The creation of Holkham Hall

In the second of two articles, John Goodall revisits Holkham Hall — the seat of the Earl of Leicester — to tell the story of its creation in the mid 18th century by the Earl of Leicester and his widow.

In 1773, the architect Matthew Brettingham published a large and luxuriously illustrated volume entitled The Plans, Elevations and Sections of Holkham. The book, as we will discover, was, in fact, an expanded edition of a work originally published by his namesake father 12 years earlier. Brettingham’s publication of 1773, however, celebrated the recent completion of the building and was dedicated to Margaret, Dowager Countess of Leicester who had, as the preface explains — ‘animated with the zeal of its founder’, the late Earl of Leicester — brought the house ‘to the degree of splendour in which it now appears, the delight of the present age’.

As we discovered last week, the design of the house was a collaborative undertaking and the preface to the 1773 volume states that its designs were first ‘struck out’ by the Earl of Leicester and Lord Burlington ‘assisted by Mr William Kent’ and ‘guided by those great luminaries of architecture, Palladio and [Inigo] Jones’. Work to Holkham Hall had begun in 1734 with the construction of the Family Wing, one of the four corner pavilions of the building. This interior, Brettingham informs us, was decorated to Kent’s designs ‘without undergoing any material change’. Thereafter, however, the plans continued to be revised, so much so that, over the next three decades during which the building was realised, ‘very few traces of the original thoughts remained untouched’.

Fig 1: The coffered Marble Hall ceiling, inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Photo by Will Pryce for the Country Life Picture Library

Kent died in 1748, shortly before the final push to complete Holkham in 1753, so the crucial figure in the final evolution of the designs was presumably the Earl of Leicester himself. Certainly, he continued to collect art for the interior, much of which remains in place to delight the modern visitor. He also died suddenly, however, in 1759, when the work of decorating the interiors was in full swing, yet despite the fact that the house was posthumously completed, we can be confident that his plans were realised faithfully by his widow.

That is in part because Brettingham’s 1773 publication recycles all the illustrations of his father’s 1761 volume. Brettingham Snr (1699–1769) had overseen the construction of the whole house from the 1730s, but, following the death of his patron in 1759, he was dismissed from the project, so the engraved plates he produced must show the designs as they then stood and they accord with the completed building. Added to which, the dowager Countess was clearly keen to be seen to do the work properly.

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Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Photo by Will Pryce for the Country Life Picture Library

Indeed, that concern probably explains the backing she gave for the 1773 volume, which effectively set the finished project on record. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the accompanying text fulsomely acknowledges the names of all those who contributed to the work and lists pedantically the borrowings of detail from particular Classical buildings, as well as the sources from which they were drawn, such as Antoine Desgodetz’s Edifices Antiques de Rome (1682).

The final house comprises a central block with a wing or pavilion at each corner. In the view of the agricultural reformer Arthur Young, who published an early description of Holkham in A Six Weeks’ Tour through the Southern Counties of England and Wales (1768), the design of the exterior was not beyond criticism. Although he regarded the central block as ‘elegantly magnificent’, he thought the whole ‘not of a uniform taste, and the wings are at best but light and elegant’.

Fig 2. A view ofd the Marble Hall at Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Photo by Will Pryce for the Country Life Picture Library

Such critical judgments, however, make his enthusiasm for the interior all the more notable. ‘So convenient a house,’ he wrote, ‘does not exist — so admirably adapted to the English way of living, and so easily to be applied to the grand or the comfortable style of life.’

In making this judgement, he was partly referring to the service facilities of the building, which were exceptionally sophisticated. What he was chiefly impressed by, however, was the organisation of the interior and inter-relationship between the rooms in the body of the house and its wings.

Fig 3: The Saloon, the principal reception room, with its opulent 1750s wall hangings. Shown here is the entrance from the Marble Hall. Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Photo by Will Pryce for the Country Life Picture Library

In plan, the central block of the house is laid out in a figure of eight with two internal courtyards. The central range dividing these courtyards incorporates the so-called Marble Hall, a magnificent columned interior with a coffered ceiling (the eponymous marble is, in fact, Derbyshire alabaster). It was originally entered at ground level directly through the front door of the house, as Young puts it, without ‘steps to wet a lady to the skin before she reaches cover’. Subsequent generations were less impressed by this arrangement and a porch was added to the front door in the 1850s.

Confronting the visitor at the far end of the splendid hall interior is a broad staircase set within a terminating semi-circle or apse that rises to the door of the Saloon, the first and most important room in the ‘grand apartment’ of the house. It is typical of Palladian buildings for the principal rooms to be arranged on an elevated floor or piano nobile and such is the case here. This also allowed the services to be arranged on ground level. Young marvelled at the ‘staircases quite unseen, which communicate with all the rooms and lead down to all the offices’. For ease of circulation within the Marble Hall itself, there are railed galleries at piano-nobile level, from the landing in front of the Saloon door behind the rows of columns (Fig 2).

Fig 4: The Green State Closet to the State Bedchamber. This intimate space is hung with paintings collected on the Grand Tour. Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Photo by Will Pryce for the Country Life Picture Library

Brettingham Jnr credits the Earl personally with the conception of this unusual interior, the form of which was finally determined in 1757 (and informed the hall of Kedleston, Derbyshire). He also states that the room is modelled on a Roman basilica and that the ceiling (Fig 1) is copied from the Pantheon. That’s all undoubtedly true, but, intriguingly, Young instead admiringly states that the Marble Hall ‘appears exactly like a bath’, meaning it resembled a Roman bath house. Then, as now, the Baths of Caracalla and of Diocletian were some of Rome’s most celebrated and imposing ruins and, for those less versed in technical minutiae, were an obvious point of reference for this monumental space. Indeed, possibly, for the house in its entirety.

The coffering of the Marble Hall ceiling is repeated in the unusually deep coving of the Saloon (Fig 3), the principal reception room of the house. In all other respects, the richness and colour of this interior, with its silk wall-hangings and prized paintings, is in deliberate contrast to the hard, pale surfaces of the Marble Hall. This transition from austerity to opulence beyond the threshold of the entrance hall is a commonplace of grand English domestic design from the Middle Ages, but, here, it is cast in Roman splendour.

The Saloon interior is lofty and its arched windows, with gilded pier glasses set between them, look out through the south portico into the parkland beyond. In true Palladian fashion, the room is absolutely symmetrical, with fireplaces flanking the entrance from the Marble Hall and matching pairs of doors to either end, one real, one false. The real doors align with those of the rooms beyond to form vistas or long enfilades that run east and west from the Saloon through the full length of the south front.

Fig 5: The State Bedchamber, hung with tapestries depicting the four Continents and costly cut silk of three colours. Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Photo by Will Pryce for the Country Life Picture Library

As part of the enfilade to either side of the Saloon, there is a drawing room (Fig 7), a space into which privileged guests could retire. Again, both rooms are hung with silk. The sheer expense of this finish deserves emphasis. Surviving accounts record the purchase for more than £3,000 of the necessary fabrics in 1755. By contrast, a prized painting of Venus by Titian cost the Earl a mere £175. The use of different colours of silk lent variety to the different rooms and looks back to late-17th-century English precedents. In this regard, Holkham was opulent, but also conservative.

Beyond the drawing room to the west is an anteroom known from its dense hang of paintings as the Landscape Room. This leads to the principal or State Bedchamber, hung with tapestry (Fig 5), the most expensive wall-covering of all, with its closet (Fig 4) and dressing room. Unusually, the bedchamber does not form part of the enfilade, but is returned round the corner of the plan into the western range of the main block. Beyond it was another formal bedroom. The Landscape Room also gives access to the south-west wing, which contains the chapel. This creates a direct connection between the state rooms and the family pew in an elevated chapel gallery at the level of the piano nobile.

Fig 6: A gilded pier glass in the drawing room, made by the house carver, James Miller, after the example of another by a London maker. It incorporates an old looking glass provided by Lady Leicester. Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Photo by Will Pryce for the Country Life Picture Library

At the opposite end of the main enfilade, the east drawing room leads into the Sculpture Gallery (COUNTRY LIFE, March 6, 2008). This space was deliberately austere, so that it did not compete with the prized artworks it contained, and had specially commissioned furniture upholstered in blue leather (rather than fabric). Like the Marble Hall, this is an interior of hard surfaces and cool colours that is notionally connected to the outdoors, although, in this case, by views through the large windows into the landscape.

The Sculpture Gallery struck Young as ‘without exception, the most beautiful room I ever beheld: the dimensions are to the eye proportion itself’. The room, in fact, comprises three internal volumes, of which the most important is a central gallery space, a long and narrow interior with a series of sculptures set in plain niches — after Roman example — along one side. Some figures even stand on rotating bases, so that they can be admired in the round. To each end of this interior is an octagonal chamber, one likewise furnished with sculpture, the other with books.

Fig 7: The drawing room between the Saloon and State Bedroom. A portrait of the Earl of Leicester’s heir, Thomas William Coke, in Rome, by Pompeo Batoni, enjoys pride of place. Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Photo by Will Pryce for the Country Life Picture Library

Young described the Sculpture Gallery as ‘the rendezvous room’ of the house, by which he meant that this was the crucial space that allowed the house to function either as a place of grand entertainment or as a home. As the former, it linked the drawing rooms and Saloon with the dining room, thereby completing the circuit of principal interiors. It also connected the bedrooms for guests in the so-called Stranger’s Wing to the north-west, with the main block of the house. When the family were in residence by themselves, the Sculpture Gallery connected the rooms of the main house with the self-contained Family Wing to the south-west. The fourth wing to the north-east incorporated the kitchen.

Holkham Hall may have been a supremely practical building for 18th-century noble life, but, to the modern visitor, the house possesses a fantastical quality as well. That is true in part because it seems so extraordinary to find a building of such ambition and scale, inspired by the architecture of Rome, dropped into Norfolk’s rural landscape. No less improbable is the completeness and quality of the collections (Fig 6). Indeed, it is hard to think of a European parallel for an 18th-century house that preserves so many of its original furnishings and fittings.

A snooker room like you’ve never seen before at Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Photo by Will Pryce for the Country Life Picture Library

To the overwhelmed visitor who leaves the house, there is a small reminder of the figure who conceived and realised this spectacular creation. As they pass back through the front door, they are confronted by a small panel that neatly summarises the story of this great house. The inscription reads simply: ‘This seat, on an open barren estate, was planned, planted, built, decorated, and inhabited the middle of the XVIII century by Thos Coke Earl of Leicester.’ Composed posthumously in 1764 by the Earl’s wife, Margaret, the attribution of this celebrated building, together with its landscape, to one man is self-evidently inadequate, but it is no less essentially accurate.

Acknowledgements: Richard Hewlings. For further information, visit