Touches of beauty
Country Life UK|May 12, 2021
Wilton House, Wiltshire The seat of the Earl of Pembroke In the early 18th century, Wilton underwent improvement at the hands of the 9th Earl of Pembroke, an enthusiastic amateur architect. For a new book on this great house, John Martin Robinson assesses his remarkable legacy
John Martin Robinson

THE splendours of Wilton today owe a great deal to the early 18th century and the figure of Henry, 9th Earl of Pembroke, (1689–1750), known as the ‘Architect’ Earl. His often-overlooked contribution to this magnificent house—in origin a great Benedictine convent that was suppressed at the Reformation and repeatedly remodelled thereafter—was described by Horace Walpole: ‘The towers, the chambers, the scenes which Holbein, Jones and Vandyke had decorated, and which Earl Thomas had enriched with the spoils of the best ages, received the last touches of beauty from Earl Henry’s hand… No one had a purer taste in building than Earl Henry, of which he gave a few specimens besides his work at Wilton.’

As a young man, Henry developed an intense interest in architecture. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he came under the influence of the Dean, Dr Henry Aldrich (1648–1710), an arbiter of architectural taste involved in many major projects in the university. These included the construction, from 1707, of Peckwater Quadrangle at Christ Church, to which, as an undergraduate, Henry subscribed £20.

The landscape gardens were described as “Nature converted into paradise”

After matriculating in 1705, Henry went on the Grand Tour. He visited Venice in 1712, observing the architecture of Palladio, and spent time in Rome, where he met the eminent English architect, decorator and painter William Kent (1685–1748). He also went to Naples with the philosopher Earl of Shaftesbury.

Even before inheriting his estates in 1733, Henry introduced his father—with whom he shared an interest in the Arts—to such friends as Sir Andrew Fountaine (1676–1753), the Norfolk landowner, antiquarian and amateur architect, and the Revd William Stukeley (1687–1765), the antiquarian clergyman. Fountaine became the honorary librarian at Wilton and Stukeley, who had a strong interest in prehistoric monuments, pursued studies of the stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire, refuting Inigo Jones’s suggestion that Stonehenge was Roman.

Henry also actively designed buildings in the Palladian manner, a Classical idiom that was informed by the architecture of both Palladio and Inigo Jones. He designed villas at Marble Hill, Twickenham, and Wimbledon House, as well as the Column of Victory at Blenheim, Oxfordshire, and the water tower at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. In addition, he built a house for himself in Whitehall and a summer villa, Westcombe House, near Greenwich, in about 1730 (demolished in 1854). It is recorded in four paintings by George Lambert in the North Hall at Wilton.

In these projects, Henry was assisted by Roger Morris (1695–1749), who acted as his architectural amanuensis. Their introduction was probably made by Colin Campbell— a pioneer Palladian architect and author of the great monograph on the kingdom’s modern architecture, Vitruvius Britannicus—whom Morris had previously served as an assistant. Campbell and the Earl, meanwhile, must have come into contact through the Prince of Wales, whom they respectively served as architect and Gentleman of the Bedchamber.

The Earl valued Morris’s services highly, and in 1734—a year after his inheritance —presented him with a large silver cup engraved with a cartouche portrait of Jones as a token of his regard. The cup bears the inscription: ‘Given by my Noble Patron Henry, Earl of Pembroke, by whose favour alone I am enabled to fill it. R. Morris 1734.’

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