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Wrest Park in the 17th Century

The relative positions of old house (blue) and its replacement (red)
The relative positions of the old  house (blue) and its replacement (red)

Historian of Wrest Park James Collett-White wrote a history of the old house at Wrest, demolished in the 1830s, in Volume XXII and XXIII of The Bedfordshire Magazine. The following extract from his article deals with the house during the 17th century.

It appears there was no major development to the house between 1573 and 1672, apart from the making of "a new gallery looking towards the Hall", probably in the early 1660s. Inventories of parts of the house in 1667 [L31/170-178] give a detailed picture comparable to that given by the 1573 inventory. In the "Dyning Roome" in 1667  [L31/171-178] was "6 peeces of Hanging Tapestry of the story of the Apostles 2 tables with 2 Turkey worke Carpettes 2 blacke standes 1 great Chair 16 high backe Chaires – 2 low backe Chaires, and one little stoole all of figered Verlvett, 3 long red window Curtens of bayes lined with red stuff with iron roddes and a Chymney board and my Lady Elizabeth picture, and in the staires to the Dyning Roome were 4 great pictures of the stories of Rosamond, David, Ahasuerus and the Angels appearing to the Sheppardes, 14 flower glasses and 14 Iron Crowns guilded to hold them, 4 guilded blazes to hold Candles, 6 wooden Chaires painted and guilt and a Chaire to carry Ladies Inn". The chimney mentioned may the the one which survives and was transplanted into the Orangery in the 20th century (see the photograph below)

Mention too is made of "Mr. Selden's Chamber". John Selden was steward to the 9th Earl of Kent and a well-known author who possibly married the Earl's widow. In his chamber were: "A bedstead, Feather bed and boulster, a pillow, 2 blanckettes, a green Rugg, Curtens, double Vallens, tester and head peece and Counterpane of a stripestuff, the Chamber hung with Tapestry Hangings, 5 old red cloth stooles, an Irishstich Couch, 2 High Velvett stooles, 1 leather Chair, a pair of Anirons with brass nobbs".

The house had developed piecemeal with no attempt at symmetry or architectural splendour, and to a generation many of whom had lived in France and Italy during the Civil War would have appeared impoverished in comparison with the grand Classical houses they had seen. It is likely that Anthony, 11th Earl, made the Grand Tour in the 1650s and 1660s. The magnificent collection of books catalogued in 1740 [L31/184/2] starts from the mid 1660s and includes works such as Felibien's Friezes of Giulio Romano, published in French in 1675; they show Anthony's interest in Classical architecture. By the early 1670s the family had decided to remodel Wrest, at least partly, in the Classical style.

On 2nd March 1663 Anthony had married Mary, daughter of John, Baron Lucas. On 7th May 1663 she was created Baroness Lucas of Crudwell in her own right, and on her father's death on 2nd July 1671 she inherited a considerable estate in Wiltshire and Essex. His wife's new wealth and the birth of an heir, Henry (later Duke of Kent), baptised on 28th September 1671, probably decided Anthony to start remodelling.

The North Front after the alterations of 1672 [X95/230]
The North Front after the alterations of 1672 [X95/230]

In 1672 the Chapel Chamber (the room over the Chapel) was raised to 13 feet high; two windows were added and the old window arched "and put in the maid's chapel". The Chapel Chamber was refloored and a "rise 4 inches high" added for the bed to stand on. Lord Lucas' apartments of twelve rooms were pulled down and rebuilt. The icehouse was removed; the red chamber boarded; the staircase raised to the height of the drawing room and new windows added to "My Lady Hart's Chamber". The cost was to be £510 [L33/228]. The works were superintended by the Earl's steward, Thomas Hooper, but the architect is not known. A bill for a marble chimney piece costing £15, dated 1673, has survived [L31/229].

More important was the building of a new North Front to give a Classical aspect to the house viewed from the drive. Financing of this importance was split between the "Good Countess" Amabel, wife of Henry, 10th Earl and Mary, wife of Anthony, 11th Earl. The cost was £3,227, over a quarter more than the original estimate, and the accounts were kept by Amabel. Thomas Hooper prepared the estimates and supervised the work [L31/230-243]. Again, the architect is not known and it is possible that Anthony and Thomas Hooper designed it themselves, using the practical guides to country house building that were now appearing, such as Hugh May's translation of Freart's Parallel of Architecture (1665) and Sir Roger Pratt's Notes on the Buildings of Country Houses.

The new North Front was a typical post-Restoration Classical building, such as Sir Roger Pratt might have built himself. It comprised a central block between two matching bays, flanked by slightly projecting wings, all three storeys high. The central block projected slightly to balance the projecting wings. It was surmounted by a pedestal with a balustrade above, and crowning the whole elevation was a turret with windows on all sides from which the family and guests could view the extensive park to the north, already planned. The turret also served the architectural function of screening the higher roof line of older buildings behind it. The central block was intended as a gatehouse, which explains the unusually wide central doorway. This was flanked by two alcoves containing statues, to balance the two one-storey walls at either end, incorporating three statues in each façade. The alcoves helped to draw the design together and emphasize the unity and symmetry of this Front. The windows on the lower two storeys were sashed, with dormer windows above. The central block had three windows on the third storey; the bays, six in each storey and the wings, two windows on the lower storeys and a dormer on the top storey. A cornice separated the second and third storeys. A very detailed view of this Front was drawn by John Rocque in 1735 as part of his plan of the Gardens [X95/230 - see the photograph at the top of the page].

The inventory taken in 1740, on the death of the Duke of Kent [L31/184/1-2] indicated that the first floor of the east bay was used for a library. Also in this bay were the Green Room and the Billiards Room. The west bay was used for offices such as the housekeeper's room, and on the first floor for bedrooms. One of the rooms, decorated in a heavy, over-ornate style, may have been the background of "The Conversation Piece at Wrest" of about 1735, probably painted by Charles Phillips [Z49/302].

Wrest Park and the gardens about 1705 [L33-143]
Wrest Park and the gardens about 1705 [L33/143]

It seems the North Front had always been intended as the centrepiece of a great park. This was begun by Thomas Hooper in 1682 and appears on Knyff's plan of the Gardens in 1705 [L33/143 - see above]. Also on the plan are the former millpond, formalised into a canal, and another small formal canal in the Chapel Garden to the east of the house. This smaller canal was always called "Mr. Ackres' Canal" – Mr. Ackres was a well-known garden designer. South of the house lay a formal parterre and a maze between that and the Great Canal. The garden was surrounded by a wall, which incorporated pillars with wyverns on the capitals, some of which were supplied by Robert Grumbold of Cambridge (1639-1720) [L31/288].

Mantelpiece inside the Orangery September 2011
Mantelpiece inside the Orangery September 2011