It was the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon who, in 1838, commissioned architect Charles Barry to transform the Georgian House he had inherited at Highclere into a spectacular Italianate Castle. Agreement was reached and the ceremony to inaugurate the beginning of the work with the laying of the first stone at the base of great tower took place in 1842.
In pursuit of various researches, I have been gathering together Barry’s letters and drawings. The ones of Highclere are beautiful and the building is an extraordinary achievement from the pre-eminent architect of the day.
Highclere has a very similar intricate silhouette to the Houses of Parliament in London and I usually quip, thankfully, that Highclere is, luckily, somewhat smaller. We have apparently 200 to 300 rooms; the Houses of Parliament far, far more with a lot more roof, corridors, staircases and central halls as well.
Charles Barry had won the competition to rebuild the Houses of Parliament in 1836 following the great fire that took place there in 1834. Before he could begin he had to rebuild the river wall against the Thames using granite brought down from Aberdeen in Scotland. Unlike Highclere, the first stone was laid with little ceremony in 1840.
As the project progressed various changes were made by the supervising committee. Members of Parliament tried to hold various areas to their proprietorial control and the inevitable complaints soon began about running over budget. There was a long running argument about how to ventilate the building and particular tension developed between Barry and one Dr Reid who felt he should be the one to instruct Barry.
Barry was a practical engineer with extensive knowledge of building. He was experienced in how to lay foundations over marsh and quicksand and innovative uses of scaffolding and powered machinery hoists. Iron girders and sheets of iron were used in preference to wood to militate against another fire.
Reading Barry’s letters, it becomes obvious that the Houses of Parliament, for all their success, gave him little pleasure and he became very stressed and tired. Highclere seems to have been a happier commission. There are letters of dispute to builders here but expressed, thankfully, with more courtesy!