Harewood House: Robert Adam meets Thomas Chippendale masterpiece

It’s 1759.  Take the designs of John Carr and then ask Robert Adam and Thomas Chippendale (and latterly his son) to furnish a house together.

Later, instruct Lancelot Capability Brown to create a landscape garden.

And what do you get?

Well, quite frankly something very impressive.

Reason to visit: see the most exquisite well-preserved 18th century Chinese wallpaper I’ve encountered.  Originally hung in 1769, it was taken down by the Victorians and put into storage in crates placed in an outhouse.  Those crates were rediscovered in the 1980s and the wallpaper has been hanging in the East Bedroom since 2008.  See more on Harewood’s own website here.

 ‘India paper’, as the Georgians would have called it

We also saw a penguin at Harewood.  Really.  They have an extensive bird garden which I really enjoyed.  However, as Leeds Castle announces it will be closing its aviary in 2012 to focus on funding the repair and maintenance of the historic structure, I wonder whether Harewood will retain its more diverse tourist attractions because it operates as an educational charity.  I hope it does.

Look who lives at Harewood

The first stone was laid at Harewood in 1759, construction of Adam’s scheme began in 1765 and the Gallery was completed in 1772, the same year Capability Brown started work (it would take him nine years to complete his vision).

The family moved into Harewood in 1771, when their former seat, the Elizabethan Gawthorpe Hall (not to be confused with the National Trust’s Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire) was pulled down.  Edwin Lascelles, 1st Earl of Harewood may have been a difficult client but he had indeed succeeded in commissioning a very fine house.

However, before I gush too much about:

  • the carving (do check out the panel bordering on each door as each is different);
  • the furniture (mostly by Chippendale and his son, as Thomas Snr died during this project, perhaps from waiting to get paid ;), which apparently was quite a drawn out process);
  • the carpets, particularly those designed by Adam to match the ceilings (could this be the long-sold carpet from the Saloon (now a library)? It is now in the Met in New York, as part of the Croome Court tapestry room?);
  • the elegant grey and white colour scheme in the entrance hall (restored after various schemes, including an Egyptian one); I’ll ignore the monstrosity of the modern art sculpture in the centre of the room and draw you to the antler umbrella stand – I’ll be having one of those one day when I have the space;
  • the ceilings;
  • some of the nicest and most knowledgeable house guides I’ve met; and
  • the stable block, a fine piece of architecture in its own right,

I should say this unicorn had its horn trimmed a little when the Victorians employed Charles Barry (yes, he of the Houses of Parliament and Highclere fame) to build up and out, providing accommodation for their large family by adding an extra story on the wings and increasing the kitchen space.

Harewood could have been a mid-Georgian interior decoration masterpiece but it now falls short as Barry’s designs jar rather roughly against Adam’s.

It was sunny while we were on the terrace, but at the front sadly the heavens opened

Barry also stuffed some mahogany bookshelves into Adam’s niches and was permitted to rip the soul from what I’m sure was once a beautiful dining room.  Barry did, however, add an impressive Italianate terrace to the rear of Harewood, anchoring it into its landscape and providing his saving grace.

There was also a little intervention in 1929 after the 6th Earl married Queen Mary and George V’s daughter, Mary.  For her a dressing room was created and so the strength of the interior integrity is somewhat diminished at this point too, with its twee but unadorned glazed niches to house her nick nacks.  The house could have taken something much punchier while feminine but the opportunity was not seized.

The first room on the tour is the original library, which has quite exquisite carving throughout and do check out the stools in the window niches – ever so elegant.

There is the standard sevre but no real art I feel I must mention.  There are also signs of domesticity in some of the three rooms (including the Earl’s sitting room) between the East Bedroom and the State Bedroom.  They seemingly have been painted with a job lot of grey paint and therefore appear quite austere.  I’m not sure if this a permanent idea but they certainly differ from the images still on the website.

One then sweeps into the highly restored (recreated?) State Bedroom,  recently restored.  This room had Princess Mary’s Sitting Room because the State Bedroom had been deemed surplus to requirements.  The original bed survives but the silk hangings are new.

On one goes into two more libraries (Victorian additions, created out of the earlier State Dressing Room and The Saloon), which add Victorian weight to the otherwise trotting light of Adam’s interiors.

Bravo though Harewood for including two bedrooms on your tour when so many houses limit the tour to reception spaces.

For me the pièce de résistance is the Yellow Drawing Room because it shows Adam both serving and managing his client.  Adam’s original designs were for a pink and green scheme, with carpet matching the ceiling (as can be see in the Music Room) but the Earl was keen to use rolls of yellow silk that he had purchased.  Adam wisely adapted his designs.  Only the carpet hints at the original conception.

Next you’ll need to take your exercise down the gallery in the wing (with a bunch of old masters that might tickle you’re fancy but not mine) while looking up single-mindedly at the Adam ceiling in an attempt to ignore Barry’s walls save for catching a glimpse of the chinese vases and Chippendale’s magnificent carved curtain pelmets.

Then you’ll reach the dining room and run through it as fast as you can into the Music Room, where you can think back to the similar but altered style of the Yellow Drawing Room.  One more doorway and your circuit brings you back to the Entrance Hall.

Yes, every State Room on the ground floor is open so Simon Jenkins would be very happy indeed that we too see what the original architects intended. I’d just quite like to see what was sold off in 1947 to pay death duties and complete my idea of what contents I missed in this favourite type of treat of a house for me – one that is still in the original family’s ownership and save for restoration (and ignoring Charles Barry’s additions) is finding its way back to be presented as it would have been in the 18th century.

Thirsty?  Nip into the servants quarters in the cellar for a quick look around and then either stay there for tea overlooking Barry’s terrace or pop down to the stables for refreshments and shopping in the equally desirable stable block before you visit the Himalayan Gardens, the birds, the book shop and (if you are with little people) take the children to the indoor play area.  Keep checking the sky – some rather fancy birds will be flying about.

Following the death of the 7th Earl in July 2011 the 8th Earl is now in charge.  I wonder if that was his car with the licence plate ‘8U’ parked at the front steps when we visited?  While the house is officially owned and run by an educational charitable trust I shall await to see what if any changes the new Earl’s leadership will bring.

When visited: 2011

House * out of 5: **** (would be 5* but for Barry meddling)

Gardens * out of 5: ****

Theme tune: Big Ben’s chiming.  Charles Barry you have a lot to answer for!

See here for Harewood’s Flickr stream.

Nearest city: Leeds

Website: here

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