Thursday, August 19, 2010

How the Other .0001% Lives, Part I

Chatsworth House, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Who among us hasn't at some point gazed wistfully at pictures of the beautiful homes of the rich and famous, fascinated by the trappings of enormous wealth? Whether your pleasure is Architectural Digest, House & Garden, Elle Decor, vintage books on interior design, a coffee table book offering the Duchess of Devonshire's private views of her home at Chatsworth, or the In Style magazine you picked up in the airport, admit it: it's fun to gawk at these amazing buildings and interiors and to dream of what it would be like to live there. And so it has always been: illustrated books of stately homes and interiors have been popular and collectible for at least two centuries.

John Preston Neale's six-volume Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland (1818-23) depicts more than 400 beautiful stately homes and provides an esthetically pleasing guided tour of some of the finest estates in the English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish countrysides. In his illustrations of great houses, running the gamut of styles from gothic to Palladian, Neale usually takes the view from some distance, so as to frame the mansion with trees, clouds, and hills. The drawings are neat, accurate, placid, and sunny, especially when compared to the works of some of Neale's contemporaries like Turner and Constable. The accompanying text gives considerable historical and architectural information about each house, including much about the grounds, the history of the families in residence, structural renovations, and so on.

One of Neale's stately homes

Before he made a living with his drawings, John Preston Neale (1780-1847) was a postal clerk. In his spare time, he made entomological drawings that were good enough to be exhibited at the Royal Academy, beginning when he was 17. He was encouraged to take up topographical drawing and painting, and he went on to become, in Houfe's words, "one of the leading topographers of the gothic revival." Houfe says that "his pen drawings . . . were exceptional for their accuracy," and Adams concurs with these characterizations, calling Neale "a skillful delineator of gothic architecture" whose work represented "accuracy of representation combined with picturesque effect." The present work is generally thought of as the definitive record of stately homes constructed in Britain and Ireland during the 60 years after 1750.

A library to covet, from Pyne's Royal Residences

In The History of the Royal Residences of Windsor Castle, St. James's Palace, Carlton House, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, Buckingham House, and Frogmore (1819), William Pyne presents us with 100 fine hand-colored plates of British royal palaces (mostly interiors, but several sunny exterior views). This three-volume work is not only beautiful, but also hitorically important, as its brilliantly colored plates illustrate interiors that have since been lost to demolition or reconstruction.

The Blue Velvet Room, now lost to renovation

The public has always been fascinated with the trappings of royalty, and Pyne was catering to this appetite when he undertook his "Royal Residences." Unfortunately, the very considerable expense of producing it was difficult to recoup, and these costs initiated the downward spiral of Pyne's financial condition that landed him in debtors' prison. William Henry Pyne (1767-1843) was the son of a leather-seller who showed an early aptitude for art. He studied at the school of Henry Pars, where "he obtained . . . a great facility for drawing, practising almost entirely in watercolours in the early tinted style." (DNB)

He declined an apprenticeship with Pars, embarked on an independent career, and found substantial success with his "Microcosm, or a Picturesque Delineation of the Arts, Agriculture, and Manufactures of Great Britain." This was followed by the very popular and acclaimed "Costume of Great Britain" and other works of British landscapes. Although Pyne is remembered best as an artist, he was also a talented writer, and, as indicated by DNB, he did the text here, not the drawings, which were "supplied by Mackenzie, Nash, Pugin, Stephanoff, and others." The beautifully rendered and detailed illustrations are frequently heightened with gold, and they are given a convincing depth and an overall vividness that are consistently pleasing from plate to plate.

One of Nash's exterior views of Windsor Castle

Joseph Nash's Views of the Interior and Exterior of Windsor Castle (1848) is a massive piece of bookmaking (the work in its various parts is immense, and the total package weighs 38 pounds) with 25 plates that give us a glimpse not only into a monarch's palace, but also into the daily life of the royal family. This is not the usual series of richly appointed, yet cold and too-perfect, chambers; the rooms in Windsor Castle have a lived-in look, for they are notably inhabited by a young working mother--Queen Victoria--and her active family. The "Queen's Private Sitting Room" contains both a cluttered desk and a cradle, and in the "Library," books are strewn open on tables and the floor, while the young queen and her counsellors huddle around a volume they are consulting. The royal children figure prominently in the picture of "St. George's Chapel," featuring the christening of the heir to the throne, as well as in the "East Corridor," where the young Prince of Wales frolics with his dog, as his mother watches indulgently.

Christening of the Prince of Wales

Painter and lithographer Joseph Nash (1809-78) was noted for his faithful reproduction of architectural detail and for enlivening his pictures of buildings and rooms with scenes of celebration and domesticity. Both are very much in evidence here; the detail in the plates is impressive, with everything carefully delineated, from the gothic tracery on the roof of the chapel to the reproductions of Old Masters hanging on the walls. But the greater effect is produced by the sense of life emanating from each tableau--even in the rare uninhabited room, there are such signs, like a shawl tossed carelessly over the back of a chair. Although the emphasis is on scenes of domestic life, there are a few pictures telling of great events, including the installation of a new Knight to the Order of the Garter and the state visit of French king Louis-Philippe; in the same vein of greatness, a particularly striking lithograph of the "South Corridor" depicts Victoria standing alone in the vast gallery, surrounded by paintings of scenes from her realm and busts of kings and generals that remind us of the vast empire ruled by this petite woman.

Next week, a look at royal celebrations and fĂȘte books.


Except where otherwise noted, images courtesy of Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts.


  1. Very interesting - I learned a lot! These all are valuable in reconstructing the history of the era. Very elegant!

  2. I like the part of so many British Isle residences portrayed awash in "sunlight". Is it really that sunny there? =_)


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