West Wycombe Park (1740 – 1800) is the ideal study of the ‘total’ nature of architecture in the 18th century – in itself conceived as a synthesis of the work of the architect, status of the patron and interior schemes. This country house functions as a piece of theatre; its interiors the sets to an imposing, idiosyncratic façade. Indeed, the architecture itself borrows from the antique – staging the development of British architecture in the period studied. From the exterior, one can trace the classical experimentation for which the century is known; from early Palladian through to the Neoclassical.
Ideally then, through ownership, patronage and the employ of architects to build the estate, much can be learnt on the century’s permeation of architecture. I would argue that the remit of the architect can be understood not solely as an activity assigned to an individual player, but as an entire culture built on relationships between patron, architect and the entire artistic sphere.
Inspired by all manner of individual sources, West Wycombe was not the work of one sole architect, but rather, the collaboration of different parties to achieve what was required by the builder – Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet (1708 – 1781). In his employ, at least three architects were involved in the design of the house, with input from Dashwood, the builder as he sought to emulate those properties he’d encountered on the Grand Tour.
Social history, then, can be particularly telling in the remit of the architect – both amateur and otherwise. The 18th century saw the epoch of the ‘dilettante’, by definition a gentleman of taste and artistic inclination, who acquired works and, often, as in the case of Dashwood, set about building the summit of their erudition: A country house demonstrative of their learning, travel and cultural prowess.
Girouard writes that the virtuosos of the 18th century were Platonists and this, by definition, entails the creation of a world of higher ideals as seen to be at play in exemplary works of classical art. Such a pursuit of perfection manifested itself across the ruling classes, many of whom invested greatly in self-improvement through themselves, the objects they chose to accumulate and how these were shown in their surroundings. The virtuosos of which Girouard speaks, went by the name of Dilettanti in this century and saw it their duty to foster and pursue the arts. Given the inferred accumulation of objects, spaces were extended and elaborated on throughout the 18th century by this fashionable class of gentleman.
In 1752, the Earl of Burlington designed a villa at Chiswick and its intended use, by function, was that of a theoretical museum for his collections. The rooms here were finished to be appraised – displaying pictures and sculpture in theatrical succession. Taking the form of a Corinthian portico, the sole purpose of this building was defined by its contents and, as Girouard writes, by the tastes of its builder. What followed on from this was a series of similar projects across the architectural landscape: Re-modelling, extensions and re-decoration became a highly fashionable occupation in an attempt to integrate the house and its collections.
This activity was a form of cultivation – with those such as Dashwood seeing it to be an important aspect of the upper ruling classes. In a perfected Georgian upper-class society, it was not enough for a country gentleman to be wealthy but uneducated; he must also demonstrate his grasp of culture through a civilised, stately architecture.
Work at West Wycombe began in earnest from c. 1735 until the death of Dashwood in 1781. The pattern of building ran in accord with the latest fashions, which, naturally, over the course of around 50 years transformed from one singular mode to the next. Therefore, the design of West Wycombe varies immensely, marrying together Palladianism and its successor, Neoclassicism. Throughout this period, numerous eminent architects submitted plans to Dashwood answering the call for extravagant display; whilst Robert Adam was unsuccessful in his bid for the west portico, Nicholas Revett (1721 – 1804) took up the mantle and, through a series of consultations, was permitted the creation of this notable element.
To summarise, the 2nd Sir Francis oversaw the extensive remodelling of West Wycombe and the architecture of this was greatly influenced by the baronet’s Mediterranean travels. Throughout the period of construction, a new north front, east portico and south front were implemented to extend what had formally been conceived as a modest family mansion. In the hierarchy of architects, the record at West Wycombe appears to credit John Donowell as being the executive architect, with Revett working on the west side of the property after 1767. What stands is a symmetrical building in plan form, with its north and south sides designed to be two distinct entities built separately into the landscape. Visitors would have approached the house from the west after 1770, which accounts for Revett’s grand statement of an Ionic portico, modelled on the Temple of Bacchus at Teos and dedicated with a bacchanalia in 1771. The north front can be dated from 1748 – 1751 and, set in a purely Palladian style, features engaged Roman Ionic columns, a projecting central pediment and rustication. Moving to the east portico (dating 1754-5), one can note a Tuscan influence.
Interestingly, it is the south front, switched in plan to the back of the house that provides the most dramatic outlook, palatially modelled with its eleven bays, side wings and double colonnade. Such classical monumentality, whilst not strictly adhering to the standards of Palladio, does in many ways mirror the architect’s designs.
 M. Girouard, ‘First Interlude: Virtuosos and Dilettanti’ in Life in the English Country House (Yale University Press, 1978), pp 176 – 178.