Vanbrugh letter returns to Bristol

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

By David Martyn, Chair of the Kings Weston Action Group

Bristol Archives recently received an important new addition: a letter by the architect Sir John Vanbrugh (ref. 46048) detailing the construction of Kings Weston House. The archives already hold a nationally important archive of material relating to the Grade I Listed building in the north of the city, including an album of Vanbrugh’s original architectural drawings and the only other known letter relating to the house’s construction.

Vanbrugh Letter concerning the construction of Kings Weston House, for Edward Southwell. Now held at the Bristol Archives.

The newly received Vanbrugh letter, dated 1 December 1713

The letter recently came on the market from a private collection in the US and both the Friends of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives and Kings Weston Action Group offered their financial support to secure its return to the city.

The letter dates from 1 December 1713, five weeks after the date of the letter already held by Bristol Archives, and is written to his client, Edward Southwell. The October letter (ref. 45935/6) is well published and describes Southwell’s “chateaux” being complete to roof level with Vanbrugh, anxious to ensure the right effect of the distinctive chimney arcade, urging him to make a tryalls of the heights with boards” as he “would fain to have that part rightly hit off”.

Extract from Vanbrugh’s drawings of Kings Weston House

An extract of Vanbrugh’s drawings of Kings Weston House


The newly acquired letter is less well known, missing from the official catalogue, and known only from publication in an obscure American literature journal over forty years ago. It deals mainly with the opposite extreme of the house – its vaulted cellars – but also gives more detail on the progress of the works and future plans.

In reply to a now-lost letter from his client, Vanbrugh expresses his own pleasure at Southwell’s clear satisfaction and joy of being able to walk room-to-room on the rough floors. He then goes on to the main business of the letter and the issue of forming masonry vaults over the cellars, and trying to dissuade Southwell from scrimping on the cost. From an inspection of the house today, we can see that Vanbrugh was largely successful in his petition, but also that the floor of the present grand stair hall was clearly intended to be of stone.

Of great interest is Vanbrugh’s discussion of the plans to build his intended kitchen wing at the rear of the building, a structure largely known from its inclusion in Bristol Archives’ other great Vanbrugh holding: the Kings Weston Book of Drawings (ref. 33746). It’s clear that, in December 1713, the decision to build the “offices” had not yet been taken, but again Vanbrugh is in his most persuasive mode and suggests it would be a fine accompaniment to the Great Terrace that Southwell had only recently decided to construct to his architect’s specification. The kitchen was built initially, but was demolished and replaced a few decades later.

Bristol Archives also holds papers of Edward Southwell (ref. 44785) and of the Southwell, de Clifford, Russell and Miles families who lived at Kings Weston House for two centuries (refs. 12964, 42725 and 45317).

This letter adds a significant new page, quite literally, to the history of Kings Weston, and further amplifies the importance of Bristol Archives holdings on one of Britain’s most famous architects.

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