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A fascinating watercolour came into our possession recently with the inscription “North Muskham House near Newark, Nottinghamshire, belonging to Mr Joseph Pocklington of Barrow House near Keswick Cumberland. Foundation laid July 8 1793 by Mr JB.” Intrigued, we found a little booklet about him, entitled: The Man Of No Taste Whatsoever, by N.E. Brown...

It turns out Mr Pocklington was a flamboyant eccentric whose family wealth enabled him to indulge himself in just about anything... so he became an architect, Muskham being the largest & most ambitious of his country house projects. Its numerous architectural quirks are sure signs of the amateur... the over-scaled proportions, its ostentatious double staircase & grand Venetian entrance, its incongruous position in the flat landscape without a parkland to complement it… Good taste decreed that a building should be situated in such a way as to enhance the picturesqueness of the scene. William Wordsworth sums up the generally held belief that houses “should be not obvious, intrusive, but retired”. Pocklington, on the contrary, wanted to affirm his presence with prominent buildings that could be seen from as far away as possible.

Pocklington flouted contemporary ideas of taste on a much larger scale when he purchased a small island in the Lake District in 1778. At a time when newcomers marked their arrival with grand designs and foolish follies, Pocklington distinguished himself with the scale of his ambition & by his lack of appreciation of what nature had already provided. With typical immodesty, he renamed the island ‘Pocklington’s Island’, & was soon excitedly sketching plans for naval forts, grottos, a chapel, & canons in his green, leather-bound sketch book.


Of all his whimsies, the most bizarre was, perhaps, a druidic temple, copied from a genuine stone circle at Castlerigg, some two miles away from Pocklington's Island. Pocklington proclaimed his henge to be  “the greatest curiosity of its kind in Europe discovered by the Antiquarian Joseph Pocklington". In fact, the only original element was a single block of stone, yet this didn't deter Pocklington, who procured several more rocks to create a circle. It is unlikely that anyone believed in its antiquity, yet Pocklington told anyone who would listen that it was “the most complete & last built Temple in Europe” - a reasonable claim, considering he had just built it himself!

In another archaeologically inspired venture, Pocklington turned his attention to the Bowder Stone of Borrowdale, purchasing the site in 1798. Borrowdale was the largest single piece of rock in the Lake District, remarkable for being balanced upright upon its sharpest corner. Here, Pocklington outdid himself in ridiculous fantasies, setting up ropes & ladders as well as a mock hermitage for an old woman to live in. “The oddity of this amused us greatly”, writes Robert Southey in his account of a visit, “provoking as it was to meet with such hideous buildings in such a place.”

Many were relieved when the development of the Bowder Stone site transpired to be Joseph’s last major project in the Lake District. A couple of years later, in dire financial straits, Pocklington sold the island to Gerald Peachy, who took little time in demolishing Pocklington's 'improvements'. The many artists, poets and writers who loved the Lake District were relieved when Peachy “ridded the spot of its puerilities”, as Wordsworth put it. Southey agreed, writing,  “A few years ago it was hideously disfigured with forts and batteries, a sham church, and a new druidical temple, and except for a few fir-trees the whole was bare. The present owner has done all which a man of taste could do in removing these deformities”. Unsurprisingly, upon Pocklington’s death, Muskham House was also promptly knocked down, to near-unanimous delight.

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