Robert Smythson (1535–1614) was an English architect. Smythson designed a number of notable houses during the Elizabethan era, most notably from a local point of view he designed Wollaton Hall which was started in 1580 and completed in 1588.
The career of Robert Smythson brilliantly unites two architectural universes. As a child of the Reformation and a man who trained within an essentially late-medieval tradition as a mason, he built houses that reflect a fascination for regularity, with huge grids of windows and ingenious geometric planning that had been popular in English architecture since the 14th century. His buildings also, however, bear witness to ideas and decoration borrowed from Renaissance design on the Continent. The modern recognition of Smythson’s importance is remarkably recent, and was first fully explored by Mark Girouard, notably in his book Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House (1983).
Smythson was probably born in Westmorland in 1534/5 and the circumstances of his early career remain obscure. He is likely to have trained in the Mason’s Company of London, whose coat of arms appears on his funeral monument.
Little is known about his birth and upbringing—his first mention in historical records comes in 1556, when he was stonemason for the house at Longleat, built by Sir John Thynne (ca. 1512-1580). He later designed Hardwick Hall in 1590 which was probably his most notable work, Doddington Hall, Burton Agnes Hall, and other significant projects.
Historically, a number of other Elizabethan houses, such as Gawthorpe Hall have been attributed to him on stylistic grounds.
In Britain at this time, the profession of "architector" was in its early stages of development. Smythson was trained as a stonemason and by the 1560s was travelling England as a master mason leading his own team of masons. In 1568 he moved from London to Wiltshire to commence work on the new house at Longleat for Sir John Thynne; he worked there for almost eighteen years, and it is believed that he personally carved much of the external detail, and had a strong influence on the overall design of the building. In 1580 he moved to his next project—Wollaton Hall. At Wollaton he was clearly more a "surveyor" (the term at that time for an architect) than a stonemason, and was in charge of overall construction which was completed in 1588.
Smythson's style included Renaissance, especially Sebastiano Serlio, Flemish and English Gothic designs can be seen in his work, but he also produced some ingenious adaptations, resulting in classically detailed, innovative domestic buildings. Hardwick in particular is noted for its use of glass which was indicative of the wealth of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, when the building was completed in 1597. To reinforce the structural stability of the building to allow for such extensive use of windows would have been a challenge to builders of the day but Robert Smythson rose to the challenge.
Retiring to live in Wollaton, Robert Smythson died here in 1614 and it is believed that he is buried at St Leonard's Church although there is no direct evidence of this. 2014 marks the 400th anniversary of his death, and an ornate commemorative plaque can be seen in St Leonard's Church in Wollaton, describing him as "Architector and Surveyor unto the most worthy house of Wollaton with divers others of great account". This dedication to Robert Smythson illustrates the high status which he acquired in the eyes of the community and Sir Francis Willoughby for whom he built Wollaton Hall.
His son John Smythson (Bolsover Castle) and grandson Huntingdon Smithson (as he spelt the family name) were also architects.
Notes compiled by Angela Gilbert, June 2014
Whilst little is on display locally to comemmorate the anniversary of his death, there is a tribute at Doddington Hall and details can be found on their website http://www.doddingtonhall.com/house-opening-times-and-admission.php