Must Sees: Great Gothic Revival architecture by William Burges
I’m passionate about Victorian architecture. William Burges was one of the most creative and imaginative Victorian designers, so I love being curator for Knightshayes. Although his dream for Knightshayes was never fully realised, there is still plenty to enjoy.
Enthusiasm for medieval art and architecture, particularly early French Gothic, drove Burges. He declared ‘I was brought up in the 13th-century belief and in that belief I intend to die.’ But the house’s High Victorian confidence is unmistakable.
The exterior remains very largely as Burges designed it for Sir John Heathcoat Amory in 1868-9. Powerful and imposing, it is a statement of position and wealth. Burges composed it with immense skill, deliberately avoiding symmetry. Prominent steep, roofs, gables and chimneys create a varied skyline.
Exploiting the colours of materials was characteristic of High Victorian Gothic. The house, stables and lodge were all built of local red Hensleigh stone, contrasting golden Ham stone from Somerset and bright red clay tiles.
‘Muscular’ details include chunky shapes and windows with unmoulded stone window mullions, plate tracery looking as if punched through solid stone, and cast iron lights. The craftsmanship is top quality. Enjoyably quirky Burges details include medieval-inspired gargoyles and fantastic beasts springing from Burges’s fertile imagination, carved by his favourite sculptor Thomas Nicholls.
The entrance front expresses the layout inside – a key Gothic Revival principle. A low, deep entrance porch proclaims welcome. The Great Hall has tall arched windows, a bay window and its own roof. Windows crossing floor levels indicate a staircase. Burges initially intended the massive main staircase tower on the right to be much taller, providing a powerful vertical accent. The Billiard Room screening the service courtyard is decorated with stone balls – a typically playful Burges touch.
The more regular south front has a U-plan reminiscent of Tudor houses. But the garden door and feature above (with a carved angel in its gable) are deliberately off-centre, an oriel window projects in the corner and the window layout varies. The servants’ wing isn’t hidden away, though Burges set it back and treated it more simply to show its lower status.
Stables were second only to the house in importance. Horses provided transport and leisure – the Heathcoat Amorys were keen on hunting.
Burges’s stable block was completed in 1872. He succeeded brilliantly in making it both impressive and practical. It shares many of the house’s features. Surrounded by trees, only the front elevation was intended to be seen. The big gable above the entrance arch and staircase turret with steep conical roof make a powerful counterpoint to the roof’s strong horizontal emphasis. It’s a masterly exercise in composition.
The ranges around the compact courtyard are more simply detailed, but just as carefully designed. The carriage house (now café servery) has stone strips in the floor for the carriage wheels, and some of the stable divisions survive in the seating area.