During my first week as an intern here at Attingham I was asked to come and help out with an open day at Cronkhill a place I had read about but never seen! Cronkhill is an Italianate villa built on the Attingham estate between 1802-1805. It was paid for by the 2nd Lord Berwick for Francis Walford, his Estate Steward and friend, and was designed by architect John Nash who also created the leaking Picture Gallery we are conserving with the Through the Roof Project. The house is now still owned by the National Trust but is tenanted and so is only open for a few days of the year and luckily I was around on one of these.
Many of the conversations I had with people whilst I was there was about the beautiful views from the large windows in the drawing room and from the outside of the property and this made me think more about the picturesque positioning and style of this lovely house.
John Nash built in a variety of styles from castellated at Luscombe in Devon, to the Tudor of nearby Longner Hall and the Eastern inspired opulence of Brighton Pavilion. Cronkhill is important as it is an example of an Italian style of villa which emulated the buildings in the landscape paintings that were popular with the Eighteenth Century grand tourists, such as the Second Lord Berwick himself. Pictures of an idealised Italian countryside placed buildings within the landscape, making them almost a feature of it. These ideas about the relationship of building and landscape were reflected in writings of theorists of The Picturesque movement in the late eighteenth century. This movement was a hugely important and influential force and it changed not only the way houses were designed and built but how they were lived in. Richard Payne Knight was one of the most influential figures in this period and believed that
“the best style of architecture for irregular and picturesque houses… is that mixed style which characterises the building’s of Claude and the Poussins… built piecemeal, during many successive ages.”
Nash was one of the foremost designers of this new style of architecture, of the irregular house set within the landscape, and no type of house more embodied this than the villa.
At Cronkhill Nash incorporated an earlier timber built farmhouse into his designs, altering the pitch of the roof and the shape of the windows to blend it with the new building which included a prominent round tower and an eye-catching loggia. It was the complete opposite of the classical and symmetrical Attingham Mansion below; it had no symmetry and so it was more picturesque! The villa was set on a hillside, overlooking countryside and the river, with spectacular views from the windows and loggia to the countryside beyond. The internal layout of the house reflected this with the prominent dining and drawing room all with large windows overlooking the landscape, and the arches of the loggia almost framing the landscape as though it were a painting. Cronkhill was also placed within the landscape to be seen by those around it, perhaps even as an ‘eyecatcher’ from Attingham Mansion. You can imagine how striking it would have been to people who saw it in the early 1800s, an Italian villa in the middle of the Shropshire countryside!
Cronkhill is even more interesting to visit at the moment because it is undergoing planning for some conservation works. The house has a problem with damp which is caused by the external plastic paints which stop the house from ‘breathing’. The application of these paints to stonework and ‘Roman’ stucco can stop the natural movement of moisture and create damp areas within the building. Recently paint analysis has been done on the exterior of the tower to see what Nash originally intended and also the best way to remove the most recent external paint layers. The picture above shows the trials done on the tower and a full video of this can be found on the Attingham YouTube channel by clicking here .
One of the most fascinating things was the uncovering of a blind window, or “bulls eye window” in the tower, a black window just painted on. This new phase of works also throws up some interesting questions over the future of the building as it is viewed from the outside. Two early images of Cronkhill show its intended colour was not the white it is painted today but a more natural stone colour, just like the Claude pictures that inspired it. One is a drawing by Nash himself and the other a representation of Cronkhill in one of the paintings in the Attingham collection. The long-term plan is to reinstate this original sandy coloured lime wash which will benefit the building and show Cronkhill the way it was intended.
But of course the best way to appreciate Cronkhill is to visit for yourself and see the relationship of this beautiful villa with the landscape around it. We’ll be there again on Friday 10th of May and Sunday 12th May from 11am – 4pm so come and have a look for yourself and for more information click here.