Wednesday, 20 August 2014

West Wycombe Park

West Wycombe park was one of the first country estates to be taken over by the National Trust. It was handed over to them during the war in 1943. It was a curious place to visit because you get the overwhelming feeling that you are not welcome there - the staff (bar our tour guide) were all quite miserable. The house is only open from June to August while the gardens are open by themselves in April and May. In the three short months that the house is open to the public you can only visit it without a tour guide on Sundays, while Monday- Friday you can visit by appointment only and the tour is noticeably rushed. Also, you cannot take pictures and this is because the collection inside of the house is still the property of the Dashwood family. Most weird of all though was the hundreds of photos placed all around the house of the current generation of Dashwoods.

It is unlike most National Trust properties in that it is so strict. The reason for this is that way back in 1943 the National Trust was not the strong institution that it is today and the Dashwood family were able to strike a deal with the trust. Usually, the National Trust will take on an estate in the knowledge that the house is open most of the year so that a sizeable income can be made from visitors. In return, the trust will restore and conserve the exterior, interiors and furniture. However, the donor family are allowed to live alongside the estate. In my opinion, that is quite a reasonable deal - you cannot afford a home and instead of losing it forever the National Trust pays for its upkeep in return for you allowing it to be open and donating the house in its entirety to them while still being able to live somewhere on site.

However, this wasn't good enough for the Dashwoods. They insisted that the collection of furniture and interiors remain their property and that the house be open on their terms. This has made for a less than amicable relationship between the trust and the family. Personally, I am in the National Trust's corner. You cannot expect to call the shots on a house you simply cannot afford - but that is pride for you. In any case, once a house is donated to the National Trust the action cannot be revoked - not ever.

Unfortunately I do not have any pictures of the inside but I have a few notes on what we saw:

In 1698 Thomas Lewis sold the house to Samuel and Francis Dashwood and in 1706 Francis bought out Samuel's share. Money was no object for the Dashwoods and so the entire house was altered throughout time (not to mention Sir Francis splashed out £10000 on buying himself a Baronetcy). In 1708 Francis becomes a father to Francis Dashwood II. Four years later in 1712 the house was demolished and a new Queen Anne Style house was built. Sir Francis Dashwood died in 1724. The house as it is now was largely completed by 1750 under Sir Francis Dashwood II of whom changed the house that his father had built.

Francis was to go on FOUR Grand Tours throughout 20 years and would have seen a lot of classical art and architecture. His trips across the continent clearly left their mark given the fact that the first rom you enter - the hall - is built like a Roman hall. There are copies of original busts of Roman Emperors, scagliola columns and Giuseppe Borgnis walls and ceiling. What is more, there was even a hypercaust system that was discovered in the 1950's that was sadly in a state of disrepair. This Roman influence was not fully understood until 1912 when Francis III peeled off some of the paint in what was then a whitewashed hall to discover the gorgeous decoration underneath. There is also a clock in the hall that the guide was particularly proud of, it was mid 18th century and apparently the finest example of clock making in Britain.

The staircase is to the left of the hall as you walk in. It runs all the way to the top of the building with frescoes lining the walls the entire way up. Unfortunately the view of the staircase that we got was limited (because it is shut off to the public). However from the ground floor you can see a fresco of the Goddess of Silence that is fittingly holding her index finger to her mouth and the pretty rococo plasterwork on the roof.

Dining Room
The dining room is also to the left of the building as you walk in (underneath the staircase). The walls are the work of Giuseppe Borgnis and the floors date back to the Regency period. The dining table is fairly new and was acquired when a film set brought it in to film with and the current Dashwood (Edward Dashwood) asked whether he could keep it. There is also a number of portraits that I am sure I have seen before in London at the Society of the Dilettanti. The portraits are painted with private jokes in mind and one particular one I like is the one of Sir Francis Dashwood with a glass of wine and a turban:

The ceiling in this room is a copy of Raphael's Council of the Gods by Borgnis. The windows are beautiful dating back to 1858 with little stained glass roundels in the lunettes. Beneath the windows are Code stone plinths - created by Code hence the name - and represent the 4 seasons. They are important because Code invented the recipe for this stone herself but lost it so the composition of the pieces are difficult to copy. Extending outwards into the room, each corner has a table with the eagle wings motifs; 2 of the 4 are original and 2 are impressive copies - the other 2 originals were sold to a gallery in Liverpool. Another pretty piece of furniture was the Chinoiserie Chippendale mirror. Portrait wise, there is a depiction of Thomas Lewis (the original owner) and Francis II worshipping Venus. He is dressed like a Franciscan monk worshipping a naked deity. He had an odd sense of humour.

Red Drawing Room
What I found the most interesting about the Red Drawing room was the fireplace. On the right hand side of mantlepiece there is a bell. The bell was previously attached to the servants quarters but does no longer work. The mirror above the fireplace is a beautiful rococo design and the ceiling a grostesque inspired design.

The Study has yet again another Borgnis ceiling. The room also houses a mirror that has left and since returned to the Dashwood family. It may have originally been sold for financial reasons but returned to the house when a New York art dealer recognised the Dashwood coat of arms. We know that it had not yet been sold in 1774 because the inventory of that year states that the mirror was present. This room also has architectural drawings for the house placed all over the walls. 

Blue Drawing Room
The Blue Drawing room used to be a dining room. It is based on the Palazzo Farnese in Rome and the ceiling depicts the story of The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne - which is a copy of Annibale Carraci's work of the same name (which is in the palazzo). This room also houses the oldest painting in the house: that of the virtues.

Music Room
This is the last room in the tour before they open up the large doors in this room and send you on your way. It currently has portraits at either end of the room of the current Dashwood and his wife. The ceiling is again by Borgnis and depicts the banquet of the gods. It was here that we were told by our guide that Borgnis was supposedly murdered - because people were jealous of his success. His son had to complete the ceiling. There was also a picture of the Foundation of the Dilittanti Society and a painting of a Bird Market thought to be by Rembrandt (or was it?)

My notes a little out of order and I couldn't figure out which room I was referring to: there was a Florentine cabinet here that Francis acquired on his Grand Tour. A very large souvenir - as you do. It was made from Lapis Lazuli (an imported pigment from the middle east) and ebony and therefore probably very expensive.

This is the north side. The first side to reach completion under the revonation. It is Palladian in style - rusticated first floor, Palladian windows and a portico.

This is the south side of the building. It was the second side to be completed under the renovations of Francis Dashwood II. It is influenced by the Palazzo Chiericati Vicenza in the double tier loggia running across the facade.

This is the east side. It was the 3rd to be completed and it is not set centrally. Originally, there were bushes at either side of the portico to hide the fact that it was off-centre. The National Trust have since replanted these bushes in order to achieve that effect.

This was the 4th side to be completed in the 1770's. The west side. This portico is significant because it is the first time that a Greek source was used directly in the construction of a building. When it was finished the Dashwoods held a party where they had everyone dress up as ancient Greeks. The architect was Nicholas Revett.

This is a 'Ha-Ha' and was used in many country estates to keep the animals that were on their land away from the immediate gardens surrounding the house. It basically a steep trench with a wall.

Tower of the Winds: It is a clear Greek prototype what with the frieze (albeit not decorated according to how the Greeks would of), pyramid roof and octagonal shape. If anyone had read Antiguities of Athens (1762) then it is likely they would recognise this as Greek. However, on the left hand side there is a Baroque door and door frame that had been taken from the original Baroque house before Francis Dashwood II had it converted into a Palladian house.

Given the fact that Nicholas Revett did not write his book until the 60's and did not arrive at West Wycombe until the 70's, you would think that this temple therefore would be dated from the 70's onwards. However there was a document found that would suggest that this was potentially made in the 50's. Therefore, it is possible that Revett was here earlier and was already interested in Greek revival as early as the 50's.

The boat house. It was really sad to see this big beautiful space not being used by anyone. Our lecturer brought us here immediately after Chiswick so the contrast between the garden open to the public and this one was very obvious.

Much of the landscape was done by an associate of Capability Brown.

This was rebuilt in the 20th century with the help of the National Trust. Quinlan Terry modelled this on images he had seen of the original temple. It was originally built like this on a mound in response to a political rival of Dashwoods that had built his own Temple of Venus (Lord Cobden). The mound and the odd little cavity in the stone wall beneath it is meant to be a representation of female anatomy...

If you're interested in visiting West Wycombe then click here. If you are given a specific time to arrive then arrive at least 15 minutes early. Do not be late, you have been warned...


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