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WOBURN AND THE DUKES OF BEDFORD
The great collectors of the Russell family were arguably the 4th Duke (1710-1771) and his grandsons the 5th and 6th Dukes. From their ancestor the 1st Earl (d.1554/5) they all inherited a passion for continuing in the tradition of rebuilding, refurnishing and collecting. Providentially a disastrous decline in the family fortune was averted by the early death of the 3rd Duke, as that young man had practically gambled away his wealth, leaving the house in a deplorable state and raising the prospect of land sales, which had been accumulated previously through advantageous marriages and careful husbandry.
His brother John, the 4th Duke, was a complete contrast, a young man of great steadfastness, with a desire for possession and a liking for order. He had inherited estates in nine counties to which he added considerably. Many of these properties had a house or mansion linked to them and he took great pleasure in refurbishing them. He was already a man of wealth and property when he succeeded to the title and was seen as 'much the greatest match in England'. From his mother, Elizabeth Howland, wife of the 2nd Duke, he had inherited some lands and, with money she left him, bought the family estate in Hampshire and the house at East Stratton (demolished in 1708) where he lived with his first wife Diana Spencer. We know a great deal of his taste due to documentation in the archives; he had his father's liking of music and patronised the London opera. It was this liking that took him, whilst on the Grand Tour in 1731, to visit Italy with his sister, the Countess of Essex, to hear the great Farinato sing in Milan; this is when he came into contact with Consul Smith on a journey to Venice and where he commissioned the Canaletto paintings now to be seen in the private dining room. From his buildings one might suppose that he also had an admiration for the style of Palladio, but in some aspects he was rather old fashioned in his taste for furniture and furnishing. Whilst he refurbished and rebuilt Woburn he was often plagued with messages from the King to make haste and rejoin the Government, in his post as Secretary of State. His architect at Woburn was Henry Flitcroft to whom the Duke had given explicit instructions that, whilst he wished the house to be rebuilt in a Palladian style, on no account was the original north wing to be destroyed. Thus this wing, which contained the famous grotto room, the entertaining room on either side and the rooms above, had to be retained. This was inspired by historical fact and a sentimental reaction reaching back to his ancestor the 1st Earl, for whom the family had the greatest respect and admiration. The 4th Duke added modern amenities to the house, including a water closet and a hot bath; heating in passages and halls was provided by French porcelain stoves and warming machines by Abraham Buzaglo, which burnt coal, wood or peat. A new greenhouse was built on the south side of the house. Other external improvements were carried out by Phillip Miller, Director of the Apothecary's Garden, who had been engaged in 1741. He created a new garden on the south side of the house in 1747 and planned with the Duke the planting of the Evergreens in 1743 to commemorate the birth of his daughter Caroline. In 1752 new designs for two stable blocks were requested by the Duke, these being ready by 1757.
In 1765 the last phase of improvement was put in hand by Flitcroft's successor, Stiff Leadbetter (1706-1766), who was renovating Bedford House, Bloomsbury. In 1766 he was asked to prepare plans for the south wing but before the work could be carried out Leadbetter died and William Chambers was asked to undertake it. Exactly what was done by Chambers is uncertain; he is said to have designed a front and parade apartment. Decorative work in the interior was undertaken by Rebecca and Cipriani, while Joseph Rose was employed to do plaster work. However, any trace of Chambers' work in this suite of rooms was removed by that of Henry Holland, commissioned by the 5th Duke in 1787.
Catholic in his taste, it is the 4th Duke who was responsible for buying so much of the exceptional French furniture and Sèvres porcelain at Woburn, following his appointment as Ambassador to the Court of Louis XV in 1762. He and his Duchess also employed the very best London cabient-makers - including Pierre Langlois, Vile and Cobb, Whittle and Norman, Benjamin Goodison, Mayhew and Ince and Paul Saunders - to furnish Bedford House and Clarges Street in London, as well as Woburn and Oakley, in the most fashionable taste.
Francis, the 5th Duke, succeeded his grandfather in 1771 and on reaching his majority in 1786 continued the remodelling of Woburn begun by the latter. Francis employed the architect Henry Holland (1745-1806) who had just completed Carlton House for the Prince Regent. Among the many alterations and additions were an indoor riding school and real tennis court and the greenhouse. The latter was constructed between 1789 and 1790, being linked to the house by a covered walkway. The 5th Duke was greatly interested in agriculture, not only the improvement of livestock but also of crops; the greenhouse was thus a natural extension of his views. The southern façade originally had nine bays with an arched opening, in the centre of the pediment of which is a relief of a bull standing on a thyrsus carved by George Garrard in about 1801. Garrard had been responsible for the plaster reliefs of fables by Gay and Aesop in the overdoors to the private dining room. The garlanded medallions were carved by the French sculptor Françoise le Masson and represent an offering to Ceres and Flora, the goddesses of plenty and hospitality.
The family had started to collect statuary during the time of the 4th Duke, when it was becoming fashionable to show copies or casts of antique works in the interiors of their homes. His son, the Marquess of Tavistock, had acquired some rather mutilated statues on his Grand Tour for the gallery that he intended to build; sadly, he died as the result of a hunting accident, leaving his eldest son, the 5th Duke, to carry on the tradition. Francis acquired a number of antique statuary from Lord Cawdor's sale in 1800 with the assistance of Charles Heathcote Tatham. The enormous Lante Vase in the central niche of the Sculpture Gallery was one of the items purchased.
By 1800 statuary was already situated in the greenhouse. On entering, a houseguest would have walked through the verdant greenery and exotic plants and been confronted by a full sized copy of the Apollo Belvedere, acquired by the 4th Duke and brought from their London home before it was demolished in 1800, or two figures of the Venus by the Belgian sculptor Laurent Delvaux, besides other, smaller, pieces.
Again in 1801 the Duke commissioned Holland to build a temple at the east end of the greenhouse with a portico modelled on the ionic temple of Ilissus; this was illustrated by James 'Athenian' Stuart and Nicholas Revett in the mid-18th century in their first volume of the Antiquities of Athens, a copy of which was in the library. It was called the 'Temple of Liberty' and housed busts of the Russells, Whig politicians and friends such as Charles James Fox and Lord Spencer, together with the busts of the younger and older Brutus, showing the connection between the Roman patriciate and the Whig aristocracy.
John, the 6th Duke, (1766-1839) who succeeded his brother after his untimely death at an early age of 37, carried on the transformation of the greenhouse as he thought Francis would have wished. In a letter to the agriculturalist Arthur Young shortly after his brother's death he states "that I am desirous in every point of view to fulfil the best wishes of my dear departed brother".
This temple was still being constructed in 1804; the ceiling was coffered and gilded, the walls veneered in marble and the floor laid with a geometric pattern of coloured marble. The greenhouse continued to be used for housing exotics according to a plan dated 1801-2 in the archives; the installation in the central area of the eight antique columns and capitals acquired from Thomas Brand of Kimpton Hoo was nearing completion. Until this time the 6th Duke's interest in sculpture and the gallery had been spurred on by his desire to complete his brother's wishes. However, after his visit to Paris in 1813 and the knowledge of major discoveries being made at Pompeii and Herculaneum, his own interest was awakened and he started in all earnestness to acquire antiquities, helped by his peripatetic son, George William. Subsequent letters to the latter from 1822 show that the Duke was incredibly eager to purchase marbles of all sizes and descriptions "another bust of an Emperor, columns for busts any sound object of good class and above all a sarcophagus as I want one as a pendant to the one I have". The sarcophagi acquired from the Aldobrandini villa in Frascati now adorn the entrance corridor to the east, side by side with modern reliefs by Bertel Thorwaldsen, the 19th-century Danish sculptor.
In 1816 the Duke commissioned Jeffry Wyatt to design and direct alterations and additions to the greenhouse. The most important of these was the building of an extension to the west to balance the temple at the east end; this now houses the Apollo Belvedere, which was moved from the central area. A covered way was erected along the south side of the Temple of Liberty connecting with the new greenhouse (the Camellia House) and joining up with the covered walkway that went round to the Chinese Dairy. Wyatt also constructed the cupola in the centre of the greenhouse, which was supported by the eight columns and capitals already mentioned and finished with an entablature enriched with a decorative frieze. By 1820 the floor of the greenhouse had been completely paved with Purbeck stone and inlaid with Devonshire marble, thus completing the transformation from a greenhouse to the Sculpture Gallery.
The Duke died in 1839 and with his death the collecting of marbles by the Bedfords virtually ceased. His grandson, the 9th Duke, eldest son of Lord George William, had the marbles rearranged and renumbered.
The 5th and 6th Dukes continued to acquire French furniture and works of art on a similar scale to the 4th Duke, initially through Holland's marchand-merciers Daguerre and Lignereux from 1787. Displaying a particular penchant for ormolu-mounted works of art, many by Thomire and Feuchère, further acquisitions were made directly in Paris following the Peace of Amiens in 1803, again probably in 1817 when Lord George William was appointed A.D.C. to the Duke of Wellington, and also in the 1820's whilst en route to Italy. The 5th Duke also continued to patronise Mayhew and Ince on an almost permanent basis, as well as emigré craftsmen like François Hervé and Alexis Decaix through Holland. With Wyatt's involvement, the 6th Duke's taste increasingly echoed that of George, Prince of Wales, employing Frederick Crace, Bailey and Saunders and Marsh and Tatham, although the Bullock connection represents a divergence.
The Woburn left by the 6th Duke is perhaps best recorded in the line engravings executed by P.F. Robinson for Vitruvius Britannicus, 1827. Although further minor improvements were made both for Queen Victoria's visit in 1841 and subsequently, Woburn remained substantially unaltered until 1949-50, when the dry-rot riddled East Wing of the Abbey was demolished, including a series of State Rooms and the indoor Riding School and real tennis court. Inevitably a great deal of furniture, pictures and objects - from Woburn and other family houses - became redundant and were either put into store, rehoused or sold. The Trustees of the Bedford Estates have recently reviewed those pieces in store - many of which have lain in outbuildings at Woburn for over 50 years - and have decided to dispose of those that are surplus to requirements, with the procceds of any sales contributing to an ongoing program of restoration at Woburn.
Lavinia Wellicome Curator