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Fisher King of the Hill

April 20, 2012

“Clifton Hill House.. turns a grim grey frontage tot eh road. It is a ponderous square mansion, built for perpetuity, with the walls three feet in thickness, faced with smooth Bath Stone… An Italian double flight of balustraded steps, largely designed, gives access to the gravelled terrace which separates the house from the lawn.” Almost a century after Paul Fisher built his grand mansion, this is how the poet John Addington Symonds described the first sight of his new home. He claimed that the move from the previous family home in Paty’s Berkeley Square to the mansion “contributed greatly… to make me what I am.” He felt certain it “formed my character and taste at a period when youth is most susceptible. My latent aesthetic sensibilities were immediately and powerfully stimulated.”

Though now used as a university hall of residence, Fisher’s mansion had an immense impact when built in 1746-50 to a design by Isaac Ware, the chimney sweep who rose to become Purveyor of the King’s Works and whose marble bust was carved by his friend Roubiliac, who also produced busts of Hogarth, Handel and Newton.

He described it as “a country seat without columns or other expensive decoration.” Ison claims that Ware was so proud of this house he had the drawings for the garden front and ground floor plan engraved and published in his ‘Complete Body of Architecture’ of 1756. It may well have been more than pride, an element of gratitude for being given his first major commission. The 1740s agricultural depression had seen a major loss of new projects to the extent that [Giles W] refers to the lost decade of architecture, when the successors to Hawksmoor and Wren were largely unemployed.

It was also the first proper classical mansion in the area, setting the style and standards for much that followed. The design was based on Italian merchants’ houses, with a coarse stone base for cellars upon which the fine stone living quarters were reached by sweeping staircase. From this grand design, the Georgians reduced the basic elements to form scores of their terrace houses, and remains the blueprint for many modern buildings. Ison notes Clifton Hill House’s influence on Albermarle Row, Brunswick Square and others, many of which were designed and built by Thomas Paty who was stonemason on the house, one of his first jobs in the area.

Symonds talks of “The rusticated work upon the spacious massive basements, the balustraded staircases descending tot he terrace, the huge balls of Bath Stone placed at proper intervals upon the lower line of office buildings, the well-proportioned if too lofty rooms, the dignified waste of useful space in the long passages… Then there were stables with hay-lofts, and a paved yard, where my father generally kept eight horses, a summer house upon the wall of which vines clambered and nectarines ripened; a kitchen garden full of strawberries and currant-bushes, apricots and plums and peaches. The top of the house itself formed a capital playground for us children. A rambling attic, which we called the loft, stretched away into mysterious recesses and dark corners. In some of these obscure chambers cisterns were hidden, which supplied the house with rain water; from the narrow windows of others we could clamber out upon the roof, the sloping gables of which were covered with solid lead, and fenced about with broad slabs of rough clean chiselled stone. “

Paul Fisher was granted a lease on the estate by the Merchant Venturers on 18 October 1740. He was a linen draper, tobacco merchant and a founder of the Bristol Royal Infirmary. He had been apprenticed to linen draper Robert Smith who built Clifton Wood House just down the hill in 1725. Symonds talks of the area at the time being still a country village, adding “Paul Fisher’s habitation had no rivals in antiquity but the Church House and the Manor House, none in stateliness except the fine suburban villa of the Goldney family… In those days Clifton must have been beautiful and wild indeed. The few houses of the gentry clustered around the humble village church.. a rustic West of England chapel, with narrow windows and low sloping roof. Grassfields spread around this church, open to clear heavens and pure breezes from the Bristol Channel.”

Thomas Paty was paid over £2,000 for his work as mason and carver, including Fisher’s armorial shield between festoons high on the front façade. His fellow from the Exchange, Samuel Glascodine was carpenter and Joseph Thomas tiler and plasterer.

Notes and receipts survive for the building of the house, but they fail to indicate a supervising architect or clerk of works or master builder, suggesting the work may have been done by Paul Fisher himself. It was not uncommon for gentlemen of wealth to take an interest in building work, with Lord Botetort at Stoke Park planting trees alongside his labourers, and Goldney spending decades at work on his gardens. Ison notes a payment of six guineas to carpenter-architect Lancelot Dowbiggin, suggesting he acted as Ware’s deputy in setting out the building, but this would barely have paid his fare to the city from London. It seems more likely he designed some interiors or the garden.

In 1749/50 Fisher sold the lease of a crane to Thomas Paty on land adjoining the Avon between Capt Osborne’s yard to the west and the glasshouse to the east. At a cost of £120, it was treble the cost of eh capstan crane used on the Exchange so must have been substantial, and used for unloading the Bath stone to be hauled up the steep hill. Before the exchange, buildings in Bristol were of wood, brick or local stone; Wood’s new structure was possible due tot he recent improvements in navigating the Avon between Bristol and Bath. Included in the agreement was free use of the dock for unloading materials and the laying of barges, paying the land owner and Commissioner for building the Exchange John Clements 40 shillings per year. The lease for this land was taken for 14 years, and was conveniently close to Paty’s new home and workshops, so was the beginning of his independent career.

Clifton Hill House also had one of the earliest landscaped gardens in the area, which the house was designed for views of. By the time Symonds family moved in, Fisher’s garden was well established, the only change being the removal of ground at the bottom of the orchard to form the Georgian Bellevue Terrace, by Thomas Paty’s son William. “Four great tulip-trees, covered with golden blossoms, met our eyes at four points of vantage in the scheme. Between them, on either hand, rose 2 gigantic copper-beech trees, richly contrasted with the bright green of the tulip trees. Eight majestic elms, four on each side, guarded the terrace. They dated from an older period than the foundation of the dwelling house. The grove, which clustered round the central grass-plot, was further diversified by ilexes and mulberry trees, wych elms and pear trees, a fragile ailanthus and a feather acacia, with cypresses from the black boughs of which the clambering roses fell in showers. Sycamores, beeches and walnuts formed a leafy background to these choicer growths, and masked the ugly frontage of Bellevue.

Two ponds, quaintly enclosed with wired railings, interrupted at proper intervals the slope of soft green turf. Each had a fountain in its midst, the one shaped like a classic urn, the other a cupid seated on a dolphin blowing a conch. When the gardener made the water rise for us from those fountains, it flashed in the sunlight, tinkled on the leaves and cups of floating lilies, and disturbed the dragon-flies and gold fish from their sleepy ways… The whole scene was enobled by a feeling of respect, of merciful abstention from superfluous meddling. When Paul Fisher planned his pleasure ground he meant it, according to the taste of that period, to be artificial, and yet to vie with Nature… The broad flower beds upon the terrace and along the walls were a tangle of old-fashioned herbs in bloom – mulberrry-coloured scabius, live-in-idleness, love-in-a-mist, love-lies-bleeding, devil-in-a-bush, holly-hocks, carnations, creeping-jenny, damask and cabbage and York and Lancaster roses.”

No wonder Symmonds remembered entering the garden from the house as “For us it was like passing from the prose of fact into the poetry of fairyland.” But his mention of the wire railings round the ponds was probably a reminder of a tragedy which had struck this paradise. Paul Fisher had no children, but his niece and ward Rebecca married Christopher Willoughby, many years chamberlain to the city. In April 1758 their son Benjamin drowned in the ‘Bason’ of the garden.

The garden also includes several gazebos which, together with the old elms mentioned by Symonds, provide an intriguing hint of the garden which preceded Fisher’s Pavilions are marked on a map by Jacob de Wilstar of 1746, a year before Fisher began work. At the bottom of the garden are the remains of a pair of 2 story pavilions with viewing rooms, the north east one is fairly intact and made of Brandon Hill grit stone. Details such as quoins in pennant sandstone also suggest an earlier date either late 17th or early 18th century.

The 2 ponds have been drained but the Georgian cupid still rides the dolphin in the central tank which replaced them. Only one of Fisher’s 4 tulip trees survive with a younger one catching up.


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