor is a further almost mezzanine floor, its small windows aligning with the larger below, serve to emphasise the importance of the piano nobile. The roofline is hidden by a balustrade. Each of the terminating ‘wings’ is crowned by a one storey, pedimented tower resembling a Palladian pavilion.
Within a few years of the completion of the new south wing in 1647, it was ravaged by fire. The seriousness of the fire and the devastation it caused is now a matter of some dispute. The architectural historian Christopher Hussey has convincingly argued that it was not as severe as some records have suggested.
The seven state rooms contained behind the quite simple mannerist south front of Wilton House are equal to those in any of the great houses of Britain. State rooms in English country houses were seldom used; being reserved for the use of only the most important house-guests, often a monarch and his consort, or another high-ranking member of state, hence the name. They are nearly always of an odd number for the following reason. At the centre of the facade, the largest and most lavish room, at Wilton the famed Double Cube Room, this was a gathering place for the court of the honoured guest. Leading symmetrically from the centre room on either side were often two suites of smaller, but still very grand rooms, for the sole use of the occupant of the final room at each end of the facade — the state bedroom. The smaller (but still huge) rooms in between would be used for private audiences, a withdrawing room and a dressing room. They were solely part of the bedroom suite and not for public use.
In most English houses today these rooms have usually become a succession of drawing rooms and the original intention lost, this is certainly true at Wilton House. The reason for this is the Edwardian Period, when large house-parties needed a huge collection of salons for playing bridge, dancing, talking and generally amusing themselves, also the occupants of the state bedroom preferred the comfort of a warmer more private room on a quiet floor with an en-suite bathroom.
The magnificent state rooms at Wilton designed by Inigo Jones, and one or other of his partners are:
The Single Cube Room: This room is a complete cube 30 ft long (9 m), wide and high; has pine panelling gilded and white, and is carved from dado to cornice. The white marble chimney piece was designed by Inigo Jones himself. It has a painted ceiling, on canvas, by the Mannerist Italian painter Cavalier D’Arpino, representing Daedalus and Icarus. This room, hung with paintings by Lely and Van Dyck, is the only room thought to have survived the fire of 1647.
The Double Cube Room: The great room of the house. It is 60 ft long (18 m), 30 ft wide (9 m) and 30 ft high. It was created by Inigo Jones and Webb circa 1653. The pine wall painted white is decorated with great swags of foliage and fruit in gold leaf. The gilt and red velvet furniture complements the collection of paintings by Van Dyck of the family of Charles I and the family of his contemporary Earl of Pembroke. Between the windows are mirrors by Chippendale, and console tables by William Kent. The coffered ceiling painted by Thomas de Critz depicts the story of Perseus.
The Great Anteroom: Before the modifications to the house in 1801 a great staircase of state led from this room to the courtyard below, this was the entrance to the state apartments. Here hangs one of Wilton’s greatest treasures: the portrait of his mother by Rembrandt.
The Colonnade Room: This was formerly the state bedroom. The series of four gilded columns at one end of the room would have given a theatrical touch of importance to the now missing state bed. Furnished today with 18th-century furniture by William Kent, the room is hung with paintings by Reynolds and has a ceiling painted in an 18th-century theme of flowers, monkeys, urns and cobwebs.
Other rooms are:
The Corner Room: The ceiling in this room, representing the conversion of Saint Paul was painted by Luca Giordano. The walls of the room are covered in red damask and adorned with small paintings by among others Rubens and Andrea del Sarto.
The Little Ante Room: The white marble fireplace in this room with inserts of black marble is almost certainly by Inigo Jones. The panels in the ceiling were painted by Lorenzo Sabbatini (1530–1577) and therefore far older than this part of the house; again there are paintings by Van Dyck and Teniers.
The Hunting Room: This is one of the rooms not open to the public, as it is used as a private drawing room by the Herbert family. It is a square room with white panelling and gilded mouldings. The greatest feature of the room is the panels depicting hunting scenes by Edward Pierce painted circa 1653. These panels are set into the panelling rather than framed in the conventional sense.
In 1705 following a fire the 8th Earl rebuilt some of the oldest parts the house, making rooms to display his newly acquired Arundel marbles, which form the basis for the sculpture collection at Wilton today. Following this Wilton remained undisturbed for nearly a century.
The 11th Earl (1759–1827) called upon James Wyatt in 1801 to modernise the house, and create more space for picture and sculptures. The work took eleven years to complete.
The original Great Hall of the Tudor house, the chapel and De Caus painted staircase to the state apartments were all swept away at this time. A new Gothic staircase and hall were created in the style of Camelot. The Tudor tower, now the last remnant of William Herbert’s house, escaped unscathed except for the addition of two ‘medieval’ statues at ground floor level.
There was however one huge improvement created by Wyatt — The Cloisters. This two-storeyed gallery which was built around all four sides of the inner courtyard, provided the house with not only the much needed corridors to link the rooms, but also a magnificent gallery to display the Pembroke collection of classical sculpture. Wyatt died before completion, but not before he and Lord Pembroke had quarrelled over the designs and building work. The final touches were executed by Wyatt’s nephew Sir Jeffry Wyatville.
The magnificent state rooms are not the only rooms worthy of mention, a few of these are:
The Front Hall: redesigned by Wyatt, access is gained from this room to the cloisters through two Gothic arches. The room is furnished with statuary; the dominating piece being a larger than life statue of William Shakespeare designed by William Kent in 1743. It commemorates an unproved legend that Shakespeare came to Wilton and produced one of his plays in the courtyard.
The Upper Cloisters: designed by Wyatt but completed circa 1824 by Wyatville in the Gothic style contain neoclassical sculpture, and curios such as a lock of Queen Elizabeth I’s hair, and Napoleon I’s dispatch box and paintings by the Brueghel brothers.
The Staircase: Designed by Wyatt, it replaces the mural state staircase swept away during the ‘improvements’. The Imperial staircase is lined with family portraits by Lely. Also hanging here is a portrait of Catherine Woronzow, the only sister of 1st Prince Vorontsov and the wife of the 11th Earl; her Russian Sleigh is displayed in the cloisters.
The Smoking Rooms: These rooms are in the wing linking to the South front. The larger of the two rooms contains a set of fifty-five gouache paintings of an equestrian theme painted in 1755. The room is furnished with a complete set of bureau, cabinets, and break-front bookcases made for the room by Thomas Chippendale.
The Library: A large book-lined room over 60 feet long, with views to a formal garden and vista leading to the ‘Holbein’ Porch. This room is used as a private room and not open to the public.
The Breakfast Room: A private small low-ceilinged room on the rustic floor of the South front. In the 18th century this was the house’s only bath room; more of an indoor swimming pool, the sunken plunge pool was heated and the room decorated in the Pompeian style complete with Corinthian columns. Converted by the Russian Countess of Pembroke to a breakfast room circa 1815, it is today wallpapered in a Chinese design, the paper being an exact copy of that used in the original 1815 decoration of the room. The 18th-century furniture of a simulated-bamboo, Gothic style gives this private dining room a distinct oriental atmosphere.
The house is also renowned for its gardens — Isaac de Caus began a project to landscape them in 1632, laying out one of the first French parterres seen in England. An engraving of it made the design very influential after the royal Restoration in 1660, when grand gardens began to be made again. The original gardens included a grotto and water features. Later, when the parterre had been replaced by turf, the Palladian Bridge over the little River Nadder was designed by the 9th Earl, one of the “architect earls,” with Roger Morris (1736/7).
The house and gardens have been open to the public since 1951. Salisbury Racecourse and South Wilts Golf Course are also on the 14,000 acre estate. The estate is often described as England’s most beautiful country house, in a land of beautiful country houses where judgment has to be made by each individual. An accurate way to describe Wilton today is a direct quote from the architectural writer John Summerson writing in 1964, it is as true today as it was then:
…the bridge is the object which attracts the visitor before he has become aware of the Jonesian facade. He approaches the bridge and, from its steps, turns to see the facade. He passes through and across the bridge, turns again and becomes aware of the bridge, the river, the lawn and the façade as one picture in deep recession. He may imagine the portico; he will scarcely regret the curtailment. He may picture the formal knots, tortured hedges and statues of the 3rd. Earl’s garden; he will be happier with the lawn. Standing here he may reflect upon the way in which a scene so classical, so deliberate, so complete, has been accomplished not by the decisions of one mind at one time but by a combination of accident, selection, genius and the tides of taste.
As of 2012, the current earl, William Herbert, 18th Earl of Pembroke, and his family live in the house. In 2006, Herbert told The New York Times Magazine that the Wilton estate has around 140 employees. Its 14,000 acres are divided into 14 farms, one of which is run by the estate (the others are rented to tenants), and more than 200 residential properties. Although the house is open to the public, Herbert and his wife occupy about a third of the house privately.


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