An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 85

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 13, 2020 - Issue 85

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The joy of reading about the 18th century--I am still deep into Jenny Uglow's biography of William Hogarth--is that I have read so many books on the period, I recognize original research. Uglow, who I first learned about on reading, "The Lunar Society", is a writer whose research is always substantial. On top of that, she writes extremely well. So I am locked into 1730-60's London which is a particularly difficult time period for the city. Sanitation is next to nil and potable water is eschewed for something that has been brewed or distilled. Although, at this time, there is plenty of room to expand in geographically speaking, most of the property being expanded into belongs to peers of the realm (as much of it still does). Hence, the lower ranks of society remained in the more crowded areas of London often making for brutal living conditions. Hogarth, by the 1730's was doing well, however, although his sympathies clearly leaned towards the have-nots. And yet, he aspired as much as anyone to create a life with proper comforts, one of those comforts being a club. Clubs abounded in London at this time--you name it and it likely existed such as the Farters Club, the Flirters Club and one that Hogarth started the Beefsteak Club. The upper classes had their clubs as well, one of the more scandalous being the Hellfire Club and one of the more renowned was Society of Dilettanti which leads me to the house I want to discuss, West Wycombe Park, owned by Sir Francis Dashwood, member of both the (rejuvenated) Hellfire Club (known as the Friars of Medmenham) and the Society of Dilettanti.

Dashwood in his first fifty years was a rake by every measure. Horace Walpole thought the club, the Society of Dilettanti, ridiculous as the only requirement was to have visited Italy, a place, according to Walpole, Dashwood had never been sober in. This was unfair as Dashwood really did travel getting as far as Asia Minor. Dashwood decided to redo his country manse, West Wycombe Park, in a style that echoed an Italianate villa. As it happened, the house, according to Wikipedia, encapsulates a stunning succession of architectural styles from Palladianism to neo-classicism.  Having cited Wikipedia, however, I will also say that it is a really fun visit. The property is split by a road and one side has the majority of follies including a lake with grottoes, a moored ship (it might no longer be there) cascades, a water garden, a temple of music and more--not done to quite the degree that Stourhead is, but very enjoyable and a treat to walk around as the property is not that large. Unless you want to visit the church and mausoleum across the hill, but even then, it isn't that big. There is a lightness to the property that you don't feel at other National Trust or English Heritage homes.

The furniture at West Wycombe is not original although there are some stunning pieces in the house. When the house was given to the National Trust, the furniture was not part of the deal and the 10th Baronet sold most of it. The 11th Baronet spent time refurbishing the house. In particular, there are some very good mirrors, one that looks like it is by John Linnell and the other, larger mirror looking to be by someone like Matthias Locke. There is also a white painted eagle table of considerable size which I barely remember. I haven't visited West Wycombe for a while and the last time I was there, they were shooting a film. It is about an hour's drive from London and a great visit. I have only scratched the surface about what there is to see, but I highly recommend it. Dashwood is also interesting to read about as he eventually became a serious politician despite a somewhat louche stretch as proprietor of Medmenham Abbey where it is said the motto was Fait comme tu voudras--do as you will! One of the things you should do is visit West Wycombe. this shows general views of house interior a fun read another fun read some of my Grand Tour memorabilia