5th April 2016
Words by Anne-Marie McGrath
Images by Lee Spinks / Alamy
Set in a 2,000-acre estate, which balances remarkable landscape features with active farming and forestry, Dumfries House is one of the most significant and beautiful historic great houses in the British Isles. Situated in East Ayrshire, 30 miles from Glasgow, the 18th-century Palladian villa is a seminal work of renowned architect Robert Adam and his brothers, John and James; it contains a world-class collection of British Rococo furniture, including some 50 examples from a fledgling cabinetmaker named Thomas Chippendale. Ordered straight from the craftsman’s workshop in 1759 by the fifth Earl of Dumfries, who commissioned the house and took up residence there the following year, the furnishings now form part of a magnificent ensemble that embodies, in the words of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, “British craftsmanship at its best”.
Yet Dumfries House was teetering on the verge of sale and dispersal in 2007. John Crichton-Stuart, the seventh Marquess of Bute (a celebrated Formula 1 driver whose family had inherited the Dumfries title in the early 19th century), felt the strain of balancing its ownership with that of Mount Stuart, the immense Victorian Gothic palace and grounds where he currently resides. Dumfries House, exquisite and well looked after though it was, had not been lived in by the family for some 150 years, except for a near-40-year residency by Lady Eileen Bute, the widow of the fifth Marquess. It was a true sleeping beauty and one of the few great houses that still had all its original furniture.
It was only after two unsuccessful attempts to achieve a transfer of the property to the National Trust for Scotland that the decision was taken to sell the house, the grounds and the collection on the open market. While Lord Bute had made it clear that appropriate pre-sale offers would be considered, the asking price of £45 million for the whole estate made the threat of dispersal very real and extremely likely. Experts at Christie’s auction house began documenting the contents of the mansion, a two volume catalogue was produced and sale dates were announced for 12 and 13 July, 2007.
Just weeks before the auction was due to take place, however, Dumfries’s plight came to the attention of the Prince of Wales, known as the Duke of Rothesay in Scotland, who is a tireless and fearless advocate of British heritage. Upon hearing more about Dumfries House’s dire situation, the Prince made a decisive intervention and led a consortium of organisations and individuals in a passionate campaign to rescue the house for the nation. The campaign came to a dramatic and happy conclusion when the scheduled auction of the priceless collection of furniture was called off and several truckloads of treasure that were already en route to London were returned home.
Thanks to the Prince’s vision and leadership — one of his foundations pledged a £20 million loan, allied with £25 million raised from other sources —Dumfries House was acquired by a specially created trust and saved, not just for the British people, but for anyone who cares about great architecture and decoration. Taking one of His Royal Highness’s other Scottish titles, The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust was founded as an independent charitable trust in November 2007. Its aim was not only to maintain, manage and develop the house and estate as a visitor attraction, but also to use it as a catalyst for heritage-led regeneration in an area of Scotland that has suffered enormously following the demise of the coal mining industry in the 1980s. The Prince felt that the local community could be instilled with a sense of belonging if Dumfries House could be used to raise aspirations and hope when everything else had disappeared.
However, the Prince’s job was not yet done. If saving the house was a major drama, then restoring it became the not-to-be-missed final act. Dumfries House opened to the public in June 2008, while its royal champion assembled a top-drawer group of advisers to study the building in preparation for an ambitious rebirth. Work that usually took three years to plan was executed at breakneck speed in just five months in the autumn and winter of 2010-2011.
Efforts began with the removal of furniture for restoration. However, the most valuable item, a rare Chippendale rosewood bookcase, was looked after in situ by the Edinburgh furniture restorer James Hardie. Bought for £47 5s in 1759 and estimated to be worth as much as £4 million at auction in 2007, it likely would have set a record price for a piece of English furniture had it been sold.
Prince Charles and his consultants made a point of employing scores of labourers from across Great Britain to work at Dumfries. New heating, wiring and plumbing were installed, proving to be the costliest elements of the endeavour, while experts were brought in to unearth intricate original painted decorations on the walls and ceilings and to repair the exceptional Rococo plasterwork.
Humphries Weaving, a firm based in Suffolk, created vivid silk damasks — sapphire-blue for a drawing room, yellow for an enchanting sitting room — and other fabrics, many of which were copied from documents surviving from the house’s earliest days. Chippendale’s greatest piece of work at Dumfries House is the Earl’s magnificent bed, its restored blue silk drapes and cornice set against deep mahogany posts that are fluted with intricately carved spiral garlands.Taken together, the improvements at Dumfries have made it truly resplendent. Yet it is far from finished and work continues all the time.
When Dumfries House first came to the Prince’s attention in 2007, his vision for this Palladian mansion and its contents was to restore them to their former glory. In doing so, he hoped that present and future generations could visit and enjoy the different facets of the life and times of a bygone era and to appreciate British craftsmanship at its best.
However, regeneration has by no means been confined to the house. The past few years have seen an exciting and fast-paced programme of conservation and restoration on the estate, which has transformed this “hidden treasure” into one of Scotland’s most dynamic and engaging heritage sites. Old stables have been converted into a café and conference centre, a run-down farm building near the estate’s west entrance has been transformed into Dumfries House Lodge, a beautiful guesthouse, and an old walled garden has been restored to its former splendour to draw in visitors as well as encourage horticulture in local schools. On the eastern edge of the estate nestles the Prince’s most ambitious project, Knockroon, an attractive and traditional eco-village, which will serve as a model community that will be sustainable for decades to come.
The educational programme, in collaboration with local schools and communities, continues to grow and has fostered positive, interactive exchanges. An old sawmill has been converted into an education centre to teach traditional craft and building skills to meet a need in the local area. The Belling Hospitality Training Centre, with its state-of-the-art training kitchen and stylish restaurant, has become a vibrant and hugely successful place for students pursuing a career in the hospitality industry.
One of the first people to take part in the hospitality courses, Stuart Banks is now the house butler, looking after guests and in charge of catering for the Prince when he visits. Stuart has also been able to apply his skills in other royal residences in England, including Buckingham Palace. One of the latest educational projects is The Morphy Richards Engineering Education Centre, which was officially opened by the Prince in April 2015. This unique facility, the largest of its kind in Europe, provides experiential learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for children aged 10-14 years.
Of course, none of the above-mentioned projects could ever have been undertaken without the support and generosity of a number of benefactors, individuals and organisations, who have all played a part in bringing to life the vision of the Prince. Dumfries House represents a growing tribute to his belief in heritage-led regeneration. It is a story of a man who believes in living dangerously, who thinks it is worth trying, rather than not trying at all. When something is put together with that kind of love and affection, it will last forever… just like all good fairy tales.