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Gothic Mansion worthy of a Bishop

Bishop's Court

“A truly gothic mansion which provides opportunity for confession if you were suddenly overwhelmed by the need!”

A Country Agent
an impressive mansion
Bishops Court

The current grade I listed mansion, Bishops Court, was most recently remodelled in the mid-19th century by the noted gothic-revival architect William White, who also remodelled Dartington Hall at about the same time. 

Entrance ot the mansion
Entrance to the Mansion

The house enjoys a long-documented history dating back to its acquisition in 1250 by the Bishops of Exeter, for whom it was a country palace for several centuries.

At Bishops Court, he transformed a house of about 1800, which itself incorporated the remains of the most important medieval residence of the Bishops of Exeter, acquired in 1265 and used by them until 1546. {source: Country Life]

Mansion corridor
Hall running through the mansion

The impressive interiors of the mansion include stunning and intricate use of contrasting stonework, original paint finishes, fireplaces and flooring.

Mansion chapel
Chapel exclusive to the mansion

The chapel with much of its original fittings is a spectacular space and the reception rooms are airy with high ceilings and generous proportions.

Dining Hall fit for a mansion owned by a bishop
DIning Hall befitting of such a mansion
Drawing Room
Drawing Room

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The offical entry from Historic England reads:

Substantial country house (mansion) 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 mansion 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 in the mansion, 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 mansion 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 to the mansion 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.

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