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Piercefield, Gwent: (executed) alterations and additions for George Smith, 1785-1793 (29)

1785
In 1783, Soane made designs for a cow house at Burn Hall, County Durham (q.v.) for George Smith as well as an unexecuted design for a new house to replace Burn Hall. Smith also owned Marlesford Hall in Suffolk and a London house together with Piercefield in Wales, bought by him on 7 July 1784. Piercefield had a Tudor (or earlier) beginning that was added to around 1700. In 1784 the 'three storey stone building had a frontage of 82 feet and was 61 feet deep. There was also another building 143 feet long with a clock turret in the centre, stabling 25 horses, and four coach horses. At this period there was a kitchen garden, three acres of melon ground, nearly 2,000 feet of hothouse, a grapery, and also an icehouse...' (I.Waters, p.19).
George Smith was a banker who, with John Curre, founded the Monmouthshire Bank, Gwent in 1788. When the rival Chepstow bank was established in 1791, competition was fierce and 'Smith found himself in financial difficulties, mortgaged part of Piercefield [estate], and surrendered another part when he defaulted on a loan of £10,000. In the general panic following the declaration of war with France on Feb. 11th, 1793, the Monmouthshire Bank failed and Smith became bankrupt.' (I.Waters, p.19). At this stage building work to a reduced design had begun at Piercefield and a letter from the clerk of works to Soane (14 January 1793, drawing 18) states that the 'the Roof will be on next week for Slaters to begin slating’. Construction work presumably continued for a brief while so that the roof would have been completed and Soane's elevation for the entrance front, a re-use of his design for the front of Shottesham (q.v.) was certainly built and exists in a ruined state today.
Piercefields was sold by George Smith's creditors in December 1793 to Lt Colonel (later Sir) Mark Wood. Wood employed Joseph Bonomi (1739-1808) to add 'saloon and staircase (now destroyed) and addition of wings', 1797 (Colvin). Bonomi’s (not as executed) design for the addition of a portico and pavilion wings, 1795, is in the RIBA Drawings Collection (SA6/2).
There is in Soane's library (record 5072, bound in a collection of estate particulars) 'A description of the celebrated Piercefield Estate situate on the banks of the Wye, ... comprehending nearly the whole of the village of St. Arvans, a magnificent stone-built mansion, park, woods & walks for romantic beauty unrivalled; ... altogether upward of 1,800 acres ...' published in c. 1836. The owner of Piercefield at that time was Nathaniel Wells, of St Kitts, one-time mayor of Monmouth. The particulars to the sale include: 'The Mansion was finished in the year 1800, at a cost of at least 30,000l'.
Today the house, listed Grade II* is a ruin in need of complete restoration. Too dangerous to approach closely, it is the property of the Chepstow Racecourse.
Literature. I.Waters, Piercefield on the Banks of the Wye, 1975; H.M.Colvin, Biographical dictionary of British architects, 1600-1840, 4th ed., 2008 (under Bonomi)

Jill Lever, July- August 2011
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