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A Mogul fantasy in the Cotswolds
10:55am Thursday 3rd September 2009 in Weekend & Leisure
Sezincote is one of the Cotswolds’ hidden places. In an area bristling with tourist signs, it is easy to miss its modest entrance gates. But should you decide to turn down its tree-lined drive you are in for a surprise.
Rising above the English oaks and beeches are the turquoise dome and delicate minarets of an Indian palace, set within a landscape of temples, statues and lakes.
The poet John Betjeman has given the best description of the Sezincote experience. In the 1920s, he was a regular guest at the house — the country home of one of his Oxford friends — and he was captivated by its eccentric charm. Later, he wrote a long poem, Summoned by Bells, recalling his student days, in which he remembered the magical approach to Sezincote: “Down the drive, Under the early yellow leaves of oaks; One lodge is Tudor, one in Indian style.
The bridge, the waterfall, the Temple Pool And there they burst upon us, the onion domes, Chajjas and chattris, made of amber tone: ‘Home of the Oaks’, exotic Sezincote.”
Sezincote is indeed exotic. In its bold combination of Hindu and Islamic motifs, it has been compared to the palace of the Mogul Emperor Akbar, who ruled Northern India in the 16th century.
But how did such a creation come to be built in the Cotswolds, two miles west of Moreton in Marsh?
“Down the drive, Under the early yellow leaves of oaks; One lodge is Tudor, one in Indian style. The bridge, the waterfall, the Temple Pool And there they burst upon us, the onion domes, Chajjas and chattris, made of amber tone: ‘Home of the Oaks’, exotic Sezincote.”John Betjeman
The Sezincote estate dates back to Norman times (when it acquired its name, meaning “home of the oaks”), but the story of the present house began in 1798, when Charles Cockerell inherited the park from his older brother.
Cockerell had worked for the East India Company, where he had conceived a passion for Mogul architecture, and once back in Gloucestershire he set about creating his own small-scale Indian palace.
To help him achieve his dream, Charles employed his talented architect brother, Samuel Pepys Cockerell, who had already designed a retirement home for Warren Hastings (the first governor-general of British India) in nearby Daylesford.
At Daylesford House Samuel had experimented with a few Indian features, but Sezincote was a far more ambitious project. Working closely with Thomas Daniell, an artist who had spent ten years in India, Samuel drew up his plans for an eclectic masterpiece.
In Sezincote House, Muslim, Hindu and English Regency styles are combined with surprisingly harmonious results. Hooded Islamic arches frame tall Regency windows and lantern-like minarets (or chattris) stand at the corners of the roof.
Hindu influences can be seen in the lotus flower motifs and in the pillars framing the front door, while the pointed archway over the door is copied from Persian mosques. Curving out from the left-hand side of the house is an elegant orangery, with a series of French doors, featuring ‘peacock tail’ window tracery. The orangery leads to a miniature pavilion, capped by minarets, while the house is crowned by a magnificent onion dome, typical of Islamic architecture.
Cockerell’s dome was constructed from copper and the house was built from local limestone, stained orangey-red to imitate Indian sandstone.
While Samuel Cockerell concentrated on the house, Thomas Daniell was responsible for the grounds, designing an Indian Bridge flanked by statues of Brahmin bulls, a Snake Pool with a dramatic statue of a three-headed cobra, and a temple to Suriya (a Hindu sun goddess).
All these elements were skilfully harmonized within a picturesque landscape by Humphry Repton, while later owners added an Indian Water Maze, a Persian Paradise Garden, and a host of unusual trees, shrubs and flowers.
A pair of stone elephants, installed to mark the millennium, have weathered well and now look quite at home on their English lawn.
By 1812, the house and gardens at Sezincote were complete, and visitors flocked to view the Nabob’s house.
One early visitor was the Prince Regent, who was so impressed by Cockerell’s creation that he gave orders for his new palace at Brighton to be constructed in the Indian manner. The result was the famous Brighton Pavilion, which inspired a national craze for oriental buildings.
The Sezincote estate remained in the hands of the Cockerell family until 1884, when it was bought by James Dugdale, and it was Dugdale’s son and daughter-in-law who welcomed the young Betjeman to Sezincote.
In 1944, the house passed to Sir Cyril and Lady Kleinwort, who embarked on a major restoration of its interior. Today, their grandson and his wife, Edward and Camilla Peake have turned Sezincote into a family home, while also opening it up to visitors.
Inside, Sezincote House is largely Regency in style, flamboyantly restored by Lady Kleinwort with the help of John Fowler (co-founder of the decorators Colefax and Fowler). But there are Indian elements too.
The Peacock Room has an oriental-style ‘tent bed’ and some playful trompe l’oeil murals of paradise gardens, while the walls of the dining room are covered with delicate fantasy scenes of temples and palaces, painted by George Oakes in the 1960s.
A visit to Sezincote is a delightful and quirky experience, but it can also have something to teach us.
Charles Cockerell modelled his country home on the Mogul palace at Fatehpur Sikri — a building that was both an architectural wonder and a symbol of religious unity.
In his specially constructed palace of all the faiths, Emperor Akbar gathered together Hindu, Muslim and Christian leaders in an attempt to synthesize their beliefs.
Sadly, his successors did not pursue his vision, but a lasting monument to the emperor’s bold, multi-faith experiment survives in his palace.
With its unique combination of Muslim and Hindu features, Fatehpur Sikri was famous throughout British India when Cockerell translated its concept to the Cotswolds. As Simon Jenkins puts it, in his guide to England’s Thousand Best Houses: “Sezincote is a quiet Regency villa, clothed in the garb of Fatehpur Sikri” — an eccentric English country home, but also a vision of religious harmony.
Sezincote gardens are open from January to November, on Thursdays and Fridays, from 2 to 6pm. The house is open from May to September from 2.30 to 5.30pm. Guided tours of the house are provided and teas are served in the Orangery. Visit the website www.sezincote.co.uk for more details and directions Jane Bingham is the author of The Cotswolds: A Cultural History (published August 2009 by Signal Books). Her book includes chapters on the region’s agricultural and industrial history, on the Arts and Crafts movement, and on writers, artists and musicians in the Cotswolds. Vist the website www.signalbooks.co.uk for details, or ask for it in your local bookshop