Beyond the Needle’s Eye
A newly discovered drawing by Robert Adam for Nostell Priory’s Huntwick Lodge transforms our view of this overlooked element in the house’s landscape setting. Asexplains, the building is unique in Adam’s work for its use of 17th-century vernacular style, and may even have been designed to appear partly ruined.
Tuesday, 7th August 2007
When in 2003, with the assistance of a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Trust acquired the landscape park surrounding the mansion at Nostell Priory, Yorkshire, national and local media coverage ensured that Robert Adam’s then ruinous pyramidal Obelisk Lodge (Fig. 3), on the park’s northern edge, at the Featherstone Entrance, became a familiar image.But its mournful silhouette, viewed from within the park, provided only a two-dimensional insight into the nature and purpose of the building. Beyond Obelisk Lodge, a private road continues for nearly a mile before reaching the Wakefield to Pontefract road; the view of the lodge from the other side makes it clear that this dramatic neo-classical structure was conceived as a marker and entrance to Nostell’s designed landscape. The architect’s 1776 design echoes the form of the ancient pyramidal Tomb of Cestius in Rome, but through its centre is driven an arched carriageway, flanked by tiny lodges built into the pyramid, and crowned by a pediment supported on Tuscan columns. Unusual within Adam’s realised works, its distinctive form lends the lodge one of its several alternative names, ‘the Needle’s Eye’. Dr Terry Friedman’s identification of a pen, ink and wash drawing by Adam of a second estate lodge (Fig. 2) beyond the Needle’s Eye, provides the key to understanding an overlooked landscape to the north and in this new context suggests a new interpretation of the Obelisk Lodge.
Another ‘Needle’s Eye’ in the old West Riding of Yorkshire – albeit taller and with an ogee-headed opening – stands on a prominent rise in the park of Wentworth Woodhouse, the great Whig powerhouse of the Marquesses of Rockingham. The Rockinghams’ eye-catcher dates from 1722, a time when the Winn family at Nostell shared the political ideals of the Wentworth Woodhouse household.By the 1770s their political views were somewhat different, and any perceived similarity should be put down to chance, or perhaps architectural rivalry. Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet, actively campaigned against the Whig interest in the York election of 1774, and his choice of Robert Adam as his architect (he replaced James Paine, who had worked for Winn’s father) may in some small measure have been because Adam was a Tory too, who on at least one occasion corresponded with his patron on political matters.
Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s Portrait of Sir Rowland and Lady Winn (Fig. 1) shows them in Adam’s newly completed library at Nostell, with the 27-year old baronet comparing his Swiss wife, Sabine d’Hervart, to a bust of Venus.The design of the room – in Hamilton’s painting imagined at twice its real volume – was Adam’s first work at Nostell, begun not long after his patron’s father’s death in 1765; it was the 5th Baronet’s own untimely death in a carriage accident in 1785 that curtailed the architect’s programme of works at Nostell. The contents of a single memorandum of 1772 reveal the degree to which Sir Rowland came to rely on Adam: his questions to ‘mention to Mr Adam amongst other things’, range from practical alterations within the house, to producing ‘a Drawing of a Little Fortification for the Island, also a Temple for the Turn Flat & another for the Windmill Field’, procuring ‘Bronzes for my Dressing Room & Library Chimney Pieces’, and supplying ‘Mr Adam’s method of making a good green [colour]’. Adam was an indispensable agent in the transformation of Nostell and his standing and professionalism ensured that he was accepted as part of the family, a situation that contrasts sharply with the less than amiable relationship between his patron and the craftsman Thomas Chippendale.
In the same catch-all memorandum, Sir Rowland makes reference to ‘what Ware meant in his letter relative to the gateway at Foulby’. At the main entrance to the estate from Wakefield, in the hamlet of Foulby, Winn was adding an elegant new neo-classical gatescreen in front of an existing lodge.Adam was asked to produce designs for another entrance further east along the same highway, near the village of Wragby. The most important entrance, however, was that which led towards Pontefract and York and, as we have seen, it was for the point where the drive left the deer park that Adam designed Obelisk Lodge.
Two years earlier, in 1774, Adam had produced designs for Huntwick Lodge, which marked the point where the approach from the York road entered the Winns’ property. Huntwick is today the name of a substantial farmhouse of primarily 17th-century date that stands about a quarter of a mile north of Obelisk Lodge along Huntwick Lane (see map, Fig. 7).Gabled, and built of local sandstone with mullioned windows, the house left the priory’s ownership at the Dissolution and entered the hands of the Saltonstall family. Sir Richard Saltonstall died in 1661 and by 1667 Sir Edmund Winn, 2nd Bt. (1644-94) is described as ‘of Huntwick’, suggesting not only that he had acquired the adjacent estate but that he may also have made his seat there in preference to the old Prior’s Lodgings, which had been adapted to form a house at Nostell. A map of Huntwick, drawn by Henry Walker in 1725, shows a substantial landed property in the ownership of the Winn family, running as far north as the small River Went. Some 15 years earlier, the family had sought witnesses to prove that roads through Huntwick belonged to the Nostell estate.
It was, therefore, at the boundary of the Winn family’s lands, across the River Went, and near the junction of the Wakefield-Pontefract and Ackton roads, that Adam proposed Nostell’s first lodge. An unremarkable line drawing owned by Lord St. Oswald, and signed ‘Adelphi 1774’ shows the square plan of the lodge and the adjacent gate piers, together with a bridge across the Went.
Yet a comparison of the plan both with a perspective drawing identified by Dr Terry Friedman (Fig. 4) and with the fabric that survives on site (Fig. 5) shows it to have been a design of remarkable originality, perhaps unique in Adam’s oeuvre.The perspective, shows that the simple square of the plan translated into a medieval-looking building of two stories, with heavily mullioned windows under gothic drip-moulds, set one above the other and crowned by a moulded gable end. Running off to the left is a curtain wall of castellar pretensions, the lower part battered, and its upper register housing narrow arch-headed loops as if to serve a parapet walk. To the building’s right is shown a great Roman arch built of the same massive blocks of masonry, but, unlike those of the lodge, evenly coursed.
A figure struggles to open a pair of heavy studded doors to the carriage arch, which is flanked by classical statues set in niches, above which are tablets carved with ox-skulls (bukrania) festooned with swags of flowers. On the top of one pier perches the recumbent figure of a lion, and on the other a perky hound.Further to the right is a pedestrian doorway, crowned with a lantern, whilst in the foreground is a three-arch bridge, whose gappy masonry balustrade has been infilled in a makeshift way with timber pales and lashed-up, cross-braced panels. A fisherman sits on the riverbank and a woman rests her basket on the balustrade and gossips on the bridge.
The scene is essentially picturesque and might reasonably be thought to have had a solely decorative purpose. It is the only perspective to have come to light for any of Adam’s Nostell schemes, and is markedly different in character to the business-like drawings – detailed working drawings in ink, or accomplished colour-washed presentations – that he produced for his patron. The Huntwick Lodge perspective has an ancestry in Adam’s personal sketches of buildings in romantic landscapes, surviving examples of which predate his departure from Scotland for Italy in October 1754. As a young man, Adam is said to have had ambitions to become a painter, rather than to follow his father into architectural practice, and certainly John Clerk of Eldin recalls the young Adam having ‘very sedulously occupied his leisure hours’ in sketching landscapes.The buildings that filled these early drawings took as their reference points the landscape and architecture of his native land and the pattern books with which he would have been familiar from his father’s office. On his father’s death in 1748, Adam had inherited Dowhill Castle, a romantic baronial peel-tower in Kinross-shire, a former seat of the Lindsays, Earls of Crawford, and a building whose associational, as well as landscape value, made an impression on the young architect’s sensibility.
A yet more formative influence was to come, for early in 1755, in Florence, Adam was introduced by the art dealer and connoisseur Ignazio Hugford to the ‘most valuable and ingenious creature called Clérisseau who draws ruins in architecture to perfection’.Adam likened his meeting with the precocious French draughtsman to a religious awakening. Not only did Clérisseau accompany Adam on his travels but he also taught him about both composition and chiaroscuro technique. With its confident handling of wash, and strongly theatrical low perspective, the scene characteristically peopled with rustic figures, Adam’s proposal for the Nostell lodge immediately reveals Clérisseau’s influence. The picturesque of the Huntwick Lodge drawing might be compared with other Adam drawings, such as his unexecuted proposal of 1768 for a ruined bridge at Bowood, Wiltshire (Fig. 6), which was intended to be ‘in imitation of the aqueducts of the ancients’. His intention at Bowood had been to create a structure with a rhythm of great repeating triumphal arches, the arches of the bridge interposed with arched niches in the piers – an effect also achieved at Kedleston, Derbyshire. In the Bowood drawing the bridge’s balustrade is also shown ruinous and in-filled with wooden pales. Extraordinarily, the surviving architectural evidence at Huntwick seems to suggest that the balustrade was built in a deliberately ruinous state, in other words as depicted in the perspective drawing (Fig. 8).
The Huntwick Lodge itself is an extraordinary and unique milestone in Adam’s career, for it appears to be a deliberate exercise in the revival, or at least evocation, of 17th-century Yorkshire vernacular.In his account of the lodge, David King took the 1665 datestone above the entrance door at face value (Fig. 9). The building is not indicated, however, on the 1725 map, while Lord St Oswald’s plan does not suggest that there was anything on the site before Adam’s time. Furthermore, an elevation in the Adam Collection at Sir John Soane’s Museum (Fig. 2) confirms the evidence of the plan, while examination of the surviving structure reveals what is clearly 18th- century brickwork in both the internal elevations, as well as in the construction of the chimney stack. A strong possibility is that the materials for the structure were, in fact, salvaged, perhaps from the remains of the Prior’s Lodgings at Nostell, the site of which was being cleared in the late 1770s.
Adam very rarely used gables and it would appear that Huntwick Lodge was deliberately contrived to serve as a prelude to the old house at Huntwick, self-consciously adopting its outdated architectural style.The perspective drawing shows Huntwick Lodge from within the bounds of the estate, which perhaps suggests it was to be enjoyed as much by the owner of Nostell as by his visitors. The Huntwick approach was a carefully conceived entity, with the lodge marking the entry into the Winn family’s demesne. Beyond the apparently ruined gate screen was not parkland, but rolling pasture that led up to the old house at Huntwick. Only at Huntwick Grange did the character of the approach change, together with the realisation, perhaps, that the 17th-century house was an architectural milestone rather than the journey’s end. At the Grange, a curving oak avenue began, and, after its completion in 1777, on the horizon could be seen the Obelisk Lodge, from whose central chimney, emerging at the apex of the pyramid, wisps of smoke caught the visitors’ attention. This marked the entry proper to the Arcadian delights of Nostell’s deer park.
For architect and patron, the Huntwick Lodge was a marker in an architectural journey that led the visitor from the Yorkshire vernacular of a past century to the neo-classical perfection of the mansion at Nostell. In view of the Winn family’s close political and economic ties to Pontefract, the Huntwick Lodge might be seen too as a symbol of its own 17th-century arrival at Nostell.For Adam, the building was a translation into stone and mortar of the picturesque architectural compositions that he had enjoyed producing before he embarked on his European travels. In the Huntwick Lodge drawing, however, his early interest in romantic landscape is combined with the composition and technical refinement that Clérisseau’s tutelage provided. The result is an accomplished and striking study in English vernacular combined with neo-classical invention. If the building was, indeed, intended to incorporate ruinous elements, an idea that, although suggested at Bowood, was not realised in other projects, it makes the present, extremely fragile, structure all the more precious a survival and the rediscovered drawing an important document.
Gareth J.L. Williams is the National Trust’s House and Collections Manager at Nostell Priory. He was previously Regional Director for Sotheby’s in the North West and Wales.
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy