In this my final instalment on Osterley, until the renovations of the Great Staircase have been completed, I go from the ridiculous to the sublime. But I begin with the Etruscan Dressing Room. Robert Adams’s inspiration for this room came from the illustrated work “'Antiquités etrusques, grecques et romaines,”' which documented Sir William Hamilton’s singular collection of Etruscan, Grecian and Roman vases. Sir William later sold these vases to the British Museum, an act which would have earned him the undying appreciation of my friend, the Aviatrix. One of the highlights of her time working in the British Museum was that it afforded her regular access to the display cabinets featuring Greek and Roman antiquities, of which Sir William’s private collection constituted the core. Sir William was a diplomat who had been sent as a special envoy to the Court Of Naples, where he was able to indulge in his great passion for archaeology. Unfortunately his posting allowed his wife, Emma, to indulge in her great passion. There were three people in Sir William’s marriage; himself, his wife Emma and her lover Horatio Nelson. Were it not for the fact that a mere two centuries separates us, the Brimstone Butterfly would have been a near neighbour of the Hamiltons when they set up their ménage-a-trois in Nelson’s mansion, known as Merton Place. The latter was one of the first houses in England to have water closets. Despite Nelson’s legendary status in British history, there was no significant public clamour to save Merton Place from demolition in 1823. It might have been because of the changes in public sensibilities. As a result people did not wish to be reminded of Nelson’s far from conventional domestic arrangements.
Robert Adams drew the designs for the Etruscan Room and had the artist Pietro Maria Borgnis copy them onto paper which was then placed on a canvas before being attached to the walls and ceiling. The guide said that the walls and ceilings had been carefully restored after years of candlelight and smoke from the fireplace had damaged them. However, on one of the doors, a small area was left untouched to demonstrate the difference the restoration work had made. Horace Walpole, the builder of the gothic castle at Strawberry Hill, was most disparaging about the Etruscan Room claiming that it “chills you : it is called the Etruscan, and is painted all over like Wedgwood's ware, with black and yellow small grotesques. Even the chairs are of painted wood. It would be a pretty waiting-room in a garden. I never saw such a profound tumble into the Bathos. It is [like] going out of a palace into a potter's field.”
In contrast to Horace Walpole, I liked the Etruscan Room. But then our tastes are very different as he was in raptures over the Tapestry Room. Writing to a friend in 1778 he declared “The first chamber, a drawing-room, not a large one, is the most superb and beautiful that can be conceived, and hung with Gobelin tapestry, and enriched by Adam in his best taste, except that he has stuck diminutive heads in bronze, no bigger than a half-crown, into the chimney-piece's hair”. I have no idea what Walpole was referring to when he mentions the “chimney piece’s hair” but then the room when I saw it had subdued lighting to protect the Gobelin tapestries, specially commissioned for Osterley. The tapestries had motifs relating to the owners of Osterley woven into the fabric. Thus Mrs Child’s exotic collection of animals, such as a porcupine, is featured in the tapestry in much the same was as the Courtaulds celebrated their pet ring tailed lemur in the decoration at Eltham Palace. The gilt chairs are also covered in tapestry from the Gobelin factory but this time using a design meant originally solely for Madame de Pompadour, the French king’s mistress. I find such tapestries with their twee figures, overuse of garlands and the colour pink leaves me as cold as Horace Walpole felt when encountering the Etruscan Room for the first time.
We might not agree on the respective merits of the Etruscan and Tapestry rooms, but both Horace Walpole and I are of one mind when it comes to the eight poster bed in the State Bedchamber. It is so ridiculously over the top, I could not help but smile at the sheer extravagance of it all. Horace describes the room and contents thus:
“The next is a light plain green velvet bedchamber. The bed is of green satin richly embroidered with colours, and with eight columns; too theatric, and too like a modern head-dress, for round the outside of the dome are festoons of artificial flowers. What would Vitruvius think of a dome decorated by a milliner?” Horace Walpole, as an educated 18th century gentleman would have been familiar with the Roman architect Vitruvius, whose treatise on architecture “De architectura” was such an important source material for the likes of Richard Boyle at Chiswick House, keen to model their own homes according to the architectural principles enshrined in the Classical world. There has been a suggestion that because Robert Adam was designing the bed at Osterley at the precise time he was also designing an elaborate box for the reigning King in a London theatre, perhaps he muddled up the two commissions. Or maybe he simply decided to adopt the same theme for both. Either way, the bed looks more suited to an Eastern potentate than an Etruscan nobleman. No wonder the Childs did not care to use the bed but preferred their own bedchambers on the floor above.
The South Corridor and Vestibule contain black and gold Chinese chairs and a folding screen. There is also a collection of porcelain including that staple of stately homes Sèvres china. I did wonder whether the benighted scullery maids art Osterley ever got to get their calloused hands on such delicate and inordinately expensive pieces.
After the questionable taste on display in the State Bedchamber, the Entrance Hall came as something of a relief. The oval motif of the red and white inlaid Portland sandstone floor is echoed in the grey and white plaster ceiling. Although the hall has marble statues in niches, large vases on pedestals and elaborate wall and ceiling panels influenced by themes from the Classical world, the overall effect is one of restrained elegance thanks to the muted grey and white colour scheme. It seems the hall was more than a mere passageway to get to other parts of the house. It could also be used as a ballroom, a dining room or withdrawing room.
I have left my favourite room in the house until last. Surprisingly for what was essentially a masculine room, the Library has, to my mind, a very feminine touch. It has the same ornate decorative plaster ceilings and stucco work wall panels as found elsewhere in the house. But what gives the Library its unique charm is that it has all been painted, including the bookcases, in a soft white. This was a purely pragmatic response to make the best use of the limited light by having reflective surfaces. As a result the stuccowork and ceiling reminded me of the decorative icing on a traditional wedding cake. The books owned by the Childs have long gone but they have been replaced so that the book shelves here, unlike those at Strawberry Hill, are not empty. I was told by one of the guides that a hidden door in the library led to a plumbed in 19th century toilet and sink, an innovation that must have been welcome by the household servants, previously obliged to dispose of the less than fragrant contents of chamberpots everyday. .
Having explored the house I made my way to the gardens at the back. The rear view of the stable block from the kitchen gardens reveals the great barn attached to it, which Sir Thomas Gresham used for storing produce from off his estate.
There is a delightful Garden House, designed by Robert Adams which both served and continues to serve as a glasshouse to protect delicate specimens during the winter months.
Unfortunately, the batteries in my digital camera gave up the ghost by the time I had reached the 1720s Temple of Pan so I decided to try taking images on my cheap and cheerful mobile phone instead, with mixed results. Nevertheless, the images do convey a sense of the little white stone Doric temple with is pale green walls and rococo plasterwork.
Having left the gardens I made my up the stairs by the Transparent Portico to look at the inner courtyard. I sat down on the wrought iron bench as I realised I had solved a personal mystery. For several years I had been intrigued by a photograph of the Cad of Kensington. I had never got around to asking him where it had been taken. Now as I looked up at the ceiling of the Portico I knew it had been taken at Osterley. The other great mystery was what I had done with the photograph which I fear will never be solved.
I was concerned that Osterley would prove a vast soulless place. Instead, I found a delightful mansion with some exquisite rooms. On a fine day it would make an excellent destination for a picnic after a stroll around the house and gardens.