Penryn Park: Even More Significant than We Realized

The Penryn Estate, Port Hope

ACO Matters September 2020

By Susan Layard

We have known for quite some time that there are three buildings at Penryn Park that have been designated for their heritage importance. We have also known that there have been residents of Penryn Park whose historical significance has been such that they have been written about in history books. What we may not have known is that it is Penryn’s landscape in which the buildings have been carefully situated that is by far the most noteworthy aspect of this beautiful heritage property.

According to recent research donated to the Port Hope Archives, Penryn Park, which was owned by the Williams family from 1823-1889 and then the King family from 1894 -1989, is one of the most outstanding examples in Canada of Picturesque Eclecticism. What is appealing today about picturesque theory, particularly given our current environmental concerns, is that it began with nature.

The ideas emerged in England in the mid-18th century, and were an attempt to explain why natural scenery that was neither classically beautiful nor sublime was still aesthetically pleasing. A landscape that was considered picturesque would not be symmetrical or well groomed; it would also not be awe-inspiring. Instead, it would be irregular, varied and intricate, perhaps with an uneven silhouette of trees against the sky, a windswept path, or waves dashing against rocks. A landscape that manifested these qualities would be interesting enough for an artist to paint, hence the term ‘picturesque.’

Proponents of the picturesque point of view believed that landscape design should be brought closer to nature in all its tangled diversity, and that the natural beauty of gnarled old trees, for example, with their ever-changing effects on light and shadow, or a textured slope should be preserved, not swept away. The Picturesque Movement very quickly broadened to include not only landscape design but how one viewed architecture within that landscape.

Gothic architecture — and the ‘big house’ at Penryn Park is designated as Gothic Revival — was considered by the theory’s advocates to be the most appropriate style to use within a picturesque landscape. According to one proponent, the Gothic “turrets and pinnacles” silhouetted against the sky as well as the lack of symmetry in the openings created a “splendid picture of confusion and irregularity1” that fit in perfectly with the picturesque sensibility.

English architect John Nash may have been one of the most successful in incorporating picturesque principles with Gothic architecture, and he designed many famous picturesque castles and country houses in England.

One of these, named Caerhays, was built in Cornwall around 1810 and acquired by the Williams family in 1853. The Williams had lived at nearby Burncoose House where they established, in the picturesque style, the still famous Burncoose Gardens. Caerhays Castle and the Burncoose House and Gardens remain in the hands of the Williams family to this day and are open to the public.

John Tucker Williams, a member of the Williams family of Caerhays and Burncoose, was a British naval officer who came to Canada during the War of 1812, settled eventually in Port Hope and married Sarah Ward, the daughter of another early Port Hope settler. In 1823, Williams bought the Penryn lands, then a tract of 24 acres, and in 1829, he built the Penryn Homestead, one of the oldest dwellings in Port Hope.

In 1859, John Tucker Williams’ son, Arthur Trefusis Heneage Williams, married Emily Seymour and set about building their home on a parcel of the Penryn lands provided to them by his parents. These lands, with their old trees, sweeping lake views, and striking natural landforms would provide the ideal setting for a picturesque design, and one would think that, with their family connections, the Williams would have already been familiar with picturesque ideals. By this time, too, the picturesque point of view had become widespread.

Pattern books, a type of book in which architectural designs were printed, had become invaluable sources of architectural information for the building of houses both large and small and were instrumental in disseminating picturesque ideals throughout both England and North America. In fact, one architectural historian, Jessica Mace, believes that the pattern books by Andrew Jackson Downing, an American writer, landscape designer and horticulturalist, were very influential in the design of several houses in Port Hope, including Pinehurst, The Cone and Penryn Park2.

The Williams chose Edward Haycock to be their architect, and he would have been well qualified to design a house in the Gothic Revival style for this picturesque property. Haycock was a partner with Thomas Clarke and Ralph Jones in the firm which had won the contract to work on the East and West Blocks of the High Gothic Parliament buildings in Ottawa, and he would have been aware that Clarke had built his own home, The Cone, in the Gothic Revival style, perhaps, according to Mace, referencing a design from Downing’s pattern book.

Mace suggests that Haycock, too, may have been inspired by one of Downing’s pattern book designs, “A Lake or River Villa for a Picturesque Site,” for the Williams’ new home. Haycock’s design certainly contained many of the Gothic elements appropriate for the picturesque — a tower, a jagged silhouette, an asymmetrical elevational treatment — and much consideration was given to the design of the surrounding landscape and the way the building rested upon it.

It is noted in the research donated to the Archives that the ‘big house’ at Penryn is “probably one of the best examples of its kind of High Victorian Tudor Gothic Revival buildings in Ontario.” It is also noted that the other buildings, whether designated or not, added by the King family were “appropriate” to picturesque design and even “more significant” due to the care taken in their placement on the property.

Port Hope is very fortunate to have such an important heritage property as Penryn Park within its jurisdiction. It is also fortunate that Penryn, as a golf course and wedding venue, has been open to the public for quite some time. This has meant that, unlike many heritage properties, scores of people, whether through playing golf, attending a wedding or simply walking around Penryn during the off-season have been able to enjoy the spectacular picturesque property.

Many have been able to see for themselves how Penryn Park “reflects the valuing of the integration of architecture and landscape, the concern for how a building sits on its site, and the delight in romantic settings for buildings and natural landscapes improved by design.” Many have been able to enjoy the beautiful old trees on the property and walk through the lovely woodlot.

The research donated to the Port Hope Archives contained a recommendation that consideration should be given to designating Penryn Park and the Penryn Homestead as a cultural heritage landscape because the placement of the buildings within that landscape is so important. Unfortunately, a great deal of that landscape has already given way to much needed housing. Please let that be enough. What remains of Penryn’s picturesque setting with its significant heritage buildings, beautiful old trees and magnificent lake views, must not be swept away.

1 Uvedale Price, Essay on the Picturesque, Lancaster University, Online Philosophy Resources.

2 Jessica Mace, Nation Building: Gothic Revival Houses in Upper Canada and Canada West, c.1830-1867, Dissertation, York University, March 2015.

All other quotations are taken from the research on Penryn Park recently donated to the Port Hope Archives.