As the Dining Room sees its first large scale renovation since the 1960’s, Gareth Williams, Curator and Head of Learning to the Weston Park Foundation reflects on the history of the room and the significance of the work.
“Weston Park’s Dining Room is, perhaps, the most important space in the House. A much-loved room that is still used for celebrations and parties whilst, at the same time being a show-place for some of the most important paintings in any English country house.
The History of the Dining Room
The room, as it stands, was in fact the lower two stories of an entire wing that was added on to the House by the 2nd Earl of Bradford in 1830-3 to the designs of Thomas Rickman. Carefully added to the 1671 mansion that had been designed by William Taylor for Lady Wilbraham, the new wing originally contained a ground floor ante-room, study (in the canted bay window) and also a Housekeeper’s Room.
Towards the end of his life, the 2nd Earl decided that the House needed a large room for parties and assemblies and so the walls between these ground floor spaces was removed to create a large single space.
After 1865, his son, the 3rd Earl felt that the proportions were not right and so, with assistance from his architects, William Burn and John McVicar Anderson, he took a half-storey from the room above to make a double-cube space. A geometrically moulded plaster ceiling was added and endless correspondence ensued about how the lower part of the room should be decorated, much of which survives in the care of Staffordshire Archives. Eventually plain door-cases were inserted and an RC Hussey-designed lion-term chimneypiece – which had been sculpted by the celebrated sculptor James Forsyth – was brought forwards and given added height with further Sienna marble panelled Carrara marble plinths. The dado of the room was panelled with oak with moulded detail – much higher than the present 1960s dado. McVicar Anderson had been able to deflect Lord Bradford’s suggestion of a French style dado, which had been recommended to him by an unnamed Belgian decorator. Above the dado, the walls were covered in a blue linen wallpaper as a foil for the family’s art collection and, later, the blue was replaced by a green painted scheme. This appears in late nineteenth century photographs that survive to show the room.
The Dining Room – circa 1890
The Countess of Bradford’s Design
By the 1960s, though, after two world wars that left the House without a full staff, the room had suffered. This was due to rainwater hoppers on the exterior of the room, which had become blocked with leaves, having overflowed and caused serious water-ingress. This, in turn, led to a major dry rot outbreak that required treatment and caused the plaster to be removed from the walls as images of the time showed.
The then Lady Bradford, Mary Montgomery, wife of the 6th Earl of Bradford personally took the room in hand with a brilliant reinvention of the space for the twentieth century. As well as a setting for the family art collection which was soon to be seen by the public when the House eventually opened, the room was a place of parties and was to provide the setting for the Coming of Age parties of she and Lord Bradford’s four children.
Under her personal direction, three new neo-Georgian carved doorcases were inserted and a new, lower, dado was provided. Jacksons the plasterers provided a new fibrous plaster moulded urn and swag frieze, new curtains were made, and Col & Son provided their Trieste pattern flock wallpaper to a colour specified by Lady Bradford. The paintings were re-hung throughout the House and the Dining Room gained some of the very best of the portraits including no less than six portraits by van Dyck arranged around the huge conversation piece of Weston’s eighteenth century owner, Sir Henry Bridgeman, with his family. This was given a new carved, painted and gilded frame that was built onto the wall.
The room’s new structure became an iconic space for the House, starring on postcards and advertisements for the House and it marked an optimistic vision of how the country house should be presented in the twentieth-century.
The Foundation’s Work in the Dining Room
As the twenty first century arrived though, the room was starting to show its age. The Trustees of the Weston Park Foundation – who took over the ownership and conservation of Weston Park following the present and 7th Earl’s gift of the property to the nation in 1986 – valiantly conserved the room and added a new bespoke carpet, made by David and Sara Bamford, in 2000. They also conserved all of the room’s paintings with assistance of the Hamilton Kerr Institute and invested in a new lighting programme for all of the pictures, commissioning new lights from TM Lighting. With the new lighting in place, though, the decoration of the vast room was further shown to be tired, with stains on the wallpaper and areas of paintwork that had been patched. When a flood occurred in 2018, caused by the failure of a plumbing fitting in a bathroom above, the damage was initially, once again patched.
Weston Park under the Earls of Bradford, though, had always been a showplace and the Trustees of the Weston Park Foundation were resolved to follow Lady Bradford’s lead in maintaining the Dining Room to her exacting standards and in a way that respected the history of the House. Initially research was undertaken on the decoration of the Dining Room in all of its previous incarnations. How the room had been decorated, by whom, how it was used, and what it had contained were all critical factors that were distilled from primary and secondary sources to make up a detailed briefing document.
A series of distinguished interior decorators were then approached, all of whom had CVs that included some of Britain’s grandest historic addresses. Eventually it was decided that one scheme in particular stood out, this being the work of the interior decorator Lucinda Griffith and which showed a significant level of legacy from Lady Bradford’s own scheme of decoration.
Lucinda had previously worked for Colefax and Fowler, the decorating house whose founder John Fowler worked at Weston Park in 1939 for the 5th Earl and Countess of Bradford. Her scheme took its lead from the deep pink of Lady Bradford’s wallpaper, but reinterpreted it as a painted scheme applied onto re-lined walls. All of Lady Bradford’s 1960s interventions of dada, doorcases and plaster frieze were to remain, along with her scheme of gilding which still remains dazzling in its brightness. New curtains were to be created, their design close to those of Lady Bradford’s, whilst all of the paintings were to remain in their original locations as, too, were the room’s pieces of furniture. The one, sole intervention, was a new gilded continuous-gadrooned fillet, which runs along the top of the dada, along the bottom of the frieze and up the corners of the room.
In creating the scheme, of course, a monumental amount of work has had to take place, beginning with the removal of the contents, which started on the Sunday prior to Christmas, minutes after the last guest diner had laid down their cutlery. Weston Park is fortunate in having a trained team of staff who, regardless of their normal role in House, Park and Garden, have been able to assist in the safe removal of the priceless contents. So good was the teamwork that the entire group of nearly forty paintings had been removed in less than an hour and a half! Reinstatement, though, was a little longer in taking two half-days. As the work nears its conclusion though – on perfect time – tribute should be paid to the work of the decorators, electricians, general builders and the clerk of works involved for seamless communications to breathe fresh life into this exciting historic space, giving it’s a new chapter in readiness for Weston Park’s visitors and guests.”