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Bishop's Court, Sowton

Description: Bishop's Court

Grade: I
Date Listed: 11 November 1952
English Heritage Building ID: 86174

OS Grid Reference: SX9807891904
OS Grid Coordinates: 298078, 91904
Latitude/Longitude: 50.7178, -3.4451

Location: Sowton, Devon EX5 1DQ

Locality: Sowton
Local Authority: East Devon District Council
County: Devon
Country: England
Postcode: EX5 1DQ

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Listing Text

SOWTON BISHOP'S COURT LANE
SX 99 SE
1/39 Bishop's Court
-
11.11.52
- I

Substantial country house now serving in part as a Company HQ. Originally a palace
of the medieval bishops of Exeter from its purchase by Bronescombe in the mid C13
to the mid C16. Considerable amounts of the C13 fabric survive together with some
fragmentary detailing. Bishop Veysey was induced first (1546) to lease, then
(1549) to grant outright, the Manor of Bishop's Clyst, along with the palace, to
John Russell, first Earl of Bedford. Some C16 work is preserved in various rear
rooms of the main range and service end. The house was purchased by Admiral Graves
who partly rebuilt it in 1803; the plan and some of the decorative scheme remain
from this work, but the whole building was remodelled, and the elevations reworked
in 1860-4 by William White, for the Garrett family. Varied stones (Eastlake
counted 8), random rubble with some carefully positioned dressed stone. Slate
roofs, those to the main range concealed behind parapet.
Plan: the medieval palace was a courtyard plan (Swete's engravings reproduced in
Alcock, see references below) with the main range to the west. Considerable parts
of the fabric of the chapel wing survive (the medieval chapel was on the first
floor), with the respond of an internal arch, carefully exposed by White, at the
junction between this wing and the main range; the latter contained on open hall
and it seems likely that the screens passage divided the hall (on the right) from
the private rooms on the left adjoining the chapel; judging by the high quality of
the C16 rooms in this position, it seems likely that the good rooms were retained
at the lower end of the hall. It is not certain where the kitchen was situated, or
the other rooms mentioned in documentary sources, such as the chancellor's hall,
the other officials' and visitors' accommodation. A ruined north-west angle
tower, presumably medieval, is indicated in Swete's engraving. The early evidence
is discussed in detail by Dr Alcock; in terms of scale the late medieval and C16
complex of buildings which included a tithe barn (q.v.) and stable range (q.v.)
must have been comparable to Dartington Hall. The 1803 work gave the whole house
a polite, symmetrical appearance, with a central entrance, and a right-hand wing
running parallel to the chapel (engraving by Penny, 1826, in possession of the
present owner). William White retained the plan, but gave the house its present
distinctive and muscular Gothic appearance. It is composed of 3 principal
functional elements : a double-pile main range with an axial corridor to both
storeys, served by stairs at either end, those to the left of 1803, with the
principal staircase at the right-hand end, by White, and projecting forward of the
principal staircase, the 2-storeyed library wing. The chapel, forming a cross-wing
at the left end of the main range, is clearly distinguished by its steeply-pitched
roof and tall lancet windows (replacing a first storey Perpendicular window). To
the left of the chapel, and at the same alignment as the main range are the service
wings and servants' accommodation. Each range has axial and end stacks with
clustered polygonal stone shafts; the external lateral stacks to the front and
rear are important elements in the elevations. Except for the chapel, 2 storeys
throughout, the service end with garret rooms.
Exterlor: Front: markedly asymmetrical; the 3 principal elements in the plan -
the main range and library wing, the chapel, and the service end - are carefully
distinguished and dramatically contrasted. Main range and library wing contained
under a moulded parapet pierced with shouldered-arched apertures; the main
entrance is set to the extreme right-hand of the main range whereas before it had
been centrally placed), and is approached by a glazed, leanto conservatory that
abuts the inner wall of the library wing. Above this feature is some weathering
and a corbel table that presumably marks the outline of White's original (or
intended) porch. Main front a 5-window range with paired lancets to first floor
and a prominent central external lateral stack with bold set-offs and gabled
buttresses, and containing a single lancet. Polygonal stone shafts. Ground floor
windows, one of 3 lights, 3 of 2, and one of (to the entrance hall), all with
stone mullions, and square-headed. To the left of this part of the front and
occupying the angle formed by it and the chapel, is a tall bell turret with a
shingle spire, containing a C15 bell (information from Rev John Scott). The front
end of the library wing has a 2:8:2 pane oriel supported by a massive central
buttress elaborately corbelled with crisp foliage decoration, and a small carved
bishop.
Chapel: 3 tall correctly C13 lancets by White; stumpy weathered flying
buttresses; 2 lancets to the inner face of chapel, none to the outer. Service
range, much more domestic in character, each range separately roofed with patterned
slates, and all half-hipped; asymmetrical with a shallow front wing running
parallel with the chapel, and a single-storeyed gabled-end front wing containing
the main service-end entrance.
Right-hand (N) elevation: dominated by the heavily buttressed external stair
turret, with lancet and casement windows irregularly arranged, one 3-light window
under a pentice roof squeezed between the stairs and the north-west angle tower
which probably marks the site of the medieval tower illustrated by Swete. This is
polygonal, with lancets to the ground floor and tall sash windows above; the
parapet, heightened at this point, takes in the corner tower, and is emphasised by
the deeply overhanging coping; recessed above this is a glazed, timber hexagonal
turret with spirelet and elaborate weathervane.
Rear(W): very long with hardly any breaks in plane to the main range; first floor
2 and 3-light sash and casement windows, variously treated, but all under window
arches; ground floor with sets of double and triple steeply pointed lancets which
serve as glazed garden doors. Main entrance under wide pointed arch. The 2 C16
rooms to the rear of the chapel are marked by the only significant breaks in this
sheer elevation, namely 2 flying buttresses, gabled with set offs supporting
superordinate arches containing the 2 and 3 light ovolo moulded windows with stone
mullions and surrounds. The service end clearly incorporates some older fabric; it
is mostly of Heavitree stone, with another ovolo moulded window and an external
stack; axial stacks and irregularly placed windows; it provides an effective foil
to the rather austere rear facade.
Interior: (1) Medieval work. Little is now identifiable internally; White revealed
part ot a 1st floor arch (now in the chapel antechamber) that possibly pave access
from the bishops private apartments into the 1st floor chapel. (2) C16 work
survives in 2 rooms to the SW and the main range and to the rear of the chapel. 3
cross ceiling beams, stopped with complex mouldings; axial beams similarly treated;
one of these spans an extremely narrow area between a cross beam and an internal
partition, and has blocks (not stops) added by White. The herringbone slats
between the joists were believed by Dr. Alcock (1966) 'to have no recorded
parallels'. Fireplace with unusual moulding, largely replaced by White. The
existence of high-quality detailing such as this to the lower-end of the passage,
reinforces the impression that the conventional plan was jettisoned, and the C16
private apartments probably represent a remodelling of the medieval private rooms.
(3) 1803 work. Except for alterations at either end of the main range, the 1st
floor retains the early C19 decorative scheme; axial corrider with central domed
skylight with husked festoon; panelled doors to bedrooms to either side; double
panelled doors at North end under large semi-circular fanlight with coloured glass.
Some early C19 decorative feature survive at ground floor level, eg. plaster
acanthus cornices, and chimneypieces; especially noteworthy in the marble fireplace
to the North-West room with 2 Tuscan columns. Dogleg staircase to south of main
range.
(4) Whites work of the 1860's is of exceptional quality and is remarkably intact,
this design retains much original work whilst at the same time transforming it.
Entrance hall: dominated by an arcade of 4 arches of unequal width which allow
access to the axial corridor, all with polished limestone shafts with stiff-leaf
capitals and moulded bases. Varied, brightly-coloured all-over stencilled
patterning to the walls. The 5-light window has 3 pointed inner arches, with
shafts and capitals similar to the arcade. Part of an ovolo-moulded window
(rebated to take glass) has been converted by White into a chimneypiece with
elaborate all-over patterning to fireback and overmantel. A second chimneypiece to
the right of the entrance, is all White's and very characteristic, with stumpy
columns, oversized capitals and supporting a tripartite mirror with robustly
detailed wooden overmantel. Also by White is the furniture: a huge low table, a
floor to ceiling armoire with mirrors, a Gothic mantel-clock and coat and hat
stand, all of this insitu and an intrinsic part of the design.
Principal rooms lead off from the axial corridor. Former dining room to the left
of the entrance hall, with big dressers-cum-buffets to either end, a stone chimney
piece with 3 pointed arches (containing the fireplace) under a superordinate arch;
internal shafts to window arches; intersecting ceiling beams, and a date (1863).
Saloon opposite the entrance hall, with White's painted ceiling but containing much
work of 1803, including the chimneypiece (see above). The polygonal corner turret
is entered from this room by a multi-centred arch with panelled soffit, and is
vaulted in timber, with polished limestone shafts.
Library : rather more restrained, with floor to ceiling fitted bookcases. 1803
chimneypiece retained.
Rear principal rooms : less worked over by White who added small touches to the
1803 scheme, retaining the chimneypieces and cornices. Principal stairs approached
through 2 arches of unequal width; open well staircase with inventive carpentry
detailing, turning around a large pier to half landing with foliated capital.
Axial corridor : A free-standing angel in a canopied corner niche and a double-
chamfered pointed arch are preparation for the chapel. This is an impressive
building, very tall for its area, and with its decorative scheme and fittings
intact. Wooden west gallery, with moulded rail and chunky balusters, supported by
a glazed 7-bay screen, is entered from the first floor axial corridor, and the
contrast between the restrained 1803 work retained here by White, and the powerful
Early English chapel is dramatic. Roof of 3 bays, collars, arch-braced, with stone
and timber corbels, the principals canted and boarded between. Walls stencilled to
simulate ashlar; tall lancets to the east, with trompe l'oeil shafts, and
extremely fine C13-style stained glass. All-over floor tiling. Fittings :
Collegiate stalls returning at west end; prie-dieu, brass lectern, fald stool,
several pairs of wrought-iron candlesticks and altar cross studded with semi-
precious stones. Triptych by Westlake. Brass (south wall) to John Garrett, died
1886.
Summary: Bishops Court is one of William White's most important domestic
buildings. His treatment of the early work was to transform it completely.
Rugged, characteristic and studiously asymmetrical exterior with all the various
parts clearly distinguished according to their functions. The interior is a
remarkably well-preserved example of a serious mid-C19 architect's conception of
domestic Gothic. The fittings are all carefully designed, with a
remarkable attention to detail, and everything, including a complete set of internal
shutters, survives intact.
References: Charles Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival (1872, reprinted
1970), p.108; J F Chanter 'Bishop's Court', Trans. Exeter Diocesan Architectural
and Archaeological Society, 4 (3rd Series), 1929, 87-96; N Pevsner, S.D.,82; N
W ALcock, 'The Medieval Buildings of Bishop's Clyst'; Trans. Devon Assoc. 98
(1966), 132-53, espec. pp. 140-6. Devon C19 Churches Project notes for the
Victorian Society visit of 1979.


Listing NGR: SX9807891904

This text is a legacy record and has not been updated since the building was originally listed. Details of the building may have changed in the intervening time. You should not rely on this listing as an accurate description of the building.

Source: English Heritage

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.




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