Amazing interiors: Osterley House, Isleworth

Our search for the finest interiors in the country continues with a visit to Osterley Park and House in Isleworth, London - the Robert Adam masterpiece that's now a National Trust attraction...

by Nigel Andrew

When Mies van der Rohe built the Seagram building in New York, he insisted on designing every detail, right down to the ashtrays. If ashtrays had been around in the 18th century, Robert Adam would have done exactly the same. When you commissioned a house from him, you were buying the whole package – architecture, interior design, furniture, carpets, pictures, light fittings, bell pulls, the lot. Given full rein, the Adam style was a wraparound, total immersion experience. Its originator was, like Mies, an advocate of Total Design – and the wealthy and fashion-conscious beat a path to his door.

Portrait of Robert Adam, attributed to George Willison

What are the constituents of the Adam style? The best way to find out is to pay a visit to Osterley House, which stands in its extensive park on the western fringe of London, a remarkable survival among the urban sprawl. Adam built the house for two seriously rich brothers, Francis and Robert Child, both of them involved in banking and commerce. Beginning in 1761, Adam worked on this project for two decades, perfecting his vision of what a modern country house should look like.

The East Front of Osterley Park and House, London. ©National Trust Images/Paul Barker

The existing house, a Tudor brick building ranged around a central courtyard and decorated with four corner turrets, might have seemed to some to be crying out for demolition and replacement with something correctly classical. But Adam, to his credit, worked with what he had, keeping the basic structure, but adding some classicising features and replacing much of the eastern range with a boldly original ‘transparent’ portico – two colonnades under an elegant classical pediment, offering a view through to the western range. Climbing the wide flight of steps to this extraordinary portico and passing between its columns, you realise you are in for something special here.

The 'transparent' portico at Osterley Park, London. ©National Trust Images/John Miller

The impression is only confirmed when you step inside the Entrance Hall, a cool, beautifully designed space coloured entirely in subtle shades of grey and white. The rectangular shape is softened by alcoves at either end, each containing a fireplace, and both ceiling and floor are divided into blocks of pattern, each mirroring the other. Classical pilasters rise to a frieze of Greek key pattern and the walls are surrounded by stuccowork panels, some abstractly patterned, others representing arrangements of arms and armour. Reproductions of classical statues stand in niches, with decorative urns at the four corners, and everything, down to the stools and the three-branched oil lamps, is of course designed by Adam. The whole adds up to a masterly exercise in dividing and marshalling space.

The Entrance Hall. ©National Trust Images/Paul Barker

So, cool classicism with decorative elements – is that the essence of the Adam style? Far from it, as soon becomes apparent as you tour the house. Playfully eclectic classicism would be nearer the mark, a cheerful pick ’n’ mix approach to the antiquities of the Greek and Roman world, for colours and forms, for decorative patterns, for furniture design, for materials, statuary and ornaments, for whatever could be adapted to the best taste of the 18th century. As a young man, Robert Adam spent five years abroad, making a close study of the antiquities he saw, and thereby furnishing himself with a lifetime of architectural and decorative ideas. A charming and sociable fellow, he mixed easily with the great and good and was soon a hugely successful and fashionable architect. He was in his early thirties when he began work on Osterley House.

The Eating Room. ©National Trust Images/Paul Barker

Detail of the Eating Room. ©National Trust Images/Paul Barker

Walking from room to room, you could aptly say to yourself on each threshold, ‘And now for something completely different.’ After the cool restraint of the entrance hall comes the ornate Eating Room, dedicated to celebrating the pleasures of food, wine and hospitality. The colour scheme matches the pale blue-green of the ceiling and wall panels with the pinks and yellows of the carpet (a reproduction, unsurprisingly). The ceiling is decorated with grape vines, wine ewers and the like, and the painted decoration likewise celebrates the pleasures of the table. Ornate gilded pier glasses hang on the walls, and a splendid gilt and mahogany sideboard stands against the wall, between two urns on pedestals. Red silk damask curtains hang beneath decorative gilt pelmets. If this is classicism, it is at a considerably farther remove from the classical world than the Entrance Hall. Here the classicism is more superficial, confined to decorative patterns – but it is very pretty, and the overall effect of this light and elegant room is quite charming. It would be a pleasure to eat in these surroundings.

The Long Gallery. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

After that relatively intimate interior comes the huge open space of the Long Gallery, all 130ft of it, a feature inherited from the Tudor house (with later modifications) and respectfully treated by Adam, whose main contributions were to take out the Venetian windows that had lit the gallery from either end, line the walls with pea-green paper, hang spectacular pier glasses, provide delightful heart-shaped girandoles (candelabra), and line the walls with suitable furniture. The ceiling he wisely left plain and unadorned, and the gallery continues to do its job very effectively, displaying a collection of paintings representative of 18th-century taste (those that originally hung here were mostly lost in a fire).

The Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Each of the remaining rooms – and there aren’t many of them (this is the least daunting of historic houses) – is different from all the others. Gold is the predominant colour of the Drawing Room, with its carved and gilt furniture, gold-coloured grate and fender, gilded pier glasses and tripods. The most impressive feature – and the closest to the antique – is the glorious sunburst ceiling, inspired by an engraving of the temple of the sun at Palmyra. Adam has stretched the sunburst into an oval shape, and mirrored it in the design of the carpet below.

The Tapestry Room:`The most superb and beautfiul that can be imagined.` Horace Walpole. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Details of the tapestry in the Tapestry Room. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The sumptuous Tapestry Room, hung with specially commissioned Gobelins tapestries (featuring images designed by Boucher), is as oppressive in effect as such rooms generally are – partly because of the need to keep lighting levels low to preserve the colours. The heaviness is offset only by Adam’s dainty ceiling decorations, the central medallion depicting The Dedication of a Child to Minerva.

The State Bed designed by Robert Adam in 1776 in the State Bedchamber. ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Still more sumptuous in effect is the bed that dominates the State Bedchamber. Lacquered, festooned and richly decorated, this grand domed construction (over 14ft high) mingles classical elements with something suggestive of a Georgian stage setting. Like the Tapestry Room, the bedchamber has two huge and expensive French-made pier glasses, and it is said that, after paying the bill for the creation of this room, Robert Child tore it up so that no one would know what a colossal sum he had spent on it. The bed, like most state beds, was never actually used; it was all about status.

View into the Etruscan Dressing Room. ©National Trust Images/Paul Barker

The ‘Etruscan’ style was all the rage in the late 18th century, and Adam was fascinated by the antique Etruscan vases in the collection of Sir William Hamilton (diplomat husband of Nelson’s mistress Emma). Taking colours and decorative patterns from these vases, Adam created a number of ‘Etruscan’ rooms – of which the Etruscan Dressing Room at Osterley is the only surviving example. This is classicism at its most superficial, no more than patterns on a surface. However, after the opulence of the State Bedchamber, the light and airy effect is very pleasing. And the lightness of touch extends to the furniture, all of it designed by Adam. A commode with lacquer panels and a black and gold japanned Pembroke table add a note of Chinoiserie, a style that blends well with Adam’s indulgent brand of neoclassicism. The interiors of Osterley House eloquently demonstrate the range and versatility of the Adam style. It’s so adaptable that it lends itself to all manner of settings and can range in tone from playful and superficial to serious and correct, from plain to fancy. Its weakness is that it has to be done really well and on a pretty grand scale – there its adaptability ends. Unlike more basic and restrained classicism, it’s an assertive style, a high style, fit for a grand house, and it doesn’t sit well with quieter, more domectic styles; if you want Adam, you really have to go for the full package. For this reason, it fell out of fashion quite fast, and its legacy has been limited. Adam colours have certainly contributed to the palette of interior decoration, but the ‘look’ as a whole never really caught on. As for Adam-style neoclassical detailing, this, sadly, is now to be found chiefly on moulded plastic mantelpieces and ceiling roses in suburban semis – so much for Total Design. Plan your visit to Osterley Park and House here.

For more stunning period interiors, see The 10 Most Beautiful National Trust Interiors. And see more amazing interiors on our blog.

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