#teachingrenaissance: teaching on site. Wollaton Hall as a case study

Nottingham University is very fortunate indeed to have an architectural gem hidden away in the environs of a deer park within 5 minutes of its main campus: Wollaton Hall (1580-88), John Smythson’s idiosyncratic and enchanting masterpiece. What this means for my own teaching is clear: it allows me to teach on site, and not just talk to students about early modern spatiality but actually show them. There really is nothing like teaching on site, for walking in order to explore a space allows not only for a much better perception of scale, but leads to a greater understanding of context, too. No building functions in isolation, so it’s spatial positioning with relation to its environs is a significant part of its meaning.
Wollaton Hall has much to recommend it as a space, and not least of its attractions is the fact that It is easily approachable on foot, through the wonderfully landscaped grounds and deer park. The original approach to the house is the one followed by cars; pedestrians might come at the house from a variety of angles, but whatever the case, the approach is rather splendid, with Smythson’s Hall gracefully crowning the crest of a hill, with the building dominating the vista in every direction. Wollaton lacks the drama of the approach to Bess of Hardwick’s magnificent Hall, perched on its windy hill in Derbyshire, but there is something very beguiling and enchanting about the gentler, more domestic, more intimate way in which Wollaton Hall invites its visitor to approach it.

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Wollaton Hall

The first observation that strikes the visitor is how small the hall actually is. Yes, its lovely, but it is also surprisingly dinky and compact. Hardwick Hall is larger, and Burghley House dwarfs Wollaton, and really, given the status of their respective patrons, this is what you would expect. In Elizabethan political terms, Sir Francis Willoughby was a lightweight with suspect connections to the Greys (yep, THAT Grey family, as in Lady Jane Grey), little money and little power, but somebody who had much to gain from royal patronage.  Willoughby was not in the same league as Bess, Countess Shrewsbury, one-time jailer of Mary Queen of Scots, or Sir Cecil Burghley, Elizabeth I’s right hand man. Yet still, Willoughby built a magnificent prodigy house, and really, even though Wollaton Hall’s guides are at pains to emphasise that it was built in the firm expectation of a visit from Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth I herself, such a visit was never going to happen. The point is, it needn’t happen, but COULD have happened, because Willoughby had built a house that was fit to receive a queen, and therefore expressed his loyalty. In the case of Wollaton Hall, its the gesture that counted and that demonstrated his political loyalty.

But there is more to this hall than a simple -if costly- expression of political allegiance. What makes Wollaton Hall stand out is its quirky assertion of provincial magnificence . It is special, because building it gave the patron the means to fashion his own image as a country gentleman with aspirations and grand plans, and he found a willing collaborator in the young, flashy architect finally able to make his mark. Smythson dazzles in the slick, grandiloquent Hardwick, but at Wollaton he beguiles his visitor.

Now this all sounds very nice on paper, but Renaissance architecture is about creating theatrical backdrops against which meaning is created and played out. A building does not have meaning simply in itself, it is the three-dimensional framework against which and inside of which status is created, performed and maintained. And there is only one way to talk about this, and that is to immerse yourself in the space and experience it.  Teaching on site is never more relevant than when it comes to experiencing architecture, from getting a sense of the time it takes to cross the deer park, to the steep climb up the hill towards the hall’s main entrance, and to finally seeing the hall revealed in its full glory. And it is a strange, hybrid, quirky building whose design reveals some of the creative tensions that came from a patron throwing ideas at his architect, even some impossible ones. So sometimes the rhythm of the facade has to be maintained even if this requires false windows and improbable alcoves, but the most astonishing aspect of Wollaton Hall is the great hulking central tower, that is technically out of proportion and yet distinguishes the outside of the building.

The tower, recalling Henry VIII’s great Nonsuch Palace, only makes sense from the inside. Building signify both inside and out, so in order to experience a building, it has to be studied within its location, its context, its ground and then explored by going inside and poking about. Again, there is no place like Wollaton for this. The Great Hall is really ‘the wrong way round’ (and Smythson certainly learned from the awkward spatial arrangement of the Hall at Wollaton and reversed its axis in his later building of Hardwick Hall), but I find it all the more charming because of it. Wollaton’s Hall is a magnificent space, with an impossibly tall ceiling and surmounted by the great Prospect Room.

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Playing ‘Batman’ in the Prospect Room, Wollaton Hall

It is only when you stand in the Prospect Room that the building makes sense. It becomes clear that Wollaton Hall is a showpiece, a performance, a demonstration of provincial power, but one that fits its space and context beautifully. The Prospect Room is the perfect place to play, and certainly serves at the moment as a place for dressing up and playing super heroes. Wollaton Hall was used as Wayne Manor in a recent Batman film, and really, the building suits this purpose perfectly. It sits in isolation, as the seat of a local aristocrat beset on all sides by financial and political challenges. Sir Francis Willoughby faced plenty of adversaries and needed every ounce of wit and brains he had to survive the tempestuous waters of Elizabethan politics. His wonderful Hall is the lasting legacy he left, and one worth exploring for what he wants to tell about himself. Wollaton Hall, to borrow a term from Stephen Greenblatt, is self-fashioning at its best.And while interior spaces and configurations of rooms can change, that is not so easily done where the exterior is concerned. Or, indeed, the extraordinary space of the Great Prospect Room.

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On the roof at Wollaton Hall

It is important to close this blog post with a few observations and words of caution, too. Wollaton Hall is not a space that allows a visitor an escape into the sixteenth century. The outside of the building may be as Elizabethan as can be imagined, all spikes and spires and great windows, but the interior tells a very different story because Wollaton was lived in, and successive generations of owners have in turn neglected, remodelled and extended the place, and inside, the Elizabethan fabric of the building has disappeared beneath layers of subsequent occupation. It is certainly unexpected to come across a rather extraordinary collection of stuffed animals, but they should be there, as one of Willoughby’s descendants ultimately became a major naturalist. Or there are the extensive caves and tunnels running underneath the hall, not to mention the ale cellars and a super Tudor kitchen and a magnolia house. But surely, this makes it worth visiting even more, because buildings are spaces for living in, not memorials frozen in time. Sure, much of Wollaton’s ‘period feel’ has been lost, but maybe that depends on your perspective. Sir Francis Willoughby created a building that remained in use as a house until the twentieth century. Its been only for the last half century that the house has become a museum, and in terms of the age of this space, that is nothing at all, just the beginning of a new phase in its long history. Wollaton Hall certainly shares the fate of many great houses that became untenable as living spaces after World War II, and where some houses are now safeguarded by The National Trust (arguably this brings its own challenges and carries its own price), other buildings have different stories to tell (of particular interest to me are Thoresby, Alton Towers and Burghley House, in case you are wondering). Buildings have long memories, so, before you leave one, make sure to look at it properly. When I take students to Wollaton, our last glance at the house is from its roof, because from there, you see why a great building both belongs into a great space and makes for great space. And that is something no textbook, no photo, no image can show you.
Happy exploring!

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