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Wenvoe Castle, Glamorgan: designs for a castle-style house for Peter Birt, 1776, executed to a variant design (4)

Peter Birt (d.1791) was a businessman from Airmyn, Yorkshire. He made his fortune after purchasing a lease on the Aire and Calder Navigation, in 1758. The Navigation was a privately managed waterway in the West Riding of Yorkshire which provided a route from the North Sea inland to the Pennine waterways through the Humber estuary and River Ouse. In 1772, Birt became a sole lessee of the Navigation and gained a monopoly on the carrying trade of the Navigation. There was a growing need for reform within the Navigation and as part of this, in 1774, Birt agreed to surrender his lease in return for a tenth of the shares of the company’s stock. He took his fortune to Wales and purchased Wenvoe Castle in 1774 where he rebuilt the castle and resided, until his death in 1791.

There have been at least three Wenvoe Castles since the medieval period. There is very little known about the first, apart from its references in historical texts such as the antiquarian, John Leland’s, Itinerary in Wales. The second was a house built for Edmund Thomas in the late-sixteenth or early-seventeenth century, which by 1762 comprised a long, irregular-shaped building. The house passed through the family and was last inherited by Sir Edmund Thomas, 3rd Baronet, who made various improvements to the house and estate until his death in 1767. The house was then put on the market by Thomas’s family and after a number of years, sold to Peter Birt in 1774. This was finalised in 1775 and Birt soon commissioned Robert Adam to make designs for a new Wenvoe Castle.

The Adam office designs do not appear to incorporate the existing house and it is thought that this was to be demolished and rebuilt. The surviving drawings from the Adam office include two plans and front and rear elevations of the proposed house, comprising a large house with circular towers and flanking ranges terminating in blocks with projecting bows to the front and rear ends.

The castle appears to have been built to a modified version of the Adam office plans. However, an article in The Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1785, refers to a ‘Mr Holland’ (Henry Holland) as the architect of Wenvoe Castle. There is no known evidence of Holland’s involvement in the design or construction of Wenvoe Castle. The executed building aligns clearly with Adam’s proposals, albeit with some modifications. Colvin states that the reference to Holland’s involvement at Wenvoe probably relates to the design and construction of the stables and offices to the castle which were built shortly after the main castle. These stables appear typical of Holland’s neoclassical style and were executed at the same time as his work at Cardiff Castle nearby. There are also no known designs for the stables or offices by the Adam office.

James suggests the person responsible for modifying Adam’s plans was a builder, Thomas Roberts, who names himself ‘surveyor’ of Wenvoe Castle in letters to the client between 1776-77 (James, pp. 13-17). These letters, as detailed by James, describe the building materials along with the general ongoings of the building project. Building work continued into 1777 and it is not entirely clear when the house was completed. A description of the house by the Hon. John Byng in 1787 refers to the house as a ‘charming effort of bad taste and burgeoisity’ and references the rooms of the house as ones ‘which are to be well gilded &c &c.’ suggesting internal decorations had not yet been completed.

The castle, as constructed, differed from Adam’s designs with the addition of two-storey flanking wings terminating in three-storey pavilions either side of the proposed block. Adam’s proposed bowed ends were replaced with canted bays and the circular corner towers to the central block were omitted, resulting in a different window arrangement. Adam’s proposed decoration was also modified through the omission of hood mouldings and a different arrangement of cornices.

The house was badly damaged in a fire in 1910 and later demolished. In 1936 the estate became a golf club, and the surviving east pavilion was incorporated into a new club house, along with the stables.

A.T. Bolton, The Architecture of Robert and James Adam, Volume II, Index, 1922, pp. 30, 62; C. Andrews (ed.), The Torrington Diaries, Volume 1, 1934, p. 288; B. James, ‘Contributions towards a History of Wenvoe Castle’, Reports and Transactions, Cardiff Naturalists' Society, XCVIII, 1974–76, pp. 4-17; RCAHMW, Glamorganshire: The Greater Houses, 1981, p. 346; S. Parissien, 'Adam and Holland', Adam in context, Georgian Group Symposium, 1992, pp. 55-60; D. King, The Complete Works of Robert & James Adam and Unbuilt Adam, Volume 1, 2001, pp. 390-91; Volume 2, 2001, pp. 138, 145, 165; H. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, 2008, p. 53

Louisa Catt, 2024
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