Plaster of paradise
Country Life UK|January 26, 2022
Recent restoration and revival offers the perfect opportunity for a reappraisal of this house and its magnificent plasterwork interiors.
Roger White

INVISIBLE as it is from public roads, Downton Hall to the north of Ludlow —not to be confused with nearby Downton Castle—has long been one of England’s mystery houses. Its position seems to have been chosen with an unerring eye to the view and the red-brick building (Fig 1) enjoys a splendid vista east across a broad valley to the distinctive profile of Titterstone Clee Hill. When it was last written up for COUNTRY LIFE in 1917, H. Avray Tipping gave appropriate prominence to the splendid Music Room (Fig 4), one of the most remarkable interiors of its period in the West Midlands, but, in the second part of the 20th century, the house disappeared completely from the public eye. Recent restoration and the progress of architectural scholarship into what is quite a complex history make a revisitation timely.

The way in which the owners of Downton changed their names repeatedly through successive generations is more than usually confusing, but helps to explain how the estate was progressively consolidated. In the late 17th century, it was divided between no fewer than four families: Hall, Shepherd, Pearce and Wredenhall. In 1726, the wealthy, but childless lawyer Serjeant William Hall left his estate to his nephew William Shepherd, who took the name Hall, but died unmarried in 1731. His fortune passed to his sister Elizabeth, who had married Wredenhall Pearce; as the latter’s mother, Anne Wredenhall, was the heiress to the Downton element, so, on her death in 1731, the component parts of the core of the current estate were united and the scene was set for the building of a commensurate house to supersede the assorted minor homes of the various components.

The present Downton Hall invisibly incorporates previously existing material, probably of the early 17th century. Essentially, however, it dates back to the house built by Wredenhall and Elizabeth Pearce. This is represented by the east range, of 2–5–2 bays, which was probably designed shortly after the inheritance by William Smith; a now vanished rainwater head seems to have recorded completion in 1734. Smith, the eldest surviving son of the semi-ubiquitous Francis Smith of Warwick, took over his father’s extensive practice on the latter’s death in 1738 and has been described by Howard Colvin as ‘a competent provincial Palladian with some indebtedness to [James] Gibbs’, which more or less sums up the character of the Downton façade. An elevation still in the papers at Downton is presumed to be in Smith’s hand and a contemporary ground plan shows that the entrance was originally in the centre here, with the hall immediately behind and the parlour in the projecting bays to the left, with the ‘Best Staircase’ tucked in behind in its current location.

The Pearces’ eldest son died in 1748, so the progressively expanding estate passed to the second son, William, who added ‘Hall’ to his name. He commissioned the next phase of the house, a new south front for which updated proposals survive by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard (1723–77). The Shrewsbury-based architect, who can seem ubiquitous in Shropshire in the middle decades of the 18th century (COUNTRY LIFE, January 5), is best known as the designer of the epoch-making Iron Bridge in Coalbrookdale, but he was a very competent practitioner of the Palladian/ Rococo/neo-Classical overlap, as well as a promoter of Batty Langley’s charming if the un-archaeological version of Gothic. One drawing at Downton proposes a townish front very similar to that of 27, Broad Street, Ludlow, which was built to Pritchard’s designs after 1764, with a new main staircase-cumentrance hall in the centre.

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