The Prince to the rescue
Dumfries House was derelict, its contents heading to London to be sold at auction, when the Prince of Wales charged in, dramatically saving the house and its antiques, and regenerating a forgotten corner of Ayrshire into the bargain. Hannah Furness gets a
In April 2007, one of Britain’s most significant country piles, Dumfries House – a Palladian mansion designed by the Adam brothers for the 5th Earl of Dumfries, with a collection of furniture created especially for it – was to be sold off privately, and its contents dispersed.
The house and its 2,000 acres in Ayrshire were put on the market by its then owner, the 7th Marquess of Bute – the Formula 1 racing driver Johnny Dumfries – after an initial approach to the National Trust for Scotland came to nothing.
It was regarded as a tragedy by those who know and care about Scotland’s great houses. Two months before the property was due to be sold, James Knox, a conservationist and Ayrshire local, made a moving appeal at the Prince of Wales’s conservation conference in Holyrood. Afterwards, the Prince is said to have asked him, ‘How do we save this house?’ Having never laid eyes on it he set to work, and led a successful £45 million bid (including a £20 million contribution from the Prince’s Charities Foundation) to save Dumfries House for the nation. Alex Salmond, then First Minister of Scotland, described it as ‘the last-minute save of the century’. Just as the Chippendale chairs were hurtling down the motorway to London, the lorry driver got the call to pull over, turn around and head straight back to Ayrshire with his precious cargo.
‘When I learnt about the sale of Dumfries House, I knew that something had to be done to prevent this priceless treasure – and its remarkable collection of original Chippendale furniture – being lost for ever,’ the Prince of Wales says. ‘I was very aware that the house was situated in a community which had struggled a great deal in the wake of the closure of the coal-mining industry, with many families experiencing three generations of unemployment.
‘In saving Dumfries House, I hoped to create a catalyst for a model of heritage-led regeneration which would gradually extend far beyond the boundaries of the estate and benefit the wider community in East Ayrshire.’
Dumfries House and its surroundings have recovered – and then some. It is the primary headquarters for the Prince’s new network of charities, The Prince’s Foundation, a microcosm through which his decades of campaign work can be understood. Approaching his 70th birthday, this autumn he invited a small group of press to Dumfries to see the results of many years of experimentation and hard work; it is a true labour of love.
Listening to his staff tell its story with enthusiasm – 80 per cent of the 230 employees live within 10 miles of the house and many walk to work – it’s easy to see just how Dumfries has been revived. But the property, dubbed a ‘sleeping beauty’, was little known before 2007. New heating, plumbing and wiring were needed, carpets and curtains had to be repaired or replaced, and furniture was carefully conserved.
After reports emerged that the Prince’s investment was in negative equity, critics leapt on the chance to call it an ‘albatross’ around his neck. Was it his greatest folly, they wondered aloud.
The Duchess of Cornwall, with tongue only slightly in cheek, recently admitted she had avoided the house for years after her husband’s last-minute triumph, having felt an eerie presence that ‘literally froze’ her. ‘There was definitely a ghost,’ she said. ‘Without a shadow of a doubt. I remember the first time I walked up the steps, got into the hall and I thought, I can’t go any further… I remember leaving and thinking, I don’t want to come back here again, and I didn’t for a few years.’
But on the subject of Dumfries House – as in a long list of things, from climate change to the perils of plastics – the Prince has been proved right. The atmosphere has changed dramatically since the refurbishment and the Duchess, who has joined the Prince today, is often on hand now, giving the hospitality of the future king a down-to-earth feel, entertaining guests from personal friends and would-be charity donors to celebrities.
The Prince, who visits Dumfries about six times a year and has his own private room in the house, is a familiar sight on the estate. He is fond of striking up conversations with dog walkers, taking the opportunity to politely grill them about any changes they would like to see, and can be found greeting anyone sitting under the newly built shelters with a cheery ‘I’m so pleased to see someone using it’.
He is very keen for locals to use the estate as if it were their own; families are encouraged to picnic in the garden and take part in the many events, which have included a book festival stocked with famous faces from Dame Judi Dench to Judy Murray, and a dog show. And the unusual policy of open gates, even when the Prince is in residence – as well as no entrance or parking fees – appears to have paid unexpected dividends.
One member of staff relays how after a small window was broken recently, the community became so incensed by the cheek of the vandalism that they solved the crime themselves. Anyone who spots anything wrong is encouraged to call Gordon Neil, deputy executive director of The Prince’s Foundation, who is based at the house, directly.
The foundation is headed up by Kenneth
‘I knew that something had to be done to prevent this priceless treasure being lost for ever’
Dunsmuir, a miner’s son who grew up in nearby Auchinleck, and Michael Fawcett, the Prince’s right-hand man and former valet. It seems a small but happy ship, conducting regular tours to bring the estate to life under the Prince’s mantra that ‘seeing is believing’, in line with his wish that the guides act like hosts and the visitors feel like guests. Though often described as a time capsule, Dumfries has the unmistakable air of a living, breathing home.
More than a decade after the restoration project began, the essence of the property remains much as it has been for 250 years, from Renaissance paintings by Jacopo Bassano to 18th-century Flemish tapestries. As you walk into the entrance hall, you notice how the layers of gilding added over the years have been stripped back to leave the stone and dark grey that visitors would have seen in the 1700s. And several rooms shine with Murano-glass chandeliers – one specimen was found in pieces in the basement in 2007, sent away to be cleaned and now hangs in glory in the Pink Dining Room.
The star piece in Lord Dumfries’ Study is a 1759 mahogany Chippendale writing desk. Today the house boasts 10 per cent of all the Chippendale furniture in the world, from a lockable wooden tea caddy to a one-of-a-kind bookcase bought for £47 and now valued at about £20 million. The four-poster Chippendale bed, said to be by far the most expensive piece commissioned by the 5th Earl, still stands in the Family Bedroom, but has been re-dressed in blue silk hangings after specialists found 18th-century invoices detailing the original colour.
Objects are constantly being restored and antiques added, bought judiciously on the advice of antique dealer and decorator Piers von Westenholz, who has led the interior design of the house. A few years ago, a number of grandfather clocks collected by the Prince’s grandmother, the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, were installed to give the house a ‘heartbeat’.
Around the estate, the fingerprints of the Prince can be seen in every corner. The estate colour – a bright paint of ‘firecracker red’ – was his choice, and his personal taste is reflected in the myriad buildings in the grounds.
In many cases, according to Dunsmuir, they were sketched on scraps of paper by the Prince as the ideas came to him. ‘He’s got an incredible eye,’ Dunsmuir says. One building, the Belvedere, a small summer house situated in the walled garden, features both dragon gargoyles and distinctive windows inspired by Islamic art, one of the Prince’s passions. The walled garden itself, named after his mother, has been transformed from a ‘derelict dumping site’ under the eye of garden designer Michael Innes. Now, neat raised beds in a Union flag design burst with flowers and fresh vegetables, intended to encourage local children to learn more about where their food comes from. In the garden’s project room, red wellies tiny enough to fit a three-year-old are matched by brightly coloured tools.
A 500-tree, 10-acre arboretum has been planted, and a series of bridges take guests on meandering walks through the grounds – the Prince hopes to create a haven for his beloved red squirrels (he is patron of the Red Squirrel Sur-
In many cases, buildings in the grounds were sketched on scraps of paper by the Prince as the ideas came to him
vival Trust) with raised walkways for the public to view them.
Elsewhere, dotted around the estate, are buildings dedicated to the Prince’s key projects. An old sawmill has become the Kuanyshev Traditional Skills & Craft Centre, offering a five-week course in ‘sustainable building’, and teaching stonemasonry, dry stone walling and rural woodcraft. Another mill has been transformed into the LVMH Textile Training Centre, where young adults are taught sewing, pattern drafting and fabric skills. And in the converted Georgian laundry is an outpost of the Royal Drawing School. Not that the lessons are confined to buildings. Around the grounds, trainee carpenters,
stonemasons and craftsmen are offered the chance to design and build everything from seats to follies, with the backing of the Prince (or ‘The Boss’, as staff call him).
It isn’t just the estate that’s changed, as Gordon Neil explains: ‘It started off purely as the restoration of the house but then it was the ripple effect. Once the house was opened and generating a small income, it allowed us to look at the rest of the estate.
‘In my time here I’ve seen a massive difference in the area. I’ve seen the impact it’s had in terms of employment. The supply chain we use is all local: local butchers, building contractors, wedding photographers. It’s not all about heritage and architecture, it’s about events and a restaurant and the café.’
‘I came to repair a pane of glass and never really left,’ says Darren Johnstone, a 33-year-old joiner, of Dumfries House. ‘It’s not just employment, it’s giving people somewhere to go. It’s such a beautiful place. It’s a hub for people now; it gave the area a proper wee lift.’
It’s a sunny day when we visit, and during our tour of shamelessly cute rare-breed piglets, ducks and sheep in bespoke low-walled pens, the Prince, in a light tweed jacket and cords, can be spied across the yard quizzing farmers on the day’s work. Later, in the Family Parlour, where we are encouraged to perch on the Chippendale chairs (not quite as relaxing as it sounds when you remember the Christie’s valuation of six figures per chair), the Prince returns to be joined by the Duchess of Cornwall for tea, Duchy Originals biscuits, and conversation about both the house and his looming landmark birthday.
The number of events marking the occasion (including a garden party, a Royal Variety-style night of comedy and magic, a gala concert, a Royal Collection art exhibition and a Buckingham Palace dinner thrown by the Queen) may be making him blush. In addition, the milestone seems to have prompted staff to consider how his charities will one day go on without him, when time and the natural order of things require him to become king.
The answer lies in two umbrella organisations: The Prince’s Foundation, which oversees projects relating to conservation, heritage and the built environment under the rubric ‘respecting the past, building the future’, and the now The Pink Dining Room, which features an elaborate Murano-glass chandelier. The silk-covered centrepiece of the Family Bedroom; the Family Parlour international Prince’s Trust Group. The foundation’s work is based largely at Dumfries House, which is increasingly treated by conservationists as an example of how seemingly impossible projects are indeed possible.
Later that day, after a black-tie dinner of garden-pea and broad-bean risotto, salmon coulibiac and apple parfait, guests are invited to the Tapestry Room, where the whisky is passed around, the bagpipers play, and the night ends with a rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water on the piano.
From the Prince’s perspective, hosting visitors can work miracles: the abstract ideas related to regeneration and traditional skills about which he speaks so often finally make sense to outsiders. For him, the conservation of the house and reimagining of its grounds are a source of both joy and pride. But it is being able to make a real difference in a community that has ‘suffered dreadfully in the past’ that really matters to him – in East Ayrshire he is now the second largest employer after the council.
‘There is still much more to do – from enabling people to change the way they live for a healthier way of life, to championing the need for sustainably planned and well-built communities, to promoting skills training and vocational education of all kinds,’ he says, reflecting on his work so far.
‘I hope that my foundation is able to grow and expand its activities so that we can reach more people and benefit more communities throughout the country.’
Indeed, there seems to be no let-up in the stream of ideas pouring into Dumfries House via the Prince, with friends referring fondly to his lack of any ‘middle gear’. A luxury wedding venue and a holiday lodge in the grounds are already up and running, and next up is ‘7 for 70’, seven new conservation projects that will see once-important buildings restored using traditonal skills – following the blueprint of Dumfries. The foundation has announced four of the sites: a centre for the Highland Games, a 12th-century Welsh abbey, a Grade Ii-listed drapers’ hall in Coventry, and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland.
‘Being able to make a difference in some way to people’s lives, opportunities or environment is precisely what inspires my enthusiasm,’ the Prince explains.
On his 70th birthday, the staff at Dumfries House will no doubt raise a glass. But not too many. As the Prince says, there is still much more to do.
‘Being able to make a difference to people’s lives, opportunities or environment inspires my enthusiasm’
Clockwise from left The Tapestry Room features 18th-century Flemish works; the Blue Drawing Room; the Prince of Wales at Dumfries House last month.
Above right Dumfries House’s imposing exterior. Below, from left The Pewter Corridor; Christie’s tags on the Chippendale bookcase in the Blue Drawing Room
Above, from left The Woodland Garden is one of many across the estate; one of the two lochans adjacent to the arboretum. Below A Wedgwood vase sits above the fireplace in Lord Dumfries’ Study