sezincote case study: making choices, building houses, finding inspiration

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Figure 9: South front of Sezincote showing the sweep of the orangery from the house to the pavilion. Note the peacock tail windows on the house and the orangery. Photograph by Jan Sibthorpe © 2014.

Making Choices, Building Houses, Finding Inspiration

Like his brother John, Charles Cockerell was to call upon Samuel Pepys Cockerell to mastermind further alterations to Sezincote. Unlike his brother John, these alterations were to be far from simple. A contemporary of John Nash and the innovative George Dance, and a former pupil of Sir Robert Taylor, Samuel Pepys Cockerell had made his reputation as an architect by the time he was thirty and from 1785 until 1805 he was primarily occupied with country house designs and church restoration.[1] In 1806 he became surveyor to the East India Company, despite never having travelled to India. Many of Samuel Pepys Cockerell’s commissions came from his family connections to East India Company men. These included Middleton Hall in Carmarthenshire, for William Paxton, and –significantly for this case study – Daylesford in Gloucestershire, for Warren Hastings. Whilst his reputation was largely that of a classicist, he was also criticised for his controversial and original designs – often choosing to rebuild rather than restore projects, injecting them with his own decorative effects ‘within an otherwise restrained idiom’.[2] For Charles, Samuel Pepys Cockerell undertook the task of re-clothing a classical English country house with the dress of India.

Given the number of EIC employees who had spent the majority of their adult lives in India before returning to Britain with newly-acquired fortunes, it might be expected that many of the country houses they built, bought and altered ‘at home’, would exhibit some elements of the Indian idiom in their architecture. But returning nabobs, although keen to use their fortunes to purchase country houses and seats in Parliament in a bid to gain acceptance as members of Britain’s ruling gentry, appeared to have ‘no desire to represent themselves by their architecture as in any way visibly different from the gentry among whom they lived’.[3] The majority of houses were therefore faithful to the neo-classical or Palladian tradition in their exterior and interior architecture, as evidenced by other case studies within this project, such as Valentines Mansion, Swallowfield Park and Warfield Park. For the most part, references to experiences in India were contained within the house, in paintings, porcelain and furniture, either collected or commissioned. Sezincote itself was initially mobilized in John Cockerell’s bid to become part of the ‘systematic Establishment’. But under Charles, Sezincote was to become celebrated as the only English country house which ‘possesed an architecture shaped by elements of Indian design,’ thereby placing it outside of the ‘systematic’ establishment.[4]

Why would one nabob choose to create a house with an exterior that situated him outside the ‘establishment’ and represented him as different from the gentry among whom he lived whilst retaining an interior which supported the conventions of the ‘establishment’? It is tempting to suggest that Charles Cockerell was a maverick who dared to try and subvert the ‘establishment’ and to flaunt his attempt at doing so, but in many ways he was one of its stalwarts: his Parliamentary seat, his baronetcy and his marriage to an aristocrat’s daughter all indicate his desire to become accepted into the realms of the elite and landed gentry. Contemporary local newspapers show his active support of the local Heythrop hunt, other newspaper reports chronicle his numerous charitable donations and legal records demonstrate his appetite for prosecuting all who poached game upon his land.[5] Both he and his brothers had an appetite for buying local land in a successful bid to expand the Sezincote estate. In 1822 the ‘Sezincote Aisle’ was added to nearby Longborough church; family pews, a stove and a private entrance were installed to facilitate the family’s worship. Letters between Charles Cockerell and, by now, his agent, Walford, indicate that Charles moved regularly between London and Sezincote. His London home (no longer standing) was at the prestigious Hyde Park Corner, Piccadilly, built to designs by Robert Adam and purchased in 1793, while he was still in India, it was very much part of the establishment. It was also virtually adjacent to Apsley House, home of Wellesley and later his brother, the Duke of Wellington.

In 1801, the visiting Muslim scholar and travel writer, Mirza Abu Talem Khan praised the generosity and ostentation of Charles Cockerell, recording that he had on one occasion dined at the Hyde Park house with seven hundred other ‘persons of rank and consequence’.[6] They were served ‘the choicest fruits and rarities procurable in London; many of these were produced by artificial heat; for the English not content with the fruits of their own climate, contrive by the assistance of glass and fire to cultivate those of the torrid zones’.[7] Ackermann’s Repository considered it one of the ‘magnificent mansions, which in any other country would be dignified with the appellation of palaces’.[8] And so the picture of an affluent emergent member of the English landed gentry builds. What spurred him to ‘Indianise’ his house at this particular moment in time? That it was more than a passing whim is borne out by the length of the project, some eighteen years.

The Broader Context

Although Sezincote may be considered the only country house in England to be built in the Indian style, it is not the first example of elements of Indian architecture in English buildings. Alongside a wider early nineteenth-century interest in emulating the architecture of Greek and Roman civilisations, there existed a growing interest in the architecture of India. Patrick Conner terms this interest an ‘Indian revival’ and a ‘short but fascinating episode in the history of taste,’ that was restricted to a small group of connoisseurs.[9] It was an interest fuelled not only by ‘commercial and cultural links’ with India and first hand accounts of India but also by the paintings, and engravings of William Hodges and by those of Thomas and William Daniell.[10]

William Hodges had spent three years between 1781 and 1783 travelling around northern India drawing and painting the architecture and landscape under the patronage of Warren Hastings.[11] Upon his return to England he published some forty-eight of his views in Select Views in India and exhibited his works, over a number of years, at the Royal Academy. His work presented ‘Indian architecture to British eyes for the first time as something aesthetically admirable’.[12] Hodges was praised by Sir Joshua Reynolds, for his depictions of ‘Barbaric splendour of those Asiatick Buildings’, which might provide architects not necessarily with models to copy but ‘hints of composition and general effect’.[13] A friend of Samuel Pepys Cockerell, William Hodges’ work in Select Views in India is credited with providing the likely source for the design of the dome at Daylesford, Warren Hastings’ house in Gloucestershire. Built between 1788 and 1790 Daylesford was an early foray into the oriental theme with its ‘Mughal dome on an otherwise classical edifice’.[14] In a similar way the roof of Banbury church, a few miles away, was finished with an Indian element with the bulbous vase shape of an amalaka.[15] Both are the work of Samuel Pepys Cockerell.

By the time Hodges had returned to London, Thomas and William Daniell had set off for India where they spent ten years travelling the length and breadth of the country, painting and sketching, using a camera obscura to help them accurately record the details of Indian buildings and landscapes. By their return to London in 1794 they had an unparalleled knowledge of Indian architecture. They spent thirteen years producing Oriental Scenery, six volumes of aquatints from their paintings and sketches; the last volume was made available to the public in 1808; the complete set cost £210.

Mildred Archer contends that the work of the Daniells was the most important single influence in popularizing Indian architecture in England in the early nineteenth century.[16] Many of the scenes depicted by the Daniells were completely new to most Europeans. Their work, which included wild and misty landscapes with rugged foregrounds at times populated with Indian figures spoke of a wildness and sense of the sublime that resonated with the contemporary interest in the Picturesque and the growing Romantic movement. Views of Indian architecture and landscapes not only aroused a sense of wonder and curiosity amongst European travellers, both actual and armchair, they possibly also evoked a sense of nostalgia amongst those with first hand knowledge of India, such as Charles Cockerell.[17]

A collector of art, Charles Cockerell owned works by Hodges and Daniell.[18] What is more, he probably already knew Thomas Daniell, having met him in Calcutta and may have bought pictures from the Daniells in the lottery of 150 pictures they held in 1792 to fund their further travels.[19] The public acclaim given to the Daniells’ work bore explicit approval of representations of India and implicit approval of the notion of ‘empire’, especially since the acquittal of Hastings, may have been sufficient to inspire Cockerell with his ambitious project, but there is another personality whose influence should be considered.

Thomas Daniell’s work also came to the attention of Mirza Abu Talem Khan. Visiting England between 1799 and 1803, Mirza Abu Talem Khan became something of a celebrity amongst Georgian society, welcomed into the drawing rooms of the elite and presented at Court. He describes visiting the house of ‘Mr D_____l’, where he ‘saw the paintings of many of my Indian acquaintances, and some beautiful paintings of the Taje Mahal…at Agra and of several other places in Hindoostan, most accurately delineated.’[20] He considered the English to have ‘had an opinion that there were not any buildings worth looking at in India,’ and ‘rejoiced that Mr Daniel had, by his skill, enabled me to convince them of the contrary’.[21] Charles Cockerell had close connections with Mirza Abu Talem Khan, ‘liberally supply[ing]’ him with money for drafts drawn on Calcutta, and offering him hospitality in London and at Sezincote.[22] In his travel journal Mirza Abu Talem Khan notes that it was ‘the custom for gentleman of fortune to quit London during the summer months and to amuse themselves by travelling about the country’ visiting the house of friends and acquaintances; Charles Cockerell conducted him on such a tour in 1801.[23] He was full of praise for the wonders of Windsor castle and for Blenheim Palace, which he found to be ‘without comparison, superior to anything I ever beheld. The beauties of Windsor Park fade before it; and every other place I had visited was effaced from my recollection on viewing its magnificence’.[24] He describes ‘Seasoncot’ as a ‘delightful spot’, and is also appreciative of Hasting’s home at Daylesford.[25] The work on Sezincote did not begin until at least 1805. Could this friendship, and the affirmation of the accuracy of Daniells’ work, have reignited Cockerell’s interest in India and been the impetus to redevelop his estate?

That Charles was unafraid to display his wealth and his taste for the unusual and a sense of artistic enlightenment is demonstrated in his robust response to criticism of the external appearance of his Hyde Park Corner mansion. The incident, which occurred in 1807, was detailed in Ackermann’s Repository, July 1810, and referred to a bas-relief of two satyrs in Coade stone on the front of the house, which were reported as obscene by the Society for Suppression of Vice. Cockerell refused to be bullied into removing them by arbitrary threats, defending them against ‘bigotry and ignorance’.[26] Despite this, Samuel Pepys Cockerell wrote to his son Charles Robert Cockerell that ‘Sir Chas…has not the least knowledge or discrimination’ – a damning indictment of Sir Charles’ taste, not unlike the criticism levelled at other nabobs for their conspicuous displays of wealth.[27]

Sezincote, Glos  12 August 2013 (68)

Figure 10: Shiva lingam fountain in the Temple pool, Sezincote. Photograph by Diane James © 2013.

It is quite possible that Charles Cockerell had a genuine interest in Indian architecture and in India culture that ran deep enough to create this Indian idyll in the heart of the English countryside. He had after all spent his most formative years in India. The octagonal room to the north of the house (see figure 6), thought to be his bedroom, faces the rising sun, which is reflected gloriously through the stained glass panels – was this a deliberate positioning or simply a response to the topographical demands of the location of the house in the Cotswold hills?The design of the Temple pool with its temple to the sun god Surya, its fountain and indeed the shape of the pool itself, also warrant consideration with its references to Indian religious and spiritual beliefs. The fountain in the middle of the yoni shaped pool rises like a Shiva lingam, fed from a natural spring, and water cascades down through the Thornery in a regenerative sense (see figure 10). The Indian bridge, clearly inspired by the Caves of Elephanta in Mumbai Harbour, is built with Hindu columns, four deep, with stepping stones underneath and a stone seat in the middle, offering a place of quiet contemplation. Head suggests these columns were used for more functional reasons, offering the practical strength to carry the weight of a horse and carriage (see figure 11). [28] Mughal columns being more delicate might not have stood the test of time quite so well; the bridge is still in use today and is now required to bear the weight of cars. At Sezincote, Indian architecture has been adapted successfully to accommodate the practical demands of an English country estate.

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Figure 11: Detail of the Indian bridge, Sezincote, showing the stone seat, the serpent fountain and Brahmin bulls. Photograph by Jan Sibthorpe © 2013.


[1] Head, ‘Sezincote’, p.27.

[2] Ibid., p. 28.

[3] Metcalf, An Imperial Vision, p.18.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fellinger, ‘”All Man’s Pollution Does the Sea Cleanse”: Revisiting the Nabobs in Britain, 1785 – 1837’, p. 64.

[6] The Travels of Mirza Abu Talem Khan in Asia, Africa and Europe during the years 1799, 1800,1801, 1802 and 1803, Written by Himself in the Persian Language. Translated by Charles Stewart Esq. M.A.S, Vol.1 (London: Longman, Hurst, and Orme, 1810), p. 165.

[7] Ibid, p.165.  Edward Peake suggests that the gardens of Sezincote supplied the London house, (personal conversation 30th January 2013).

[8] Rudolph Ackermann, Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions, and Politics, London, Vol. 4 (July, 1810), p. 40.

[9] Conner, Oriental Architecture in the West, p. 113.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 114.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cited in Conner, Oriental Architecture in the West, p. 114.

[14] Head, ‘Sezincote’, p. 29.

[15] Ibid., p. 29.

[16] Mildred Archer, ‘The Daniells in India and their Influence on British Architecture’, RIBA Journal, 67, (September, 1960), p. 444.

[17] For instance, the first English building directly associated with Oriental Scenery was designed by Thomas Daniell. The small temple at Melchet Park, Hampshire, home of Major Sir John Osborne, a former soldier in India, was erected in 1800 in honour of Warren Hastings. See Archer ‘The Daniells in India’, p. 444 and Conner, Oriental Architecture in the West, p. 120.

[18] Head, ‘Sezincote’, p. 35.

[19] Archer, ‘The Daniells in India’, pp. 439-444; personal conversation with Edward Peake 30 January 2013.

[20] The Travels of Mirza Abu Talem Khan in Asia, Africa and Europe,p. 198.

[21] Ibid., p. 267.

[22] Ibid., p. 165.

[23] Ibid., p. 166.

[24] Ibid., p. 172.

[25] Ibid., pp. 166-7.  

[26] Rudolph Ackermann, Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions, and Politics, London, Vol.4 (July, 1810), p.41.

[27] Quoted by Head, ‘Sezincote’, p.36, from a letter dated 7 May 1816.

[28] Head, ‘Sezincote’, p.70.

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