Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Kibworth Harcourt, Leicestershire
Tradition and change
During my recent stay in Leicestershire a friend I’d visited gave me directions from his house back towards the county town. “And keep an eye on your mirror as you go through Kibworth Harcourt. There’s a house there that you'll like,” he instructed me, tantalizingly. What I saw when I got there had me stopping and reaching for the camera.
The Old House, it’s called, and it’s a lovely house of 1678. Its form – hipped roof and dormer windows, symmetrical front, central doorway with classical porch, quoins, pediment, double-pile layout (two rooms deep) – is one of the quintessential English building types, a kind of house that proved enduring, from its beginnings in the mid-17th century well into the Georgian era. In the world of grand country houses, this kind of design stretches back to buildings like Coleshill House, Berkshire, built in around 1650 to designs by Sir Roger Pratt for the architect’s cousin, Sir George Pratt. Coleshill (which was destroyed in a fire in 1952) was seriously large, with 17 windows on its entrance front. It was much admired and by the end of the century, lesser gentry, especially in southern England and the counties around London, were building smaller versions for themselves.
The Old House was probably built for a local gentleman, William Parker, who died in 1699 – a Parker coat of arms forms part of the decoration. Whoever designed it lavished much care on it – details such as the curvy little pediment and the carefully formed window surrounds show a painstaking hand. And the fact that the house was built in 1678 is interesting too – as the listing text for the building points out, this is quite early for this kind of classical house in the Midlands – most such houses in Leicestershire date from the 18th century. The designer must have had an eye on more advanced architectural fashions in southeast England, where houses like this were more common.
So although this house looks typically English, a representative of the order and elegance of its period, it would not have seemed that way to contemporaries. As course upon course of bricks was laid (and bricks themselves were unusual in this area in 1678), the neighbours would have been shocked at the difference from the traditional stone or timber-framed houses – asymmetrical, low-slung, with small windows and often thatched roofs – of the area. Architecture was changing, before their eyes.