A Fairy Palace in Devon:
Redcliffe Towers, built by Colonel Robert Smith (1787-1873), Bengal Engineers
By Diane James
Please note that this case study was first published on blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah in July 2014. The case study was last checked by the project team on 19 August 2014.
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The eccentric building Redcliffe Towers (see figure 1), built on the edge of a cliff in Devon, is now a well-known landmark in the town of Paignton. It was constructed by Colonel Robert Smith in 1852-64 after his retirement from the East India Company (EIC) and a sojourn in Italy where he married a French heiress. Smith, an engineer and artist, was not a member of the landed gentry, however, he used his talents to rise through the ranks of the Bengal Army in India, from Cadet to Colonel. Smith left the Company with just an army pension, and it is likely he would have been unable to build Redcliffe Towers without the gain of a considerable inheritance upon the death of his wife. This case study records Robert Smith’s journey to India, to Europe and his final days spent in Devon, where he constructed his fairytale fortress, Redcliffe Towers. In doing so it contributes to the East India Company at Home project by demonstrating the ways in which EIC officials’ engagements with the subcontinent through practices such as drafting, building, painting and drawing, distinctly shaped the British homes they built on their return.
Robert Smith’s early family life not only shaped the direction of his later career, but also the locations and houses in which he settled once retired. Although primarily based in Devon, his family frequently journeyed out to Europe and India. As a result, when financial pressures meant that the sons had to seek employment the expanding East India Company seemed the perfect choice.
Having arrived in Calcutta in 1805, Smith joined the Bengal Engineers. He was first employed building infrastructure: bridges, roads, and later a lighthouse at Kijri, Diamond Harbour, near Calcutta. Working with red sandstone and India topography proved to be defining for Smith’s career and inspirational for his painting and later architectural designs in continental Europe and Britain.
Alongside infrastructure projects, Smith also became involved in domestic scale building projects in India. For example, Smith was responsible for renovating a house on the city wall between the Kashmir and Calcutta Gates overlooking the River Jumna. The finished house exhibited an experimental mix of styles, which would later become a trademark feature of Smith’s building projects.
Unlike his life in India, the years after Smith left the service of the Company are rather obscure. In the 1830s and 1840s he spent time in Italy, marrying a French heiress, Julia Adelaide Vitton de Claude and having a son. Despite a lack of detail, however, these important events were to have significant consequences for Smith and his architectural projects in France and Italy, which began to take shape quickly after the birth of his child.
The death of Smith’s wife Julia some time before 1850, left Smith considerably wealthy. While simultaneously building in France, Smith also returned to his sister Mary’s house, in the fashionable resort of Torquay. Selling the family house at Bideford and purchasing five acres of remote headland in nearby Paignton, Smith proceeded to build another unusual house, known as Redcliffe Towers.
Smith was highly qualified by both training and experience to design and project manage his mansions, which all incorporated Indian design alongside classical and gothic features. He was a successful surveyor, with an eye for detail, having survived the wilds of India for many years recording local topography. Later restoring the major monuments of Delhi and his continual painting and sketching led him to develop a new architectural style, a hybrid part of the British Picturesque.
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The text and research for ‘A Fairy Palace in Devon: Redcliffe Towers, built by Colonel Robert Smith (1787-1873), Bengal Engineers’ was primarily authored by Diane James.
On 25 July 2014, Alyson Price left the following message:
Dear Diane James,
Just a note. The child Adelaide Julia Smyth, buried in the so-called ‘English’ cemetery in Florence, was not the child of Robert Smith. She was the young daughter of Currall B. Smyth, as recorded in the British births/marriages/deaths.
British Institute of Florence
On 28 July 2014 Diane James left the following reply:
Many thanks for your comment and for pointing out the changed source. The case study will be amended in line with the new information.
[Please note that the amendments were included in the final version (19.08.14) of the case study.]