Spotlight on: Dressing Tables

For this ‘spotlight’ post I decided to focus upon two items that are included in Nostell’s ‘open cabinet’ plan. A lot of the most interesting cabinets and cupboards at Nostell Priory can’t be open all of the time for visitors to see as they are too fragile, and would be at risk of damage if left open constantly (from such agents of deterioration as dust, wear and tear, light, humidity, and sadly theft). The ‘open cabinet’ system involves a set number of these really unusual pices of furniture which are opened on rotation for visitors to see.

I thought we’d have one spotlight item for the ladies, and another spotlight item for the gents – and both happen to be similar items! They are both dressing tables, the first is a lady’s dressing table and the second a distinctively masculine one. Both pieces were created by the famous furniture maker Thomas Chippendale.

Lady’s Dressing Table, in the State Dressing Room

It’s a George III green and gold lacquer lady’s dressing table, with a serpentine hinged and divided top. If the conservation team are in the room when visitors are in the State Dressing Room we often open the top to show them the inside…

…which looks like this! It’s a mahogany divided interior, resting on cabriole legs. As the cabinet would not be left open on a regular basis, the inside wasn’t painted and decorated like the outside of the table. There is a pin cushion in one of the compartments, and you can see Julie holding one of the original glass bottles, which may have contained perfume.

The mirror comes out to rest at an angle, so that hairstyles can be seen, jewellery admired, and general preening occur! This dressing table matches a set of chinoiserie furniture which is in the State Bedroom.

Gent’s Dressing Table, in the Crimson Bedroom

The gent’s table is a more sedate affair. It too is a George III mahogany dressing table, this time on reeded (not cabriole) legs. There is a concave-fronted cupboard below the top drawer. When the top drawer is opened we see…

…this! A fitted drawer with compartments and a green baize-lined shelf (possibly for writing). When the baize shelf is pushed back and the drawer compartments opened, the contents are revealed…

…and here they are! There are cut-throat razors, a shaving brush, two spherical pomade pots, two dainty glass bottles with silver covers, and (believe it or not), a tongue scraper!

A close up of the drawer, complete with an array of contents considered necessary to make a gentleman groomed and presentable to his peers.

As ever, if you have a wish to see a particular object/room/painting/style/thing to do with Nostell Priory on the spotlight blog posts (or indeed any of our Nostell Priory Conservation Blog posts) then send us an email or leave us a comment – we’d love to hear from you!



But how did they get up there?

One of my favourite rooms (possibly my absolute favourite, although there are some strong contenders!) is the library. Visitors also love seeing all of the books from floor to ceiling, and often wonder what knowledge and surprises are contained within the books.

One of the most frequent questions that people ask us is how we reach the books on the higher shelves in the library. For the Billiard Room, where the shelves are really high, historically they used really tall ladders to get the top shelves (which probably didn’t happen very often). Unfortunately none of these tall ladders survive at Nostell.

In the Library we know what they used to reach the high shelves as we still have the piece of furniture that they used!

And here it is…

It’s a set of Thomas Chippendale George III library metamorphic steps. The invoice dates them to the 4th of July, 1767. They cost the grand sum of £14.

Fully extended, the steps dimensions are 1840 x 1250 x 580 mm. This makes them big enough to reach the highest shelves in the Library (but not the super high shelves in the Billiard Room).

We’ve decided to open up the metamorphic steps and have them as our ‘open cabinet’ for a while, as we all like seeing such an impressive piece of furniture opened up as the Winn family who lived at Nostell would have had it.

Here are some photographs of us putting it together (complete with much scratching of heads and re-reading of the instructions!):

We lift the seat up and part of the steps fold out to provide some initial structure. Then it’s a case of fitting all of the parts together and slotting them in correctly!

The metamorphic steps are made out of polished mahogany, although the inside of the steps aren’t polished like the outside, as nobody would see them!

Carefully positioning the steps

Attaching the top support

The seat of the steps (which becomes the back when it is opened out) is padded with horse hair

Looking up the steps – it’s a long way!

Metamorphic library steps, with the Library’s false door of books in the background

And there we have it – a fully functioning set of metamorphic steps that the Winn family would have used to get books from the top shelves in the Library.

Fully opened set of Chippendale metamorphic steps in the Library of Nostell Priory. The painting next to the steps shows Lady Sabine and and Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet, standing in Nostell’s Library next to Chippendale’s library desk. It was painted by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, and dates to 1767. Sir Rowland commissioned the painting because he was enormously proud of the Library once it was finished, and wanted to show it off to his London friends, so hung it in their house in St. James Square.

Now, which book shall we look at first…?