Matthew Brettingham

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Holkham Hall. Matthew Brettingham's first notable employment was here as Clerk of the Works and executive architect in 1739.
Holkham Hall. Matthew Brettingham's first notable employment was here as Clerk of the Works and executive architect in 1739.

Matthew Brettingham (1699–1769), sometimes called Matthew Brettingham the Elder, was an 18th century Englishman who rose from humble origins to supervise the construction of Holkham Hall, eventually becoming one of the country's better known architects of his generation. Much of his principal work is now demolished, especially his work in London where he revolutionised the design of the grand townhouse. As a result he is often overlooked today, remembered only for his Palladian remodelling of numerous country houses, many of which are situated in the East Anglian area of Britain. As the pinnacle of Brettingham's career came into sight, Palladianism began to fall out of fashion and neoclassicism was introduced, championed by a young Robert Adam.

Early life

Brettingham was born in 1699, the son of Launcelot Brettingham, a bricklayer living in Norwich, the county town of Norfolk, England. His early life is little documented and one of the earliest recorded references to him is in 1719, when he and his brother Robert were admitted as freemen to the city of Norwich as bricklayers. A critic of Brettingham's at this time claimed that the work was so poor that it was not worth the nine shillings a week he was paid as a craftsman bricklayer. Whatever the quality of his bricklaying, he soon advanced himself and became a building contractor.

Local contractor

During the early eighteenth century, a building contractor was far more responsible than the title suggests today. A contractor often designed, built, and oversaw all details of construction to completion. Architects, often called surveyors, were employed only for the grandest and largest of buildings. By 1730, Brettingham is referred to as a surveyor and as working on more important structures than cottages and agricultural buildings. In 1731, it is recorded he was paid £112 for his work on Norwich Gaol. From then, he appears to have worked regularly as the surveyor to the Justices (the contemporary local authority) on public buildings and bridges through to the 1740s. One project from this time was the remodelling of the Shire House in Norwich. Brettingham had been employed to redesign and oversee the project. His work on this building, which was in the gothic style and showed a versatility of design rare for Brettingham, was to result in a protracted court case that was to rumble on through a large part of his life, with unfounded allegations of financial discrepancies. In 1755, the case was eventually closed, and Brettingham was left several hundred pounds out of pocket, and with a stain — if only a local one — on his character. Transcripts of the case suggest it was Brettingham's brother Robert, to whom he had subcontracted, who may have been the cause of the allegations.


There is no evidence that Brettingham ever formally studied architecture or even travelled abroad. The Dictionary of National Biography reports him as having made two study trips abroad. However, this assumption was made on the strength of an anonymous book now ascribed to someone else, and the other because of confusion with his son Matthew Brettingham the Younger.

In 1734, Brettingham had his first great opportunity, when two of the foremost Palladian architects of the day, William Kent and Lord Burlington, were collaboratively designing a grandiose Palladian country palace at Holkham in Norfolk for Thomas Coke, first Earl of Leicester. Brettingham was appointed Clerk of Works, a position he was to retain until the completion of Holkham Hall in 1764. The illustrious architects were mostly absent; indeed Burlington was more of an idealist than an architect, and thus Brettingham and the patron Lord Leicester worked on the project together: the practical Brettingham interpreting the plans of the architects to Leicester's requirements. It was at Holkham that Brettingham first worked with the fashionable Palladian style, which was to be his trademark. Holkham was to be Brettingham's vaulting horse to fame, as it was through his association with it that he came to the note of other local patrons.

Brettingham was commissioned in 1740 to redesign Langley Hall, a mansion standing in its own parkland in South Norfolk. Brettingham's resultant design was very much in the Palladian style of Holkham, though much smaller: a large principal central block linked to two flanking secondary wings by short corridors. Ironically the corner towers, while similar to those later designed by Brettingham at Euston Hall, were the work of a later owner and architect. The neoclassical lodges were a later addition, by Sir John Soane. Brettingham began work in 1745 on the construction of Hanworth Hall, Norfolk, which again is in the Palladian style, with a five-bay facade of brick with the centre three bays projected with a pediment. (similar to that at Gunton pictured below)

Gunton Hall, designed by Matthew Brettingham.
Gunton Hall, designed by Matthew Brettingham.

In 1745 Brettingham designed Gunton Hall in Norfolk for Sir William Harbourd, three years after the former house on the site was gutted by fire. The new house of brick had a principal facade like that of Hanworth Hall, which had five bays and a projected and pedimented centre. However, this larger house was seven bays deep, and had a large service wing on its western side.

In 1750, now well-known, the architect received an important commission to remodel Euston Hall, coincidentally in East Anglia, the Norfolk country seat of the influential Duke of Grafton. The original house, built circa 1666 in the French style, was built around a central court with large pavilions at each corner. While keeping the original layout, Brettingham formalised the fenestration and imposed a more classically severe order whereby the pavilions were transformed to towers in the Palladian fashion (similar to those of Inigo Jones's at Wilton House) and the pavilion's domes were replaced by low pyramid roofs similar to those at Holkham. Brettingham also created the large service courtyard at Euston that now acts as the entrance court to the mansion, which today is only a fraction of its former size.

The Euston commission seems to have brought Brettingham firmly to the notice of other wealthy patrons. In 1754, he began designing a new picture gallery for the Earl of Egremont at Petworth House, Suffolk, and continued work intermittently at Petworth for the next nine years.

The London House

From 1747, Brettingham operated from London as well as Norwich. This period marks a turning point in his career, as he was now no longer designing country houses and farm buildings just for the local aristocrats and the Norfolk gentry, but for the greater aristocracy based in London.

One of Brettingham's greatest solo commissions came when he was asked to design a town house for the Duke of Norfolk in St. James's Square, London. Completed in 1756, the exterior of this mansion was similar to those of many of the great palazzi in Italian cities: bland and featureless, the piano nobile distinguishable only by its tall pedimented windows. This arrangement, devoid of pilasters and a pediment giving prominence to the central bays at roof height, was initially too severe for the English taste, even by the fashionable Palladian standards of the day. Early critics declared the design "insipid".

However, the interior design of Norfolk House was to define the London town house for the next century, with a circuit of reception rooms around a grand staircase, the staircase hall replacing the Italian traditional inner courtyard or two-storey hall. This arrangement of salons allowed guests at large parties to circulate, having been received at the head of the staircase, without doubling back on arriving guests. The second advantage was that while each room had access to the next, it also had access to the central stairs, thus allowing only one or two rooms to be used at a time for smaller functions. Previously, guests in London houses had had to reach the principal salon through a long enfilade of minor reception rooms. In this square and compact way, Brettingham came close to recreating the layout of an original Palladian Villa. He transformed what Palladio had conceived of as a country retreat into a London mansion appropriate for the lifestyle of the British aristocracy with its reversal of the usual Italian domestic pattern of a large palazzo in town, and a smaller villa in the country. As happened so often in Brettingham's career, Robert Adam later developed this design concept further, and was credited with the success. However, Brettingham's plan for Norfolk House was to serve as the prototype for many London mansions over the following few decades.

Lord Egremont, for whom Brettingham was working in the country at Petworth, gave Brettingham another opportunity to design a grandiose London mansion — the Egremont family's town house. Begun in 1759, this Palladian palace, known at the time as Egremont House or more modestly as 94 Piccadilly, is one of the few of the great London town houses still standing. It later came to be known as Cambridge House and was the home of Lord Palmerston, then The Naval & Military Club; as of 2005, it is in the process of conversion to a luxury hotel.

Kedleston Hall

Kedleston Hall was Brettingham's opportunity to prove himself capable of designing a house to rival Holkham Hall. The chance was snatched from him by Robert Adam, who completed the North front (above) much as Brettingham designed it but with a more dramatic portico.
Kedleston Hall was Brettingham's opportunity to prove himself capable of designing a house to rival Holkham Hall. The chance was snatched from him by Robert Adam, who completed the North front (above) much as Brettingham designed it but with a more dramatic portico.

Sir Nathaniel Curzon, later 1st Baron Scarsdale, having refused a prospective design by James Gibbs, one of the leading architects of the day, commissioned Brettingham in 1759 to design a great country house to equal Holkham Hall. (Lord Leicester, Holkham's owner and Brettingham's employer, was a particular hero of Curzon.) Curzon was a Tory from a very old Derbyshire family, and he wished to create a showpiece to rival the nearby Chatsworth House owned by the Whig Duke of Devonshire, whose family were relative newcomers in the county, having arrived little more than two hundred years earlier. However, the Duke of Devonshire's influence, wealth, and title were far superior to Curzon's, and he managed neither to complete his house nor to match the Devonshire’s influence the William Cavendish, fourth Duke of Devonshire had been Prime Minister in the 1750s. This commission might have been the ultimate accolade Brettingham was seeking, to recreate Holkham but this time with full credit. Kedleston Hall was designed by Brettingham on a plan by Andrea Palladio for the unbuilt Villa Mocenigo. The design by Brettingham, similar to that of Holkham Hall, was for a massive principal central block flanked by four secondary wings, each a miniature country house, themselves linked by quadrant corridors. From the outset of the project, Curzon seems to have presented Brettingham with rivals. While Brettingham was still in 1759 supervising the construction of the initial phase, the northeast family block, Curzon employed the architect James Paine, the most notable architect of the day, to supervise the kitchen block and quadrants. Paine also went on to supervise the construction of Brettingham's great north front. However, this was a critical moment for architecture in England. Palladianism was being challenged by a new fashion for neoclassical designs, one exponent of which was Robert Adam. Curzon had met Adam as early as 1758, had been impressed by the young architect newly returned from Rome, and employed Adam to design some garden pavilions for the new Kedleston. So impressed was Curzon by Adam's work that by April 1760 he had put Adam in sole charge of the design of the new mansion, replacing both Brettingham and Paine. Adam completed the north facade of the mansion much as Brettingham had designed it, only altering Brettingham's intended octagonal portico to a more dramatic six-columned portico. The basic layout of the house remained loyal to Brettingham's original plan, although only two of the proposed four secondary wings were executed.

Brettingham's self-confidence may have been restored when, in the 1760s, he was approached by his most illustrious patron, the Duke of York (brother of King George III), to design one of the greatest mansions in Pall Mall, namely York House. The rectangular mansion that Brettingham designed was built in the Palladian style on two principal floors, with the state rooms as at Norfolk House arranged in a circuit around the central staircase hall. The house was a mere pastiche of Norfolk House, but for Brettingham it had the kudos of a royal occupant.


Its royal occupant may very well have made York House the pinnacle of Brettingham's career. Built during the 1760s, it was one of his last grand houses. Brettingham died in 1769. This spared him the humiliation of witnessing Adam's remodelling of the house in 1780. Throughout his long career, Brettingham did much to popularise the Palladian movement. His client list included a Royal Duke and at least twenty-one assorted peers and peeresses. He is not a household name today largely because his provincial work was heavily influenced by Kent and Burlington, and unlike his contemporary Giacomo Leoni he did not develop, or was not given the opportunity to develop, a strong personal stamp to his work on country houses. Ultimately, he and many of his contemporary architects were eclipsed by the designs of Robert Adam. Following the debacle at Kedleston Hall, Adam went on to replace the unfortunate James Paine as architect at Nostell Priory, Alnwick Castle, and Syon House. In spite of this, Adam and Paine remained great friends; Brettingham's relationships with his fellow architects are unrecorded.

Brettingham's principal contribution to architecture is perhaps the design of the grand town house, unremarkable for its exterior but with a circulating plan for reception rooms suitable for entertaining within on a forgotten scale of lavishness. Many of these anachronistic palaces are now long demolished or have been transformed to other uses and are denied to public view. Hence, what little remains in London of his unique work is unknown to the general public. Of Brettingham's work, only the buildings he remodelled have survived, and for this reason Brettingham nowadays tends to be thought of as an "improver" rather than an architect of country houses.

That he enjoyed success in his own lifetime is beyond doubt — Robert Adam calculated that when Brettingham sent his son, also Matthew, on the Grand Tour, he went with a sum of money in his pocket of around £15,000, an enormous amount at the time. However, part of this sum was probably used to acquire the statuary in Italy (documented as supplied by Matthew Brettingham the Younger) for the nearly completed Holkham Hall. Ironically, while the design of that great monumental house, which still stands, cannot truly be accredited to him, it is the building for which Brettingham is best remembered.

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