Clever waiters

Black basaltes ware bust of the actor David Garrick, on a dumb waiter in the Book Room at Wimpole Hall. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Courtney Barnes recently mentioned the tiered tables known as ‘dumb waiters’ on her blog Style Court. These tables were originally developed in the eighteenth century as convenient pieces of furniture to keep food and drink available in the evening after the servants had been dismissed. The traditional name presumably refers to the tables’ role as mute servants, rather than mentally challenged ones.

The Book Room at Wimpole. The plasterwork in the forground dates from the James Gibbs phase of the room, while the elliptical arches were designed by John Soane. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

I have found another example of such a tiered table in the Book Room at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire. I am not sure whether this particular one was originally used to hold food and was later moved to the library, or whether tiered tables were sometimes specifically made to hold books.

The chimneypiece and overmantel mirror in the Book Room designed by Soane. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The two main library rooms at Wimpole have a fascinating history. The original Library was created by James Gibbs in the late 1720s to house part of the the huge collection of books and pamphlets of the manic accumulator Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford.

View from the Book Room into the Library. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Gibbs also created part of what is now the Book Room by annexing half of the orangery and turning it into an anteroom to the Library. This room was extended in 1806 by Sir John Soane for Philip Yorke, 3rd Earl of Hardwicke. Soane designed the characteristic elliptical arches decorated with paterae, executed by the plasterer John Papworth.

The Library at Wimpole, originally created by Gibbs for the 2nd Earl of Oxford. The windows at the far end and on the left were added later. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The history of the books at Hardwicke is even more convoluted: almost all of the 2nd Earl of Oxford’s books left Wimpole after his death, but the 1st Earl of Hardwicke brought in his own collection, as well as one inherited from Lord Chancellor Somers. His sons Philip Yorke, the 2nd Earl, and Charles Yorke also added to the books at Wimpole, including a collection inherited by the latter’s wife from Tittenhanger in Hertfordshire.

View of the Library looking towards the Book Room. The set of library steps began its life as a pulpit. The pair of globes dates from the early nineteenth century. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Philip Yorke, the 3rd Earl, sold some books in 1792 (while simultaneously commissioning Soane to enlarge the Book Room) and Charles ‘Champagne Charlie’ Yorke, the 5th Earl, sold a large part of the library in 1888. In the 20th century Captain and Mrs Bambridge once again added collections of books. These included some rare editions of Rudyard Kipling’s works, Elsie Bambridge being his only surviving child.

13 Responses to “Clever waiters”

  1. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    What a treat! So many of my favorites – libraries, Gibbs, Soane, and basaltware – all in one post!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes this is right up your classical avenue 🙂

  3. Nicola Thwaite Says:

    Have a look at image 143536 in the National Trust Photo Library. It’s an illustration of a circular bookcase from Ackermann’s Repository for 1810′ and the author of the facing text thinks it was inspired by dumb waiters. It’s made by Morgan and Stanley, who also designed metamorphic library chairs/steps.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Nicola, what a wonderful example, and how interesting that that type of bookcase has links with both dumb waiters and library steps.

    Excellent too that you are preparing a blog on NT libraries – do let me know when you start posting.

    • Nicola Thwaite Says:

      I hope it won’t be too long before we start the blog up. The furniture manufacturers should be Morgan and Sanders, by the way, not Morgan and Stanley. Must have high finance on my mind.

  5. style court Says:

    Emile — I’m thrilled to see your example at Wimpole. Again, here, the small books are displayed almost like special pastries. It really puts de Grey’s hazy (in a nice way) rendering in context. And how great to stumble across Nicola’s example, too. Thank you!


  6. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    It’s always a thrill for me to discover examples of Sir John Soane’s work heretofore unknown to me. I think his style and taste was very modern.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes, bite-size intellectual pastries 🙂

    Mark, yes I too am intrigued by the way Soane played with volumes and voids. There always seems to be something uniquely ‘Soaneian’ about examples of his work.

  8. knolenationaltrust Says:

    My favourite National Trust library!

  9. Columnist Says:

    The Soane chimneypiece I recognise immediately, but the Regency overmantel is new to me, but utterly delightful.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Emily, that is quite something, coming from someone who works at beautiful Knole 🙂

    Columnist, yest it is wonderful isn’t it. The height of the chimneypiece appears (from my naked eye) to be about two-thirds of the height of the overmantel, so probably some pleasing ‘golden section’ proportions at work there.

  11. Jolie Beaumont (@JolieBeaumont) Says:

    Thanks for another fascinating post. The dumbwaiter began to be called a “Lazy Susan” In the United States in the early 1900s, for unknown reasons. An ad in the December 1917 issue of the magazine “Vanity Fair,” dubbed the recently renamed table “the cleverest waitress in the world” – an echo of your title for this blog post, but a reflection of the fact that by this time, in the US at least, dinner was more often served by a female servant, if there were servants to serve at all.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    How interesting – perhaps ‘Susan’ was a name that was prevalent among the class of women likely to be servants or waitresses at that time 🙂 The history of fashions in first names is fascinating.

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