The exhibition space occupies two first floor galleries in the house to the left of the museum’s famous façade. “It was too tempting not to get out all four folios to make the point! Lovely!” smiles Alison. “It’s a celebration of the imaginations of Soane and Shakespeare.” The patronage of Dr Johnson’s friend Garrick is on display through actors’ portraits and theatre designs. Garrick commissioned both Soane and Robert Adam so another celebrated architect is represented. Indeed, Soane astutely purchased the full set of Adam’s office drawings.
“Oh yes I stayed in The Witchery years ago,” a journalist bravely whispered to us during the Making Africa press briefing in the Guggenheim Bilbao. Admittedly a mildly incongruous locale for such a muted conversation. It was undoubtedly a memorable stay. “I woke up in the middle of the night in the most frightful sweat! It was like the bed was on fire! I was boiling alive!” She got an unexpected roasting, so to speak. The next day at breakfast the journalist voiced her concern to a waitress. “That’ll be the witches,” came the nonchalant reply. “They used to burn them at the stake on Castlehill right outside.” And presumably it wasn’t the effects of a wee dram nightcap.
Our Easter Thursday lunch in the restaurant turns out to be a slightly less steamy but still hot affair. Dr Johnson and his biographer James Boswell used to lunch there. Well if it’s good enough for Sam and Jamie… The schlep up the Royal 1.6 Kilometres past winding wynds and claustrophobic closes is so worth it. Four enigmatic fanlights peering over Johnston Terrace way below are all that hint at what lies beneath. We’ve arrived. Physically and metaphorically. Bewitchingly charming certainly, hauntingly beautiful definitely, ghoul free thankfully. Think Hunderby without Dorothy. Or Northanger Abbey goes to town. Owner James Thomson, Scotland’s best (known) hotelier and restaurateur, is evidently a follower of the Donatella Versace school of thought: “Less isn’t more. Less is just less.” An eclectic dose of ecclesiastical remnants, gothic salvage and Jacobean antiques is healthily apt for this 16th century building. A pulpit above, a trellised obelisk to love, a flag there, a tapestry where? Candlesticks galore carry flickering flattering light across a Secret Garden the envy of Frances Hodgson.
The interior may flurry with wild abandon but the service and setting mercifully don’t. Our Milanese waiter makes sure of the former. Tradition takes care of the latter. Linen tablecloths, phew. Round plates (slates are for roofs), double phew. Unheated pudding (a dish best served cold), triple phew. After a bubbly reception (thank you Mark), the feast unfolds. Palate seducing grilled sardines followed by lemon sole with brown shrimp butter preceding chocolate orange marquise with espresso jelly raise spirits further. The huggermugger harum scarum of a prowlish ghoulish night owlish postprandial prance on the mansard tiles of Edinburgh’s Auld Toun awaits. The only way is down (hill).
The story of the present building, the spirit of the age, begins with Lord Auchinleck, father of James Boswell, the celebrated blogger diarist and biographer of Samuel Johnson. Lord Auchinleck, aka Laird No.8, received his non hereditary title in recognition of his appointment as a judge in the High Court of Scotland. This uplift in social status required an upgrade of house on the family estate he used as a retreat when the Edinburgh courts were in recess. The current building is the third house to be constructed on the estate which was granted to Auchinleck’s forbearers in the 14th century.
His choice of the neoclassical style originated from a deep seated love of the classics rather than merely following voguish architectural whims. He regularly identified with the writings of Horace. A frequent Horatian theme is the pleasure of fulfilling life in one’s own, usually rural, locale. The epigram presiding over the entrance front pediment encapsulates this approach to living: “Quod petis, hic est; est ulubris animus is te non deficit aequus.” Or, “What you seek is here in this remote place if you can only keep a steady disposition.”
The emblems carved on the pediment represent aspects of the cultivated mind, all of which could be expected to find expression in a house evoking an aesthete’s villa. Music, martial arts, scales of justice, a sceptre of authority and the serpent entwined staff of Aesculapius the healer are all represented. They are grouped round the central motif, a hooded falcon from the Boswell family crest.
The Duchess of Northumberland sniffily dismissed the decoration of the pediment in her 1780 diary as “terribly loaded with Ornaments of Trumpets and Maces and the Deuce knows what”. As for the house itself, she found it to be “but a middling house, but justly it is a romantick spot”. Phew.
Johnston was a protégé of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, author of The Country Seat and instrumental in promoting the ethos of the villa in Scotland. It’s a triumph of balance, symmetry and proportion. Whether the product of one or more minds, an intelligence and creativity of the highest order is apparent. Estate manager James Bruce wrote to Boswell in 1758,
“The building is going on: tho’ slowly by reason of few hands, the reason of which was, before a full determination was fixed on, masons was all taken up as a vast worke is carrying on in this country by these great Naboos.”
Another account from this period reported that Lord Auchinleck built his house “so slowly and prudently, that he himself hardly felt the expense”. The General Ledger of the Bank of Scotland reveals that Lord Auchinleck took out Bonds of Credit for £500 and £1,000 between 1759 and 1762. Expenditure on the estate peaked between 1758 and 1760. Window tax for 31 openings was first paid on the house in 1760. Daylight robbery! Boswell’s son was more than happy with his new home, writing on 30 March 1767 to his friend William Temple,
“This is a superb place: we have the noblest natural beauties and my father has made most extensive improvements. We took 10 miles out upon our dominions. We have an excellent new house. I am now writing in a library forty foot long. Come to us, my dearest friend.”
Estate journals confirm that the four pavilions flanking the house were not added until 1773 although they always seem to have been intended. The pavilions contrast with the main block in material and style. The idiosyncratic sexiness of their silhouette, as distinctive as a Philip Treacy hat, suggests a fondness for the Vanbrugh school of drama. Boswell refers to the finished pavilions in his August 1775 journal as “newly whitened”. This would have disguised the variation between their rosy sandstone and the gentler grey limestone of the main block. In authentic Palladian style, the pavilions weren’t just decorative additions but were utilised as estate outbuildings.
Lord Auchinleck lived in splendid isolation to the ripe old age of 75, becoming increasingly cantankerous and garrulous. Not so Horatian after all. James Boswell was 41 when as Laird No.9 he inherited the estate in 1782. He made no changes to the house, presumably too busy writing and getting sozzled. Boswell did though progress his father’s planting scheme. Auchinleck House continued down the Boswell line in the 19th century with no subsequent descendents bothering to alter it. One exception was a family member who took with gusto to tarting up the dining room as a parlour, patterning the room to within a square inch of its life.
The house passed by marriage to the Talbot family who packed their suitcases for Malahide Castle in 1905. They dispersed its contents and in the 1920s the house was sold to a distant branch of the family named Douglas-Bothwell. It fell into sober decline for the rest of the 20th century until in 1986 the owner, another James Boswell, sold the house with 14 hectares to the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. The Trust made the house watertight but struggled to find a role for it in the face of development proposals for the rest of the site. In 1999 the freehold was transferred to the Landmark Trust. And so began the Landmark Trust’s largest restoration to date. Raise your glasses!
Lavender’s Blue wish to thank the Landmark Trust for their extensive research which we have shamelessly ploughed, plundered, pillaged and plagiarised our way through while adding a pinch of personal panache.
Lights, cameras, action! Lavender’s Blue stayed at Auchinleck House this summer for an exclusive photo shoot. Taxi at dawn across the capital (not that we’re tired of London), Virgin train to Carlisle, two hour drive through lashing rain to Eden LakeAuchinleck village, 10 minute detour getting lost on the estate… and we still managed to arrive just in time to experience a glorious Scottish sunset.
First glimpse of the house is the beguiling west elevation across a meadow. A haha conceals the raised basement from this perspective. Sweep round the driveway, past the long east elevation, and entry is via a porch to the side at basement level. Side on, the house resembles a Georgian three storey townhouse. A corridor bisects the floorplan of both the basement and bedroom floor like arteries running through the heart of the building.
The former kitchen is now a table tennis room with stone vaults ideal for whacking the ball off. A dumb waiter to one side of the hearth is a reminder of the room’s original use. Stone steps from the corridor wind up past a bathroom, with a window immodestly level with the front driveway, to the dramatic full height staircase towering up to an elaborate plasterwork ceiling. This space is not huge by country house standards, especially considering it contains the only staircase for use by master and servant alike. In fact although large by modern standards, Auchinleck House exudes a charming air of compact intimacy.
The staircase hall leads directly into the squarish entrance hall, beautifully lit by the glazed front door. This space occupies the central bay of the piano nobile along the east front. A panelled breakfast room with a fireplace tipsily set at a 45 degree angle continues the east front enfilade culminating in the grand dining room. This room was designed to impress. The smaller proportions of the breakfast room, which in effect is an ante room, give way to a space spreading across the full width of the house with windows on three sides. Its higher ceiling is accommodated by shrinking the floor to ceiling height of the bedrooms above, meaning their sashes skim the floor like crinoline skirts.
The flow of connecting spaces continues with another door towards the back of the house leading from the dining room into the relocated kitchen. The enfilade along the west front mirrors that of the east. The veiny marble fireplace in the kitchen looks like carved blue cheese. Another door leads back into the entrance hall. The third room off the entrance hall is the principle bedroom with a magnificent four poster bed. This room leads into a single bedroom and the final room along the west front is a corner bathroom.
In a circular fashion, the single bedroom also opens into a panelled morning room and then back into the staircase hall. This layout is a late example of the Grand Apartment with Parade Planning circulation from one room to another, flowing from public to private quarters.
Five bedrooms open off the first floor corridor. En suites have been carved out of dressing rooms and the thickness of the walls cleverly accommodates alcoves, cupboards, blind doorways and even a couple of small stone basins. Steps at one end of the corridor ascend to the two bedroom suites over the dining rooms. Their lower ceilings lend them a cottagey feel.
The impressive crimson painted library fills the full length of the four bay breakfront on the west elevation, with views onto the meadow far below, the countryside reaching out to infinity beyond. In 18th century Scotland the first floor was the approved location for a gentleman’s library. Little wonder.
“When Boswell succeeded his father as laird of Auchinleck in 1782, he became a person of significance in Ayrshire society and he resolved to fill his position with dignity and sobriety. His journals for earlier years are full of references to what has been aptly described as ‘deep drinking, appalling hangovers, profound repentance… and deep drinking’ but now, as he told Johnson: ‘It was my determination that I should maintain the decorum of the representative of Auchinleck and I am doing so.’ He had drunk little since his bout of influenza earlier in the year and the record in the Book of Company shows that, for the first few months of his lairdship, consumption of wines and other liquors at Auchinleck was indeed quite moderate. Thus, when Sir John Whitefoord came to dinner on 12 October 1782, only a single bottle of claret was drunk, and Boswell recorded in his journal:
‘I had almost broke through my sober scheme of life, as we were tête-à-tête and it was the first time he had been in my house since my succession. But I checked myself. Indeed my wish to drink with him was not from love of wine and intoxication, as has frequently been the case with me, but from a desire to be cordial. He excused me, and drank claret easily while I took wine and water.’
The ‘sober scheme of life’ did not last for long. By the end of the year, Boswell’s good spirits were beginning to crumble and his moderation lapsed. On 3 January 1783, he visited Eglinton where he enjoyed some old Malaga, ‘and finding I really had liberty to drink as I pleased, my heart dilated and I drank two bottles, all but three glasses.’ The next morning he noted: ‘awaked very ill, and was somewhat vexed that I had not been able to maintain my sobriety even at Eglinton.’
After this, Boswell did not return to Auchinleck until August 1783. There, during the ensuing three months, as the ‘Book of Company’ shows, he entertained numerous guests who were treated to generous, indeed at times extraordinary quantities of liquor. He wrote in his journal:
‘A great variety of other company was at Auchinleck. I felt the entertaining of them in general was a laborious and anxious task. I several times drank too much wine, and suffered severe distress after it. I was quite averse to writing. I was exact only in keeping my Book of Company and Liquors, in which I marked with more regularity than I supposed possible for me all the company with us at dinner in one column, and all night in another, with the different liquors drank each day in separate columns.’
Over many years, Boswell had reacted to his own concern about excessive drinking by noting how much he drank and its effect on him. This may have been one of his reasons for combining the record of his guests at Auchinleck with a detailed arithmetical account of every bottle of wine or other liquor consumed. It was as much a discipline aimed at keeping his drinking under control as an aid to the efficient management of his cellar. But the discipline, though it may have served to focus Boswell’s attention on his own over-indulgence, did not prevent it. The statistics speak for themselves: on 16 October 1783, with six guests for dinner and overnight, the consumption totalled 19 bottles (seven bottles and two Scotch pints of claret [equivalent to 11 bottles], three bottles of port, one of Lisbon, two of Madeira, one of mountain, and one of rum); and the following day, 17 October, with seven guests, the tally came to 20 bottles (11 equivalent bottles of claret, three of port, two of Lisbon, one of Madeira, and three of rum). Amazingly, Boswell escaped his usual hangover and was able to write: ‘I drank a great deal of wine without feeling any bad effect. While I kept the highest pitch of jollity, I at the same time maintained the peculiar decorum of the family of Auchinleck.’
The record of liquors begins tidily enough in September 1782, with consumption neatly recorded in 10 separate columns headed: Port, Lisbon, Sherry, Madeira, Mountain, Sitgis, Gin, Brandy, Rum. Of these, Lisbon, mountain and Sitgis are virtually unknown to modern wine drinkers […]. Although Boswell kept whisky at Auchinleck, it does not appear in the Book of Company, for it was not at that time a drink for the gentry nor one which they would normally have offered to their guests.
The record is kept reasonably well and conscientiously until the end of 1783, although Boswell’s arithmetic in summing his columns is sometimes wrong. Not surprisingly, he was taking arithmetic lessons from Alexander Millar, his domestic chaplain and his son’s tutor. However, his arithmetic is not always as bad as may at first appear. A Scotch pint of claret was roughly equivalent to three imperial pints. Boswell thus counts a pint as though it were two bottles in totalling his columns. Other letters of symbols appear on the record which cannot be confidently explained. These take the form of H, J (or possibly I), and a symbol that looks like a narrow upright oval. The H is marked against certain bottles of claret consumed in September and October 1783; and the other letters or symbols appear against certain bottles of both claret and port consumed during the same period. in a modern wine list, H often signifies half a bottle, but half-bottles were not normally supplied by wine merchants at that time. Furthermore, if Boswell counted a Scotch pint as two bottles in summing his columns, one would have expected him to count two bottles marked H as one, if indeed they had been half-bottles. This does not occur. Perhaps H indicates claret supplied by John Hamilton, of Bogle & Hamilton, Glasgow, one of his regular wine merchants; perhaps it identifies the storage location from which it was taken – for example the hall cupboard (which according to a list of Liquors at Auchinleck of 1794, was used for the storage of wines). One can speculate similarly about the other markings, but it is impossible to reach any firm conclusion as to what they signify.
After 1783, the record of consumption begins to deteriorate. Boswell gives up adding columns and ceases to carry forward the totals from page to page. After January 1785, he abandons the record for the remainder of the year. The columns are still marked, but they are left blank and unheaded. A scrappy and incomplete record resumes in 1786, with the column headings reduced in number, no totals, and consumption frequently is abandoned altogether until 1793, apart from a few entries in April, May, and July 1789. The record begins again on 2 March 1793 with only three columns, headed Port, Mountain and Punch, to which Boswell later adds columns for Sherry, Claret, and Rum. The record finally peters out for good in August 1794.
That same month, on 22 August 1794, Boswell wrote out a list of Liquors at Auchinleck. This is interesting because it shows how meagre the stocks were at that date. Apart from a reasonable supply of mountain (i.e. some Malaga) and some Madeira, there were only a few bottles of drinkable claret and some oddments. There were a dozen bottles of whisky dating back to 1783 which Boswell kept in his counting room (presumably for his estate employees and probably seldom resorted to). It is odd that such a modest quantity of liquors could not all have been accommodated in the cellar as such, but bottles appear to have been stored in presses or cupboards all over the house: in the family bedroom, in the dressing room, in the hall, and in the counting room.
It is clear that when Boswell compiled his list of Liquors at Auchinleck, the cellar was in a badly depleted state and quite inadequate for a substantial country house where guests were to be entertained. But when Boswell returned to Auchinleck from London on 1 July 1794, it was with a firm resolve to be sober, and this would not have been helped by replenishing his stock of wines. On 14 July he wrote to his son Jamie:
‘I have not drunk half a bottle of wine any day since I came here, some days not more than two glasses, some none at all. This moderation I am convinced has produced a calmness in my blood and spirits very different from the effects of too free living in the metropolis.’’’