Architectural historian Joan Alcock wrote an authoritative guide to the architecture of Parkstead House in 1980: “The main block, which faces Richmond Park, was built by Sir William Chambers as Parkstead House in the 1760s for William, 2nd Earl of Bessborough: this building is illustrated in Vitruvius Britannicus and described in the principal histories of Surrey. The Earl used the building as a country house, but on the marriage of his son Frederick, Viscount Duncannon, to Henrietta, daughter of Earl Spencer, he allowed the young couple to live there. Bessborough House, later Parkstead House, became the centre of their social and political life and this continued after Frederick had succeeded to his father’s title in 1793 and had inherited the principal residence in Cavendish Square.” The third Lady Bessborough’s scandalous daughter Caroline would marry William Lamb before pursuing Lord Byron. The 5th Earl sold the property and after a time as a Jesuit college it has been in educational use ever since.
She explains, “The design of Parkstead is based on the Palladian villa. The prototypes appear to be Colen Campbell’s Mereworth and Isaac Ware’s villa which he built in 1754 for the financier, Bourchier Cleeve, at Foots Cray, Kent, which was a severer version of Mereworth. The first design for the façade lacks an attic storey but its row of Ionic columns and arrangements of windows on the first floor was clearly inspired by Foots Cray. The drawing of the house in Vitruvius Britannicus reveals only two windows on the attic floor. In this case the centre front room would be lit entirely by skylights. One circular skylight still survives, having its original decoration round the rim. The room, however, is a large one and the skylight is needed to give extra light to the rear. The façade certainly has more attractive proportions without the windows, which appear to be rather uncomfortably situated above the portico but they are functionally necessary and were probably part of the original design.”
Joan sums up Parkstead House, “The treatment of the façade is strictly in accordance with Palladian principles as laid down by Lord Burlington and Colen Campbell. If anything, Chambers was more severe, reducing his ornament to a minimum.” Only the façade overlooking the parkland is faced in stone: all other elevations are of dark grey brickwork with stone quoins. Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner record in The Buildings of South London (1983), “It was the first of several Palladian villas designed by Chambers in the early 1760s. They belong to the second generation of Palladian houses in England … The prototype for the façade appears to have been Bourchier Cleeve’s Foots Cray, built in imitation of the Villa Rotunda circa 1756; but the obvious inspiration for a villa in the London countryside, that is a relatively modest rural retreat rather than a full scale country house, was of course Chiswick House … In the garden is a circular entablature from the portico of a circa 18th century garden temple (the rest in store).” The simple plan of the piano nobile is replicated on the bedroom floor above. A central three bay room behind the portico is flanked by single bay rooms. These three rooms are three bays deep with shallower rooms to the rear. A square staircase hall is behind the portico room.
Nobody is better qualified to critique Sir William Chambers’ work than architect John O’Connell. One of his many professional achievements was brilliantly restoring the Casino Marino in Dublin, arguably Ireland’s greatest neoclassical building. This distinguished design may appear as a single bay single storey structure but as Jeremy Musson, architectural historian for Country Life, enlightens: “Casino Marino is a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Depending how you count them, there are some 13 rooms inside.”
John declares, “Sir William Chambers’ work at Parkstead House is about refinement, rebooted Palladianism. There is a real sensitivity and finesse at play. The elevations need a parapet though as there is a certain squatness without one. Everything has been sacrificed for the pediment and the fully expressed portico. The ironwork is painted Somerset House blue. That was his first essay in town planning. It is devalued now being away from the River Thames where once it was rather like a Venetian palace. The Embankment cutting it off from the river was the solution to water stagnation.”
Indoors he observes the plasterwork in one room, “That is a very correct cornice and four fantastic urns. It’s so delicately handled.” In another, “The frieze isn’t right and speaks of later Edwardian modillions. There’s a solecism – the garland should be central.” And as a whole, “This house demonstrates a commitment to good materials following the French noble material hierarchy, from the state rooms on the piano nobile to the rustic rooms in the raised basement. The house as temple on a robust scale.” A framed sign dated 1980 on a corridor wall sets out:
- “Parkstead built as a Palladian villa or summer residence by Sir William Chambers for the 2nd earl of Bessborough. The 3rd Earl lived here for much of his life until the death of his wife Henrietta in 1821.
- The 3rd Earl leased the house to a banker, Abraham Robarts, who made it his permanent home until his death in 1858. Robarts made many improvements, including constructing a well and pump to provide a water supply.
- The 5th Earl sold the house and estate to the Conservative Land Society for division into smallholdings. However, it was eventually sold, in conditions of some secrecy, to the Society of Jesus for use as their Noviciate.
- The Jesuits moved in and this began the occupancy which was to last for nearly 100 years. The name of the house was changed to Manresa in commemoration of the place in Spain where the founder of the Society, St Ignatius Loyola, composed the Spiritual Exercises which form the basis of the Jesuit rule. Many additions were made to the house during this period leaving it much as it can be seen today.
- The Society left Manresa and among their reasons for doing so were the invasion of their privacy by high rise flats and the compulsory purchase of much of their land by the Greater London Council. The house now became part of Battersea College of Domestic Science and it was officially opened by the Right Honourable Shirley Williams MP, who also signed the order for its subsequent closure in 1979.
- Manresa became jointly occupied by Garnett College and the Putney Adult Education Institute. In the early days, Lady Bessborough had run a small school here for local Roehampton children. The house has been associated with education for the best part of 200 years.”