Past, Present and Future

It could be argued that the restoration of a building is a worthy act only if it enhances its usefulness to society - a sentiment which the charitable organisation World Monuments Fund would endorse. Stowe House and Gardens is an excellent example of just such a useful site and in working to repair the house, conserve and restore its interiors such as the Large Library, those involved never lose sight of who they are doing it for. It seems appropriate then, in the collaborative spirit of Plats, that I leave you with the words of the chief executive Jonathan Foyle who through his work as a historian and broadcaster, is a passionate advocate for understanding our past with regard to the role it plays in our future

The Large Library

Realising the idea of returning a library to its original form is rather hard. Stowe’s Large Library, it transpired, was not originally one room but two when built in the middle of the eighteenth century; it was united, furnished and gilded and stocked as a library during the 1790s in anticipation of a visit from George III, whose fondness for books is today manifested at the heart of the British Library. But the king never arrived at Stowe, and the fortunes of the Temple-Grenville family waned in the coming decades, leaving the library without furniture, its great ceiling beneath layers of white emulsion paint, the plasterwork failing. Two hundred years on, a panel convened at Sir John Soane’s Museum to discuss the evidence for the original decorative scheme upon which the ceiling’s restoration depended. Carefulness in the discussion and recording of decisions was vital because it would be the very last time to share forensic information. The ceiling’s paint was stripped in order to fully repair and replace the cracked and failed plasterwork, over which an entire oak trussed-roof had just been rebuilt to replace a leaking and sagging twentieth-century mono-pitch. The talented historian Michael Bevington, Stowe’s Classics Master, presented excellent documentary and visual evidence for the development and usage of the room. Paint analyst Patrick Baty had taken over 600 samples of the paint and gilt finishes; Cliveden Conservation brought observations made during the stripping process whilst experts in the field of decorative history helped guide the process. The result was a reasoned and clear understanding of the reinstatement of the decorative finish. The gilding process was time-consuming but it has revolutionised the impression of the space, which can be returned to its rightful place amongst great Georgian interiors. And the work is not yet finished. The original 1790s gilding was applied with the expectation of being highlighted by sources and levels of illumination that have since disappeared. In July, our Stowe Scholar Laurel Peterson found an inventory of 1839 amongst the Stowe archives in the Huntington Library, California, which describes: "Three ormolu Chandeliers and glass Lustres, with Chains from Ceiling." In the quest for authenticity, we have arrived at gold upon gold- a library fit for King Midas, if not George III. The library is open to public view from next year.

Revealing the history and culture of Stowe

Thorough academic research is essential to understand a building before restoration work is undertaken. Through the Stowe Scholarship, co-funded by Yale University and the Paul Mellon Centre, Laurel Peterson, a PhD student at Yale, was the chosen scholar for 2010. She spent a month in England and a month studying the Stowe archives in Los Angeles with archivist Cathy Fisher. Laurel writes -

On August 15, 1848, a forty-day sale of the contents of Stowe House commenced. Since the early eighteenth century, Stowe had been recognized as one of the grandest country houses in England. The home of a politically prominent family, it had played host to such figures as Louis XVIII and Queen Victoria. However, the second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, was forced to sell the vast majority of Stowe’s contents, from ancient Roman sculptures and paintings by Rembrandt and Reynolds, to eleventh-century illuminated manuscripts and Sèvres porcelain. Two days were devoted to selling the contents of the wine cellar alone. The list of objects in the sale catalogue from this monumental event tells a story of Stowe and of the passions and interests of the family who lived there. This summer, in conjunction with the restoration in progress at Stowe House and supported by a fellowship sponsored by the World Monuments Fund, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, I spent three months seeking the stories that Stowe has to tell. After the sale in 1848 (and subsequent auction of the entire estate in 1921) the contents of the house were scattered worldwide. My research took me from studying William Kent chimneypiece designs in New Haven, CT, to examining an ornate astronomical clock at the Wallace Collection in London. I spent two weeks living at Stowe, which has been a public school since 1923. Experiences such as eating meals in the state dining room-turned-canteen and listening to a violinist in the music room gave me a taste of what life might have been like during the house’s heyday. Discussions with those who have long studied Stowe illuminated its quirks and treasures. The heart of my research lay far away from Buckinghamshire, at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. Along with auctioning off their furniture and paintings, the family also sold their archives in the 1920s; Henry Huntington bought the estimated 350,000 documents, paying by the yard. Stowe came to life as I delved into boxes of receipts, read family correspondence or paged through an 1810 engagement diary. A menu book detailed the food prepared by the French chef, a tailor’s receipt listed the clothes that were worn and a sketch of members of the family performing a play gave a vision of daily life. Every object, every account book and every room provides further knowledge of Stowe. As restoration of the house continues my research will contribute to the development of new visitor interpretation. By bringing the pieces together we can discover not only the stories of this magnificent house but also those of the long eighteenth century.”

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