Mapping the past at Arlington Court

With rising wealth comes the desire to be at the head of society's fashions. Re-modellling the family home was a key way to 'keep up with the Joneses' in the 18th century.

In 1790 Colonel John Chichester commissioned architect John Meadows to substantially remodel his family home at Arlington. It's thought the original house was converted in the 14th century from a hunting lodge but, whatever its origin, by the late 18th century it was outdated, unsuitable for the lifestyle of a rich landowner and long overdue for an update. Sadly for the Colonel, his smart new home was fated to last only 30 years and is now nothing more than a faint trace in the ground en route to the present day Carriage Museum.

    A picture says a hundred words

    A historic painting by Maria Pixell showing a 1797 view of the original house

    Painted by Maria Pixell in 1797, only four pictures of ‘old’ Arlington are known. Pixell exercised substantial artistic license in depicting the landscape but, judging from rediscovered plans, the architecture is scrupulously accurate. Colonel Chichester’s vision of the house is clear to see: a fashionable country seat with the latest architectural style and a tremendous statement of his status as a wealthy landowner. The position of St James’ Church is interesting, too: the tale in Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel Westward Ho! describing the 19 Chichester children setting out for church and the first being seated before the last had left the house has a ring of truth about it.

    Uncovering the past

    A 1903 map showing the placement of the original and new houses at Arlington Court, North Devon

    The 1903 Ordnance Survey map of Arlington could never show the building, of course. What makes it interesting is that this version has been adjusted to show, overlaid in red, the location of the earlier house in the Hassall map of 1776. Sadly the original is long consigned to history but in many ways this version is more informative as it places the sites of both houses. The 1822 building which stands today is in a markedly different spot and it seems likely that Colonel Chichester took the opportunity of a clean architectural slate to completely redesign the landscape without having to compromise by working with what remained of the original ‘Arlington House’. Although the Colonel died in 1822, his descendents would benefit from his vision for another 150 years.

    Practice makes perfect

    A draft plan for the layout of the original house at Arlington Court, 1789

    Designing a new house using the existing structure wasn’t an easy task for John Meadows. As you can see from the plans, unearthed in a filing cabinet in 2007, the finished article was the result of many drafts. Because Meadows labelled each room with its intended use we get a fascinating glimpse into how a house of this size was managed in the late-18th century. Interestingly, the area devoted to servants was actually bigger than the part used by the family.

    Rounding off the edges

    Final plan for the layout of the original house at Arlington Court, 1789

    From the final plan by John Meadows, it can be seen that the house has been simplified. Unfortunately no internal paintings exist of the old house, so it can't be known if all the rooms were built or how the house was decorated. It is sad to think that, after all the work, the house would be gone by the middle of the 19th century, its rubble used for paths and its stone taken to build Sir Bruce Chichester’s 1865 dining room and extensions.

We can only imagine how wonderful the estate might have been had it survived but perhaps fate might have taken a different route for the family and we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the magical Arlington that we know today.