A masterpiece by a master: James Paine’s design for the Doncaster Mansion House

The great architect James Paine was born exactly 300 years ago – to celebrate his achievements Richard Hewlings takes a look at one of his finest creations, Doncaster Mansion House. With photography by Paul Highnam.

Doncaster came into existence as a Roman fort at the point where the Great North Road crosses the Don and as an inland port. It did not develop a staple industry, but a fertile hinterland preserved the town’s prosperity until its industrial expansion. This followed the arrival of the railway in 1852 and the opening of collieries as late as 1905.

Then, in 1971, came the Inner Relief Road; an act of self-mutilation.

Some sense of the town’s former interest and character is, however, preserved in one outstandingly beautiful street of national note: South Parade, the length of the Great North Road that leads into town from the racecourse, is lined by ancient trees and fine houses by the local architect William Lindley (1739–1818). At one end, South Parade transforms into the High Street, where one theatrically antique building stands out: the Mansion House, an assembly room designed by James Paine and begun in 1745.

Doncaster Mansion House

Doncaster Mansion House – The façade incorporates paired columns on a rusticated base. Its crowning pediment was remodelled as an attic storey in 1801. The main door is recessed within a porch. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life

Both its title and architectural grandeur are, however, out of all proportion to the status of 18th-century Doncaster. Mansion houses were otherwise the preserve of the greatest cities, such as London and York. The Corporation of Doncaster was not outstandingly wealthy nor did it return its own MP until 1885, so the neighbouring gentry had little cause to patronise the town. What forces then created the Mansion House?

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Since at least 1600, the Corporation had allowed racing on the commons and, from 1704, it began to sponsor the sport as a source of income. Entertaining the ever-growing numbers of fashionable visitors to the races presented a problem as the existing town hall – where the Mayor hosted at least six annual Corporation feasts – was little more than a lash-up. It must have been to solve this that, in 1739, the Corporation appointed a committee to purchase a site for an assembly rooms.

Its members were unlikely to have been connoisseurs: seven out of the nine can be identi fied – two tanners, two grocers, one mason, one attorney and one gentleman of the town. Numerous committees of a similar character succeeded it. Thus, surprising as it may seem, ancient architecture was introduced to Don caster by its tradesmen.

Doncaster Mansion House

The Imperial Main Stair at Doncaster Mansion House. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life

The committee might have appointed a local architect, such as William Rickard, carpenter, joiner, cabinet-maker, surveyor and a member of the Corporation. Or those at one remove from the Corporation: Rickard’s father-in-law, George Platt of Woodlaithes, for example, was the architect at nearby Cusworth Hall in 1740–1 and builder of Burrow Hall, Lan cashire, to the designs of the Deputy Surveyor of the Kings Works, Westby Gill (a native of Rotherham).

Alternatively, the Corporation could have followed the example of local grandees. Lord Malton, for example, had just engaged Henry Flitcroft, a protégé of Lord Burlington, the arbiter of architectural taste, to complete the east front of Wentworth Woodhouse. Instead, by February 1745, the Corporation had left the design, specifically ‘the front of the Man sion House… to Mr Pain’s direction’.

This was James Paine, appointed in December 1744 at the age of 27 to supervise the transformation of nearby Nostell Priory (to the designs of Col James Moyser). Paine came from Hampshire and was also a protégé of Lord Burlington’s; he had passed his forma tive years in the St Martin’s Lane Academy, the crucible of Rococo design. Paine gave the Corporation a façade part-derived from one of Inigo Jones’s Whitehall Palace proposals.

Inside, an imperial stair, a new fashion set by William Kent, gives a theatrical approach to the Grand Room, which occupies the whole width of the first floor and its coved ceiling rises into the roof space, with a Music Gallery set into the cove on the side opposite the entrance.

Doncaster Mansion House

Doncaster Mansion House. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life

The Corporation’s objectives are opaque, but indicative. It appointed a building committee in November 1744, then discharged and rep laced it in April 1745. The Corporation took over this committee’s responsibilities in May, appointed a third committee in August and ordered a stop to construction in November (a response to the Jacobite Rising), by which time, vaults had been dug and walls were rising.

On February 28, 1746, Paine agreed to build the Mansion House for £4,523 4s 6d, suggesting that he was henceforth contractor as well as architect. He was paid in instalments, in March and October 1746, July 1747 and October 1748. In February 1748, an alter ation to the middle window of the Great Room was ordered ‘according to the design sent down by Mr Paine’. ‘Musick at Opening the Mansion House’ was paid for on April 15, 1749.

Paine published his design in 1751, illustrating ceiling paintings in plaster frames and a faux curtain held by naked atlantes over the music gallery, but the Grand Room’s ornament was actually executed in plaster.

Doncaster Mansion House

The ceiling of the Grand Room at Doncaster Mansion House. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life

Paine’s book specifically mentioned the plasterers Thomas Perritt and Joseph Rose. Both later became known for Rococo ornament of the type that enlivens the stair and Grand Room at Doncaster and they may have learnt this type of ornament from Paine, who was the master of it.

In October 1748, Paine was also asked ‘what furniture was thought proper’ and to estimate for it, suggesting that he may have designed it. Six surviving carved and gilt sconces, for which the Doncaster carver Christopher Richardson was paid in 1755, bear a general resemblance to Paine’s drawings at Nostell and Felbrigg. Richardson is likely to have also carved the tympanum ornament on the façade and the statue of Justice illustrated in Paine’s book; his bill also covers ‘joiner’s work’.

Other distinctive internal ornament includes the stair balustrade, almost identical to that at Nostell, and probably the work of the leading London smith Thomas Wagg, whose notebook records ‘general smith work [and gates]… For Mr James Paine, sent to Doncaster’ in 1747.

Doncaster Mansion House

The Imperial Main Stair at Doncaster Mansion House. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life

George Gibson, whose contract for mason’s work was drawn up in February 1745, may also have been an outsider, as, in December 1744, he had been paid for ‘coming over and giving proposals… for the Front of the Mansion House’. He had built a new town bridge in 1741. Where he came over from is not known.

Many of the tradesmen involved were, how ever, local. John Beale, a member of the com mittee, Chamberlain before 1751 and Mayor in 1753, was engaged in January 1745 ‘to do the Inside Mason Work at ye Mansion House’ (confusingly, this work must be brick). William Rickard, Mayor in 1774, was the carpenter and also made frames for candle stands in 1749, a press for the Common Dining Room in 1754, four dining tables and two sideboard tables in 1756 and was included on the Mansion House Furnishing Committee in 1762.

Another local bricklayer, Thomas Pennystone, put up a ‘smookiack’ in the kitchen in 1759, which is still there and George Hallifax, watch maker – who was included on the Furnishing Committee in 1762 and Mayor in 1775 – was made a free man of the borough in September 1750 on condition of setting up a ‘watch’ in the Mansion House to the value of seven guineas and maintaining it so long as he lived there. He made ‘a Dial Clock the same as Mr Broad heads… to be put up on the Kitchin of the Mansion House’. Remarkably, both his (signed) clocks are still there.

Doncaster Mansion House

The dining room – Doncaster Mansion House. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life

Paine remained in control; when he submitted his accounts in September 1746, he was asked to give security to finish the painting, evidently his responsibility. The work was actually done by the local Benjamin Hague, who finished the interiors in ‘stone cullar’. John Hawley, who painted it again in 1770, billed for stone, oak, chocolate and lead colours, although the lamps were painted red and green and the lamp tops vermilion.

Paine’s Mansion House subsequently under went major alteration at the hands of William Lindley. He was based in York when the Corporation invited him to design a theatre at Doncaster in 1774. In 1783, he became a freeman of the town and, in June, agreed to redecorate the Mansion House; the Vestibule was painted white and light straw colour, the ‘Ball Room’ French grey and the Drawing Room was papered.

Doncaster Mansion House

Doncaster Mansion House. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life

In December 1800, he produced a plan to alter the front by replacing Paine’s pediment with an attic storey and the Corporation agreed in March 1801. The alteration was only aesthetic; Lindley built a wall with three dummy windows and nothing behind.

At the same time, the Corporation saw an opportunity to acquire the adjacent house and replace it with ‘a new house & out offices fit to accommodate a genteel family’. Paine had proposed such a house, balanced by another on the other side, but these had never been built.

Doncaster Mansion House

Paine’s published design for the Mansion House. The central block was the only part realised and one of the wings could never have existed within the street plan. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life

Now, the Corporation ordered a plan with ‘proposed improvements to communicate’ with the Mansion House. The house, simpler than Paine’s design, was ready by January 1805 and became the residence for the Master of the Grammar School.

In July 1805, Lindley produced further ‘Plans for Alterations’, which were realised by another William Rickard. This was a rear wing, to accommodate a ‘New Dining Room’, as big as the Ball Room and it was complete by December 1806. The investment gave ‘sufficient accommodation to the Nobility and Gentry attending the Races’. Nobility and gentry now had a circuit available: races, followed by the theatre, then dancing in the Mansion House, all on Corporation property. The Corporation’s income, which had been about £800 in the 1730s and about £3,500 in the 1780s, reached nearly £7,000 in the 1830s.

Doncaster Mansion House

One of the treasures bought by the Corporation, on display within Doncaster Mansion House. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life

Perhaps this prosperity explains why, in 1831, both the House and the Building Committees recommended further alterations and improvements. Lindley was dead, so they turned to his former partner John Woodhead (died about 1838), and William Hurst (1787–1844), a native of Doncaster who had served as Lindley’s apprentice between 1801 and 1808. They implemented the changes for £1,500 and were paid a further £250 for raising the Card Room ceiling.

Doncaster Mansion House

Doncaster Mansion House Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life magazine

At this time, they possibly also installed the present doors connecting this room to the Supper Room, which was furnished with a chandelier purchased from Skidmore for £131 and a mirror from the British Plate Glass Company for £130.

Since then, the Mansion House has undergone one final alteration of significance. In 1864, the Corporation Surveyor, John Butterfield, architect of the superb 1848 Market Hall and much else, created a vestibule behind and above the half-landing of Paine’s stair, recycling within it the original staircase window.

Doncaster Mansion House

The stained glass overlooking the Imperial Main Stair at Doncaster Mansion House. Photographed by Paul Highnam for Country Life magazine

In 2012, Doncaster Council moved out of the Mansion House to new office premises. Although the council continues to own the property and use it for business and civic functions, the move is a watershed in its story. A new organisation, the Friends of Doncaster Mansion House, was established in 2015 to conserve, research and present the building to the public. This body enjoys remarkable levels of local support and, hopefully, will maintain and promote this outstanding building for the future.

Visit www.mansionhousedoncaster.com for more information.