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Three country house views from Britannia Illustrata

Three country house views from Britannia Illustrata


Leonard Knyff (artist) and Johannes Kip (engraver)

Engraving on paper, from Britannia Illustrata (first published 1707)

Each 48.8 x 35.2 cm (sheet), 65.5 x 53 cm (frame)

Higher res images available on request

Britannia Illustrata is one of the earliest and most influential published views of English country houses.  It was the brainchild of Dutch duo Leonard Knyff and Johannes Kip, who had brought their considerable artistic and engraving skills to England in the 1680s.  In his drawings of country houses, Knyff adopted a bird’s-eye view, using mapping and surveying techniques to simulate a high viewpoint and achieve topographical accuracy.  This ideally suited the country house portrait, encompassing both intricate details and the broad sweep of landscape.  The drawings were then engraved by the highly-skilled Johannes Kip, who had learned his trade in Amsterdam, the leading centre of print production.  Britannia Illustrata remains an important record of country house architecture and gardens at the turn of the eighteenth century.


Kynff and Kip planned to publish their volume by subscription, a common funding model that allowed a prospective author to secure sales and raise capital in advance of publication.  Their clever twist was to apply this to a visual, rather than textual publication, and to determine the content according to the subscriber.  For a payment of £10, each subscriber would receive two copies of each print, but crucially it also ensured that his own house was included among the views.  For an aspiring nobleman or gentleman who had recently expended much of his income on rebuilding his country seat or laying out new gardens, this was an unmissable opportunity that would ensure that his renovations were seen by a wide audience of his peers. 


Unfortunately, things did not work out quite as planned.  Knyff and Kip intended a volume of hundred views, but by 1701, they had only received subscriptions for sixty.  An advertisement in the Post Man encouraged further country house owners to come forward, but by February 1707, they had still not reached the planned target, and the venture foundered.   Knyff placed an advertisement in the Daily Courant advising that ‘for want of Subscriptions, and on account of his Health, (the time first proposed being long since expir’d) [he] is oblig’d to desist’, and the engraved plates they had prepared were auctioned off.  Eighty views were published later that year by David Mortier as Britannia Illustrata. With its almost forensic level of detail, Britannia Illustrata, along with Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus (1715-25), became an important means of disseminating architectural knowledge, as well as stimulating the growing fashion for country house visiting. 


Melton Constable in the County of Norfolk, the Seat of the Honble Sr Jacob Astley, Kt and Bt

Compact and dignified, Melton Constable in Norfolk is a classic example of the country houses built by the wealthy gentry and lesser nobility who enjoyed the renewal of peace and posterity after the Restoration. It was built in the late 1660s by Sir Jacob Astley and his wife Blanche.  Astley served as MP for Norfolk for many years, and was created a baronet by Charles II at the Restoration in 1660.  He had inherited Melton Constable from his uncle the previous year, but the house had been damaged during the civil wars, and so he determined to completely rebuild it in the new classical double-pile style made fashionable by architects Roger Pratt and Hugh May. 


It was neither Pratt nor May who designed Melton Constable, however, but Astley himself.  In the mid-seventeenth century, architecture was a gentlemanly occupation rather than a profession, and it seems that Astley drew up the design himself, working with a master mason and a team of craftsmen who realised his vision.  Before embarking the building, he commissioned a remarkable wooden model of the house, that still survives in the collection of Norfolk Museums Service.  It is almost, but not quite the same as the finished house (which is largely unchanged today), which indicates that it was used as plan for, rather than a record of, the house as built.  The model was handed down for centuries through the Astley family, generations of whose children played with it as a doll’s house.


Ingleby Mannor the Seat of the Honble Sr Wm Foulis Bartt in ye County of Yorke

Ingleby Manor is unusual among the country seats included in Britannia Illustrata, since the house was relatively old when Knyff drew his topographical view.  Ingleby had been built around 1540 by Sir William Eure, one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, but by the early seventeenth century, the family finances were in disarray (gambling had played a part) and they were forced to sell the house and its estate.  Ingleby was purchased in 1608 by Sir David Foulis, a courtier of James VI of Scotland, who had come south with him in 1603 when he had taken up the English throne as James I.  It was his great grandson Sir Willam Foulis, fourth baronet, who took up Kynff offer’s to have Ingleby’s portrait taken and included in his volume of country house views.


Newby the Seat of the Honble Sr Edward Blackett Bartt in the West Riding of the County of Yorke

Sir Edward Blackett (1649-1718) was a rising and aspiring member of the gentry who invested the wealth he had inherited from his merchant-landowner father into an elegant new country house, Newby Hall.  Blackett, who served as MP for Ripon in 1689-90 and for Northumberland in 1690-90 purchased Newby from the Crosland family, and set about building a country seat that would reflect his wealth and status.  He demolished the old house, which had been situated much closer to the river, and commissioned a new house of elegant classical proportions, reportedly to designs by Sir Christopher Wren.


The pioneer country house tourist Celia Fiennes visited Newby in 1697 and thought it ‘the finest house I saw in Yorkshire’. Many of the features of the garden and landscape that  she described can be identified in Knyff and Kip’s engraving. She noted, ‘the approach in the midst of a good parke’ and ‘fine gravel walks between grass plots 4 square with 5 brass Statues great and small in each Square’.  During her visit, Fiennes ascended to the cupola to enjoy the far-reaching views, and tasted the home-brewed beer, which was ‘four years old—not too stale very clear good Beer well brew’d’.  Visitors are still welcomed to Newby today, although they may wish to play it safe with a cup of tea in the café.


Further reading: Chetham’s Library Blog, 28th September 2016, ‘Seventeenth Century Crowdfunding with Knyff and Kip’

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