The roots of the Gothic Revival extend as far into literature as they do into archaeology. The endeavours of one of its key progenitors, Horace Walpole (1717-1797), to recreate the Middle Ages in brick, wood, plaster and stone through his remodelling of Strawberry Hill were inextricably bound up with his evocations of the Middle Ages in writings such as his novel The Castle of Otranto. It was about more than just historicising escapism, and ventured into a fascination with the supernatural. Medieval buildings become the setting for visions and experiences that by turns thrill and horrify, a sort of architectural pathetic fallacy. Thus – to cut a very long story short – we arrive ultimately at Gothic Horror. By the High Victorian period, attitudes had changed dramatically and a high moral purpose, directed at spiritual, aesthetic and social improvement, drove the revival of Gothic architecture. And yet some of the products of that movement are so emotionally and psychologically unsettling that it is hard not to sense in them the spirit of Walpole, even Edgar Allan Poe. Here is one such.
I was brought up in Surrey and have an ambivalent attitude towards the county. Some of the countryside in the North Downs and Surrey Hills is truly lovely, but the M25 belt and outer fringes of London are all too often echt subtopia, badly lacking in beauty and interest. But for all that, it is a rich hunting ground for Victorian architecture. Foxwarren Park is an estate today located just to the north of junction 10 on the M25 (the interchange with the A3), only a short distance from Painshill Park and Wisley Gardens. But whereas those are both visitor attractions, Foxwarren is overlooked and barely known since it is still a private residence – or perhaps I should say, ‘barely recognised’ rather than ‘barely known’, but let me come to that a little later.
The history of Foxwarren epitomises Victorian high moral purpose, for this was a seat of a scion of the Buxton family. Sir Thomas Buxton (1786-1845) was the son of an Essex squire who married into the Gurneys, the influential Norfolk Quaker family of bankers and philanthropists. Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, was his sister-in-law. In 1808 he joined the brewers Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co, where his maternal uncle was a partner. At the general election of 1818, he was elected MP for Weymouth, and subsequently represented the borough until 1837. He was involved in organising famine relief, promoted prison reform and was a founding member of what became the RSPCA. He campaigned vigorously for a number of humanitarian causes, most notably abolition. He was the partner of and successor to William Wilberforce as leader of the anti-slavery group in the House of Commons and, after his political career finished, devoted himself even more wholeheartedly to the cause. He was interested in agricultural improvement and established model farms at Runton and Trimingham near Cromer.
Buxton had three sons, the youngest of which, Charles Buxton (1822-1871), was the owner of Foxwarren. After studying at Cambridge, he became a partner with Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co and in 1848 produced a biography of his father, which was an international bestseller. In many respects, he followed in his father’s footsteps, not least in entering politics (he was elected Liberal MP for Newport in 1857, Maidstone in 1859, and East Surrey in 1865, occupying that seat until his death) and embracing various causes for political, legal and social reform. Also like his father, he was interested in agricultural improvement, putting his ideas into practice on an estate that he purchased in County Kerry, Ireland. But unlike his father, he had a strong interest in architecture – not just visiting historic buildings (although he certainly did that), but actually producing and executing designs.
A less ambitious man keen to try his hand at architecture might have started off small with something like a gazebo. But when in 1855 Buxton purchased the land on the edge of Wisley Common that would become the Foxwarren Estate – the name, incidentally, reflects his great passion for fox-hunting – he did so expressly with the intention of designing his own seat. He was not a man to be trifled with. In 1856, he entered the competition for the design of the complex of new government buildings that were eventually executed as what we know today as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His Gothic entry – he was a committed and evangelical Goth – came sixth and he was awarded a prize of £100.
Buxton lacked professional training and that achievement owed something to the architect whose help he enlisted in working out the drawings. The identity of that figure is unknown, but fortunately we do know the name of the practitioner that he engaged for assistance with designing the buildings at Foxwarren. Frederick Barnes (1814-1898) was a native of Hackney, who had trained with Sydney Smirke (1798-1877), then worked in London and Liverpool for several years before coming to Ipswich in 1843 to assist his friend John Medland Clark (1813-1849) on the designs for the new Custom House building on the quayside. He settled in the town, setting up a practice of his own in 1850. Predictably for an architect of the period, he handled a substantial number of ecclesiastical commissions, restoring medieval churches and designing a number of non-conformist chapels. He also worked on public buildings, such as a town hall for Needham Market in Suffolk.
Probably his most notable works are the stations that he designed for the Ipswich and Bury Railway. The company was formed in 1845 to extend the existing London-Colchester route of the Eastern Counties Railway and Eastern Union Railway through to Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds. It was subsequently partly incorporated into the main line to Norwich, the remainder becoming a branch line to the titular destination, which in due course was extended through to Ely. The line symbolised the arrival of the steam age in a rural and agricultural area, and Barnes rose to the occasion by providing buildings of some magnificence. Like most architects of the period, he was stylistically no dogmatist, aiming to handle proficiently whatever manner was most appropriate to the circumstances – Gothic, naturally enough, for the churches and chapels, classical at the Custom House, Italianate for the town hall.
For the railway stations, he used a free interpretation of neo-Jacobean, a style that enjoyed great vogue in the 1830s-1850s. Unsurprisingly, it was popular for country houses, but it could come into its own wherever something in the grand manner was required for a public function – schools, lunatic asylums, almshouses and much else. For Needham Market, the first settlement of any size on the route out of Ipswich, Barnes provided a grand symmetrical composition with a central block housing the ticket office bookended by cross wings that presumably originally provided accommodation for station staff (the building has long been out of railway use and now houses other functions). At Stowmarket, the next station down the line and a larger town, he used the same basic composition but expanded it by pulling the cross wings outwards and turning them into end pavilions, set at a slight distance from the central block and linked to it by corridor wings, the whole forming a monumental spreading elevation. For what was originally a terminus at Bury, Barnes provided a grand train shed, with imposing baroque towers rising from the ends of the screen walls, adjoined on the town side by a grand entrance block with a façade of five bays.
All this makes an interesting digression, but ultimately – other than the East Anglican connection, which presumably was the reason for their acquaintance – is by-the-by where Buxton is concerned, for the buildings at Foxwarren are strongly individual. One surmises that Barnes’s involvement was confined to purely technical matters. If one were to affix a stylistic tag to the main house, ‘neo-Tudor’ would need to suffice – and to be used advisedly. Like neo-Jacobean, the style enjoyed a vogue in the early Victorian period for a wide variety of building types and generally was fairly placid in temperament. But Buxton was aiming at something very different. We know something of what he had in mind thanks to Notes of Thought By the Late Charles Buxton M.P, a collection of his writings on various subjects published posthumously in 1883 and prefaced with a bibliographical sketch by the Rev. J. Llewelyn Davies. This is quoted in addenda of 1970 by Nicholas Taylor to the Surrey volume of The Buildings of England.
Buxton had in mind the brick early Tudor mansions of his native Norfolk. The crow-stepped gables make the inspiration at once obvious, as does the adapted ‘E’-plan of the entrance front, the diapering of the brickwork, the groups of tall octagonal chimney stacks and so on. Architects of neo-Tudor buildings of the period generally used Bath stone for the tracery, copings, mouldings, arches and other dressings – stone masons were abundant and well versed in architects’ needs. Buxton broke with this by using ‘specials’ for all the detailing. These are custom-moulded bricks and, though commonly used in the 16th century, would have been far more difficult to obtain by this date, and there is a strong suggestion that they had to be made to order. In February 1856 Buxton noted, ‘I wonder whether our house will turn out as beautiful and picturesque as we intend. I think our plan of having brick mullions, mouldings, etc, which sounds common enough, is, in fact, very rare. I have never seen any house done so except the one at Harrow [which one he meant is not known]; the effect is surprisingly good, especially in sunshine, which gives it a rich warm effect, pleasant to the eye in our climate’. In April that same year he wrote, ‘I find we are striking out a new line, and that the world does not even know what one means by moulded brick. I hope we shall stimulate that style of building, and also set an example of the use of the pointed arch in house-building; I think our house will be singularly pretty and original’. But The Builder was unsympathetic: commenting on a view of the house displayed at an exhibition that year, an anonymous reviewer, writing in the issue of 19th March 1859, remarked sniffily that it ‘in our mind helps to show – what every one should be aware of but what we have had to point out – that good architecture of the day requires presence of more than elements such as mere Gothic old work and red colour’.
Other buildings on the estate, such as the Byfleet Road and Redhill Road lodges, are recognisably cut from the same cloth. But Home Farm, located some way to the north of the main house, is another matter. Built in c. 1856, it is a substantial complex consisting of a quadrangle of single-storey farm buildings with a two-storey house for the supervisor at one corner and a detached octagonal dairy. It was intended as a model farm and the efforts directed at agricultural improvement through logical, rational planning invite comparisons with Home Farm at Leighton Hall (and of course numerous other such model farms nationwide). But whereas the treatment of that complex is, for the most part, in what the 20th century called the functional tradition, at Home Farm Buxton almost caricatured his own style. Though some of the design features must have been arrived at through purely practical considerations (the sinister-looking slit windows were presumably intended to provide constant ventilation to the barns without admitting intruders), the emotional effect of the distortion and scaling-up of the Gothic and Tudor forms is decidedly unsettling. It is not difficult to see why Ian Nairn, who had a good eye for Victorian architectural eccentricity, described it in The Buildings of England as a ‘nightmare… possibly the [most] extreme example in the country [of a Victorian model farm], and… certainly worth seeing. The sinister and neurotic atmosphere comes off all too successfully – usually these Victorian excesses are just a joke – and rivals Soane at his most eerie’.
But imputing aesthetic motives post factum is a risky business. We may never know what Buxton had in mind when he designed Home Farm: it may have been nothing more than to produce something as ‘beautiful and picturesque’, ‘singularly pretty and original’ as the main house. Despite the reassessment of it that began in the 1960s, our view of Victorian buildings is still to an extent coloured by the attitudes of mid-20th century generations that viewed it with revulsion and distaste (Laver’s Law of Fashion coming into play again). It has become obscured by associations that are now not easy to dispel – Gothic in the wider sense of the word, which is why I began this post with a brief discourse on Walpole. Foxwarren Park has been used – albeit never starring as itself – as a location for numerous TV programmes and films, which have consciously exploited the sinister undertones of the architecture: The Comeback, a slasher film of 1978, and ‘A Tale of Two Hamlets’ in The Midsomer Murders to name but two. Yet for illustrator E.H. Shepard a couple of generations earlier, it evidently brought to mind not horror, but associations with the Victorian nouveaux riches, the sort of people whose architectural taste appealed to a parvenu like Mr Toad. He loosely based his illustration of Toad Hall early in Chapter 2 of The Wind in the Willows on Foxwarren Park, and the gate of one of the former lodges is literally reproduced for the third illustration of Chapter 11.
Then again, we have on record that there were Victorian buildings regarded as beyond the pale by contemporaries, such as the Strand Music Hall discussed in the post on Bassett Keeling. There were notions of aesthetic propriety, of styles that were deemed especially suitable for particular building types, and situations when extravagance was and was not permissible. To embellish agricultural buildings in this manner is a conscious choice, and to subject the forms of medieval architecture to the transformations necessary to achieve such striking effects – Expressionism avant la lettre – is a conscious choice as well. Victorian Gothic is neo-Gothic, a reinterpretation – architecture such as Buxton’s will never be mistaken for anything produced by the Middle Ages. Nor, apparently, did he design like that here because he had no other mode or as a result of a lack of skill. Contrast the baleful, unsettling aesthetic of Foxwarren with the colourful, joyful fountain that he designed in collaboration with Samuel Sanders Teulon (1812-1873) to mark the achievement of his father and his associates in bringing about the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Originally erected on Parliament Square in 1865-1866, it was dismantled in 1949 and not re-erected until 1957, this time in Victoria Square Gardens.
But alas, it is now the black and white photograph of the farm taken by Nairn himself and reproduced in the old Surrey volume of The Buildings of England that most vividly conveys the impression made by the architecture. The elevation with the main cart entrance, illustrated here, does not disappoint the expectations raised by it, but unfortunately the rest of the complex most certainly does. At some point in, I would guess, the 1980s it fell victim to an insensitive residential conversion. Not a bad thing in itself – it gave redundant buildings a sustainable future – but the infilling of the open sheds facing into the central quadrangle needed to be handled far more sensitively. Was it simply hamfistedness? Or was the prospect of living in a Victorian gothic nightmare simply too much for denizens of the leafy Surrey stockbroker belt?