Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Hamlet Court should be saved, says leading Nash scholar

A leading academic and Nash scholar has argued strongly that the threat of demolition hanging over Hamlet Court, in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, should be lifted. Dr Geoffrey Tyack, FSA, FR Hist Soc, Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford, said that any proposal to demolish Hamlet Court, or to threaten its immediate surroundings by inappropriate new building, 'should be strongly resisted, on two grounds: the need to preserve the scale and character of the Cowes waterfront, which has already been grievously damaged; and the possibility that the house may be part of the ‘new building’ for Lord Belfast designed by the architect John Nash and referred to in his Diary on 21 January and 14 February 1832.

'The threat to the scale of the waterfront is', he said, 'obvious to even the most superficial observer. The shoreline to the west of the old Castle and the Royal Yacht Squadron has, ever since the 1820s and 30s, been the site of small-scale villas, the first of which were built by wealthy gentlemen and noblemen who used them as occasional residences during the yachting season. Behind was and is Holy Trinity church, built in 1832, and then higher up, situated among trees, Northwood House, originally home of the Ward family, for whom Nash did designs (although it is not clear how much, if any, of the present building is by him). Nash also rebuilt St Mary’s church, near the house, and his tower – one of his most adventurous designs - still survives. The group value of these buildings, especially as seen from the Solent, is of the highest importance, not only on scenic grounds but also as a record of the town in one of its most prosperous periods. Several of the nineteenth-century villas have gone, and this makes the retention of those that remain, such as Hamlet Court, doubly essential if Cowes is to preserve its links with the past and its unique architectural identity.

'Hamlet Court, though still an attractive building, at least externally, has been greatly altered but has retained its relaxed, intimate scale, so typical of the villas that once lined the waterfront. If it could be established that it is indeed ‘Lord Belfast’s new building’, referred to by Nash in his diary, it would merit retention on those grounds alone, as one of the last buildings by one of England’s major architects: the man responsible for the Brighton Pavilion, Regent’s Park and its terraces, the layout of Regent Street, and for most of Buckingham Palace as it exists today. By 1832 Nash had retired from regular practice in London to East Cowes Castle (now sadly demolished), and had only three more years to live. But he continued to carry out small commissions for friends on the Isle of Wight, and the house for Lord Belfast (later third Marquess of Donegal) seems to have been the last of these. He had already in 1825 designed a Gothic villa for Sir John Coxe-Hippisley which still  seems to survive, though much altered, next to the Royal Yacht Squadron, and Hamlet Court appears to have been a similar commission. Barber’s Picturesque Illustrations of the Isle of Wight (1845) refers to the villas of Lord Belfast and Lord Grantham on the west cliff, towards Egypt, and it would be worth finding out the exact location of these houses. But even if Hamlet Court cannot be proved to be by Nash it is still an important part of the history and visual identity of Cowes, and merits preservation, with its surroundings, on those grounds alone'.

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