Cragside – “The Palace of a Modern Magician”

 William George Armstrong (1810-1900) a scientist, technical innovator and one of the most successful industrialists of his generation was born into a respectable middle class farming and merchant family in Newcastle and was eventually to be client for one of the most remarkable late Victorian houses in England – Cragside – designed by the Architect Richard Norman Shaw. The young George (later Lord Armstrong) trained as lawyer but his real interests were in science and mechanics. He was admitted as a fellow to the Royal Society for his discovery of the “Armstrong Effect”, the production of static electricity from the release of high pressure steam and he moved into manufacturing in 1847 when he bought land at Elswick by the river Tyne and founded W.G. Armstrong & Company. He invented the hydraulic accumulator, a means of increasing water pressure (and so power) which made it unnecessary to have a high head of water to create very high hydrostatic pressures. This key technology unlocked a range of engineering innovations from swing and lifting bridges, to dockside cranes and passenger and goods elevators. He also successfully developed barrel-rifling and breech loading for large calibre guns and by doing so halved their weight, increased their range threefold and reduced the propellant required by a half. He also built warships from 1868 in conjunction with the firm of Charles Mitchell & Co, of Low Walker on Tyneside with the two firms merging in 1882 and this side of the business was eventually run by his collaborator Sir Andrew Noble. The success which flowed from his industrial empire allowed him to build first a house at Jesmond at the edge of old Newcastle and later Cragside which at first was intended just as a small holiday home. A long overdue holiday in 1863 (he hadn’t had one for 15 years) took him and his wife Margaret Ramshaw (married 1835) to his boyhood haunt of Rothbury in Northumberland and on impulse he bought some land in the Debdon Valley to build a small house to use on fishing holidays. This over time became the focus of the couple’s building and landscape design activity and soon afterwards they moved there permanently. More land was purchased and Cragside became the centre of a large estate stretching from Rhothbury to Upper Coquetdale. They had no children but collected the work of contemporary British artists such as Millias, Henry Nelson O’Neil, Lord Leighton, Edwin Landseer and Peter Graham and the house became a showcase for this magnificent collection and for Lord Armstrong’s inventions.

Left – Sir William George Armstrong (1810–1900), 1st Baron Armstrong of Cragside, in the Inglenook at Cragside, painting by Henry Hetherington Emmerson (1831–1895 – Photo Credit: The National Trust, Cragside. Right – Richard Norman Shaw (1831–1912), RA, portrait by John Callcott Horsley (1817–1903) – Photo Credit: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums. Both images from Art UK.

Richard Norman Shaw RA – Architect

From 1869 to 1885 the British Architect Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) was employed by Armstrong to re-shape and substantially expand the small villa Armstrong had originally established at Cragside in 1863. Shaw was a London architect and had to adapt his southern style to the more robust and rugged masonry building traditions of Northumberland. Shaw was born in Edinburgh and trained in the London office of William Burn (a pioneer of the Scottish Baronial style) with that great practitioner of the Gothic Revival George Edmund Street. While there Shaw attended the Royal Academy evening classes and received a grounding in classicism and won silver and gold medals. In 1854 at the age of 23, he won a travelling scholarship to the Continent, where he drew Gothic cathedrals and churches, and later published “Architectural Sketches from the Continent” (1858). Shaw explored two separate architectural directions: the Gothic Revival of the Ecclesiological Movement, and the picturesque domestic style of the English vernacular. In 1859, after working for two years with Anthony Salvin (1799-1881: an architect and medievalist), Shaw became principal assistant to his one-time fellow employee G. E. Street in Street’s own architectural practice. In 1862, having set up his own architectural practice Shaw went on a sketching holiday in Sussex with his friend William Eden Nesfield, with whom between 1866–69 he developed an “Old English” style of architecture. It was this approach and style which he so usefully employed over a period of fifteen years at Cragside. Shaw’s early country houses like Cragside avoided the academic styles and Neo-Gothic and sought to revive vernacular materials like half-timber and hanging tiles, with projecting gables and tall, massive chimneys with “inglenooks” for warm seating. Although with this style of architecture Shaw helped to shape the architectural direction of the 1890s Arts-and-Crafts movement he was not of it, he was an architect of the preceding generation. It was to be his pupils, those of the next generation like Sidney Howard Barnsley, W. R. Lethaby, E. S. Prior, E. J. May and Ernest Newton who all worked in his office that would form the bedrock of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain. His real artistic heir however was Sir Edwin Lutyens on whom Shaw’s influence becomes apparent from about 1900 onwards. Shaw’s “Old English” work is still imitated today, in stockbroker Tudor mansions and suburban housing from the UK to the US.

Floor plans of Cragside as it is today. Left- Ground Floor Plan, Right – First Floor plan, Inset, Second floor / Attic plan. National Trust.

The Development of Cragside

The choice of Cragside as a site for his house was significantly influenced by its potential for creating hydro-power, its topography and watercourses were ideal. Water could be distributed from the five small lakes on the estate by a network of pipes which led to various devices of which more later. The original Cragside of 1863 was architecturally unremarkable with little relationship to its landscape context. Over a period of fifteen years Shaw gradually encouraged Armstrong to extend the house piece by piece into something perhaps four times it original size. Shaw’s genius was that he used this piecemeal approach by the client to create a compositionally coherent whole that derived much of its appeal precisely through the impression of antiquity it gave of a building which had evolved and grown over centuries rather than just a few years. Cragside is a unified architectural masterpiece precisely because of this. It is unlikely that that it would have been so had Armstrong given Shaw carte-blanch and a blank chequebook and required a house of the final size all in one go. Shaw transformed a small unremarkable villa into a remarkable evocation of England’s “manorial past” and in doing so gave the later Victorian period one of its most architecturally iconic private homes.

Lighting in the Library

Completed in 1872, the library was an important component of Shaw’s first phase of building at Cragside and Professor Andrew Saint, Shaw’s biographer considers it is “Shaw’s greatest domestic interior.” Originally it was used as the drawing room – it lay adjacent to the dining room – but when the new dining room was completed in 1884 (see below) this room was re-purposed as a modest library. There are not in fact that many books and with its large windows, good views and comfortable furniture it was the most used family room of the house. The library has truly magnificent stained glass windows supplied by Morris & Co., the outer four panels are designed by Edward Burne Jones and show authors; Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil and Horace, Dante and Chaucer. Authors Spencer and Milton are designed Ford Madox Brown and the six middle panels showing St George and the Dragon were designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The library was the first room in the house to be lit with filament light bulbs, invented by Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914 – British chemist and physicist) and this was the first installation of electric light in any house other Swan’s own – anywhere in the world. Swan’s own house Underhill at Low Fell, Gateshead, was technically the world’s first to have working light bulbs installed in 1879 and he personally supervised the installation of his vacuum incandescent filament bulbs at Cragside in December 1880. Lord Armstrong later wrote to the editor of the “The Engineer” on 17 January 1881; “The Library, which is a room of 33 feet by 20 feet with a large recess on one side, is well lighted by eight lamps. Four are clustered in one globe of ground glass, suspended from the ceiling of the recess, and the remainder are placed singly in globes, in various parts of the room, upon vases….These vases, being enamel on copper, are themselves conductors, and serve for carrying the return current from the incandescent carbon to a metallic case in connection with the main return wire. The entering current is brought by a branch wire to a small insulated mercury cup in the centre of the base, and is carried forward to the lamp by a piece of insulated wire which passes through the interior to the lamp on top. The protruding end of this wire is naked, and dips into the mercury cup when the vase is set down. Thus the lamp may be extinguished and relighted at pleasure merely by removing the vase from its seat or setting it down again.” Although later than the original installation of Swan’s electric light bulbs, the very fine hanging lampshades supplied by Lea Sons & Co. of Shrewsbury (electrical engineers) before 1895 are of interest. The firm’s catalogue which shows these shades is still extant and demonstrates the speed with which manufacturers took up the practical and decorative challenges of incorporating incandescent electric lighting into domestic interiors.

Left – Swan Carbon Filament Lamps of the general type installed in the Library at Cragside in December 1880 by Sir Joseph Swan. The Discovery Museum Newcastle. Right – The Library at Cragside showing the large bay window with stained glass panels supplied by Morris & Co. designed by Burne Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Rosetti and the ornate metal hanging lampshades for incandescent electric light bulbs supplied by Lea, Sons & Co. of Shrewsbury before 1895.

The furniture is typical for the period and status and only a set of ebonised mahogany ‘Queen Anne’ style chairs with cane seats and gilded leather backs made by Gillows of Lancaster stand out. The oak panelling and Walnut panelled, beamed and coffered ceiling are all carved by James Forsyth (1827 – 1910) in a confident and assured hand. Forsyth was born in Kelso, Roxburgh-shire (his father was an architect) and his brother William Forsyth was a sculptor of note as well and they are most famous for the their renovation and embellishments at Witley Court and Church in Worcestershire. James had studios after this in Hampstead where he worked until about 1907 and it is likely that this is where much of the decorative woodwork at Cragside was made. The cornices of the Library are decorated with painted foliage set on a gold ground. The fireplace is an unusual concoction of a red marble trim surrounding an onyx fascia possibly bought when Lord Armstrong was in Egypt in 1872. The bright blue figurative tiles in the fireplace itself are by Alfred Stevens circa 1853. There is a particularly fine Pre-Raphaelite painting the “The Italian Girl with Doves” 1866 by Raphael Sorbi which was purchased by Lord Armstrong in 1869 for 40 guineas and is a notable survival from his art collection at Cragside. Many of the most famous works of art once in Lord Armstrong’s collection were sold at Christie’s in 1910 by his great-nephew and heir, William Watson-Armstrong, when the family hit hard times. Among the paintings sold were two by the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir John Everett Millais: Chill October (now in the collection of Lord Lloyd Webber) and Jephthah’s Daughter (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff).

The Gallery

Left – Gilnockie Tower, Dumfriesshire in 1530, a painting by H.H. Emmerson, 1880. Middle – The Gallery. Right – Part of Armstrong’s natural history collection still on display in The Gallery.

 The gallery formed the most significant room of Shaw’s second architectural campaign (1872-77) at Cragside. It formed a large part of the new south front and was originally intended (and used as) a sitting room until the third campaign (1883-1885) provided the present drawing room. It was the first room to be lit by electricity – using an early form of arc lamp in 1878 but these did not give a suitable quality of illumination and were replaced two years later with twenty of Joseph Swan’s incandescent bulbs. When first built the Gallery was called simply the “museum” and was intended for Armstrong’s scientific, geological and natural history specimens. At that time it gave access only to Gilnockie Tower and Armstrong’s observatory (the tower had a telescope dome which has now gone). Most of the pictures on the walls of The Gallery are by Henry Hetherington Emmerson (1831 – 1895) who specialised in local historical, sentimental and mawkish scenes popular with a Victorian audience. Typical are “Faithful unto Death” of 1874 a scene of a local shepherd, dead in a blizzard, his face grey with frost while his faithful dogs crouch and howl but will not leave. “Orphan of the Storm” from 1875 shows an orphaned lamb turning its head towards the viewer plaintively, clearly left vulnerable to the bleak winter weather as its dead mother lies in the snow. Lord Armstrong was not unaware of the power of art as a subliminal or sometimes literal show of ancestral legitimacy. In search of ancestry, Lord Armstrong claimed some kinship with Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, a notorious border reiver, or bandit, whose exploits were immortalised in Sir Walter Scott’s ballad of ‘Johnie Armstrang’. Johnnie was executed, along with other members of his ‘gallant companie’, on the orders of James V at Hawick in 1530. In Cragside’s Gallery Emmerson shows in his painting “Gilnockie Tower” commissioned by Armstrong the triumphant reivers returning to Gilnockie Tower in Dumfrieshire, rather than depicting their fate at the gallows. Cragside’s own Gilnockie Tower (which terminates the south front) was designed by Richard Norman Shaw in the early 1870s in imitation of the original building and lies at the end of the gallery.

The Drawing Room

Completed just in time for the Prince and Princess of Wales’s visit in 1884, the Drawing Room is Shaw’s last and largest extension to the house (the 1883-1885 Campaign). Here we can see that after fifteen years Shaw’s tastes and ideas are changing, the style is becoming that of the Italian Renaissance rather than English Tudor or Jacobean. The stylistic change may have two causes, first by now he was employing as chief assistant the talented William R. Lethaby now best known as author of “Architecture, Mysticism, and Myth” (1891) and architect of the Arts and Crafts icons Melsetter House in Orkney (1900) and All Saints Church, Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire (1902). At this time (1884) Lethaby was only 27 years old and was fully engrossed in historical architecture and the values of traditional craftsmanship – something quite new in Victorian thinking. That same year 1884 he co-founder the Art Workers Guild with Edward Prior, Ernest Newton, Mervyn Macartney and Gerald C. Horsley. The second reason was that the grandeur of a large space like the Drawing room required a grand architectural style, the twee domesticity of Shaw’s “Domestic Revival” style was to the Victorian mind unsuitable for majesty. Lethaby therefore designed the Chimneypiece which extends across the south wall in an early renaissance style. It was carved by Farmer and Brindley a firm of architectural sculptors and ornamentalists based in London, founded by William Farmer (1825–1879) and William Brindley (1832–1919). They also worked for Alfred Waterhouse (Natural history Museum) and George Gilbert Scott and after Farmer’s death Brindley turned to writing, collaborating with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema on “Marbles Their Ancient and Modern Application.” Their rendering of Lethaby’s fireplace is a magnificently confident piece of work, visually muscular with a constrained energy (and literally massive – it is ten tons of Italian marble). The space beneath is sufficiently capacious for a dozen adults to stand comfortably. The rest of the room is so well top-lit that there is no sense of oppression rather a magnificent sculptural presence.

The Dining Room

The Dining Room was part of Shaw’s first campaign of alteration to Cragside between 1870-1872. It is one of the finest surviving Victorian domestic interiors and has been little changed. The inglenook fireplace is the lies in an arched, masonry recess and the design of apron screens, checked into one another is borrowed from the medieval kitchen at Fountains Abbey. There are settles on each side of the fireplace are probably again the work of by James Forsyth, Shaw’s favourite woodworker. Henry Emmerson painted the seated portrait of Lord Armstrong in the left hand settle by the fireplace in 1880 and this painting is in fact hung in the Dining Room. It shows Lord Armstrong reading the newspaper, with his dogs at his feet, and a fire blazing in the background. He is consciously depicted as a man of Victorian domesticity rather than an industrial magnate. The stained glass in the inglenook fireplace was designed by William Morris and fitted in 1873 and has images of four young women representing the four seasons. Armstrong had already used Morris wallpaper in the original Cragside and it’s clear that Armstrong liked the products that Morris and Co. produced, there is more Morris glass in the upper stairs and Gallery, as well as the Library.

The Turkish Baths & Heating Systems

If one turns down a set of steep stone stairs outside the Library of all places one arrives at the lowest part of the first phase of the development of Cragside which houses the Turkish Bath (completed May 1870), these are below the library. They are a suite of rooms containing a steam bath, a cold plunge, a hot bath and a shower as well as a W.C and a changing room. In fact the baths were part of Lord Armstrong’s innovative provision of central heating for Cragside, they are situated between two plant rooms or chambers containing water-pipe batteries which are heated from boilers to the north where cold air was inducted and pre-heated for circulation around the house for space heating. In these chambers 4 inch cast iron heating pipes are arranged in multiple rows, to form heater batteries which supply heat energy to these plenum heating chambers to raise the temperature of the incoming cold fresh air before it enters the ventilation system. The heater batteries in the two chambers also directly warm the stone walls on opposite sides of the bath suite thus giving steady, radiative heating within the bathing space. This warm air heating system was the first of two to be installed at Cragside and is in the rooms of the original part of the house (1863 – 1872) and relies upon a network of air ducts, all of which have been built into the structural fabric of the building and lead to floor gratings arranged around the perimeter of the rooms and gratings or grilles fitted in the floor outside the entrance doors or in the skirting.  The second heating system dates from Shaw’s work at Cragside (1872 – 1885) and is a piped, low pressure hot water heating system supplying a variety of different Victorian cast iron box-ended pipe coil heaters, including “Princess” sectional pattern radiators manufactured by what later became The Beeston Boiler Co. All of the radiators are contained within decorated wooden enclosures with removable front screens, which must reduce their efficiency to some extent but were considered necessary for aesthetic reasons.

The Kitchens and Servants Quarters

Left – The Butler’s Pantry, Right – The Kitchen.

Unlike many large country houses of the period, Cragside had hot water and forced air space heating, was warm , secure and many of the inventions Lord Armstrong had installed in the house were intended to reduce the labour required of the servants and so improve their efficiency. A Barkers Mill (same principle as a rotating lawn water-sprinkler) turned the meat spits in the kitchen cooking range, a ‘dumb waiter’ lift could transport stores, equipment and food from the kitchen to the upper floors and there was even an early form of dish-washing machine. There was a much larger hydraulic lift intended for carrying coal to all the upstairs rooms. Running water was available in some parts of the house and for those without, the hydraulic lift was used for transporting sanitary ware containing hot and cold water as well as for moving bed linen and laundry. Together the lift meant that very little needed to be taken up and down stairs. There were electric bells to call the servants to where they were required and an electric gong to summon guests to dinner. The Scullery, larders and cellar storage stretched underneath most of the courtyard, and alongside these were the boilers and their fuel stores which supplied the central heating system. The kitchen itself had large north facing windows and a high ceiling, features which according to Robert Kerr author of “The Gentleman’s House” published in 1864 were intended to keep the kitchen as cool as possible.

The Stair Hall

The Stair Hall is an inner extension of the Entrance Hall in roughly the same place as the stairs of the first house, but enlarged, panelled and decorated with portraits and hunting trophies.  The crouching beasts on the newel posts had some of the original light fittings with curled tops – rather light fishing rods under tension. The present ragged staffs (held by lions) supporting beacon baskets with electric lights were added before 1895.

A Technological Showcase

Armstrong was aware that his home could be an effective “shop window” to show the usefulness of his technology to his guests, many of whom were clients, often from overseas and it is clear that Cragside played this role in selling British expertise and goods. The services in the house were technologically advanced for the time, so such so that they attracted a visit from the then Prince and Princess of Wales and their family who stayed for three days in August 1884. As well as a hydraulic lift and automatic turnspits in the kitchen, hot and cold running water, two types of central heating, a Turkish bath and of course electric lighting there were electric gongs and an internal telephone system instead of the traditional bell-pull system found universally at the time in larger houses with servants.

Armstrong later in life also added a small ‘electric room’ where he could carry out experimental work without disturbance and the initial choice of the Cragside site for its hydro-power potential was important to Armstrong. While a hydro-turbine still powers the estate sawmill, originally a hydraulic engine also pumped water to the house and on the surrounding estate farms a range of machinery was equipped with hydraulic pumps to provide water or with a turbine to do mechanical work. However what really captured visitors’ imagination was the hydraulic-turbines producing hydro-electricity for the house. It was at Cragside that hydro-power was first used to provide domestic electricity in 1878 employing Sir Joseph Swan’s new filament light bulbs. Geoffrey A. Irlam writing in the Industrial Archaeology Review states that “In 1878 Armstrong installed an arc lamp in the picture gallery at Cragside. Electricity was generated by a Siemens series wound, bipolar, horizontal dynamo with a drum armature and a single magnetic circuit. It was housed in a saw-mill at the foot of the dam forming Debdon Lake and was belt-driven by a six horsepower Williamson [hydro] turbine supplied with water from the lake. It was probably the first hydroelectric plant in Britain……Shortly afterwards, Armstrong’s friend Joseph Swan perfected the incandescent lamp and by the end of 1880 forty five of the new lamps had been fitted at Cragside. This was one of the first installations: Swan himself referred to it as the ‘first proper installation’” In 1886 demand for electricity at Cragside had become so high that the first phase of the Burnfoot Powerhouse was built to house an early hydroelectric plant for Swan’s incandescent lighting. The Powerhouse expanded over the years and new generating units were installed to meet growing electrical demands in the house and estate. These have now been restored by the British Engineerium  to illustrate to today’s visitors the story of electricity supply on the site and the importance of Cragside to the history of hydroelectricity and electric lighting.

Cragside Today

Cragside was passed to the British government’s Treasury in 1977 in lieu of death duties (taxation) and then transferred to the National Trust through the National Land Fund with the financial assistance of the 3rd Lord Armstrong. After restoration partly financed by the Historic Building Council the house was opened to the public in 1979.


About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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