A palace of art beside the sea
The National Trust for Scotland faces a major challenge in reconstructing the interiors of Broughton House, the studio home of Glasgow Boys painter E.A. Hornel in Kircudbright.explains the significance of this remarkable house.
Tuesday, 7th August 2007
In 1931 Dorothy L. Sayers opened her novel Five Red Herrings with an amused gazetteer of Kircudbright’s many artists’ studios: ‘There are large and stately studios, panelled and high, in strong stone houses filled with gleaming brass and polished oak… There are little homely studios gay with blue and red and yellow curtains and odd scraps of pottery, tucked down narrow closes and adorned with gardens where old fashioned flowers riot in the rich and friendly soil… There are painters in oils, painters in watercolours, painters in pastel, etchers, and illustrators, workers in metal; artists of every variety, having this one thing in common – that they take their work seriously and have no time for amateurs.’ This proliferation owed everything to the inspiration of the painter E.A. Hornel (1864-1933) (Fig. 1), whose own studio-house in the town’s High Street, Broughton House, became the responsibility of the National Trust for Scotland in 1997 and reopened in 2005 (Fig. 2). The restoration of its interiors is proving one of the most challenging, as well as rewarding, projects undertaken by the NTS, because of the paucity of documentation about these rooms’ original appearance.
Broughton House was established as a ‘Public Art Gallery and Library’ under the terms of a trust established by Hornel in 1920. He died in 1933, but the trust did not come into effect until 1950, following the death of his sister, Elizabeth, known as Tizzy, who had lived there with him and was left the use of the house during her lifetime. The house was opened to the public in 1951. Hornel’s intention was to ensure the preservation of Broughton House with its ‘furnishings, Library, curios, works of art and other articles therein…for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Stewartry of Kircudbright and visitors thereto’. He intended that the contents should be viewed as a ‘nucleus’ and added to under the ‘absolute’ guidance of the ‘Scottish National Gallery’.
Unfortunately, Hornel left no documentary key to help us unlock the histories of his collections, whose provenances and significance died with him and Tizzy. The only inventory to survive – although earlier ones are known to have existed – was made by Thomas Love and Sons of Perth in October 1974 to guide sales at a time when the trustees were being forced to realise their assets in the face of financial difficulties. Hornel’s trustees were representative local worthies of Kircudbright but their duties cannot have been easy to discharge. His vision for the future of Broughton House included the creation of an outstanding library, built-up with great thoroughness on the basis of a comprehensive bibliography of all the books pertaining to the locality, as well as an art gallery and museum which incorporated important archaeological collections.
Broughton House, which has – in the main – a diminutive 18th-century scale and a complexity of levels that stretches further back into the town’s past, was not an ideal choice of building for this new public role. Hornel had clearly forseen this because he included in his gift the large house next door, to allow for future breathing space that has become ever more necessary since the trustees were obliged to sell it during their financial difficulties. The trustees were perhaps more comfortable with carrying forward the library ambitions and in 1952 established a branch library in the dining room.It is impossible to read through their minute books without sympathy for their plight in the face of the financial pressures in staffing and regularly opening a particularly quaint old house in an increasingly popular tourist resort. A body of ‘Friends’ was formed in 1979 to give a focus for fundraising, but also to supply the volunteer staff that allowed for extended visitor hours in the summer.
The trustees, in common with most institutions at this time, had rearranged the rooms in accordance with post-war notions of taste, so that in the hall Hornel’s dense arrangements, which included taxidermy, gave way to a thin, watered-down selection from his eclectic possessions that conformed to the most conventional norms. The more ‘important’ Wedgwood vases forced out the folk-art pottery in his china cabinets, and white paint dispelled his carefully cultivated penumbral aesthetic. The Friends, surely rightly, wanted a new emphasis on Broughton as ‘an artist’s house’, a rather novel concept in Scotland, to show how it had functioned as the home of one of the country’s leading artists. The branch library had already been given its marching orders and Hornel’s dining room re-established, although, sadly, by then nobody could remember how it was meant to look. The Friends continued this revisionism by adding Hornel’s studio to the tour, with a dummy dressed as Hornel as its centrepiece.
The trustees had to be reconfigured to reflect changes in local government and heroically broke themselves financially to reinstate the gallery after a serious fire in 1992. In an important move for the future they had achieved museum registration under the Scottish scheme through the able intervention of David Deveraux of the local Stewarty Museum. Five years after the fire, the house passed to the NTS, which took up the challenge of recreating Hornel’s interiors. Fortunately, there is an excellent photographic record of the interiors in his time, as he used photography as an aid in his painting. The NTS has studied these images minutely in order to recreate his arrangements.
At the core of Hornel’s vision for the house was his passion for Kircudbright and the local area. His family ‘have been resident in Kircudbright for centuries’, although he was born in Australia in 1864 because his parents had emigrated. They returned in 1866 and it is fascinating to speculate whether the intensity of his love for the town owed anything to this dramatic early change of scene. His purchase of Broughton House in 1901 reflected his artistic success, but it was also, as the most outstanding Georgian house in the High Street, the largest artefact in his local-history collections.
A key source for its appearance in his time is an article in Scottish Country Life in June 1916, illustrated with photographs by Annan of Glasgow. The author, James Shaw Simpson, gives a tantalising account of a tour led by Hornel himself that refers to such items as ‘a pewter platter with the arms of Rubens’. Today little of the story can be articulated, as hardly any of the collection has any provenance, with the rather gloomy exception of a shawl worn by the last woman to be hanged locally.
Hornel laid the lightest of hands upon the house. It thus preserves many vernacular features that were once of no consequence but are now exceptionally rare, such as the almost Shakeresque shelving in a slip of a servant’s attic bedroom or the remarkable larder in the basement, which has slate shelving and slatted sliding doors to its upper shelves. Hornel furnished Broughton to play up the past, rather than to provide for modern comforts, in a way that recalls how another artist, Beatrix Potter, furnished her Lake District farmhouses, not so very far away.
Hornel’s immediate need was for a studio, designed by a close friend, the architect John Keppie. It was a more ambitious version of the small studio he had built, and was currently using, across the High Street. The new studio took as its starting point the rubble-built north boundary wall of the garden and was sited to dodge the next door property sufficiently to enjoy unobstructed light.The light was controlled by dark green blinds, which survived in store, and have been recreated in replica form. A stout shelf, supported by a balustrade, at dado height was used by Hornel to display his canvases. A stove was another essential requirement: its warmth may have encouraged Hornel’s female relations to gather here (Fig. 8), as the studio camera records, with their pet cats and needlework. A room off the main studio was probably designed for the models to change in.
Keppie’s initial proposals for his extension were suavely medievalising, but they were seriously compromised by Hornel’s decision to incorporate rather incongrous architectural salvage, such as some late-Georgian gothic windows, which introduce unnecessary side light into the studio. This may have been felt to suit the character of a room that was also a garden building. Preparatory photographs of posed models show that the studio was a private family space of an almost Baconesque untidiness, and cannot have ever been intended for public viewing. A cut-down Georgian sideboard held Hornel’s paints and brushes; scraps of mats and carpet covered the floor.
Hornel’s approach to furnishing the original house was much more dramatic in intent and, paradoxically, in comparison with the practical functionality of the studio, had a great deal in common with the studio-proppery of traditional 19th-century artists’ studios, with old oak, pewter and antique ceramics. According to the Scottish Country Life article, Hornel himself fondly thought that the house dated ‘back to the seventeenth century, though evidence exists of its having been remodelled towards the end of the eighteenth’. His choice of old oak in the hall and the almost Adamesque furnishings of the public rooms may have been intended to complement this history, although the house was actually rebuilt around 1734 and the public rooms are Regency of around 1820.
With its wealth of early oak, pewter and old blue- and-white china displayed among the antlers on a wallpaper whose fragments suggest an effect like elephant hide – a paper that the NTS hopes to replicate in time – the theatrical effect of the hall (Fig. 4), penumbral after the bright pavement outside, is one of great antiquity. Its dense groupings of objects have been painstakingly recreated by Kate Mitchell, Registrar of the National Trust for Scotland. What is perhaps surprising is the quantity of quite humble later cottagey pottery, that now gives a lighter folk-art air to these cabinets. A transfer-printed plate of The Countess of Galloway (Fig. 9) is obviously a local- history item, and may have been used on the steamer itself, but the teapots, one bottomless, with their enchanting strawberries and rosebuds (Fig. 7), betray an unexpected sensibility at this date.
The bow-ended and panelled dining room of around 1820 has a Jane Austenish air. It seems to have been furnished with an appropriate array of mid-Georgian dining-room pieces and a stepped Scotch sideboard. It has regained its green tonality, after Patrick Baty’s paint analysis revealed Hornel’s original decoration, but its recreation is an imaginative interpretation, since there is no record of its appearance other than two photographs of its street end. Fortunately, these include the remarkable display of pewter on a historicist, almost medieval looking, buffet that closed the vista from the hall (Fig. 5). Sadly, this is no longer in the collection, but the arrangement has been recreated using a rather bogus old oak cabinet already in the NTS’s Gift and Bequest Collections, while we buy thinking time and hope to rediscover the original.
The upstairs drawing room, with its bow over the dining room one below, is perhaps the interior most redolent of Hornel in that it even retains his original paint and colour-scheme with an impasto wallpaper covered in patches of a thin, now transparent, wash. A Regency convex mirror and a bookcase with a Grecian sense of line may have been amongst the first Hornel furnishings of a room that now, by its air of bibliomania, reveals its later character as the library. As the library expanded, Muirhead Moffat of Glasgow sent down appropriate Georgian bookcases that are now herded into this room, together with the few original geometric oriental rugs, in dramatic reds, from Hornel’s collection and the many items of seat furniture that happily retain his original Edwardian upholstery.The bedrooms are now disappointing as they are pressed into service for the needs of the library as an exhibition room and reading room. The trustees had already disposed of most of the bedroom furnishings but enough survives to create a single bedroom at the top of the house. At present, storage needs frustrate this curatorial ideal.
Visitors who have until now been confined to these Georgian rooms have an astonishing surprise in store when they step through a tiny lobby into the gallery (Fig. 3). This is one of the finest interiors in the south-west of Scotland and one of the country’s most important, and least known, Edwardian rooms. Designed in 1909, it ingeniously links the semi-detached studio with the house and was raised over the old single-storey coach house and stable, much of which still survives. The room is a Temple of Art in the most deluxe materials, with silvered fittings, mahogany panelling and top lighting through a trabeated ceiling of frosted crystal glass. The artistic pitch is set by a frieze of casts from the Parthenon. On the panelling, and beneath this replica of one of the Greatest Works of Art in the World, Hornel hung only his own paintings, which were admitted through an ingenious trap door between the rafters. Much remains to be learned about Hornel’s commercial side and whether he sold directly to visitors. Designed for the ready despatch of large canvases through the former Coach House doors, the house is fascinating in retaining so much evidence of this trade.
The room was also intended for the display of sculpture and Keppie must have designed the mahogany pedestals on castors that allow works to be studied from different angles and in different lights. But the most important work of sculpture in the room, the Parthenon frieze aside, was the stone fireplace, which Scottish Country Life says was designed by Keppie himself and must have been designed to set off its two ingeniously paired reproduction Pompeian bronzes. A piano by Erard but in a harpsichord-style historicist case added the possibilities of further art to this spellbinding room, where one feels transported to a higher plane of existence and far away from the seaside town.
Katrina Thomson, the NTS Curator of Works and Art and Sculpture, has recreated Hornel’s low hang from the best of what survives from the trustees’ sales, augmented by purchases and loans. She has also recreated the contrasting atmosphere of the adjacent studio as far as health and safety permits. In the gallery, the current line-up of mainly male sculpture has a rather homoerotic air, contributed to by the maquette for the Kircudbright war memorial by G.H. Paulin, which Hornel had a leading role in commissioning. However, the early Annan photograph of the room reproduced here shows also a female torso that has sadly disappeared.
During the recent recreation it became obvious that the gallery had a more practical use as the principal living room that must have greatly eased modern life in such an impractical and deliberately unimproved house. Domestic life revolved around the fireplace and Keppie included a practical bay window behind a carved mahogany screen at this fireplace end. A cabriole-legged oval mahogany early-Georgian table supported the tea tray: many visitors recall the ritual serving of tea here in Hornel’s lifetime.
Now that the NTS has re-established Hornel’s arrangements of his objects, there remains much to be learned and unlocked from their study and appreciation and many more archives to be explored in the hope of filling in the missing documentation. There has been general surprise at how many of Hornel’s surface textures have been recovered. The entire staircase and corridor wallpaper selected by him has been freed of white paint.The exhibition room has recovered his dramatically scaled and vivid red acanthus wallpaper and, in spite of losses that will always be regretted, one can only rejoice in how much has survived to be appreciated today. It would surely delight Hornel that the house has also yielded up secrets of its earlier history in tribute to his own careful stewardship, including a remarkable stencilled scheme of around 1820 in what is now the Reading Room. Hornel’s oriental collections include the rarest ephemera, such as kimono catalogues and a fan advertising a hotel, which shows a limo in an updated Japanese woodblock mode (Fig. 6).
Of even greater significance for the future are the local initiatives supported by the National Galleries of Scotland as well as the NTS to establish a gallery that will reflect Kircudbright’s importance for Scottish art. It is hoped that at some not-too-distant point in the future Broughton House will be visited alongside this in much the same way that Barbara Hepworth’s house is linked to the Tate outstation in the sister artists’ town of St Ives.
Ian Gow is Chief Curator of the National Trust for Scotland.
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