Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Lansdowne Dining Room, London

Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square had the dubious distinction of belonging to two of the most unpopular British statesmen of the eighteenth century. It was begun about 1761 for the prime minister, John Stuart (1713–1792), third earl of Bute, who left office in 1763 in political disgrace. He sold the still-unfinished house in 1765 to William Petty Fitzmaurice (1737–1805), second earl of Shelburne, who was created first marquess of Lansdowne in 1784. As foreign secretary, then first lord of the Treasury, and finally as prime minister for eight months in 1782–83, he favored free speech, free trade, and autonomy for the American colonies, but he accomplished little during his brief period in power. Regarded as tactless, insincere, and devious, he was despised by George III and other contemporaries such as Henry Fox and Horace Walpole. His efforts on behalf of the American colonies were, however, appreciated abroad, and he was by no means without friends. Jeremy Bentham, Benjamin Franklin, David Garrick, Samuel Johnson, and Honoré de Mirabeau were among the many who made Lansdowne House the center of the most liberal and cultivated society in London.

The house was designed by Robert Adam (1728–1792) and built on a large wedge-shaped plot of land at the southwest corner of Berkeley Square. Fronting spacious grounds, a situation unusual in crowded London, it was often described by contemporaries as a palace, and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner thought of it as a country house in a town. The central three-story block with a pediment supported by four Ionic columns was flanked by two-story pavilions. With its stately facade, handsomely proportioned rooms of varying shapes, and Neoclassical decoration of great refinement, it was regarded as Adam’s finest London house.

In 1766, Adam submitted to Shelburne several designs for the dining room, also called the Great Eating Room (32.12). Located at the south end of the house, behind the three windows on the ground floor of the left wing, it was an unusually large room, about 47 feet long, 24 feet wide, and 18 feet high. In fact, there was little space to spare, as Adam’s drawings proposed nine niches for classical sculpture. In the preface to The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, a folio publication issued in installments during the 1770s, Robert Adam discussed the function and decoration of the dining room: “The eating rooms are considered as the apartments of conversation, in which we are to pass a great part of our time. This renders it desirable to have them fitted up with elegance and splendor, but in a style different from that of other apartments. Instead of being hung with damask, tapestry & c. they are always finished with stucco, and adorned with statues and paintings, that they may not retain the smell of the victuals.” At Lansdowne House, the room for eating and conversation became a combination dining room and sculpture gallery. Shelburne amassed his impressive collection of antique sculpture—which occupied not only the dining room niches but other rooms of the house—between 1765 and 1773, first through James Adam and later through the Scottish painter and antiquary Gavin Hamilton.

The serving end of the room with a sideboard recess was screened from the dining section by two tall columns, a device used by Adam in a number of other houses during this period. Adam identified the ornament of the columns and frieze as the “Composed Doric Order,” as the fluted capital with overlaid leaves was inspired by Diocletian’s palace at Split in Croatia, and the ornament in the frieze—a ribbon weaving between husks and pendant leaves attached to rosettes—was Adam’s own design. Also derived from Split is the pronounced cornice projecting over the frieze above the doors and supported at each end by a scrolled console.

The room—and in particular the refined, compartmented ceiling—is a tour de force of Neoclassical stucco decoration executed by Joseph Rose. Invoices survive for this and every other aspect of the work done at Lansdowne House. From these it is known that John Gilbert supplied every molding, shutter, door, and even the “fig leaves to figures to ye niches,” and that the marble chimneypiece was executed in 1768 by the London firm of John Devall & Co., chief masons for the royal palaces. The Shelburnes moved in that year, though the interiors were as yet unfinished. The dining room was furnished in late 1768 and 1769 by two of the leading cabinetmakers in London, John Linnell and Thomas Chippendale. Robert Adam provided some furniture designs, including drawings for a sideboard flanked by a pair of pedestals and vases, which were lined with lead to hold water piped to taps in the pedestals.

The house was sold by the sixth marquess of Shelburne in 1929 and partially demolished to make way for a new street at that end of Berkeley Square. The Museum acquired the dining room and installed it in 1954. To accommodate it in its present position, the two long walls were reversed. The original sculpture from the room had been dispersed in the 1930 sale of the collection, so the niches were filled with plaster casts. However, in 1961 the Museum was able to acquire one figure from the dining room: Tyche, goddess of fortune, a Roman statue largely copied from a Greek original. Adam seems to have intended a classical relief to be placed in the plaster frame over the chimneypiece, but this was never done. A Neoclassical grisaille painting from the gallery of Croome Court now fills the frame (60.50a). The room is likewise furnished with Neoclassical Adam-style furniture, including a set of mahogany dining chairs by Thomas Chippendale (1996.426.1–.14). Although these chairs were executed for Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire, in about 1772, they are of the same elegant design as the set supplied by Chippendale for Lansdowne House. The paint scheme of the room re-creates the original: contemporary invoices identify the colors as “pearl”—revealed in paint analysis as a light, green-tinged gray—with the ornament picked out in “dead white.”