Posted by: billpurdue | July 5, 2011

Six famous houses

Do you ever buy a book, even though you might have already read it? I’ve only done this once or twice . The most recent occasion was when I bought the new paperback edition of At Home by Bill Bryson [Black Swan £8.99 978-0552772556], because I knew how good it is and will probably read at least some of it again.

Possibly the first time I ever did this was to buy a copy of Second from Last in the Sack Race by David Nobbs. This appears to be out of print now, but there are many copies available from other sellers via Amazon. I’ll be writing more about David Nobbs in a future posting as well as one of my very favourite authors: Peter Tinniswood.

I pointed out in a previous posting that I was reading The Smythson Circle: the story of six Great English Houses  by David N Durant [Peter Owen £14.99 978-0720613445]. This is an account of the building of Longleat, Chatsworth House (the original one), the old and new Hardwick Halls and Bolsover Castle. The central character in the account is Bess of Hardwick, but the one man who connects all these buildings together is Robert Smythson. Smythson first came to prominence when, in the late 16th Century, he arrived at Longleat in Wiltshire. Sir John Thynne was trying to build Longleat, two previous attempts having failed in one way or another. Smythson carried a letter of recommendation from Humphrey Lovell, the queen’s master mason. He was set on at a daily wage of 16 pence a day.

Smythson, and later his son John, were subsequently involved in the building of all the other houses in this book. Robert Smythson progressed from being a mere mason to an influential architect and a collection of his architectural drawings is housed in the Royal Institute of British Architects Library.

Whilst the blurb on the back of the book describes it as a “fascinating detective story and a quintessentially Elizabethan drama”, there is also a lot of detail about the design and layout of the houses and which craftsmen got paid how much for doing what. So I wouldn’t say that there is a large amount of what I would call drama in it. It does however have some fascinating insights into the lives of the rich and famous of the time, such as Bess and her descendants, but also into the lives of the stone masons, the carpenters – in other words those who did the real grafting, rather than those who paid for it all.

In particular this book has put me right on a few points – such as the fact that Wollaton Hall was completed before Hardwick Hall. I had always been under the misconception that Hardwick Hall was a much older building than Wollaton, but in fact Wollaton was completed earlier –  in 1588 – whilst the interior of the new Hardwick Hall was still not finished by 1597 when Bess moved in.  Just goes to show how little I know about some of the famous buildings just on our doorstep.

Perhaps David Durant’s best known book is Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast  [Peter Owen £13.95 978-0720610789]. There’s a lengthy review of this book, which has been in print for many years, on Amazon. To some extent this book has been superseded by Mary Lovell’s book Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth [Abacus £12.99 978-0349115894] as new information has come to light since the last edition of Durant’s book appeared (1999)

I’m reading: Roy Hattersley’s In Search of England


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