A Gothic folly
The Banqueting House is an 18th-century Gothic folly designed to be looked at and looked out from. Walk to explore the house, gardens and stableblock of Gibside, and you can to look back with pleasure at the castellated roof line of your very own folly. The real pleasure, though, is being inside the elegant space of the main room or sitting imagining the 18th-century ladies and gentleman who were brought here on their tour of the estate. After a picnic they might refresh themselves with music, or stroll on the lawn around the building, enjoying the view of the lake and the grand panorama beyond.
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Gibside was inherited in 1722 by George Bowes, a landowner and public figure made rich by coal. After his first wife died, he made Gibside his home and set about embellishing the park. The Banqueting House seems to have been finished by 1746. It was designed by Daniel Garrett, a former assistant of Lord Burlington’s, to stand in the highest part of the park, looking out over the Derwent valley. Nearby, the Column of British Liberty rises high above the trees and a little further off lies the Gibside chapel, designed by James Paine in 1760 to hold the remains of George Bowes, ancestor of our Queen.
‘We imagined we had mastered the art of seeing through the understatements in the Handbook description. Wrong again. The Banqueting House easily exceeded all expectations.’
From the logbook
Added to the landscape garden at Gibside
The Banqueting House is one of several buildings added between 1730-60 to the remarkable landscape garden at Gibside for its owner, George Bowes. In the course of his lifetime, besides improvements to the house itself (the home since 1540 of his mother's family, the Blakistons) and James Paine's magnificent chapel begun just before his death in 1760, Bowes built a Palladian stable block, an Orangery, a bath house (vanished), a Column of British Liberty, a Gothic tower (vanished and perhaps never built) and the Gothic Banqueting House itself.
This was built during the 1740s. An inventory of 1746, listing the furniture of its Great Room (six Windsor chairs, one large Windsor chair with four seats, prints of Shakespeare, Milton, Swift), shows it to have been in use by then. Its interior decoration was as elaborate as the exterior, its ceiling and walls covered with an intricate papier maché design, for which the original architect's sketch exists. A 19th-century description records mirrors at either end of the Great Room, so that 'the company when seated appears almost endless in length.' Here the family and their guests would come for picnic meals, perhaps laid out as a surprise feast to be discovered in the course of a long tour of the grounds. Afterwards they might refresh themselves with music, or stroll on the lawn around the building, enjoying the view of the lake and the grand panorama beyond.
The architect for most of the buildings at Gibside was Daniel Garrett, a former assistant of Lord Burlington's who developed a thriving practice in the North, which he handed on, in about 1753, to Paine. Garrett had a particular gift for Gothick design, a decorative style inspired by what was then taken to be the native British architecture, but which had not at that time acquired the scholarly character of the later Gothic Revival. The Banqueting House, with its bowed front and soaring pinnacles, is one of the most extraordinary, and brilliant, buildings of the style.
George Bowes was an extremely talented man who, besides being a successful landowner and coal-owner, a keen sportsman and a Whig MP, almost certainly planned the alterations to the landscape at Gibside himself. He was one of those, like John Aislabie at Studley Royal in Yorkshire, who under the influence of designers such as Stephen Switzer, broke away from the intricate formal designs of parks and gardens popular in the 17th century, to favour a more natural scheme, in which the whole estate, with its abundant woods and hills, fast flowing river and rich pattern of cultivated fields, was brought into relationship with the old house at its centre, to create an ideal world in miniature. There is still a formal framework of avenues and vistas, and a geometrically shaped lake, but between there are irregular woodland plantations, encircling rides and walks that follow a meandering course, with frequent surprise views of the countryside and, of course, of the carefully sited buildings which play so important a part within it.
George Bowes' daughter married the Earl of Strathmore, whose family name then became Bowes-Lyon, and whose descendants still own most of Gibside. The house fell empty before 1900, however, and was dismantled in 1920. Later, the park was leased to the Forestry Commission. The Banqueting House began to disappear beneath the undergrowth, and its roof fell in. Fortunately several people took photographs of it before this happened.
New hope arose for Gibside as a whole when in 1965 the chapel and the avenue were given by the 16th Earl to the National Trust, which has therefore been able to reinstate two of the most important elements in the gardens. Then, in 1977, the Landmark Trust, a charity which specialises in the rescue and reinvigoration of buildings at risk, offered to take on The Banqueting House, to restore it and pay for its future upkeep by letting it for holidays. The Forestry Commission generously gave up their lease of the building, so that in 1981 the Strathmore estate was able to sell Landmark the freehold.
Roofless and without windows
When the Landmark Trust first saw The Banqueting House in 1977 it was almost entirely roofless and without windows. The central section of the entrance front had collapsed, due to vandalism and neglect; the building was little more than a shell. Four years later, in 1981, the building had been fully repaired and restored, and was let to its first visitors. For nearly twenty-five years it has been, briefly, home to a constant succession of people, all of whom have learned for themselves the wonders of Gibside.
Work began as soon as possible. The condition of the building was too precarious to wait for legal negotiations to be concluded. The architect appointed for the restoration was lan Curry, of the Newcastle firm of Charlewood Curry. The builders were the local firm, Brown Construction of Rowlands Gill, with Bill Salter of the Decorative Plaster Company of Wideopen brought in to do the plasterwork.
First task that had to be faced was the recording of everything in its ruinous state, in order to build up a complete picture of the building before it became derelict. The position of every piece of plasterwork and joinery was carefully noted, the undergrowth was cleared and the piles of leaf-mould sifted for fragments of stone, fortunately revealing almost all that had fallen. At the same time, local archives were searched for old photographs and drawings, also with fortunate results.
Archives and archaeology combined to best effect in the reconstruction of the entrance front. A number of curiously shaped stones had been found, but it could not be guessed exactly how they should be fitted together. It was proposed instead simply to continue the crenellated parapet all the way along. Then Margaret Hudson (now Mrs Wills), librarian at the Newcastle School of Architecture and an authority on the history of Gibside, sent us a photograph of a sketch she had found in the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle. This dated from 1828, the work of a cousin of the Bowes family, and showed clearly the curious decorative gables which rose above the arches of the portico. The stones made sense and the building could be restored correctly. Very little new stone was needed, but where it was, the nearest match to the original Streatlam stone was found at the Dunhouse Quarry near Bishop Auckland.
The Banqueting House consisted of just three rooms, the Great Room itself, measuring 32 feet across, which would be used for sitting and eating, and would also contain two sofa beds, and two smaller rooms, one of which would provide space for a double bedroom and the other a kitchen. Two tiny rooms off these, which may have contained stairs up to the roof, provided space for a shower room and a lavatory.
We were able to save the quite substantial areas of plaster decoration that remained on the walls of the bedroom, and missing areas were made up faithfully by Bill Salter. One shutter survived intact, and fragments from six others were pieced together to make one complete pair, now in the bedroom. Fragments of the carved dado rail in the bedroom were copied to make a new rail for the Great Room. The windows were too rotten to save, as was the bedroom door, but enough survived for complete copies to be made.
Although we had Daniel Garrett's sketch for the decoration of the Great Room, and a very clear photograph of it taken in about 1900, it was decided only to reinstate the main elements of the design, and not attempt a reconstruction of the complex detail, of which not a trace remained. The chimney piece was discovered buried outside the building, with only minor elements missing. The new floor is of pine, as was the old.
The Landmark Trust took on The Banqueting House both because of its own importance as a work of architecture, and also because of its place in this most famous, if sadly decayed, landscape garden. Since work on the building itself was completed, we have, therefore, concentrated on its setting. The Forestry Commission have kindly allowed the vista to the lake to be cleared and in 1990, the Landmark Trust and the National Trust together acquired the shooting rights for Gibside, allowing new footpaths and access to be opened up.
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