architecture, Banqueting House, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape, Summerhouse, Tower, West Sussex

Vandalian Tower, Uppark, West Sussex

High on the Sussex Downs, near the village of South Harting, stand some curious ruins. The jagged and dilapidated stonework is all that remains of the wonderful ornate tower built by Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh of Uppark (or Up-park) in the 1770s and later known by the curious title of the Vandalian Tower.

Sir Matthew (1714-1774) commissioned architect Henry Keene (1726-1776) to design the tower in the early 1770s. The site was a pre-existing prospect mount in the park, and this he topped with an exquisite pinnacled pavilion. It is square in plan, and originally there was a kitchen in the basement where the servants could prepare meals, and above it a grand room for entertainment.

A Henry Keene design for the tower, sadly now only known from reproductions as the original was lost in the Uppark fire of 1989.

Few contemporary accounts of the tower survive, although happily a number of images are extant, including the two shown here. A tourist saw the ‘new building’, which he called ‘Uppark tower’, when visiting in 1771, so it must have been substantially complete by that date. The estate archive showed that bills were still being settled in 1775, so either work continued on the finishing touches for many years, or Sir Matthew was a tardy payer, with things further delayed by his death in 1774.

The builder was Mr Brooks, and the sculptor Mr Carter also submitted a bill: this was presumably Thomas Carter who specialised in ornamental fireplaces. Mr Rose was paid for plasterwork: the Rose family, Joseph senior and junior (uncle and nephew), were amongst the preeminent ornamental plasterwork specialists of the day, and created the ‘neatly decorated ceiling’ of the upper apartment. The windows were ‘partially filled with stained glass’, which must have cast an enchanting light on the interior of the ‘elegant picturesque erection’, as it was later remembered.

The bills call the structure the ‘Gothic Tower’, and it is not clear when it first became known as the Vandalian Tower. It is just named as ‘Tower’ on Ordnance Survey maps, and no references to the ‘Vandalian Tower’ have been found before Christopher Hussey’s articles on Uppark in Country Life in 1941. The name has nothing to do with our modern use of the term vandal to refer to persons causing wilful damage, but instead ‘Vandalia’ was the name given to a proposed settlement on the banks of the Ohio, America (although it does not seem to have been widely used outside the circle of investors). Sir Matthew had given his support to the project in 1769, although the plans were abandoned after the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775. Sir Matthew is said to have built the tower to commemorate his involvement in the scheme (he died in 1774 so would never have known that the scheme had failed).

Samuel Hieronymous Grimm’s 1782 view. British Library Add MS 5675, f.30.

Sir Matthew was succeeded by his son, Sir Harry (1754-1846). It has been suggested that the tower was built to mark his coming of age, although there seems little evidence. But he did put the tower to good use, throwing lavish parties there. In her book Uppark and its People (1965) Lady Meade-Featherstonhaugh recalls the tale that the feasts were on such a gargantuan scale that diners had to be carted back to the house in wheelbarrows.

Curiously, a writer in 1877 knew the tower by a different name. Mr Weaver, who contributed a chapter to Revd. Gordon’s History of Harting, told the story of the proposed settlement and the tower commemorating it. However he recorded that it was ‘fancifully named Daedalia’. Perhaps Weaver had just misheard verbal reports and assumed the tower was named after Daedalus, the skilful architect of Greek mythology? After all, the adjective ‘daedalian’, perfectly described the tower: ingenious, or intricate. This name was repeated in a couple of later texts and then seems to have disappeared from the tower’s history.

Unfortunately the glorious tower would have a short life: on midnight of Monday 27 June 1842 the ‘beautiful belvidere’ was discovered in flames and the county for miles round was ‘soon roused from their slumbers to witness its destruction’. The blaze was initially believed to have been caused by a fire that had not been adequately put out, but the Brighton Guardian concluded darkly that ‘we fear it will turn out the fire was not altogether accidental’. The damage was later attributed to a ‘notorious gang of poachers’.

The tower as illustrated in Gordon’s ‘History of Harting’, 1877.

Gordon’s History of Harting (1877) included a view of the ruined tower, and Weaver concluded that the structure had been so substantially built that ‘many years may yet elapse before it becomes a heap of ruins’. The tower did indeed stand strong, and a postcard dating from around 1920 shows little had changed in the forty or so years since Gordon’s history was published.

The Ruin, Harting. Card postmarked 1920, courtesy of a private collection.

By 1934 Sir Harry Meade-Fetherstonhaugh was having problems with trespassers, and reluctantly he closed the gates to Uppark. He was at pains to stress to the people of Harting that they would always be given a ‘hearty welcome’, but that he had to act to stop the ‘foreigners’ who had been damaging the tower and other buildings in the park. More day-trippers would no doubt have arrived at Sir Harry’s gates a couple of years later: in 1937 the Shell petrol company featured the folly on a poster encouraging motorists to jump into their cars (after filling up with Shell fuel of course) and visit such sights.

The tower as painted by Richard Wyndham (1896-1948) for a Shell Poster, 1937. Courtesy of the Shell Heritage Art Collection.

The grade II listed tower was consolidated in 1982. It stands on private land and can now only be viewed from a distance as, ironically, it is fenced off to deter… vandals.

The consolidated ruins in 1988 when it was possible to walk right up to the tower. Photo’ courtesy of Michael Cousins.

Most readers will know that another devastating blaze features in the history of Uppark (a National Trust property). In August 1989 fire swept through the house, causing terrible damage to the interiors and although some of the contents were saved many more were lost, including archival and pictorial references to the tower.

F.G. Aldsworth investigated the tower in 1982, when consolidation was underway, and fortunately recorded archival materials later lost in the fire, including the building accounts noted here. His account, with reconstructions of the plans and elevations, is in Sussex Archaeological Collections Vol. 121 (1983), pp. 183-224.

Thank you for reading. If you have enjoyed this post then please consider sharing with a friend or colleague who might be interested. Your thoughts are always welcome, please scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the comments box.


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6 thoughts on “Vandalian Tower, Uppark, West Sussex”

  1. W pounds says:

    I’ve been looking at racton ( most records lost in the stanstead fire. ) I’ve painted it and researched it but so much unknown. My gut feeling is that the clutch of east Hampshire estates were all mates and employing Keene etc at same time. Also capability brown was at uppark and probably warnford , and Brown had used the same trinity arrangement the year previously at Stowe.
    I’m sure you know more than me.
    Could we pow wow ?

    1. Editor says:

      Hello William, yes, I’m sure you are right that there’s a connection between the Keenes working on towers at Racton and Uppark. As you say, sadly there seems to be little detail on Racton. I will be in touch.

  2. John Davies says:

    To follow the changing fortunes of your follies, documented in all the excellent postcards, paintings and drawings that you feature, is fascinating. Thanks particularly for the wonderful Shell posters; both this week’s and last week’s are new to me.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning John. I’m always on the lookout for views of follies, and was very pleased to feature your work in these pages some time ago. The Shell Posters are delightful, it must have been wonderful in an age of slower traffic to see such works of art pass by on the side of petrol delivery lorries.

  3. Gwyn says:

    That was such a beautiful building. It’s almost a shame it has graduated to ruinhood.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Gwyn. I think we just agree that A great tower has become a great ruin.

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