Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Woodchester

In a secluded Cotswold valley near Stroud, Woodchester is an unfinished Victorian Gothic house, abandoned  in 1873. The house was built for William Leigh, son of a wealthy industrialist  and Roman Catholic convert who inherited a fortune and bought the Woodchester estate in 1845. In January the following year Leigh engaged the eminent architect A.W.N.Pugin to survey the existing mansion on the estate and propose improvements. Pugin visited Woodchester and proposed demolition. He sent Leigh his designs for a new house but later resigned the commission. Leigh then engaged Bristol based architect Charles Hanson, who began by work on the north wing, the servants' quarters.


At William Leigh's request a young local man, Benjamin Bucknall was employed to work in Hanson's office. Bucknall was also a recent Catholic convert shared Leigh's admiration for French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. Before long Bucknall took over the project, basing his design on Pugin's plans and consulting Viollet-le-Duc. From the outside Woodchester appears to be an impressive Gothick mansion. But on entering the house the extraordinary reality is revealed;  a house left unchanged since work on it stopped before it was completed



The mansion is built from local limestone. All the principal rooms on the ground floor have vaulted ceilings, highly unusual in a domestic building.

Library door

Library

The only principal room in the mansion to have been finished is the Drawing Room, completed for a visit by Cardinal Newman in 1894.

Drawing Room ceiling


The Loo

The grand staircase has a rare example of a vaulted ceiling installed at an angle, a challenge to design, and to build.



In the main wing of the house the fireplaces are stacked up above each other, only the floorboards are missing.





The bath is carved from a single block of stone.In the corner of the bathroom is a water cure room, a shower with cold water only delivered through a leopard's mask.



The fireplace in the bathroom is decorated with carvings symbolizing the Garden of Eden, fruit, birds and of course, a serpent.


The second floor corridor.


The kitchen in the north wing was one of the first and only parts of the mansion to be finished.


The scullery.


The chapel has the most impressive interior at Woodchester. Its great height is dramatic in relation to its relative short length. It features two stone balconies and a confessional booth, its glory is the rose window.


Next to the chapel, the sacristy.



Progress on the mansion was slow because the workforce was always being withdrawn to work on other projects on the estate. William Leigh's personality also contributed to the slow progress of the mansion, he was a perfectionist who insisted on overseeing all the work himself. Woodchester Mansion was unfinished at the time of his death in January 1873.


William Leigh's son Willie inherited the Woodchester estate. He consulted the opinions of two architects for ideas on the best way to finish the house. One of them was Benjamin Bucknall who surprisingly  suggested either partial or complete demolition and rebuilding elsewhere in the park and estimate that it would have been cheaper to build a new house rather than finish the mansion. Bucknall cautioned against leaving the mansion unfinished, feeling that it would compromise the value of the estate:

                                        "No ruin is more melancholy looking or
                                         produces sadder impressions, than that
                                         of an unfinished house - its existence
                                         would cast a perpetual gloom over the
                                         Park."

But none of the suggestions were acted upon and nor was any  further work carried out on Woodchester Mansion. Woodchester Mansion died with its builder. The Leigh family faded away, with male heirs suffering from illness and premature death. The family line died out with the death of two spinster sisters after the war. In 1989 the Woodchester Mansion Trust was established to conserve Benjamin Bucknall's  Victorian Gothic masterpiece exactly as it is, in its unfinished state.