Sunday, February 21, 2016

It's all in the detail - the Grand Designs of Jack St John

Architect and Lydiard House expert Michael Gray gave a packed audience a fascinating talk about the Palladian mansion as part of the Behind Closed Doors series of events.

Michael, who designs 'modern' stately homes, explained how architecture tells us a lot about the client who commissioned it, and there was plenty to learn about the St John family.

Lydiard House was remodelled by Jack St John between 1738-1748 using his wife's inheritance. Anne Furnese was at first co-heir to her father's estate, but following her brother's death she inherited the lot. The money, therefore, came in fits and starts, which is pretty much how the building project at Lydiard House progressed. Features were added and embellished as the money became available, not so very different from big building projects undertaken today, explained Michael.

The architecture and decorative features, both inside and out, are full of coded messages, which weren't lost on the 18th century visitor but might not be quite so obvious to the modern one.

Did you know that the front entrance, the west elevation centre piece, evokes the style of a Classical Temple? And if you wondered what the motifs beneath the pediment above the door symbolise, they are all about life and death with the skull of the oxon symbolising virility and fertility.

As Michael explained, this is a feminine house, maybe a nod to the fact that  it was Anne's money that paid for it all, but Jack did put his mark on the masculine library and the room beyond.

Evidence of features from the older house are on show such as the beams in the drawing room, which date from the 17th century and the fireplace in the library, which doesn't fit the chimney breast and may have come from another of the St John family homes.

The expensive, embossed red wallpaper in the drawing room was a later, 19th century addition; the original wall covering was handpainted Chinese wallpaper and a much more delicate design.

And if you wondered what the significance was of a bedroom on the ground floor, this was very much a status thing, evidence that the family was eminent enough to receive the monarch for a sleep over.

If you're a Behind Closed Doors follower there are still two more talks to come. I am repeating my Lydiard Ladies portrait tour on Wednesday, February 24 at 7 pm and on Wednesday March 16 at 7 pm in Uncovering History, Jane Rutherfoord talks about ancient wall paintings and her fascinating conservation work at neighbouring St Mary's Church.

The talks and tours are all free (although donations are welcomed) but you need to book by phoning Charlotte Thwaites on 01793 465277 or emailing

The Behind Closed Doors events are a collaboration between the staff at Lydiard House and the Friends of Lydiard Park.

The western elevation

The St John coat of arms and motto

The 'temple' entrance

The south tower. How many of these windows are false?

Classical bust and plaster work

The library and the over large fireplace

The state bed
Anne Furnese in coronation robes

John (Jack) St John (he of the Grand Designs)

The finished work

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