An emblematic interior

Sir Rowland and Lady Winn in the Library at Nostell Priory, attributed to Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1736-1808). Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the National Trust for display at Nostell Priory, 1986 (inv. no. 960061). ©NTPL/John Hammond

The image of the Chippendale set of steps in the Library at Nostell Priory reminded me of the portrait of Sir Rowland and Lady Winn standing in that same room, painted by Hugh Douglas Hamilton.

The Library at Nostell. Hamilton's painting can be seen on the easel in the corner. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Here we see a couple in the room that they had just finished decorating, to designs by Robert Adam and with stucco by Joseph Rose, inset paintings by Antonio Zucchi and furniture by Thomas Chippendale.

Detail of the Chippendale desk in the Library (inv. no. 959723). Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the National Trust for display at Nostell Priory, 1986. ©NTPL/Jonathan Gibson

Sir Rowland seems to be leaning against the Chippendale desk, which is still very much the centrepiece of the room today.

Detail of a carved lion mask on the desk. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The artist has practised a sleight of hand in ‘folding open’ one of the walls of the room, to create a wider backdrop for the figures and allowing them to be more prominent and closer to the picture plane (as explained by our curator of pictures Alastair Laing in his article on the painting in the April 2000 issue of Apollo magazine).

Quite apart from providing a glimpse of the life of the specific inhabitants of a specific house, this picture has fairly recently also come to stand for English cultural life in the eighteenth century more generally, when it was reproduced on the cover of John Brewer’s widely-read book The Pleasures of the Imagination. The companionable atmosphere of the painting and its suggestion of culture and learning borne lightly seems to make it an emblem of the ideal of a certain way of life.

13 Responses to “An emblematic interior”

  1. Mary Tindukasiri Says:

    As always, I loved this post. The Chippendale desk leaves me speechless. Thank you. Mary

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mary, thank you. The desk was the most expensive item Chippendale supplied for Nostell, at £72 10s – by comparison, the set of six lyre-back chairs cost £36 and the metamorphic library steps £14.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Folding open one of the walls – you mean, painting the room about double its actual size!

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, or even four times as large, if one assumes the other walls to be double the length as well. But it doesn’t ‘feel’ particularly wrong, whereas some other paintings of people in interiors of the period, with ‘correct’ achitectural proportions, make the figures seem weirdly small.

  5. Margaret McAvoy Says:

    Dear Emile:
    Lovely post! Just a few disjointed questions that I haven’t the wherewithal to organize into a cohesive sentence, so I’ll just number :): 1. Lady Winn (did they change the spelling of their surname?) has ermine trim…was it ever reserved only for royalty (proper)? 2. In the close-up of the desk, who is the lady in the framed photograph? 3. What type of furniture wax does the Trust use? 4. And, no, you may not use “rough luxe”, either. But please don’t apologize: I started it! :)

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Margaret, the founder of the Winn family fortunes was called George Wynne, who was an official ‘Draper’ (i.e. supplier of textiles and clothes) to Queen Elizabeth I. But from the seventeenth century onwards the family spelled its name as Winn.

    Ermine was a fashion trend of the second half of the eighteenth century, linked to the craze for things Turkish partly initiated by Madame de Pompadour. Gaye at Little Augury did a post about that subject a while ago (, as did Barbara at It’s About Time (, and I did one about a charming Kauffman portrait we bought for Oxburgh Hall in 2008 in which the sitter wears a house-coat with an ermine trim ( very much like the one Lady Winn is wearing in the Hamilton double portrait.

    I am less certain about the origins and development of the undoubted royal connotations of ermine, but I don’t think it was ever exclusively a royal thing.

    I will try to find out who that Edwardian lady is, and what furniture polish they use at Nostell.

    And I will make every effort not to mention either the SC word or the RL word :)

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Margaret, the house manager at Nostell, Chris Blackburn, has now told me that they use Harrell’s Soft Khaki furniture wax. She goes on to say: “But the key thing is to not actually use any unless you really need to, usually buffing brings any previous wax up nicely. If it is used then we apply the tiniest amount, as over-waxing will just make things tacky and attract dust.” So there you have it: sustainable polishing :)

    Chris also told me that the lady in the photograph is Lady Mabel Susan Winn, the wife of the second Baronet. The reason I couldn’t find her on the database was that the photo has since been moved to the Small Drawing Room. She died in 1919.

  8. Margaret McAvoy Says:

    Dear Emile & Chris:
    You are both gems for that info…many thanks for chasing it up. The properties and their stories are endlessly fascinating…keep up all of the marvelous (and hard!) work. Although I’ve never seen Downton Abbey (and I may be the last person who hasn’t, but the purist in me prefers Upstairs Downstairs), surely the Trust blogs, and all that they document, are far better! Wonderful weekend to you all! :)

  9. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    I was at NP a couple of weeks ago, poking around with torches as officially it was ‘out of season’. I believe they’ve now opened again. I wonder why the paint on the wood bookcases (as show in the pic) was stripped back. I have an upcoming post about the sin of stripped pine in Georgian houses. Do you know when this was done or is the picture misrepresenting the colour on the wood? Why get rid of the blue walls also? They are soooo much nicer than the ‘Regency cream’ currently on show.

    For the best example of a ‘chippendale desk in use’ I’d recommend that anyone go to Stratfield Saye. The current Duke of Wellington certainly keeps his in the use it was intended for.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Those are interesting questions. The room was initially decorated more or less as shown in the painting, with the ceiling, walls and bookcases all painted in light green, pink and white. Interestingly, there was originally no carpet or matting in the room, as Adam advised against ‘matts or carpets which contract dust and is not at all good in a book room’ – perhaps a slightly odd pronouncement from our perspective, as there would obviously still be dust to be regularly swept up from the bare boards, but presumably there were plenty of servants on hand to do that :)

    The bookcases were not so much stripped as repainted with a graining effect to resemble bird’s-ye maple, which was probably done by Thomas Ward in the 1820s. It is now considered that this decoration is interesting and valuable in its own right as an example of high-quality Regency decoration and as such worth preserving as part of the history of the room.

    The current paint colours on the walls and the ceiling were applied in 2000 as a recreation of a late nineteenth-century decorative scheme, based on paint analysis and documentary research. It was decided to recreate that particular scheme because it harmonises with the graining of the bookcases and is also close to Adam’s original scheme. It is one of those fascinating examples where conservators and curators have to find some kind of balance between historical evidence and visual harmony.

  11. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    thanks for this. very very interesting. I prefer the original colours though…(but then I don’t really like Victorian interior decoration so that could explain it).

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    And this is blue-sky-thinking, but wouldn’t it be exciting to have virtual tours of our historic houses available with some kind of application to let the viewer ‘travel through time’ and see what a room looked like in different periods? Some rooms would see hardly any change at all, of course, while others would cycle through a number of appearances as you moved the ‘time dial’ from 1600 to 1950. It would be the ultimate fun-and-instructive heritage game :)

  13. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    ooh yes, that would be great. I’d like it also if Harewood House (I know not NT) did this too because I really dislike what Charles Barry did to the Adam interiors.

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