architecture, Cornwall, country house, eyecatcher, garden history, landscape, Mausoleum

Pentillie Mausoleum, Saltash, Cornwall

In the early years of the 18th century Sir James Tillie updated his will and included a rather mysterious instruction about his last resting place. He was to be interred ‘in such a place at Pentillie Castle as I have acquainted my dearest Wife the Lady Elizabeth Tillie with.’

Undated view of Pentillie Castle, with, on separate plates, portrait of James Tillie and dedication. Etching and engraving. © The Trustees of the British Museum CC BY-NC-SA.4.0. It is not known if this is a correct view of the estate, or if it includes some proposed improvements. The house has subsequently been remodelled on a number of occasions.

Shortly before his death Sir James (1645-1713) added a codicil to his will (it is not attached to the proven will in the National Archives, but is with the copy in Cornwall Record Office). He stated that he wished to be placed in a ‘Timber oake Chaire’, lined with crepe or flannel, in which he could ‘sit exactly fit Tight and Close’. He was then to be placed in a room in Pentillie Castle until a ‘Repository’ could be built to house his remains. He specified two spots on the estate: ‘Either on that Eminence called Mount Arraret or Pisgah’, with the former (nothing is known of the latter), a ‘finely wooded hill’, being chosen by his widow. Lady Tillie had also been instructed by her husband to erect a monument and inscription.

The earliest account to discuss the burial seems to be a manuscript history by the Cornish antiquarian William Hals, written sometime before 1737 and published posthumously in parts from 1750. Hals painted Tillie as a rogue and an atheist, and claimed to have it on very good authority that Tillie was buried in a seated position, finely dressed, and with his papers and pen set out before him, all encased in a wooden box or coffin. From Hals also came the story that Sir James was so sure of resurrection that he claimed he would be back at the castle within 2 years, and before long the story was also circulating that Tillie had instructed his servants to continue to bring meals to him after his death. All of this seems to be embellishment, and there is no mention of grand vestments, writing materials or daily dinners in Tillie’s comprehensive codicil.

William Gilpin, clergyman and promoter of the picturesque, perpetuated the story told by Hals in his Observations on the Western Parts of England, published in 1798. Gilpin’s text was then repeated, often verbatim, in a number of other publications in the next decades.

In fact Tillie’s burial was really only unconventional in that he was interred ‘by making an Arm’d chair and closeing up his body in it’, as a visitor in 1764 was told, rather than in the more usual prone position in a casket (although it was also still quite rare to build a mausoleum on a private estate rather than in the consecrated ground of a churchyard).

In 1810 the landscape gardener Humphry Repton created one of his famed Red Books for Pentillie. In it he proposed that the ‘small building’ on Mount Ararat be remodelled so that it might be appear to be an ‘isolated Tower of a ruined Castle’. Repton expert John Phibbs has suggested that the battlemented upper storey and the walled terrace were added at this date. This idea is backed up by earlier watercolours, which appear to show the mausoleum as a simple square tower.

The whole ensemble is shown in an engraving dated 1823:

Sir James Tillie’s mausoleum as illustrated in The Portfolio: a collection of engravings, Vol 1, 1823. Mature trees mean that the building is no longer such an object in the landscape.

For many years the mausoleum was in a neglected condition. The doorway was blocked up and only glimpses of the rather decayed and bramble-bound statue of Sir James were possible.

Sir James as he appeared, or rather partially appeared, in the late 20th century. Photo from Headley & Meulenkamp’s Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings, 1999, courtesy of the authors. 

In 2013 a restoration was begun with the Pentillie Estate (seat of the Coryton family) receiving funding from Natural England and the Country Houses Foundation. As part of the project the Jessop Consultancy was commissioned to investigate the mausoleum, alongside Building Surveyor Richard Glover. Few records for the building of the mausoleum seem to have survived, although the (not always reliable) Cornish historian Sabine Baring-Gould wrote in his Cornish Characters & Strange Events that accounts for the construction survived, dated after Sir James had died and thus proving that the building was erected after his death. The site investigation however led the team to conclude that the mausoleum was a remodelling of an earlier tower or summerhouse.

The statue as restored by specialists Cliveden Conservation.

Within the vault human remains were discovered along with pieces of wood with metal studs that spelled out Tillie’s initials and date of death. Enough remained of the decaying coffin for the specialists to confirm that he was indeed ‘placed in a wooden box […] but with a raised back section to imitate a chair’. Sir James’s remains were not disturbed, and the vault was resealed, but his statue was sent away for specialist restoration and then returned to the mausoleum, from where he continues to survey his domain.

The view from the upper chamber, where Sir James’s statue sits, focuses on the river Tamar meandering through the valley.

Thanks to the team at Pentillie for welcoming the Folly Flâneuse and for the loan of the canine companions who guided us up the Lime Walk to the grade II* listed mausoleum.

Pentillie is now an events venue and there are holiday properties in the grounds. There are seasonal garden open days – check the website for 2023 dates in due course

For more on Tillie see Stephen Tyrell Sir James Tillie: his Life, Houses and Eccentric Burial, Pasticcio (2016).

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12 thoughts on “Pentillie Mausoleum, Saltash, Cornwall”

  1. Colin says:

    As ever, a delight! Thanks for this.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Colin. A fascinating building at the end of a delightful walk in the autumn sunshine – what more could I want?!

  2. John St B Hooper says:

    Very interesting, especially as you snook into Cornwall and out again unknown to me! I am glad to see from your photograph that Sir James is looking good in his restored state. Ted Coryton seems to keep the mausoleum somewhat secret and not many of us have had the privilege of visiting. Glad you enjoyed your visit. Best wishes, John.

    1. Editor says:

      Good afternoon John. Sadly my Cornish sojourn was very short – a dash over the border from Devon to visit Pentillie and back again. I very much hope you will be my guide when I make it to your bit of the county. The mausoleum looks very fine and there is access now on garden open days.

  3. Georgina Craufurd says:

    The mention of Mount Pisgah in Tillie’s codicil is a reference to the Bible, Deuteronomy ch. 34 v. 1. In the story of Moses he was commanded to ascent Mount Pisgah [actually a mistranslation, as the word merely means ‘summit’; it was in fact Mount Nebo] so that he could view the Promised Land, but he would never actually get there.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Georgina. I knew the reference was biblical, but not the whole story so thank you for explaining the reference. Although Arrarat (with variant spellings) is marked on maps, the location of ‘Pisgah’ remains a mystery.

  4. Charles Cowling says:

    That’s good to know, Georgina — about Mt Pisgah. We have one in Otley (Yorks) but there are precious few others. It has a fine Dissenter ring to it I always think.

    Thank you for this scholarly and entertaining account, FF. What a splendid tummy Sir James sported!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Charles. I’m pleased you enjoyed the story of the mausoleum. I love the statue of Sir James – it manages to somehow be both comical and dignified at the same time.

  5. Gwyn says:

    What an amazing transformation since we last visited. But the thrill of terror has gone.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Gwyn. Yes, it must have been rather thrilling when you visited (and thanks again for permission to use your photo), but great to see that future generations can appreciate Sir James’s magnificent wig and waistline and not just his knees.

  6. Rosemary Hill says:

    What a particularly happy and satisfying post -and I so agree about the statue, impressive with a dash of the preposterous. thank you so much

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Rosemary. I was very happy and satisfied with my visit to Pentillie, so I am pleased that was reflected in the post.

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