Arch, architecture, aviary, Derbyshire, eyecatcher, Folly, landscape garden, Temple

Rex Whistler and Renishaw, Derbyshire: panoramas and papier-mâché.

Eighty years ago this month Sir Osbert Sitwell and his good friend Rex Whistler were discussing how materials such as papier-mâché, much used in theatrical set construction, could be used in the ‘arts of landscaping and garden design’. Once the war was over they planned to erect a dramatic eye-catcher at Sir Osbert’s Renishaw home. But two months after their meeting came tragic news: in July 1944 Whistler was killed in action in France.

Having designed sets for drama, ballet and opera, Whistler (1905-1944) had become fascinated by the use of ‘papier-mâché and other kindred substances’ by set builders, and thought they had developed to a point where they would be durable enough to survive outside for around 50 years. He planned ‘great constructions of all kinds’ including colonnades, aqueducts, clusters of towers, gigantic statues, artificial hills and ‘panoramic visions of vast cities’. These were all ideas which he had explored in two dimensions in his art, and in particular his great murals for the Tate Gallery and Plas Newydd.

Rex Whistler’s mural (detail) at Plas Newydd on Anglesey, begun in 1938. The room in which it hangs is now known as the Whistler Dining Room. Whistler described the mural as ‘bristling with spires and domes and columns’.

At Renishaw the men planned to test Whistler’s idea by erecting a ‘vast colonnade’ at the bottom of the garden, framing views over the lake. Sir Osbert (1892-1969) recalled that his father, Sir George Sitwell, had planned something similar in ‘bricks and rubble’, but it had never come to fruition.

Whistler’s self-portrait within the mural at Plas Newydd.

As Sir Osbert believed that Whistler, a ‘wonderful and extraordinary being’, had been the only man who could ‘comprehend or undertake’ such a work, this pioneering scheme for Renishaw was abandoned after his death. As Whistler’s brother Laurence later wrote, this plan for a grand garden arcade would have been ‘magnificent in form and flimsy in magnificence: the folly of follies.’

Sir Osbert Sitwell by Rex Whistler, pencil and watercolour, 1935 NPG 5009 © National Portrait Gallery, London. CC BY-NC-ND-3.0.

Even if Whistler and Sir Osbert’s plan for Renishaw had been implemented, they believed it unlikely to have a long life. Sir Osbert calculated that the colonnade would have ‘dissolved’ by the end of the 20th century (if not already swept away by the successive generation).

But perhaps they had underestimated the material. Papier-mâché had been used for internal and external ornaments in the 18th century, and there were a number of manufactories in London.

The trade card of Duffour of London. ©Trustees of the British Museum, Heal, 32.15.

The Temple of Bacchus at Painshill, in Surrey, had ornament within the pediment that was crafted in papier-mâché. It was put up in the early 1760s and, as the photo’ below shows, it was still intact, if a little decrepit, in the 1940s. Papier-mâché was also used in the construction of Painshill’s Turkish Tent. Although the Duffour family business, whose trade card is featured above, was employed at Painshill in 1752-4, no documents have been discovered to link them to the garden buildings.

The Temple of Bacchus photographed by Osvald Siren for his book China and Gardens of Europe of the Eighteenth Century published in 1950. The remains of the sculpture in the pediment can be seen.

By the middle of the 20th century the columns that supported the pediment of the Temple of Bacchus had been reused at the house, and the temple was shortly to collapse into total ruin. The Painshill Park Trust commissioned a new temple on the footprint of the old, and the exterior work was completed in 2019.

Whilst not quite the ‘vast city’ of Whistler’s imagination, there was once an entire papier-mâché village. It was created in 1835 by the papier-mâché specialist Charles Frederick Bielefeld for his client, Mr Seymour, who was about to start a new life in Australia. The village consisted of 10 houses which included a villa with an elaborate papier-mâché mantelpiece supported by caryatids. An early exercise in pre-fabrication, or flat-pack, the village was easy to transport and erect, and was tested at Bielefeld’s Staines manufactory. The Illustrated London News reported that during this period the site flooded, but despite being ‘nearly two feet under water’ the buildings were not damaged.

The papier-mâché village destined for Australia, as featured in the Illustrated London News 6 August 1853.

Although the Illustrated London News story was picked up by the Australian press, no further reports have been found, so sadly it is not known if the village ever reached the other side of the world.

The Gothic Temple. A brief burst of sunshine on a largely dull day cast a glorious gothic shadow.

As ever, the Flâneuse digresses…. so back to Renishaw. There may not be any papier-mâché scenery, but the estate has plenty of other attractions, including the house itself and two early 19th century garden ornaments, all the work of Sir Sitwell Sitwell (1769-1811). On a lawn near the house stands the Gothic Temple, once a glazed conservatory, and later an aviary, but now a pretty shell filled with the graves of family pets.

Undated mid-20th century photograph of the Gothic Lodge from Barbara Jones’s research files. Courtesy of a private collection.

Loveliest of all is the Gothic Lodge, built in c.1807 to a design by Sir Sitwell himself. The lodge is now a shell, but sometime in the nineteenth century the central arch was filled to create a dwelling (the drive through the arch had by then been rerouted). In 1938 it was declared ‘unfit for habitation’ and the central room must have been demolished soon after. The lodge then took on its new role as a garden ornament, and what Barbara Jones called a ‘very pretty borderline folly’.

Undated postcard showing the Lodge with the central arch infilled to create a home for estate workers, and the gothic decoration swamped with ivy. Courtesy of Renishaw Archives.

The gardens are open regularly. There is a weekly house tour when the many views of Renishaw by another artist friend of the family, John Piper, can be seen in the eclectic Sitwell collection. There are also fascinating displays in the Sitwell Museum in the stable block.

The Gothic Lodge as it looks today.

For more on visiting Renishaw see

Thanks to Christine Beevers, Renishaw’s archivist, for her help with this post, and to Michael Symes and Cherrill Sands for information on papier-mâché at Painshill.

And finally… many readers clicked on the link in last week’s post to see Portmeirion from the air with commentary by John Betjeman. There is to be a celebration of John Betjeman and his work on the 40th Anniversary of his death, Sunday May 19th, with a whole evening of films on BBC4. The rarity is The Last Laugh, the biography shown only once, in 2001. The full schedule is here

Thank you for reading. If you have any comments please scroll down to the bottom of the page to get in touch.


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12 thoughts on “Rex Whistler and Renishaw, Derbyshire: panoramas and papier-mâché.”

  1. Garance says:

    More fantastic facts from the flaneuse. Thank you. Might I add the fabulous papier mache ceiling in the Long Gallery at Strawberry Hill to your list…

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Garance. you may indeed. The use of papier-mache as an alternative to plaster in interiors is a fascinating subject that just didn’t have space to include.

  2. Sally Paque says:

    The gothic shadow is a great pic!
    May 19 firmly marked in the diary for what should be a great tv session!
    Thanks, as always, for a really interesting article.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Sally. I hope you enjoy the Betjeman evening.

  3. Alan Terrill says:

    The thought that papier-mache buildings might last outside for many years is intriguing. I’m guessing they’d have been painted with a few coats of oil paints or covered in plaster, otherwise they’d be very short lived. I’ve made three structures in my garden using cement render over a chicken wire frame and after finding just how much cement fell through the holes on the first one, I remembered childhood days making scenery for my railway with papier-mache, and decided to try coating the wire frames of my cooling tower and termite mound with papier-mache first. Once set, adding a layer of cement was much easier and less wateful. Papier-mache lives on!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Alan thanks for letting us know that the art of building with papier-mache lives on in your garden. Perhaps you might test the material further? I’m sure you are right that the papier-mache would be painted to make it waterproof.

  4. Gand says:

    Having visited Renishaw recently this week’s Flaneuse delivery certainly sits well with us.

  5. Editor says:

    Good evening Gand. Thank you. Pleased you enjoyed the post, and I did hear that you enjoyed the house tour and gardens at Renishaw, which is great too.

  6. Iain KS Gray says:

    Rex Whistler enthusiasts should see his splendid mural at Port Lympne.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Iain. I haven’t seen Port Lympne but it is on my list – thanks for the reminder. Mottisfont is also wonderful.

  7. Stephanie Firth says:

    As a child I spent a lot of time at the Memorial Hall in Pickering, North Yorkshire, where my parents, and myself as I grew older, were often involved in local amateur dramatic productions, and the yearly pantomime. Your article reminded me of the story I was told that Rex Whistler had been billeted near Pickering during the war and had painted some murals in the Memorial Hall itself. I don’t remember ever getting to see them, although I think my dad did, but its a poignant memory, and I am grateful for the reminder.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Stephanie. I knew nothing about the Pickering Whistlers until someone else mentioned them having seen this post. Thank you for the link and I am planning a visit – I am very much looking forward to seeing the works. Thank you so much for taking the time to get in touch.

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