Cromwell House: Architectural description

Pages 36-46

Survey of London Monograph 12, Cromwell House, Highgate. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1926.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.


In this section


From the entries in the Court Rolls of the Manor of Hornsey we have already learnt that in the year 1605 Robert Sprignell purchased a house in Highgate from George Crowther and it seems clear from other and later entries that his son Richard, who came into possession of the estate 1626/7, dismantled or removed the original (Crowther) structure and built the greater portion of the existing one. From the historical notes also we have learned how the land now occupied by the forecourt was obtained by Richard from the Lord of the Manor in 1638/9, and in this entry definite reference is made to his " Capital messuage, lately built." The use of the word "Capital" is of importance, as previously the word used has been "messuage" alone, which suggests that the house was considerably enlarged at the rebuilding. Very little, if any, of Crowther's house seems to have been retained, although the details of some door jambs in the basement and the general arrangement of the basement plan (which is to a certain extent independent of the superstructure except so far as the external walls are concerned) lead one to think that perhaps in this portion of the house fragments of earlier walls may still exist. Some of the panelling and the backs of certain doors, particularly one on the second floor, may also be survivals of the earlier structure.

The plan.

The house shews a basement, ground, first and attic floor on the main front towards Highgate Hill, though the present attic is a reconstruction (possibly on the old lines) after the destruction wrought by a fire in 1865. (fn. 1)

The ground floor is approached by means of a flight of 5 steps from the forecourt and the entrance leads directly into a panelled passage 8 feet wide with two large rooms,one on either side, that to the right handsomely panelled, that to the left now robbed of any old features. The passage in its present form is a late feature, but it may represent the "screens" of the 17th century hall. The end of the entrance passage opposite to the front door is marked by doors, with fanlight over (of 18th century date), which give access to the main stair, the carving of which has made the house famous. This stair with the brickfront to the road and the ceilings are the most notable features of the Sprignell reconstruction. To the left and right of the stair are two rooms, the one being in alignment with the northern boundary of the house, the other not projecting so far south as the main block facing the road. The northern room (that to the left on entering the stair from the passage) communicated by means of a door on the garden or eastern wall with a series of rooms forming a long narrow wing by the northern boundary of the site. This wing, like the one over the carriage way, dates from the early 18th century and was no doubt added by the Da Costas; it originally possessed an attic storey, removed a long time before the present sun-balcony was planned. It was approached by a stair of which a few steps still remain in the north room. Only the two external doorways of the wing are now of interest. The panelled room to the right of the staircase, used as the matron's room, is of irregular shape and has a large angle fireplace. There is said to be an old plan in existence that shews a small staircase in the thickening of the wall near the fireplace, but at the time of writing the drawing cannot be found. The space remaining between the external wall of the matron's room and the boundary of the site is used for a carriage way to the gardens. Part of it is now occupied with modern buildings.

On the first floor the front portion of the original house is occupied by two big rooms, of which that to the south is the larger and includes the space occupied by the entrance passage below. The handsome plaster ceilings of both these rooms were practically destroyed in the 1865 fire and have been restored. The back portion again shews the stair with a room on either side; but about the beginning of the 18th century, during the tenancy of the Da Costa family, a wing was thrown out over the carriage-way to the southern end of the house. The main wall of the house at this end appears to have been entirely removed from the first floor upwards and, to make the room in the new wing reasonably square, a large waste space or cupboard was constructed between the partitions separating the old and new structures. The fireplace in this room (plates 58 and 59) bears the monogram A.D.C., (fn. 2) while the north-east room retains part of a fine early renaissance plaster frieze round the chimney breast (plates 60 and 61). The upper floor has lost much of its interest owing to the fire of 1865, but the cupola and stair giving access to it seem to have been modelled on lines which recall the original design.

The elevations.

Sprignell's house appears to have been constructed of bricks of a deep red colour, measuring approximately 8¼" x 4¼" x 2¼", rising on the average 4 courses to 10" throughout. The bond used is English (alternate courses of all stretchers and all headers), although it can only be continued a few courses at a time owing to the intervention of windows and other ornamental features. In the 18th century additions the bricks in use appear to be of much the same size, though of smoother texture, while the bond is Flemish (headers and stretchers alternately in each course). Patching in larger and brighter bricks occurs in places, while in others some of the older bricks seem to have been re-used. The elevation to Highgate Hill is naturally the more important and merits the closest study, but the back or garden elevation, although much plainer, shews certain features of interest in spite of the fact that it has been so effectively disguised by the efforts of 18th century and more modern "improvers" that it is not easy to discern exactly what the original arrangement was. The comparative rarity of good examples of domestic architecture of the period just preceding and during the Commonwealth invests Cromwell House with a special value of its own. The front wall is constructed of cut and rubbed and moulded brick work and, up to the main cornice above the first floor windows, is in its original state. The entrance doorway appears to be considerably later and may perhaps have been added in the 18th century about the same time as the wing over the carriage-way built by the Da Costas. Excepting this wing, the front of Sprignell's house was practically symmetrical, the position of the first and second floors being marked by boldly projecting moulded cornices. A central feature, including the entrance doorway and one window space on either side of it, is formed by setting forward the front a few inches, the projection being marked by rusticated quoins, the quoin being formed by cutting down the bricks every fourth course to one half their depth. Both cornices break round this projection, but, while the lower one is cut through to permit the insertion of the 18th century entrance door, the upper one breaks out again over the central window. The lower members of both these cornices break out also slightly to cover the frieze above each of the windows, except in the case of the central one on the first floor. A moulded plinth runs across the full width of the main front, interrupted only by the principal entrance, while there is a projecting moulded brick cill beneath each ground floor window which may have been cut into when the 18th century sashes were added. Except for the centre one on the first floor, the windows generally are of an uniform character, with flat arched heads of cut and rubbed bricks and eared brick architraves, the only variation being that the friezes above them are curved or "pulvinated" where they occur on the central feature. The window over the entrance door is further elaborated, the projection of the architrave being slightly increased as well as the depth of the upper "ear." There is a double break in the centre of the architrave, while an additional moulded member is introduced that runsright round the breaks in the architrave and across the face of the flat arch above the window, the whole being flanked by a pair of rather severe scrolls or volutes of cut and rubbed brick standing upon slightly projecting moulded bases. These volutes are good examples of the method of building up in soft brick for carving in ordinary brick units, instead of in soft brick lumps with imitation brick joints added afterwards. The brick parapet with the four pilaster strips is modern, dating presumably from the fire of 1865, but it may be on the old lines.

Eighteenth century sashes have replaced the original mullioned windows, the design of which we may judge from the old light that still remains concealed in a cupboard in the south-eastern corner of the front panelled room on the ground floor. (fn. 3) The dormer windows may replace older lights destroyed in the fire, but it is impossible to say for certain owing to the disagreement between early woodcuts, one of which indicates three pedimented dormers and a cupola, while another omits not only the dormers but the cupola as well. The 18th century doorway has a semi-circular head with a keyblock, moulded archivolts and imposts and rusticated surrounds. The composition consists of two semi-circular Doric columns supporting an entablature of which the architrave, frieze and lower members of the cornice break out above the columns. The doorway is approached by a flight of five steps from the forecourt (itself approached by five more from the roadway). The gates to the main road are flanked by a pair of square rusticated stone piers with moulded caps and cavetto finial and ball terminal, buttressed on either side by stone scrolls with carved spandrels supported on brickwork piers with moulded bases. The upper part of the brick wall round the forecourt is modern, but the lower portion may be as early as the 18th century and contemporary with the gate-piers. No doubt it marks the limitation of the part taken in from the waste in 1638. The wooden gates are in two panels, the upper of inverted segmental shape enriched with pierced carvings; they are probably of 18th century design and of the same date as the entrance doorway.

The elevation of the building towards the gardens is of a simpler character and shews a second storey in place of the attic on the main front, while the central portion is carried up to form yet another floor over the staircase, terminating in a flat roof, from whence a magnificent view of London can be obtained when conditions are favourable. The wooden cornice at this point appears to be of 18th century character, but the brickwork is all in English bond similar to that on the main front, though the bricks seem to be rather brighter in colour. A moulded brick string runs across the heads of the ground floor windows and a moulded brick cornice across those of the first floor, both features being cut through, as necessary to permit of the insertion of the staircase windows, which are at varying levels conforming to the quarter landings.

The windows appear to date from the 18th century, but the two lighting the charming panelled back-room seem to be of earlier date than the rest, while they are the only ones without the usual flat arched heads of cut and rubbed bricks.

The doorhead from the staircase landing on the ground floor into the garden is possibly of early 18th century character. It exhibits no features of special interest, but the hood above consists of a pair of consoles enriched with carving in the spandrels supporting a cornice with a flat top, the mouldings breaking out slightly above the consoles. In the narrow wing running alongside the northern boundary are two 18th century doorways similar to one another in design and without any projecting hoods. Each door case consists of a pair of Doric pilasters with entablature, its cornice enriched with dentils, breaking out slightly over both pilasters. The door itself is in six panels, of which some have been glazed. The windows all have segmental arched heads. On the wall of the second floor of the main building is a blocked elliptical opening with shaped brick ornament above, partly surrounded by a brick band and apparently of original date, suggesting a more elaborate treatment of the east front, possibly with shaped brick gables. A similar elliptical opening existed no doubt behind the wooden staircase projection that has been constructed on the other side of the main stair. Beneath the staircase window on the ground floor is an 18th century stone panel carved with swags, foliage and shells, refixed no doubt from some other position.


Ground Floor.

We have no certain indication of the original plan of Sprignell's house, but if it followed the normal arrangement it is probable that the present entrance vestibule and the room to the left of it constituted the original hall, the door of which would have been nodoubt at the present entrance. This lefthand room has retained no feature of interest, but a chimney stack of large dimensions remains at the north end. The vestibule, which would occupy the position of the original screens, has been evidently formed in the late 18th century, to which date we can assign the entrance and the door and fanlight leading to the old stair. The walls are lined to a height of 7 feet with oak panelling five panels high, the uppermost forming a shallow frieze finished with a slender cornice with shaped dentils. The panels are moulded on three sides, the bottom being splayed, and it is evident that the panelling is not in its original position, but has been refitted here; it seems to be of earlier date than that in the large room to the right of the passage, and resembles some work in the south-east room leading off the staircase known till recently as the Matron's room, both being possible survivors of the Crowther house. The principal room on the right hand of the entrance passage is panelled throughout and contains a handsome ceiling of a simple geometric design of circles and half-circles, the regularity of which is slightly interrupted over the fireplace to allow for the projection of the plaster cornice. The panelling is five panels high, with an entablature between it and the ceiling; the moulded cornice is furnished with dentils, and the frieze (carved with strap and jewel ornament) is divided into panels by tapering pilasters shaped like triglyphs and enriched with spindle ornament, around the base of which the moulded architrave breaks in the form of miniature pendants. The mouldings of the panels are mitred (plate 13).

The fireplace opening has been partly cut away to allow of the insertion of an early 19th century chimneypiece, to which a modern interior has been fitted. The original enriched architrave stops and is mitred on an unusually high plinth and is surmounted by a deep carved frieze consisting of a central panel of black marble with side consols and similar supporting brackets in the architrave below. On either side are carved swags with trophies of arms, including a cuirass, helmet, musket and pennons, a basket and barrel with bombs and two mounted cannon. Above the frieze is a small cornice part of which has been cut off square at the ends. The original overmantel appears to have been removed but retains two carved pilasters with Ionic capitals. They stand on square pedestals ornamented with winged cherubs' heads in high relief. Over the pilasters in the frieze are two boldly carved cartouches re-painted in modern times with arms, crest and motto (see page 33). These should be compared with the similar shields by Francis Cleyn in the Gilt room at Holland House which date from c. 1640. The doors and architraves in this room may be early 18th century, but the soffits of the window openings are possibly original. In the east wall, to the right of the fireplace, a cupboard discloses one of the oak window frames mentioned on page 40 which date from Sprignell's building and which were, no doubt, originally the pattern throughout. It is of two lights with transome and retains its original wrought iron stanchions (plate 51). The main staircase will be described later; a small secondary stair leading from the north-east room (otherwise entirely modern in character) dates from the first half of the 18th century. Its balustrade is supported on a cut string, with three twisted and moulded balusters to the first step and two to the second. The balusters above this have been replaced by wall panelling forming a dado, and alterations have since been made.

The south-east room, already referred to as the "Matron's room," possesses a large angle fireplace and is panelled from floor to ceiling. The panelling is 8 panels high, moulded on three sides, the lower one being chamfered like the panelling in the vestibule, and the cornice is moulded and has shaped dentils. The panelling bears signs of having been altered or refixed. The door is hung to a moulded frame with stops, but towards the stair it has been faced with panels and eared architraves of Sprignell's date. This will be described later. The window linings are probably of the 18th century.

First Floor

The fireplace opening, which has suffered some alteration, is flanked by pilasters of Doric character, with two ranges of jewelled and spindle ornament on the face. The lower part of the pedestals has disappeared. The mantelshelf is supported by the original three brackets decorated with spindle ornament, but the frieze between these brackets is filled with modern mirrors. Above the shelf is another pair of pilasters with pedestals similar in character to those below, the space between them being filled with panelling in keeping with the character of the room but apparently modern or refixed. Above each pilaster is a section of entablature the upper members of the cornice being continued right across, while over each pilaster is a shaped bracket and a section of architrave. On the first floor the principal features of interest are the two enriched plaster ceilings in the large front rooms. The Survey Committee have in their possession letters (already quoted on pp. 32 and 33) from Mr. Isaac Jones, who assisted the architect who had charge of the restoration of Cromwell House after the fire in 1865. From these it appears that the two original ceilings were entirely destroyed, but that drawings (one of which is reproduced on plate 17) were prepared from the fragments for the purposes of restoration. The work appears to have been executed by the usual modern methods and not to have been pressed in situ, so that the ceilings can claim only to have been fairly good copies of the originals. They may be briefly described as follows—

That in the smaller or south-west room consists of a geometrical design of which the principal recurring feature is an octofoil panel inset with a strapwork pattern and jewelled ornament in low relief. The panels are formed by flat moulded ribs enriched with leaf pattern, and the intervening spaces are subdivided by similar ribs intersecting at points marked by small moulded pendants, each division being furnished with patterns in relief. The whole is surrounded by a plaster cornice with guilloche ornament.

[Ceiling design in south-west room]

The south-eastern room is considerably larger and the ceiling is divided into eleven compartments by heavily moulded plastered beams. The mouldings have lavish classical enrichments and the soffit is covered by a double band of guilloche ornament. Each compartment is filled with strapwork within raised borders of modelled plaster, but in the central and largest panel, which is oval in shape, is an achievement of the Sprignell arms surrounded by an enriched band. The inaccuracy in the arms has been discussed on p. 33.

The walls of the north-east room leading from the staircase are covered with panelling of early Georgian date. Round the chimney breast is preserved a plaster frieze (plates 60, 61), composed of cherubs and vase-shapes alternately, with birds, flowers and strap ornament between. This design is beautifully executed and may have formed part of the decoration of the earlier house.

There is little of interest in the large south-east room leading off the staircase excepting the fireplace (plate 59), which is of marble with inlaid Ionic columns on each side, dating from the end of the 18th century.

In the room at the south end of the building over the archway is an early 18th century marble fireplace with shaped top and carved and panelled sides (plates 58, 59). The moulded shelf breaks in the centre over a keystone on which is carved a cartouche bearing the interlaced monogram ADC. (either Anthony or Alvares Da Costa).

On the second floor little of interest remains, but in the north-east room off the staircase the fireplace has a narrow cornice and moulded surround of early 18th century character.

In the basement, as has already been suggested, there are one or two features that may possibly have belonged to an earlier house. The door to the kitchen and two others have large solid frames with moulded external angle and stops of the early 17th century. The door opposite the kitchen has moulded battens and ledges. Across the ceiling are some large chamfered beams.

The Staircase

The architectural feature for which the house is most famous is the great staircase, which can certainly be dated to Richard Sprignell's rebuilding in 1638 (plates 7 to 12 and 29 to 44). The elaborately carved balustrading from the basement to the second floor and the military figures (fn. 4) set on the newel posts and the fine doorways on each floor are of outstanding interest and by their architectural character confirm the date. Before describing the stair we should note, on the authority of Mr. Isaac Jones (whose recollections of the restoration of the plaster ceilings have already been quoted), that copies of the newels, the figures and the balustrades were discovered, after the fire of 1865, on the walls of the staircase. These have now vanished, but traces of either a wooden or painted copy can still be seen in certain markings in the plaster. Mr. Jones, who made drawings of these, informed the Committee that they resembled the figures in a window in S. Chad's Church, Farndon, as illustrated in George Ormerod's History of Cheshire. The Farndon window commemorates local celebrities who assisted Charles I. at the siege of Chester. The figures on the newels may also be compared with the drawings published on p. 28 of the London Survey Committee's Monograph on Eastbury Manor, Barking. The figures, which are detachable, and have evidently been carved separately from the stair and by a superior hand, are described as follows by the authorities of the Victoria and Albert Museum—

"They are represented as wearing helmets or broad brimmed hats, both with plumes of feathers, plain leather jerkins with narrow turn-over collars, short breeches to the knees and stockings, and shoes with rosettes and bows or top-boots. The officer, two targeteers and the caliver-man have metalbreast and back-plates with tassels. All, except the drummer, wear sword belts and swords. The targeteers carry oval and circular shields and the musketeers bandoliers; one carries a musket. The figures include 2 targeteers or rondeliers, 1 drummer, 2 musketeers, 1 pikeman, 1 officer and 1 fifer. The long hair and pointed beard denotes a survival of the style of Charles 1st." It has been said that the figures represent the new model army of Oliver Cromwell, but this is precluded by the date and, moreover, there is nothing to suggest Puritan soldiers in their style. (fn. 5)

The staircase is of massive construction and is planned around a square well at the angles of which are square oak newels with finials and pendants. Between each pair of newels is a continuous supporting string, moulded with full entablature—cornice, pulvinated frieze and architrave. The handrail is heavily moulded, the top being formed of three rolls in place of the usual single one. The newels rise above the handrail and carry pedestal finials, modelled on the tapering pilaster of the period, with Ionic capitals, jewelled necking above the shoulder and moulded bases. On each face is a lion's mask and ring carved in high relief. Upon these pedestals stand the figures of soldiers already described; they are omitted only on the lowest flights to the basement and on the topmost half-newel on the second floor. The pendants are moulded and pierced and terminate with scrolls and jewelled drops. The space contained by the handrail and string between each pair of newels is filled with a single panel of vigorously designed carving. The work is pierced and consists of a framework of strap ornament (partly interlacing) adorned with scrolls, volutes, etc. upon most of which are carved military trophies and emblems. These include (from the ground floor upwards) a collar of plate armour and two spears; a shield and two pennons; a drum and two halberds; a helmet and two pikes; a cartouche bearing the cross of St. George and a pike; a circular shield or targe with scallopped edge and a weapon shaped like a pitchfork; a cuirass with a tilting spear, pike and baton. The remaining panels are composed of elaborate strapwork adorned with festoons and wreaths of laurel and palm branches.

There are five magnificent door cases (fn. 6) and doors on this staircase, one on the ground floor and four on the first floor. The door on the ground floor, the inner side of which has already been described, is (towards the stair) framed in six panels, the two upper ones having shaped moulded panels. The door case has a wide eared architrave with carved ornament below the ears consisting of half pilaster strips, scrolls and jewel ornament. The architrave and pulvinated frieze over are both broken by a central panel, formed of a shaped tablet with scrolls supported on blocks. A cleft pediment forms the door head, in the centre of which is a panelled and shaped pilaster supporting a moulded finial. The doors and cases on the first floor are similar to that just described, but the doors are of eight panels, the uppermost pair, which are the smallest, being ornamented with a shaped and raised panel enclosed in a moulded frame with ears at the angles. There are some doors of simpler design on the second floor, of five panels with moulded eared architraves. One of these doors is built up of three thicknesses, the internal face being of much earlier character.

The windows to the staircase are modern, excepting the lower range, which have moulded architraves and panelled shutters dating from the 18th century.


  • 1. See Plates Nos. 20, 21 for views of the house before and just after the fire.
  • 2. See pp. 29, 43.
  • 3. A similar window existed until recently in the basement immediately to the south of the central entrance.
  • 4. Casts of some of the original figures are now in South Kensington Museum.
  • 5. For the late Major Victor Farquharson's descriptive list of the figures see Appendix C.
  • 6. These should be compared with a door of similar date at Ravenscourt Park, Hammersmith. See Survey of London, Vol. VI., plate 98.