Wimbledon House

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The modest last version of Wimbledon House, as rebuilt 1799-1802, with a demilune portico, and a glass-roofed orangery to the left.(Ackerman's Repository, 1823)

Wimbledon House, dogged by misfortune, exploded, burnt and several times demolished, was formerly an English country house at Wimbledon, Surrey, now part of Greater London. The prominent and ambitious Elizabethan house, "a house of the first importance" according to Sir John Summerson,[1] passed through several further vicissitudes, entirely rebuilt twice. 42 acres of the site are now occupied by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club that has made Wimbledon synonymous with tennis; further tracts of Wimbledon Park, not built over as is the surrounding suburb of London, include its golf course and the lake.[2]

Cecil Wimbledon[edit]

The north front of William Cecil's house at Wimbledon (here as drawn in 1678) was approached by a monumental axial staircase 'presumably' inspired by the Villa Farnese at Caprarola

The Cecil family had connections with the manor of Wimbledon, and some kind of residence existed there, constructed for Sir Christopher Hatton,[3] before the manor was purchased, A new Wimbledon Manor House was constructed in 1588, England's Annus Mirabilis,[4] for the powerful courtier Sir Thomas Cecil, elder son of Queen Elizabeth's chief advisor, Lord Burghley. The younger Cecil was created Earl of Exeter in 1605; his son Edward Cecil was made Viscount Wimbledon on the basis of this seat.

The site near the village of Wimbledon was near the top of a high hill, with extensive views and a steep slope northwards that was dramatically terraced with massive retaining walls. The house was built on a modified H plan, with a slightly recessed central range facing south, and on the north a central entrance between deep flanking wings, with matching staircase towers in the inner corners. An informally arranged service wing, not part of the symmetrical design, lay to the west. The entrance court, essentially a deep gated terrace entered from the sides, lay 26 steps below the upper cour d'honneur, which could be approached only by a monumental axial staircase with paired helical flights rising from a central raised landing. Wimbledon's series of terraces and axial stairs and the hilltop site Summerson finds was "inspired presumably" by the Villa Farnese at Caprarola.[5]

The estate stood within a day's ride of Westminster, making it eminently suitable for an active courtier; there the Cecils entertained Queen Elizabeth for three days in 1599.[6] John Thorpe's undated plan of Wimbledon House's ground floor and forecourts of ca 1609[7] suggests that they were about twelve acres in extent, divided among eleven separate spaces, featuring plantations, walks, and parterres, laid out asymmetrically on the sloping site.[8] The house was damaged in 1628 by the accidental igniting of gunpowder stored there.[9] The glories of this house after repairs had been effected were concentrated in the long Gallery, one of two in the house, which was richly painted and marbleized, no doubt by Francis Cleyn, who was responsible also for the exterior that was painted en camaieu in tones of yellow and burnt ochre.[10]

Royal Wimbledon[edit]

Immediately after Lord Wimbledon's decease in 1638, the manor with Wimbledon House was sold by his heirs to trustees for the queen of Charles I, Henrietta Maria. Alterations and expansion were made in 1640-41, just at the outbreak of the English Civil War. Overseeing plans and construction was the court architect Inigo Jones, Surveyor of the King's Works, and on site was the prominent sculptor-builder Nicholas Stone.[11] The two-storey house with a flat balustraded roof was severe in outward aspect. Thomas Fuller calls Wimbledon House "a daring structure;" and says, that "by some it has been thought to equal Nonsuch, if not to exceed it."[12] The magnificent gardens created at this stage of Wimbledon House were described in a Parliamentary inventory taken in 1649; after noting the lower court and the upper court, the survey reported its several ascents in detail, counting the very steps:

"The scite of this manor-house being placed on the side slipp of a rising ground, renders it to stand of that height that, betwixt the basis of the brick-wall of the sayd lower court, and the hall door of the sayd manor-house, there are five severall assents, consisting of three-score and ten stepps, which are distinguished in a very graceful manner; to witt, from the parke to a payre of rayled gates, set betwixt two large pillers of brick; in the middle of the wall standing on the north side of the sayd lower court is the first assent, consisting of eight stepps, of good freestone, layed in a long square, within which gates, levell with the highest of those eight stepps, is a pavement of freestone, leading to a payr of iron gates rayled on each side thereof with turned ballasters of freestone, within which is a little paved court leading to an arched vault neatly pillowred with brick, conteyning on each side of the pillers a little roome well arched, serving for celleridge of botteled wines; on each side of this vault are a payre of staires of stone stepps, twentie-three stepps in assent, eight foote nine inches broad; meeting an even landing-place in the height thereof, leading from the foresayed gates unto the lower court, and make the second assent; from the height of this assent a pavement of Flanders brickes thirteene foot six inches broad", leading "to the third assent, which stands on the south side of the lower courte, consisting of a round modell, in the middle whereof is a payre of iron gates rayled as aforesayd, within which is a fountayne fitted with a leaden cesterne fed with a pipe of lead; this round conteynes a payre of stone stayres of 26 stepps in assent, ordered and adorned as the second assent is, and leades into the sayd higher courte, and soe makes the third assent; from the height whereof a pavement of square stone nine foote broad and eightie-seaven foote long leades up to the fowerth assent, which consists of eleven stepps of freestone very well wrought and ordered, leading into a gallery paved with square stone, sixtie-two foote long and eight foote broad.... "From the forementioned first assent there is a way cut forth of the parke, planted on each side thereof with elmes and other trees, in a very decent order, extending itself in a direct line two hundred thirty-one perches from thence quite through the parke northward unto Putney-common, being a very special ornament to the whole house."[13]

When the Crown lands were put up to sale, this manor passed to the Cronwellian General John Lambert. "Lambert," says Roger Coke, in A Detection of the Court and State of England during the four last reigns and the interregnum (1719),

"after he had been discarded by Cromwell, betook himself to Wimbledon-house, where he turned florist, and had the finest tulips and gilliflowers that could be got for love or money; yet in these outward pleasures he nourished the ambition which he entertained before he was cashiered by Cromwell."[14]

The reputation of Wimbledon House in the history of flower gardening thus begins with General Lambert, who painted some of the flowers he was cultivating. Though the Queen's flower gardens may have fallen to ruin in the decade of the Civil War, the glory of Wimbledon aside from the straight avenue of elms and other trees centred on the house, that stretched forth as far as Putney was chiefly its fruit. Among a thousand fruit trees of every kind, the Parliament-men who inventoried the house and gardens in 1649 noted the "three great and fayer" fig trees that covered a very "greate part of the walls of the south side of the manor-house" "by the spreading and dilating of themselves in a very large proporcion, but yet in a most decent manner"; to have grown so extensive in 1649 the figs must have been planted in the time of Lord Exeter or his son Lord Wimbledon. The orangery in 1649 held 42 orange trees planted in boxes, valued at £10 each, and 18 young ones, a lemon tree "bearing greate and very large lemmons" (£20) a "pomecitron" tree" (Citrus medica, valued at £10), and six pomegranate trees. Doubtless the inventoried bay tree (Laurus nobilis) and the equally tender "Irish arbutis, very lovely to looke upon," were being taken into the orangery for winter protection, as England was then in the frigid grip of the Little Ice Age.

Restoration Wimbledon[edit]

With the Restoration of Charles II Wimbledon was restored to the Queen Mother, who immediately sold it in 1661 to trustees for John Digby, 1st Earl of Bristol; Bristol's widow sold it to Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby, the Lord Treasurer, who was afterwards created Duke of Leeds; the view of the north front with its deeply recessed cour d'honneur and the series of rectilinear retaining walls and axial divided symmetrical staircases down the steep slope (illustration) was engraved by the civil engineer Henry Winstanley in 1678 and dedicated to Danby.[15] The engineer Winstanley, who designed the Eddystone Light, was primarily concerned with the massive retaining walls and showed the ground outside the walls and stairs as if mere unimproved waste ground, as indeed it may have become by that time. John Evelyn's name is loosely connected with the gardens on the grounds of an entry in his diary that same year: he went with the Lord Treasurer to view the house and grounds, 18 March 1678:

"My Lord Treasurer sent for me to accompany him.to Wimbledon, which he had lately purchased of the Earl of Bristol ; so breaking fast with him privately in his chamber, I accompanied him with two of his daughters, my lord Conway, and Sir Bernard Gascoyne, and having surveyed his gardens and alterations, returned late at night."[16]

The Duke's heirs sold it in 1717 to Sir Theodore Janssen, who paid Colen Campbell and Gould £70 as "overseers" of new works there in 1720, which seems to relate to quite another, more modest house at Wimbledon, built in part with brick from the Elizabethan Wimbledon House; Colen Campbell's Belvedere House facing the entrance gate was later called Janssen House and now houses the Museum of Wimbledon. A later owner, Sir Ellis Cunliffe, enlarged the house and added a third storey,[17] but interiors designed for him at Wimbledon by Robert Adam in 1766-67 were never executed. During the ownership of Benjamin Bond Hopkins (I745-94), there was renewed activity at Belvedere House, both in building and planting.[18]

Palladian Wimbledon[edit]

Janssen becoming deeply involved in the South Sea Bubble. his estates were seized in 1721, and Wimbledon House and park were sold in 1723 with the now largely notional manorial rights, for £15,000, to Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. She soon pulled down the old house,[19] apparently along with any work erected by Janssen, and turned to the "Architect Earl" of Pembroke for a Palladian house in the new fashion. This iteration of Wimbledon House was eventually engraved for the fifth series of Vitruvius Britannicus,[20] where attribution for the design of fifty years previous was given to Lord Pembroke's assistant Roger Morris. Letters of the Duchess of Marlborough do mention Morris on the site, but implying that he was acting on Pembroke's behalf, and the architect-builder Francis Smith of Warwick is also mentioned, as surveyor.[21] Palladian Wimbledon was a compact house of gray brick with stone dressings, of seven bays, its broader end bays slightly projecting; the three central bays were crowned with a pediment over a lightly projecting Ionic portico of four attached columns, reached by a flight of steps the full width of the portico.

English Heritage, which lists Wimbledon Park a Grade II monument,[22] suggest that the Duchess consulted the landscape gardener Charles Bridgeman, but the extent of his contribution is unknown.

Through the Duchess of Marlborough Wimbledon passed to her eventual heir, the young, timid and intensely private John, Viscount Spencer,[23] soon to be made an earl. Under a contract of late 1764 Lancelot "Capability" Brown undertook landscaping projects in the park, which still comprised some 1200 acres; his work, which included the lake (Wimbledon Park Lake),[24] was complete by 1768,[25] In 1780, Hannah More visited the house as the guest of Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph, to whom Lord Spencer lent the house annually for a season:

"I did not think there could have been so beautiful a place within seven miles of London. The park has as much variety of ground, and is as un-Londonish as if it were an hundred miles out."

Hannah More enjoyed the Duchess of Marlborough's books in the library, where

"numbers of the books were presents to her from the great authors of her time, whose names she had carefully written in the blank leaves, for I believe she had the pride of being thought learned, as well as rich and beautiful."[26]

The house burnt down at Easter 1785, spreading from the laundry-room where linen was being aired in preparation for the return of the family after a brief absence.[27] Lord Spencer cleared away the ruins and leveled and turfed the ground, so that scarcely a trace remained of its foundations. Some of the outbuildings were preserved and

"elegantly fitted up, and are used as an occasional retirement by Lord Spencer's family. The situation is singularly eligible, having a beautiful home prospect of the park, with a fine piece of water towards the north, and an extensive view over the country of Surrey on the south."[28]

Spencer Wimbledon[edit]

Between 1799 and 1802 the second Earl Spencer had Wimbledon House rebuilt as Wimbledon Park House, allegedly to designs by 'Capability' Brown's son-in-law Henry Holland.[29] Joseph Paxton, renowned later as the designer of the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition, worked here as a garden-boy assisting his brother, the head gardener;[30] Sir Joseph Paxton returned to design new formal gardens in the 1840s for the Duke of Somerset,[31] Spencer's tenant at Wimbledon Park House from 1827; in 1838 the Duke entertained Queen Victoria at the house. In 1846 the Spencers left Wimbledon House, selling the estate for £85,000 (£71 an acre)[32] to the real estate developer J.A. Beaumont, who reduced the size of the park after 1860[33] with speculative streets of houses.[34] Some weathered and battered Roman marbles that had been in the house were noted lying in the park near St Mary's Church by Adolf Michaelis, in 1882.[35] The house, isolated from its parkland by dense suburban development, was razed about 1949.[36]

In 1864, still lord of the manor, the fifth Earl, attempted to get a private parliamentary bill[37] to enclose Wimbledon Common for the creation of a new park with a house and gardens and to sell part for building. Though Sir Joseph Paxton testified on Spencer's behalf,[38] in a landmark decision for English common land, and following an enquiry, permission was refused and a board of conservators was established in 1871[39][40] to take ownership of the common and preserve it in its natural condition.


  1. ^ Summerson, 1963. "Wimbledon and the H-plan," Architecture in Britain 1530-1830, 4th ed. p. 36.
  2. ^ Jane Brown . Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, 1716-1783: The Omnipotent Magician, "Earl Spencer's Wimbledon", pp278f; she notes that the architectural historian Dorothy Stroud located the approximate site of the house on upper Home Park Road, near its intersection with Arthur Road.
  3. ^ Daniel Lysons, 1792. 'Wimbledon', The Environs of London: vol. 1: County of Surrey pp. 519-540; accessed 31 August 2013.
  4. ^ In the late 17th century the antiquary John Aubrey noted the inscription over the gate Extructae sunt hae AEdes Anno Mirabili 1588 quo Classis Hispanica hostiliter, sed frustra, tentavit Angliam, that is, "These premises were erected in the Miraculous Year 1588, when the Spanish fleet, with hostile intent, attempted in vain [the conquest of] England." (Aubrey, The Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey vol. 1, p14, quoted in William Abraham Bartlett, 1865. The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Wimbledon, Surrey, p63).
  5. ^ Summerson 1963. loc. cit.
  6. ^ Queen Elizabeth's Progresses, vol. ii: in the churchwardens' accounts, at Kingston, is the following entry, 1599: " Paid for "mending the wayes, when the Queen went from Wimbledon to Nonsuch, 20d.", quoted in Lysons 1799.
  7. ^ Thorpe's notebook in the Soane Museum, London is published as Sir John Summerson, 1966. The Book of Architecture of John Thorpe in Sir John Soane's Museum, T113, 114; a schematic rendering is Summerson 1963, fig. 9.
  8. ^ Roy StrongThe Renaissance Garden, p61; Janette Dillon 2010, The Language of Space in Court Performance, 1400-1625 p54.
  9. ^ John Stow, Annals, sub 1628.
  10. ^ Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, vol. ii, p. 128; John Aubrey, The Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, posthumously published ms, noted by Lysons 1792.
  11. ^ Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry, London: South (series Buildings of England) p451.
  12. ^ Fuller 1684. Anglorum Speculum or the Worthies of England, part iii p28, noted in Lysons 1792 and Bartlett 1865.
  13. ^ Quoted in Lysons 1792.
  14. ^ Noted in Lysons 1792.
  15. ^ Illustrated in Sir John Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830, pl. 22a; comparing the engraving with Thorpe's plan (Summerson, fig 9) shows that the stairs between the terraced lower, entrance court and the upper court between the wings of the house has been recast, now contained within a hemicircular recess in the massive wall, described in 1649.
  16. ^ Evelyn. The Diary of John Evelyn From 1641 to 1705-06; no direct intervention by Evelyn at Wimbledon can be supposed: his "surveyed", in this fashionable company, signifying simply "looked round".
  17. ^ Museum of Wimbledon
  18. ^ M. Symes, 1999. "Benjamin Bond Hopkins at Painshill," Garden History
  19. ^ "About 1717": Charles Strachan Sanders Higham, 1962. Wimbledon Manor House under the Cecils, pp 31-32, noted in Howard Colvin, 1995. A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 3rd ed, s.v. "Jones, Inigo".
  20. ^ Vitruvius Britannicus, v (1771), pls 20-22.
  21. ^ Colvin 1995.
  22. ^ English Heritage: Wimbledon Park.
  23. ^ Full estate history details in Lysons 1792.
  24. ^ Aubrey had noted that "the park is low marish ground."
  25. ^ P. Willis, 1984. "Capability Brown's Account with Drummonds Bank, 1753-1783", Architectural History, notes a payment at Drummonds Bank, 6 April 1768; Jane Brown 2011, p. 179.
  26. ^ Bartlett 1865, p. 70.
  27. ^ Bartlett 1865, p. 69.
  28. ^ Lysons 1792.
  29. ^ The attribution is made by Bartlett, 1865, and repeated by English Heritage. Holland, architect of Wimbledon parish church, was working for Spencer elsewhere.
  30. ^ Bartlett 1865, p.70.
  31. ^ Patrick Taylor, ed. 2008. The Oxford Companion to the Garden, p.515.
  32. ^ The estimate given in The Surveyor and Municipal and County Engineer, 1898.
  33. ^ The Duke of Somerset remained in tenancy to the new owner until 1860 (Bartlett 1865, p. 70).
  34. ^ Bartlett 1865, p. 70.
  35. ^ Michaelis 1882, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, "Wimbledon (Surrey)", p. 715.
  36. ^ English Heritage.
  37. ^ The London Gazette: no. 22915. pp. 5834–5835. 25 November 1864.
  38. ^ Journals of the House of Commons, 120, p.49.
  39. ^ The London Gazette: no. 23682. pp. 5244–5245. 25 November 1870.
  40. ^ The London Gazette: no. 23768. p. 3643. 18 August 1871.