News. Trace the history of Dumfries House

12th of January, 2017

The story of Dumfries House begins in 1748. That year, William Crichton Dalrymple, the 5th Earl of Dumfries, retired from the army and began to create a grand estate on a piece of land inherited upon his mother’s death, six years earlier. “He wanted somewhere to go hunting, shooting and fishing,” explains Thomas Breckney, Dumfries House’s Collections Manager. The Earl also wanted to be seen as progressive, so he commissioned the Adams, a young, family architectural practice whose subsequent work on the House would help make them one of the most fashionable architects in the country.

“It was the Adam brothers’ first major job – and a very modern design,” explains Simon Green, a historian and author of Dumfries House: An Architectural History. “The plan was to make his status known in Ayrshire – that of an Earl of the new post-Jacobite Scotland. The whole House said, ‘I’m a modern, forward-looking, dynamic member of the aristocracy of Scotland’. Hence naming it after his title.”

The Earl lost his wife in 1755, shortly after the building work began. Their first son had died at the age of 10 in 1744, so now he found himself alone. “He had no heir, no wife and he didn’t want his life’s work to go into the hands of strangers,” explains Breckney. “So he decided his priority must be the production of an heir, and therefore he needed a new wife. So he furnished the House to turn it into, essentially, a giant honey-trap.” Interior design became his focus – as the Earl began filling the Rococo-plastered, intricately carved House with fine carpets, silk damask drapes and silver.

“He began travelling to London in search of cutting-edge furniture, and he found it in the workshops of Thomas Chippendale,” explains Breckney. “We revere Chippendale as perhaps England’s greatest cabinet-maker – but he didn’t have that reputation in the 17th century. We’ll never know why the Earl invested as heavily in Chippendale furniture as he did. He went to London wanting a chair and a table, and came back with a huge order.” The resulting collection of furniture at Dumfries House is the biggest in the world. With over 50 pieces, it constitutes around 10 per cent of Chippendale’s surviving authenticated output.

Aside from assembling a collection of treasures, the Earl also draped the house with clues to his social standing, should any eligible partners enter in. “There are strategically placed coats of arms, which have thistles, not for patriotic reasons but because he was a Knight of the Order of the Thistle, and was never shy to remind anyone,” says Breckney. “His portrait, painted about 15 years after the last Jacobite uprising, was by Thomas Hudson – an Englishman. The Earl wanted people to know he was no Jacobite, so even though he’d served for the King, he was a staunch unionist. And the feathers in the central medallion of the carpet in the Blue Drawing Room are American. He’d only have seen drawings of these, but it was an attempt to show he was a man of the world.”

Completed after five years at a cost of 7,979 pounds, 11 shillings and 2 pence, the Earl’s beautifully appointed new home achieved the desired effect – to a point. Three years after its completion, the Earl married a distant cousin, Anne Duff of Crombie, but he died six years later in 1768, with no heir produced. And so the property passed to his nephew Patrick MacDouall-Crichton, the 6th Earl of Dumfries.