Sublime Ickworth

The rotunda at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The rotunda at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

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.

Looking from the rotunda across the Italianate garden towards the west wing. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Looking from the rotunda across the Italianate garden towards the west wing. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

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 east wing at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The east wing at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

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.

View down the box avenue in the Italianate garden at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

View down the box avenue in the Italianate garden at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

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 obelisk memorial to the Earl-Bishop in the park at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The obelisk memorial to the Earl-Bishop in the park at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

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 lake, walled garden, summer house, church and rotunda at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The lake, walled garden, summer house, church and rotunda at Ickworth. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

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.

16 Responses to “Sublime Ickworth”

  1. Karen Lynch Says:

    Is there any evidence that the 4th Earl had seen Belle Isle?

  2. Susan Walter Says:

    ‘Added sublimity’ indeed! LOL. You just made that up, that’s not a real word, surely? But obviously it needs to be 🙂

    BTW, what’s in the walled garden? Vines?

  3. CherryPie Says:

    It does look rather out of place as of it has beamed into the classical English countryside 🙂

  4. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    I have crawled all over Ickworth, inside and out, and loved every minute of the experience. But I have never even heard of Mussenden Temple, built in County Londonderry. What can an interested visitor see in Mussenden today and can we make clear visual links with Ickworth?

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Karen, I don’t know, I will try to find out. The Earl-Bishop had earlier commissioned a design for a house on one of his Irish estates, Ballyscullion, from the architect Michael Shanahan, which prefigures the Ickworth design with rotunda and colonnades. But I am not sure whether it was Shanahan or the Earl-Bishop who originally borrowed the rotunda idea from Belle Isle.

    Susan, I can assure you ‘sublimity’ is in the dictionary 🙂 But I was describing it in that way because at Ickworth you really get a sense of the classical idiom being stretched to its maximum potential. And after all that was the age of the sublime – one thinks of the dreamily stupendous designs of Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-99).

    Here is more about the walled garden at Ickworth: http://bit.ly/1ocyrw5

    Cherie, yes I am picturing a late-eighteenth-century version of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ 🙂

    Helen, yes the Downhill demesne can be visited: http://bit.ly/1d4jytk The house is now a ruin (although the walls are preserved). The Mussenden Temple is a ‘folly’ sited on the edge of the cliffs nearby, again very sublime and romantic. It is in fact an extremely impractical place to situate a house, but the Earl-Bishop tended to favour drama over practicalities. There are stories that on blustery days servants going about their business outside had to crawl on hands and knees in order not to be swept away.

  6. Andrew Says:

    There is a suggestion here – http://theirishaesthete.com/tag/ballyscullion/ – that Hervey and his Irish architect may have seen the plans for Belle Isle, even if they did not visit the house. But that is just speculation. They would have seen the Pantheon in Rome, and the Villa Capra. And Chiswick House, of course.

    Remarkably, identifiable bit of Ballyscullion House survive – for example, the portico went to St George’s Church in Belfast!

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks you so much Andrew, for that fascinating link. I should have known that Robert O’Byrne (‘the Irish aesthete’) would have posted something about Ballyscullion.

  8. Paul Berry Says:

    Some great photographs! I love architecture, this is now on my visit list. Thanks!

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Glad you like it, Paul.

  10. Andrew Says:

    Indeed. More about Ballyscullion, including a sketch demonstrating its similarity with Ickworth, at the website of its replacement – http://www.ballyscullionpark.com/history.html

    The black and white version seems to come from here – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2xwFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA91

    No doubt it looked just as out of place in the Irish countryside as Ickworth does in Suffolk. It is a pity that – like Downhill – it did not survive. But perhaps three grand country houses is more than enough for any one family!

  11. Susan Walter Says:

    So long as the columns aren’t ironic…(sorry, couldn’t resist).

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, thanks very much for those links, so we can all see how similar Ickworth is to the lost palace at Ballyscullion.

    It is interesting that the Earl-Bishop’s mercurial character, which contributed to the extraordinary character of these buildings, also played a role in their demise: because he had quarreled with his son he deliberately left his unentailed Irish estates and personal fortunate to a cousin. In view of that it is surprising that his son, the 1st Marquess, did actually choose to finish Ickworth, in spite of his reduced resources – and it did take him some time to marshal the necessary funds. The splitting of the family fortune may also have contributed to the Irish branch, the Hervey Bruces, deciding to let the ‘white elephant’ at Ballyscullion be pulled down in 1813.

  13. theirishaesthete Says:

    The Mussenden Temple’s exterior survives perfectly – altho’ the site has had to be shored up owing to erosion of the cliffs – but the original interior has been lost, still like Downhill it is well worth a visit. Sadly very little survives of Ballyscullion – some of the outer walls of a wing and the outline of the central block – and all hidden in the woods. But other parts have survived, not least the portico which, has has been mentioned, was recycled for St George’s in Belfast, and a coat of arms and four Corinthian capitals can be seen in the gardens of Glenarm Castle, County Antrim, as well as sundry chimneypieces and so forth elsewhere.

  14. trewinb Says:

    Why has the library been vandalized by the recent removal of original (and very appropriate furnishings) and their replacement by BEANBAGS and other oddly placed elements. I thought the Trust was there to protect and preserve. This is simply unacceptable.

  15. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Trewinb, I don’t know. Moreover, that is not what this blog is about and your tone of voice is inappropriate. I suggest you ask the colleagues at Ickworth.

  16. trewinb Says:

    I will and I apologise for the haste and tone of my response.

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