Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Walkers of the Heart of England Way going south through Gloucestershire leave Bourton on the Hill confident that their path is well named. The stone houses of Bourton, the rolling terrain, the sound of English birdsong, and even the smell of English cowpats: it’s all there. A few fields along the way, the farming landscape changes subtly. The pasture is punctuated with mature trees, giving the sense that we are entering the park of a big house. And beyond a small wood, there it is on the crest of a rise: a most surprising and un-English country house – Sezincote.
Sezincote was built for Charles Cockerell, who inherited the estate in 1798 on the death of his elder brother, John. Both were nabobs, men who had made their money in India, and Charles asked another of his brothers, the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, to build him a house in the Indian style. The plump central onion dome shows instantly what they were about, but there are many other telling details lifted from Indian Islamic buildings – the little corner turrets with their own tiny onion domes, the bracketed cornice that runs around the building, the chimneys on either side of the main dome, the flattened central arch, the ornate windows on the little pavilion on the far right (there are similar ones on the curved greenhouse wing just visible on the left). Even the stone has what is said to be an authentically Indian orangey tinge (specially stained, according to some authorities).
This astonishing house was begun in 1805, and in 1807 the Prince Regent came to visit. No doubt his stay at Sezincote partly accounts for the prince’s enthusiasm for the Indian style, which John Nash adopted for the remodelling of the prince’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton in 1815. Brighton’s Pavilion, so outré with its cluster of domes and intricate fretwork, so famous because of its owner’s character and colourful life, is now far better known than Sezincote. Which is good in a way because the nabob’s house* still has the power to surprise us and to remind us that here in the heart of England there are still things that pull us up short with an architectural jolt and remind us of the multifarious cultural and economic links that make up British history.
*This building is celebrated as "the nabob's house" in John Betjeman's autobiographical poem Summoned By Bells.