With one of the finest private collections of sculpture and paintings in the world, Holkham Hall is an art museum in its own right. An 18th century country house built in an exquisite Palladian style, Holkham Hall is located in the heart of the Norfolk countryside and remains the private property of the current Earl of Leicester of Holkham.
Quick Facts About Holkham Hall
- Holkham Hall is located opposite the village of Holkham in Norfolk, England.
- The first foundations for the country house were laid in 1734 but the building was not completed until 1764.
- Holkham Hall was built by the 1st Earl of Leicester Thomas Coke and remains the family home of the Earls of Leicester of Holkham.
A Brief History of the Holkham Hall
Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice to James 1st and founder of the family’s fortune, purchased the Holkham Estate in 1609. 113 years later his descendant Thomas Coke embarked on his six year Grand Tour of Europe and returned in 1718 with an impressive array of antiquities and some grand plans to build an English country home like no other. Sir Edward Coke is said to be responsible for the maxim ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, a sentiment his great-grandson Thomas Coke certainly took to heart when he set about designing and building one of the most impressive Palladian Revival style houses in England, bankrupting himself in the process.
During his Grand Tour Thomas Coke (made 1st Earl of Leicester in 1744) did not only collect great works of art and literature he collected acquaintances who included the architect William Kent and Lord Burlington, an aristocrat and architect who was known for his enthusiasm for Palladian Revival style. Briefly popular in England before the Civil War, Palladianism enjoyed a revival during the 1720s and 30s as a reaction against the popular Baroque style associated with Queen Anne. Loosely based on the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, Palladianism of the early 18th century eventually evolved into the Georgian style that is still popular in English country houses today. With the encouragement and expertise of his new friends, Coke set about designing Holkham Hall in 1726 creating the ‘most Italian house in England.’
Influenced by the construction of nearby Houghton Hall and aided by his assistant local Norfolk architect Matthew Brettingham, Coke designed a yellow-brick Roman palace whose exterior was unusually severe and devoid of ornamentation, even by Palladian standards. Favouring function and efficiency over style, Holkham Hall has few windows and only two storeys, the piano nobile containing a series of state rooms flanked by two purely functional courtyards. The central block is linked to four corner pavilions designed to house Coke’s family, Coke’s visitors, the kitchens and a chapel.
Designed primarily by William Kent, the grandeur of Holkham Hall’s interiors took 34 years to complete and have been described as the ‘finest Palladian interior in England’. Thomas Coke was never to see his great country house completed as he died in 1759, before the building of the house was even complete. The finishing and furnishing of the interiors of the house were overseen by Coke’s wife, Lady Margaret Tufton, Countess of Leicester.
Kent’s penchant for simplicity and insistence on the eloquence of a plain surface is evident in most of Holkham Hall’s grand spaces. Entrance to the house is through the epic Marble Hall, a room set over two levels with an imposing white marble staircase connecting the hall to a saloon that has been referred to as ‘one of the great chambers of England’. The space was designed by Kent to imitate Palladio’s design for a Temple of Justice and is made mostly from Derbyshire Alabaster. Classical niches and reliefs line the walls and give way to an incredible coffered and gilded ceiling that was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.
The Marble Hall leads to the piano nobile and state rooms. Each of the state rooms, although furnished with a light touch, house magnificent treasures. In the North Dining room, the Axminister carpet perfectly reflects the ceiling above, panels depicting Aesop’s fables crown two marble fireplaces and the sideboard alcove represents the apse of a Roman Basilica. The walls of the drawing room and south saloon are covered in crimson velvet and hung with paintings by Poussin, Claude, Ruebens and Van Dyck. The south dining room houses two great portraits of Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, one by Batoni and one by Gainsborough.
The West Gallery or ‘Statue Gallery’ was built specifically to display the Coke’s collection of statuary, mostly Roman copies of Greek works purchased during Thomas Coke’s Grand Tour and The Landscape Room has been hung in the floor to ceiling 18th century style mostly with landscapes by Poussin and Claude. Finally, the state bedroom suite with walls of green damask is decorated with Brussels and Mortlake tapestries and rich embroidery hangings.
Holkham Hall’s grounds are now made up of almost 3,000 acres that stretch down from the house to wild coastal marshland. William Kent began work on the grounds several years before the house was constructed, an event that was commemorated in 1730 with the construction of a 24m Obelisk. Holkham Hall is said to have cost around £90,000 when it was built, a cost that left the Coke family in debt following 1st Earl of Leicester’s death in 1759. This debt and the severe design of the house has meant that it stands now almost exactly as it did in 1764 when it was completed. Still the family home of the Earls of Leicester of Holkham, the house is open to the public for pre-arranged tours.
What Makes Holkham House Very Famous
For many, Holkham House is the finest examples of Palladian architecture in England. The Holkham collection of ancient Roman marble sculptures is one of the finest private collections in the world and its collection of paintings include key works by Reubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, Claude and Thomas Gainsborough. The current Earl of Leicester is a key figure in great house survival. There are over 300 houses on his estate, still existing in a state of tight and self-sustained community.
Holkham Hall on Film and TV
Holkham Hall has appeared in the following films and TV shows.
- Glorious 39 (2009)Film
- The Duchess (2008) Film
- Antiques Roadshow (February 2007) TV Series
- The Curious House Guest (March 2006) TV Series
- The Lost Prince (2003) TV Film
- Shakespeare in Love (1998) Film
- Nicholas McCann (1996) Holkham Hall: Great Houses of Britain
- Schmidt and Keller (2005) Holkham
- P. Mortlock (2007) Aristocratic Splendour: Money and the world of Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester.
- Susan Weber (2013) William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain
A ticket to visit Holkham Hall, Bygones Museum and Walled Gardens costs £13 per adult and £6.50 per child. Under fours go free. From the 1st April to 31st October the Hall is open from 12.00pm to 4.00pm on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Access to the gardens and museum is available every day. See the website www.holkham.co.uk for more information.