THE WENTWORTH CASTLE CHIMNEYPIECES
'England is at present possessed of many able sculptors, whose chief employment being to execute magnificent chimney-pieces, now happily much in vogue..in this particular, we surpass all other nations, not only in point of expense, but likewise in taste of Design and goodness of Workmanship'. As this patriotic declaration by Sir William Chambers from his 1759 Treatise on Civil Architecture reveals, the English chimneypiece was reveered in the 18th Century as the purest expression of architectural taste. The remarkable group of chimneypieces from Wentworth are testimony to this sentiment.
Wentworth Castle, that princely edifice that now sadly dominates nothing more than the M1, is a reflection of the political and familial ambitions of Thomas Wentworth, 3rd Baron Raby and later 3rd Earl of Strafford (1672-1739). A career soldier who had fought with William III at Namur and acted as Ambassador-Extraordinary at Berlin under Queen Anne, Wentworth's successes were overshadowed by the barren inheritance received of his cousin, the 2nd Earl of Strafford in 1695. While the Barony of Raby happily descended upon him, the noble estates at Wentworth-Woodhouse were bequeathed in favour of a nephew, Thomas Watson, the son of Lord Rockingham. Thus the seeds of a lifelong architectural rivalry were sown.
Raby acquired the Stainborough Park estate, a mere six miles from Wentworth-Woodhouse, subsequently renamed Wentworth Castle, in 1708 and in the following year engaged the Prussian architect Johan von Bodt to produce designs for a princely house that would 'make his Great Honour (the new incumbent of Wentworth-Woodhouse) burst with envy and his little honour (the son, subsequently 1st Marquess of Rockingham) pine and die'. As the engraving in Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus of 1715 reveals, Bodt's palatial façade owes far more to Paris than to English precedents, and in execution was only slightly modified by the intervention of Thomas Archer.
Gallery that ran the entire length of the façade which, had it been carried out, arguably would have been the grandest room in England. The executed interiors were, however, no less lavish and included a Long Gallery 180 feet in length, modelled according to Horace Walpole on the Palazzo Colonna in Rome, which was completed by a Corinthian marble screen at each end that Strafford had ordered from Leghorn, and for which the '4 Capitals after ye Corinthian order' were supplied by the French mason Daniel Harvey (Hervé) in 1720.
It was almost certainly under Archer that the earliest of the Wentworth Chimneypieces was supplied. Simply carved with a bolection moulding in Grey Frosterley marble, it was conceived to correspond with the marble architraves in the Hall and was possibly carved by John Thorp of Bakewell, a marble-cutter and supplier who had worked at Castle Howard.
It was in 1724 with 'The Gallery at Stainborough (Wentworth Castle) as Designed by Mr Gibbs' that Strafford rejected Archer in favour of his new architect, James Gibbs. Gibbs' Book of Architecture of 1727 was instrumental in the promotion of the new Roman or 'antique' style and it was its author who undoubtedly conceived both the 'Roman' white statuary marble chimneypiece, enriched with Venus's scallop shell badge for Queen Anne's Sitting Room, as well as the truss-supported chimneypiece similar to that in the Saloon at Shotover Park, Oxfordshire. Like the capitals in the gallery, their carving may well have been executed by Daniel Harvey (Hervé), the only specialist carver mentioned in the accounts and to whom the richly carved garlands of the façade are also given.
William Wentworth succeeded his father as 4th Earl of Strafford in 1739. An intimate of Horace Walpole and his Strawberry Hill Committee of Taste, Strafford was much impressed by Rome, where he encountered Lady Mary Wortley Montague on his Grand Tour in 1741. On his return he proceeded to remodel both his London house in St. James's Square under Matthew Brettingham circa 1748-50 and, a decade later, the South-East wing of Wentworth after his own designs.
The interiors of Wentworth were decorated in the Roman manner with arabesques by Andien de Clermont inspired by Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican, and coffered ceilings after designs by Serlio. It is to this remodelling of the 1760s that the great Sicilian Jasper and Siena Marble Chimneypieces belong. With their characteristic overlay of white stuatuary marble over Jasper and Siena and exceptional sculptural quality they can be confidently attributed to Sir Henry Cheere (1703-81). While the Jasper chimneypiece, emblazoned with Apollo's sunflower badge, stood in the East Tapestry Room, the laurel-wrapped Siena marble chimneypiece, its' frieze inspired by Apollo's Temple at Palmyra, was designed for the Gallery, its acanthus frieze echoed in both picture frame and cornice. As the Country Life photographs of 1903 evocatively reveal, Wentworth Castle was one of the quintessential princely palaces of the Augustan era. It was certainly a sentiment shared by Walpole, who concluded to the Misses Berry in 1789 'Grammery for your intention of seeing Wentworth Castle, it is my favourite of all Great seats'.
The chimneypieces descended through the Earls of Strafford and, subsequently, the Vernon-Wentworth's (a surname assumed by Frederick Vernon in 1804 shortly after he succeeded to the Wentworth estates) in situ at Wentworth Castle until circa 1951, when they were removed by Major and Mrs. Vernon-Wentworth to the newly remodelled Blackheath Mansion, Suffolk.
We are grateful to Dr. Geoffrey Beard for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.