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Samuel Pepys Cockerell

His Work in West Wales, 17931810

Lecturer, Royal Holloway College, University of London.

SAMUEL Pepys Cockerell, 17541827, was an admirable architect and in his own day earned an impressive reputation, but he is now virtually forgotten and little of his work has survived. Like his more famous contemporary colleague, John Nash, Cockerell was employed for a time in West Wales, but his work here has been largely ignored. He was commissioned by a single patron, Sir William Paxton, a Carmarthenshire magnate, designing and building Middleton Hall for him between 1793 and 1795, and ten years later designing a tower, erected by Paxton at the north end of the park in memory of Lord Nelson. In 1805 he also built public baths at Tenby, Pembrokeshire, to facilitate, and encourage the sea bathing of which Paxton was a pioneer, and rebuilt them five years later when they were destroyed by fire.

Any attempt to study Cockerell's work at this time and in this area is hampered by a almost complete absence of architectural drawings for these buildings, and by the changes wrought by time in the buildings themselves. Middleton Hall was destroyed in an accidental fire in November, 1931 and the ruins later razed. Until recently the tower was in a ruinous and disintegrating state and the baths at Tenby, the only building of Cockerell still intact in South Wales, have been converted into flats and considerably altered in the process.

Yet the scattered information, the plans and drawings and actual buildings that remain are worth closer study than they have so far received. Middleton Hall was the finest house of its period in Carmarthenshire, possibly even in South Wales. The surviving plans, drawings and descriptions deserve a wider audience if only to draw attention to what has been lost and thus help to preserve and record other country houses. Similarly, the Tenby baths, a distinctive unit despite alterations, form an intregral part of the eighteenth century harbour area, worthy of preservation and record in case they are altered still further.

Not only from a purely local interest, but as a stage in Cockerell's career as an architect, these buildings deserve wider recognition. They are among his earliest work. Middleton Hall comes between the designing of Daylesford House, near Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Gloucestershire, built between 1790 and 1796, and Sezincote House, Gloucestershire, a few miles from Daylesford, and built in 1805, and illustrates his development as a country house architect. The tower is Cockerell's only 'folly' and a worthy example of the influence of the 'Picturesque' movement of the early nineteenth century, while the baths remain a memorial to an early attempt to exploit the natural advantages of a former fishing port and small market town as a holiday resort.

S. P. Cockerell, a descendant of the famous diarist, was a pupil of the established eighteenth century architect, Sir Robert Taylor, in whose office John Nash was a student. Taylor was the first architect to take pupils. Apprenticeship was expensive and lasted five or six years, often followed by two or three years abroad, and it was not until he was twenty five or twenty six that the pupil found himself a qualified, professional man, ready to practice. If he was fortunate he first obtained a post as surveyor to some public body and then gradually built up a wealthy private practice.1 Individual patrons were still important in the late eighteenth century, but work for committees and boards was becoming more common2 and was leading to greater professionalism among architects.

Cockerell was one of the fortunate few. He became Clerk of the Works at the Tower in 1775 and at Newmarket in 1780. In 1786 Taylor resigned the Surveyorship of the Admiralty in his favour and on his master's death two years later, Cockerell succeeded to the surveyorship of the Foundling and Pulteney estates. Later he became surveyor to the sees of Canterbury and London, to the East India Company in 1806 and to St. Paul's in 1811. His first large commission, from 1786 to 1791, was to design and build a house for the First Lord of the Admiralty, adjoining the existing Admiralty office. In 1790 he produced a report on the proposed development of the Bloomsbury estates belonging to the Foundling Hospital which contained the "cardinal principles of Georgian town planning,"3 and accepted a commission from Warren Hastings to design and build Daylesford House for him. Between 1792 and 1796 Cockerell was also engaged in work on various churches, besides the commissions he accepted for private houses, while in 1791, with some of his fellow architects, James Wyatt, Henry Holland and George Dance, junior, he established The Architects Club, the first English society to cater exclusively for architects and whose purpose was to raise the professional standards and qualifications of practitioners. Cockerell was the treasurer of this club whose founder members included Robert Adam, Sir William Chambers, Sir John Soane, and others.4 Thus when Sir William Paxton engaged Cockerell in 1793, to design and build a house for him in Carmarthenshire, the architect was already established, with a growing, wealthy clientele, and he came to Wales in this capacity, unlike his contemporary, John Nash, who, escaping from bankruptcy in London, was receiving modest commissions for country gaols, and the remodelling of the houses of the West Wales squirearchy.

Yet it may be asked why Paxton chose Cockerell to design his house. A closer examination of Paxton's career and of Cockerell's family connections will answer this question. Sir William Paxton, born in 1745, was a retired Scottish 'nabob' who had been Master of the Calcutta Mint and was a close friend of Warren Hastings. While in India Paxton probably met Cockerell's brothers, Colonel John Cockerell, quartermaster general to Lord Cornwallis, the Governor General, and Charles Cockerell, an "eminent servant of the East India Company"5 for whom S. P. Cockerell built the only 'Indian' style country house in England, at Sezincote.6

Sir William bought the Middleton Hall estate after his retirement from India in 1785. It was eight miles from Carmarthen, in the parish of Llanarthney, in the vale of Towy. Like many other 'nabobs' who had made a fortune in India, Paxton invested his wealth in an estate and set out to become a country gentleman. Like Warren Hastings at Daylesford he was an improving landlord, increasing his acreage by purchase and drainage and planting trees extensively, so that his estate increased in value.

He was also anxious to enter local politics and several times stood as a Parliamentary candidate for the county and borough of Carmarthen, but like others of his group, he found it difficult, despite his wealth, to gain admittance to county society. In that close knit community Paxton was an alien, in race, breeding and experience. His energetic ways and advanced ideas, he was one of the directors of the Gas, Light and Coke Company, the ostentatious display of his wealth, of which the importation of an expensive London architect7 in preference to the use of local talent was but another example, were probably resented.8

He supplied Carmarthen town with a new pure water supply at his own expense in 1802, but his offer to build a bridge across the between Llandilo and Carmarthen was rejected.9 Yet Paxton acheived some success. He had been elected a burgess of Carmarthen in 1794 and in 1802 became mayor of the borough, welcoming Admiral Nelson in that capacity on the latter's visit to the town in that year. In the election of 1802, one of the most bitterly contested in the county's history, Paxton stood as a Whig candidate against Sir J. Hamlyn Williams of Edwinsford, his Tory opponent. After a poll of fifteen days Williams was declared elected by 1217 votes to 1110, a triumph marked by scenes of disorder. Paxton, who was reputed to have spent the enormous sum of 15,690.4.2. on the election, petitioned unsuccessfully against the result. But he was not left with-out a seat for long. J. G. Philipps of Cwmgwili, one of his nominators, resigned the borough seat in his favour in December, 1803. Paxton retained it until 1806, when in the general election of that year he transferred himself, without opposition to the county seat, only to lose it finally a year later to Lord Robert Seymour of Taliaris.

Middleton Hall
Paxton wanted a house to accord with his wealth and importance and Cockerell supplied him with one. It was built on a slight rise, a mile from the two main turnpike roads from London to Milford Haven, between 1793 and 1795. Almost from the first it was admired by travellers. Dugdale who saw it about 1818 thought it the most splendid mansion in South Wales.10 J. P. Neale, seeing it few years earlier, thought it highly creditable to Cockerell's taste and professional talents and drew attention to its elegant and spacious rooms.11 The entry in N. Carlisle's Topographical Dictionary of Wales, published in 1811, refers to Middleton Hall in equally glowing terms as yielding to none in Wales "in its architecture and internal elegance of decoration",12 and a similar work referred to the house's Grecian lines and noble portico.13 There were obviously few houses like it in West Wales, none in Carmarthenshire at this date. Compared with such mansions as Dynevor Castle, Glanbran, near Llandovery, Cwmgwili, or Edwinsford, it was new, neo-classical and spacious where they were old, rambling and meagre of adornment. It is a tragedy that this fine house, the only example of S. P. Cockerell's domestic architecture in Wales and superior to Nash's work there, should have been completely gutted by a fire in 1931.

Since Middleton Hall exhibited some typically Neo-classical features it may be useful to define this term briefly here. Neo-classicism was a fresh concept in architectural design, resulting from the archeological study of antiquity which had received fresh impetus in mid-century from books such as Robert Wood's Ruins of Palmyra (1753) [see today's images -- ChrisJones], James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's The Antiquities of Athens (1762) and Robert Adam's Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro, in Dalmatia (1764). The outstanding theorist of Neo-classicism was the Abbe Laugier whose Essai sur l'architecture, a copy of which Cockerell is known to have possessed, was brought out in in an English edition in 1755. Laugier preached the application of simplicity and logic to architectural design, condemning all irrelevancies and unnecessary decoration and urging the use of a pure geometric style. By means of such books British architects were made aware of the simple, mathematical proportions of classical buildings, of the three classic orders and of the restrained decoration employed by the ancients, and strove to copy or adapt such knowledge to their own purposes.14

The Hall itself was a quadrangular block of stuccoed brick with projections of Bath stone. Though there was a growing convention that brick should be given a covering of stucco, this was a fairly early use of a material not generally employed until popularised by John Nash in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The West or entrance front at Middleton Hall was plain, showing little ornament, apart from the dressed stone block of the ground floor. There were semi-circular headed window recesses in the slightly projecting wings, while a simple porch, partially supported by two stylised columns standing half way up the steps, led to the doorway. All the windows were of the plain sash type, but on the first floor ornamental balustrading emphasised the moulding.

The Eastern front was more impressive, with a large, four columned portico of Ionic design, rising from the first floor terrace to the height of the second floor and supporting a triangular pediment. The heavily rusticated terrace which overlooked an ornamental lake, was reached by a double flight of steps. The three main first floor windows were of the Venetian type already used by Cockerell at the Admiralty. They consisted of three lights, divided by small Ionic columns and placed in semi-circular headed recesses. A wide cornice. was surmounted by a decorative balustrade which encircled the roof, partly masking the chimneys. The basement contained the servants' quarters and cellars, while the extensive domestic buildings and stables, clearly seen in Augustus Butler's lithographs (See illustrations: back view and front view, Middleton Hall 1853) and also displaying neo-classical features, were at the north end of the house, partly masked by plantations, close to the gardens and hot houses. These buildings, though a story lower than the main block, achieved unity with it by a continuation of the balustrade around the roof and of the moulding above the ground floor windows, and by the use of a simplified pediment and pilasters.

The interior was spacious. On the first floor was a hall, twenty by twenty six feet, to the right of which was a library, thirty by twenty one feet, and to the left a gentleman's room and small cabinet. Immediately behind the hall and looking onto the terrace was an eating room, breakfast and drawing room, all of ample proportions. Stairs led from a passage off the hall to the first floor, containing three bedrooms and dressing rooms on either side of a central corridor with a Lady's saloon over the hall. (See illustration of floor plan, Vitruvius Britannicus, plate 64.)

Broadly, Middleton Hall followed the conventional pattern of late eighteenth century country mansions. S. P. Cockerell was undoubtedly influenced in his work by the neo-Palladianism of his master, Taylor, and the house bears the imprint of Taylor's influence in the rustication of the ground floor and in the arrangement of steps and portico. But Cockerell was more eclectic than Taylor, taking what appealed to him from current Neo-classicism and combining it with his early training and other influences into a style of his own. The simple form and fine proportions of Middleton Hall show that Cockerell was familiar with Laugier's ideas, but the use of pilasters, the way in which the orders rise from a pedestal and the decorative balustrading, also illustrate that he never slavishly copied them.

The ideas behind the design of the house were in the current fashion of the day. Cockerell was to use them again, in modified form, some years later at Gore Court, near Sittingbourne, Kent, built for Gabriel Harper of the East India Company. Gore Court was of stuccoed brick with an Ionic portico and an interior arrangement of rooms similar to Middleton, though much smaller.15 The arrangement of the portico and flanking steps at Middleton also resembles that at Southgate Grove, Middlesex, an early example of a stucco rendered classical villa built, in 1797, by John Nash who probably saw Middleton Hall while he worked in Carmarthenshire, and was possibly influenced by it. What distinguished Paxton's mansion was the classic simplicity of its proportions, its commanding site and, to contemporaries, its interior decoration.

Unfortunately no pictures or drawings of this remain and no adequate descriptions, have been recorded. Cockerell's work at the Admiralty and at Sezincote was classical and restrained and the latter contains some charming regency interiors.16 One of the influences to which Cockerell responded was French Neo-classicism. It existed strongly in his work after 1795, is evident at Daylesford and was possibly noticeable at Middleton Hall, on which he was working at approximately the same time. Another important influence was that of Sir William Chambers, one of the most important architects of his day and himself strongly influenced by French Neo-classicism. Cockerell's restrained and elegant interiors owe much to both these influences and it is probable that Middleton Hall was an important stage in their development in the architect's work. Certainly no attempt was made in any of the three houses built for East India Company servants and mentioned here, Daylesford, Sezincote or Middleton, to introduce the Indian style into the interior decoration. It would be interesting to know if Cockerell employed the same craftsmen at Middleton that he had used at the Admiralty and was then using at Daylesford; men such as Henry Barrel the wood carver, or John Papworth the plasterer, or John Buhl the copper-smith. Certainly Paxton could afford the best craftsmanship and it is possible that they worked here. But in the absence of detailed buildings accounts or letters and manuscripts of Paxton and Cockerell, which have not yet been found, further speculation about the interiors is vain. As a fine Neo-classical building, all too rare in Wales, as a stage in the development of Cockerell's work, with some of the latest French ideas in its construction and decor, and as a possible example of the work of master craftsman, Middleton Hall was unique and its loss all the greater. All that remains if this magnificence is the stable block, noe inhabited by several families, still retaining its classical outlines though bereft of its clock turrut.17

Paxton's Tower
The tower, known as Paxton's or Nelson's tower, was built by Paxton from Cockerell's designs, between 1805 and 1808.18 There is some doubt as to the actual date of building. The inscription places it after October 1805 and Carlisle's Topographical Dictionary states that it was being built in 1808 when Carlisle was collecting material for his book. The designs were probably drawn up in 1805 at least.

Stories of Paxton building the tower to see a favourite pair of white horses drive to Tenby are obviously false. False too are the tales of its construction out of pique at not winning the 1802 election, or at the refusal of his offer to throw a bridge over the Towy. He built it on a "conspicuous Eminence within his Domain" not only to honour the memory of "the Immortal Nelson", whose visit to Carmarthen Paxton so well remembered, but "to heighten the natural Views of this delightful Vale" and from which "the prospect will be most extensive and rich."19

Such commemorative towers and 'follies' were popular in the late eighteenth century, but since these were the purposes Paxton had in mind, the building was much more than the single commemorative column commonly erected to honour heroes.

It was a two storey triangular building with machicolated round towers at each angle, so that the interior formed a hexagon. The curtain walls linking the towers were machicolated and pierced with lancet headed doorways and windows grouped in threes. An upper storey rose from the second floor to a hexagonal propect house, also machicolated and pierced with three full length lancet headed windows. Carriages could be driven right into the tower through the doorways, and a circular stair in a corner turret led to a "lofty and sumptuous banqueting room."20 (See illustration - Paxton's Tower 1853, a lithograph by Augustus Butler). Over each of the doors was an inscription, now vanished, in Welsh, English and Latin.21

'To the invincible commander, Viscount Nelson, in commemoration of deeds most brilliantly achieved at the mouths of the Nile, before the walls of Copenhagen and on the shores of Spain; of the empire everywhere maintained by him over the seas; and of the death which in the fullness of his own glory, though untimely for his country and for Europe, conquering he died; this towerwas erected by William Paxton.'

One of the dining room windows contained stained glass pictures portraying a half portrait of Admiral Nelson himself, wearing his orders and the diamond aigrette presented to him by the Sultan after the victory of the Nile in 1798. The border surrounding the picture is decorated with naval crowns and Nelson's orders and crowned with his coronet, while below, in a shield, a battle ship approaches the mouth of the Nile. Another picture is of the death of Nelson in the cockpit of the Victory and the third the apotheosis of the admiral, received by Britannia, who holds a scroll inscribed 'The Royal Assent to Nelson's Annuity Bill', and surrounded with cherubs holding scrolls containing the names of battles in which Nelson successfully engaged. These three pictures were removed to the Hall for safety later in the nineteenth century and are now in the County Museum. At the time Paxton was building his tower, Messrs. Clarke and MacArthur were preparing a biography of the life of Nelson. A special series of pictures, now at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, was painted by Richard Westall to illustrate this book. The Nelson portrait is a copy of Abbott's picture but the other two illustrations are copies of Westall's drawings from engravings in the biography.22

The tower has stylistic affinities with other 'follies' of the time, notably Lord Boston's Folly, Hedsor Priory, Buckinghamshire, Blaise Castle near Bristol, Broadway Tower, Gloucestershire and Horton Tower, near Wareham, Dorset.23 But three 'follies' bear a closer resemblance in building and function. Brislaw Tower at Alnwick, Northumberland, c.1781 built for the first Duke of Northumberland, is an hexagonal prospect house with spiral stair, built on a wooded hill with a medallion portrait of the Duke and an inscription praising his agricultural achievments on the outside. Both this and the Haldon Belvedere at Doddiscombsleigh, Devonshire, built in 1788, may have been seen by Cockerell and possibly influenced him. Known as Lawrence Castle, the Haldon belvedere is triangular, with round towers at each angle of the machicolated linking walls, which are pierced with groups of lancet headed windows. It has three floors and was built by Sir Robert Palk, former governor of Madras, in honour of his friend, Major General Stringer Lawrence, whose commemorative plaques are in the hall. Inside it was lavishly decorated with Indian marble, the second floor being at one time a ballroom with a fine mahogany floor. The third 'folly' is the Ivy Tower, near Neath, Glamorganshire, an eighteenth century belvedere which served as a shooting box and banqueting hall and once had stained glass in its windows.

One of the avowed purposes of the tower was to improve the natural views of the valley, in fact a successful attempt to create the 'Picturesque '. This was a term much in use in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Before 1790 it applied to landscape gardening and meant the kind of landscape which recalled pictures by the French artists Claude and Poussin, in which valleys, rivers, wooded hills and ruins were the themes. After the publication in 1794 of The Landscape, a Didactic Poem by Richard Payne Knight, a Shropshire squire, and of Essay on the Picturesque by his friend and neighbour, Uvedale Price, it came to mean a quality, like beauty, inherent in the landscape, which should be drawn out and improved upon by art and planning. The Picturesque idea gave impetus to the romantic movement within Neo-classicism and led to the "Gothic" and castellated style of building.

Cockerell was a friend of Payne Knight and Price and the castellated form of Paxton's tower suggests their influence, though more probably it was suggested by the ruined castles, Carreg Cennen and Dryslwyn, in that area. Certainly the whole landscape, with its winding river, its gentle hills, crowned with ruins and clothed with luxuriant woods, recalls a landscape by those French artists and is of the very essence of the Picturesque.

This tower, Cockerell's and Carmarthenshire's only 'folly', is one of the most beautifully sited in Britain. It has been badly treated; the floors have fallen in, it has been used as a casual quarry and recently one of the corner towers was struck by lightning and severely damaged. Lately however Lord Emlyn bought it and generously offered it to the National Trust if the necessary money for its repair, some 3000, could be raised and work seems to have begun.

Tenby Baths
Lastly the baths at Tenby must be considered briefly. Carmarthen was not the only town in West Wales to benefit from Paxton's generosity; Tenby also enjoyed his patronage. In 1805 when he went to live there for the summer, Tenby was a small decayed fishing town with memories of past glories. Paxton, who was something of a pioneer of sea bathing, saw the possibilities of the town as a spa and resort and in the same year commissioned Cockerell to design a series of public buildings for taking the waters and bathing.

Paxton had attempted something similar a few years earlier when he discovered chalybeate springs on his estate at Middleton Hall. He had the water analysed24 and on the satisfactory report, intended to build hot and cold baths there to accomodate visitors. These baths were of a very limited local significance and nothing visible remains of them today, but the idea of providing such baths for this purpose may have been planted in Paxton's mind at that time.

The idea of sea bathing as an aid to health was a fashionable one at that time and was not entirely new to Tenby. In 1781 a Dr. Jones of Haverfordwest leased St. Julian's Chapel on the pier to build baths for this purpose. These baths were small but successful until Paxton's establishment probably put an end to them.25 The latter were on a more ambitious scale, built under Castle Hill, with hot and cold, plunging and vapour rooms. Unfortunately, they were destroyed by fire when almost ready to open. Nothing daunted

Paxton had them rebuilt on the same scale as before.26 Richard Fenton saw them in his tour of Pembrokeshire and has left an excellent and detailed description of them.27

They were built to allow visitors to bathe at all times and in all weathers and were roofed and enclosed. Large reservoirs were constructed to supply the baths, changing the water at every tide. There were two swimming baths for ladies and gentlemen with dressing rooms for each and four private cold baths for single persons.

"Several warm and vapour baths with dressing rooms tempered with warm air, and a cupping room are fitted up with the latest improvements; and bed rooms are provided in the bath house for invalids.

A handsome room for the bathers, their friends and company to assemble in, is built commanding the sea and the habour, and is provided with refreshments, so as to form a fashionable morning lounge. An excellent carriage road is formed to the bath-house, and a spacious vestibule for servants to wait in, without mixing with the company."

Other travellers were equally enthusiastic in their praise and Tenby's reputation as a fashionable spa and health resort and its consequent prosperity increased, as West Wales society came to sample the amenities provided and enjoy the views of sea and harbour. During the season the Tenby coach ran three times a week to meet the London mail at Cold Blow near Narberth.

Paxton was made a freeman of the borough and a burgess in October, 1805 for his proposal to build the baths and continued as a benefactor to the town until his death in 1824. He improved the water supply, made a new road from the Quay, the "excellent carriage road" that Fenton mentions, built the arches on which Bridge Street stands, helped to build a theatre to entertain society and when it failed, bought it himself to prevent the financial loss falling upon his fellow speculators.28 But the social aspect Fenton had noted soon ousted the medical and by 1835 the baths had become a residential club with a reading and billiard room. The building, later converted into flats, is now known as Laston House, and has undergone considerable alterations.

Unfortunately no plans have been discovered for either of the buildings. The first designs of the structure burnt down in 1805 seem to have been in the Ionic style.29 The present building is a plain structure, once probably stuccoed, with some rustication about the door and window frames. It is built in the shape of a letter L, the two arms facing the harbour and the sea. The windows and doorway of the main block are recessed in semi-circular headed embrasures. On the pediment over the main entrance is a quotation in Greek from Euripides, Iphegenia to Thoas, 'The sea washes away all the ills of men'. The front door opens into a circular hall, which once led to the other main bathing rooms.30

The Tenby public baths were Cockerell's first and last public building in Wales and he accepted no further commissions here. The body of his work in this country, always small and confined mainly to Carmarthenshire, has now been reduced almost to nothing. It would be a pity if all record of this fine architect's achievment should be entirely lost and it is hoped that this article may help to rescue Samuel Pepys Cockerell and his work in West Wales from the near oblivion into which they have faded.31
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