On the banks of the river Wear in the city of Durham is a little classical summerhouse known as The Count’s House. It takes its name from Joseph Boruwlaski (1739-1837) who was born with a genetic disorder, and never grew taller than 3 feet and 3 inches tall. In his mid-forties he came to Britain and, styling himself Count Boruwlaski, quickly gained fame and invitations to meet the Royal family and all of the ‘principal families’ of the Nobility.
The Count is supposed to have made his entrée into British society by presenting letters of introduction to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. He was certainly the darling of the elite ladies, and satires soon appeared. Here his dapper (natty) dress and tiny figure serve only to accentuate the overblown fashion for ladies of the day.
For decades he toured Britain and Ireland giving recitals on the guitar, hosting balls and breakfasts and ‘receiving company’ for a fee. Thus he earned his living as people flocked to see the celebrated ‘man in miniature’. He published prints and was a fantastic self-publicist, orchestrating meetings with other curious characters such as the extremely obese Daniel Lambert and the ‘Irish Giant’ Patrick O’Brien.
In 1788 he published a first volume of memoirs (of which large parts were to be taken cum grano according to commentators), and undertook what we would now call a ‘book tour’ to promote the work. In 1821 he personally gave a copy of the revised edition to George IV who presented him with a watch in return, and a decade later the sculptor David Dunbar modelled him ‘in the form of dress which he wore on being presented’ to the late monarch. The Count’s fame was such that this statue toured to galleries across the country.
Portrait of Joseph Borulawski, the Polish dwarf, by Philip Reinagle, unsigned, before 1793, RCSSC/P248. Courtesy of the Museums of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Some time around the end of the 18th century Boruwlaski had settled in Durham. It was widely reported that he lived ‘thanks to the liberality of the Bishop’, but he indignantly denied this and wrote to a newspaper in 1821 to stress that he paid rent. He died in Durham in 1837, aged 98, and was buried in the cathedral under a simple slab marked ‘JB’. Durham Town Hall has a small display which includes some of his belongings, a portrait, and a sculpture which can be seen on Saturdays. There’s also a portrait by Philip Reinagle which was commissioned by Dr William Hunter for his anatomical museum. It’s now in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, and currently on loan to the National Portrait Gallery where it is on display in the Regency Portraits Rooms.
There’s only one small problem: the diminutive Joseph never lived in The Count’s House – his home was the nearby Banks Cottage, a building in ‘the English style’ where the Count was a ‘great gardener’. A visitor in 1811 wrote that he had ‘a garden by the river which he cultivates entirely himself’. Boruwlaski had tools specially made to fit his height, and welcomed guests to visit him in his riverside plot. The cottage and garden have gone, but there’s a monument to Boruwlaski not far away in St Mary’s on South Bailey.
The erroneously named Count’s House was probably built as a summerhouse for the Shipperdson family of South Bailey in the 1820s after they had expanded their land holdings by the river, and were able to create a small pleasure ground. The classical temple was probably designed by the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi, who lodged nearby (too many uses of ‘probably’ but this little building keeps its secrets well). By 1857 it was a dwelling known as Shipperdson’s Cottage and early 20th century photographs show a smoking chimney and a neat cottage garden around the building. Sadly it is not so well-kept today, and has all the usual problems of graffiti and vandalism.
For Durham Town Hall https://www.thisisdurham.com/things-to-do/durham-town-hall-p357221
Thanks to Martin ‘Pevsner’ Roberts for help with understanding the development of the Count’s House. Look out for his updated edition of The Buildings of England: County Durham in autumn 2020 https://www.yalebooks.co.uk/pevsner