Decoration in the 18th Century: A Companion to West Wycombe

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Fig. 1: Louis Jean Deprez, The Herculaneum Gate at Pompeii, undated, black ink, grey wash and watercolour, National Museum, Stockholm.

Outfitting a country house in the 18th century was as much a consideration of its function as with anything else, which, naturally, would reflect the tastes and pursuits of its owner along with their intentions in building such an establishment. In this case, West Wycombe was at the service of pleasure and lively discussion, as dictated by the libertine and dilettante Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet (1). Active in these fields, the country house belonging to Sir Francis described as “one of the most theatrical and Italianate mid-18th century buildings in England” (2) is indeed the stage and setting for expressions of erudite learning, culture and the practises of an unabashed connoisseur (3). West Wycombe is involved in these exchanges, an occupation well-ingrained in the social history of the 18th century period where those such as the dilettanti sought accomplishment through the Grand Tour (4) and transposed this phenomenon onto the English Landscape through grand residences and their interiors.


Fig. 2: William Hogarth, Plate 1, The Analysis of Beauty, 1753.

The 18th century design vocabulary benefited from the publications of Palladian, Ancient Roman and Greek Classical sources bound in architectural and antiquarian volumes (5). This atmosphere of discovery was aided by the later twin discoveries of Herculaneum and of Pompeii in 1738 and 17486 (fig. 1) which stood in a line of excavations, unearthing Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and Palmyra in Syria among other sites (7). Situated in his library, Dashwood appears as well-versed in this language, owning copies which span Pitture Antiche delle Grotte di Roma (1706), Overbeke’s De L’Ancienne Rome (1709), Stuart’s The Antiquities of Athens (1762) and The Antiquities of Ionia (1769). Furthering this are volumes and letters chronicling the archaeological finds of Herculaneum (8).


Fig. 3: Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72.

Combined with literature on the ancient arts, the canonical works in the grand narrative of design formed the basis for a discussion in and the execution of classical forms from known exemplars. It was with this integrity and purity in the line of vision which Dashwood consciously used to model his interiors, denoting the expanding vistas of the Grand Tour and further dictating the critically fashionable ‘rule of taste’ (9) (fig. 2). As the clerk of works from 1755 to 1764, John Donowell (10) among other architects and designers, some amateur, helped steer the direction taken by Dashwood in realising his designs. In this vein, literal quotations are at play across the rooms of West Wycombe, copying the antique and challenging the seasoned practitioner to identify these and engage in a learned discussion (fig. 3). Such conversations are those which peaked the interests of Dashwood and his circle in this century, governing the appearance and logic of interiors to fit in which this scheme (11). Therefore, the interiors of West Wycombe can be read according to the ‘Antique conceit’ (12).

Entry & Reception Halls


Fig. 4: Robert Adam, Syon House, Ante Room, Interior scheme.

The main hall is decidedly Classical, taking its cue from the houses of ancient Rome. As such, Dashwood gives a clear indication of his intent to construe a complete decorative scheme on a large-scale, set to the detail of source materials from the antique. This conceptual introduction leads greatly into the Neoclassical approach to decoration: the later ‘Adam style’ (13) (fig. 4), for example, fully encompassed architecture, interior and furniture design and married these elements together along a classically sourced line.


Fig. 5: Robert Wood, Temple of Bel ceilings, The Ruins of Palmyra, London, 1753.

Here, Dashwood’s hall is at the forefront, where parallels to the first Pompeian style (14) can be seen immediately in the marbled walls, painted ceiling copied from Robert Wood’s Ruins of Palmyra (1753) (15) and paved stonework (fig. 5). Naturally Dashwood subscribed to this publication and was able to model the ceiling on Wood’s illustrations (16). The illusion with the ceiling is of a coffered Roman vault which points to Vitruvius’s description of a barrel-vaulted basilica (17) and the walls are coloured to closely mimic various varieties of Italian marble. The double screen of columns typical to a hall and screens are rendered in scagliola (18), a technique then mastered in England from the Florentine tradition. All of these attributes structurally work to the ends of achieving an archaeological interior and this is extended by an underfloor heating system from the perspective of Roman engineering (19).


Fig. 6: The hall, West Wycombe House, image via

Absent of a chimney, the entrance hall mirrors an inner court or atrium, within in Dashwood displays further emblems of classical Rome characterised by antique statuary. Dashwood traveled extensively in the period (20) and the fashion was to install souvenirs from Italy in English country retreats, in particular groups of sculpture, the body of which were either copies or originals. Knox notes how ‘taken as a whole, the pieces at West Wycombe form an important group of eighteenth-century plaster casts, reflecting the taste of one collector’ and that these were ‘deployed throughout the state rooms (…) taking their place alongside antique and modern statuary, costly marble table tops, Old Master pictures, giltwoood-framed mirrors, and Oriental porcelain’ (21) and these chart a global reach of connections. The hall itself takes on the character of a sculpture gallery honouring worthy contemporaries and historical figures: the ‘group of 18th-century English portrait busts’ (22) carry political and diplomatic associations with their Roman counterparts in a line of senators and emperors on Palladian console brackets. Notable are the imported Italian specimen marbles forming a chequered table top, which would have sparked a game of recognition among seasoned virtuoso. All of these elements combine to denote the pleasure in exactitude and association, as literal quotations from multiple sources are at play across the space to be recognised and commented on.

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Fig. 7: Dining Room, West Wycombe Park.

The Palmyra Room, also known as the ‘First Hall’ in the 1781 inventory is, as suggested, twinned with the hall in its ‘archaeological’ (23) decoration and planning. Nicholas Revett was said to be behind the planning of this particular scheme as an amateur architect at the head of the British ‘Greek Revivalist’ (24) period in architecture. Those country houses which he treated with Greek additions were notably for owners who boasted membership to the Society of Dilettanti. As another Classical amalgamation, the walls use to frescoed technique to take on the appearance of ancient stone jasper and the ceiling is a painted reproduction of plate 42 from Wood’s Palmyra, recalling the decoration of a ‘Sepulchre’ (25). The patron portraits and busts associated with the Divan and Hell- Fire Club remind us of its member’s aims to steer tastes and the arts in the 18th century (fig. 7).


Fig. 8: Details of chimneypieces, West Wycombe Park, Henry Cheere (1703-1781).

State Rooms

The principal or state rooms of West Wycombe are identifiable by the monumental chimneypieces and door cases which were installed during the period of renovation (fig. 8). The coloured marbles used here would’ve been of great expense and, combined with the rich carving, attest to the status of the room as a showpiece and social hub.

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Fig. 9: West Wycombe Park, Room plan of the ground floor (Key: A Hall; B Saloon; C Red Drawing room; D Study; E Music room; F Blue Drawing Room; G Staircase; H Dining Room; J Tapestry Room; K King’s Room (former principal bedroom); L West Portico; M South Front and colonnade; N East Portico; O North Front; P service wing.).

For example, the centrality of the Saloon denotes its importance in the scheme of the plan and is conceived as the principal reception room of the house (fig. 9). Knox writes how ‘the first phase of the remodelling of West Wycombe Park created interiors that with their painted ceilings and monumental marble architectural elements, evoked the Roman palaces Dashwood had seen on his grand tours’ (26). To this end, the Saloon reads as an imposing and grandiose room amounting to that of an Italian palace; indeed, the columned door case and chimneypiece are composed of white and sienna marble, with columns of Sicilian jasper. Evidently these fixtures were supplied by Sir Henry Cheere, whilst the reliefs were carved by Thomas Carter (27).


Fig. 10: The Yellow Saloon, West Wycombe House, image via

Emblems of grandeur run throughout, including the lion-mask frieze, central tablet depiction of Androcles and the lion and the ‘console table borne by eagles’ (28) (fig. 10). Such symbols of imperial power were popular with Neo-classical motifs and the style of Empire. It is also in this room which Dashwood chooses to display exquisite marble groups: the Seasons are signed by Laurent Delvaux and are shown on pedestals whilst The Three Graces were acquired by British Consul Isaac Jamineau in Naples. The palatial allusions are furthered by the ceiling painting, which, at the hand of Giuseppe Borgnis are taken from a scene in cycle at the Villa Farnesina in Rome (29).


Fig. 11: West Wycombe Park, Music Room and ceiling detail, Giuseppe Borgnis, based on The Banquet of the Gods at the Villa Farnesina.

The Music Room, too, participates in the Classical theme as the grandest of Donowell’s visions and demonstrates ambition in realising Raphael’s Banquet of the Gods on Borgnis’s ceiling and Carracci fresco cycles (fig. 11). As a ballroom and therefore the setting for festivity and gaiety, this room abounds with putti, Venus and Cupid and merry-making, steeping it in allusions which would have been enjoyed by parties. A highly decorative plasterwork frieze features the attributes of hunting and gathering in the spirit of the harvest, for example, festoons of flowers, stags’ heads and bows and arrows. By displaying busts of great men of the arts and humanities, Dashwood’s interiors are telling in their attempt for theatrics and shows of taste. Whilst Knox argues that there isn’t ‘any clear iconographic program to the display of the sculpture at West Wycombe’ (30) I would respond that they correspond to the program of a country house in the 18th century as a pleasurable retreat and remnant of the Grand Tour.

Drawing Rooms

Typically more private in character, the Red and Blue Drawing rooms are at the service of hospitality and hosting, providing sumptuous decoration and richness in a more comfortable setting. To demonstrate this, the Blue Drawing room is dedicated to Bacchus, a god who was free in his generosity and kept the wine flowing, something which Dashwood was particularly fond of. Further trophies from the grand tour are kept in these rooms with the purpose of being conversation pieces and this gives us an insight into the sociable nature of the dilettanti (31).


Fig. 12: West Wycombe Park, Tapestry Room.

Any idiosyncrasies in the decorative scheme of the interiors occur most profoundly in the Tapestry Room (fig. 12). As this was once a dressing room or antechamber to the adjoining state bedroom, its character resembles that of a closet or sitting room. Whilst the ceiling follows the classical scheme of decoration, this time taken from ancient frescoes excavated at Hadrian’s Villa, the decision to hang Northern tapestries on the walls is an exception to the rule. The choice to decorate using tapestries stems from a more heraldic and medieval interior, enabling a degree of warmth and intimacy.

A Final Note

The interiors of West Wycombe are particularly notable for charting the development which led on from the Baroque. In terms of design, it became favourable for rooms in plan to become ever more purposeful for various activities: the lower floor consists of public-facing and reception rooms, separated for withdrawing, dining, music, dancing and so on whilst the newfound Rococo and Regency ideal of domestic intimacy alongside the needs of entertaining (32) comes through in the bedrooms and rooms reserved for privacy which were arranged above. West Wycombe therefore makes for a fascinating study in the elaboration of country houses for display and living.

Read about Pauline Bonaparte’s risqué sculpture  here…
Take a tour of luxury shopping in 18th century Paris here…
Fancy a change of scenery? Discover the image of Mary in Medieval art here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!

Sources Used: 

1) R. Paulson, Hogarth: Art and politics, 1750-1764 (James Clarke & Co., 1993), p. 271.

2) K. W. Reynard, Galleries and Buildings of Historic Interest in the UK (Routledge, 2004), p. 2229.

3) A. M. Dempster, Risk and Uncertainty in the Art World (A&C Black, 2014), p. 120.

4) J. Sorabella, ‘Grand Tour’, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: The Metropolitan Museum of Art [n.d.], [accessed 12 August 2016].

5) Frank N. Magill, The 17th and 18th Centuries: Dictionary of World Biography, Volume 4 (Routledge, 2013), p. 10.

6) K. Stone and G. Vaughan, The Piranesi Effect (NewSouth, 2015), p. 34.

7) J. McKenzie, The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt, C. 300 B.C. to A.D. 700, Volume 63 (Yale University Press, 2007), p. 113.

8) G. Worsley, ‘West Wycombe Park, Bucks’, Country Life, 6 September, 1990, p. 114.

9) G. Newman and L. Brown, Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714-1837: An Encyclopaedia (Taylor &Francis, 1997) p. 20.

10) L. Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (Yale University Press, 2016), p. 261.

11) A. Tinniswood, ‘A History of British Architecture’, BBC Online: History [n.d.], history/british/architecture_01.shtml [accessed 12 August, 2016].

12) Worsley, ‘West Wycombe Park’, p. 115.

13) V&A, ‘The Adam interior’, Victoria and Albert Museum Online [n.d.], [accessed 12 August, 2016].

14) J. Banham, Encyclopedia of Interior Design (Routledge, 1997), p. 980.

15) Nelson, Architecture and Empire, p. 261.

16) Worsley, ‘West Wycombe Park’, p. 115.

17) A. Grafton, G. Most and S. Settis, The Classical Tradition (Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 63.

18) M. Hinchman, The Fairchild Books Dictionary of Interior Design (A&C Black, 2014), p. 167.

19) Worsley, p. 115.

20) National Trust, ‘Introducing the Dashwood Baronets’, The National Trust Online [n.d.], https:// [accessed 12 August, 2016]

21) T. Knox, ‘Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, as a Collector of Antique and Modern Sculpture’, Studies in the History of Art, Vol. 70, Symposium Papers XLVII, 2008, p. 404

22) T. Knox, West Wycombe Park Buckinghamshire (The National Trust, 2001), p. 12.

23) Wedgewood Museum, ‘Neo-classicism in the 18th century’ [n.d.], [accessed 12 August, 2016].

24) J. Curl, A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (OUP Oxford, 2006), p. 636.

25) B. Prescot, Remarks on the Architecture, Sculpture, and Zodiac of Palmyra: With a Key to the Inscriptions (C.J.G. & F. Rivington, 1830), p. 19.

26) Knox, ‘Antique and Modern Sculpture’.

27) ibid.

28) Knox,West Wycombe.

29) Knox, West Wycombe, p. 18.

30) Knox ‘Antique and Modern Sculpture’.

31) B. Redford, Dillettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England (Getty Publications, 2008), p. 2.

32) M. Miers, The English Country House: from the Archives of Country Life (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2009), p. n/a.

Thank You-2

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