Robert Smythson (1535-1614), an English architect of the Tudor period, is praised by scholars as the most important architect of his day and a man of independent vision.
In an age where the term "architect" had no meaning, Robert Smythson was the most important designer of English manor houses working during the 16th century. While little is known of his background or personal life, Smythson is known to us through the massive buildings that remain standing throughout England, such as Wollaton Hall, Longleat, and others in middle and northern England. These stately homes, vestiges of a distant past where newly moneyed families attempted to assert their worthiness among the noble class by building impressive estates, still stand, many preserved as historic monuments by British trust and preservation organizations.
An Undocumented Life
In the papers and other documents that have survived the centuries since his birth in 1534, little can be gleaned of the life or professional activities of Robert Smythson. Architectural historians have discovered what little they know about the man from his architectural renderings, from a few letters, and from bills, and other ephemera that have been saved from becoming dust after almost five centuries. Born in 1534 and trained as a stonemason, Smythson first appears on a written record dating from 1566 and relating to the renovation of Longleat, a manor house located in Wiltshire.
During the mid-1500s, as a shift in fortunes and the religious affiliation of many in England created a new ruling class, older manor houses built of wood and plaster were being replaced or renovated using cut stone and brick. In other cases, self-made men from the new Protestant elite bought up rural lands and set about establishing their own dynasty, crowned by a home that reflected their right to vast wealth. The first was the case at Longleat. After an earlier house on the site had been destroyed by fire in April of 1567, Sir John Thynne undertook to construct a more lavish manor house for his family. Working in London at the time, Smythson was contracted by Thynne as principal mason on the building of Longleat. As a master mason, Smythson made his living traveling around England with a crew of masons, and by the time he reached Longleat in March of 1568, at the age of 33, the observant Smythson had likely become well-versed in building design.
In Tudor England during the mid-1500s there was no such term as "architect;" instead the designing of houses was considered a craft–or mechanical as opposed to intellectual art–as it had been since the Middle Ages. While the renaissance ongoing in Europe–out of which would come noted architect Inigo Jones–had produced a new interest in architecture and the arts, such was not the case in England, where tastes were more provincial and Italian influences were reviled as "papish." Due to more pressing concerns, Henry VIII ceased building projects as his differences with the Catholic Church grew, leaving most building in England to wealthy businessmen who aspired to noble status. Consequently, the designer of a house was considered of little importance, as long as his design reflected the wealthy status of its owner.
Master Mason at Longleat
Although by trade a mason, Smythson also possessed recognizable abilities as a designer, perhaps revealed by other projects he had worked on for Thynne's friends. Although he was only one of several people to involve themselves in the design of the house, many of the design features used are characteristic of Smythson's later work: a symmetrical, stately structure with a central hall, the use of many large windows to open the house to the outdoors, and the home's "extroversion"–facing out toward the surrounding area rather than curving inward around a central courtyard–were unusual in Tudor homes during the period.
The restrained use of classical elements throughout the portion of the house constructed during this period shows Smythson to have cultivated, educated tastes and a grounding in the design trends in both England and Europe, particularly Italy. His work during this period signals what many historians view as an English Renaissance style that breaks with the Italian classicism that was prevalent on the continent.
Thynne's approval of Smythson's work at Longleat gained the young man the opportunity to design country houses for other members of the landed aristocracy. With work at Longleat finally completed in 1575, Smythson moved on to other projects, in 1570 performing work on Wardour Castle, the home of Sir Matthew Arundell, to transform it into a residence. Other homes which show signs of his work during this period are Corsham Court, in Wiltshire (1575), and Shaw House, in Berkshire.
In 1580 Smythson began work for Arundell's cousin, Sir Francis Willoughby. The sheriff of Nottingham commissioned him to design and supervise the construction of a home and lodge on a hill at Wollaton, Nottinghamshire. This was Smythson's first commission as a professional master surveyor or master artificer, and many historians consider it his most important work. Wollaton Hall now houses the Nottingham Natural History Museum.
Ongoing until 1588, Wollaton Hall contains many of the unique features of Longleat–the house has a central hall and tall, massive second-storey windows along its face that connect it to the surrounding countryside and bath its rooms in light–but these features are more accentuated at Willoughby's home. Although Smythson's design for Wollaton is clearly based on a pattern for Poggio Reale, a house in Naples outlined in Sebastiano Serlio's 1550 work Libri di arcitectura, he was also inspired by the work of Jacques Androucet du Cerceau, and incorporates rooms of differing heights, massive corner towers, and other imaginative geometrical elements.
At Wollaton, as elsewhere, Smythson linked his designs to the prevailing fashion set by architects in Italy, but his adaptation was unique. He also drew from renaissance, Flemish, and England's gothic designs, creating an innovative, medievalesque, and romantic style. Elements such as cartouches and strapwork recall the Flemish ornaments of Vredeman de Vries' influential 1563 work Variae architecturae formae, while also drawing on ecclesiastical and militaristic design elements.
Settled Permanently in Wollaton
Over the eight years Smythson worked for Sir Willoughby, the two men developed a comfortable working relationship. After the house was finished, Smythson and his family settled in Wollaton permanently, and Smythson worked as a bailiff for Willoughby, collecting rents when not otherwise busy drawing house plans. Much of Smythson's subsequent work was done in this midland region. Among the houses that bear his mark are the Worksop Manor hunting lodge, in Nottinghamshire; Doddington Hall, in Lincolnshire; Welbeck Abbey and Burton Agnes, both in Yorkshire; Chastleton, in Oxfordshire; and Barlborough Hall, in Derbyshire. While documentation tying these homes to Smythson is sometimes scarce, all reflect his unique style, and it is likely that he, at the very least, had a hand in drafting plans for their design.
Smythson's work at Hardwick, Derbyshire, is well documented. Built between 1591 and 1597 by Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury, Hardwick Hall was designed to replace an older, smaller home, Hardwick Old Hall, which now lays in ruins on the Hardwick estate. Bess Hardwick was a fascinating woman. Part of a landed family who had lived on this property for six generations, she experienced a downturn in circumstances at age one, when her father died, leaving each of his four daughters 26 pounds, 13 shillings. Working as a servant for a neighboring family as a young teen, she amassed a fortune by outliving four husbands. After the death of her last husband, Lord Shrewsbury, in 1590, 63-year-old Bess was free to buy back her family seat, build a magnificent new home suitable for a woman of her lofty station, and establish a new dynasty. Her sons were the first members of the Cavendish dynasty; the family is now represented by the dukes of Devonshire and live at Chatworth, leaving Hardwick Hall open to the public.
Beth Hardwick was an independent spirit, and she was drawn to Smythson's use of large plates of glass instead of walls. One of the two buildings that sprang from her active collaboration with Smythson–Hardwick Lodge was also build on the property–Hardwick Hall is considered one of the finest examples of Elizabethan architecture in England. Forward looking in its design, it rejects much of the influences of the baroque continental style and prefigures early 17th-century aesthetic sensibilities. At the roofline of the hall is visible a prominently carved set of initials: "E.S.", signifying Bess's station as the Lady Shrewsbury.
The stone used in building Hardwick Hall was quarried nearby, and many of the craftsmen who had built the Old Hall were still alive and took the same care to build the new one. Hardwick's interior, which still contains many of the tapestries and plasterwork that were installed by Smythson, contains elements of medieval chivalric design and Italian classicism. The floor plan is similar, in ways, to that of Italian architect Andrea Palladio's villa Valmarana, built at Lisiera, while the overall structure reflects the same restraint and attention to detail Smythson showed in his work at Longleat.
Among Smythson's other projects is Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, begun in 1593 and completed in 1600. Still standing, the Hall contains walled gardens, a gatehouse, and a family church. Shireoaks Hall, Derbyshire, was a design commission for the Hewett family; and Thorpe Manor was build for Brian Sandford after an older house was demolished.
Pontefract New Hall and Heath Old Hall, two of Smythson's earliest Yorkshire buildings, have been demolished, but his work can still be seen at Burton Agnes, home to Sir Henry Griffith. Griffith moved to the home in 1599 and began work on the house circa 1601. The house, designed in the traditional Tudor manner around a small internal courtyard, is enhanced by such design elements as bay windows with glass grids, gables, finials, battlements, and strapwork. Smythson modernized the existing house by creating a long gallery on the top floor, complete with carved wainscoting and a highly decorated plaster ceilings. The home's brick gatehouse, built in 1610, is a prime example of its type.
Began Architectural Dynasty
Late in Smythson's career he was joined by his son, John Smythson, who followed in his father's profession. John Smythson's best-known work is at Bolsover Castle, in Derbyshire, a commission undertaken for Bess Hardwick's son, Sir Charles Cavendish. While the plans for Bolsover Castle clearly show the hand of the father, the son remained active on the project during the 30 years it took to complete. In fact, Bolsover hall is credited with employing three generations of the Smythson dynasty: Robert is credited with the renovation plans, son John oversaw the work and designed the interior apartments, while grandson Huntingdon Smythson is credited with designing the adjoining buildings housing Bolsover's riding school, which became famous through the horsemanship of William Cavendish, duke of Newcastle.
Smythson died in Wollaton, England in 1614, and was commemorated by an inscription on his tomb in the town's church that reads: "architect and surveyour unto the most worthy house of Wollaton and divers others of great account."
In his book Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House architectural historian Mark Girouard called Smythson a "rough diamond" and described his work as "full of ideas, but full also of … conceptions only half worked out." Girouard described Smythson's Wollaton Hall as, "for all its originality, a repulsive building," and Hardwick Hall "a monument of ostentation and pride." Still, Girouard counted Smythson among "the great geniuses of English architecture. As with the Elizabethan age as a whole, along with much that is vulgar, clumsy or hard, there is a boldness in his work that demands admiration and a poetry that can still set the imagination on fire."
Because of John Smythson's respect for his father's work, he saw to the preservation of many of his father's architectural drawings. Influencing the work of not only John Smythson but other English architects as well, Smythson's surviving drawings are now housed in the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.
Friedman, Alice T., House and Household in Elizabethan England: Wollaton Hall and the Willoughby Family, University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Girouard, Mark, Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House, Yale University Press, 1983.
International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture, St. James Press, 1993.
Summerston, John, Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830, Penguin, 1977.
Bolsover Castle Web site,http://www.britcastles.com/bolsover.htm (December 6, 2003).
Airs (1975, 1995);
Architectural History, v (1962), 21–184;
Girouard (1966, 1983);
Summerson (ed.) (1993);
Jane Turner (1996)