High Cliffe - the home of Lord Stuart de Rothesay
Both Pugin and Ferrey would undoubtedly have taken a keen interest in Lord Stuart's building works. Ferrey would have known this area from his youth and it seems probable that Pugin took an interest in the building as he knew that the exterior would incorporate Gothic elements. So it was that in December 1835 Pugin paid a visit to Highcliffe, as vividly recounted by Ferrey in his 1861 biography:-
"Curious stories are told of Pugin in reference to his independent spirit while corresponding with employers or directing their works. The following is a specimen of this. The late Lord Stuart de Rothesay, having found some beautiful remains of a conventual building in the south of France, and being about to build a residence on the south-east coast near Christchurch, determined to purchase the materials, have them removed to England, and use them as far as they could be made applicable to the design of a new and large mansion.
The site chosen by his Lordship was a part of the high cliff facing the Isle of Wight. Near this spot there had formerly been a house belonging to the Earl of Bute, the celebrated minister, which, owing to the encroachment of the sea on that part of the coast, was literally by degrees washed into it. Still Lord Stuart thought that by draining the land springs and taking other precautions he could prevent the spread of further mischief. Acting on this belief, he began the erection of a stately pile at such a distance from the edge of the cliff as was thought sufficient to leave a good margin to the buildings for ages to come [evidently and thankfully some of this margin remains to this day!]. But notwithstanding all precautions the drainage has not been so effectual as to save the cliff from disruption. By the expansion of frozen land springs after severe frosts, and the encroachment of the sea, landslips still occasionally take place.
Lord Stuart not being perfectly satisfied with the design of the building, which was being conducted under the superintendence of the late Mr. Donthorn, and desiring to obtain the mature judgement of Pugin, invited him to High Cliff to act as his consulting architect. He at once assented, and repaired to High Cliff to inspect the works.
Arriving in the afternoon, he engaged himself busily in examining all that was going on; soon made himself master of his subject, and with his usual rapidity, before the close of the day had prepared sketches for Lord Stuart's approval.
After dinner he exhibited his plans, entering into explanations, and pointing out all the alterations which he considered indispensable. His suggestions, unfortunately, did not fall on such willing ears as he expected. Lord S. had spent large sums in the work already done, and was not disposed to pull down heavy stonework just finished; and some amount of demolition was quite necessary to meet Pugin's views. After much discussion, therefore, they separated. Lord Stuart intended to resume the subject on the next morning, but in this he was disappointed. To meet Pugin's convenience, an early breakfast hour was appointed for the next day, and at the time fixed some surprise was expressed that he did not appear. Inquiry being made, it was discovered that Pugin had risen at six o'clock, taken his carpet bag in hand, walked some distance to a little way-side inn [perhaps the Cat & Fiddle], and thence taken his departure by coach to London, without previously giving the slightest intimation of his intention to any one in the house. Thus terminated his connexion with Lord Stuart de Rothesay. All this abruptness arose from the simple circumstance that his employer did not at once adopt his recommendations. Probably this discourtesy would not have been shown at an earlier period in his career, but he had now obtained such a professional standing that he could afford to disregard giving offence."
Thus it was that the 24 year old Pugin, at the height of his energies and talents, let down the older Lord Stuart. It is intriguing to wonder what became of those sketches and how Highcliffe Castle would have appeared if Pugin's consultancy had been taken on board. No doubt a full Gothic treatment would have ensued. Whilst Highcliffe is undoubtedly an impressive building and has been feted as "the most important remaining example of the Romantic and Picturesque style of architecture", it can be argued that it lacks a certain purity and could even be viewed as something of an architectural compromise. No doubt it was the very whiff of a compromise that sent Pugin fleeing.
1 Ferrey, Benjamin. Recollections of A.N. Welby Pugin, and his father Augustus Pugin; with notices of their works . With an appendix by E. Sheridan Purcell. London, Edward Stanford 1861.
Notes compiled by Fraser Donachie. Further details of the Pugin Society may be found at www.pugin-society.1to1.org.
Copyright © Fraser Donachie 2006