Appreciating Chippendale Furniture at Dumfries House, Ayrshire, Scotland

Dumfries House (photo credit Ann Burnett c2013)

Dumfries House (Ann Burnett)

If it hadn’t been for Prince Charles, we wouldn’t be walking through the grounds of Dumfries House. In 2007, the House and its extensive grounds were put up for sale by the owner, the 7th Marquess of Bute. The Prince heard of this and, realizing the importance of the house to British heritage, rallied various organizations and authorities in a last ditch attempt to save the house for the nation. The Prince himself borrowed £20 million (around $30 million) and, as the removal vans were heading south to an auction house in London with their load of priceless furniture and furnishings, he succeeded in purchasing Dumfries House himself and set up the Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust. Since then, it has been opened to the public as the careful work of restoring the House to its eighteenth century origins continues.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It houses almost 10% of surviving Chippendale furniture
  • It recreates aristocratic life in the 18th century
  • It’s a country estate with woodland walks and trails for dogs and children
  • Good for: families, those interested in past lives, everybody who likes historic homes

History of Dumfries House

Dumfries House was built by the 5th Earl of Dumfries in 1754. He commissioned a family of local architects, including the young Robert Adam who went on to design Culzean Castle, to build the house for the total sum of £7,979 11s 2d (about $10,000).

The 5th earl hoped it would attract a new wife to give him an heir, so, on the advice of Robert Adam, he went to London to ask Thomas Chippendale to design furniture and fittings for the new house. The earl kept the bills for each item he purchased, and succeeding owners have carried out meticulous inventories so that there is a very accurate and thorough archive of documents relating to the house’s contents.

Chippendale's Four-Poster Bed (photo credit Dumfries House c2013)

Chippendale’s Four-Poster Bed in the Family Bedroom (Dumfries House)

The earl remarried in 1762 but died childless in 1768, the house passing to a nephew. In 1814, the 2nd Marquess of Bute inherited it but he preferred his other estates in Wales and on the Island of Bute. However, despite being little used Dumfries House was carefully maintained until it was put up for sale by the 7th Marquess.

A Study in Restoration

I first visited Dumfries House shortly after it had opened to the public in 2008 and have been back many times since to wander through the grounds and to see the latest completed restorations and the new developments on the estate.

There is now a small village, Knockroon, of houses designed in the Scottish style and built with the prince’s usual high standards, attention to detail and green credentials. A hospitality training center has opened in the grounds where youngsters can learn and practice their skills in the restaurants and cafe there. A new building attracts our attention; it is to be the new visitor center while the old laundry has been reincarnated as the Prince’s Drawing School linked with the renowned Glasgow School of Art.

North Drawing Room (photo credit Dumfries House c 2013)

North Drawing Room – the family parlor (Dumfries House)

But it is the house which is the main attraction. The guide leads us through rooms filled with the original Chippendale furniture. A magnificent rosewood bookcase in the blue drawing room cost £47.5s (about $60) in 1759 and is now, I’m reliably informed, priceless.

One of my favorite rooms is the pink dining room where a magnificent pink Murano glass chandelier hangs above the dining table. Everywhere there is elaborate rococo ornamentation around the mirrors, on the picture frames and the supports of the pier tables.

In the family bedroom the four-poster bed has, as was common in the 18th century, three mattresses. The new hangings have been woven in a deep blue silk damask in the Dumfries House pattern. Chippendale’s book of furniture designs and his description of the bed in the bill sent to the 5th Earl were the sources for its restoration.

I like too, the cheerfulness of the family parlor, the Chippendale chairs and sofa covered in bright yellow silk damask, again in the Dumfries House pattern. All of this historic furniture and fittings was hidden away for many years and would have been sold off to individual buyers had it not been for Prince Charles’ intervention.

Locally, it has brought employment to a former coal-mining area, skills training for the young and opened up the estate to the public.

A woman walking her dog along the path by the River Lugar which flows through the estate, tells us that before his Royal Highness took it over, anyone found there would be chased off. “It’s much better now”, she says, striding off with her dog as if she owns the place.

And I suppose, in a way, she does.

Practicalities

  • A car is essential as there is a long driveway up to the house.
  • Wear walking shoes and bring a raincoat and sweater – even in summer.
  • Guided tours of the house are offered; advanced bookings are encouraged.
  • You can stay on the estate in the guest house or in self-catering cottages.