The place Batman calls home; Wollaton Hall

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The site of Wollaton Hall as it rises above the surrounding trees and landscape and pierces the sky is dramatic. The elevated site was clearly chosen to add to the visual impact the house would have made on visitors, as it still does. When location scouts were seeking an appropriate exterior that could double as Wayne Manor for the filming of The 2012 Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises they decided Wallaton would be the ideal candidate. Interestingly for the 2005 film Batman Begins Mentmore Towers was used as Wayne Manor, Mentmore is in fact a 19th century country house whose exterior was based on Wollaton Hall. Wollaton seems to have inspired quite a few Victorian architects, the skyline is also echoed by Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) although the detailing differs.

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Wollaton is one of Robert Smythsons most unusual creations, undoubtedly due in a large part to the influence of the patron Sir Francis Willoughby. Smythson commenced work on the house in 1580, and his continued presence at the hall after its completion in 1588 indicate that relations with Sir Francis must have remained cordial, a highly unusual feat for most people that encountered this strong willed member of the Willoughby family.

Wollaton suffers from, or enjoys, a serious case of Horror Vacui with hardly any surface left undecorated in some form. The Elizabethan exterior has survived in remarkably good condition despite its age, and it is a pleasure to behold. This example of English Renaissance is full of pillasters, niches and other classical devices, but to this has been added a very generous helping of strapwork decoration. All this decoration encases a building that takes some inspiration from the great creations of the French renaissance.

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Wollatons interior however hasn’t withstood the effects of time and change as well as the exterior. The Great Hall does still contain the original ornamental stone screen that continues in much the same style as the exterior of the house. The faux hammerbeam ceiling is also original, although embellished by Jeffry Wyatville at the beginning of the 19th century. Above the great hall is the Prospect Room, its name clearly indicating its function. This room, with the same footprint as the hall beneath it, gives the exterior of the house its remarkable shape with a big projecting central block with corner turrets that from a distance resembles a Donjon that has been encased by later additions, which is not the case as the old Hall stood nearby but wasn’t re-used in this construction.

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Wollaton entered another great phase after 1686 when the gardens and interiors were updated to the latest fashion. Two painted staircases by Laguerre and Thornhill are a testament to the attention the house received at this point, the baroque gardens were allmost entirely lost to later landscaping. The later alterations by Wyatville were less than sympathetic to the original structure of the interior, but this was in part due to the desire to create additional rooms in the house without the need to add any extensions that might detract from the carefully balanced exterior. In this campaign the former long gallery was subdivided into smaller rooms and also some of rooms on the ground floor were re-organised to create a grander entrance and a drawing room.

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The house was sold to Nottingham Council and has since been used as a natural history museum. The exhibits are rather tired and the displays poorly designed. Plans are afoot to re-design the presentation and to add some dinosaur skeletons for dramatic effect. The fact that buildings like these have a function that ensures they are maintained is a priority, though in this case it sadly means that the remarkable heritage is somewhat of an afterthought.

For unclear reasons a few rooms on the ground floor have a half hearted period presentation that detract more form the buildings quality than they add to it. The furnishings used, many of them imitations, are of poor quality and do not reflect Wollatons great past. Perhaps in this case the dinosaurs are a better option, as at least they can compete with the visual drama of the exterior.

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