The origins of Wolterton Hall

John Goodall looks at Wolterton Hall, Norfolk — former home of Keith Day and Peter Sheppard — to analyse the creation of a new country house by Horace Walpole, a figure in the front rank of political and diplomatic life in the 18th century. Photographs by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

‘My house, of my own building, is not extremely large, nor little; is neither to be envied, nor despised. The disposition of the rooms is neither magnificent nor contemptible, but convenient.’ Thus did the parliamentarian and diplomat Horatio Walpole describe his seat at Wolterton in a letter dated May 29, 1745. ‘The situation is upon an eminence that commands a most agreeable prospect,’ he continued, ‘encompassed with… oaks, spanish chestnuts and beech… on the south a green carpet of the finest verdure gratifies the eye and gradually leads it into a more extensive plain. On one side a lake of living water catches and fills the sight… If this description pleases you, come, my dear friend, come and partake of the beauties from whence it is drawn.’

The creator of this idyllic retreat was born in 1678, one of 15 children in a Norfolk gentry family. Horace, as he was known, had the ambition and connections to secure a post as secretary to a British envoy to Spain in 1706 and his first parliamentary seat in 1710. It was, however, the remarkable political career of his elder brother, Robert — the figure for whom the title ‘prime minister’ was originally coined — that properly formed the foundation of his own. Robert inherited his family seat at Houghton, about 20 miles west of Wolterton, in 1700. Thereafter, he began to build his political career in close alliance with his neighbour (and brother-in-law from 1713), Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend of Raynham Hall.

Fig 2: The original entrance hall to the house on the first floor, with its cool palette. Wolterton Hall, Norfolk. Photographs by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

The two men — with Horace in active support — became leading Whigs, the political interest supportive of constitutional monarchy that was invited to form a ministry by George I following his succession to the throne in 1714. A Whig schism briefly drove them from office in 1717, but the financial collapse of the South Sea Bubble in the summer of 1720 destroyed the credibility of their opponents. Sir Robert was appointed First Lord of the Treasury on April 3, 1721 and dominated the political scene for the next two decades. The death of his sister and Townshend’s wife, Dorothy, in 1726 heralded the gradual breakdown in his relationship with Townshend.

Horace, however, continued to play an important diplomatic and political role in government thereafter. He was a powerful figure and acknowledged as energetic and effective. Inevitably, he also had many enemies, including the courtier Lord Hervey, who claimed that Queen Caroline found him irritating, ‘his silly laugh hurting [to] her ears, and his dirty sweaty body offending her nose’. He also seems to have taken a certain pride in his reputation for slovenly dress or, at least, a lack of show; indeed, it’s a quality reflected in his description of Wolterton. Some additionally regarded him as avaricious.

Recommended videos for you

Political success, however, and its attendant wealth — doubtfully acquired in the view of critics — demanded architectural celebration and, from 1722, Robert undertook the rebuilding of Houghton on a palatial scale. Over time, this project involved a confusion of designers, including James Gibbs, Colen Campbell and William Kent, but the executant architect of the project was a certain Thomas Ripley, who was actually appointed in 1720. Ripley was a carpenter by training who, by tradition, walked from his native Yorkshire to London as a young man to make his fortune and married a servant in the household of Sir Robert. It was undoubtedly through this work at Houghton that, from 1724, Ripley was likewise employed by Viscount Townshend to oversee internal improvements at Raynham involving Kent, as well as work to the relatively modest Wolterton.

Fig 3: The house in its landscape setting. Walpole had privileged access to Portland stone, which is combined with warm red brick. Wolterton Hall, Norfolk. Photographs by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

In July 1720, at the age of 42, Horace married Mary Lombard, the co-heiress of another Norfolk estate at Burnham Thorpe. The match was a happy one and produced seven children, but she was spitefully reported to be both plain and unkempt. Whatever the truth of the matter, from this moment the couple were presumably looking to settle in their native county and, in 1722, Horace was able to purchase the manor of Wolterton from a widow, Penelope Grey, for £4,300. There was already a substantial house on the site, as well as a modest parish church. The latter fell into ruin — probably with picturesque encouragement — from 1737 and its round tower survives.

Horace, who, from 1723, began shuttling between London and Paris, set to work improving the property and its landscape with the help of Ripley. A fire broke out, however, and Ripley wrote to Horace a few weeks later on December 17, 1724: ‘I am very sorry for your loss, but since this has happened you should put an entire stop to all your works at Wolterton because I believe you will find a more convenient place to set your home.’ Ripley also promised to visit the site from Houghton and to buy timber and dig clay for bricks to supply future building work.

Fig 4: The head of the main staircase is detailed in the manner of a courtyard. Wolterton Hall, Norfolk. Photographs by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

Confusingly, Horace evidently agreed to Ripley’s proposal, but canvassed wider opinion about the new house: a design dated April 1725 survives in the papers of the architectural enthusiast and exiled Jacobite John Erskine, 11th Earl of Mar. The two men presumably communicated in Paris. Mar’s unexpected involvement across the political divide finds parallel in the Orleans Octagon at Twickenham, a project involving his mentor James Gibbs (Country Life, September 25, 2019). In the event, however, Horace rejected Mar’s plans and built the house to Ripley’s design.

At about the moment this decision must have been taken, the architect’s career was boosted by his appointment in 1726 — through Sir Robert — to the post of Comptroller of the Works, with oversight of all government building projects. Ripley’s predecessor in the office, Vanbrugh, was not an admirer, commenting contemptuously that when he ‘met with his name (and Esquire to it) in the newspaper, such a laugh came upon me I had like to beshit myself’. Nor was the circle of the Earl of Burlington, who had established himself as the arbiter of architectural taste in the 1720s, any kinder; there are waspish criticisms of Ripley’s buildings wittily voiced in the couplets of Alexander Pope.

In the light of such criticism, historians have tended to characterise Ripley as a jobbing architect, but Axel Klausmeier mounted a defence in Norfolk Archaeology XLIII (2001) with special reference to Wolterton, the only extant country house entirely created by him. The present building was begun in 1727, in a commanding position a little to the south of its predecessor. Its structure was nearing completion two years later. Fitting out the interior, however, took a further decade and a plaque gives the date of its completion as 1741. In typical fashion for the period, the workforce combined local labour with outside specialists, including, for example, Richard Fisher of Yorkshire, who carved a number of the principal fireplaces (Fig 7). Outwardly, the house is attractively finished in red brick, but with a rusticated basement and detailing in pale Portland stone (Fig 3).

Wolterton was conceived compactly on a rectangular plan (the present wing is a later addition) seven window bays wide. To the front and rear, there are shallow central projections of three bays surmounted by pediments filled with the Walpole arms. The front door was to the north and was originally approached up an external stair, since removed (Fig 1). A hipped roof surmounted the whole.

Fig 5: The foot of the main staircase, which rises through the full height of the house. Wolterton Hall, Norfolk. Photographs by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

To an 18th-century observer, familiar with the country-house format of a central block and spreading service wings, this design would have been unexpected. The kitchens and stables that would have conventionally formed the wings are remote from the house, the former connected to it by a subterranean passage. As The Norfolk Tour: Or, the Traveller’s Pocket Companion (1795), observed, Wolterton might be ‘an elegant and convenient house… but the offices being concealed underground, it does not make an appearance equal to its size’.

Internally, the principal rooms are organised on the first floor and form a plan three rooms wide and three rooms deep. Rising up the centre of the building back to back are two stairs, one for service and the other for polite use (Fig 5). The latter is top-lit and articulated in the manner of an internal courtyard (Fig 4). There are bedrooms on the upper floors. The stairs separate the original entrance hall (Fig 2) from the saloon, with the two rooms connected by a landing. A drawing room and dining room (Fig 6) are in opposite corners of the first floor, the latter dominated by portraits, their frames ordered from London and presumably designed by Ripley. The largest is a conversation piece of Horace and his family by Jacopo Amigoni with the house in the background.

Despite the Earl of Burlington’s hostility to Ripley, his exquisite villa at Chiswick, west of London, bears formal comparison in conception and plan to Wolterton. Chiswick is a paradigmatic work of the so-called Palladian style and built at exactly the same time, in 1725–29. The buildings, however, contrast in revealing ways. Some differences are obvious: Chiswick is much smaller and, as an adjunct to a house, lacks upper bedroom floors. It also has a central octagon hall, rather than Wolterton’s stairs, in the centre of its three-by-three plan. What really distinguishes the two buildings, however, is their detailing. Chiswick ostentatiously marshals architectural ornament to illustrate its borrowings from Classical and Renaissance architecture.

By contrast, Wolterton is devoid of such conscious architectural display and eschews the open portico and internal screens of columns that make Chiswick a virtuosic, exhibition piece. As such, it sits between what informed contemporaries would have recognised as two emergent building forms: the great house and the smaller villa, a place of rural retirement. Wolterton, in fact, was a villa at scale aiming, in Horace’s words, to be ‘neither magnificent nor contemptible, but convenient’. In making this assessment, he was probably weighing his own house in the scales with Houghton.

Fig 6: The dining room displays a series of portraits historically associated with the house, including the Amigoni of the family. Wolterton Hall, Norfolk. Photographs by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

That view was affirmed in characteristically unflattering terms by Horace’s more celebrated nephew and namesake, the builder of Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, who shared in the view that his aunt and uncle were mean and slovenly. He wrote of a visit in September 1742: ‘You know I am not prejudiced in favour of the country… but I really was charmed with Woolterton; it is all wood and water! My uncle and aunt may, without any expense, do what they have all their lives avoided, wash themselves and make fires. Their house is more than a good one; if they had not saved eighteen pence in every room, it would have been a fine one.’

Fig 7: One of the fireplaces probably carved by Richard Fisher, a Yorkshire craftsman. Wolterton Hall, Norfolk. Photographs by Paul Highnam for Country Life.

The year of this visit was an important one for many of those involved in the creation of the house. For all his detractors said, Ripley had by now grown exceptionally rich and, in 1742, not only became master of the Carpenters’ Company, but married well a second time, to an heiress of £40,000, and gentled his condition with a grant of arms. Sir Robert, by contrast, was finally ousted from power and Horace burnt quantities of correspondence at Wolterton to avoid impeachment. When a fellow MP asserted in 1743 that he deserved to be hanged, the two men duelled outside the lobby of the House of Commons. His vituperative nephew was vastly amused. ‘Don’t you delight in this duel?’ he wrote. ‘I expect to see it daubed up by some circuit painter on the ceiling of the salon at Woolterton.’

Horace remained closely involved in politics following his brother’s death two years later and continued to improve the property, for example, commissioning a new stable clock turret from Ripley in 1750. In 1756, he was created Baron Walpole of Wolterton, but died a few months later in the house he had made on February 5, 1757. We will follow the development of the building in the hands of his descendents and its remarkable 21st-century revival in a further article next week.


Acknowledgements: Richard Hewlings

Sir Joshua Reynolds: Why ‘the greatest portrait artist England has ever seen’ is the true heir to the Old Masters

It wasn’t merely brilliant brushwork or sparkling colour that made Sir Joshua Reynolds one of England’s greatest portraitists. His talent