If one of the attributes of a nabob was to live with pretention and ostentation, then the furnishing of the home would surely be a key indicator of this taste? Alphonse Daudet’s description in his novel The Nabob, (although written in the 1898), conjures up the stereotypical interior associated with the Company’s excessive and conspicuous consumption: ‘The Nabob’s dining-room [was] finished in carved oak, supplied … from the establishment of some great house-furnisher, who furnished at the same time the four salons … the hangings, the objects of art, the chandeliers, even the plate displayed on the sideboards, even the servants who served the breakfast. It was the perfect type of the establishment improvised, … by a parvenu of colossal wealth, in great haste to enjoy himself’. The rest of this section will explore how far Sir Lawrence Dundas’s domestic interiors conformed or not to this caricature.
The speed with which Sir Lawrence Dundas acquired properties in the early 1760s and his desire to show the very highest taste meant that he did employ some of the great house furnishers of his day: the Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), (who had set up a practice with his brother James in London in 1758, and whose descendants would include key East India Company officials) at Moor Park in Hertfordshire and at 19 Arlington Street, London, where between 1763-1766 he was ‘to supervise internal decorations and furnishings of unprecedented opulence’. [i] John Carr of York (1723-1807) was employed at Aske, and William Chambers (1723-1796), another Scot based in London, at Dundas House in Edinburgh.
The discovery in 1964 at Aske Hall of some of the original accounts for the furnishing of these properties (subsequently lodged at North Yorkshire County Record Office), reveal that Sir Lawrence patronised some of the leading cabinet makers of his day, including Thomas Chippendale. For example for 19 Arlington Street, Robert Adam designed a suite of two sofas and chairs for Aske described by Chippendale as ‘exceedingly Richly Carv’d in the Antick manner … and cover’d with your own Damask’.[ii] The designs and the surviving bills suggest they were the most expensive chairs he ever made. He invoiced the frames at £20 a time, exactly double the price he charged for the most expensive chairs in the State Rooms in Harewood House in 1773 for Sir Edwin Lascelles.[iii] Sir Lawrence also employed lesser known furniture makers James Lawson, Vile and Cobb, Fell and Turner and France and Bradburn. Corresponence and bills associated with the purchase of furniture, paintings, and the commissioning of fine tapestries from the all the subject of a group of essays published in Apollo magazine in 1967.[iv] These essays are connoisseurial by nature, concentrating on attributing surviving decorative art to their authors.
The engagement of all these ‘professionals’ should not however obscure the very close control that Dundas exercised over the decoration of his homes or the role he delegated to his wife. Before his great house buying campaign began he wrote from Rotterdam in June 1760 to ‘Pegie’:
I hope you will give orders about everything concerning your house in Hill Street before you go to Scotland and about the Plate as I agreed upon before I left London, I would wish to have this ready before I come home, … I gave Mrs Craufurd the Section of the room she is to write about the Tapestry and to order a Turkey carpet that will cover the whole room … I would wish to have the dinning [sic] room lined with timber in place of paper for I think a room for eating should be wainscoted in place of paper … adieu my Dear Life.[v]
Clearly Dundas felt that the house was as much his wife’s as his own, he also relied heavily on his housekeeper Mrs Craufurd, and had his own ideas, independent of fashion about the furnishing of a dining room, in a period when wallpaper was becoming all the rage. Despite his rapidly accumulating wealth Dundas had an eye for economy too. In November the same year he wrote from Bremen in Germany to his wife: ‘When you write let me know what you have done with furnishing your house in Edinburgh, I would have you do it in a Plain Genteel Taste as neat as possible but not expensive’.[vi]
It is clear that Dundas, even though tied up with his complex contract work took immense interest in his properties, having a keen eye for detail, and relied heavily on his wife Pegie, not only to carry out his wishes, but also to make decisions about the furnishings. Concerning Moor Park Sir Lawrence wrote to her ‘I am so glad you go so well on … if you get the Chairs for the Saloon made during our absence, everything will be finished in the lower part but the great room, but do all these things as you like best’.[vii] She remains a shadowy character, but her hand is evident in many of the letters and orders sent to the suppliers.[viii] Sir Lawrence was clearly proud of his Clackmannan connections which he acquired via his wife, paying for a ‘for finishing the Clackman [family] tree £30’ in 1771.[ix] The flurry of interior furnishing and house-formation that is usually associated with the setting up of the new marital home, occurred on a more regular and grander basis in the Dundas households.[x] Dundas as contractor seems to have relished the logistical challenges, albeit he became pettish when all was not going as smoothly as he liked. When he went to Aske in the spring of 1763 he ‘found everything in confusion’, and explained to Pegie ‘tho’ I must say Mrs Brown [another trusty housekeeper] has done all that any person can do and a most valuable servant she is too … it is impossible to think the difference one finds in coming from Moor Park where you have everything in such order to a place where things are not’.[xi]
It appears that Sir Lawrence envisaged Aske, Moor Park and 19 Arlington Street as much collectively as individually, their uniting feature being their lavish furnishings, designed and made by the same elite group of professionals. The only contemporary illustration of one of these interiors is the Dressing Room at 19 Arlington Street, known via a painting of Sir Lawrence with his grandson, Thomas by Johan Zoffany in 1769 (which cost him £105 at the time, half James Boswell’s annual allowance from his father to live in London). (Zoffany was later to make his fortune in India painting portraits of the British). With the ‘8 antique figures on the chimney’ it looks the picture of classical taste, worthy of a member of the Society of Dilettanti which Dundas had joined in 1754, after which he sent his son on the Grand Tour. The display of these Grand Tour treasures is reminiscent of Samuel Foote’s fictional nabob, Sir Matthew Mite, who ‘brought from Italy antiques, some curious remains which are to be deposited in this country. The Antiquarian Society have, in consequence, chosen me one of their body’. In the Banqueting Room at Moor Park Adam designed a suite inspired by the antique couches used by the Romans for feasting, the source for their design is a chimney-piece of white marble, formerly in the Palazzo Borghese in Florence, and installed at Moor Park by Sir Lawrence.
Sir Lawrence was clearly thinking of both Aske and Arlington Street together and hierarchically when he commissioned two magnificent ‘very large Mahogany Bookcases’ from Thomas Chippendale in 1764. Though identical in design the one intended for 19 Arlington Street was set with plate glass, (£80) while the one for Aske incorporated cheaper crown glass (£78).[xii]
Those things which could not be found in England, where purchased abroad. The the rock crystal and ormolu ‘lustres’ for the Gallery at Moor Park were smuggled from Paris in the diplomatic train of the Prussian Ambassador in 1767, while the Neilson tapestries were shipped from the Gobelins manufactory in June 1769. The acquisitions of the ‘chimneypiece of statuary and yellow of Siena marble‘ in Florence from the sculptor Francis Harwood, through the intervention of his son Thomas, which was dispatched to Aske in 1767, the chimneypiece reputedly from the Borghese Palace, which stood in the Tapestry Room at Moor Park, the ‘Carlo Maratti’ recommended to him by Greenwood, the Zoffoli bronzes and the mythological canvases by Cipriani which dominated the Hall at Arlington Street, placed him at the forefront of Italian taste. Sir Lawrence was also an early collector of Dutch painting including works by Teniers Cuyps and van de Capelle.[xiii] Sourced from all over Europe, the contents of the Dundas households demonstrated not only wealth, but also an enviable network of suppliers, agents and dealers, culminating in interiors that were admired as being in the finest taste. Lady Shelburne in her diary for 1768 notes: ‘I had vast pleasure in seeing the house [19 Arlington Street], which I had so admired, and improved as much as possible’.[xiv] The wealth of this ‘Nabob’ enabled him to become ‘a true dilettante and an enlightened patron of the liberal arts and architecture’, without any censure of his taste.[xv]
[i] Wilmot-Sitwell, 2009, p.75.
[ii] Christie’s Sale 7676, Lot 5, http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/furniture-lighting/a-george-iii-giltwood-sofa-designed-by-5092522-details.asp
[iv] Apollo, September 1967: J. Harris, ‘The Dundas Empire’, pp.170-179; E. Harris, ‘The Moor Park Tapestries’, pp.180-89; A. Coleridge, ‘Sir Lawrence Dundas and Chippendale’, pp.190-203; D. Sutton,‘The Dundas Pictures’, pp.204-213; A. Coleridge,‘Some Rococo Cabinet-makers and Sir Lawrence Dundas’, pp.214-225.
[v] NYCRO ZNK X/1/2/7a, 26 June 1760.
[vi] NYCRO, ZNK X/1/2/13, 8 November 1760.
[vii] NYCRO, ZNK X/1/2/129, 4 August 1763.
[viii] For example NYCRO ZNK X/1/7/24 account of desgigns for Arlington Street and Moor Park are in Lady Dundas’s hand.
[ix] NYCRO ZNKXZ/1/9/77 2 February 1771,’paid to Mr Matheson’.
[x] Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors At Home in Georgian England, Yale Unversity Press,New Haven & London, 2009, see chapter 3 ‘Setting Up Home’, pp.83-105.
[xi] NYCRO ZNK X/1/2/18 3 March 1762.
[xii] See Christie’s sale no.7676, lot 6, lot notes- http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/furniture-lighting/a-george-iii-mahogany-breakfront-bookcase-by-5092523-details.aspx
[xiii] For further information see http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/furniture-lighting/a-george-iii-mahogany-breakfront-bookcase-by-5092523-details.aspx
[xiv] Wilmot-Sitwell, 2009, p.79.
[xv] See Lot Notes: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/furniture-lighting/a-george-iii-giltwood-sofa-designed-by-5092522-details.aspx