“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.