Early C20 gardens and pleasure grounds for which the design was supplied by Achille Duchene.
In 1870 the American industrialist Isaac Merritt Singer and his French wife arrived in England and purchased 19.5 acres (c 8ha) of the Fernham estate in Paignton. This included a mid C19 house known as Oldway Villa (late C20 Little Oldway), which was adapted as the Singers' temporary home. Singer (b New York State 1811) had run away from home at the age of twelve, and established himself as an extremely wealthy man through the founding of the Singer sewing-machine company. The local architect G S Bridgman was commissioned to design a new house in the French Renaissance style on a site to the east of the existing villa. The new house was known as 'The Wigwam', and had little by way of gardens and grounds other than a walled garden immediately to its west. Its surrounding landscape, later to become the grounds of the new mansion, was a mixture of fields, and particularly to the south, extensive orchards. To the north a Riding School and conservatory were built by Bridgman in 1873.
Following his father's death, Singer's son, Paris, purchased his brothers' interest in the Oldway property, and in the first years of the C20 was responsible for extensive alterations to the house and surrounding grounds, the landscaping work being underway in 1900. The design for the landscape was drawn up by Achille Duchene, with J H Cooper, Singer's surveyor, being responsible for the supervision of the construction work. The Parisian firms of Frevre and Cie, and S Rousselet carried out the stone and stucco work. After completing the Oldway commission, Duchene went on to create a major new water parterre for the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (qv).
Oldway Mansion was used as the American Women's War Hospital during the First World War, and in 1939 was requisitioned by the Royal Air Force. It was purchased by Torquay Borough Council from the Singer family in 1946, and now (1999) serves as council offices, with the grounds being open as a public park.
LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING
Oldway lies within the urban area of Paignton, the house itself standing c 850m west of the coast. The c 7ha site comprises formal gardens around Oldway mansion, with informal pleasure grounds to the east and south, and around Little Oldway to the north-west. The boundaries of the pleasure grounds have altered little since the original purchase by Singer in 1870, but a group of buildings which stood on Fernham Road (formerly Fernham Street), to the east of the mansion, had been cleared by 1900. The southern boundary has been modified since the early C20 when it in part extended south as far as the Polsham Road. The site slopes gently from west to east, with high artificial banks on the east boundary allowing views across Paignton to the sea. There are also views south from the gardens across Paignton.
ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES
Oldway Mansion is approached by a straight drive which leads west from the Torquay Road (A379) which forms the east boundary of the site. Created after 1906 (OS), the east drive leads to the balustraded carriage court to the north of the house. The earlier, pre C20 drive approaches the site from the Oldway Road to the west, and enters the site between mid C19 stucco and stone gate piers. Sweeping west, a spur leads south from the main drive to Little Oldway, with a further spur passing below the west facade of the house to reach a service yard. The drive enters the carriage court through a monumental classical arch with screen walls (listed grade II), a replica of the Porte St Antoine at Versailles, erected in 1904-7, which stands on the west side of the carriage court. The spacious carriage court is now (1999) used as tarmac car park. Some 30m north of the house and on the north side of the carriage court stands the circular former Riding School and Banqueting House (both listed grade II), which were built for I M Singer by G S Bridgman in 1873. Attached garages and workshops stand to the west, and an entrance flanked by wing walls (listed grade II) provides access to the north side of the Riding School from Oldway Road.
A further drive enters the site from Polsham Road to the south. Following a serpentine course parallel to the western boundary of the pleasure grounds, the south drive joins the west drive to the west of Little Oldway.
Oldway Mansion (listed grade II*) stands on a terrace towards the west side of its grounds. The house was built in 1873-5 for Isaac Singer to the designs of G S Bridgman. The west facade of the present house preserves part of Bridgman's French Renaissance brick and stone structure with prominent chimneys and dormers. The south facade of the late C19 house was rebuilt c 1900, probably by Achille Duchene, to accord with his new formal garden. It is reputed to have been influenced by Gabriel's Pavillion Francais at the Petit Trianon, Versailles (J Wilson pers comm, 1997). In 1904-7, the house was extensively remodelled by Paris Singer, who took his inspiration from France, this influence being particularly visible on the east and north fronts, the former being modelled on the facade of the Hotel de Crillon, Place de la Concorde, Paris, the latter being based on French C18 precedents.
Some 40m west of Oldway Mansion, set within its own grounds, stands the villa Little Oldway (listed grade II), built c 1850 as Oldway Villa (OS 1st edition 1865), with additions of the 1870s for Isaac Singer, who used it as his residence while the new house was under construction. To the south-west of the two-storey, stuccoed mid C19 villa rises a three-storey rubble-stone tower with gothic windows and a castellated balustrade.
GARDENS AND PLEASURE GROUNDS
A pair of early C20 concrete sphinxes flank the entrance to the east terrace from the carriage court north of the house (walls and sphinxes listed grade II). The terrace wall (listed grade II) which runs south parallel to the east front supports fourteen metal urns (listed grade II) with goat-mask handles, which were brought from Paris. The terrace itself is laid out as a box-edged parterre, to the south of which is a shaped panel of lawn flanked by eight golden cypresses. The parterre is set on grey gravel, with beds containing seasonal planting, some enclosed by box edging, and some set within turf borders. Steps descend east from the parterre to a lawn which extends eastwards to a line of tennis courts which were added after 1906 (OS 2nd edition). The Paignton Observer (1900) noted that this area was intended for the construction of a games hippodrome, requiring considerable levelling. The spoil removed during this process appears to have been formed into a broad bank which extends along the southern half of the east boundary screening the grounds from the Torquay Road and allowing views east to the sea. The bank is planted with pines and mixed shrubs, and to the south-west connects with walks above the early C20 rockery.
From the paved terrace immediately to the south of the house stone steps descend to a slightly sunken level lawn. The central flight of steps is flanked by early C20 marble sphinxes of late C18 French design (walls, steps and sphinxes all listed grade II), while the south lawn, now (1999) used for croquet, was originally lined on each side with tubs containing orange trees. These have been replaced in the late C20 by pyramid topiary yews. A lime avenue runs down the west side of the lawn, while to the east there is a gravel walk supported by a balustraded retaining wall (listed grade II). A double flight of steps immediately to the south-east of the house descends to the parterre terrace. Between the steps a niche is cut into the retaining wall, in which stands a statue group of Pan and Bacchus, a replacement c 1950 of the statue of a muse and the amorini shown in Duchene's original drawings. The stone used for the terraces and paving is Comblanche, imported from France; the balustrades are also constructed from French stone (Paignton Observer, 1900).
At the southern end of the south lawn, steps descend to a lower terrace comprising a gravel walk and central, rectangular, turf-edged flower bed. The terrace is terminated to the west by the remains of a semicircular bench seat. From the lower south terrace further steps descend through the terrace wall (listed grade II) to the lower gardens. Here, a rectangular garden with a parterre of grass plats and a central, circular, turf-edged flower bed separates an informal area of lawns and specimen trees to the west from an extensive area of rockwork to the east. As designed, an orangery (demolished c 1960), lit from above by prism lights, was set into the retaining wall at this southern end of the terrace.
The rockwork to the south-east of the formal gardens incorporates a grotto (listed grade II) faced with local grey limestone, which overlooks an irregular pond, from which a stream runs to a larger irregular pond at the south-east corner of the site. The Paignton Observer (1900) noted that the water was to be supplied from a pumping station and circulated by an electric or gas-powered pump. A network of paths, some retaining early C20 cobbled surfaces, runs through the rockery, connected by flights of rustic stone steps. The rockery and the margins of the ponds are planted with a variety of conifers, deciduous trees and exotic plantings. The paths through the rockery lead to a straight walk which is terraced into the planted bank which follows the eastern boundary of the site. A further walk extends from east to west above the rockery, affording views across the intended hippodrome.
To the north of the east drive the site has been laid out with mid and late C20 games facilities, including tennis courts and bowling greens. Formerly, as shown on the 1906 OS, an avenue led south-west across this area from the northern boundary of the site towards the north-east corner of the house.
Paignton Observer, 1900
Oldway Mansion: Paignton, guidebook, (Torbay District Council c 1965)
R Brandon, Singer and the sewing machine: a capitalist romance (1977)
W A Saxton, Singer, the sewing machine and Paignton (1982)
C M Eastley, The Singer Saga (1983)
G Rew, The Gardens of Oldway Mansion, (unpub thesis 1986) [copy at West Country Studies Library]
J Packe, Stories of Oldway (1988)
B Cherry and N Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Devon (1989), pp 839-40
T Gray, The Garden History of Devon An Illustrated Guide to Sources (1995), p 171
Tithe map for Paignton parish, 1841 (Devon Record Office)
OS 25" to 1 mile: 1st edition surveyed 1865
2nd edition revised 1904, published 1906
Copy of the will of Isaac Merrit Singer, 16 July 1870 (CL/Deeds I/6895), (Glamorgan Record Office)
Photographs, c 1940 and 1950 (Chapman plates 255991, 20864, 3073), (Devon Record Office)
Drawings for Oldway by Henri Duchene, architect-paysagiste, (Torquay Library)
[Note: Achille Duchene still practised under his father's name in the early C20, hence the use of the name Henri on the Oldway drawings.]
Information kindly supplied by J Wilson (architect), 1997
Description written: August 1999
Register Inspector: JML
Edited: July 2000