24 June 2020
By Rupert Dickens
Dyrham Park holds back its secrets to maximum effect. Turning off the road from Bath and approaching through an ancient deer park, the unsuspecting visitor gets no hint of what is to come until they crest a hill and suddenly Dyrham is set out below, its golden façade nestling in a hollow at the end of the Cotswold ridge against a verdant background of trees.
Dyrham is celebrated for the restrained Baroque exterior of its architecture and the rich Dutch-inspired decoration and collection of objects that marks its interior. Built in two phases on the cusp of the 18th century, the house is the brainchild of William Blathwayt (1649–1717), whose long and profitable career as a civil servant gave him the means to create this masterpiece in the Gloucestershire countryside.
The young Blathwayt received his first appointment in 1668 as secretary to the English ambassador in The Hague, Sir William Temple. During a four-year stay, he learnt to speak Dutch and proved himself a gifted administrator. Over the next twenty years, Blathwayt secured a number of lucrative offices, including Clerk of the Privy Council, Member of the Board of Trade, and from 1683 until 1704, Secretary of War. His administrative abilities and knowledge of the Dutch language served him well in 1688 when the Dutch King William III took the English throne. Blathwayt subsequently served as Secretary of State and accompanied the King on his campaigns in the Low Countries. His success in public life was matched by his marriage in 1686 to Mary Wynter, a wealthy heiress, through whom he inherited the Dyrham estate. The dilapidated condition of her old Tudor house at Dyrham gave Blathwayt the opportunity to realise his own vision and create a new house and garden that reflected his enthusiasm for all things Dutch.
An Urchin mocking an Old Woman eating Migas by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1660-65
An obscure Huguenot architect, Samuel Harduroy, was responsible for the first phase of building and he seems to have been chosen largely on grounds of cost. Blathwayt’s letters are full of his efforts to micro-manage every aspect of the project from afar, as he was often abroad on business. A more substantial figure was employed for the second phase: William Talman, Comptroller of the Royal Works. Blathwayt used his overseas contacts to secure materials from far and wide. Marble came from Genoa, softwood from Stockholm and walnut and cedar from America. Intriguingly, there is often no mention of payments in the contracts, raising the possibility that these supplies could have been provided in exchange for favours or patronage. The resulting exterior owed much to French examples, with the orangery modelled on Versailles. The house seems to have built in its maker’s image, with painstaking attention to detail. The original lead statue of Mercury on the top of the east façade may give a clue to how Blathwayt saw himself: the Roman god of commerce and trade, a gatherer of goods and materials.
If the outside of Dyrham has a French accent, the interior owes more to the Netherlands. Oak wainscoting, walnut panelling and gilt-leather wall coverings combine to produce one of the best surviving Baroque interiors in Britain. Although Blathwayt’s fine collection of Dutch paintings is much diminished, there is a core of fine pictures such as Samuel van Hoogstraten’s perspective conjuring trick, A View through a House, which still takes the visitor’s breath away, coming upon it unawares at the end of a corridor. Other artists represented include Melchior de Hondecoeter, Cornelis de Heem and the Spanish master Bartolome Esteban Murillo, whose An Urchin Mocking a Woman Eating Migas may have been one of the earliest of his works to enter an English collection. A pair of Delftware flower pyramids is the most spectacular survival from Blathwayt’s extensive holdings of the fashionable blue and white ceramics so prized by his employers William and Mary.
Dyrham the Seat of William Blathwait Esq. Engraved by Johannes Kip. Published 1712 in "The Ancient & Present State of Gloucestershire", by Sir Robert Atkyns .
The grandest piece of furniture at Dyrham is the towering state bed, which would have been the focus of the state apartment. It was made in the style of the Anglo-Dutch designer, Daniel Marot, whom William of Orange brought to England in 1694. An elaborate canopy is hung with crimson and yellow velvet with a satin interior.
The elegant Baroque mansion remains intact but there is much less evidence of the magnificent formal gardens laid out by Blathwayt in the Dutch style. These were inspired by the water gardens surrounding William III’s palace of Het Loo in Holland, where Blathwayt had an apartment permanently set aside for his use. When Dyrham’s gardens were pictured in a bird’s eye view by the Dutch engraver Johannes Kip in 1710, they were celebrated as the finest in England. They had long since fallen into disrepair by the time the National Trust took on Dyrham in 1961, but the Trust has embarked on a lengthy project to restore them to their former glory.
All in all, Dyrham Park is a Baroque treasure house assembled with materials from around the globe. It is a fascinating testament to the taste and ambition of William Blaythwayt, one of the 17th century’s greatest civil servants and very much a man of his age.
Dyrham Park features on the Art Collections and Stately Homes of the West Country tour which Rupert will be leading in August 2021. You can register your interest using the link below.
Photo: Dyrham Park House by Robert Cutts used under CC BY-SA 2.0