Clifton Hill House was built between 1746 and 1750 as an imposing semi-rural mansion of Palladian inspiration for Paul Fisher, a highly successful linen draper, merchant, and ship-owner who participated in the slave trade. Despite his involvement in the slave trade he was described by his contemporaries as a very benevolent man and great benefactor for the poor of the community. He was prominent in the foundation of the Bristol Royal Infirmary in 1735.
At the height of his wealth, Paul Fisher employed Isaac Ware, the Palladian architect and designer of national renown and protégé of Lord Burlington. Most of Ware's works were for private clients. His most famous surviving building is Wrotham Park, the plans of which appear in Soldi's portrait of Ware and his daughter (a copy of which now hangs in the Fisher Drawing Room at Clifton Hill House). Fisher chose Clifton for his mansion, following the growing idea of the time that the suburbs were preferable to, and more salubrious than, the bustling city. The design of Clifton Hill House appears in Isaac Ware's book A Complete Body of Architecture of 1756. There remains some remarkable rococo ceiling carvings by the local craftsman, Joseph Thomas, in several of the reception rooms.
In 1851, Clifton Hill House was bought by Dr Symonds, a well-known Bristol physician, famous not only for his medical proficiency, but also for his gift at entertaining the literary and artistic elite of his time. As his son quoted: "He was open at all pores to culture, to art, to archaeology, to science, to literature". The house was filled with many distinguished and talented people, like Lord Landsdown, the great classical scholar Benjamin Jowett, John Percival, the first Headmaster of Clifton College, and Jenny Lind, the celebrated Victorian singer, known as 'the Swedish Nightingale'. She sang several times at the Victoria Rooms and, in 1862, stayed at Clifton Hill House and sang in the Symonds Music Room. "The pitch of her exceptional voice was such that it broke a fine crystal glass that was on the mantelpiece of the marble fireplace" (p. 18, Vaughan). Others who stayed at the house were John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, and Dame Clara Butt who, in 1921, gave a concert in the house to launch a fund for the construction of Manor Hall.
When Dr Symonds died in 1871, the house passed on to his son, John Addington Symonds, the poet, historian, literary and art critic. In her biography of Symonds, Phyllis Grosskurth writes: "Symonds is best known for his seven-volume Renaissance in Italy, but he was also the author of many volumes of poetry, criticism and belles lettres. Though his work is little read today, he was a leading participant in the literary culture of his time, an early enthusiast of Whitman and a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James and Edward Lear". We know that 'The Owl and the Pussy Cat' was written for Symonds' eldest daughter, Janet.
In 1877, the Symonds family decided to emigrate to Davos in Switzerland partly due to John's poor health. They returned briefly to Clifton in 1880 to empty the house and, unfortunately, to burn or bury many of the family possessions. Margaret Symonds (Mrs Vaughan) wrote:
"When the papers were done with, my Mother had her way with the busts of all those unlovely emperors and philosophers such as our grandfathers duly bought on their 'grand tours' and stuck up in their halls or bookshelves to depress both themselves and their children with for ever after. My Mother had a large trench dug in the garden, and the busts were all wheeled down in wheelbarrows and put in the trench, and then the earth was shovelled in, and my Mother got in herself and danced upon the earth. She was indeed an heroic young lady, for all that happened fifty years ago; and people didn't destroy their family trophies at that period, and certainly did not dance on them." (p. 187, Vaughan)
It is worth noting Symonds' great interest in the founding of Bristol University College, and how pleased the family was when the house was finally sold to the University in 1909 for £5,500, and became the first hall of residence for women in the South West of England. In 1994, a large and little-used ladies cloakroom was transformed to house all of the remaining possessions of the Symonds family that were scattered throughout the house, and a permanent exhibition with family photographs and memorabilia can now be seen in the Symonds Library.
In 1998, an International Symposium on John Addington Symonds - The Private and the Public Face of Victorian Culture - was held at Clifton Hill House.
The main garden, the layout of which has not changed greatly since the eighteenth century, boasts several rare tulip trees.
Callander House is an eighteenth-century adjacent house that was bought for £4,000 by the University in 1911, also from the Symonds family. Callander House was extended in the 1920s, mainly thanks to the generosity of the Wills family. A new dining room was created on the site of the stables and is now known as the Wills Reception Room.
In 1909, Clifton Hill House started its hall life as a 'Women's Hostel', accommodating 15 young ladies, and is now a popular mixed hall of residence, housing a vibrant community of 225 students from the University of Bristol. It is also well known for hosting conferences, civil weddings, and special events in the restored rooms.
In November 2004, Clifton Hill House was the winner of the London Georgian Group Architectural Awards in the category 'Restoration of a Georgian Country House'. This prestigious national award is held annually to assess the best restoration works across the United Kingdom, and attracted 87 entrants that year.
Brown, H. (1895) John Addington Symonds - A Biography (London : John C Nimmo)
Grosskurth, P. (1964) John Addington Symonds - A Biography (London : Longmans)
Vaughan, M. (1925) Out of the Past (London : John Murray)