Why Dumfries House must be saved

  • 21 May 2007

James Knox, Chief Executive of The Art Newspaper, has written for The Scotsman in support of the campaign to save Dumfries House and its historic contents from being sold.

“You would think that the architecture of Robert Adam and his brothers John and James is now so renowned, that there would be no building left to discover. But you would be wrong. One masterpiece, has, until recently, been totally lost from view, never opened to the public nor scarcely described in print.

Designed in 1754, Dumfries House in East Ayrshire is the finest and most complete example of the Adam brothers’ early work in Scotland. The handsome Palladian exterior acts as the drop curtain for a series of delightful public rooms, decked out by the Adam brothers in exuberant rococo style.

As if this were not riches enough, Dumfries House still retains all of its original furniture, acquired by the Adams’ inspired patron, the Earl of Dumfries. Here, indeed, was a man with an unrivalled eye. Over fifty pieces, bought in person, from Thomas Chippendale, including a magnificent state bed and a rosewood bookcase, were shipped from London to the port of Ayr. But Dumfries did not stop there. He also commissioned the outstanding Edinburgh cabinetmakers, Alexander Peter, William Mathie and Francis Brodie, to provide gilt wood mirrors, chairs, four-poster beds and numerous other pieces. This group alone has no comparison anywhere else in the world.

To stand before the gilt mirrors carved by William Mathie, topped with crowns and thistles, framed by the handsome Adam windows, is to understand the self-confident brilliance of the early Scottish enlightenment. At a moment when Scotland is so aware of Her achievements as a nation, Dumfries House should be cherished as an outstanding exemplar of Scottish genius. And yet, the future of this unique ensemble makes one want to weep. In a few short weeks, the great mirrors will be unscrewed from the walls where they have been fixed for almost 250 years and removed to London to be sold to the highest bidder.

This will be a cultural, social and economic tragedy. Cities across the world are investing millions in the creation of museums and arts centres as engines for social regeneration. In this case, Scotland already has a “ready made” cultural asset in an area of high social deprivation. Dumfries House stands on the edge of Cumnock, which is still struggling with the long-term effects of pit closures and the decline of related industries. The saving of Dumfries House in its entirety, as proposed by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, would, at a stroke, transform the economic and employment prospects for the town and district. It has become something of a cliche that art can transform peoples’ lives. But with Dumfries House, this is most emphatically true. Everything must now be done to save this unique work of art.”

James Knox

The Art Fund has pledged the largest grant in its history – £2 million – towards the campaign to save Dumfries House. Click here to find out more