Sezincote, Gloucestershire was built to mark Britain’s Indian triumphs in the Napoleonic Wars. Max Bryant explains how it strives to recreate accurately the architecture of India. Photographs by Paul Highnam.
The River Evenlode rises in a valley that irrupts through the northern Cotswolds. From the westerly hills on an uncertain day, the view is miles wide, a travelling panorama of rain, cloud and sunshine. Further down the slope hides a house the peculiarity of which has been little understood, rejoicing in an architectural style entirely of its own.
Sezincote consists of a main house with a radiating conservatory, originally described as ‘harlequinade’, terminating in an octagonal pavilion (Fig 6). The buildings of the whole estate, including the stables, farm and garden structures, were designed in various configurations of styles native to the Indian subcontinent, with only the interior of the main house following a conventional European neo-Classical idiom (Fig 4).
The adaptation of Indian forms is without precedent in its depth and detail. It even features a garden temple to Surya, the Hindu sun god (made of Coade stone), presiding over a pool with a fountain, probably intended as a lingam (Fig 3). The depiction of Surya conflates different traditions in its iconography, derived from cult practices in late-18th-century Bengal. The water runs from the pool under a bridge, in an evocation of the rock-cut temples of western India.
The feature concludes in a second pool, with a fountain in the form of a serpent around a rock (Fig 7). According to Sezincote’s present owner, Edward Peake, the statue of Surya receives the first light of the morning and, on midsummer day, the sun sets directly behind the temple, sending its last rays all the way under the bridge.
Sezincote has been the home of Mr Peake and his family since 2005. In the late 1970s, they toyed with handing the property to the National Trust, but the positive discussions foundered on the point of opening times. Susanna’s parents, Sir Cyril and Lady Kleinwort, who set up a maintenance fund that materially helped protect the building, bought Sezincote from the Dugdale family. Both families further augmented the splendid interiors of the house with 1960s changes by John Fowler (Fig 5) and further ambitious alterations in the 1980s (Fig 8). The Dugdales, in turn, had purchased it from the descendants of its creator, the wealthy nabob Sir Charles Cockerell.
In 1776, Cockerell left for India with little more than a course in accounting to his name. Within a decade, he had risen to significance in Calcutta as one-third of Paxton, Cockerell and Trail, the European community’s principal agents for business dealings and private enterprises. In 1801, he returned to manage the company’s affairs from London.
Cockerell purchased a Jacobean double-gabled house called Seasoncote from the estate of his older brother John, who had died in 1798. John had acquired the house on his own return from India, where he had been a colonel in the army of the East India Company. Charles used the house as a country residence in the summer and, by 1805, had decided to remodel and extend it in an Indian style.
The architect Charles chose to employ for this work was his other brother, Samuel Pepys Cockerell, the youngest sibling. It had been Samuel who probably inspired the original purchase of the Jacobean house, having been familiar with its area of the Cotswolds from his work rebuilding the nearby house of Daylesford.
Principally responsible for the close engagement with Indian architecture was Thomas Daniell, who played the role of scholarly consultant on the project and who designed the garden buildings. Originally a painter, Daniell had travelled to Calcutta in 1785 to work for the European community there. Having found little success, and in ill health, he decided to explore other parts of the country.
Beginning from a position of almost complete ignorance, he discussed architecture with locals and made careful drawings of what he found. On returning to Britain, he turned these drawings into six large folio volumes. Published between 1795 and 1808, they completely surpassed all previous sources of Indian design and made Daniell a recognised authority.
What kind of architecture did Daniell create with the Cockerell brothers? As a nabob palace, Sezincote is totally anomalous (Fig 1). Those built in Britain were usually executed in a grand Palladian manner, the only stylistic signal of the fortunes that paid for them being the occasional garden folly. Unofficial nabob palaces built in India, such as Dilkusha Kothi and the Constantia at Lucknow, created extraordinary hybrid forms, but they have none of Sezincote’s scholarly discipline.
The official architecture of the East India Company that Cockerell would have known from Calcutta was a stiff Georgian classicism and it would remain so for decades.
Sezincote also does not make sense as a country house of the Picturesque movement. At Coleorton and Garth, as well as in the Prince Regent’s buildings in Brighton, architects created fantasies of the ‘Orient’ or ‘East’. They cooked up a rich architectural curry, but had little interest in the provenance of the ingredients. Stylistic specificity was even to be avoided: the more generalised the non-Western elements, the more purely fantastical their effect.
On the contrary, Charles Cockerell seems to have employed Daniell to create a specifically Indian design. The main way in which this was achieved was by registering the cultural context of architectural style, so that ‘Hindoo’ forms are confined to the
garden buildings and ‘Mahomedan’ ones to the main house. The central bay of the east front, for example, is recessed in a pointed-arch form to create a Mughal element: the pishtaq, or formal gateway, containing an abbreviated iwan or vaulted entrance area.
At first sight, the impression of authenticity is so strong that it seems as if a returning nabob had, along with cotton, opium and tax revenues, carried off an entire building from the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps then Sezincote can be described as, essentially, a work of Indian architecture by British hands, but the impression of authenticity does not amount to authenticity itself and the many wilful solecisms would baffle an Indian observer.
For example, there is an underlying Classical theme to the main house, with an abstracted order of pilasters. It is compatible with Mughal regularity, but, as a result, the pishtaq does not contain a rectangular border around the arch. The surmounting flourish, usually in the border above, has to be pushed up into the eaves.
Similarly, the ‘Hindoo’ bridge was to have brahmin bulls (also made in the Lambeth Coade stone factory) facing the house, in the manner of temple architecture. There, the visitor would find the ceremonial entrance by following the direction of Nandi, the form of Shiva as one of India’s distinctive humped zebu. Cockerell, however, revised Daniell’s arrangement of the bulls to make them symmetrical.
Sezincote appropriates real Indian architecture, refracting it through European conventions. Rather than idealising Indian design into a fantasy of wonder and exoticism, the design registers the artistic sophistication of the subcontinent. The best way to understand it then is as a work of respectful mimicry, creating a partial representation of Indian forms.
What makes the design feel so unusual is not so much these forms in themselves as the ambivalence that emerges from the act of architectural mimicry.
The construction of the main house was finished by 1811, but work continued on the conservatories and other buildings through the 1820s. The political climate of these years, in terms of British attitudes to India, was that of early Macaulayism. Around the turn of the century, evangelical Christianity became a feature of British imperialism, thanks in particular to the MP Charles Grant. Territorial annexation was to be accompanied by the transformation of its residents, a project subsequently championed by Thomas Babington Macaulay. The basis of colonial authority concurrently shifted from military might to cultural superiority.
In Homi Bhabha’s essay Of Mimicry and Man (1984), the postcolonial theorist described the subversiveness of mimicry. He argued that the partial representation of one culture by another undermines the coherence of identity on which Macaulayism was based. Cultural mimicry separates the forms of a society from its values and thus subverts cultural claims to moral authority.
The respectful mimicry of Indian architecture at Sezincote can be read in the same way. If architectural style embodies identity, then the mimicry of style creates a cultural doubleness or ambivalence, denying any qualitative difference between British and Indian design. Prof Bhabha wrote that ‘the menace of mimicry is its double vision, which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority’.
The ‘menace’ Prof Bhabha identified seems to have been registered by the later Victorians: when Sezincote was sold in 1880, the sale particulars studiously avoided discussing the Indian elements.
British architecture of the 19th century was defined by an antithetical approach to mimicry: historical revivalism. From the power of Imperial Rome, the wisdom of classical Athens, the godliness of medieval England, by adopting the architectural styles of an idealised, bygone culture, the British claimed their values as well. Contemporary styles such as those of India could not be part of the repertoire because they were understood as an embodiment of a culture that was defined in opposition to Britain.
How then can we account for how antipathetic Sezincote was to the imperial climate of the 19th century? Simply put, Cockerell belonged to an earlier era of empire, that of Warren Hastings, before Christian evangelism became involved. Imperial conquest was portrayed at Sezincote not as a civilising project, but as a heroic front in the war against Napoleon. The curtains in the ballroom are subserviently held up by an eagle, the aigle de drapeau of France, which is flanked by crowned tigers, signifying Tipu Sultan (Fig 2).
On the slope behind the house is the Wellington Pillar in honour of the general whose military victories, inscribed on the column, encompassed both the Anglo-Mysore Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.
Cockerell told visitors that the Mughal design of the main house was specifically modelled on the burial place of Britain’s defeated enemies in the Anglo-Mysore Wars, the Gumbaz at Srirangapatna, despite the fact that Daniell had never visited or illustrated it. Cockerell could claim genuine credit for victory, as he had made loans to Richard Wellesley, Wellington’s brother and the Governor-General of Bengal at the time.
Although this inspiration for Sezincote may have been triumphalist, the result became retrospectively subversive. To regard Indians as the cultural primitives portrayed in the work of Macaulay and James Mill would have been to diminish the military achievement of the Wellesley brothers. To mimic the architecture of India as a signifier of this achievement was also to subvert the notion of cultures as monolithic, on which depended Macaulayism and the concept of cultural authority. In its stylistic ambivalence, Sezincote raises a sceptical eyebrow at the premises of empire.
To this explanation for Sezincote’s peculiarity, there is a coda: the fact that one of the greatest of all British architects was intimately involved there from his formative years. Charles Robert Cockerell, son of Samuel Pepys Cockerell and nephew of Charles, knew the house from its earliest stages until its completion and created some extraordinary buildings of his own in its grounds. In particular, his Beehive Lodge ingeniously adapted the roof shape of Bengali bungalows.
The influence of Sezincote can be felt in the younger Cockerell’s long career of stylistic individuality: no Victorian architect was more immune to historical revivalism or less jingoistic in his aesthetic values.
Visit www.sezincote.co.uk for further information