A house to hold your breath in

29th August 2008 at 01:00
Chippendale masterpieces are not the only artefacts that will enthuse visitors to Dumfries House. Douglas Blane reports

To Prince Charles, it is a house of "historic significance and extraordinary contents". Alex Salmond sees it as a world-class product of the Scottish Enlightenment. It was a financial burden to its owner Lord Bute, who was ready to break it up and sell it to the highest bidder.

But to generations of miners' sons who grew up nearby, Dumfries House in East Ayrshire meant something less grand. The secluded estate simply had the best chestnut trees for miles around.

Getting their wonderfully polished conkers was a chancy business, however, because the tall trees stood in the centre of a wide field, bordered by a wood patrolled by gamekeepers with big guns.

The gamekeepers are now gone, and so are the centuries of servants who tended their aristocratic masters in the Palladian mansion, whose foundations were laid in the summer of 1754 amid great pomp, at the behest of the fifth Earl of Dumfries. Tents were pitched on the site, reported The Scots Magazine at the time, and in the evening "the trees were illuminated with lamps, and the whole ceremony concluded with a Ball".

These are distant memories. But Dumfries House contains more. Treasures hidden for two-and-a-half centuries are being revealed to the public, thanks to a rescue package put together by the Prince of Wales, the First Minister and a handful of charities.

What the nation has received for its Pounds 45 million is a beautifully- preserved piece of neo-classicism by Robert Adam, the greatest Scottish architect of the late 18th century, together with a pristine collection of furnishings and furniture, much of it by Thomas Chippendale. Well, almost pristine. "The Dowager Marchioness left a few cigarette burns," says newly-appointed curator Charlotte Rostek. "She lived here until her death 15 years ago, and enjoyed watching horse-racing on television."

The educational value of Dumfries House is immense but as yet undeveloped. "We've just opened and are still finding our feet. We have ideas, though, about what to do with schools."

The tension, as always with priceless artefacts, is between preservation and communication. "But the technology is developing all the time," says Ms Rostek, who formerly managed Hill House in Helensburgh. "That makes it easier.

"One of our most precious assets is a beautiful 18th-century carpet. We've installed a double blind system that blocks out ultraviolet and lets us keep the carpet in the drawing room."

Such is Dumfries House's popularity that, just after it opened, 12 separate groups were conducted in a day. An appealing feature of the way Dumfries House is organised is that visitors are not cordoned off but can walk around the rooms during guided tours, almost like invited guests. This lends an intimate feel to the experience and conveys a better sense of past life.

Again, though, there is that curator's tension. Daylight and breathing will degrade old artefacts in time, but the touch of human fingers does it faster. Visitors can stroll around the rooms, survey the pastoral scenes through the tall windows and study their reflections in gilded mirrors. But they can't sit on the Chippendale chairs or test the comfort of the four-posters beds. They can look, but not touch.

This is where the prospect of school tours raises a few eyebrows. Visits will be aimed initially at primary pupils, says Ms Rostek. Nature trails around the 2,000 acres of the lush estate will be relatively easy to organise. Yet the true educational value of the Dumfries House time- capsule lies inside its thick, locally-quarried sandstone walls.

The new social studies outcomes illustrate that value. Activities inside and investigations motivated by visits could contribute meaningfully to at least a dozen of the history outcomes, as well as a handful from each of geography and citizenshipenterprise.

"I can see loads of possibilities," says primary teacher Hazel Blane, who is taking the tour. "When we visit country houses with our kids, they love going round the grounds with the rangers or working with the gardeners "Inside the house, you need specific activities, rather than simply walking around and looking at things, which is fine for adults." An education room in which pupils could handle less delicate artefacts is one possibility, says Ms Rostek. "We'll be looking to work with a local school to pilot ideas and get feedback."

A strong theme common to the presentation of Dumfries House and the new social studies outcomes is Scotland's culture, craft and history. "We like to bring that out in our guided tours," she says.

"James Rannie was Chippendale's Scottish business partner, for instance, and made his success possible by investing in him. Then there are lovely pieces all around the house by an eminent group of three Scottish furniture makers, Brodie, Peter and Mathie."

Scottish influences can even be found in the rococo ornamentation on ceilings, pelmets, mirrors and beds, where the conventional acanthus leaves have largely been supplanted by the thistle.

Memorable features of the tour include the strikingly colourful carpet in the drawing room, whose vibrancy derives from centuries in a cellar, and a breathtaking bookcase in rich rosewood with gilt scrolls and a sumptuous honeycomb pattern veneer. "That is our Chippendale masterpiece," says Ms Rostek.

There is the hunting chair into which the ageing fifth earl would slump exhausted after a long day at the chase, to have his mud-spattered boots pulled off by servants. There are the grand staircases rising to either end of the first floor gallery, one in stone for the men, the other in wood for the ladies. There is the classical tapestry room with its powerful scent of cedarwood, attractive to humans but repellant to moths.

Overall, the interior of Dumfries House conveys an airy, unspoiled impression that belies its 250 years. For most of its existence, the house has been well kept but lightly used, mostly for extended summer visits. So its contents are relatively untouched by the passage of time. This strengthens its appeal as a tourist attraction and its value as an educational resource.

"Dumfries House does need to be moulded into shape for educational purposes," says Charlotte Rostek. "But as I look around each day, I realise more and more what a fantastic resource we have here."



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