Grandiose Victorian Castles: Cragside and Langham Tower

During the nineteenth century, the region of Tyneside stood at the forefront of Britain’s industrial development. Capital was generated from the mining of coal, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. Foremost among Newcastle industrialists was William Ge

During the nineteenth century, the region of Tyneside stood at the forefront of Britain’s industrial development. Capital was generated from the mining of coal, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. Foremost among Newcastle industrialists was William George Armstrong, a brilliant inventor and a major architectural patron. Like many leading industrialists Armstrong moved to rural Northumberland and in 1864 he began construction of a country house. Cragside underwent a continuous evolution between 1869 and 1885 at the hands of architect Richard Norman Shaw.

A rambling composition anchored around a remarkable tower, Cragside is protean in its massing and bewildering in its variety of detail. The main bulk is executed in sandstone, but it abounds with half-timbered gables and decorative motifs drawn from a range of styles. The tower terminates with a diminutive but fully formed gable recessed behind mock battlements.

The interior featured wallpapers by Morris and Co., including Bird and Trellis and Pomegranate. The baronial dining room is a large chamber dominated by an inglenook fireplace. The drawing room was completed in 1884, but Frederick Waller of Gloucester carried out alterations in 1895. A Baroque chimneypiece in white marble was designed by Lethaby (1885).

Design for Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland - perspective of drawing-room chimneypiece, William Lethaby.

The house was built on an expanse of land comprising 1729 acres. Armstrong reshaped the topography, planting over 7 million trees and shrubs including conifers, rhododendrons and azaleas. The dominant impression is of man’s control over nature, and indeed Armstrong was able to harness the power of nature within the house. Armstrong created five artificial lakes on the hillside and used the water power to generate electricity for electric lights within the house, as well as passenger and service lifts. The kitchen was equipped with hydraulic machinery. Incandescent electric lamps were installed in 1880. Cragside was in fact the first house in the world to be lit in this way. As Armstrong wrote in the Engineer:

The case possesses novelty, not only in the application of this mode of lighting to domestic use, but also in the derivation of the producing power from a natural source – a neighbouring brook being turned to account for that purpose. The brook, in fact, lights the house, and there is no consumption of any material in the process.

Initially conceived as a country retreat, the house became a statement of the pride and status of the owner. Cragside provided a base for Armstrong’s international business relations, where potential clients could be accommodated in luxury and given a tangible vision of Armstong’s success. Guests included the Shah of Persia and Prince Yamashino of Japan. The house was also a staging point for ceremonial visits to Newcastle. The Prince and Princess of Wales visited Cragside in 1884. Whilst in the North East they formally opened the Hancock Museum, Free Library and the Jesmond Dene portion of Armstrong Park. They also visited the Elswick Works. The Prince of Wales returned with Princes Albert Victor and George in 1887, attending the Newcastle Exhibition and the Elswick Ordnance Works. Armstrong had effectively become Newcastle’s international ambassador. The estates created by Victorian industrialists are often viewed as a means by which industrial magnates emulated the manners and tastes of the upper classes. The purchase of rural estates is often viewed as an attempt to retreat from the realities of industrialisation and urbanisation. In Armstrong’s case, however, both mansion and estate were products of his technological ingenuity and key sites within his business relations.

Further south in the industrial town of Sunderland stands a suburban imitation of Cragside: Langham Tower. Built by a nouveau riche industrialist, it presents itself as a romantic country mansion, even though it exists in a middle class suburban setting. The main bulk is executed in red brick with dressings of sandstone. The tower thrusts out at the west front and terminates with a gable. A deep recess cut into the base encloses the entrance. A colossal chimney of moulded brick is planted alongside, giving prominence to the narrow frontage. Turning the corner, a longer elevation rises at the south, with three projecting bays of varying form. A square block with overhanging gable is succeeded by a canted bay, before an octagonal turret completes the group. This is crowned with a short spire recessed behind mock battlements.

The house unfolds as a series of carefully constructed vistas which proclaim the wealth and status of the owner. The tunnel-like porch is framed by a rich Tudor arch with strikingly naturalistic leaf and animal forms. Hooded beneath, the wide doorway features large panes of bevelled glass permitting a view of the opulent interior. The hall is lined with rich wood melding Gothic and Tudor elements. A staircase rises around three sides and at the foot stands a sculpture of an armoured warrior holding aloft a gas-lit torch.

The middle-flight incorporates an overhanging bow which allows one to step back and survey the vast window that dominates the room. Executed by Atkinson Bros. of Newcastle, the window eulogises the technological and cultural achievements of Victorian Britain in twelve stained-glass panels glowing with pride and confidence. The upper panes depict heraldic devices which self-consciously evoke a sense of ancestry. Like the house itself, the window is a statement of the pride and ambition of the owner.

Adjoining the hall is the baronial dining room, a large chamber with a lustrous ceiling of pressed paper and copper. The octagonal turret observed externally intrudes into the floor-plan, giving an inflection of Ruskinian ‘changefulness’. The room is dominated by a fireplace with marble innards set deep within a Tudor arch. Self-promotion continues with hunting motifs and a pair of stained glass panels depicting medieval knights.

Langham Tower is the most exuberant of several lavish villas situated in Ashbrooke, a prosperous suburb where wealthy industrialists retreated from the smoke and dirt of Sunderland. It was part of a much wider domestic revival in which the relatively modest house, once low in the hierarchy of building forms, became a legitimate concern for celebrated architects. Figures such as Webb and Shaw began to explore the legacy of English domestic architecture and revived styles such as Tudor and Queen Anne, both of which are in evidence at Langham Tower. Innovation and eccentricity flourished in domestic architecture because private patrons were often more amenable than the bureaucratic committees that tended to regulate public commissions. In the case of Langham Tower, the patron was William Adamson, a trader in oil and ships’ provisions who occupied an office in Nile Street adjacent to the ship surveyor William Milburn. Milburn’s son, also William (1858-1935), practiced as an architect and it is likely that Langham Tower, his first significant commission, arose from this connection.

The design closely follows the model of Cragside, the romantic country mansion of Lord Armstrong. Cragside’s panoply of decorative features was a major inspiration at Langham Tower and certain elements, such as the gabled tower, octagonal turret and inglenook fireplace, are direct quotations. The example of Cragside has fired Milburn’s enthusiasm for surprise and variety, however, and Langham possesses its share of unique features. The red brick execution and extensive use of terracotta ornament suggest an awareness of the burgeoning Queen Anne movement, particularly the potted-sunflower motif on the exterior. Hunting motifs proliferate, including the heads of wild boars and lions which project from the black-painted eaves. Swirling leaf forms in the external plasterwork add an Art Nouveau flourish to the very English half-timbering. If anything, the contrasts of colour, form and material are more vibrant in Langham Tower, a house that may be termed nouveau-riche in its grandeur. An imitation it may be, but Langham Tower achieves the same eccentricity and exuberance on a reduced scale, and this is all the more apparent in its suburban setting.

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