In understanding historical buildings there exists the possibility of coming at an analysis from different fields of study and viewpoints. This can make it exciting and complex. Archaeology looks at the material culture, Art History the ideas, designs, techniques and ornament, Engineering & Construction looks at the way the building holds together, and Architecture considers both the aesthetic and functional design. History accounts for the some of the narrative around changing social use and perceptions. Finally Building History helps to account for the construction, phasing and application of techniques. Sometimes it helps to break down a study that compartmentalises and sets boundaries for analysis
Buildings themselves are primary sources. Often it is advantageous not to know anything of the history or the written sources initially and just to look. However, the eye is unable to take in the elements of a building by looking at a whole or even in sections. Building History requires the art of looking and analysing. This requires breaking down the elements and then looking at them as a whole building again. Effectively it is getting one’s ‘eye in’ to ready the ‘language’ of a building.
When looking at the main façade of a house the eye takes in the whole and simplifies it. We may find it pleasing because of the symmetry and repetition. We may be drawn to ornamental aspects. But when breaking it down there are numerous elements to consider. Firstly, it is worth thinking about some basic elements and ignore the ornament. This post looks briefly at the east front of Montacute House in south Somerset to give an idea of how to look at the basic functions of a building.
There are a number of ways to approach the analysis of the façade of a building. Firstly, is to look at the basic construction elements from the outside – the fundamental analysis of: (a) what is the plan, (b) what is the house made of, (c) how is light brought into the house (windows), (d) how is the house heated (chimney stacks), (e) which area is for service and which for status, and (f) what can be analysed as regards entrance and circulation.
(1) THE PLAN – SERVICE, SYMMETRY & STATUS
In the 1930s the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings produced a plan for each floor of Montacute House. Generally, in recording houses, plans are produced for the ground floor only. The ground floor plan is as follows:
The area which is marked as the Clifton Maybank corridor, was added in the late 18th C. From the plan we can see two key elements (a) the plan for the house is an ‘H’ plan, and, (b) the plan internally is not symmetrical. The plan also shows the terrace area at the front, the steps leading up to it and the position of the freestanding classical columns. Note that when the Clifton Maybank corridor was added, windows would have been blocked in as they were no longer necessary.
The plan shows the walls are thick in most places (approximately 3 feet thick). As a house is built upwards less material is needed if the ground floor walls are substantial. However, along the main east front there is a lot of glass and no substantial walls. There are two further floors sitting on top, making the main east front vulnerable. A serious consideration for the National Trust in managing visitor numbers in circulation along the long gallery and first floor. The house was not designed for large numbers of people over its weak points – it was designed for a family and servants.
Symmetry & Status
Symmetry was a key consideration of Montacute and the external façade has been carefully orchestrated. The east front, which would have been the primary face of the house when built, does not betray which end is the elite end and which the service end from the outside. The elite side of the house would be accessed by turning right once entering the porch and through the screens passage. However, on the west side there is a slight difference when looking at the elevation.
The mason (William Arnold) understood how the eye is not drawn to detail when looking at the whole and on first appearance the west façade looks symmetrical. Looking in detail requires breaking up the elements of the house to pick out the inconsistencies. The elevation of the west shows how the service end stairs have the windows set closer together (right projecting wing in photograph below) than the grander elite stairs (left projecting wing). The drip moulds are also subtly different between the stair arrangements. However, most people wouldn’t notice the differences and assume it was symmetrical.
There is a similar theme on the north and south elevations. The north has 4 bays (therefore, larger rooms), and the south has 6. The ground floor of the south is part of the service area. However, on the 2nd floor the high-status long gallery extends from the north to the south. The windows are of different sizes on the north and south elevations. The north has 12-light windows on the ground floor and 1st floor. On the 2nd floor, the windows have 8 lights on the north. The south has 9-light windows on the 1st floor and 6-lights on the 2nd floor. The oriel windows at each end of the long gallery on the 2nd floor are the same (although the feature at the base on the south looks slightly squatter to fit in with the line of the windows). The windows on the 1st floor of the south and on the 2nd floor (either side of the oriel) suggest smaller rooms.
Looking at the façade elevation we can see that there is symmetry with two projecting wings and a central doorway with a projecting part above it. The number of bays (counting the columns of east facing windows) is 13. The elevation is of 3 storeys – a ground floor, first floor and second floor. Although the projecting wings have an attic story as can be seen by windows in the gables.
Protection from Damp & Rain Water
A key consideration in design is protecting a building from water. Water rises from the ground and falls from the sky. How is the building protected? Perhaps a plinth at the ground level, drip moulds, guttering and rainwater hopper heads. On this elevation continuous drip moulds can be seen running above the window lines. The slate roof slopes towards balustrading which rainwater can run through. The roof would have been covered in stone tiles originally.
This is a rainwater hopper head, guttering and pipe on the south side of the house. As can be seen by the date (1972) it is a relatively recent addition.
(3) WINDOWS – how the house is lit and ventilated
There are continuous drip moulds along the building that work to protect the windows from rain. The Cavetto (or hollow chamfered) mullions and transoms and slightly sloping sills can help channel water away from the vulnerable windows. Cavetto mouldings date to the late-16th C and into the 17th C. The tops of the windows are squared off as per the fashion during the period Montacute was built. The windows of the projecting side wings set in the gables have hood moulds (drip moulds with returns of label stops – they continue a little way down the sides of the windows).
In some of the lights there is the diamond-quarrel style of window leading and glass. Each rectangle within the window construction is called a ‘light’. For example, the bay window with the segmental pediment-type arch above on the left of the photo has 15 lights. The leadlights could have been replaced/repaired over time. The diamond shape gives greater stability to the small panes of broad glass. Other lights have the more robust square panes in wrought-iron frames and casements.
Whilst window glass did get cheaper as the 16th C progressed it was still a privilege of the wealthy. One way to show one’s wealth was to build a significant display of windows such as at seen at Montacute. Sometimes this added too much weakness to the building. At the gatehouse at Shute in East Devon, the top-floor windows ran across the front of the building. However, at some point the middle section was taken out and replaced by a smaller window and supportive stone work.
Glazing, Quadrants Stays & Opening Casements
Many of the windows at Montacute are fixed. Some do have casement windows where a section or light can be opened for ventilation. The casement would be latched shut with an iron catch and, when open, held in place with an iron stay (quadrant stay). The casement allowed for glazing to be fixed within it. Else in the fixed lights the lead cames or ironwork was set into the mullions.[ii] Smaller openings aided security. Casements in early windows often opened inwards.
Earlier glass was known as Broad Glass. Crown glass was introduced into England about 1674 and enabled larger panes of glass which led to the development of the sash window.[iii]
Broad Glass (or Cylinder, or Muff Glass) – made before 1674. The molten glass is blown and swung to form a cylinder. Then it is cut, reheated, and flattened into sheets. After which it is cooled on a bed of sand and polished. The glass appears to have a distorted, ripple effect with a greenish tint. Often there are air bubbles or other imperfections.[iv]
Crown Glass – is first recorded in 1764 and remains as a standard form of glass until around 1830 when Plate Glass becomes more widespread. This process blows the glass into a bubble, which is pierced and spun into a disk (about 4 ft in diameter). The glass is then cooled and cut into panes. The curved edges and central bullion, where the blowing rode was attached, were discarded. It produced clearer glass than the Broad Glass but still could still have a slight ripple effect in it. This replaced the leaded glazing of wealth households.[v]
At Montacute the casements open outwards. To limit and fix the open window are quadrant stays. This would help protect the window from opening too far against the stone or being blown about. There is a little nick in the stay to position the casement window in place when opened. The casement hinge has a very similar design. The decoration and style of the quadrant stay can help with dating. I have spotted a similar quadrant stay & hinge at a local house, dating from the 17th C, a few miles away. Orbach & Pevsner identify the continuous drip mould of this house as being from the late-17th C.[vi]
The quadrant stay of this design probably originates around 1673. Linda Hall illustrates a very similar one (from Somerset) in her book Period House: Fixtures & Fittings 1300-1900. That could mean that when Crown glass was available from 1674 the windows were upgraded to the new design, with some diamond quarrels in the upper parts left in place.
Position at Montacute in the 1680s
At Montacute in 1638 Colonel Edward Phelips (1613-1680) had inherited Montacute from his father Sir Robert Phelips. He had a son, another Edward Phelips (III) who married twice. The first wife of this Edward Phelips (III) died in 1678. His second marriage was to Edith Blake around 1683. She was the daughter of John Blake, of Langport, and 24 years younger than Edward. John Blake was an ironmonger. However, he was well off and left Edith £2000 (around £380K today) in his will when he died in 1699.[vii] It maybe that at the time of his inheritance and 2nd marriage Montacute House received an upgrade – inherited Montacute in 1680 and married c. 1683. This would fit in with the dates of the quadrant stays, casements & hinges (did Phelip’s father-in-law provide them?). It would be a long time before the Industrial Revolution manufactured such items, and the provision of ironmongery required skilled blacksmiths.
Prospect & Air – the advice of Andrew Boorde (c. 1490-1549)
Andrew Boorde was a physician and well-travelled man. He had read Vitruvius and was interested in the aesthetics of the house. He recommended in his 1542 edition of A Compendyous Regyment or A Dyetary of Helth to the builder of houses:
He must haue afore cast in his mynde, that the prospect to and fro the place be pleasant, fayre, and good to the eye … but also it may be placable to the eyes of all men to se & to beholde whan they be a good dystaunce of from the place that it do stande commodyously.[viii]
He also states that if:
the eye be not satysfyed, the mynde can not be contented.[ix]
Good air was a consideration in building a house. Boorde writing in 1542 in his Dyetary of Helth, expressed how important it was to have good air.
There is nothynge, except poysoon, that doth putryfye or doth corrupt the blode of man, and also doth mortyfye the spyrtes of man, as doth a corrupt and a contagious ayre [sic].[x]
Boorde advises builders to make the principal prospects east or west. On the winds, he writes that the south wind
… doth corrupt and doth make euyl vapours. The Eest wynde is temperate, fryske, and fragraunt [sic].[xi]
Perhaps that is why the service wing had the south facing aspect.
One of the considerations of the house is the east to west prospect. At sunrise and sunset on a clear day the light will shine through from one side to the other. I hope to get over at the appropriate time to take some photos! The golden ham stone and the diamond quarrelled windows with the broad glass must have glinted and shone at such times of day, providing a spectacle for visitors.
There are a number of chimney stacks, arranged symmetrically and the tops of further ones on the other side of the house can just be seen over the roof ridge. It is difficult to say how original the chimney stacks are and their position. However, the main east elevation intention was to create a wall of glazing and the chimneys were placed on walls to the south, north and west. Some of the chimneys are potentially dummies as there are far few fireplaces than stacks. This was common at the time – for example at Framlingham Castle there are several ‘show off’ chimney stacks but no fireplaces.
At Montacute trying to work out which fireplace is serviced by which flue and stack is an exercise in itself. The great hall fireplace chimney is likely on the west side as that is where the original outer wall was prior to the addition of the Clifton Maybank corridor.
The stacks are of different designs. The east front has tall, round stacks with a hood with four openings, so the smoke rises in different directions. At the rear (west side) the tall stacks are lozenge shape in pairs and there are some rectangular ones that sit on the roof ridge
Amongst the events that Edward V wrote in his diary for 1759 (including meeting the then 17-year-old courtesan Kitty Fisher (1741-1767)) is the record that ‘altered the chimneys in the drawing and white rooms by changing them’. With limited description the diary entry may refer to an external stack or a section of the internal part of the chimney flue.
(4) BUILDING MATERIALS
The honey-coloured Ham stone from which the house is constructed was quarried around a mile or two away. It is a Jurassic limestone which is mainly well compacted but does have thin layers of sand or clay running through it, which can erode out through weathering.[xii] This is less of a problem in the ashlar but can be problematic in the window transom and mullions, and sculpted objects such as finials, balusters, obelisks and sculptured ornament. Chimneystacks in particular are exposed to weather which increases their vulnerability.
It is possible that ashlar was reused from the Cluniac priory of the Benedictine order at Montacute. Corners are potentially weak points in walls and quoins can be used to add strength and stability. Montacute has continuous ashlar rather than applying quoins.
The roof is now covered in Welsh slate. This dates from about 1860. Originally the roof was tiled with stone. Slate would be a lot lighter than a stone tile roof. Ham stone was used for stone tiles and came mostly from the upper beds of hard thin layers at the north end of Ham Hill.[xiii]
An examination of the east front building elements does not show any particular phasing at Montacute. The west front has the Clifton Maybank corridor added in the late 18th C. The north and south facades have not been examined but do appear contemporary to the original build. The interior is a different story but if I looked at that I would not finish this blog post.
What I have tried to explain is the approach a Building Historian would take to analysing a building. Construction history would go to even greater depths of analysis of elements and how the house was built. For example, I have not looked at mortar and joints in the stonework, any iron nails or the studding of the east entrance door, repairs, or if there are any putlogs in evidence for scaffolding. Although, Building History as a discipline does take into account the construction detail as it part of the story.
I have great admiration for the master mason William Arnold. He had to think not only about the practicality of the building, how it was built, how it operated but also the architectural design. Architecture is an intellectual profession. A master mason had to be more than an architect – he was the builder, craftsman, designer, draftsman, engineer, project manager and quality controller. The range of skills and knowledge he would have had required an astonishing individual and supported by an experienced team.
I am reminded of those genius polymaths we know more about that had an incredible work ethic and a range of skills with various achievements – Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Sir John Vanburgh, Robert Adam, William Kent, Augustus Pugin, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to name just a few. History has left little record of William Arnold. However, his buildings are a significant record, which besides Montacute include Wadham College (Oxford), part of Dunster Castle, Cranborne Manor and Wayford Manor.
[i] Mark Girouard, Montacute House, Somerset (London: Country Life Limited for The National Trust, 1964), p. 28.
[ii] ‘History of Windows & Glass’, Wychavon District Council, Oct 2007, p. 2.
[iii] ‘History of Windows & Glass’, p. 3.
[iv] ‘History of Windows & Glass’, p. 5.
[v] ‘History of Windows & Glass’, p. 5.
[vi] Julian Orbach and Nikolas Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2014), p. 432.
[vii] A P Baggs, R J E Bush and Margaret Tomlinson, ‘Parishes: Langport’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 3, ed. R W Dunning (London, 1974), pp. 16-38. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol3/pp16-38 [accessed 1 December 2021].
[viii] Boorde, Andrew, The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge: A Compendyous Regyment or A Dyetary of Helth, Made in Mountpyllier: Barnes in the Defence of the Berde, ed by F. J. Furnivall (London: N. Trubner & Co., 1870), p. 234.
[ix] Boorde, p. 235.
[x] Boorde, p. 235
[xi] Boorde, p. 238.
[xii] Peter Stanier, South West Stone Quarries: Building Stone Quarries in the West of England (Truro, Twelveheads Press, 2015), p. 130.
[xiii] Stanier, p. 131.
Baggs, A P, R J E Bush and Margaret Tomlinson, ‘Parishes: Langport’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 3, ed. R W Dunning (London, 1974), pp. 16-38. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol3/pp16-38 [accessed 1 December 2021]
Boorde, Andrew, The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge: A Compendyous Regyment or A Dyetary of Helth, Made in Mountpyllier: Barnes in the Defence of the Berde, ed by F. J. Furnivall (London: N. Trubner & Co., 1870)
Girouard, Mark, Montacute House, Somerset (London: Country Life Limited for The National Trust, 1964)
‘History of Windows & Glass’, Wychavon District Council, Oct 2007
Orbach, Julian and Nikolas Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2014)
Phelips, Edward V, Diaries 1731-1773 (Montacute House)
Stanier, Peter, South West Stone Quarries: Building Stone Quarries in the West of England (Truro, Twelveheads Press, 2015)