The History of Freemasonry by Albert Gallatin Mackey Chapter 44 The Leland Manuscript


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19th century and James Wyatt




Jones and de Caus's South Front and the Palladian Bridge (1736/7), in a view of circa 1820

The 11th Earl (1759–1827) called upon James Wyatt in 1801 to modernise the house, and create more space for picture and sculptures. The final of the three well-known architects to work at Wilton (and the only one well documented) was to prove the most controversial. His work took eleven years to complete.

James Wyatt as an architect who often employed the neo-classical style, but at Wilton for reasons known only to architect and client he used the gothic style. Since the beginning of the 20th century his work at Wilton has been condemned by most architectural commentators. The negative points of his 'improvements' to modern eyes are that he swept away the Holbein porch, reducing it to a mere garden ornament, replacing it with a new entrance and forecourt. This entrance forecourt created was entered through an 'arc de triumph' which had been created as an entrance to Wilton's park by Sir William Chambers circa 1755. The forecourt was bounded by the house on one side, with wings of fake doors and windows extending to form the court, all accessed by Chambers's repositioned arch, crowned by a copy of the life-size equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. While not altogether displeasing as an entrance to a country house, the impression created is more of a hunting estate in northern France, or Germany.

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. Today nearly two hundred years later Wyatt's improvements do not jar the senses as much as they did those of the great architectural commentators James Lees-Milne and Sir Sacheverell Sitwell writing in the 1960s. That Wyatt's works are not in the same league of style as the South front, and the Tudor tower, is perhaps something for future generations to judge.

Secondary rooms


Wilton is not the largest house in England by any means: compared to Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth, Hatfield and Burghley House it is relatively small. However 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 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 despatch box and paintings by the Brueghel brothers.

  • The Staircase: Designed by Wyatt, it replaces the muralled state staircase swept away during the 'improvements'. The Imperial staircase has a single flight of staris dividing into two flights, and 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 attributed to Inigo Jones and John Webb linking to the South front. The cornices and doors are attributed to Jones. 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 is used as a private room and not shown 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 gardens and grounds




< The Palladian bridge

The house is 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). A copy of it was erected at the much-visited garden of Stowe in Buckinghamshire, and three more were erected, at Prior Park, Bath, Hagley and Amesbury. Tsarina Catherine the Great commissioned another copy, known as Marble Bridge, to be set up at the landscape park of Tsarskoye Selo.

In the late 20th century the 17th Earl had a garden created in Wyatt's entrance forecourt, in memory of his father, the 16th Earl. This garden enclosed by pleached trees, with herbaceous plants around a central fountain, has done much to improve and soften the severity of the forecourt.

For younger visitors there is an adventure playground with trampoline, swing boats and climbing ropes.

Wilton House 2006


The house 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.

External links


Wilton House official web site

Wilton House Garden — a Gardens Guide review

Mike W. Bucknole, "Wilton House"

Aerial photo of Wilton House. Other map and aerial photo sources.



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