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Mamhead, Ashcombe, Devon: designs for interior decoration, alterations to the house, a garden seat, a temple and stable offices for the 1st Earl of Lisburne, 1767-80 (32)

Signed and dated

  • 1767-80


During the sixteenth century the Mamhead estate, with a medieval house of which little is known, was sold by the adventurer, Sir Peter Carew (1514-75) to Giles Balle (ND). Balle's son, the attorney Sir Peter Balle (1598-1680), rebuilt the house to designs by an unknown architect. In 1754 this house passed through marriage to the Vaughan family.

Wilmot Vaughan (1728-1800) was the eldest son of the 3rd Viscount Lisburne. He served as MP (Tory) for Cardiganshire in 1755-61 and 1768-96, and for Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1765-68, and was secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1761-62, the Lord of Trade in 1763-70, and the Admiralty in 1770-82, as well as being Lord Lieutenant of Cardiganshire in 1763-1800. In 1766 he succeeded his father as 4th Viscount Lisburne, and was created 1st Earl of Lisburne a decade later.

In 1754, Lisburne married Elizabeth (d1755), the daughter of Joseph Gascoyne Nightingale of Mamhead, who inherited the estate from her brother, Washington Nightingale, in the same year. Elizabeth died only a year later, and in 1763 Lisburne married his second wife, Dorothy, daughter of John Shafto of Whitworth, County Durham.

It was long after Elizabeth's death that Lisburne commissioned Robert Adam in 1769 to make designs for interior decoration at Mamhead. Later, in 1774, Adam made designs for rebuilding the house, and then in 1777 alternative designs were made for substantial alterations. Throughout this period there were also designs for a garden seat, a temple, and stable offices. It is not clear how much of this work was executed, if any, and scholars have disagreed on this point. Rowan, however, has convincingly pointed out that few of Adam's proposed structural alterations can have been made at Mamhead, as the house is shown in a largely unaltered state in an illustration in J.P. Neale, Views of the seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Volume 4 (1821).

In 1823 Mamhead was purchased from the Vaughan family by Sir Robert Newman Bart, who in 1825-38 rebuilt the house on a nearby site in the Tudor style, to designs by Anthony Salvin (1799-1881). Sir Peter Balle's house - with its possible alterations by Lisburne - was demolished in 1830. Salvin's house survives, having served as a boys' boarding school during the twentieth century, and has more recently been renovated for use as a house again.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, there is a collection of 30 Adam drawings for Mamhead. These include three unexecuted schemes for improving the house, a design for the offices, and designs for the interiors, including the drawing room, the dining room, the library, and Lady Lisburne’s dressing room. There are also twenty-six Adam drawings dating from 1770-80, for the house, interior and stables in a private collection.

A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index, pp. 22, 155; A. Rowan, Catalogues of architectural drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum: Robert Adam, 1988, pp. 86-97; B. Cherry, and N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Devon, 1989, pp. 557-58; D. King, The complete works of Robert & James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, p. 216, Volume II, pp. 132, 174, 181, 222; History of Parliament online: 'Vaughan, Wilmot, 1st Earl of Lisburne [1] (1728-1800), of Crosswood, Card.' Oxford dictionary of national biography online

Frances Sands, 2013



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation

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Contents of Mamhead, Ashcombe, Devon: designs for interior decoration, alterations to the house, a garden seat, a temple and stable offices for the 1st Earl of Lisburne, 1767-80 (32)