From relatively humble origins Matthew Brettingham rose to become one of the most sought-after architects of the first half of the 18th century and a leading exponent of the Palladian style of architecture in England.
Matthew Brettingham was born in Norwich in 1699, the second son of Lancelot Brettingham (1664-1727), a 'bricklayer' of the parish of St Giles, and Elizabeth née Hillwell. Matthew and his elder brother Robert (1695-1786) worked for their father, thoroughly learning the intricacies of his trade, building, repairing and altering small to medium-sized buildings in Norwich. In 1719 both brothers were made Freemen Bricklayers of Norwich. Following their father's death in 1727 Robert became head of the family business, but Matthew was no longer content to work within the same limited sphere and he began to seek commissions on a grander scale than could be found in Norwich. In 1734 he finally achieved his ambition when he was appointed Clerk of Works at Holkham Hall in north Norfolk on a salary of £50 per annum. Holkham was the country estate of Thomas Coke (1697-1759), known then as Baron Lovel (he did not become the 1st Earl of Leicester until 1744). Work on his palatial mansion at Holkham had begun in 1734 under the supervision of the English Palladian architect William Kent (c.1686-1748), though much of its design is now thought to have been determined by Coke's own ideas about classical architecture. After Kent's death Brettingham was given overall supervision of the building work, seeing it through to completion just before his own death some thirty years later. It is interesting to note that when Brettingham published the plans of Holkham Hall in 1761 he singularly failed to mention the role of Kent in the house's design, signing each plan with his own name.
His position at Holkham Hall brought him several other aristocratic commissions in East Anglia, including at Langley Hall (in 1740-6), Gunton Hall (1742) and Blickling Hall (1753-5) in Norfolk, and at Euston Hall (1750) and Benacre Hall (1763) in Suffolk. Other important work he undertook in Norfolk included substantial alterations along Palladian lines to Hanworth Hall, Heydon Hall, Honingham Hall; the construction of Lenwade Bridge over the River Wensum (1741); the partial rebuilding of St Margaret's church in King's Lynn (1742); building of a new Shire Hall in Norwich (1747-9) ; and repairs to both Norwich Castle and Norwich Cathedral. Contractual disputes with the City authorities in Norwich over his work on the Shire Hall were to rumble through the courts for years and almost bankrupt him.
He also did much important work outside East Anglia, including the construction of new London residences for the Duke of Norfolk in St James's Square and the Duke of York in Pall Mall, as well as substantial alterations to Lord Egremont's Petworth House in Sussex and Baron Scarsdale's Keddleston Hall in Derbyshire, as well as to other large country houses in Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire, Surrey, Sussex, Warwickshire and Yorkshire between the late 1740s and the early 1760s. However, by the 1750s the Palladian style in which he specialised had beginning to fall out of fashion, supplanted by the Neo-Classical style popularised by younger architects such as Robert Adam. From the mid-1750s Brettingham's aristocratic commissions began to dwindle and his money problems multiplied.
Matthew Brettingham had strong associations with the parish of St Augustine's in Norwich. His fiancée, Martha Bunn (c.1697-1783), was a spinster of the parish. They were married on 17 May 1721. All nine of their children were baptised in St Augustine's. One of Brettingham's earliest recorded commissions was for a dwelling house near St Augustine's Gates in 1725. This may have been for his own uses. A dwelling house located in the parish of 'St Clement's without St Austin's Gates', is mentioned in his will and bequeathed to his wife during her lifetime. In 1751 he rented a substantial piece of land straddling the parishes of St Augustine's and St Clement's which was anciently known as the Gildencroft, this included parts known as the Lathes, Dovehouse Yard and the Justine Acre (an area near the city wall once used for jousting practice). This land he put to use as a garden and orchard. The area was too large to supply just his own domestic needs, so it is possible he had turned to horticulture when the architectural commissions began to dry up. He clearly took threats to his livelihood very seriously as he set man traps in his orchard after wooden stakes supporting his espalier fruit trees were stolen. He had a reputation as a troublesome tenant, frequently owing rent to the Mayor, Sheriff and corporation of Norwich, who owned the land. His will mentions that he also owned an estate at Weston Longville to the south of Norwich as well as holding the lease on a London estate granted to him by the Earl of Leicester, his former employer at Holkham Hall, who had died in 1759.
Matthew Brettingham died at his home near St Augustine's Gates on 19 August 1769. The names of seven of his surviving children are mentioned in his will: Matthew, Robert, William, Elizabeth, Sarah, Ann and Mary. His will specified in precise detail the arrangements for his funeral. His body should be carried to the grave by 'only six of my tenants that live in the cottages and gardens near St Austin's Gates'. They were each to be given 'a good blue surtout, hat and gloves', and five pounds of bread were to be distributed to the parish poor on the day of his burial. He was to be buried in a brick vault in St Augustine's church and a plain, marble stone was to be erected over him tomb. It was to have the following curious inscription: 'I was Matthew Brettingham in hope of a Joyfull resurrection to the Just but great Misery to the Wicked what sort of man I was that Day will discover'. His family clearly thought this unsuitable and when his eldest son, Matthew, finally had a memorial erected over the family vault, which by now included not only his father, but his mother and his brother Robert, he had the following words inscribed instead:
As a Man his Integrity,
liberal Spirit and benevolence of Mind;
endear'd him to all that knew his Virtues;
and his Talents as an Architect
to the Patronage and esteem of the Nobility,
the most distinguish'd
for their love of Palladian Architecture.
However, despite the nobility's 'Patronage and esteem' Matthew claimed his father made very little money out of architecture as he was too honest. Certainly, while there are a number of properties mentioned in his will, he left comparatively modest amounts of capital for a professional man who had undertaken such major architectural commissions.
The dynasty founded by Lancelot and Elizabeth Brettingham had several notable scions. Brettingham's elder brother Robert, who took over the family building business after their death, became Sheriff of Norwich in 1764. He owned a house, still there, in Cow Hill, Norwich, that became known as Little Holkham Hall because of its similarity in design though on much reduced scale. Brettingham's eldest son, known to posterity as Matthew Brettingham the younger (1725-1803), became a successful architect in the Neo-Classical style that had outmoded his father architectural practice. He furnished Holkham Hall's famous marble hall with classical statuary which he bought on the Grand Tour. Brettingham's second son, Robert, who died aged 40, was a manufacturer (possibly of worsted cloth) in Norwich. One of Robert's sons, Robert William Furze Brettingham (c.1750-1820), was also an architect; another of his sons, Anthony Brettingham (1757-1819), who was given the additional surname Freston in 1761 in order to benefit from a maternal uncle's will, was an Anglican clergyman and a noted theologian. Lastly, Brettingham daughter Ann was the mother of Ann de Carle of Norwich, whose sons James De Carle Sowerby (1787-1871) and George Brettingham Sowerby (1788-1854), were both noted naturalists and artists.
Stuart John McLaren