Face to face with the Ancients

Plaster bust of a philosopher or poet, eighteenth century, after the antique, at West Wycombe Park. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Classical antiquity looms large at West Wycombe Park. This Buckinghamshire country house was enriched with works of art brought back from Italy, Greece and Asia Minor by Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, in the middle of the eighteenth century. 

Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Bt, by Nathaniel Dance. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Dashwood was one of those Englishmen who went on the Grand Tour and became captivated by the beauty of the ancient world. By all accounts he enjoyed partying and high jinks (in a characteristically catty comment, Horace Walpole wrote that Sir Francis was constantly drunk when in Italy), but he also brought back many works of art, which are still on display at West Wycombe. 

The South Colonnade at West Wycombe, based on Palladio's Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

The busts shown here, originally acquired by Dashwood and on display in the South Colonnade, are part of a group of objects accepted by the Government in lieu of inheritance tax in 2007 and allocated to the National Trust for display at West Wycombe. 

A plaster bust of Aratus (pseudo-Demosthenes), eighteenth century, after the antique, at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme allows for UK inheritance tax to be written off in exchange for objects of artistic and historical significance. These objects are then transferred to museums and similar institutions, allowing access and enjoyment by all.

A plaster bast of Laocoön, eighteenth century, after the antique, at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The National Trust has benefited enormously from this scheme over the years. Some of the historic houses we look after are still lived in by the families historically associated with them. In a number of houses part (or even most) of the collection on display is owned by these families, and there is always a possibility that it might be offered for sale at some point. In many cases the cost of acquisition would be prohibitive for the National Trust, but the AIL scheme enables these objects to remain in situ. 

Plaster bust of a man in armour, eighteenth century, after the antique, at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Busts of Roman generals like the one above inspired the English to have Roman-style busts made of themselves, such as the one shown below of the successful general Viscount Cobham of Stowe

Terracotta bust of Richard, Viscount Cobham by Scheemakers in the Dining Room at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Cobham found himself in opposition to the government of the day, and Sir Francis Dashwood was one of his allies (as well as being a fellow Buckinghamshire landowner). The presence of this bust at West Wycombe celebrates that allegiance, as well as contributing to the Roman theme of the house. Opposition Whigs like Cobham and Dashwood tried to re-establish what they saw as Roman civic virtues in contemporary English political life.

2 Responses to “Face to face with the Ancients”

  1. style court Says:

    Emile, it was a treat to learn more about the busts. I’ll confess, in my mind, West Wycombe has become partly associated with the movies filmed there. So the house is definitely part of pop culture and it’s all the more interesting to step back and focus on the history.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes the reception history of these places through films is fascinating – one could do filmographies for certain houses and compare how they have been used and portrayed in different films. The fictional history of a house: very postmodern!

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