A bureaucrat’s inner Versace

Bureau-cabinet in the Closet at Dyrham. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire presents an interesting curatorial problem: the house is a miniature Baroque palace with a wonderfully rich collection, but its original builder and collector, diplomat and minister William Blathwayt, appears, at least on the surface, to have been rather dull (see his portrait in this previous post).

An illusionistic interior painting by Samuel van Hoogstraeten seen at the end of an enfilade at Dyrham. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

William Blathwayt was nicknamed ‘the elephant’ by his friends, because of the ponderousness of his jokes. He was methodical and very efficient, which allowed him to flourish in government service, first at the British embassy in The Hague, then as clerk to the Privy Council, and finally as Secretary at War, Secretary of State and member of the Board of Trade. But his personality doesn’t seem to have been the stuff that gripping biographies (let alone historical romances) are made of.

The Balcony Room, with its gilded panelling, garden-themed paintings, slave torcheres, Javanese lacquer table and Delft ceramics. ©NTPL/Angelo Hornak

Blathwayt’s collections at Dyrham show the full range of grand Baroque taste, including panoramic tapestries, Dutch paintings, embossed leather wallhangings bursting with fruit and cherubs, a rare Javanese lacquer table and a  collection of exuberant Delft earthenware.

Dutch walnut and tortoiseshell chest on stand with Chinese ceramics displayed on top, in the Tapestry Room. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

How did such an apparently grey bureaucrat end up with such a flamboyant house? Was there a hidden side to him? This is what curator Rupert Goulding and visitor experience consultant Jess Monaghan are trying to work out, as they re-assess the way Dyrham is shown to the public. I hope to be able to reveal more about this project (and perhaps even about Blathwayt’s inner Versace) in due course.

11 Responses to “A bureaucrat’s inner Versace”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    In America as well, many of the most interesting houses were built by stolid businessmen, about whom little is known. The houses are still tributes to their times and to their designers.

    I hope that the curators can find material to liven him up. After all, Thomas Love Peacock had a dull financial career, but a fascinating private and literary life. By the way, can you tell us one of Blathwayt’s elephantine jokes?

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, yes the financiers you mention provide interesting parallels.

    I haven’t come across any of Blathwayt’s original jokes, but the following one seems suitably Blathwaytesque:

    Q: Why do elephants wear shoes with yellow soles?
    A: So you can’t see them when they float upside down in a bowl of custard…

  3. KDM Says:

    I applaud the curators’ efforts and your willingness to share this exploration. This post brought to mind two points I have been thinking about recently. One is the fact that a thing of beauty is no longer a joy forever . . .can’t a house museum just be enjoyed for its beauty? Are we (unintentionally) insulting a visitors intelligence by assuming visitors need anecdotes to enjoy a historic site? Or is this true? Are we providing an opportunity for that (rare?) visitor who can enjoy a garden or an interior or a building for academic or aesthetic purposes? I look forward to following the good works of the Dyrham Park curators.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Keith, I agree with you that sometimes we just need to pause and appreciate a place for what it is, without too much intellectual interference. But equally sometimes an interesting fact about a historical person or event can suddenly bring a place to life for us.

    It is like that conundrum about whether we should be able to appreciate a work of literature on its own, as pure text, or whether knowing about the author and his or her ideas and biography can add to our appreciation.

    “Dyrham as text” – wouldn’t that be a wonderful title for a post-structuralist dissertation on this topic 🙂

  5. deana Says:

    Extraordinary blog…. what a treasure it is! I am pleased as could be to have found it and look forward to many visits!!

  6. Herts Man Says:

    Have they put up the William Nicholson paintings (on glass for Eddie Knoblock) at Dyrham?

    If so I’d love to see some pics please


    Herts Man

  7. graham daw Says:

    Yes I have come to wish that at the entrance to NT properties I could have a ‘please do not talk to me’ badge,so persistently chatty have room stewards become.Historic places are present day places and I’d rather they weren’t always to be viewed through the prism of play acting the past.I own a landform of industrial origin and the local council chivvied me into placing their interpretation board on the site;I’ve since removed it as I look on it as a contemporary incident in the landscape and only at some remove am I concerned about its origins.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Deana, thanks very much. I like your culinary history blog, too – including some great pictures of the kitchens and pantries at Calke recently!

    Herts Man, I will ask Rupert Goulding and report back.

    Graham, yes sometimes one just wants to take in the atmosphere of a room (or indeed of a landscape) in rather than be presented with information about it. As I understand it, our room guide volunteers are asked only to approach those visitors who seem to want interaction – and to leave aesthetes like us to commune on our own with the spirit of the place. But often the volunteers are so enthusiastic about a place that the urge to tell people more about it is very strong 🙂

    And it has probably always been like this: in past ages, if you were a guest, you would have been constantly interacting with your hosts and fellow guests; and if you were a ‘polite tourist’ (cf Adrian Tinniswood’s book) you would have been taken round by the housekeeper and would have had to listen to her interpretation. The experience of a country house as ‘pure text’ (see above) has probably only ever been a small part of the whole.

  9. Gésbi Says:

    Titillating, Emile! Don’t you think the reflection of the spectator in the artwork is at work here? Surely you have an inner Versace.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gésbi, absolutely, the visual exuberance at Dyrham is so strong and suggestive, and that is why it is so puzzling that the written evidence about William Blathwayt is so muted and humdrum.

    Perhaps (and this is pure speculation) being a powerful functionary and minister, i.e. having succeeded by excercising control, made him circumspect about expressing his emotions and tastes too openly.

    I certainly have an inner Versace, but he only comes out when I can discuss other people’s hidden Versaces… In daily life I am just as grey as William Blathwayt (but not, alas, as poweful) 🙂

  11. Gésbi Says:

    You may not be as powerful, but your jokes are better !

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