Paxton House

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Paxton House is one of the finest examples of neo-Palladian architecture in Scotland and with one of the biggest collections of Chippendale furniture.

It is in a lovely setting on the north bank of the River Tweed, a few miles west of Berwick upon Tweed. Hidden from the road it is approached through the lodge gates with stone lions on top of the pillars and a long tree lined avenue. Set in woodland, it is a large but plain building surrounded by lawns with rhododendrons and herb borders colourful with geraniums, astilbe, hosta and alchemila.

The house was deigned by John Adam and built between 1758-63 for Patrick Home at a cost of £6000. The red sandstone was quarried locally and provided a rough cut stone. There is a central building flanked by two pavilions joined by a single storey curved corridor. Steps lead up to the front door with pillars and a triangular portico. The stables, coach house, smithy and men’s quarters were on the left. The kitchens , brewhouse, cook’s sitting room and women’s accommodation was on the right. Joined to the main house by connecting corridors, the doorways could be left open to provide ventilation. They were designed to be high enough to ride a horse through.

Patrick inherited the nearby estate of Wedderburn Castle and lost interested in Paxton House, which he sold to his cousin Ninian who was responsible for nearly all the decoration and furnishing provided by Chippendale. Ninian was killed in a slaves' uprising in Grenada, and Paxton House passed to his younger brother George. He asked Edinburgh architect George Reid to design a new east wing behind the existing stables to hold a library and a picture gallery to accommodate his books and paintings. This was furnished by the Edinburgh furniture maker William Trotter.

Visits are by guided tour only and run every 45 minutes. Ours took nearly 90minutes and I was conscious that we were rather galloping through the rooms towards the end. There is so much to see and take in. Unfortunately photographs are not allowed.

The tour begins in the kitchens with a door to the brew house off. The walls were painted a drab khaki colour which is similar to the original shade used. It had two large fire places and a pastry oven in a corner with the bread oven behind. This was fuelled by coppiced hazel cut on the estate. It took 20-30 minutes to heat. Temperature was checked using a piece of parchment. If it began to singe, the oven was the right temperature. The wood and ash were removed, the oven floor cleaned and the pastry put inside using a wooden paddle. The door was closed and it cooked in the residual heat.

In one fire place was a four ring hob which was heated using charcoal produced on the estate. The rings had a grill and trivet whose height could be adjusted to control boil or simmering. The ash was cleaned out daily and sieved. The finest ash was used to scour the pots and pans. Coarser ash was used to absorb spills on the floor.

Next to it was a coal fire in a cast iron basket whose sides could be adjusted depending on what was being cooked on the spits in front of it. These were originally worked by a chain and pulley but were later adapted to be worked by a hot air fan in the chimney. There were irons over the fire to hang saucepans or a griddle. A metal warming cupboard on castors was placed in front of the fire. As well as being used to keep food warm, the shiny surface reflected heat onto the meat to speed up cooking.

Above the fireplace was the clock, possibly the most important one in the house.

There was a large scrubbed table in the middle of the kitchen and storage shelves along the walls. There are copper saucepans, jelly moulds, china meat dishes, preserving pans. mixing bowls, pestle and mortar, earthenware storage jars… All the items on display appeared in an 1812 inventory of the house.

A wooden sink under the window has a lead lining and large draining board. There was no running water. Water was carried in buckets from the stream and poured into a container above the kitchen which led to the tap in the sink. From about 1814-5 water from local springs was collected in a reservoir and then pumped by an overshot waterwheel to the stable block for use. There are plans to reinstate this.

From the kitchens, we climbed the steps into the main Entrance Hall. This is a very elegant room and designed to make an impression on visitors. It has an Adam’s ceiling. This was made by George Morrison from Kelso who began work on this as an apprentice. By the time he’d finished working at Paxton House, he was a fully qualified artisan. There is a marble fireplace with a plaster frieze of flowers and leaves above it. All the fireplaces and chimneys are numbered to save mistakes when they are cleaned. On the wall is a large and very ornate Louis 14th clock. Next to the fireplace is a big plaster column with a grape and leaf pattern and a large flower arrangement on it. All the furniture is Chippendale, as is the light fitting. This would originally have contained three candles. The glass surround was designed to stop them blowing out when the front door was opened. There is a round table and large inlaid chest with a Chinese bowl on it. On the wall is a large painting of the Union Chain Bridge. George Home donated funds to build it.

Four white panelled doors lead off the hall. We moved into the Morning Room with a marble fire surround and mirror above. The furniture and paper are all Chippendale. He had a selection of 10-12 different patterns to choose from. This has a pattern of grey wreaths with a stipple pattern inside and tiny five dot crosses between the wreaths. There is a big bureau with a cupboard above, tapestry fire screen, occasional tables, wall table with silver. Around the room are yellow upholstered arm chairs with wicker sides. One has a candlestick mounted on the arm for extra light.

On a wall is a pair of mounted gloves. Patrick spent time at the court of Frederick the Great in Prussia where he fell in love with one of the ladies in waiting. The families would not agree to the marriage and Patrick was sent on the Grand Tour in the hope he would forget Sophie. She presented him with the gloves and promises of being faithful. When he returned, Patrick began to built Paxton House as a symbol of his standing in society. Unfortunately he never did marry Sophie.

Off this is a small room which had been used as a servery. Food from the kitchen was brought here before being taken into the dining room. This now contains a large glass display case. with three 1750s men’s waistcoats. One is made of green velvet, another is white silk with flower embroidery and the third is red with gold thread embroidery. This used to contain a horse with the costume, saddle and headgear worn by Patrick when he attended the Berlin Carnival in 1750. He led the ‘Carthaginian’ contingent. When the costumes were checked recently, the stitching was beginning to pull apart and stretch, so the display was dismantled and the costumes could be laid flat to allow the stitching to recover. After restoration, it will be going to Berlin next year as a rare survivor of the 1750 event. It is hoped that it will be back on display afterwards.

The Main Bedroom has a Chippendale four poster bed and wall paper with a grey diamond pattern on an off white background. Off this was the secure strong room where all the important documents could be stored. This was later turned into a bathroom with a quarry tile floor, hip bath, marble top washstand with a blue and white jug and bowl and a chippendale clothes horse.

A corridor leads to the Alcove Bedroom. On the glass of the window are carved the names of all the children born in this room. The four poster bed is set back in an alcove to shield it from draughts. The wall paper is blue and white stripes with black flowers and there are Japanese and Chinese paintings on the walls. Clothes were stored in a huge cupboard. Wardrobes didn’t appear until Victorian times. A small wooden Chippendale chest opened up to provide space for a China bowl for washing in. This also doubled up as a sitting area and there was a small table laid out with a dainty blue and white china tea set with a copper kettle set in front of the fire. The chest of drawers has a drawer that opens flat to make a writing desk.

Across the corridor is the Portico Bedroom so named as the four poster bed had a hand painted timber frieze with pink roses painted along the top. These were fragile and few still exist.

The Nursery contains a crib, small bed with a stone hot water bottle. There is a fire guard in front of the fire with clothes airing over it. Another large screen has pictures pasted on it. Toys include a spinning top, cup and ball, skipping ropes, marbles, dominoes, set of lead soldiers, doll’s house and furniture, doll’s pram puppet theatre… On the walls are old family photographs.

Another Bedroom was originally a library but was turned into a bedroom by the wife of Ninian as it was a large room which she could use to entertain her friends. The four poster bed has a white embroidered nightdress thrown across it. On either side are cabinets with chamber pot. The wallpaper, curtains, bedding and upholstery are pale cream with a dark blue pattern of flowers and leaves. The marble fireplace has a white plaster frieze above it. An inlaid sewing cabinet opens up to reveal space for needles, scissors and threads and has a pull out shelf and small drawer below. There is a table with wheel back Chippendale chairs with a green design on the white wood. These originally cost £1-4s-4d. Four similar chairs were recently sold at auction for over £10,000.

The landing at the top of the stairs has a beautiful rosewood cupboard with thin legs with etched bone inlay, bought from an Italian family. The doors open to reveal 108-110 drawers and secret compartments but unfortunately are now too fragile to be opened.

The Main Stairs have a half turn and a plaster ceiling with an eagle holding a crystal chandelier in its talons. There are decorative plaster panels on the walls with vases with scrolls. The panels for the pictures have a thin carved wood frame round them.

The Dining Room has a glorious plaster ceiling in the style of Adams painted in pink, pale green, blue and cream with a crystal chandelier. The fire place has plaster roundels and pale blue panels with white plaster oak leaves and acorns. In the centre of the room is a polished oval table set with a Japanese china service. The cutlery and glass are modern re-creations of the style used in the 1770s. We were told the crystal bowl beside each place setting was not used to rinse fingers but to rinse the wine glasses. These were very expensive to buy as they had a very high duty on them. Numbers used were kept to a minimum. The long serving table is Chippendale and has silver gilt bowls and china dishes containing fruit or nuts. The long low window seats were designed so ladies could kneel on them and look out of the windows.

A door leads to the Ladies Retiring Room with a 1807 box piano. There is a glorious plaster ceiling in shades of pale green, pink and white. The crystal chandelier cost £10,000 to clean last time it was done. There are French hand painted panels down the walls and over the doors. There is gilt decoration above the windows and mirrors. Between the windows are huge Italian mirrors with semicircular wall tables beneath them and other occasional tables scattered around the room. One has a silver tea pot. Chippendale chairs are upholstered with pale blue velvet. On the walls are family portraits.

A long corridor leads to the 1815 extension containing the library and picture gallery. This is furnished with display cases with china and chairs with white and gold upholstery.

The Library has an oval end wall and a marble fireplace. The walls are lined with glass fronted bookcases full of books with marble busts arranged on top of them. There is a large settee and red upholstered arm chairs with wicker sides. On a drop leaf table is an ink stan, silver salver and a piece of unfinished embroidery. There is a model of the Hibernia, flagship of the British Fleet, in a large display case.

The Picture Gallery originally housed the family portraits but these have been sold off over the years. It now has a selection of paintings on loan from the Scottish National Gallery. It is a very elegant oval room with two big pillars at either end.These and the wall pillars are made of plaster and painted to resemble yellow marble. This was done using a feather by a technique know as feathering. The base of the walls are painted with deep plum and blue panels. Above the walls are blue. There is a white ceiling with a central cupola to give more light. The plum coloured carpet with its pattern of banana leaves is a copy of the original. There are several marble topped tables made from pieces of marble collected by Patrick when he was in Italy. The furniture is by William Trotter. In an alcove is a scale model of a 400’ obelisk planned for the estate but never built. In front of it is a grand piano as the room is now used for musical recitals as the acoustics are so good. it is also licensed for weddings.

The gardens are pleasant to walk in with flower gardens. woodland and river walks. There is a good shop and the Stables Tea room is excellent.

This is an undiscovered gem. It isn’t as popular as places like Floors Castle but is a delightful place. The guided tour was excellent and I really enjoyed my visit.

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