John Nash and Rheola House
The Agent's House - now Brynawel,
Last May, the Society had a very successful visit to Rheola House. At the time, a more definitive history of the House was promised but was not forthcoming. However, a chance conversation with Mrs Joan Lewis who lives at Brynawel, the agent's cottage built and designed by Nash, led to this account by Richard Suggett in his book on John Nash. The book in itself is of interest since it was found in London and is written in a bilingual format.
John Edwards and Rheola ( It may be advantageous to look at the archive photos on the website to make more sense of the article. Ed.)
John Edwards returns us to Nash's family and Glamorgan. Despite their age difference, there were close ties of friendship and business between the cousins. They shared of course the same artisan family background in Lambeth; both were successful self-made professional men with political ambitions. The house which Nash designed for Edwards at Rheola has a special significance and helps us to understand the nuances which the picturesque held for the middle classes.
Nash's uncle, John Edwards senr., was a successful engineer and had bought Rheola in the Vale of Neath, presumably because of the family links with Neath. His son John Edwards jnr., prospered as a family solicitor, made two advantageous marriages and decided to improve Rheola which then became his principal home. There seems no reason to doubt the family tradition that Edwards asked Nash to enlarge the farmhouse at Rheola, but "impressed upon Nash that ---------- it was his special desire that it should preserve its cottage -like appearance".
The improvements at Rheola were contemporary with those proposed for Nanteos ( near Aberystwyth) and George Repton made a significant contribution to both designs. A payment in September 1814 of "Mr Repton's expenses at Rheola" recorded in the Nanteos accounts provides documentary evidence of his involvement at both sites. The designs for Rheola and Nanteos seem to have proceeded together and in some ways each provides a commmentary on the other. Drawings for two farmhouses and a "steward's house", (now Brynawel) at Rheola are preserved in one of Repton's surviving notebooks and have the picturesque features familiar from the Nanteos designs; tall chanfered chimneys, dormers, projecting porches and windows, and sheltered seats.
Rheola House seems to have developed from a design for a famhouse with a verandahed front and canted end and was built in several stages at a reputed cost of £25,000. The distinctive elevation was repeated at both the garden and entrance fronts, giving an L shaped range. A further range with a canted bay was soon added, making the plan U-shaped ( infilled with service rooms), and the building was completed by a crested conservatory which could be entered from the morning-room. When finished Rheola contained a full range of principal rooms, which included a dining-room in which were to hang portraits of Nash and George IV.
Rheola was in fact a large country house, however it is quite clear from the contemporary visual record that Rheola was presented as a cottage, albeit of a rather Continental kind. From the roadside, the compact garden front was visible but the extensive wings of the house were hidden. Early drawings show how Rheola was approached by gated path rather than a grand drive; the loggia'd entrance front with its rustic columns was withheld from view until the garden front had been passed.
Thomas Horner's well-known drawings of Rheola brilliantly convey the charm and the informality of the "cottage". Horner was the inventor of an "improved mode of delineating estates". Edwards commissioned from him a huge map and panorama which showed Rheola in its landscape setting ( a copy of which is on view in the Miner's Welfare hall in Resolfen, the original having been sold to the Borough Council - Ed.) The Neath Canal occupies the foreground and Rheola is set in the middle distance where it appears as a dwelling not greatly different is scale to the adjoinng farms and cottages. A large stable block and laundry ( see visit to Rheola pictures Ed.) was set at some distance before the house so as not to spoil this prospect. Alongside the house ran Rheola Brook which was crossed by an Alpine bridge. Behind the house ran a wooded dingle with unregimented walks and a rustic thatched and verandahed "bachelors hall" provided for visitors. Beyond lay the unenclosed high common land. The attractions of Rheola according to Horner lay not in the number of acres on the estate but by rather by its included beauties.
Rheola was a mansion but its successful presentation as a cottage and the romantization of the cottage orne may have begun with the gentry but had a growing appeal for the middle classes and was increrasingly appropriated by them as the precursor of innumerable suburban houses based on the idealisation of the cottage. This embodied the significant vitues of the middle class; independence, seclusion, snug domesticity, and the idea that happiness need not be supported by great wealth.