In the grounds of a 17th century house remodelled by Sir John Soane, Craig Hamilton has created a swimming pool indebted to early 20th century classicism.
As he picks me up from Kemble station, Craig Hamilton and I compare notes on the past 24 hours. We have both come from London, where I spent the preceding evening at a party at the top of the Shard and where he was supervising work on a soon-to-complete mausoleum at Kensal Rise cemetery. A more pointed illustration of the diversity of Britain’s architectural culture one could not hope to find. And yet, while our church may be broad, Hamilton’s position within it is undoubtedly a marginal one. Running a five-man practice from a farm in Radnorshire, he belongs to that hardy band of British practitioners working within the classical tradition — and even within this select group represents a strikingly individual voice.
Where so much contemporary classical architecture maintains a dogmatic adherence to Palladian and Regency sources, Hamilton’s work has demonstrated a developing determination to extend the language. Engagingly erudite, he talks with frequent reference to the work of other architects, a great many of whom — Charles Holden, Joze Plecnik, Marcello Piacentini, Hack Kamp-mann to name a few — were active in the early decades of the 20th century. A clear sense emerges of an architect busy interrogating the last moment at which classicism could be claimed as a vital tradition with a view to gathering up the story’s threads and extending them anew.
Our trip today is to visit the building of Hamilton’s that perhaps best exemplifies that concern: a swimming pool — or, as he prefers to term it, bath house — in the grounds of Williamstrip Park in Gloucestershire. Commanding a 2,000ha estate, this early 17th century house was substantially remodelled by Sir John Soane in the 1790s and, less happily, by David Brandon in the 1860s. However, after the second world war, Soane’s large servant wing and Brandon’s adjacent greenhouse were demolished in the interests of economy, leaving the building’s garden-facing east frontage particularly visually impoverished.
So the house remained until six years ago when its present owners commissioned Hamilton to fill the gap. The pavilion-like extension he has created here is an extraordinary piece of work in itself — if one strongly determined by the character of the house to which it is attached. In its use of a central pedimented projection of three-bays width and the adoption of such found details as beaded architraves and rusticated quoins, its primary elevation echoes the Soane frontage that stands alongside. The relationship between new and old is, however, framed as much in terms of contrast as imitation. As Hamilton’s half-joking description of it as an exercise in Greco-romano mannerism might suggest, his is a considerably fruitier elevation than its laconically proportioned and austerely detailed neighbour.
GROUND FLOOR PLAN
The mannerist alignment is to the early work of Michaelangelo, a debt that manifests itself both in the pendulous character of the detailing on the first floor — “This is a gravity-enjoying rather than gravity-resisting building,” as Hamilton puts it — and in the depth that he has lent the elevation through the introduction of niches and the recessing of the ground-floor columns into the body of the wall. These last elements follow the detailing of the Greek Delian order — a variation of Doric in which the shaft is left plain save for a narrow band of fluting at the top and bottom — but accord with the more attenuated proportions of the columns on the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome. Employed frequently by Hamilton’s particular hero, Charles Robert Cockerell, they have become a signature device for him too — an emblem of an architecture in which a new language emerges from a synthesis of eclectic sources.
The relationship between new and old is framed as much in terms of contrast as imitation
They figure again on the Bath House, but the two projects’ expression is otherwise quite distinct. Freestanding and oriented south, the new building relates to the house much in the way that Nash’s temple-fronted orangery does to the nearby Barnsley Park — an ensemble that served as a key precedent during discussions with the planners. In developing that image, Hamilton has abandoned mannerist ambiguity for an expression rooted in the decisive interpenetration of sparely decorated geometric forms that characterises his early 20th century enthusiasms. That change perhaps reflects a gathering confidence, or simply the greater freedom that the building’s dislocation from the house has afforded, but it is strategic too — the chaste and legible exterior serving as a foil to the very surprising interior concealed within.
Built with exceptional care out of 3mm jointed Bath stone, the building presents identical loggias in the attenuated Delian Doric along its long north and south frontages, lending them an expression that registers effectively when viewed at distance across the encompassing parkland. The entrance, however, is located on the narrow, pedimented west end. Approached laterally, we encounter it only at close quarters — a condition that Hamilton has taken as an opportunity to unleash a contained explosion of highly refined ornament.
Source: Paul Highnam
The entrance is framed by a splayed architrave and subsequently by two detached columns in a lighter Portland stone, which correspond to the Bassae order, the variant of the Ionic which Cockerell developed from his studies of the temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae and employed liberally in his design for Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Hamilton’s columns employ an expression of their own, however, the volutes having been teased into exaggeratedly luxurious swirls.
“They have a rather comical character,” the architect acknowledges, “like ears coming round to address you. The building is temple-like but the columns help communicate that it is ultimately devoted to pleasure rather than religion.”
The composition’s other key component is a bas-relief frieze, again in Portland stone, which extends behind the columns and is the work of Hamilton’s regular collaborator, the sculptor Alexander Stoddart. Focused on the goddess Aphrodite — the figure from Greek myth most associated with bathing — it charts the transformation of the Greek gods from the Old Dynasty, as represented by Oceanus and his wife, Tethys, to the New Dynasty, in the form of Poseidon and his wife Amphitrite (see box). As a myth of continuity and renewal, the subject resonates powerfully with Hamilton and Stoddart’s own ambitions to reanimate the classical tradition.
The experience of entering the building is one of considerable and delightful shock
Richly conceived as all this may be, the experience of entering the building remains one of considerable and delightful shock. We find ourselves in a top-lit vestibule, beyond which we can look down the pool’s length towards a spa, housed in an apse at the far end. There is an ecclesiastic character to this arrangement but the predominant association — vividly conveyed through a quite spectacularly lavish decorative treatment — is to the world of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Hamilton has approached this imagery, as it were, by way of an intermediary in the person of Franz von Stuck, the German painter who built himself a fantastical reinterpretation of an antique villa in Munich at the turn of the last century. The Bath House’s interior may not quite match the lush hedonism of that model but it draws directly on the artist’s use of joinery animated by vividly coloured inlaid marble and plaster casts of antique decoration, painted to resemble bronze.
These devices feature prominently in the vestibule but as we progress into the long room housing the pool a calmer mood takes hold, the only decorative elements being a flat expanse of Pompeiian red paint applied to the walls and the natural finish of marble. The floor, a dado and an encircling frieze are all formed of Kilkenny marble, the midnight blue finish of which is accentuated by narrow framing strips of Moleanus, an off-white Portuguese stone. At the far end the mood shifts subtly again, the highly figured ochre marble that forms a backdrop to the spa and the gilding applied to the fibrous plaster half-dome which crowns it conspiring to strike a ritzier, almost art deco note.
As originally planned, the building was to have had a larger footprint, with a gymnasium appended to its north frontage. However, that proposal met with resistance from the planners, prompting the gymnasium’s relocation underground: a change that has had the happy effect of allowing the pool to address the landscape by glazed doors running down both of its longer sides. Reached by way of a cantilevered stone stair leading down from the vestibule, the gymnasium now looks out onto a sunken courtyard of semi-circular plan.
Hamilton’s reuse of Plecnik’s motif adds another facet to this hall of mirrors
Crowned by a balustrade of large Portland stone slabs set on bronze cushions — a detail indebted to Piacentini — the space finds its focus in a fountain formed of a lion-headed bronze spout which discharges water into a large bowl of Killkenny marble. This is Hamilton’s reinterpretation of a fountain that Plecnik realised at Prague Castle in 1923. As in that model, lettering spells out the single word SEMPER on the bowl’s plinth — an inscription referencing both the Latin word for “always” and the name of Plecnik’s great inspiration, the German architect Gottfried Semper. Hamilton’s reuse of the motif here adds another facet to this hall of mirrors — a private joke, perhaps, but one that speaks of his sense of architecture as a process of continual metamorphosis.
I declined to ask the cost of what is quite clearly an extraordinarily expensive building — one in which pretty much every component down to the bronze hinges is a piece of bespoke design. Quite what Hamilton might bring to a commission conceived along more worldly lines remains a fascinating question. Towards the end of his career, Lutyens built social housing in Pimlico of a truly metropolitan scale. Is it unimaginable that a classical architect might be extended such a commission today?
Certainly after two decades in which his workload has been focused on the remodelling of country houses, Hamilton presents himself as hungry for new challenges. For the classical tradition to revive itself, he argues, it is imperative that architects like him find the opportunity to engage with contemporary architectural problems. On the evidence of his supremely assured and inventive Bath House, I very much hope he gets his wish.
Frieze tells a story of old and new
Sculptor Alexander Stoddart explains the significance of the figures depicted on his bas-relief above the entrance to the Williamstrip Bath House.
The left panel depicts the Old Dynasty of the Sea, and the right the New Dynasty.
First is Tethys, wife of Oceanus, the old king of the sea under the rule of the Titans. He and Tethys are shown as mature, or even old, people, and seem to have a reputation for constancy and detached wisdom.
Oceanus himself is a primordial being, sometimes configured as a river with neither beginning or end, staying aloof and distant from the actions of other deities. In the relief a figure of a triton blows upon his conch-shell and carries along an ecstatic Eros.
Source: Paul Highnam
In the opposing relief, working from right to left, first is Amphitrite, wife of Poseidon, here shown in vigorous middle age (if gods be age-bound!). Poseidon mounts his chariot, drawn by the horses which he confers as a primal benefit upon humanity. The world is tending towards civilisation, so the species-intermix typified by the triton is not here.
The composition balances the Eros with a charioteer — and this too has a suggestion of the renunciatory purpose behind so much of this imagery, for both in Plato and in the Buddhist scriptures, the role of the charioteer is often that of the constrainer of carnal passion (compare with Krishna acting as counsellor-charioteer to the perplexed Arjuna).
The central panel is given to the form of Aphrodite, who is a mean term between the Titanic and Olympian worlds here illustrated.
She is the most famous product of the sea, in mythological terms, but here is depicted arriving upon the island of Cyprus (she is sometimes known as “The Cyprian”) where her seat of worship resides. Specifically, the Cypriot location is Paphos, and it is here that the Seasons hasten to clothe her. So I have depicted this action, with Spring and Summer in attendance. Autumn, with a pruning hook, sits to the right, and Winter with a torch of Enlightenment to the left.
Alexander Stoddart is Her Majesty’s Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland
Architect Craig Hamilton Architects
Client Creath Estates
Structural engineer Frank Haywood & Associates
Quantity surveyor Steve Gooch Associates
Main contractor Meysey Construction
Masonry contractor Ketton Stone Masonry & Fixings