Piercefield House by Sir John Soane, Monmouthshire


Piercefield House, Wye Valley, by Sir John Soane

18 Sep , 2013  

John Martin, The Wye Valley, from Wyndcliffe towards Chepstow 1844

I am more and more con­vinced that it is far the most beau­ti­ful place I ever saw”, is what bot­an­ist and explorer Joseph Banks said about Piercefield Park and he’d cer­tainly been around a bit. Piercefield Park estate over­looks the glor­i­ous Wye Valley, Wales, and pre­vi­ous own­ers had begun to turn it into the pic­tur­esque land­scape of national repute which had so impressed Banks. It’s cur­rent owner is Arena Racing Company, run by the Reuben broth­ers. Ruined and for­got­ten in a field next to the Chepstow race­course is Piercefield House, one of Sir John Soane’s earli­est pro­jects, which he built between 1785–93 when his archi­tec­tural career was just tak­ing off.

Piercefield House by Sir John Soane, Monmouthshire

John Soane had returned from his moment­ous Grand Tour of Italy and Sicily in 1780 and made his first fal­ter­ing steps to becom­ing one of England’s most influ­en­tial archi­tects. Piercefield was bought by banker George Smith in 1784–5 from Valentine Morris, who had laid out the Piercefield Walks, and Smith com­mis­sioned the young John Soane to rebuild the exist­ing house in grand neo-clas­sical style. Two years after recon­struc­tion had begun and with the main struc­ture largely com­pleted, Smith was bank­rup­ted and sur­rendered the estate to his cred­it­ors. At this stage build­ing work to a reduced design had begun at Piercefield and a let­ter from the clerk of works to Soane (14 January 1793) states that the ‘the Roof will be on next week for slaters to begin slat­ing’. Construction work pre­sum­ably con­tin­ued for a brief while so that the roof would have been com­pleted and Soane’s elev­a­tion for the entrance front was cer­tainly built and exists in a ruined state today (* Soane Drawings).

Piercefield House by Sir John Soane, Monmouthshire
Piercefield, St Arvan’s; black and white photograph copied from a circa 1920 photograph by W.A. Call

Lt Colonel Mark Wood MP bought the estate in 1793 and com­mis­sioned archi­tect Joseph Bonomi to com­plete the house and add to the ori­ginal design, includ­ing the flank­ing pavil­ions. In 1802 the estate was sold to Nathaniel Wells, a sugar merchant’s son, who  became Britain’s only known black sher­iff when he was appoin­ted Sheriff of Monmouthshire.

Piercefield’s epic land­scape and beau­ti­ful house had built up some­thing of a celebrity cult: JMW Turner was here, Admiral Lord Nelson may have bunked up with Lady Hamilton on the way to Pembroke, and press reports sug­ges­ted it was being con­sidered as a res­id­ence for the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.

Piercefield House by Sir John Soane, Monmouthshire

So close, and yet so far. Following Wells’ depar­ture in the 1840s, Piercefield began its jour­ney into obscur­ity; the park and its fam­ous walks were closed to the pub­lic, Piercefield house less and less vis­ited. The Clay fam­ily absorbed it into their devel­op­ment of Cheptow Racecourse in 1926. It was stripped of its riches, used for tar­get prac­tice dur­ing WW2, and the Reuben broth­ers are sleep-walk­ing it to obli­vion, a beau­ti­ful Welsh albatross around their necks.

References and Further Reading

Save Piercefield House: Press release from Marcus Binney’s Save British Heritage.
Piercefild House at Soane Drawings: An invalu­able col­lec­tion of John Soane’s archi­tec­tural draw­ings, sketches and doc­u­ments.
The Soane Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP.
Country Life: Soane’s Forgotten MasterpieceWikipedia: Piercefield House

Flyby video of Piercefiled House (no idea why Bjork is on there, but it sounds good!):

Many thanks to Mark Evans and Omar Vaja for bring­ing me to Piercefield. Photos and Words: © Ken Sparkes. All Rights Reserved.


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