West Wycombe Park – The Interiors

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of West Wycombe as an architectural study is the fact that the classical theme of its exterior is greatly extended by the design of its lavish interiors. What becomes apparent from this activity is that, constructing a country house in the 18th century was a complex operation – determined not only by the building of it, but also by its outfitting. West Wycombe, both in form and in function, reflects the tastes, ambitions and pursuits of its owner. My case study looks to Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet[1] and his building of an establishment that was very much at the service of lively discussion and hedonism. With the pursuit of pleasure as an aristocratic Georgian by-word, Sir Francis has been deemed a dilettante and libertine by both contemporaries and historians with his country house duly described as “one of the most theatrical and Italianate mid-18th century buildings in England”[2].

The stage here is therefore set for the fields in which Sir Francis was active, these being culture, erudition and the practises of a well-heeled connoisseur[3]. We cannot study the architecture of the period without noting the artistic exchange that marked it: Indeed, social history informs us that erudite learning and matters of taste were a principal occupation for a certain stratum of indeed. The remit of the architect extends to the dilettanti who sought accomplishment through the Grand Tour[4] and, in returning to British society, transposed this phenomenon onto the English Landscape through the creation of their own grand residences and interiors. In English architectural history, West Wycombe is of great importance given its development of stylistic themes in interior decoration: From the ceilings painted by the Italian Borgnis brothers to the accuracy of its fresco cycles and Palmyrene décor.

Fig 1. Excavation of the buried city of Herculaneum in the 18th century, and the discovery of Roman ruins under volcanic ash near Vesuvius 1, and plan of a grand theatre for 10,000 spectators 2. Handcoloured copperplate engraving from Friedrich Johann Bertuch’s Bilderbuch fur Kinder (Picture Book for Children), Weimar, 1798. (Photo by Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images)

On the education of the architect, a gentleman could add to his library any number of bound architectural and antiquarian volumes, professing the virtues of Ancient Roman, Greek Classical and Palladian sources[5]. Such publications greatly influenced the 18th century design vocabulary at a time of discovery and expansion. The cultural world had been opened up by the twin discoveries of Herculaneum and of Pompeii in 1738 and 1748[6] (fig, 1). These belonged to a line of excavations which unearthed unseen wonders such as Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and Palmyra in Syria[7]. I would stress the importance of these sites to the language of design, one which could be understood through detailed architectural drawings and thus translated. The assumption that a man of quality could appear well-versed in the language is not unfounded as Dashwood, with his leanings, owned copies spanning Pitture Antiche delle Grotto di Roma (1706), Stuart’s The Antiquities of Athens (1762), Overbeke’s De L’Ancienne Rome (1709) and The Antiquities of Ionia (1769). The presence of these attest to an atmosphere of study, lengthened by letters and editions chronicling the archaeological finds of Herculaneum in situ[8]. When we consider this body of works in Dashwood’s library, noting too the presence of literature on the ancient arts, one can canonically chart a grand narrative of design – the very cornerstones for a discussion on classical forms from a known visual culture.

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

The interiors of West Wycombe are distinctly modelled with a pseudo-academic integrity in accord with Dashwood’s vision – one that spanned the vistas of the Grand Tour in such a way as to further the critically fashionable ‘rule of taste’[9] (fig. 2) in Georgian Britain. Thus governed, the remit of the architect at West Wycombe was in service of Dashwood’s aspirations. The task of building was undertaken by numerous parties, with John Donowell[10] at the helm as clerk of works from 1755 to 1764. With Dashwood himself privy to the work, architects, designers and craftsmen were under his employ to steer the direction of design. As a result of this collaboration, a variety of quotations play across the rooms of West Wycombe.

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

After the initial impression of grandeur, West Wycombe challenges the seasoned practitioner to identify those elements copied from the antique, something that would have spurred the contemporary art of conversation through the discussion and elaboration of these findings (fig. 3). For Dashwood and his circle, the logic and appearance of an interior was highly schematic[11] – in alignment with governing contemporary interests. In this way, the architectural interiors of West Wycombe can be read according to the ‘Antique conceit’[12].

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

At this point, it is worth noting the relationship between fashionable society, architectural practises and the schematic unification of the interior in Georgian Britain. West Wycombe’s main hall is conceived to be Classical in its entirety, mirroring in its decoration the domestic villas of ancient Rome. Here, the architect construes a complete decorative scheme on a large-scale, one that closely follows antique source materials in its detail. This introductory passage resembles the later ‘Adam style’[13] (fig. 4) and all that it represented. Robert Adam (1728-92) attained the status of a famed and much sought-after architect in his lifetime, with interiors that represent the flowering of Neo-classical taste. On matters of style, Adam was consulted at his own practise in London, having embarked on a Grand Tour in 1754.

It was with considerable force that Adam developed a completely unified style, one that transcended mere architecture and the rooms within to an all-encompassing body of art. Here, the furnishings of a room were designed in such a way as to accompany the Grecian and Roman forms of the architecture. Most notably, Osterley Park, Syon House and Kenwood House boast an Adam nucleus and the architect used his fame, talent and influence to garner further notable patrons. For example, in 1768, he received a commission to update Saltram House in Devon, providing a full-suite of rooms that promoted his style. His is the perfect example of the period’s architect-decorator, whereby skilful ornament and motif could be the making of a house and its creator. From this, we then see a degree of rivalry among architects within this profession, who would compete for clients and, later, for production by manufacturers. Architecture, had become a valuable commodity.

Fig 5. Entrance Hall, West Wycombe Park.

Ornament, as it was applied by the architect featured to reflect the greater scheme of the building in question. Returning to West Wycombe, Dashwood’s hall succinctly follows a classically sourced line. The room parallels the first Pompeian[14] style (fig. 5) of antiquity, with its marbled walls, paved stonework and painted ceiling copied from a page of Robert Wood’s Ruins of Palmyra[15] (1753) (fig. 6).

Fig 6. Robert Wood, Temple of Bel ceilings, The Ruins of Palmyra, London, 1753.

The Ruins of Palmyra was presented as a publication by subscription, which is how Dashwood was able to model the ceiling on one of Wood’s careful illustrations[16]. When examined, the main hall in itself stands as a site of excavation: A coffered Roman vault can be seen in the ceiling, tracing back to Virtuvius’s description of a barrel-vaulted basilica[17] and the walls pick out varieties of Italianate marble in their colouring. Such illusion and mimicry continues in the double screen of columns typical to a grand reception hall, with screens that have been rendered in scagliola[18] – a technique that had been mastered in England from the Florentine tradition. Architecturally, these attributes work within the structure to achieve an archaeological interior. It is no coincidence that West Wycombe includes a complex underfloor heating system, taken from the advanced perspective of Roman engineering[19]. It was all the more notable to include imported Italian specimen marbles in the chequered top of a table, something that a virtuoso would have been able to recognise. These elements attest to the genius of previous architects and craftsmen, those sources chosen by British Georgian participants of arts and culture to emulate through their own architecture.

The Elizabethan Country House here…
The Picturesque – Formal to Informal in Landscape Gardening here…
Notes on the Georgian Architect 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.], http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grtr/hd_grtr.htm

[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 7 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 & 9 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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/  history/british/architecture_01.shtml [accessed 25 September, 2018].

[12] Worsley, ‘West Wycombe Park’, p. 115.

[13] V&A, ‘The Adam interior’, Victoria and Albert Museum Online [n.d.], http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/video-the-adam-interior/ [accessed 25 September, 2018].

[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.

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