Word reached me at the end of last month of an exciting new addition to the National Heritage List, Historic England’s register of all the listed sites nationwide. On 26th November 2020, Fawkham Manor of 1866-1867 near Brands Hatch in northwest Kent became a Grade II-listed building. Far more than the date makes it of interest to this blog: Fawkham Manor is an important work by a singular architect who produced some wildly original buildings, the inimitable Edward Buckton Lamb (1805-1869).
We have already encountered the term ‘rogue architect’ here in my previous posts on John Croft and on E. Bassett Keeling. In those I said a few words about why it can sometimes be rather problematic, the reason essentially being that subsequent commentators have interpreted it in a manner arguably not intended by its progenitor, H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, and applied it to figures not mentioned in his lecture of 1949, ‘Rogue Architects of the Victorian Era’, for which it was first coined. But in the case of E.B. Lamb, no such reservations need arise. He was the first architect to be covered that evening and Goodhart-Rendel discusses his output at length, rhapsodising about its innovative and eccentric nature, and emphasising that it was regarded as beyond the pale even by some of Lamb’s contemporaries.
Fawkham Manor is especially interesting because it was intended to be Lamb’s own house – intended to be, but never inhabited as such, since the expense of the project bankrupted its creator and it was put up for sale before, in all likelihood, the interior had been completed. The background to and subsequent fate of the house are very well recounted in the excellent list description (the entry for a building on the National Heritage List, which sets out its history, describes its form, function and style, and explains why it was granted statutory protection) and I refer to that anyone interested in learning more.
Unless it is destroyed or altered beyond recognition, it is rare for a building to be completely ‘lost’ and Fawkham Manor had, so to speak, been hiding in plain sight, since it is mentioned with a date and attribution – albeit briefly – by John Newman in the ‘Kent: West and the Weald’ volume of The Buildings of England. But Victorian architecture is all too often passed over in a county better known for its medieval heritage, and there was a clear antiquarian bias on the part of the inspectors who compiled the first list for Kent in the 1950s-1960s and then revised and expanded it in the 1980s. Nineteenth or 20th century buildings that were too visible or too celebrated to ignore got their due, but a great deal was omitted. Besides, Fawkham Manor, being tucked away in a remote, wooded setting on the side of a valley and latterly in institutional use, was all too easy to overlook.
Fortunately, given the possibilities offered by the internet to carry out exploration and research without leaving home, such risks these days are greatly reduced. A Google image search returned some tantalising photos which left me in no doubt that an expedition to see Fawkham Manor for myself was in order, and I visited with my camera last Saturday afternoon. The overcast, drizzly weather may not have showed off the building to best effect, but the architecture delighted and intrigued me. I hope what you see in my pictures here will delight and intrigue you as well. Seeing inside was not possible, since the private hospital that latterly occupied the house closed in 2019 and the site is currently being looked after by a security firm pending a decision on its future.
Pity the architect designing a house for himself. On the one hand, it is a private residence, where he is free to do as he pleases. On the other, by that same token, he may feel under pressure to make it the purest example of his work, since he is under no obligation to make compromises to suit the wishes of a client and can use it to advertise his aesthetic credo. That is a responsibility that can weigh heavily on his shoulders and I have much sympathy with an architect of my acquaintance who protested that ‘My house is not my manifesto’. But that was not the case with Lamb. While his reputation for bold invention has tended to be most closely associated with his ecclesiastical output – Goodhart-Rendel describes enthusiastically his ingenious solutions for reconciling a medievalising language of form with the requirement in a modern Protestant church to seat as many worshippers as possible within sight and earshot of the preacher – domestic work seems to have brought out an even more wilful streak in him. As Goodhart-Rendel puts it, ‘In his churches he had reason to innovate: he wished to evolve an unprecedented type of plan which the customary proportions of Gothic would not fit. In his secular buildings he innovated without necessity just because he liked doing it’.
But evaluating this part of Lamb’s output is far harder. His public buildings, such as the town halls at Eye in Suffolk (1857) and Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire (1859) are well known. That they are strongly individual is not in doubt, but this is because they have survived well and can easily be assessed against counterparts of the same period. With domestic buildings, however, one is on much shakier ground. That it was important in Lamb’s output is clear enough. Early on in his career, he provided numerous designs for the Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture (first published 1833, expanded and revised second edition 1842) by landscape-gardener John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), Loudon himself lacking an architectural training. Subsequently, he built up an extensive network of connections with landed aristocrats, but although that produced commissions for domestic work, for the most part it has attracted far less interest from architectural historians than his churches. The sole exception is Hughenden Manor outside High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, which he remodelled in 1862-1863. Though characteristic and distinctive, its form still betrays its Georgian origins, and it is probably fair to say that the house owes the attention that it has attracted principally to the fame of the client, one Benjamin Disraeli. As Mark Girouard remarks in his biographical note on Lamb in The Victorian Country House, which includes a useful chronological list of works, ‘The large country house practice of this individual and independent architect remains unexplored’.
That was written in the 1970s and, as far as I am aware, the only person since then to have picked up the gauntlet was Edward Kaufman in his essay of 1988, ‘E.B. Lamb: A Case Study in Victorian Architectural Patronage’ (published in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 70, No 2). As Kaufman shows, for the most part Lamb’s country house work consisted of remodelling and enlarging existing, often relatively modest properties, his clients’ means seldom running to anything more ambitious. According to Kaufman, during the course of his career Lamb designed only three completely new country houses. That total, it should be noted, excludes Hrádek u Nechanic of 1839-1857 in the Hradec Králové region of the Czech Republic: though the design was indeed originally the work of Lamb, it may well owe more to the executive architect, one Karl Fischer, and in any case the relatively tame neo-Tudor manner is fairly generic for its date.
Not only did Lamb rarely get a chance to show his mettle in country house design, his major commissions, unlike his ecclesiastical work, proved to be sadly ill-fated. All architecture is vulnerable during the perilous period, well explained by Laver’s Law of Fashion, when it has gone out of vogue and has yet to be reassessed and accorded a place in the canon. This was especially the case with Victorian country houses. Those whose architecture required a strong stomach were found positively indigestible by the inter-war years and many were ‘de-Victorianised’ – that is to say, toned down through the removal or simplification of ornament and detail. Others, having become too big to be manageable, were cut down in size, and the situation was exacerbated by the pressures on landed estates from death duties, falls in rents from tenant farmers, and the damage done by military use during World War II. Aldwark Manor in North Yorkshire of 1862-1864, an exuberant essay in muscular Gothic to rival the most outlandish of Lamb’s churches, was altered almost out of recognition in a late and rather weak Arts and Crafts-style remodelling carried out, I would guess, in the 1920s (other buildings by Lamb on the estate seem to have fared better). The enormous wing with its restless, vividly modelled wall surfaces that Lamb added in c. 1864 to Nun Appleton Hall in the same county was demolished in c. 1946 when that house was returned to its original proportions.
All this makes Fawkham Manor an even more precious survival. Its architecture points to so many interesting potential lines of development that one can only regret that Lamb did not live longer and design more houses. But we can at least be grateful that even if he had to risk everything to bring it into being – was it stress of being bankrupted by the construction costs that resulted in his premature death? – Lamb was able to produce for himself a pure statement of his unique, compelling architectural vision.
Contrary to popular misconception, listed status provides few guarantees where the upkeep of a building is concerned: that remains the responsibility of the owner and the mechanisms in law for taking action against negligent owners are now rarely exercised. Residential conversion has been mooted for Fawkham Manor. Given that the interior is of relatively limited interest, this has the potential to be a good solution although much depends on the sensitivity of the developer and architect, and it is an open question whether the venture will be viable in an uncertain economic climate. Still, whatever the future of the site, a major victory has been won by securing statutory protection for the house and ensuring that any decision on its future must take its historical and architectural significance into account. So thank you, Historic England, but your job is not yet done. Please now go back and assess the residential property hiding behind a hedge just across the road that looks from map evidence and a photo of c. 1960 like it may be the manor’s former service block!