Regency excess at Attingham

Costumed interpreters in the Entrance Hall at Attingham. The scagliola columns and pilasters date from 1785, but the marbled paintwork is from the 2nd Lord Berwick's time. ©NTPL/John Millar

Following on from the posts about the regency interiors at Stourhead, Ickworth and Castle Coole, I could not omit the spectacular interiors at Attingham Park, a site of classic Regency extravagance.

The bold Regency colour scheme in the Octagon Room, as decorated for the 2nd Lord Berwick. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Thomas Noel Hill, 2nd Baron Berwick, inherited Attingham at the age of nineteen in 1789. He soon went on a grand tour of Italy, where he acquired a taste for acquiring works of art. On his return to England he went into politics, but ‘entertaining’ the local Shrewsbury electorate turned out to be so ruinously expensive that his brother bribed him not to stand a second time.

The Picture Gallery. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The 2nd Lord Berwick also employed John Nash to create a magnificent Picture Gallery in the centre of the house. An example of the contemporary vogue for top-lit galleries, Nash designed a unique glazed coving for it set in a cast-iron frame. It does a good job in lighting the pictures, but like so many ground-breaking architectural features it almost immediately began to leak, and has proved problematic ever since.

Decorated cardboard visiting card rack, probably once owned by the racy Sophia, Lady Berwick. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

The pattern of extravagance was continued with the 2nd Lord Berwick’s marriage, at age 42, to the seventeen-year-old courtesan Sophia Dubochet. Although Lord Berwick lavished gifts and money on his wife, the marriage was not a happy one. The daintily feminine card racks surviving at Attingham may have been one of Sophia’s impulse buys when on a shopping spree in London.

The dining room table decked out as if for a Regency-period dinner, using the French ormolu table setting brought to Attingham by the 3rd Lord Berwick. ©NTPL/David Levenson

Inevitably, Lord Berwick eventually ran out of money, and two great sales of the contents of Attingham were held in 1827 and 1829. His brother William inherited the title, house and estate in 1832 and refurnished it with the collection of furniture, pictures, ceramics and silver that he had built up during his tenure as a diplomat in Italy. Attingham is still a vivid example of Regency style.

Glimpses of Attingham can also be seen in the second episode of Dr Lucy Worsley’s BBC series on the Regency.

9 Responses to “Regency excess at Attingham”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    Your title is very apt. Somehow these interiors don’t seem as restful as some other Regency ones. In the entrance hall, the floor and the columns together are a bit much.

    I love the picture gallery and its proportions and skylight–but are those the original colors? The purple-green-red color scheme looks like something out of those overly-vivid Italian movies of the 1960’s.
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. style court Says:

    Before I read Parnassus’s comment, I was ready to ask about the electric, Hicks-like combination of lilac, red, and emerald. It does seem to epitomize the more theatrical, “exotic” side of Regency and reminds me of Mira Nair’s Indian-infused take on the period in her film Vanity Fair. At least that’s how it strikes me :)

  3. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    Your image of the Picture Gallery at Attingham reminds me of a famous painting of the Ufizzi by Johann Zoffany. In that painting, the gallery walls are also a bright red. In your experience, was there an 18th century preference for red galleries, or is that coincidental?

  4. Georgie Lee Says:

    I love the picture gallery even if it doesn’t scream “Sit down and kick your shoes off.”

  5. Lynne Flake Says:

    I have seen a number of art galleries and regency homes, as well. The people who lived without modern light bulbs brightened their homes with mirrors and with almost neon colors on the walls. Candles were not enough. The Louvre has red walls behind many of their paintings. I like the art gallery at Attingham, but would do something about that leaky ceiling.

  6. Andrew Says:

    A pattern could be distracting, so a flat wall treatment is understandable, but why red walls, and not say orange or yellow or white (or indeed green or blue)? To contrast with the greenery of landscapes? To add a rosiness to flesh tones, or a more general feeling of “warmth”? Copying examples from Pompeii? Was red an expensive “display” colour?

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, thank you. Yes Attingham was definitely at the glitzy end of spectrum of Regency interior design – significantly, John Nash also worked on the Prince Regent’s pleasure dome, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.

    The carpet was recently rewoven to match some fragments found in store at Attingham. The walls have always been this glazed Chinese vermillion.

    And in answer to Mark’s and Andrew’s questions, red indeed became the favoured colour for picture gallery walls during the eighteenth century, as it was thought to set off old master paintings to best advantage. I will ask my learned colleagues why red was thought to be particularly suitable. Towards the end of the eighteenth century that tendency was reinforced by the discovery decorative wall schemes using red at Herculaneum and Pompeii.

    Courtney, I must check out Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair – thank you. And yes David Hicks does seem to have been channelling the Regency, doesn’t he, in his use of colour and geometric pattern, with a dose of modernism added as well.

    Georgie, yes the Picture Gallery was a relatively formal space, but even so the fact that changing natural light was being let in to such an unprecedented degree would have made the room feel fresh and natural and stimulating to people at the time.

    one of the points Lucy Worsley makes in her recent BBC series about the Regency is that, at least compared to what came before, Regency interior design was relatively informal. She likens it to the 1960s as a period in which increased social informality was mirrored by radical changes in design.

    The informality of these rooms is obviously difficult to appreciate from our perspective – although it may help to try to picture them filled with ladies in floaty ‘Empire’ dresses and Byronic men with consciously unruly hairdos :)

    Lynne, yes historical lighting is a fascinating subject, and in spite of the various techniques used to amplify the scarce candle- and firelight (including gilded and glossy surfaces) it would still have been much darker in the evenings compared to what we are used to.

    The colleagues at Attingham have recreated the ambiance of a Regency dinner in the Dining Room, complete with ormolu tableware and very realistic artifical candles (which can be seen in this post: http://bit.ly/cNxeki). The effect is dramatic and festive, and after a few minutes one’s eyes are completely accustomed to the lower light levels.

  8. columnist Says:

    I imiagine one of the problems today with such picture galleries is the damage that is caused to them by sun. Although it’s not direct sunlight, it can be ruinous. The portrait of George III above the lhs chimneypiece is similar to Allan Ramsay’s of the king, which hangs in the NPG. (Ramsay’s has him standing, whereas this appears to show him sitting.)

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes National Trust conservators dread windows and sunlight :) One way to let the light in without too much damage is to have UV filters on the glass, which I imagine would be the case here too.

    The portrait which you correctly identify as of George III is from the studio of Reynolds, and was brought to Attingham by the 3rd Lord Berwick. It may originally have served to add official grandeur to his various ambassadorial residences in Italy.

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