The danger of interpretation: Abbotsford House, Scotland

Abbortsford House, Scotland (Image: The Scotsman)
Abbotsford House, Scotland (Image: The Scotsman)

For Abbotsford House in Scotland, home of the famous author Sir Walter Scott, the recent news that it was to receive a £4.85m Heritage Lottery Fund grant is the sort of news which should be welcomed as that level of funding can usually remedy any necessary maintenance or repairs.  However, the grant is not actually to be spent on the house (despite headlines such as ‘Lottery cash means Walter Scott’s beloved Abbotsford will get £10m facelift‘ [The Scotsman]) but mainly on a new, separate visitors centre.

Sir Walter Scott (b.1771 – d.1832) played a key part creating a literary context for the developing Picturesque movement which sought to reject the rigid formality of the Georgians and create a more organic architecture, which he developed in the construction of his own house.

The theory of the Picturesque raised the importance of how one ‘felt’ about a scene or view – a definite break with the austere, ‘correct’ classicism which so dominated.  The exploration of more fluid forms had started in the 1750s and had been adopted by such noted figures as Sir Horace Walpole for his own house at Strawberry Hill in Surrey.  However it was a local Surrey parson, the Rev. William Gilpin, whose guidebooks were to lead the way for those who came afterwards such as Herefordshire squires Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight who had the funds to realise these ideas.

Inspired in part by the idealised landscapes of the artists Nicholas Poussin or Claude Lorrain, architects sought to provide an almost ‘arcadian’ vision of buildings integrating naturally with an environment, forcing them to think of the building and environment as a whole rather than simply viewing their particular work in isolation. This also affected the plan of the house, with rooms now being aligned along the best viewing lines rather than simply lined up. One architect who took on this new style was John Nash who met Uvedale Price in about 1790 during Nash’s time in Wales.  Price was at the time building a small summer house and Nash, after meeting him, proposed a typical villa – a design antithetical to Price’s own philosophy.  Price instead guided Nash to design a new house where rooms followed views, and the overall design echoed its rocky coastal location; as he wrote ”The form of it is extremely varied from my having obliged him [Nash] to turn the rooms to different aspects‘.  Castle House, sadly demolished in 1897, was a watershed in the rejection of the dominant Georgian style and Nash quickly developed new designs based on these radical principles which became his distinctive ‘cottage orne‘ style.

Sir Walter Scott didn’t set out to link literature and architecture – in fact his ‘Waverley’ novels were simply a quick way to make some money after financial difficulties.  The books, which he initially wrote anonymously, were the first truly successful historical fiction, and brought Scott considerable wealth and, once his authorship was known, praise.  It was this wealth that enabled him to set about creating his ideal house.  Raised in the Scottish borders he had a close affinity for the natural landscape and so the Picturesque style would have appealed.  However, Scott ensured the existing designs for Abbotsford House had a distinctly Scottish twist, creating what is known today as the ‘Scots Baronial’ style so closely associated with our romantic notions of Scotland today.

Scott bought a small farmhouse in 1811 and engaged William Atkinson (b.c1774 – d.1839) who, between 1814-24, created the house we see today.  Atkinson was not considered one of the best ‘Gothick’ architects, with Howard Colvin thinking that his designs lacked the elegant charm of the 18th-century work and the scholarly accuracy of the 19th-century.  However at Abbotsford, the architectural vocabulary he employed – steeply pitched slate roofs, turrets, bartizans, and crowstepped gables – became the standard language of Scots country houses for anyone not following the Classical style.

So Abbotsford House is an architectural genesis – the first of it’s kind.  It seems a shame to lavish millions on a separate interpretation centre in a modern design which will only compete with the existing architecture of the house and estate.  It’s also a competition the new building is unlikely to win.  Perhaps it would be better for the money to be spent on sensitively incorporating the displays and materials from Scott’s life and work into the home he so lovingly and thoughtfully created.

More details: ‘Lottery cash means Walter Scott’s beloved Abbotsford will get £10m facelift‘ [The Scotsman]

Official website: ‘Abbotsford House

Background: the Picturesque movement [Wikipedia]

2 thoughts on “The danger of interpretation: Abbotsford House, Scotland

  1. Andrew August 4, 2010 / 14:54

    I’ve not seen the £10m budget breakdown, but I doubt the visitor centre, carpark, landscaping and paths (east of the Walled Garden, opposite the existing carpark) would account for more than a third of the total (e.g. the Anglesey Abbey visitor centre cost £3.5 million in 2008 and is twice the size). The bulk of the funds would presumably go on work in the house, such as the repair and restoration of the house, creation of interpretation facilities and an education suite, and the conversion of the Hope Scott Wing into a six-bedroom self-catering visitor accommodation. However, the Trust is not doing themselves any favours by not releasing further information on this matter, although they may have done so at the local public consultation presentations held earlier this year. The main problem with the visitor centre is its design, or lack of it, described by some critics as an “ugly 1960s building” and a “shed”. However, with limited funds, we can’t expect the same high quality materials and finish as the main house. The visitor centre will also service the existing Border Abbeys Way walking path ( which passes beside it. I assume that there is not sufficient or appropriate space in the main house for the facilities planned for the visitor centre, such as a shop, cafe, toilets and a reception area for visiting groups and school parties. It will also help to spread out people flow on busy days and provide access to the shop outside house opening hours.

    Visitor centre image –

    The new buzz word in the museum and heritage game seems to be “interpretation facilities”, which in plain English means a planned effort to create for the visitor an understanding of the history and significance of events, people and objects with which the site is associated, through use of original objects, by first hand experience and by illustrative media, rather than simply communicating factual information. Sounds like a fancy way of saying “an interesting display” by someone who has too much time on their hands!

  2. Oliver Chettle August 6, 2010 / 20:41

    I haven’t seen pictures of the visitor centre, but it is important to have such facilities. The days when people were grateful just to be allowed inside are rightly gone. I don’t like the idea of displays in the house, as such things nearly always impart a deadening museum atmosphere.

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