Latrobe: a short biography

Anne-Noelle Pinnegar

Benjamin Henry Latrobe was born in 1764 at Fulneck in Yorkshire. He was the second son of the Reverend Benjamin Latrobe (1728-86), a minister of the Moravian church, and Anna Margaretta (Antes) Latrobe (1728-94), a third-generation Pennsylvanian of Moravian parentage. The original Latrobes had been French Protestants who had settled in Ireland at the end of the 17th century.

 

The young Latrobe was educated at the Moravian schools at Fulneck and later at Nieski in German Silesia. His education was impressive, comprising a broad curriculum including all the liberal arts, classical and modern languages. Having rejected the ministry as a possible career, Latrobe finally travelled back to England in 1783 on a Grand Tour of Germany and France (where he was much struck by the grand Classicist buildings of Paris). He also travelled to Rome and Naples, although this may have been on a later trip in 1786.

 

By 1784 Latrobe had returned to London where he was employed for a time

as a clerk at the Stamp Office. By around 1787, however, Latrobe had begun his professional training under England's most renowned engineer of the day – John Smeaton (1724-92), the designer of the Eddystone Lighthouse. Here Latrobe acquired a thorough grounding in both the technical and theoretical aspects of advanced English civil engineering, including the meticulous draughtsmanship in which he excelled throughout his life. Latrobe's interest in engineering soon led him to develop an interest in architecture (it was not uncommon during the 18th century for the two

disciplines to be practised in parallel by one individual) and he became

apprenticed to S.R. Cockerell (1754-1827) who was then engaged in

designing public works, such as the house for the First Lord of the Admiralty in Whitehall. Latrobe gained further invaluable experience and rapid

advancement, actually managing the office in 1791-2. By this association,

Latrobe was immediately drawn into the orbit of England's three most

advanced architects: Cockerell himself, George Dance the Younger (1741-

1825) and Sir John Soane (1753-1837), the latter's work being particularly

influential on Latrobe.

 

English architecture of the period can be divided into three distinct styles. The oldest school was the strict Palladianism of Sir William Chambers, inspired by Palladio himself, as well as other masters of the Italian Renaissance via the earlier English architects William Kent and Burlington, as Latrobe would have seen in Chamber's recently completed design of the grand governmental commission at Somerset House. The second school, that of the Adam brothers, was just passing its height but was still popular. The style was definitely Roman in origin, being characterised by its brilliant use of functional space as well as its decorative detail, which Latrobe found to be over-rich.

 

Latrobe belonged, rather, to the third school (sometimes called the 'plain

style') the work of which was characterized by simplicity, geometric power and rationalism. George Dance the Younger was its originator, but it was in the work of Sir John Soane (whose masterpiece is the Bank of England) that this movement achieved its great triumphs. This was regarded as the most radical in tone, both aesthetically and politically, and it appealed especially to those who were to follow Charles James Fox and show marked sympathy for the French Revolution. It was definitely a Francophile style and in many ways paralleled the revolutionary architecture parlante as expounded by Ledoux.

 

Latrobe and Hammerwood Lodge

Near the end of his service with Cockerell, Latrobe was made surveyor to the London Police (c. 1792), a minor official appointment involving the supervision of renovation and repair of a number of district police stations. Around this time, shortly after his marriage to Lydia Sellon (c.1761-1793), the daughter of a wealthy Anglican clergyman, Latrobe opened his own office, and was soon getting enough work, mainly alteration jobs, to enable him to employ at least one apprentice. Latrobe's reputation grew rapidly and he received commissions for some new residences, the first of which came through a Mr John Sperling, of Dynes Hall in Essex, who asked Latrobe to design him a hunting lodge at Hammerwood, Sussex. Latrobe's only other English house also survives – Ashdown House at Forest Row – which he designed the following year, 1793, for a Mr Fuller. Hammerwood Lodge and Ashdown House are the only two surviving English domestic houses by Latrobe.

 

Evidence that Latrobe designed Hammerwood for John Sperling in 1792 may be seen in the ancient Greek inscription situated high up on the reverse of the Coade Stone capitals of the west portico: ['This is the first portico of John Sperling's mansion (but word used = 'cattlefold': see Trinder). The architect is B. H. Latrobe. He made it in the 1792 year of Jesus Christ and the second year of the 642nd Olympiad'.]

 

There is no better account of Latrobe's achievement at Hammerwood than

that of his biographer, Talbot Hamlin: 'Hammerwood achieves importance as a monument in Latrobe's career when it is realized (if we can believe the architect's obituary in Ackermann's Repository) that it was his first independent work. According to Ackermann: "While pursuing his studies at home, he was visited by a friend, Mr Sperling, who, finding him disengaged [apparently he had already resigned from the Cockerell firm], and admiring his growing talents, commissioned him to design and build for him a mansion near East Grinstead, to be called Hammerwood Lodge..."

 

'[Hammerwood's] exterior reveals a basic desire to tear open the usual

conventions of 18th century country house design, to use new forms and old forms strangely, to create drama - almost wonder - for the observer. In places it harks back to the stark power of Vanbrugh; in others it looks forward to the Greek Revival.'

 

'It has a great main body five bays wide, with heavy Doric pilasters for the

central pavilion; between these the three central windows under recessed

arches are crowded in with only hairline jambs. The frieze - again a plain band (except over the pilasters) - is much heavier than ancient precedent would suggest, as though its designer were after the colossal in scale even in a country house, and above rises an attic as quietly powerful as the rest. A slightly projecting band course separates the two lower floors, and the recessed arches are without architraves or mouldings.'

 

'The two wings that flank the central block are even more unusual in design

Here the lower floor consists of arcades of narrow arches, with a window in

each, and is terminated at the end by a primitive Greek Doric temple porch

carrying a pediment. The upper floor has simple rectangular windows, those

over the arcade treated as a single band with recessed piers...'

 

'Thus Hammerwood Lodge is a strikingly interesting whole, full of awkwardness but of daring imagination as well; it is complicated in

composition, but every detail has been reduced to the basic simplicity of the 'plain style'. Its virtues, like its faults, are those of youth, enthusiasm, and a violent search for originality. We may be astonished at the introduction of Greek Doric end pavilions at this date - that is unusual enough - but we also find something even rarer: Greek inspiration used with surprising freedom. The capitals have the broad spread of the primitive Doric of Paestum or Sicily, and they have fluted neckings; but the entablature above combines frieze and architrave into one single broad band without triglyphs or metopes. It is Greek, but not Greek taken from Leroy or Stuart; it is Greek seen through the eyes of, and interpreted with, the taste one would expect from a Soane.'

 

'The whole, in other words, is entirely Latrobe's - in its unconventional scale, its search for drama, its use of ancient inspiration in an original manner, and its basic drive towards simplification of details. It shows Latrobe already expressing, albeit in an unformed, youthful way, almost all the ideals that were his guiding principles in his mature designs.'

 

Latrobe and the Greek Revival

Latrobe's life-long interest in classical architecture probably began during

early travels on the Continent and his trip to Italy - he visited Rome and

Naples in either 1783 or 1786. These first-hand experiences were to give him a wide visual repertoire of architectural forms upon which he drew inspiration throughout his long and illustrious career. Latrobe had mastered classical and modern languages at school, a fact which would have much enriched his travels. In addition, throughout his apprenticeship in C.R. Cockerell's office, Latrobe would have come into contact with the leading architectural theories of the day, including the enthusiastic transformation of modern design through imitation of the forms and principles of the antique.

 

A renewed interest in the art and architecture of antiquity had taken place

throughout the 18th century, partly because it became increasingly fashionable for aristocrats and gentlemen-scholars to undertake the Grand Tour - a long and sometimes hazardous journey which included the major

European cities and culminated in Italy or Greece. In addition, the impact of

the re-discovery and excavation of certain important classical sites could not have escaped a young ambitious architect such as Latrobe. By the time of his architectural apprenticeship in 1789, there were numerous publications available containing scaled drawings of newly-discovered sites or ruins. Thomas Major published his book entitled The Ruins of Paestum in 1768; James Stuart (1713-88) and Nicholas Revett (1720-1804) were sponsored by The Society of Dilettanti to undertake a major expedition of some of the major monuments of Greece and they published volume I of the Antiquities of Athens in 1762; volume II was published in 1789 and volume III in 1794. Such works undoubtedly brought a new and more vital appreciation of the proportions, character and decoration of ancient classical architecture to England.

Latrobe after Hammerwood

The only other remaining independent work by Latrobe in England is at

Ashdown House (now a prep school) some two miles to the south of

Hammerwood, near Forest Row. Latrobe worked on this house in 1793, the

year after he designed Hammerwood. It has been described as a feminine

version of Hammerwood's central block, and Talbot Hamlin perceptively

outlines its main architectural features:

 

'Ashdown, of stone, is almost a square house, three bays wide and deep,

entered through a semicircular porch of four Greek Ionic columns. The front is broken into three parts vertically, and this division is emphasized by carrying an attic storey over the ends alone, with only a parapet above the central element. The centre is stressed by framing the second-floor window with deliberately projecting plaster strips that carry up to the frieze, but there is no break in the frieze itself. The tall windows flanking the porch are set in recessed arches. Throughout, the influence of the 'plain style' makes itself felt. The cornice is thin and delicate, the frieze an unbroken band; in the attic the base and cap are formed by mere projecting bands of stone. Within, too, the detail is of the simplest type, though the parlour doors are of rich mahogany.'

 

Talbot Hamlin sums up the contrasting characters of Ashdown House and

Hammerwood: 'Ashdown House, the later of the two, is the more polished and more completely achieved, but Hammerwood Lodge is the more dynamic, full as it is of violently experimental forms.'

 

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