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Ruscombe House, Berkshire, designs for alterations to a house and for offices for Sir James Eyre, 1789, possibly executed (12)

Sir James Eyre was baptised at Wells, Somerset, 13 September, 1734, the son of the Rev. Thomas Eyre of Wells. He was a scholar of Winchester College, and later matriculated at St John’s College, Oxford in 1749. He was called to the Bar in 1755, later serving as counsel for the Corporation of London. Initially Eyre formed part of Wilkes’s legal team, advising on Wilkes v. Wood, but later made his loyalties to the crown and administration clear when he refused to present the King with the Corporation's remonstrance over Wilkes’s exclusion from parliament.

In 1769 Eyre issued a warrant for the hanging of John Doyle and John Vallie, in an attempt to quash the Spitalfields Weavers’ riots. He sentenced the two men to death without detailing a place of execution which was seen as unconstitutional, and gave rise to concerns regarding secret executions. The warrant, however, was upheld.

On 6th November 1772, Eyre was knighted and appointed simultaneously to the posts of serjeant-at-law and Baron of the Exchequer. Later, on 26th January 1787, he was promoted to the post of Lord Chief Baron. On 11th February 1793, he was appointed Chief Justice of Common Pleas.

Hay highlights that in a number of civil cases, Eyre was seen to oppose the measures introduced by William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield. He also notes that, whilst on assizes, Eyre gained a reputation for his severity in sentencing, with the number of capital sentences proportionately higher than that of other judges.

Sir James Eyre married twice. Following the death of his first wife 5th July 1787, his second marriage was announced in The Times, 7th April 1788.

He died 6th July 1799, leaving his estate, which included his country seat at Ruscombe and his London townhouse, 28 Great George Street, to his second wife Mary. He was buried in St James’ Church, Ruscombe, where, on the north wall of the nave, there is a funerary monument, executed by Richard Westmacott.

Ruscombe house formed part of the Ruscombe estate. From the seventeenth century Ruscombe had been leased to the Strowde family, later passing to the Knight family through marriage. In the late 18th century the manor of Ruscombe was sold by William Walter Knight to Richard Palmer of Holme Park, Sonning. In 1787 the estate was then sold on to Sir James Eyre who, we are told, subsequently undertook a significant project to rebuild the site.

The earliest designs produced by Adam for Ruscombe were three alternative proposals for the remodelling of the three-storey, seven-bay west front. It would appear that SM Adam Volume 29/60 was the favoured design, as we can see a continuation of a number of decorative motifs in the later design for the north front (SM Adam volume 29/63), produced in May 1789. This includes the use of Ionic screens, surmounted by lunettes flanked by paterae, and friezes of guilloche enclosing rosettes. The west portico of SM Adam volume 29/60 is also shown in SM Adam volume 29/63.

The design for the south front (SM Adam volume 29/64) is of a later date, 27 June 1789. Here we can see an unusual composition, with a central polygonal projection, with a central recess. King highlights this as Adam’s solution to an existing three-bay projection, awkwardly positioned off-centre, as shown in SM Adam volume 29/65. In his design for the south front Adam introduces, at roof level, ornamental elements formed with an urn flanked by sphinxes. This surmounts the projecting polygonal bays, with the urn set back above the recess.

Alongside his proposals for alterations to the house, Adam designed extensive offices for Ruscombe positioned to the east of the main building. These included a series of kitchen offices surrounding a colonnaded courtyard and a substantial stable block.

Following the death of Sir James Eyre in 1799, Ruscombe passed into the possession of his widow. Later the property was sold to Mr John Leveson-Gower, and in the 1830s the house was demolished by his son, General Leveson-Gower. As a result it is difficult to ascertain whether Adam’s scheme for Ruscombe was ever executed. King suggests the possibility that the designs were carried out. An account dating to 1813 records the property to have been ‘much improved and nearly new-built’ by Eyre and, as King highlights, Adam’s designs extended across a six-month period, suggesting the commission to be of some significance.

In October 2008 a group of late eighteenth century English lead ornamental elements were auctioned at Sotheby’s, New York. They were identified as comparable to Adam’s design for the ornamental elements surmounting the projecting bays of the south front of Ruscombe (SM Adam volume 29/64). They vary from the design: the executed urn is squat in form, the sphinxes are adorned with headdresses, and the linking festoons are either lost or omitted. However, the composition with the recessed urn is a possible match for Ruscombe, and therefore the survival of these elements suggest the possibility that Adam’s scheme was indeed executed.

Adam also produced designs for mirror frames for Sir James Eyre’s London townhouse, 28 Great George Street. They are, however, undated.

See also: 28 Great George Street, London

A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, volume II, Index pp. 27, 37, 70; P.H. Ditchfield and W. Page, A History of the County of Berkshire, 1923, volume III, pp.203-206; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, volume I pp. 381, 393-94, pl. 556, volume II pp. 133, 183, 225; G. Tyack, S. Bradley & N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Berkshire, 2010, pp.495-96; ‘Church of St James, Church Lane, Ruscombe’, historicengland.org.uk; Lot 163 ‘Important English Furniture, Ceramics & Decorations’, 16 Oct, 2008, New York, www.sothebys.com; www.berkshirehistory.com; D. Hay, 2004 ‘Eyre, Sir James (bap. 1734, d. 1799)’ www.oxforddnb.com (accessed April 2019)

Anna McAlaney, 2019
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