Holkham Edited by Leo Schmidt et al. Prestel, 2005.239pp. £30
Holkham is one of the great houses of Britain. However, as its current administrator says in his contribution to this volume, in attracting visitors it has to contend with its rather isolated Norfolk situation. Certainly, anyone who undertakes the journey will be amply rewarded by its particular contrast of external austerity and internal magnificence.
The authors, of whom there are 16, have contributed in various ways to the book's contents, but who wrote what is not explained, and then only partially, until the penultimate page. This should not be taken as criticism, since their efforts are clearly aimed to be collaborative, which is perhaps reflective of the house itself.
The 1962 Pevsner for Norfolk spoke only of William Kent as architect. In a series of articles in Country Life, Leo Schmidt later argued that the history was much more complicated. The man who commissioned the house, Thomas Coke MP (created Earl of Leicester in 1744), himself probably played a substantial role, together with Matthew Brettingham, and probably with advice from Lord Burlington. That view was reinforced by the discovery and publication of letters between Coke and Brettingham by C Hiskey (in Architectural History), which show Coke giving him the most precise instructions on the works then in hand.
It demonstrates that a great building need not be the result of one mind, but can be the product of many interacting ones, even if it does require a single figure of great vision and tenacity to carry the project through. Wheeler-dealer politician he may have been, but Coke clearly was such a man. That statement needs a gloss only to the extent of including his redoubtable widow who, their dissolute only son having died early, brought his life's work to completion.
Apart from the architecture, another fascinating aspect is that of the original arrangement of the paintings, and their significance. Although previous writers on Holkham have discussed this in terms of overall aesthetic effect, C M Vogtherr here proposes elaborate schemes of content reference, including some to contemporary political events.
At least part of this, although intriguing, seems, as the author admits, not directly provable, and will perhaps strike some as far-fetched in its detail.
The contribution of Coke's great-nephew, Thomas William Coke, the agriculturalist, for whom the earldom was recreated in 1837, is also addressed, since he was mostly responsible for the grounds as they are today. As is that of his son, the second earl, who commissioned S S Teulon to create the terraces.
The overall tone is somewhat uneven between the scholarly and the anecdotal, but this may not matter too much in a book that few are likely to read from cover to cover. It is very handsomely produced and includes a wealth of plans and elevations of the various stages of the genesis of the house. An index would, however, have been helpful.
Kenneth Campbell teaches at King's College London