From whichever angle you look at it, the rotunda at Ickworth is an extraordinary building. It is like a neoclassical spacecraft that has landed in the Suffolk countryside.
Ickworth was the brainchild of Frederick, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry (1730-1803), who was obsessed with building and collecting. It is said that the many hotels called ‘Bristol’ on the Continent were named after the Earl-Bishop, as he was constantly on the road in search of art to acquire and architecture to emulate.
The 4th Earl seems to have had a penchant for round or oval buildings, as can also be seen in the Mussenden Temple he built, romantically overlooking the sea on the Downhill demesne in County Londonderry.
The much larger rotunda at Ickworth, designed by Mario Asprucci the Younger and Francis Sandys, was inspired by a picturesque circular house called Belle Isle on Lake Windermere, with colonnades based on those by Bernini at St Peter’s in Rome tacked onto the sides for added sublimity and magnificence.
The house was designed to hold the collection the Earl-Bishop was assembling on the Continent, but in 1798 Napoleonic troops put a spanner in the works by confiscating it. By the time the Earl-Bishop died in 1803 Ickworth was still unfinished and empty.
The fate of Ickworth hung in the balance. But Frederick William, 5th Earl and 1st Marquess of Bristol (1769-1859), in spite of having had a difficult relationship with his father, chose to finish and to some extent domesticate this sublime vision.