When my ancestor, John Somers Cocks (Baron Somers), wanted to build a spectacular mansion in the style of a castle, he already knew of the young Robert Smirke, who had just finished building Lowther Castle, near the Scottish border, for the Earl of Lonsdale, and who had worked in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. He had also just completed the new opera house in Covent Garden, to critical acclaim. Smirke also had a reputation for efficiency and keeping with in budget, so there were several reasons why he was a good choice. In a reference letter to Lord Somers, Lord Lonsdale wrote that his architect was entitled to every commendation” and “entirely free from the faults that are generally imputed to architects”. (I imagine they are the same faults today).
Smirke then produced a few watercolours giving an artist’s impression of how the finished castle might look in the dramatic landscape of the Malvern Hills. In the one shown here, an impressive bridge over an artificial channel looked very fine, but even Lord Somers, who was keen to impress, felt it was excessive and eliminated it from the final design. Smirke was allowed to add a conservatory at Lowther, but here his design for a similar addition was omitted.
Our archives contain good records of the work and building accounts. The first stone of the foundation was laid on 24th April 1812, six days before Louisiana joined the USA and just over two weeks before the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. The first cut stone was laid on 23rd June 1812, after which Lord Somers gave a dinner for the workmen, which cost him £43. There is no record of how much of this was spent on drink, but it sounds quite a generous affair.
Work went until 1824, when it was decided to stop, plans for new stables, an even grander staircase as well as the conservatory had been dropped for financial reasons. Some of the larger interior rooms were not completed until later, the Gothic Drawing Room in 1849, for example. In 1821, Lord Somers’ political as well, perhaps, as his construction work had been recognised with the grant of an Earldom, so he may have felt he had done enough.
The full story of the design and building of the castle will be told in a special exhibition in the tea room yard this season. It is being prepared by our archivist, Hazel Lein, and a local historian, David Whitehead.
26th January 2012