Nicola here. Today I’m doing one of my virtual tours of an English stately home. On Monday, author Anna Campbell and I went on a day trip, as we tend to do when she is over visiting from Australia. This time our destination was Dyrham Park, a seventeenth century house near Bath which looks like a miniature version of Chatsworth House, home of the Duke of Devonshire. Dyrham was built at a very interesting time by a very interesting man: William Blathwayt, who started life as the son of a debt-ridden gentleman and ended a very rich man who made his fortune in the service of several monarchs.
Dyrham was built in the 1690s, when the Stuarts were on the throne but the dynasty had changed direction somewhat after James II was deposed and his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William had become joint King and Queen. William Blathwayt was very much a supporter of King William and he used the new house he was building at Dyrham Park to demonstrate his loyalty.
At a time when most houses were built out of local materials, Dyrham was an “international” house as William Blathwayt was able to use his extensive contacts in England and abroad to provide the raw materials. He ordered marble from Genoa, pine and spruce from Norway, and black walnut and red cedar from North America. In terms of furnishings, William had experienced first hand the fashionable style of the court. He imported a trunk of luxury items from the Netherlands including various printed silks and cottons with exotic designs, fine damask silks and crimson velvets. The interior of the house looks very rich and bright today; in candle light it must have seemed very lustrous and luxurious.
My favourite part of the house was the staircase, which was constructed out of black walnut and red cedar from Virginia and Carolina. Other American timber used in the construction was pine and cypress. It’s astonishing to look at the staircase today and imagine the journey made by those timbers all the way from the rivers of North America across the Atlantic to Bristol and London. The transport caused lots of problems because often the planks 18 – 24 feet in length, were too large for the ships or the captains charged huge fees to transport it! When some of the timber was brought up the Thames from London, the wood had cost £40 and the transport cost £10, an exorbitant sum. However Blathwayt was a rich man and wanted the best for his house – and the best was what he got!
The strong Dutch influence in the house is still visible today in the gilt leather panelling on the walls and the many pieces of Delft ceramics. A number of the paintings are also by Dutch artists including the amazing “A view through the house” by Samuel van Hoogstraten, which captures a moment when a door opens and the viewer sees the world within. I loved this picture and wanted to step into it – or write a story set inside it! Another gorgeous picture was of a cocoa tree and a roasting hit; it illustrates the process of turning cacao into chocolate!
William’s library was the jewel of his house, a sentiment that we could totally endorse! He had a huge collection of books on law, history, religion, geography, politics and philosophy. He also had a number of dictionaries – as a fluent Dutch speaker, which was very rare in England, he was very interested in languages.
The furniture on display in the house still contains a number of items from William Blathwayt’s original 17th century collection, most notably the state bed. This is a towering wooden four poster covered in crimson and gold silk, velvet and satin. Like so many beds from the period it looked very narrow and uncomfortable to me, more a single bed than a double, let alone a king or Queen size. The legend is that was ordered to encourage Queen Anne to come and visit when she was in Bath. Sadly she didn’t call!
King William and Queen Mary were keen gardeners and one of the ways for courtiers to curry favour was by copying their garden style, which Blathwayt did to great effect at Dyrham. Even on a dull day in winter the gardens looked gorgeous, with exotic trees, water cascades and elegant walkways. Blathwayt used both the trees and the statuary to declare his loyalty to the king; there is an orangery at Dyrham full of orange trees, a not particularly subtle tribute to the fact that William III was from the House of Orange! A statue of Hercules also draws comparisons with the king, suggesting that he is a courageous and virtuous hero. There’s nothing like a bit of flattery to ingratiate yourself with the monarch!
My favourite aspect of the garden, though, was the fact that William, a businessman to the last, had declared that the estate must be as self-sufficient as possible when it came to fruit and vegetables. He was quite ahead of his time with this ecological view and grew a range of apples and pear trees for cider and perry production, quince for jam and various other “organic” crops! He came unstuck with the mulberry bush, however, as he had planned to cultivate white mulberries to encourage silkworms but unfortunately he imported the black mulberry instead. It still bears fruit but the silkworms aren’t interested!
Visiting Dyrham Park was gorgeous but I did come away wondering about the concept of demonstrating your loyalty to a person or a cause through the way you decorate your home. Presumably if William Blathwayt had fallen out of favour with the King he would have had to re-decorate his house and re-design his garden!
If you were to design your house or garden as a tribute to a famous person, who would it be? Would you honour them with plants, statues, pictures or something unique and different?