Matthew Brettingham the Elder, (1699–1769), was an 18th-century Englishman who rose from humble origins to supervise the construction of Holkham Hall, and become one of the country’s best-known architects of his generation. Much of his principal work has since been demolished, particularly his work in London, where he revolutionised the design of the grand townhouse. As a result, he is often overlooked today, remembered principally for his Palladian remodelling of numerous country houses, many of them situated in the East Anglia area of Britain. As Brettingham neared the pinnacle of his career, Palladianism began to fall out of fashion and neoclassicism was introduced, championed by the young Robert Adam.
Brettingham, an architect, was born in Norwich, the son of Lancelot Brettingham (1664–1727) and his wife, Elizabeth Hillwell (d. 1729), of the parish of St Giles. Lancelot Brettingham was called a mason in the city poll-book recording the parliamentary election of 1714. Both Matthew and his elder brother Robert were apprenticed, as bricklayers, to their father and, having served their time, both brothers were made freemen of the city of Norwich on 3 May 1719.
Matthew Brettingham’s transition from builder and craftsman to architect was gradual. Pivotal to this process was his appointment in 1734, at an annual salary of £50, as clerk of works for the building of Holkham Hall on the north Norfolk coast, a large Palladian mansion based on the designs of William Kent with a major input of ideas from the patron, Thomas Coke, earl of Leicester.
Brettingham’s work at Holkham, which included the design of a number of structures in the park and was to extend over a score of years, earned him the respect and friendship of his employer and provided him with contacts which were to prove critical in the development of his career. His public work at this time, all within the bounds of Norfolk, included: the construction, in 1741, of Lenwade Bridge across the River Wensum; the rebuilding of the nave and crossing of St Margaret’s Church in King’s Lynn, damaged by the collapse of the spire in 1742; the raising of the new shire hall at Norwich Castle in 1747–9 and, over the same period, repairs to the castle itself; and repairs to Norwich Cathedral. Brettingham received a number of commissions for the design and remodelling of country houses in the 1740s which were initially confined to the county of Norfolk: the halls at Hanworth, Heydon, Honingham, and Langley were altered, while the hall at Gunton was an entirely new structure.
The outward extension of Brettingham’s country-house practice in the late 1740s coincided, more or less, with his increasing presence in London which, as his surviving account books show, from 1747 and for most of the next two decades, was the centre of his activity. His first major London commission was, appropriately, the building of Norfolk House in St James’s Square for Edward Howard, ninth duke of Norfolk. Other work followed in St James’s Square, Piccadilly, and Pall Mall. Engravings for the house in Pall Mall, raised in 1761–3 for Edward Augustus, Duke of York, appeared in volume 4 of Vitruvius Britannicus, published in 1767. Brettingham’s country-house work in these years included alterations to Goodwood, in Sussex (1750), Marble Hill, Twickenham (1750–51), Euston Hall, Suffolk (1750–56), Moor Park, Hertfordshire (1751–4), Petworth House, Sussex (1751–63), Wortley Hall, Yorkshire (1757–9), Wakefield Lodge, Northamptonshire (1759), Benacre House, Suffolk (1762–4), and Packington Hall, Warwickshire (1766–9).
Brettingham’s architecture has been described as an unexciting, if dignified, variety of Palladianism. His practice was, however, successful, and the secret of his success was his ability to adapt the grander ideas of others to the purposes of his clients, confining himself to a limited number of design themes. His corner-towered scheme for Langley was, essentially, a restatement of the same theme at Holkham; the minimal Palladianism of Norfolk House, the façade of which was no more than blank walling relieved only by door- and window-cases and a parapet, a continuation of the minimalist treatment he had observed at Hanworth and which he himself had followed earlier at Gunton. Having encountered difficulties in obtaining ashlar, the earl of Leicester settled for the facing of Holkham Hall with white brick: Brettingham was to repeat the use of white brick at Gunton and again at Norfolk House, arranging, for Norfolk House, for the bricks to be made at Holkham and brought to London.
Brettingham’s forays into Gothic and his use of round arches, as in the nave arcades of St Margaret’s, King’s Lynn, and the galleried exterior of the shire hall in Norwich, indicate the approach of an engineer rather than an antiquary and are now seen as outlandish. It was towards the end of his working life, in 1761, that Brettingham published The Plans, Elevations and Sections of Holkham in Norfolk, with his own name inscribed on the plates as ‘architect’. Critics, from Horace Walpole onwards, have assumed that Brettingham was claiming the credit for Kent’s designs but he himself may have used the inscription, legitimately from his view, to indicate his status as executive architect and draughtsman.
Matthew Brettingham died in his own house in the Norwich parish of St Augustine on 19 August 1769 and, as epitaphs in the parish church state, is buried in a vault at the east end of the north aisle, alongside his wife, Martha Bunn (c.1697–1783), whom he had married on 17 May 1721; their resting places are close to those of two of their sons, Matthew Brettingham the younger (1725–1803) and Robert Brettingham, who was probably a worsted weaver and was the father of Anthony Brettingham Freston (1757–1819). Nine children were born to him and his wife and all those for whom baptismal records have been identified were baptized in the church of St Augustine.
The above text is an extract from an article by Robin Lucas in the Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography – see link under ‘Sources’ below.
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