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Holwood House, Kent: (executed) two wings and (unexecuted) alterations and additions for the Right Hon. William Pitt, 1786, 1796-1799 (51)

1786

From 1786 to 1799 Soane designed additions and alterations at Holwood House, the country retreat of William Pitt (Pitt the Younger, 1759-1806, Prime Minister 1783-1801, 1804-6). Generous with his time and meticulous in his designs for Holwood, Soane clearly recognized this commission as not only a design in its own right but a prime opportunity to exhibit his talents and industriousness to a very influential client. Indeed, Soane's connection to Pitt proved very advantageous in obtaining future appointments, including those at the Bank of England and the Office of Works (G. Darley, pp. 90-1 and 117).

Soane first visited Holwood House in April of 1786 (Journal 1, p. 57). William Pitt was a cousin of Thomas Pitt, an early patron of Soane. He had just recently bought the small house in Keston, close by to his birthplace of Hayes Place (Ehrman and Smith). Pitt enjoyed enlarging the estate and improving the grounds, commissioning Humphry Repton to alter the premises and Soane for a few modest additions and alterations. From 1786 to 1799 Soane made alterations and he built two new extensions. Pitt ultimately lacked the funds, however, to build Soane’s most ambitious plans and so they remained unexecuted.

In the first year of building works, 1786, Soane visited the site 15 times, an inordinate number for the relatively small building works. From 1786 to mid-1787 he built an addition at the south-west end of the house, consisting of a ground floor drawing room with a canted bay window and a bedroom above. A porch was also added during this phase of buliding works, as well as lodging rooms over the estate's brew house. Bedrooms over the kitchen were added in 1788.

A second round of building works were carried out in the 1790s. Soane presented Pitt with a proposed design in August 1795 but work was stalled until June 1796, when Soane presented another set of drawings. The design for the second addition was much like the first, on two floors and with a canted bay window (Journal 3, p.181). Intended for the south-east end of the house, the modest wing would have a library on the ground floor and a drawing room above. Pitt approved the design and building works began shortly thereafter, from 1786 to 1796 and at a cost of £1972 6 s 7 d (P. Dean, p. 176; L/A/124, L/C/407).

The third phase of designs was prolonged and eventually abandoned, with two years of meetings and two approved designs but no building work actually executed. In November 1796, Soane secured permission from Pitt to raise part of the office wing at the north-west corner (Journal 3, p.181). Surveys of the existing house were made the next autumn, in September 1797, and designs for the house almost immediately thereafter. Pitt was not available, however, for Soane's presentation drawings in December 1797 and so it was not until September 1798 that Soane's design was presented. Pitt approved this ambitious proposal, which consisted of additional offices and an eating room around a central courtyard and a new principal staircase and re-faced entrance front. Estimates were confirmed in October but building works did not commence. Soane presented another design in 1799, showing refinements to his earlier design as well as significant alterations to the existing building. In late July, plans were again ‘fully settled' (Journal 3, p.186) and in early August the estimates were approved. Once again, however, building works did not progress. Recounting this episode, Soane wrote in his 'Designs for Public and Private Buildings’: 'Mr Pitt having approved of this Design, added, "the work must be carried on slowly, commensurate with my limited means:" hence it followed that the Building was never completed.' (p.43) William Pitt had always struggled with debt, having from an early age taken on large loans with high interest rates. When he resigned as Prime Minister on February 3rd 1801, his debts drawn up included £2098 owed to Soane (G. Darley, p.143). In 1802 he sold Holwood for £15,000 (Ehrman and Smith).

In a letter to Pitt dated August 6th, Soane wrote that he was not satisfied with those designs recently submitted and he had a new set of drawings to show Mr Pitt: 'be assured, Sir, no exertion on my part shall be wanting to make the house as worthy the possessor as I possibly can, for I can safely say it is, now, almost the only wish of my life to see the whole building completed.' (Letter book 1797-1801, p. 55) Despite his persistence, Soane was not able to convince Pitt to continue work after their meeting on August 2nd 1799. Soane's office spent the rest of the month making drawings of the final unexecuted design. Draughtsman JM Gandy made large perspectives showing the proposed designs for the exterior and the principal staircase. A drawing of the ground plan and one of Gandy's perspectives were later copied as illustrations in Soane's 'Designs for Public and Private Buildings' (plate 39, 1832).

The house was destroyed by fire and rebuilt by Decimus Burton in 1823. Only parts of Soane's brick-vaulted cellar survive and an original mahogany door has been reused (P. Dean, p.176-77).

The drawings collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum has three drawings by Soane's office that show perspectives of alternative designs for the exterior of Holwood. The perspectives show a design with a bowed centre and therefore correspond to drawings made in 1799. A fourth drawing is an interior perspective of the principle staircase and was also probably made in 1799 (see P. du Prey catalogue).

Literature: J. Soane, Designs for Public and Private Buildings, 1832, p.42-43; P. du Prey, Sir John Soane, 1985, in series of 'Catalogues of architectural drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum', catalogue 79-82; D. Stroud, Sir John Soane architect, 2nd ed. 1996, p. 132; John Soane: an accidental Romantic, 1999, pp. 90-91, 117, 143 P. Dean, Sir John Soane and the country estate, 1999, p. 176-77; J.P.W. Ehrman and A. Smith, 'Pitt, William', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website, accessed July 2011.

Madeleine Helmer, 2011
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