sezincote case study: building sezincote: building a reputation


Figure 12: Thomas Daniell, ‘Design for the Indian Bridge at Sezincote, Moreton-in-Marsh’, RIBA 3951. Image courtesy of RIBA Library, Drawings and Archives Collections.

Building Sezincote: Building a Reputation

In, or about, 1805 work began on clothing this English country house and its gardens with the garb of India. [1] The transformation was to continue into the 1820s. When ill health forced Samuel Pepys Cockerell to retire from the project, his son Charles Robert took up the mantle, designing the entrance lodges for his uncle Charles.

Although the design and build of the house were the responsibility of Samuel Pepys Cockerell, Thomas Daniell ensured that the design elements remained faithful to the drawings of the buildings he had sketched in India.[2] In an undated letter to Charles Cockerell, Daniell asked for more plans of the house: ‘In looking over the sketches of Sezincot[e]…I find 2 of the E. front, but none of the S. I should be glad of an elevation of the latter if you have it.’[3]  A surviving sketch of the South front is marked ‘Daniell approved this to the upper part’. [4] The Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) library holds an archive of the drawings and plans for Sezincote by Thomas Daniell which demonstrate his influence in the design of the landscape and in the garden structures (see figures 12 and 13).


Figure 13: Thomas Daniell, ‘Preliminary sketches for garden buildings of Sezincote, Moreton-in-Marsh’. RIBA 12240. RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections.

It was Daniell who Sir Charles consulted over details including the use of coloured glass in the conservatories and octagonal tent room.[5] In a letter dated January 1811 Thomas Daniell expresses his concern over the placing of the Brahmin bulls on the Indian bridge: ‘I am dreadfully alarmed about the Brahminy Bulls – because I am certain they cannot be better placed – could Viswakarma, the Artist of the Gods, of Hindoos take a peek at Sezincote, he would say let the bulls remain where they are.’[6] He was disputing the placing of single bulls in the middle of the bridge instead of bulls in pairs facing each other over the columns of the bridge as he intended; today they, or at least the bronze replicas, remain extant in these positions. The garden buildings, including the shrine to Suyra and the Indian bridge are Daniell’s design, however, the conservatories and parts of the landscaping are thought to have been at least suggested by Humphry Repton on visits to Sezincote where he had been, ‘consulted by the proprietor of Sesincot, in Gloucestershire, where he wished to introduce the Gardening and Architecture which he had seen in India’.[7]

By 1817, with building work on the house completed and the gardens beginning to establish themselves, Charles Cockerell felt the need to record the developments at Sezincote. Having built the house from the drawings of Thomas Daniell, Charles Cockerell employed the same hand to record the house and place it in the public realm. He commissioned paintings and engravings of the exterior of Sezincote from Thomas Daniell and from John Martin (1789 – 1854). Between 1818 and 1819, Daniell exhibited six of his paintings at the Royal Academy; Martin exhibited four. Head contends that this very public display of the splendours of Sezincote was timed to coincide with Charles Cockerell’s election as a Freeman of the City of London in 1819.[8] Whether this is true or not, advertising Sezincote in this way appears to have been a way of building or enhancing reputations, not just for Daniell (who was already a Royal Academian) and Martin, but also for Sezincote and thus for the Cockerells – Samuel Pepys as an architect and Charles as a man of taste perhaps, but more importantly as a symbol of his social elevation. A grand carriage is depicted in one painting; the passenger is said to the Prince Regent – he had visited Sezincote in 1807, whilst staying at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. His implied presence would surely elevate Sezincote’s and therefore Charles Cockerell’s social status, ostensibly enhancing the reputation of both house and owner.  

Despite this publicity and the exoticness of the subject, there is no evidence to suggest that Sezincote was included in the tours of country houses, such as Blenheim, Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall and Holkham Hall, and smaller, private country houses, visited by the curious elite, in what Esther Moir calls the ‘Tour of Britain’ and on which Charles Cockerell had taken his Muslim guest in 1801.[9] Few independent accounts of visits to the house in this period exist. An engraving of Sezincote was included in J.P. Neale’s Beauties of England, in 1823; it describes Sezincote as being, ‘In the style of the splendid palaces of the East. The grounds are varied and beautiful, and the whole laid out with very great taste […] embellished with a variety of ornamental buildings erected in the most picturesque settings […]’.[10] No mention is made of the interior.

 One local quote, from the Reverend F.E. Witts, whilst describing the house as ‘very peculiar and pleasing’, highlights the contrast between the interior and exterior:

August 30th, 1828

Made a little excursion to Sezincote, where we passed nearly two hours in viewing the house and grounds. The exterior of the former is striking and picturesque, after a Hindu model, the tomb of Hyder Ali, and the first view of the house, conservatory, flower garden, bank of wood etc., very peculiar and pleasing; but the interior is badly arranged and not particularly well-furnished. Several new apartments for bed chambers have been added; but the situation is very unfavourable under a high bank of clay covered with dense foliage, hence the house, conservatory and offices are very damp and dry rot has already commenced its ravages. The shrubberies and drest grounds are pretty and peculiar, the oriental taste is preserved as far as it could. Sir Charles and Lady Cockerell are now abroad[11]

This report fosters a sense of the dissonance experienced by the visitor, which still exists today. Approaching down the long drive, one feels transported to a part of England that can be described as a pastoral idyll. Yet as one moves on, the Indian bridge, the waterfall and the Temple pool suggest that all is not quite so ‘English’ as at first apparent. And then the onion dome, and the chajjahs and the chattris of amber stone do indeed burst upon us, as Betjeman so eloquently wrote, and one feels the exoticism of Indian architecture sweeping across this country estate nestled in the Cotswold countryside. Yet, crossing the threshold into the house one encounters the more familiar interior of an English country house, leaving India behind.

At the time of writing, no evidence was available to suggest that the interior of the house was anything other than neo-classical in architecture and Georgian in its material decoration and furnishing. In 1968 Lady Kleinwort noted that due to the neo-classical interior they did not have to ‘play up to any oriental theme’ with the interior renovations to the fabric of the house.[12] An inventory of Sezincote taken in 1837, shortly after Sir Charles Cockerell’s death, assessed the ‘Furniture, Pictures, Books, Plate, Wine, Farming Stock, Garden Utensils, and other effects at in upon about and belonging to the said testators Mansion House, Offices, Gardens and premises at Sezencot’.[13] Edward Bailey of Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, London made the inventory, and although a valuation totalling £11,908 is given, the inventory itself is not included.[14] This might have provided some evidence of the contents of the house and may have revealed a taste for Indian material culture within the house. The only hint given is in Lady Harriet Cockerell’s will in which she leaves to her granddaughter, Olivia Rushout an ‘Indian Work Box and one also to Pamela Rushout’.[15]

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[1] Head,’Sezincote’, chapter 5. Head discusses the evidence surrounding the dating of the project at Sezincote and concludes that it began in 1805, or possibly earlier as there is evidence that Thomas Daniell was staying in the area. Firth, The Book of Bourton-on-the-Hill, Batsford and Sezincote, also discusses this evidence, pp.86-89.

[2] Head, ‘Sezincote’, p.55 and Firth, The Book of Bourton-on-the-Hill, Batsford and Sezincote, p.86.

[3] Correspondence cited in Head, ‘Sezincote’, p.55.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Letter from Thomas Daniell to Sir Charles Cockerell, January 1811, quoted in Firth, The Book of Bourton-on-the-Hill, Batsford and Sezincote, p. 86.

[6] Cited in Conner, Oriental Architecture in the West, p. 124, from the RIBA drawings collection, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

[7] Humphry Repton, An Enquiry into the Changes of Taste in Landscape Gardening, 1806, quoted in Archer, ‘The Daniells in India’, p. 444.

[8] Head, ‘Sezincote’, p. 75.

[9] Esther Moir, The Discovery of Britain: The English Tourist 1540 – 1840 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), p. xiv.

[10] Cited in Firth, The Book of Bourton-on-the-Hill, Batsford and Sezincote, p. 96. This image is available to view and purchase online.

[11] Reverend F. E. Witts, The Diary of a Cotswold Parson, cited in Firth The Book of Bourton-on-the-Hill, Batsford and Sezincote, p. 96.

[12] Lady Kleinwort, quoted in Clisby Kemp, ‘Out of the East’, House and Garden, November 1968, pp. 60-65 (p.64).

[13] Gloucestershire Archives, D2167/9. Deed of Covenant and Release as to the Furniture, Stocks  etc late of Sir Charles Cockerell deceased at Sezencot  in the County of Gloucester dated 13 August 1839.

[14] I have been unable to trace any records for Edward Bailey, or the inventory, but there are still many uncatalogued records in Gloucestershire archives relating to the Cockerell family.

[15] Gloucestershire Archives, D536/F1, Copy Will and Codicil of Dame Harriet Cockerell. Proved 28 Nov 1851.