When we use the adjective or prefix ‘Georgian’ to describe a town or city, that use is usually sanctioned or employed as a signifier of the predominant architectural style of the buildings within that town or city; one need only think of Bath or Buxton as examples of this type of nomenclature. One such town whose informal description is often prefaced with this label or moniker is the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne.
The use of ‘Georgian’ to describe this small market town, situated at the edge of the Peak District, is largely based on the relatively grand examples of Palladian influenced architecture that line both sides of Church Street, a street once described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the finest streets in Derbyshire’ with a ‘large variety of excellent houses and large stretches without anything that could jar’.♦ However, despite Pevsner’s admiration for both the street and the buildings that occupy it, he freely admits that he was, at the time of writing, unfamiliar with the architect whose work was thought to be largely responsible for both its grandeur and its then growing reputation as a Georgian town.♦
The architect in question was Joseph Pickford, a Derby-based builder, who in a relatively short period of time, made a substantial contribution to many of the provincial towns and cities in and around the English Midlands. Whilst lacking the reputation, and perhaps the talent of his contemporaries, Robert Adam and James Wyatt, he nevertheless received numerous commissions across the Midlands, including many from notable individuals and friends of the Lunar Society.
Born in Warwickshire and apprenticed to his uncle (a stonemason of the same name) he arrived in Derby at some point during the early 1760s to work on Foremark Hall, as an agent to David Hiorne of Warwick.♣ He later married the daughter of Thomas Wilkins, who was the principle agent of the MP and landowner, Wenman Coke, a direct descendant of the Coke family of Holkham Hall in Norfolk, a place Pickford knew well through his uncle’s masonry work and relationship with Holkham’s principle architect, William Kent.
Whilst establishing an architectural practice in the city of Derby it is thought that he began working on a scheme to remodel an existing house on Church Street in Ashbourne.♣ The house was originally built for a local lawyer (Francis Higginbotham), but was then hastily sold to Brian Hodgson (an inn-keeper and distant ancestor of Elizabeth II), who is thought to have commissioned Pickford to redesign the facade of the house in around 1763. As little is known of his earlier work, this remodel is considered to be the first example of Pickford developing one of his ‘signature’ architectural motifs of using Venetian and Diocletian windows in a central composition above a pedimented Roman doric or Tuscan porch.
Known locally as ‘The Grey House’, 61 Church Street directly abuts the multi-gabled Elizabethan Grammar School built in 1585. The facade, which is constructed of ashlar stone, is unusual for a Pickford design in that it exploits two symmetrical full-height canted bays, flanking either side of the main entrance, with balustrade detailing to the parapet wall. This use of canted bays is thought to be relatively unique in his portfolio and whilst ashlar stone is used for the facade of another house in Ashbourne that can be attributed to Pickford (discussed below), his later designs mainly exploited brick for their main facades. However, in this instance, it is perhaps its very immediate relationship with the Grammar School that influenced this particular choice of material. Inside, the house follows a similar plan to Pickford’s own house in Derby, with a large square entrance hall and large reception rooms to the left and right, an the coffered ceiling in the drawing room is thought to be similar to that of St Helen’s House in Derby, also by Pickford.
Whilst this house stands with significant presence in its location, the choice of material (ashlar stone) does mean that the structure lacks the sharper, more polite sensibilities of Pickford’s later houses (including his own) where brick was employed as the main component for the facades. This observation is perhaps supported by his use of pediments above the windows on the ground floor, as despite their technical necessity for shedding rain water, these feel like a somewhat contrived addition or afterthought to provide a distraction from the main material component.
Following the completion of ‘The Grey House’ the proprietor of the house immediately opposite is thought to have commissioned Pickford to redesign the facade of his Mansion House in a similar style (1764). The client in question was Dr John Taylor, a good friend of Samuel Johnson, who along with James Boswell, were frequent visitors to the house and town and were instrumental in advising Dr Taylor to embark on some ‘improvement of your estate or little schemes of building’.♣
The facade of the Mansion House differs from its neighbour in that it is constructed of brick, with stone detailing, over five bays and three storeys. However, the same classical motifs (Venetian and Diocletian windows in a central composition above a pedimented Tuscan porch) appear as a disjointed mirror image of ‘The Grey House’ opposite. At the time of construction the north-facing brick facade would have provided a sharp, bright surface to the building, reflecting the reason for its choice, although it has, unfortunately, dulled over time. This phase of building also included a brick screen with seven blind recessed arches and coach house entrance. This structure formed the rear elevation to the orangery which was located to left of the villa, but no longer exists. It is also thought that Pickford was responsible for the design of the south facing octagonal music room that overlooks the garden and employs a canted bay with a pedimented central door. Interestingly, this room was constructed using ashlar stone.
The final Pickford town house that was thought to be built in Ashbourne was Compton House (1768-70), which was built for a young lawyer (Thomas Beresford) who had made his fortune from coal mining. The house, like ‘The Grey House’, was constructed with an ashlar stone facade over three storeys. However, the Palladian detailing differs from the two earlier houses in that the Venetian windows flank the central fanlight door case on the ground floor, which is decorated with vermiculated pilasters. The first floor windows are traditional 4/3 ratio sash windows situated in three shallow recessed arches. This facade is identical to a house designed by Pickford around the same period on Friar Gate, Derby (No44), which is situated near Pickford’s own house to the west of the city. ♣
The Georgian idiom was always about architectural good manners, or at least the perception of such, a repeated exercise in formality expressed through the devices of classical anonymity. Georgian town houses, as Ian Nairn was often fond of saying, are ‘all Queen Anne up front and Mary Ann around the back’, meaning that the facade was always more formally important than the structure of the building in its entirety, an obvious material trait of Compton House. The ashlar facade is simply that, the deployment of material to enhance its presence and project the characteristics of wealth and good taste. Pickford was a type of exemplar in this practice, his material camouflages of classical refinement and proportion were highly sort after during the latter part of the eighteenth century, perhaps providing the foundations for the very British and middling tradition of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Compton House represents a maturity of style in the Pickford houses, a transition that can possibly be attributed to the earlier designs for St Helen’s House in Derby.
It is fair to say, as we highlighted earlier, that Pickford lacked the reputation and talent of his contemporaries, however, his defining architectural legacy was to exploit the prevailing Palladian motifs and sensibilities and transplant them, with good grace and a sense of proportion, into the provincial towns and cities of the English Midlands. The reason we now employ the adjective ‘Georgian’ to describe the town of Ashbourne is in large part due to the architectural vision and practice of Joseph Pickford. In 1781 the Venetian architect Giannantonio Selva visited England and was introduced to Pickford during a tour of St Helen’s House in Derby. He later commented in his diary that he was surprised that Pickford had never been to Italy for how else could a provincial builder in the English Midlands design houses and villas that would not have seemed out of place in the streets of Vicenza.♣ High praise indeed!
♦ Pevsner, N., 1953. Derbyshire (buildings of England).
♣ Saunders, E., 1984. The villas and town houses of Joseph Pickford of Derby (1736-82). Architectural History, 27, pp.308-319.