Playing with the Canon: West Wycombe Park’s Iconography and the Principle of Citation

Essay by Adriano Aymonino

Four facades built in different styles; scattered references to Greek, Roman, Palmyrene-Roman, British-Roman, Palladian, Baroque and Rococo architecture; interior decorations reminiscent of earlier British Baroque solutions but reproducing, instead, classicist prototypes in the Roman academic manner: if there is one trait defining West Wycombe, it is certainly not consistency. If classicism is a harmony of related parts within the whole, then the house rebuilt by Sir Francis Dashwood between the 1740s and the 1770s is essentially anti-classical in its juxtaposition of different styles and aesthetic principles under one roof.1 While the emblem of the classicist architect and artist is the compass, that of the creator of West Wycombe should be the scissor, as visual models are extrapolated beyond their original contexts, cut up and reassembled in new forms and for new purposes. Crucially, the vehicle that makes this meeting of citations possible is paper – the innumerable engravings of buildings, ceilings, frescoes, reliefs, sarcophagi, mosaics and gems, all contained within the house itself, in the library of Sir Francis. The building and its decoration are conceived and understood through the medium of paper, and this ephemeral foundation is reflected in the decorative, eclectic and two-dimensional character of the whole. It is these traits that make West Wycombe paradigmatic of a specific British mid-century experimental eclecticism. Because of its sheer variety, and also because Dashwood’s choices were often at the vanguard of the national taste, the house is an ideal lens through which to look at this cultural phenomenon as a whole.

One point should be stressed in order to understand the nature of West Wycombe’s extravagant decoration: the house embodies, more than any other architectural interior in eighteenth-century Britain, the principle of the citation of canonical images according to norms established by the Italian and French academic system. However, if in most other interiors these images were used to affirm the owner’s affiliation to this normative aesthetic, or displayed in a bid to reform national taste, at West Wycombe they were reassembled in the name of wit, playfulness and even irreverence, which was typical of Sir Francis’s approach to established cultural hierarchies. For example, in exactly the same years, Sir Hugh Smithson, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, was commissioning an almost identical series of painted copies of works by Raphael, Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni to those being ordered by Dashwood.2 But while Northumberland’s copies were instigated in the name of virtù and ‘improvement’, Dashwood’s were arranged to proclaim the cult of Venus and Bacchus, in perfect dialogue with the estate’s professed themes3 and with the ethos of the notorious ‘pagan’ meetings of the Society of Saint Francis of Wycombe at Medmenham Abbey.4 It is in fact tempting to consider West Wycombe, to a certain extent, as a parody of the Earl of Northumberland’s more serious efforts.

Yet we should not consign Dashwood’s own efforts to a display of mere farce. On the contrary, the motto that encapsulates the spirit of his villa is seria ludo, to treat serious matters in a playful spirit, the motto that Sir Francis had established for the Society of Dilettanti.5 The decoration he employed may be witty and humorous but it reveals at the same time a deep knowledge and understanding of the sources he was playing with, including their scholarly iconographic implications. To reassemble successfully the disjecta membra of a canon to create new narratives can only imply a profound understanding of its symbolic language. To play with the canon, one must know the canon thoroughly. Sir Francis's library, which contains most of the engravings used to populate the ceilings of his house with a new Mount Olympus, speaks volumes about his antiquarian and artistic erudition.6 This essay follows this thoughtful trail of visual clues left by Dashwood, in order to reconstruct the consistencies and the exceptions present in the iconographic themes of the villa, leading to a fuller understanding of the spirit of its creator. Drawing myriad links from the original models to Dashwood’s own collection of prints to the copies displayed in the interiors, the present study also pinpoints moments of occasional dialogue between the sculptures and paintings on display and their decorated surrounds: the extravagant and colourful whole forms a spatial assembly intended, both then and now, to provoke a heightened visual and intellectual response.

The House and its Painters

Three main inspirations drove Dashwood’s refurbishment of the house. The first was clearly the architecture and richly decorated interiors of Mereworth Castle, in Kent, the house of his uncle and guardian, the 7th Earl of Westmorland. The second seems to have been the interiors of Renaissance and Baroque palaces and villas in Rome that he had experienced at first hand during his Grand Tour in 1740.7 Finally, the third was probably Vitruvius’s description of the interiors of Roman private dwellings.

To execute his projects, Dashwood relied mostly on Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis (1701–1761), an obscure Piedmontese painter working in England. Borgnis was born in Craveggia, a village in the valley of Vigezzo famous for its tradition of painters, and close to Lugano, the original home of the stuccatori who had achieved success in England and Ireland in the first half of the eighteenth century.8 He had trained in Bologna and Venice but returned to Craveggia to pursue a provincial career. In the summer of 1752, already fifty-one years old, he left for England via Paris. He was probably invited by Dashwood or encouraged to come by one of the stuccatori families who had gained fame and money in Britain. Two of his children travelled with him: Giovanni Borgnis (1728–after 1783) and Pietro Maria (Peter) Borgnis (1739 or 1743–after 1810), both of whom made their careers as artists in England, starting as assistants to their father at West Wycombe. They arrived in the first months of 1753 and probably started working for Dashwood soon after. The work of Borgnis at West Wycombe can be divided in two periods: between 1753 and 1756, when he left to paint similar copies of Roman frescoes at Rievaulx Terrace, Duncombe Park, in Yorkshire, and between 1757 and 1761, the year of his accidental death caused by a fall from scaffolding.9 A modest painter, Borgnis was ideally suited to making copies of famous Italian frescoes. At West Wycombe he was first employed probably to decorate the east and south fronts, as their painted walls show traces of Borgnis’s late-Baroque language. Following his progress, we shall begin with the exterior and then proceed to examine the interiors of the house, based on the plan published in the fifth volume of Vitruvius Britannicus in 1771 (fig. 1).

'Plan of the Principal Floor… at West Wycombe'

Figure 1.
'Plan of the Principal Floor… at West Wycombe', in Vitruvius Britannicus or the British Architect (London: Colen Campbell, 1771): Vol. V, pl. 47. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich (Rar 445 fol.).

Digital image courtesy of ETH-Bibliothek Zürich. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

East, West and South Fronts: Dawn, Sunset, Bacchus and Venus

The three fronts where painted decoration could be accommodated were dedicated respectively to Apollo and Aurora (east front), Bacchus and Venus (south front) and Selene and Bacchus (west front). The east front was the first to be erected, probably around 1750–55 following the design of Roger Morris (see fig. 2 in Hornsby A Selected Catalogue of Drawings at West Wycombe Park’).10 For the painted architectural decoration of the wall Borgnis worked in the late Baroque style already employed in his frescoes in and around Craveggia. However, for the panels above the windows, framing central roundels with the ‘busts of Augustus Caesar and Livia’, as reported by John Preston Neale decades later, he borrowed from Pietro Aquila’s elevations of the Carracci Gallery in Palazzo Farnese, the major source for the painted architectural framework of the house (see fig. 2).11 Neale also sheds light on the portraits painted on the two pilasters flanking the central door: they represent (left to right) Annibale Carracci and Correggio, images close to the established iconography of the two great Italian painters.12 Above the central door, a roundel in grisaille accommodates a female personification with a turreted crown, almost surely referring to the allegory of Italia, devised during the Renaissance from personifications such as Cybele, Tyche or Tellus and described among others by Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia.13 Italia, Dashwood’s spiritual motherland to which the iconography of the portico and of the whole house is dedicated, is appropriately flanked by the easily recognisable personifications of Abundance and Fame, reclining on the segmented broken pediment.

Facing towards the east, the portico ceiling not surprisingly shows a copy of Guido Reni’s Aurora at the Casino Pallavicini Rospigliosi in Rome (1614), one of the most reproduced images in eighteenth-century Britain; conveniently, Dashwood owned an engraving of it published in 1727 by Jakob Frey the Elder.14 The Aurora was already a popular subject for country house decoration, especially in plaster reliefs, and Borgnis painted another copy for Rievaulx Terrace in 1756–7.15 However, no one until then had used it to refer to the orientation of the house, to symbolise dawn.16 A related theme appears on the pediment’s decoration, which must have been executed at a later date as it does not appear in Hannan’s view of about 1751-4 (see fig. 1 in Aymonino and Hornsby Introduction).17 Poorly painted and poorly preserved, it depicts Minerva surrounded by cannon, spoils of war and military trophies, suggesting perhaps Britannia Triumphans. The iconography suggests a date of about 1760, by which time the Seven Years War had taken a turn in favour of the British and may correspond to Dashwood’s optimism regarding the new reign of George III – a new dawn for Britain.18 If this is the case, the two lead lions, the traditional attribute of Britannia, must also have been added in front of the portico around the same time.19

The west front was built by Nicholas Revett in 1767–71, in imitation of the Temple of Bacchus at Teos near Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey): the elegant hexastyle Ionic portico represents one of the earliest attempts at Greek revival in Britain (see fig. 5 in Hornsby ‘A Selected Catalogue of Drawings at West Wycombe Park’).20 The Bacchic dedication is made explicit in the white-painted lead replica of the Bacchus of Versailles, surely provided by John Cheere, which was originally flanked by two marble copies of the ‘Piping Faunus’, an apt companion to Bacchus, and of ‘Ganymede feeding Jupiters Eagle [sic.]’, probably placed there in his capacity as cup-bearer of the Olympian gods.21 This theme is also brought into the two lateral panels, which are embedded in the Palmyrene ceiling, showing a drunk Silenus in the company of revellers and a copy of Reni’s Meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne (1637–40), probably taken from the engraving by Jakob Frey the Elder of 1727 (see fig. 7 in Hornsby ‘House and Drawings Collection’).22 However, the central oval panel answers the theme of the east portico and shows Diana-Selene on her chariot, symbolising the approaching night, surrounded by the figures of Night, Lucifer and Hesperus. Some of these figures are derived from Francesco Albani’s ceiling for Palazzo Verospi in Rome (1611–12): an engraving of which by Girolamo Frezza is in the library at West Wycombe.23 The east–west axis of the house is therefore appropriately expressed by images of dawn and sunset. The panels were all painted in October 1770 by William Hannan and they show his limited artistic skill.24

In September 1771 the ‘Greek’ front was dedicated with a proper Bacchanalian procession formed of Priests, Priestesses, Pan, Fauns, Satyrs, Silenus and other revellers all wearing their usual habits and skins, which terminated with hymns and a sacrifice to the statue of the Bacchus of Versailles.25 The Bacchic ritual inaugurated the use of the west front as the main entrance to the house – a privilege reserved until then to the south portico – via a narrow passage still in use today. This room must have been conceived by Revett after 1771, as it does not appear in the Vitruvius Britannicus plan (see fig. 1). The function of this passage, which has puzzled scholars, must have been to provide an entrance to the house in the Greek manner as described by Vitruvius, consistently with the preceding portico (see Hornsby ‘House and Drawings Collection’).

The inebriating match of wine and love is celebrated in the south portico, decorated by Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis around 1756. The lower storey’s ceiling alternates flowery Rococo plasterwork with three painted panels. Bacchus crowning Ariadne, from an engraving by Michel Dorigny after a painting by Simon Vouet (figs 3 and 4), is flanked by two scenes of Bacchic putti at play, reminiscent of similar images by Francesco Albani or by the Bolognese school in general.26 This insistence on Bacchus and Ariadne appears throughout the house. Their ‘Triumph’ is the subject of the current Blue Drawing Room’s ceiling, where it combines the celebration of the god of wine with the theme of love. The latter theme probably also appeared in painted panels on the upper-storey ceiling of the south portico. However, possibly because of their erotic nature, they were subsequently whitewashed and covered with plaster rosettes: the central panel, originally showing Venus and Cupid tenderly embracing, is today all but obscured by the presence of the rosette.

Galeriae Farnesianae Icones

Figure 2.
Pietro Aquila, Galeriae Farnesianae Icones, plate 19, 'Tabula IIII', Details of one of the walls of the Farnese Gallery, circa 1677. Etching and engraving, 63 × 40.3 cm. The British Museum (1896,1118.114.22).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.1)

Bacchus crowning Ariadne

Figure 3.
Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis after Simon Vouet, Bacchus crowning Ariadne, south portico, lower storey, ceiling, West Wycombe Park, circa 1756. Fresco.

Digital image courtesy of West Wycombe Park / Photo: Rodolfo Acevedo Rodriguez. (All rights reserved)

Borgnis’s late Baroque decoration extends to the portico walls. The lower storey’s west wall has two allegorical personifications flanking the central door, while the eastern wall is decorated with a fictive fountain of Diana, the goddess of hunting (and by association country sports), to whom the small temple to the left of the west portico was also dedicated. The goddess pours water from an amphora, flanked by her brother Apollo on the right and possibly by her lover Endymion on the left, both figures derived from two of Pietro Aquila’s engravings of the statues in the Farnese Gallery (fig. 2).27 A stone replica of the Borghese Hermaphrodite, one of the few copies in Britain, adds to the overall theme of the portico.28 Numerous plaster busts on brackets or pedestals, those of the lower storey all painted black to resemble bronze, and some marble ‘heads’, such as the two antique herms now moved inside to flank the south door, complete the haphazardly antique flavour of the portico.29 The upper storey shows similar themes in its painted decoration: the west wall shows Flora, the goddess of Spring, pouring flowers from above the clouds, while the east wall echoes the erotic theme of the ceiling, showing cupids pulling a curtain to reveal an image of Venus in the oval medallion at the upper corner. Below them appears the Centaur with Cupid, one of the most famous antique statues in the Borghese collection in Rome and a well-known symbol of the unrelenting power of desire.30 The inspiration probably came from the plate in Paolo Alessandro Maffei and Domenico de Rossi’s Raccolta di statue antiche e moderne (1704), the most authoritative publication on ancient sculpture of the eighteenth century, present in the Library.31 However, they modified the figure of Cupid, possibly to make the god of love appear more recognisable than in the print.

Bacchus and Ariadne

Figure 4.
Michel Dorigny after Simon Vouet, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1644. Etching and engraving, 25.7 × 20.2 cm. The British Museum (X,6.60).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.3)

The Hall and the Palmyra Dining Room: Two Roman Atria

Prior to the erection of the west portico in 1767–71, the south front constituted the main entrance to the house and hence opens to the main Hall and Saloon, the central axis of the building (see fig. 1, nos A, B). The Hall’s tripartite arrangement with a screen of columns was built in the mid-1750s but the present decoration was made around 1770 (see Hornsby, ‘House and Drawings Collection’, fig. 10.) The ceiling of this room, that of the adjacent Palmyra-Dining Room and that of the West Wycombe church of St Lawrence, all probably painted by Giovanni Borgnis, as well as the west portico’s stuccoed ceiling, are derived from prints in Robert Wood’s Ruins of Palmyra, 1753, to which Dashwood had subscribed. Used throughout Britain as a neo-classical decorative source, the book’s repeated use at West Wycombe is nonetheless unique. Wood had been a member of Dashwood’s short-lived Divan Club (1744–6) and was elected to the Society of Dilettanti in 1763. The heavy use of Palmyra-influenced ceilings at West Wycombe might therefore result from the friendship between Wood and Dashwood.32 The Hall’s ceiling is matched by a similarly patterned stone floor, again probably by Giovanni Borgnis, but here based on Romano-British mosaic pavements. Many of these were excavated during the course of the century and published by the Society of Antiquaries, to which Dashwood had been elected a fellow in June 1769. Several of the Society’s engravings of such pavements are still preserved in the house today.33

With its screens of columns that create a central square plan, its ‘archaeological’ Palmyrene-Roman and Romano-British ceiling and floor, its walls and dado painted to resemble respectively pavonazzetto and porphyry marble, and its collection of busts, this Doric ‘marble’ hall is clearly meant to evoke the atrium of an ancient Roman house as described by Vitruvius.34 This reference, applicable to innumerable eighteenth-century British halls before and after West Wycombe, is repeated in the similar Palmyra-Dining Room, which was described in the 1782 inventory of the house as the ‘First Hall’, hence intended to present a similar ‘Roman’ character as the preceding ‘Great Hall’.35 This was arranged by Revett after 1771 and it is probable that the same architect was responsible for the choice of painted decoration for both halls.36

The Staircase: Biblical and Mythological Love

The rich decoration of the staircase could not be in starker contrast to the severity of the ‘archaeological’ Hall. Painted earlier, around 1758, by Borgnis the elder, it displays a rich array of figures in grisaille, surely in imitation of similar Kentian grisaille-painted staircases of the previous generation.37 Dashwood’s taste for citation, pastiche and irreverent wit here reaches its climax, in a spirit similar to Knapton’s portraits of the members of the Society of Dilettanti – that of Dashwood in particular.38 The decoration freely juxtaposes biblical scenes, mostly derived from Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican Loggie, with mythological ones, all borrowed from Carracci’s frescoes in Palazzo Farnese. As the stairs lead towards the private bedchambers, the overall theme is carnal love, expressed through its whole spectrum – chastity, seduction, sin, deceit, adultery, concubinism, incest and rape. Or, rather, the underlying theme here is the exposure of the irreverent content of those revered canonical images. The visitor ascends anti-chronologically – from the later to the earliest books of Genesis, from the Bible to the Olympian gods, from clothed figures to the divine nude. The scenes in grisaille are framed by an architectural decoration derived from Aquila’s engravings of the Farnese Gallery used for the decoration of the east and south porticoes (see fig. 2).

The first scene, at the bottom of the stairs, depicts Abimelech, king of the Philistines, surprising Isaac and his wife Rebecca, after Isaac had presented Rebecca to the king not as his wife but as his sister in order to protect her (Genesis 26). This scene, like many others on the staircase, derives from Raphael’s biblical panels in the Loggie (1519), via Pietro Aquila and Cesare Fantetti’s engravings found in Dashwood’s library.39 The following two niches present two enigmatic figures: the first could be interpreted as Momus, personification of satire and mockery, depicted as a fool with his mummer’s stick pointing at the two secret lovers. The second, a female figure, is possibly Angerona, the Roman goddess of silence and secrecy, who, holding a candle, is inviting us to stay silent regarding the activities of the night.40 Ascending the stairs, a large panel depicts Abraham expelling Hagar, his concubine, and Ishmael, their son, after his wife Sarah had given birth to their legitimate son Isaac (Genesis 21:9–13; fig. 5). The scene is based on a far less canonical image, clearly picked because of its subject – an engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi based on a design by Giuseppe Zocchi, adapted in reverse to follow the orientation of the staircase (fig. 6).41

Abraham expelling Hagar and Ishmael

Figure 5.
Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis after Francesco Bartolozzi, Abraham expelling Hagar and Ishmael, circa 1758 West Wycombe Park.

Digital image courtesy of West Wycombe Park / Photo: Rodolfo Acevedo Rodriguez. (All rights reserved)

Abraham expelling Hagar and Ishmael

Figure 6.
Francesco Bartolozzi after Giuseppe Zocchi, Abraham expelling Hagar and Ishmael, 1758. Engraving and etching, 52.1 × 34.6 cm. The Metropolitan Museum, New York (66.555.9).

Digital image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence. (All rights reserved)

Galeriae Farnesianae Icones

Figure 7.
Pietro Aquila after Annibale Carracci, Galeriae Farnesianae Icones, plate 5, Painted panels in the Galleria Farnese; at centre, Juno seducing Jupiter, circa 1677. Engraving and etching, 28.5 66.8 cm. The British Museum (1896,1118.114.8).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.2)

The following panel, on the landing, shows Abraham visited by the Three Angels announcing that his wife Sarah will soon bear a son, Isaac (Genesis 18:2), again from Fantetti’s engraving after Raphael. It is possible that this scene reveals a more personal reason behind the choice of the biblical subjects. In 1745, Sir Francis, who was fifty at the time of the execution of the staircase, had married Sarah Ellis, although the couple remained childless. If this panel refers to his wife Sarah, to their unfruitful marriage and hope for progeny, the previous scene could hint at Dashwood’s notorious train of lovers and affairs, and perhaps to illegitimate descent.42 Alternatively, given that Sarah also had to ascend and descend the staircase, Dashwood may have intended Abraham expelling Hagar to symbolise his intention to curtail his libertine behaviour, although this was not something that he achieved.

After a plaster cast of the Venus de’Medici, who exposes her posterior to the ascending visitor, the next wall provides a pause in the erotic theme: a prophet and an evangelist flank Domenichino’s Maiden and the Unicorn from the Farnese Gallery, a well-known allegory of chastity and virtue, as the inscription on Nicholas Dorigny’s engraving reveals.43 But the pause is brief, as the next wall combines Carracci’s Rape of Ganymede from the Farnese Gallery with the Creation of Eve and the Original Sin from Raphael’s Loggie.44 In the final ascent one meets again Carracci’s gods from Palazzo Farnese. On the landing is Hercules at Rest after his twelve labours, from the Farnese Camerino, intended to symbolise the pleasure of rest after hard labour, as explained by the inscription to Aquila’s engraving.45 On the final wall Juno seducing Jupiter is followed by Diana seduced by Pan, both from the Farnese Gallery (fig. 7).46 Above the figure of Juno, part of the inscription on Aquila’s engraving is included, making explicit the dual nature of the queen of the gods as sister and wife of Jupiter.47 Crowning the ascent, a triumph of Cupids painted on the ceiling presides over the rest. Overall, the staircase decoration constitutes a unique instance in Britain where copies of celebrated biblical and mythological images are juxtaposed in a way that indicates humour, if not outright mockery.

The Family Dining Room: Matrimonial Love

A different, more sedate, type of love is celebrated in the private dining room of the family, originally the State Bedchamber (see fig. 1, no. H). Unsurprisingly, given its function, the iconography of the room revolves round the subject of marriage. To judge by its Rococo decoration, this room, together with the Study at the opposite end of the ground floor (see fig. 1, no. F), was probably one of the first to be executed. Here, the pictorial quality is rather poor, suggesting that it was perhaps painted by one of the younger Borgnis. The frieze displays two repeated grisaille scenes on a blue background, showing the Aldobrandini Wedding, the most famous surviving specimen of ancient Roman painting, and the Borghese Dancers, one of the most celebrated ancient reliefs of the Borghese collection in Rome (see Aymonino, Object in Focus), both copied innumerable times in British interiors after West Wycombe. A series of cupids punctuates the space between the repeated scenes.48 Both ancient painting and relief had been published in the most influential antiquarian publication on ancient reliefs and frescoes, Giovanni Pietro Bellori and Pietro Santi Bartoli’s Admiranda Romanarum antiquitatum, with Bellori’s erudite nuptial interpretation of both scenes given in the captions to the images.49 A copy of the book is in the library (see Aymonino, Object in Focus). On the ceiling, the central painted panel shows what is possibly a female version of Hymen, the god of marriage, often depicted with wings, especially in the eighteenth century. A similar ceiling appears in the Study, this time showing the love of Rinaldo and Armida from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, an established allegory of the power of love over martial duty (see fig. 1, no. F).

The Roman Rooms: The Red Drawing Room and Tapestry Room

A different atmosphere is presented in the two rooms where Dashwood’s spirit of experimentation is more evident, which are the Tapestry Room, once the Dressing Room attached to the State Bedchamber, and the slightly larger Red Drawing Room, located at opposite sides of the central Saloon (see fig. 1, nos G and D). The ceilings of both rooms faithfully depict ancient Roman models and were probably painted by William Hannan, as reported by Edward Edwards – confirmed also by their modest artistic quality (fig. 8).50 They reproduce drawings after antique Roman ceilings by the draughtsman and antiquarian Francesco Bartoli, collected by the bibliophile Richard Topham and kept at Eton College Library from 1736 (fig. 9).51 Topham’s drawings were well known to connoisseurs, as well as to Old Etonians like Dashwood. A few years later they were encountered by Robert Adam, becoming one of the preferred visual sources for his new style and for several other neo-classical architects of his generation.52 The Red Drawing Room’s ceiling also shows two of Hannan’s replicas of ancient Roman figurative scenes – a Sleeping Cupid from Palazzo Barberini, copied from another Topham drawing, in this case by the skilled draughtsman and engraver Giovanni Domenico Campiglia (figs 10 and 11);53 and Augustus giving a Crown in the Presence of Maecenas and Agrippa, from an original in the collection of Dr Richard Mead, as the Latin inscription placed beneath the image explains.54 This was one of the few original fragments of ancient painting that had reached England in the eighteenth century and had been illustrated a few years earlier in George Turnbull’s Treatise on Ancient Painting, 1740, to which Dashwood had subscribed.55 As Hannan must have copied it from the original before Mead’s death in 1754 – the print is in reverse – we can certainly date these West Wycombe ceilings to the early years of the 1750s. They are therefore the first known large-scale replicas of Topham drawings, a source that soon became crucial in the formation of British neo-classical decoration. In the attempt to create two ‘correct’ Roman rooms, citing ancient decorative and figurative prototypes rather than Renaissance or Baroque cycles, Dashwood was concerned with archaeological correctness, which places him at the forefront of contemporary taste.

Ceiling of the red drawing room

Figure 8.
William Hannan, Ceiling of the red drawing room, circa 1753-54. West Wycombe Park.

Digital image courtesy of West Wycombe Park / Photo: Rodolfo Acevedo Rodriguez. (All rights reserved)

An ancient ceiling from the Palatine

Figure 9.
Francesco Bartoli, An ancient ceiling from the Palatine, inscribed on recto, lower centre ‘B.n 6. No 21’, on verso, lower left ‘Bartoli’, lower right ‘Villa Hadriana’, circa 1721. Pencil, pen, watercolour and bodycolour, 36 × 35.8 cm. Eton College Library (Bn.6.21).

Digital image courtesy of The Provost and Fellows of Eton College. (All rights reserved)

Sleeping Cupid from Palazzo Barberini

Figure 10.
William Hannan, Sleeping Cupid from Palazzo Barberini, ceiling of the red drawing room, circa 1753-54. West Wycombe Park.

Digital image courtesy of West Wycombe Park / Photo: Rodolfo Acevedo Rodriguez. (All rights reserved)

An ancient painting from Palazzo Barberini

Figure 11.
Giovanni Domenico Campiglia, An ancient painting from Palazzo Barberini, inscribed on recto, lower left ‘Campiglia’, lower right ‘Pittura Anticirca Palazzo Barberini’, circa 1721-25. Pencil, pen, watercolour and bodycolour, 22.5 × 29.5 cm. Eton College Library (Bn.9.10).

Digital image courtesy of The Provost and Fellows of Eton College. (All rights reserved)

While these two rooms are devoted to ancient Roman decoration, the Tapestry Room also displays minor iconographic themes related to the figures of Venus and Apollo. The painted decoration extends to the dado, frieze, cornice and chimneypiece of the room, created in grisaille or gilded scrollwork with swags over a pink background. The chimneypiece tablet depicts a Toilet of Venus, a subject appropriate for a dressing room, which was executed, most probably by Hannan, from an engraving by Benoît Audran the Elder after Francesco Albani.56 In addition, the ceiling shows medallions, not present in the original Bartoli drawing, with the story of Apollo and Marsyas, most probably all derived from prints: the figure of Marsyas, for instance, is taken from a print of 1712 by Simon Gribelin reproducing a painting by Andrea Schiavone now in the Royal Collection.57

The Saloon: The Council of the Gods

The central Saloon presents a completely different décor (see fig. 1, no. B). Its ceiling, painted by Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis around 1754–5, is the first of the three large ceilings that he created at West Wycombe. Being the most important public room, as John Preston Neale states, it ‘represents a full assemblage of the ancient mythology’ (fig. 12).58 Here, the iconographic choice indicates that Dashwood and Borgnis were guided once more by a passage from Vitruvius, where he mentions that ancient Roman houses were decorated with images of the gods or sequences of mythological narratives.59 The various protagonists of the composition are derived from different prints, grouped together against the blue Olympian heavens crossed by a zodiac rainbow. To the left the Council of the Gods is taken from Raphael’s ceiling for the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche in the Villa Farnesina in Rome (1517–18), of which Dashwood owned Nicolas Dorigny’s engraving.60 The rest of the ceiling is covered with all the major divinities not included in Raphael’s Council. Some, like the crowned figure of Aeolus at the top centre of the composition, the figure of Justice holding a scale, the turretted Cybele on her chariot pulled by lions, Ceres on hers drawn by snakes, plus other minor figures, are derived from Pietro da Cortona’s Apotheosis of Aeneas on the ceiling of the gallery of Palazzo Pamphilj (1651–4) and were probably copied from Carlo Cesio’s set of engravings (fig. 13).61 Others, like Diana and her nymphs, Flora and Zephyrus spreading flowers, the chariot of Apollo, or the two groups of Father Time with the three Fates (Moirai) and Vulcan trying to catch Cupid with his net, are almost certainly derived from prints as well. The whole composition, a pastiche with no real iconographic consistency, if not the display of Olympian gods, is framed by a cornice in grisaille with the griffin, the heraldic crest of Sir Francis, in the four corners.

Ceiling of the saloon

Figure 12.
Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis, Ceiling of the saloon, West Wycombe Park.

Digital image courtesy of West Wycombe Park / Photo: Rodolfo Acevedo Rodriguez. (All rights reserved)

Galleria Dipinta nel Palazzo del Prencipe Panfilio

Figure 13.
Carlo Cesi after Pietro da Cortona, Galleria Dipinta nel Palazzo del Prencipe Panfilio, plate 8, circa 1661. Etching, 28 × 53.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Prints (51.501.4337).

Digital image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence. (All rights reserved)

The Blue Drawing Room and the Music Room: The Love of the Gods

Similar assemblages appear on the extravagantly painted ceilings of the two other rooms. These were executed later, after the return of Borgnis the elder from Duncombe Park in 1757, as they are close in style to his work there; also, one of the scenes in the ceiling of the Music Room is derived from a print dated 1759 (see fig. 16).62 The Blue Drawing Room was originally the Dining Room and its iconography reflects its original function (see fig. 1, no. C). This is the room where the iconographic themes, Bacchus and Venus, are most consistently applied across the whole display, embracing also the works of art. Its ceiling is a replica of the Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, the centrepiece of Carracci’s Love of the Gods cycle in the Farnese Gallery (fig. 14), derived once again from one of Aquila’s engravings.63 The scene is contained in a rich painted border, adapted from the Cesio set of engravings after Cortona’s Apotheosis of Aeneas, already used for the Saloon (see fig. 13). However, on the Blue Drawing Room’s painted border, grapes are interspersed here and there and the two grisaille medallions represent Bacchic revellers rather than episodes from the cycle of the Trojan hero (fig. 14).64 The Bacchic theme is carried into the frieze of the room itself and the chimneypiece, both showing wine-making putti among grapes and scrolls of vegetation. They come from an engraving in Antoine Desgodetz’s Les Edifices antiques de Rome, 1682, reproducing the celebrated Sarcophagus of Constantia, called at the time the ‘Tomb of Bacchus’, which had already been used as a model for the official casket of the Society of Dilettanti.65

Ceiling of the blue drawing room

Figure 14.
Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis, Ceiling of the blue drawing room, West Wycombe Park.

Digital image courtesy of West Wycombe Park / Photo: Rodolfo Acevedo Rodriguez. (All rights reserved)

The triumphant love of Bacchus and Ariadne is blessed from below by a white marble replica of the Venus de’Medici, the second copy of the famous ancient prototype to be found at the house; a third, in lead, was placed in the Temple of Venus in the gardens.66 Originally, the collection of paintings also connected with the décor of the room. The arrangement included canvases showing several Venuses as well as amorous scenes such as Jupiter and Danae or Lot and his Daughter, plus ‘Flower Pieces’, while a ‘Statuary marble head of a Grecian Lady after an Antique’ was placed close to the marble Venus.67

The adjacent Music Room was originally the Best or Great Drawing Room (see fig. 1, no. E). Here, in what was probably the last room to be decorated, the use of different printed sources assembled to create a new whole was brought to its peak with the ceiling décor (fig. 15). The central panel is a replica of Raphael’s Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Psyche from the Loggia in the Villa Farnesina (1517–18), a pendant to the Council of the Gods in the Saloon’s ceiling, also from the Dorigny series.68 In imitation of Raphael’s Loggia, as well as of Carracci’s Farnese Gallery and, closer to home, of the Long Gallery at Mereworth, the ceiling has a deep cove, where extra decoration is displayed. The overall design, with alternating rectangular and round panels, as well as the grisaille ignudi and telamons in the corners, is derived from the Farnese Gallery, via the Aquila engravings, used elsewhere in the house (see fig. 7). The roundels's subjects derive from the painted spandrels in the Loggia in the Villa Farnesina, referring to the wedding taking place in the central panel: (anticlockwise from the bottom left) Venus and Cupid, Cupid pleads with Jupiter for Psyche, Venus, Ceres and Juno and Cupid and the Three Graces, while musical angels are depicted as celebrating the occasion.69

Ceiling of the music room

Figure 15.
Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis, Ceiling of the music room, West Wycombe Park.

Digital image courtesy of West Wycombe Park / Photo: Rodolfo Acevedo Rodriguez. (All rights reserved)

The rectangular panels on the cove have different subjects but all chosen in reference to the central scene. The one on the left in figure 15 shows Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, copied once again from Dorigny;70 the beautiful young nereid in love with the peasant shepherd Acis was certainly suited to a room dedicated to the loves of the gods.71 To the bottom of figure 15, the explicitly erotic Marine Triumph painted by Agostino Carracci in the Farnese Gallery is included, which was interpreted in Aquila’s engraving as Venus abducted by Triton in the Company of the Graces.72 The following panel on the right shows Guido Reni’s Venus attired by the Graces, then in the Royal Collection and now in the National Gallery, London, a print by Robert Strange having been published in 1759 (fig. 16).73 Finally, the last panel displays a less obvious subject, François Girardon’s sculptural group for Versailles representing Apollo attended by the Nymphs, from an engraving by Jean Édelinck of 1678.74 Surrounded by beautiful nymphs, the god of music and poetry was perfectly suited to the room, since he also appears in the company of the Muses and Venus, performing at the wedding, on the left of the central panel (see fig. 15). The overall theme is also present on the elaborate chimneypiece, probably provided by Henry Cheere, showing on its frieze Zephyrus and Flora embracing, surrounded by Psychai holding garlands of flowers.75 Other elements of the room, however, hint at different motifs: the frieze, modelled in plaster, alternates stags’ heads with bows, arrows and garlands of flowers, referring to hunting. By contrast, the original arrangement of pictures displayed mainly Old and New Testament scenes, saints and philosophers and landscapes. These sober subjects were probably chosen by Dashwood to contrast with the erotic nature of the ceiling, a similar disjunction as that seen in the ensemble of the staircase.76

Venus attired by the Graces

Figure 16.
Robert Strange after Guido Reni, Venus attired by the Graces, 1759. Etching and engraving, 50.6 × 37.7. The British Museum (1868,0822.1882).

Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

By the end of the visit, the educated guest visiting West Wycombe must have felt exhilarated, if not overwhelmed, by this tour de force of visual and intellectual stimuli. Whenever in doubt, the keys to this painted ‘puzzle’ were within easy reach in the owner’s Library, situated above the Saloon on the first floor (see fig. 1). The various volumes in the Library provided collectively an intellectual code that was shared among a circle of male connoisseurs, all initiates of the Grand Tour, who regarded Rome as their final destination and spiritual goal. At the same time, the Library also served the practical purpose of offering an accessible repertoire of forms and meanings that could be consulted by Dashwood in his continuous expansion of the decorative cycles of the house, which were executed over a period of twenty years. The final result was a rural pantheon, only this time with Bacchus and Venus on the throne rather than Jupiter and Juno; a house where canonical images were associated with one another in the name of a new ‘ironic’ consistency, as well as pure pastiche. At the same time, the villa should also be considered as a palimpsest of British neo-classicism, for it was a space where decorative models that soon became widespread were tested for the first time. Wit, displacement, the juxtaposition of disparate elements and the subversion of established hierarchies are all characteristics that coexist comfortably at West Wycombe. If this ludic approach seems familiar to us, it is surely because we cannot fail to recognise it in our own contemporary aesthetic.


  • Adriano Aymonino_crop

    Adriano Aymonino is Director of Undergraduate Programmes in the Department of History of Art at the University of Buckingham and Programme Director for the MA in the Art Market and the History of Collecting. He has curated several exhibitions, such as Drawn from the Antique: Artists and the Classical Ideal, held at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London in 2015. His book Enlightened Eclecticism was published by Yale University Press in June 2021. He is currently working on a revised edition of Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny’s Taste and the Antique (2022); and on a critical edition of Robert Adam's Grand Tour correspondence, which will be hosted on the Sir John Soane’s Museum website (2023). He is also co-editor of the series Paper Worlds published by MIT Press and associate editor of the Journal of the History of Collections.


  1. On the refurbishment of West Wycombe Park see in this case study Clare Hornsby, ‘The House and the Drawings Collection at West Wycombe Park: Dashwood’s Educated Taste’, London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2019, including previous bibliography.

  2. On the Earl of Northumberland copies see Jeremy Wood, ‘Raphael Copies and Exemplary Picture Galleries in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 62, no. 3, 1999, pp. 394–417; Adriano Aymonino, Enlightened Eclecticism: the Patronage and Collections of the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, forthcoming (2021).

  3. On the park, its temples and themes see Gervase Jackson-Stops, ‘The West Wycombe Landscape – I & II’, Country Life, 155, nos 4016 and 4017, 20 and 27 June 1974, pp. 1618–21, 1682–5; Wendy Frith and Richard Wheeler, ‘Gardens of Desire: Sexuality and Politics in the Georgian Landscape Gardens at Medmenham Abbey and West Wycombe’, New Arcadian Journal, vol. 49–50, 2000, whole issue; Michael Symes, ‘Flintwork, Freedom and Fantasy: The Landscape at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire’, Garden History, vol. 33, no. 1, Summer 2005, pp. 1–30.

  4. ‘Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed’: Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Third, ed. Dennis le Marchant, 4 vols, London: Bentley, 1845, vol. 1, p. 174. See also Tim Knox, ‘Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, as a Collector of Ancient and Modern Sculpture’, in Nicholas Penny and Eike D. Schmidt, eds, Collecting Sculpture in Early Modern Europe, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 399–400.

  5. Bruce Redford, Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008, p. 3; Jason M. Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 74–7.

  6. Many illustrated books bearing Dashwood’s ex libris label and a few collections of prints survive today in the library at West Wycombe; some are listed in an 18th-century inventory of Dashwood’s library, most probably compiled at the time of his death in 1781, as it includes books published up to 1779: Bodleian Library, Oxford: MS DD, Dashwood, C6/3. No sales of family books and maps include illustrated books or prints: Sotheby’s, London 22–23 July 1963, lots 335–46; Christie’s, London, 22 March 1967, lots 154–64; Christie’s, London, 19 April 1967, lots 100–22. The sale of part of the library of Sir Henry William Dashwood, 5th Baronet, of the Kirtlington Park branch (Christie’s, London, 23 June 1887, lots 201–70), contains bound volumes that correspond to several of the sources used to decorated West Wycombe Park. Most of the books had probably been collected originally by Sir Henry’s ancestor, Sir James Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, who shared with our Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer, the house in Hanover Square and, presumably, also the library.

  7. Significantly, apart from collections of prints reproducing frescoes in Roman palaces and villas, Dashwood’s library contained the most recent guide to the Villa Borghese: Andrea Brigentio, Villa Burghesia . . ., Rome: Apud Franciscum Gonzagam, 1716. See BO, MS DD, Dashwood, C6/3.

  8. On Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis see Edward Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England, 1537–1837, vol. 2: Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, London: Country Life, 1970, pp. 173–4; Tullio Bertamini, ‘Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis pittore (Craveggia 1701–West Wycombe 1761)’, Oscellana, vol. 13, nos 3–4, 1983, pp. 115–209; Stefano Zuffi, ‘Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis’, in Giuliano Briganti, ed., La pittura in Italia: Il Settecento, 2 vols, Milan: Electa, 1990, vol. 2, p. 633; Dario Gnemmi, Borgnis in England, Ornavasso: Saccardo, 2001.

  9. On Rievaulx Terrace see Gnemmi, 2001, pp. 29–30, 44–8; The Rievaulx Terrace, North Yorkshire, Swindon: National Trust, 2007.

  10. See Hornsby, ‘House and Drawings Collection

  11. John Preston Neale, Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, vol. 6, London: Sherwood, Jones and Company, 1823, n.p. On Aquila’s set of engravings see Evelina Borea, Lo specchio dell’arte italiana: Stampe in cinque secoli, 4 vols, Pisa: Edizioni della Normale, 2009, vol. 1, pp. 310–12.

  12. Neale, 1823, n.p.

  13. ‘Italia con le sue Provincie’ appears in numerous 17th- and 18th-centuries editions of Ripa: see e.g. Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, overo descrittione di diverse imagini, Rome: Lepido Facii, 1603, p. 247. See also Francesca Romano, ‘Le allegorie delle regioni italiane nell’Iconologia di Cesare Ripa’, in Sonia Maffei, ed., Cesare Ripa e gli spazi dell’allegoria, Naples: La Stanza delle Scritture, 2010, pp. 227–69.

  14. On the Aurora’s fortune see Carla Mazzarelli, ‘“Old masters” da exempla a souvenir: Note sulla fortuna dell’Aurora Rospigliosi di Guido Reni tra Settecento e Ottocento’, in Giovanna Capitelli, Stefano Grandesso and Carla Mazzarelli, eds, Roma fuori di Roma: l’esportazione dell’arte moderna da Pio VI all’Unità (1775–1870), Rome: Campisano, 2012, pp. 509–27. On Frey’s print see Borea, 2009, vol. 1, p. 404.

  15. Gnemmi, 2001, pp. 29–30, 44–5.

  16. On the fortune of the Aurora in British country houses see John Cornforth, ‘An Amateur’s Elysium: West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire’, Country Life Annual, 1 January 1972, p. 31; Christine Casey, Making Magnificence: Architects, Stuccatori and the Eighteenth-Century Interior, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.

  17. However, the decoration is captured in Daniell’s 1781 views of the house: see Tim Knox, West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, Swindon: National Trust, 2001, pp. 34, 55.

  18. At this time William Chambers was erecting the Temple of Bellona at Kew Gardens, for instance: see Douglas Fordham, British Art and the Seven Years’ War: Allegiance and Autonomy, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, passim. I am indebted to Jason Kelly for suggesting this iconographic interpretation.

  19. These lions were surely provided by John Cheere, who copied them from the two marble lions in the gardens at Chiswick: see Terry Friedman and Timothy Clifford, The Man at Hyde Park Corner: Sculpture by John Cheere, 1709–1787, exh. cat., Stable Court Exhibition Galleries, Temple Newsam, and Marble Hill House, Twickenham, 1974, no. 92. They do not appear in Hannan’s c.1751–4 view (see fig. 1 in Aymonino and Hornsby Introduction) but are there in Daniell’s view of 1781 (Knox, 2001, p. 55) and are listed in the 1782 inventory: see West Wycombe Archive, ‘Inventory. Hanover Square 1781 – West Wycombe Park 1782’, no. 48. Neale mentions the tympanum as painted in fresco with ‘Apollo and the Muses’ but from the whole passage it is clear that he is instead referring to the ceiling of the portico with its painted ‘Aurora’: see Neale, 1823, n.p.

  20. Giles Worsley, ‘West Wycombe Park, Bucks., the Seat of Sir Francis Dashwood and a Property of the National Trust’, Country Life, vol. 184, no. 36, 6 September 1990, p. 112.

  21. ‘West Wycombe Park 1782’, no. 48. The two marble statues have now gone, while the ‘2 Large Lead figures of Sphynx’s on a pedestal’, surely all provided by Cheere, were relocated by the 11th baronet nearby, in front of the small Temple of Diana to the right of the west portico: see Knox, 2008, p. 416 n. 30, also p. 402, for other various payments to Cheere. Arthur T. Bolton, ‘West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, I’, Country Life, 39, no. 991, 1 January 1916, p. 16, fig. 1, still shows the sphinxes in their original location. On the original Bacchus of Versailles see Alexandre Maral, François Girardon (1628–1715): le sculpteur de Louis XIV, Paris: Arthena, 2015, pp. 164–5, 175 (with previous bibliography). The ‘Piping Faunus’ was surely a copy of the Borghese Faun with Pipes, now in the Louvre: see Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500–1900, rev. and updated, ed. Adriano Aymonino and Eloisa Dodero, Turnhout: Brepols, 2021, no. 38. The ‘Ganymede’ was probably a copy of a statue then in the Villa Medici in Rome and now in the Uffizi, Florence. Cheere had already provided a copy of it, among others, to the 1st Duke of Northumberland for Syon House. For the original statue see Alessandro Cecchi and Carlo Gasparri, La Villa Médicis 4: le collezioni del cardinale Ferdinando: i dipinti e le sculture, Rome: École Française de Rome, 2009, pp. 55–6. For a discussion on copies of this statue in Britain see Aymonino, Enlightened Eclecticism, forthcoming.

  22. For Reni’s painting, now destroyed, see D. Stephen Pepper, Guido Reni: A Complete Catalogue of his Works with an Introductory Text, Oxford: Phaidon, 1984, no. 169. For Frey’s prints see Marie Therese Bätschmann, Jakob Frey (1681–1752): Kupferstecher und Verleger in Rom, Bern: Selbstverlag, 1997, pp. 217–18, no. 163.

  23. On Albani’s frescoes see Catherine R. Puglisi, Francesco Albani, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999, pp. 125–8, no. 38. On Frezza’s engraving see Borea, 2009, vol. 1, p. 403.

  24. Croft-Murray, 1970, p. 217.

  25. Knox, 2001, p. 6.

  26. For Vouet’s painting, now lost, and Dorigny’s engraving see William R. Crelly, The Paintings of Simon Vouet, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962, p. 251, no. 222, fig. 188.

  27. Although the statue in Aquila’s engraving represents Mercury with his caduceus, it was instead given a bow and turned probably into Endymion by Dashwood and Borgnis in order to fit the theme of the painted fountain. For the figure of Apollo see Pietro Aquila, Galeriae Farnesianae Icones, c. 1677, plate 21 (Tabula VI); Borea, 2009, vol. 1, pp. 310–12.

  28. On the Borghese Hermaphrodite, then in the Casino Borghese and now in the Louvre, see Haskell and Penny, 2021, no. 48. The West Wycombe copy was already described in its current position in the 1782 inventory of the house: ‘West Wycombe Park 1782’, no. 36, ‘A Sleeping Figure on a Matrass & Pedestal’.

  29. Many plaster busts survive in their original location: see ‘West Wycombe Park 1782’, no. 36.

  30. See Haskell and Penny, 2021, no. 21.

  31. Alessandro Maffei and Domenico de Rossi, Raccolta di statue antiche e moderne, Rome: Stamperia alla Pace, 1704, pp. 67–8 for a thorough iconographic interpretation of the subject.

  32. On Wood’s memberships see Redford, 2008, p. 204 and passim; Kelly, 2009, passim; Jocelyn Anderson, ‘Rescuing from Oblivion: The Ruins of Palmyra and Baalbek in the Eighteenth Century’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 158, no. 1362, September 2016, p. 715. On Palmyra ceilings in Britain see Richard Hewlings, ‘A Palmyra Ceiling in Lincoln’, Architectural History, no. 31, 1988, pp. 166–70.

  33. Only the central part of the Hall floor is original, the rest having been reconstructed in the 1970s based on what was there before: see Worsley, 1990, p. 115. A print that must have served as inspiration shows a Roman mosaic discovered at Wellow, Somerset, published by the Society of Antiquaries in 1738, see Stephen R. Cosh and David S. Neal, Roman Mosaics of Britain, Vol. 3 South-East Britain, London: Society of Antiquaries of London, 2009.

  34. Vitruvius, De Architectura, 6.3.6.

  35. ‘West Wycombe Park 1782’, nos 27, 28.

  36. Knox, 2001, p.15. The Palmyra Dining Room does not appear in the plan illustrated in John Woolfe, Vitruvius Britannicus, vol. V, London, 1771, pl. 47 (see fig. 1, no. I), so must have been realised after that date.

  37. The execution of the staircase is usually dated c.1755: see e.g. Knox, 2001, p. 14. However, as one panel of the decoration is based on an engraving published in 1758 (see figs 5 and 6), the whole must have been realised after that date. On ‘Kentian’ staircases see Croft-Murray, 1970, pp. 25–31; Steven Brindle, ‘Kent the Painter’, in Susan Weber, ed., William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, exh. cat., London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2014, pp. 111–49.

  38. On Knapton’s portraits see Bruce Redford, ‘“Seria Ludo”: George Knapton’s Portraits of the Society of Dilettanti’, The British Art Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, Autumn 2001, pp. 56–68.

  39. On Raphael’s Loggie see Nicole Dacos, Le Logge di Raffaello: maestro e bottega di fronte all’antico, 2nd ed., Rome: Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, Libreria dello Stato, 1986. On the engraved series see Pietro Aquila and Cesare Fantetti, Imagines veteris ac Novi Testamenti, 1675; Borea, 2009, vol. 1, p. 307.

  40. Statues of Angerona and Harpocrates, the Egyptian god of silence, were displayed in the refectory of Dashwood’s Medmenham Abbey: see Knox, 2008, p. 401.

  41. On the engraving see Alessandro Tosi, Inventare la realtà: Giuseppe Zocchi e la Toscana del Settecento, Florence: Le Monnier, 1997, pp. 232–3.

  42. Dashwood’s only known illegitimate daughter, Rachel Fanny Antonina, was born much later, about 1774: see Patrick Woodland, ‘Dashwood, Francis, eleventh Baron Le Despencer (1708–1781)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn May 2009,, accessed 15 September 2020.

  43. On the original Venus de’Medici see Haskell and Penny, 2021, no. 88. The engraving is in Aquila, c. 1677, plate 18 (Tabula III).

  44. See respectively Aquila, c. 1777, plate 3; Aquila and Fantetti, 1675, plates 5, 6.

  45. Aquila, c. 1777, plate 4.

  46. For Diana seduced by Pan see Aquila, c. 1777, plate 13.

  47. ‘Et soror, et coniux saturnia diva tonantis’.

  48. On the reception of the Aldobrandini Wedding see Giulia Fusconi, La fortuna delle ‘Nozze Aldobrandini’ dall’Esquilino alla Biblioteca Vaticana, Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1994. On the Borghese Dancers see Haskell and Penny, 2021, no. 29.

  49. See ‘Object in Focus’ in the present case study: Giovanni Pietro Bellori and Pietro Santi Bartoli, Admiranda Romanarum antiquitatum.

  50. Edward Edwards, Anecdotes of Painters who have Resided or been born in England . . ., London: Luke Hansard & Sons, 1808, pp. 49–50; Croft-Murray, 1970, pp. 217–18. Elizabeth Percy, 1st Duchess of Northumberland (1716–1776), reported instead that they were painted by otherwise unknown ‘Lecchi’, see Alnwick Castle, Collection of the Duke of Northumberland, DNP: MS 121/59, n.p. (11 March 1776).

  51. Worsley, 1990, pp. 112–17, esp. p. 116; Giles Worsley, ‘Antique Assumptions’, Country Life, vol. 186, no. 32, 6 August 1992, pp. 48–50.

  52. Adriano Aymonino, with Lucy Gwynn and Mirco Modolo, Paper Palaces: The Topham Collection as a Source for British Neo-Classicism, exh. cat., Eton: Eton College Press, 2013, pp. 40–42 on West Wycombe. Dashwood might have known the Topham collection also through his close friend George Bubb Dodington, who went to visit it in the company of Lord Bute in 1750: see John Carswell and Lewis Arnold Dralle, eds, The Political Journal of George Bubb Dodington, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965, p. 89, no. 3.

  53. On the original fragment, now lost, and on Campiglia’s drawing see Lucia Faedo, ‘Vivere con gli antichi: una pittura antica a Palazzo Barberini e la sua fruizione tra XVII e XVIII secolo’, in Lorenza Mochi Onori, Sebastian Schütze and Francesco Solinas, eds, I Barberini e la cultura europea del Seicento, Rome: De Luca Editori, 2007, pp. 381–92.

  54. ‘Fragmentum picturae veteris in pariete factae Romae anno MDCCXXXVII inter palatii Caesaris Augusti rudera, ubi nunc sunt horti Farnesiani, in monte Palatino repertum in quo sex figurae arte exquisita sunt expressae: Augustus ipse sedens, et coronam alicui [cuius imago est abrupta] protendens: ceteris aulici adstantes inter quos Maecenas toga caerulea et pone eum M. Agrippa humero eius dextrum imponens: Ex museo R. Mead M[edicinae]. D[octor].’ ‘A fragment of an ancient wall painting found in Rome in the year 1737 among the ruins of the Palace of Caesar Augustus, where now are the ‘horti Farnesiani’ on the Palatine hill; in it are most artistically executed six figures: Augustus himself sitting offers a crown to a figure [whose image is lost]: For the rest, courtiers standing by, among whom Maecenas wearing a cerulean toga and behind him M[arcus] Agrippa, placing his right hand on his shoulder: from the museum of R[ichard]. Mead d[octor] of m[edicine’ (translation by the author).

  55. George Turnbull, A Treatise on Ancient Painting . . ., London: The Author, 1740, plate 3, pp. 172–3. The image’s interpretation offered by Turnbull served as the basis for the inscription transcribed in n. 54 above. It had also been published previously in Charles Rollin, Ancient History, London: A. Dodd, 10 vols, 1730–8, I, p. 136. At the death of Dr Mead in 1754 the original fragment was retained by the family and not sold at the various Mead sales: see Musei Mediani pars altera: quae Veteris aevi Monumenta ac Gemmas . . . complectitur, London, Langford, 11 March 1755, under ‘Lectori Benevolo’. It was mentioned years later by Robert Dodsley and James Dodsley, London and its Environs described, 6 vols, London: The Authors, 1761, vol. 1, p. 145, as in the collection of a different Richard Mead, Esq, in Albermarle Street, and is now lost.

  56. For the Albani painting, dated 1621–33, see Puglisi, 1999, pp. 157–8, no. 71.ii. For the print see Roger Armand Weigert, Inventaire du Fonds français graveurs du XVII siècle, tome premier: Alix Jean-Boudeau Jean, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1939, pp. 112-13, no. 63.

  57. Sheila O’Connell, ‘Simon Gribelin (1661–1733) Printmaker and Metal-Engraver’, Print Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1, March 1985, p. 34, no. 8c.

  58. Neale, 1823, n.p.

  59. Vitruvius, De Architectura, 7.5.2. See also Worsley, 1990, p. 116.

  60. On Raphael’s Loggia at the Farnesina see Luitpold Dussler, Raphael: A Critical Catalogue of his Pictures, Wall-Paintings and Tapestries, London and New York: Phaidon, 1971, pp. 96–9. For Dorigny’s engraving see Nicholas Dorigny, Psyches et Amoris nuptiae…, 1693, plate 10; Borea, 2009, vol. 1, p. 308. The painted cornice under the group of gods is inscribed ‘Deorum Concilium’, the title of Dorigny’s engraving.

  61. On Cortona’s Pamphilj cycle see John Beldon Scott, ‘Strumento di potere: Pietro da Cortona tra Barberini e Pamphilj’, in Anna lo Bianco, ed., Pietro da Cortona 1597–1669, exh. cat., Rome: Palazzo Venezia, 1997–8, pp. 87–98. For Cesio’s set of prints see Borea, 2009, vol. 1, pp. 334–5. See also Gnemmi, 2001, p. 10.

  62. The Blue Drawing Room is usually dated c.1752: see e.g. Knox, 2008, p. 25. But see Gnemmi, 2001, p. 37, suggesting a date between 1757 and 1761.

  63. Aquila, c. 1677, plate 12.

  64. The medallion on the bottom of fig. 14 is derived from the same engraving by Jakob Frey the Elder after Guido Reni’s Meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne, used later by Hannan for one of the panels of the west portico’s ceiling (see note 22).

  65. Antoine Desgodetz, Les Edifices antiques de Rome, Paris: Jean Baptiste Coignard, 1682, p. 73, pl. V. For the Sarcophagus of Constantia see Doris Bielefeld, Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs, vol. V.2: Die stadtrömischen Eroten-Sarkophage, vol. 2, Berlin: Mann, 1997, pp. 67–73, 134–5, no. 192. For the Dilettanti’s casket see Redford, 2008, p. 6, fig. 4; Kelly, 2009, p. 40, fig. 23.

  66. Knox, 2001, p. 27.

  67. ‘West Wycombe Park 1782’, no. 26. The paintings have since been rehung.

  68. Dorigny, 1693, plate 11.

  69. All from Dorigny, 1693.

  70. Dorigny, 1693, plate 12.

  71. On Raphael’s Galatea see Dussler, 1971, pp. 99–100.

  72. Aquila, c. 1677, plate 6.

  73. On Reni’s painting see Pepper, 1984, p. 244, no. 83. On Strange’s print see Charles Le Blanc, Catalogue de l’oeuvre de Robert Strange graveur, Leipzig: Rudolph Weigel, 1848, p. 30.II.

  74. Maral, 2015, p. 91, fig. 53 for Édelinck’s print.

  75. Knox, 2008, p. 405, with different interpretation of the chimney’s frieze.

  76. See ‘West Wycombe Park 1782’, no. 25.



by Adriano Aymonino
20 November 2020
House Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Adriano Aymonino, "Playing with the Canon: West Wycombe Park’s Iconography and the Principle of Citation", Art and the Country House,