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Architectural colour at Stowe; recent discoveries by the National Trust

Les couleurs du château de Stowe. Découvertes récentes du National Trust
Tim Knox

Résumés

Cette intervention présentera les découvertes récentes faites sur l’emploi de la couleur dans les châteaux appartenant au National Trust en Angleterre. Qu’il s’agisse de l’usage délicat de la technique de peinture « faux-bois » sur les montants des fenêtres de Lyme Park dans le Cheshire (vers 1730) ou des dorures des fenêtres à guillotine de Kedleston Hall dans le Derbyshire (1765), les châteaux de nos ancêtres étaient souvent peints et colorés d’une façon étonnement riche et raffinée. Dans le cas de Stowe dans le Buckinghamshire, on a utilisé une chaux de couleur miel pour recouvrir les murs de la maison principale et des nombreux temples du parc afin de faire disparaître les matériaux disparates qui composaient les murs ; c’était un moyen d’imiter la précieuse pierre taillée de Portland. En outre, dans le jardin, la superbe porte bleu de Prusse du temple de la Concorde et de la Victoire, avec ses dorures inattendues, illustre l’intensité et l’effet spectaculaire de l’utilisation de la couleur dans l’architecture du xviiie siècle.

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1In my paper today I have promised to discuss recent discoveries about architectural colour made at the historic properties belonging to the National Trust in England. However, in the short space of time allotted to me I wonder if I could concentrate on our discoveries at just one of our historic sites, Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where we own and are restoring the great eighteenth-century landscape garden with its myriad of ornamental garden structures.

2Stowe was a creation of Sir Richard Temple, later Viscount Cobham, who inherited it in 1697 and from 1713 laid out an extensive pleasure garden, which at its prime covered over 200 acres and contained over forty ornamental buildings — ‘decorations’ which, remarked a Swedish visitor in 1779, ‘betray a desire to gain renown and to exceed all others in point of expense and magnitude’. Between 1714 and 1779 — the year in which Cobham’s nephew and heir, Earl Temple, died — the gardens underwent no less than four dramatic transformations to keep them at the forefront of fashion. This involved earthmoving, planting and building on a grand scale, and much alteration and embellishment of the ornamental structures — some being bodily moved to different sites to keep pace with the tastes and whims of their proprietors.

3The energies of later members of the family — and they were created Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos in 1822 — were largely consumed with improving the house and amassing their celebrated collections of works of art. However, mounting financial embarrassments culminated in great sales in 1848 and 1921, which stripped the house and garden of everything moveable. The house became a school and the garden slid into decline, its derelict temples choked by tangled undergrowth or pressed into service as classrooms or boathouses.

4The gardens were acquired by the National Trust in 1989 and since then a vigorous programme of restoration has been pursued: the lakes have been drained, vegetation hacked back to reopen lost vistas and tens of thousands of trees and shrubs have been planted. Ten of the thirty or so garden buildings have also undergone extensive repair, and some of the statues and ornamental vases, sold in the 1921 sale and vital to the iconographic programme of the garden, have begun to return to Stowe. The house, which remains in use as a school, is now being restored by an independent Stowe House Preservation Trust.

The Temple of Concord and Victory

5One of our most ambitious restoration projects to date has been the repair of the Temple of Concord and Victory (fig. 1), which was begun by Lord Cobham in c. 1748, inspired by the Maison carrée in Nîmes. It is probably by the architect James Gibbs, but Cobham’s nephew, Earl Temple, almost certainly interfered with its design, drastically recasting it twice, in 1755 and 1760, in typical Stowe fashion. When we acquired Stowe, the Temple of Concord and Victory was in an appalling state of repair, chiefly because, in 1927, the School architect, Sir Robert Lorimer, removed sixteen of the great columns from the sides of the building to embellish the new School Chapel he built on the other side of the garden. The flanks of the Temple were thenceforth propped up with makeshift walls of brick. Restoration began in 1995 and is now complete and has involved the reinstatement of the sixteen missing columns, each one recarved as a ‘portrait’ of one of the originals which remain in the School Chapel — which is itself a protected historic building now.

Fig. 1: The Temple of Concord and Victory, Stowe.

Fig. 1: The Temple of Concord and Victory, Stowe.

Probably built by James Gibbs for the first Viscount Cobham in 1748, but much altered since. External view showing the building after its restoration in 1995-96. The historic honey-coloured limewash disguised the fact that the temple was built of at least five varieties of stone and had been through many alterations.

© The National Trust (NTPL) / T. Knox

6Part of our work of restoration involved investigations into the original colours used on the Temple. Extensive sampling on the exterior of the building — and we were helped here by the fact that the interior walls of the peristyle had been protected from the weather since 1927, entombed behind their brick walls — revealed that the entire structure had always been covered with layers of a pale honey-coloured limewash. We had encountered this on other buildings in the garden, and on the house itself, and it seems to have been the ‘estate colour’ of Stowe, being regularly renewed throughout the eighteenth century, as is testified by the thickly congealed strata found on unexposed areas of stonework. The purpose of this limewash was practical as well as aesthetic, for as well as providing a protective coating to the stonework, it also disguised the fact that the building had been much altered during the course of its construction and was built of a variety of different types of stone. Indeed, no less than five different types of stone have been identified on the Temple of Concord and Victory.

7Alterations like the blocking-up of the windows in the peristyle — accomplished in 1760 — or the installation of the sculptured relief in the typanum of the pediment, itself brought from another building in the garden, the Palladian Bridge, and trimmed and rearranged to fit its new position, were disguised beneath coats of the ubiquitous Stowe limewash. Elements of the Temple that wouldn’t ‘take’ limewash — the lead flashings of the roof or the five lead statues on the pediment — had been historically painted with lead paint the same pale ochre colour to match, so as to give the impression of an entirely ‘stone’ building. The limewashing of the building had continued right up throughout the nineteenth century but the colour had gradually darkened, culminating in a hot, burnt orange colour by the mid-nineteenth century — the first Duke spent much time for economic reasons in Italy from 1827, and it is tempting to see this as a conscious evocation of the ochres he would have encountered on villas in the Italian campagna. In 1921, the year of the final Stowe sale, the tradition of limewashing the buildings at Stowe stops abruptly.

8Even the interior of the Temple of Concord and Victory was limewashed the same Stowe colour. The monochrome — even boring — austerity of the interior surprised us, for we expected the terracotta roundels (put up in the 1760s), with their lead ribbons and inscriptions, to be distinguished in some way from the relentless pale stone limewash, but no evidence could be found for any such distinction. Indeed, today they are quite hard to make out in the lofty but windowless cella of the Temple — they depict British victories over the French during the Seven Years War and underline Lord Temple’s rededication of the building as a sort of Valhalla — which makes me convinced that the building was intended for use as a nocturnal dining room, for the illumination of candles or flambeaux would probably throw the medallions into high relief. It was a subtlety lost on the Victorian proprietors of Stowe, who first began picking the medals out in ‘Wedgwood’ blue and white, and gilded the ribbons. The Latin inscriptions inside the Temple, which proclaim its dedication, provide almost the only note of colour to the interior, for they are of gold leaf, subtly shaded with red shadows. A visitor in the 1760s, Bishop Pococke, noted that there were also four armchairs, two sofas and four stools in the Temple, all of carved wood, ‘painted green and gold’, and we are gradually reintroducing these in the form of reproductions.

Fig. 2: The Temple of Concord and Victory, Stowe.

Fig. 2: The Temple of Concord and Victory, Stowe.

Detail of pronaos showing the Prussian blue paint and gilding on the door, restored after paint analysis in 1996.

© The National Trust (NTPL) / T. Knox

9The biggest surprise was, however, the great double doors (fig. 2) that provide both the entrance to the Temple and its only source of natural illumination. The original joinery had thankfully survived and analysis revealed, beneath coats of later, mid nineteenth-century faux mahogany graining, that its original livery had been a brilliantly intense Prussian blue, laid over a grey undercoat and a red oxide primer. Prussian blue, known chemically as potassium ferric ferrocyanide, was discovered by a Berlin chemist in the first decade of the eighteenth century and was available in England as an artists’ pigment by 1710. It was less than one-tenth of the price of the traditional ultramarine and was soon available in sufficient quantities for use in house painting, certainly by the mid-1730s. Thus in 1749, Prussian blue was a relatively new and fashionable colour and its use on Lord Cobham’s great ‘Grecian Temple’ — itself novel and perhaps the first English structure of Greek intention —underlines its splendour and modishness. A further surprise was the traces of gilding which we found on the carved mouldings on the door, executed in oil gilding on a yellow base coat laid directly over the blue. The presence of gilding was not unusual, but its disposition on the carved egg-and-dart ornament, the water-leaf mouldings at the corners and the beaded mouldings on the door edge, was. The subtle use of gold on only certain elements, and not on others, was a revelation and it underlines how much more work needs to be done on the disposition of gilding in eighteenth-century gilded schemes. So much ‘eighteenth-century’ gilding we encounter today is in fact nineteenth-century work.

Other ornamental garden buildings

10As I have observed, the pale honey-coloured limewash used throughout the Temple of Concord and Victory is ubiquitous at Stowe, and occurs on the House and many of the other ornamental garden buildings. The Temple of Ancient Virtue, the Temple of Venus and Lord Cobham’s Monument all bore evidence of it and this has been reinstated in our restorations of these structures. It was even painted on to the tufa which encrusts Dido’s Cave, a sort of grotto in the Western Garden, where it contrasts with the sharp green employed on garden ironwork in the mid-eighteenth century at Stowe (architectural ironwork, like the gates to the colonnades to the house or the main Oxford Gates were historically painted a pale stone colour).

11One structure, however, remained defiantly un-limewashed, the Gothic Temple of Liberty (fig. 3), built by James Gibbs in 1744. This is one of the earliest monuments of the Gothic Revival in England and it was dedicated by Lord Cobham to ancient British or ‘Saxon’ liberties — a political dig at the corrupt administration of Cobham’s great enemy, Sir Robert Walpole. The Temple was deliberately built of a dark treacle-coloured Northamptonshire sands ironstone, which together with its ‘uncouth’ Gothic style of architecture, was supposed to both contrast dramatically with its pallid classical neighbours, and evoke in the breasts of visitors a yearning for the ancient freedoms enjoyed by their forefathers in the ‘Dark Ages’.

Fig. 3: The Gothic Temple of Liberty, Stowe.

Fig. 3: The Gothic Temple of Liberty, Stowe.

Built by James Gibbs for the first Viscount Cobham in 1744, deliberately constructed in dark treacle-coloured Northamptonshire sands ironstone so as to appear rude, British and ancient.

© The National Trust (NTPL) / A. Butler

12The Rotundo, built by Sir John Vanbrugh for Lord Cobham in 1720-21, but altered for his nephew by Giambattista Borra in 1752, is another monument which is limewashed the Stowe ‘house colour’, even its lead dome so as to make it appear made of expensive cut masonry. It contained until 1770 a ‘burnished’ bronze statue of the Venus de Medici, the goddess of Love, mounted upon a circular plinth of ‘blue Warwickshire marble’, and we have reinstated this polychromatic ensemble in recent years.

13Many of the garden buildings at Stowe contained elaborate painted decorations, almost all lost now. The Temple of Venus, built by William Kent in 1731, once contained highly erotic murals by the Venetian, Francesco Sleter, depicting scenes from Spencer’s Faerie Queen — so erotic indeed that no visitor could ever quite bring himself to fully describe or delineate them. With so little information about them we have resisted the temptation to put them back. In fact, eighteenth-century visitors were often critical of the quality of the paintings. Of the Witch House, a bizarre, short-lived structure swept away by 1750, a visitor noted in 1738, ‘the Walls within are daub’d over with Scenes of an Old Witch and her Performances, drawn by a Domestick of Lord Cobham’s, but in such a manner, that . . . he plainly proves himself to have been no conjurer’.

The Chinese House

14The sole survivor of the flimsy, painted structures with which Lord Cobham populated his garden in the 1720s and 1730s is the Chinese House (fig. 4). The Chinese House was first recorded at Stowe in 1738. It is a wooden hut, painted inside and out with Chinoiserie-style decorations, which stood on stilts in the middle of a coffin-shaped pond on the eastern margins of the garden. Perhaps designed by William Kent, it may claim to be the first Chinese-style garden building erected in England. The Chinese House was approached by a fretwork bridge and is said to have contained an automaton, ‘a figure of a Chinese lady, as if asleep’, while on the pond floated ‘the Figures of two Chinese Birds about the Size of a Duck, which move in the Wind as if alive’. Lady de Grey, who visited Stowe in 1748, described the painted interior as ‘quite wainscotted with Japan’, and mistakenly thought that ‘a great many Old Screens have been cut to pieces (I fancy) to make it’.

15It remained at Stowe for a comparatively short time, for on the death of Lord Cobham in 1749, his successor, Earl Temple, almost immediately set about purifying the taste of the gardens and demolished some of his uncle’s more freakish follies. The Chinese House was among those ejected, but it survived, being re-erected the following year in the garden at Wotton, a neighbouring estate belonging to a cadet branch of the family. Here it remained, on dry land, on an island on one of the lakes, being carefully maintained and, from 1773, protected by canvas covers during the winter months. These, or their descendants, were still being used when it was photographed for Country Life in 1949. By this time the Chinese House had also been extensively restored, by the fashionable decorators Lenygon and Morant in 1937 (which itself shows the high regard with which it was held).

Fig. 4: The Chinese House, Stowe.

Fig. 4: The Chinese House, Stowe.

Erected possibly after designs by William Kent in 1738, removed to Wotton in 1749, restored and repatriated to Stowe in 1996-97. A rare survival, a painted Chinoiserie garden building of the eighteenth century, but the present external scheme is that of Lenygon and Morant, 1937, much repaired in 1996-97.

© The National Trust (NTPL) / A. Butler

16It remained at Wotton until 1957, when the property was sold and its former owners moved the Chinese House to their estate in the Republic of Ireland. Here it stood, neglected amidst long grass in an exposed corner of the garden, prey to weathering, rot and vandalism. The use of the protective canvas covers came to an end, and the resulting damage was periodically made good by crude repainting. Its neglected state can be seen in photographs published by The World of Interiors in 1992. It was from this predicament that the National Trust purchased the Chinese House in 1993, so as to repatriate it to Stowe. However, it was only in 1996 that funds became available to embark upon its repair and re-erection. Analysis of the structure soon confirmed that the only original elements of the Chinese House were the four walls: the roof and floor of the building were recent replacements probably dating from the time of its re-erection in Ireland in 1957. However, the walls, including the gables, were largely original eighteenth-century joinery and that, beneath the crude overpaint, there was substantial surviving early painted decoration. As might be expected, the interior of the house was in better condition than the exterior, indeed, the external paintwork on two of the outer walls — those which had been most exposed to the elements in Ireland — had almost entirely perished.

17A detailed analysis of the painted surfaces of the Chinese House was carried out by Catherine Hassall of University College in London in 1997. She identified five successive paint schemes. The earliest, of c. 1738, was only partially recognisable, but consisted of narrow lines of black, yellow and brick red on a dull green ground. We do not know how the panels were decorated in this scheme. A second scheme, perhaps introduced in c. 1758 to mark its re-erection at Wotton, comprised a darker, vivid green, ground, varnished like lacquer and sprinkled in places with metallic powder. The panels probably remained untouched, but were outlined with black, red and gold. Mrs Hassall found evidence that the roof of the Chinese House was probably renewed at this time. A third scheme, perhaps of c. 1820 when the family papers record repairs being carried out on the structure, involved the repainting of the house a paler shade of green. This may have been to make the, by now faded, decorative panels appear more prominent. The rails of the house were painted vermilion and the interior was completely redecorated — the delicate Chinoiserie scenes that survive inside the House today must date from then. The fourth scheme was the thorough restoration of the Chinese House by Lenygon and Morant in 1937, and involved the repainting of most of the exterior, but not the interior — the third, c. 1820, scheme being the model. The work was carried out by Percy Willats and traditional lead paint was employed. This is the scheme recorded in the excellent Country Life photographs of 1949 and largely survived beneath the crude touching-up in modern paint by an Irish workman, the ‘fifth scheme’, carried out at Harristown House at some time between 1957 and 1992. Mrs Hassall concluded that the exterior paintwork of the Chinese House was largely the 1937 Lenygon and Morant scheme, overlaid with clumsy overpainting of c. 1957. The interior was of c. 1820, with the red rails repainted in 1937.

Fig. 5: The Chinese House, Stowe.

Fig. 5: The Chinese House, Stowe.

The interior preserves a Chinoiserie painted scheme of c. 1820

© The National Trust (NTPL) / J. Mortimer

18We decided to conserve and consolidate as far as possible the fourth scheme of 1937, which was the best preserved and was itself a high-quality echo of the c. 1820 decoration. The crude retouchings done in Ireland to the exterior were recorded and removed. The well-preserved interior of c. 1820 was cleaned and retouched but largely left as it was, a small and inconspicuous, but well-preserved section of the earliest scheme being exposed to show something of its original appearance. The remains of paintwork on the two badly weathered external walls were consolidated and the lost areas were filled in — huge blown-up details of the Country Life photographs permitted us to reconstruct the missing Chinoiserie scenes with some conviction. This allows the new and the old work to be easily recognisable, but lets the building be ‘read’ as a painted whole. The work of restoring the joinery of the Chinese House was carried out by Hugh Routh and John Hartley, furniture restorers who carry out much work for the National Trust, while the cleaning and repainting was entrusted to Alan Bush and Alan Berry, professional conservators, advised by Tina Sitwell, the Trust’s Adviser on Painted Surfaces. The roof and floor was reconstructed by our architects, Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee, according to the evidence of the 1949 Country Life photographs — greatly enlarged details again being employed to clarify indistinct areas.

19The Chinese House was returned to Stowe in the summer of 1998, a new site having been prepared for it in the former Pheasantry behind the Palladian Bridge. This is not its original location, which had been completely transformed by Lord Temple’s pastoral improvements in the 1750s and 1760s and would be injured by the introduction of this gaily-painted garden building. However, it does have the advantage of being physically separate from the rest of the garden and is defended by a high wire fence — we have vandalism problems at Stowe and the Chinese House is, after all, a vulnerable wooden structure. The present setting of the Chinese House does not, alas, feature water — we were advised that to place it on or near a pond would imperil the wooden structure and its delicate paintings — but it does vaguely resemble the context it had at Wotton. Faced with such daunting strictures, we permitted ourselves but a single act of self-indulgence, replacing upon its roof ridge a pair of huge gilded carp — carved by the sculptor Ben Bacon and based on those shown in the crude woodcut of the Chinese House from the 1744 guidebook to Stowe. They are closely modelled on carvings of fish on William Kent’s 1731-32 state barge for Frederick, Prince of Wales which survives in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Gloriously gasping for breath and proclaiming the undoubted original purpose of the Chinese House as a fishing temple, these gleaming finials provide a touch of rococo whimsy to this rare survival, an eighteenth-century painted garden building, and celebrate the return of this exotic exile to Stowe.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: The Temple of Concord and Victory, Stowe.
Légende Probably built by James Gibbs for the first Viscount Cobham in 1748, but much altered since. External view showing the building after its restoration in 1995-96. The historic honey-coloured limewash disguised the fact that the temple was built of at least five varieties of stone and had been through many alterations.
Crédits © The National Trust (NTPL) / T. Knox
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/2103/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 152k
Titre Fig. 2: The Temple of Concord and Victory, Stowe.
Légende Detail of pronaos showing the Prussian blue paint and gilding on the door, restored after paint analysis in 1996.
Crédits © The National Trust (NTPL) / T. Knox
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/2103/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Fig. 3: The Gothic Temple of Liberty, Stowe.
Légende Built by James Gibbs for the first Viscount Cobham in 1744, deliberately constructed in dark treacle-coloured Northamptonshire sands ironstone so as to appear rude, British and ancient.
Crédits © The National Trust (NTPL) / A. Butler
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/2103/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 168k
Titre Fig. 4: The Chinese House, Stowe.
Légende Erected possibly after designs by William Kent in 1738, removed to Wotton in 1749, restored and repatriated to Stowe in 1996-97. A rare survival, a painted Chinoiserie garden building of the eighteenth century, but the present external scheme is that of Lenygon and Morant, 1937, much repaired in 1996-97.
Crédits © The National Trust (NTPL) / A. Butler
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/2103/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Titre Fig. 5: The Chinese House, Stowe.
Légende The interior preserves a Chinoiserie painted scheme of c. 1820
Crédits © The National Trust (NTPL) / J. Mortimer
URL http://crcv.revues.org/docannexe/image/2103/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 105k
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Référence électronique

Tim Knox, « Architectural colour at Stowe; recent discoveries by the National Trust », Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles [En ligne],  | 2002, mis en ligne le 09 juin 2008, consulté le 23 juin 2017. URL : http://crcv.revues.org/2103 ; DOI : 10.4000/crcv.2103

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Auteur

Tim Knox

Tim Knox (Courtauld Institute, University of London) is the Director of Sir John Soane's Museum (http://www.soanefoundation.com/) at Lincoln's Inn Fields in London, an appointment he received in 2005. Born in Africa, and brought up in Nigeria and Fiji, he studied history of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art of the University of London. He later became Assistant Curator at the Royal Institute of British Architects Drawings Collection, and in 1995 joined the National Trust as its Architectural Historian. He was appointed Head Curator of the National Trust in 2002, taking over the direction of the research, care and presentation of the 450 historic properties in its care. He was one of the major champions for the Trust's acquisition of Tyntesfield, the Gothic Revival country house near Bristol, and was involved in such diverse NT projects as the restoration of Stowe Landscape Gardens, and the acquisition of The Workhouse in Nottinghamshire. He is a Trustee of Stowe House, of the Pilgrim Trust, and of Prehen, his ancestral home in Co. Londonderry, as well as a member of the Advisory Committee for the Palace of Versailles. He regularly writes and lectures on art, architecture and the history of collecting. Email: tknox@soane.org.uk

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Droits d’auteur

© Tim Knox / CRCV / 2007

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