ARTS; Bringing it all back home

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After years of neglect, one of Scotland's finest 18th-century houses has been restored

to its former glory. Fiammetta Rocco visits Duff House, Britain's newest art gallery

WILLIAM ADAM, architect to many of Scotland's wealthiest 18th- century patrons, was accustomed to handling difficult clients. But none proved as tricky as William Duff (Lord Braco) who commissioned Adam in 1735 to build him "a magnificent family seat" near Banff, on the north- east Scottish coast. Braco became obsessed with the idea that Adam had cheated him over the cost of the masonry for the new mansion. The two men fell out so badly that Adam had to sue his patron for payment, and Braco refused ever to move into his new home, Duff House. What's more, wrote Braco's brother-in-law, each time the outraged aristocrat drove past it, he "would draw down the blinds of his coach" to avoid looking at Adam's offending structure.

Braco never saw the house completed; indeed it fell to his son (later first Earl of Fife) to finish fitting out the interior and move in after the Jacobite Rebellion. But had Lord Braco glanced out of his coach today, he would certainly have been surprised. Not only is Banff flourishing, with lines of new housing and a neat municipal golf course at the edge of the town. But rising out of the middle of the fairway, like an unexpected and splendidly baroque peacock, is Duff House. Carefully restored over the past two years by Historic Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland, Duff House was opened to the public for the first time at the end of last month, and is now the northernmost outreach of the National Galleries, a handsome extension to The Mound in Edinburgh.

"Duff House is the most distinguished 18th-century house in the north- east, and maybe in all of Scotland," boasts Timothy Clifford, director of the National Galleries of Scotland. "It's a very important house, with important pictures and important furniture. It's like a tiny little Burrell Collection, a baby Waddesden."

After his son Robert, whom many think of as British rather than Scottish, William Adam is Scotland's most famous architect. And the importance of Duff House in his oeuvre lies not in its size but in the nature of the commission. The completion of now-demolished Hamilton Palace, near Glasgow, which he worked on almost directly before it, and the final stage of Inverary Castle, on Loch Fyne in Argyll, right after, were both bigger and far grander. But for Adam, who often had to make higgledy-piggledy town houses smart and symmetrical, the request to design a new house for a wealthy peer on a fresh site was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Adam enthusiasts will not be disappointed. The Scots' fondness for piano nobiles on the second floor, together with the four turret-like pavilions in the corners, give Duff House an upwards lift that makes it seem taller and more imposing without sacrificing any of the building's lightness. Although the building looks simple, and the design of the lower floors is uncluttered, the bedroom apartments on the third floor are far more complex, managing ingeniously to be both practical and filled with light. The whole effect is of a gloriously rich confection that offers no danger of visual indigestion.

By far the most effective dcor is in the dining room, where the restorers have recreated the original grey colour scheme, a perfect foil to the gilding. On the table is a magnificent pair of gilt-bronze candelabra with nine branches, made for the 4th Earl of Fife. Clifford persuaded their owner, John Hardy, Christie's furniture expert, to lend them to Duff House, but hopes to find a sponsor who will provide £75,000 to buy them. Watching over them is Allan Ramsay's newly restored, full-length portrait of the squint-eyed Elizabeth Cunyngham, probably the best picture in the house. For all its fine dcor, as Clifford says, "the house is the thing. Every-thing here should be seen in the context of the house. It was a magnificent achievement."

Braco may not have appreciated Adam's work at the time, but the restoration of Duff House after nearly a century's baleful existence as a hotel, a sanatorium, again a hotel, a home for German prisoners of war, and a billet for Norwegian and Polish troops (whose graffiti on Duff's walls, the local council insists, must be conserved - much to Clifford's irritation) will be a boon for followers of the castle trail in the north-east of Scotland. While for art lovers, it is another gallery, like the Tate at St. Ives, which gives visitors a chance to look at important pictures without having to travel to a major city.

Duff House will act as an overflow for the Scottish National Galleries in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The Banff collection includes three magnificent portraits by Ramsay that have not been seen in public for many years, as well as works by Sir Henry Raeburn and Franois Boucher, and a room of fine Gobelin tapestries lent by the Marquess of Zetland.

For those who suffer from the "heritage" allergy, the sight of an outsized green-and-gold sign proclaiming Duff House as a "country house gallery" will induce a bad case of hives. But wait awhile, and even the worst afflicted will recover. Duff House marks a victory for the ever-busy and scheming Timothy Clifford, who hopes it will count in his favour in his bid to become the next director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is also a fine example of what co-operation between public conservation and tourism agencies can, and should, achieve.

Under an agreement signed in July 1992, Historic Scotland undertook to spend £2.5 million transforming Duff House from an empty shell to a modern museum, complete with sprinkler system, closed-circuit television and gift shop, while the National Galleries promised to provide the house with pictures and furniture. The project was completed on time, and within budget, but Clifford's greatest coup lay in securing a large collection of 18th-century furnishings less than two months before the house was due to open.

Duff House had been in the care of the Ministry of Works for nearly four decades when the restoration began. None of the original paintings remained, and the furniture had long since been sold off. The choice was between making accurate reproductions of what had been there, or refurnishing it with period pieces that have some link with the house, the family or Adam.

The results will irritate both those who insist Duff should be an 18th- century home, and those who go looking simply for a picture gallery. Duff House will not rotate its collection of pictures (although there is a space for temporary exhibitions upstairs), but Clifford wants gradually to replace some of the pictures with others more appropriate to the house and its setting.

Gradually, too, the furniture that is still being restored will be put on show. What is already there is impressive. Indeed, Duff would have been just a picture gallery had Clifford not concluded a remarkable deal with the trustees of Mrs Magdalene Sharpe Erskine, a descendant of the Erskines of Torrie, who died in 1872.

Mrs Sharpe Erskine was a wilful old lady who married her childhood love only to separate from him three days later. She died, having never married again, at the age of 85, demanding in her will that her trustees should found an institution of fine arts from her property. The collection of furniture, paintings and objets de vertu has been stored at her home, Dunimarle, near Culross in Fife, ever since. And the only catalogue is a hand-written, hand-sketched account by a Canon Harper who completed his work in 1912 and described it a "labour of love".

Clifford wanted the Dunimarle collection for Duff House because the life and times of the Erskine family so closely matched those of the Duffs. James, 4th Earl of Fife, for example, was a hero of the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon, as was Mrs Sharpe Erskine's brother who served under Wellesley (later first Duke of Welling-ton). The heart of the Dunimarle collection is a large suite of ornate gilded furniture covered in red silk that was made for Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon's uncle. Clifford believes the richly carved mahogany desk chair, with its arms of fruit-filled cornucopia and seat rail resting on the lions of St Mark, belonged to Napoleon's stepson, Eugne de Beauharnais, Prince de Venise and at one time Viceroy of Italy.

After prolonged negotiation with the trustees, Clifford concluded a deal whereby the National Galleries of Scotland would have the collection on a 25-year loan in exchange for undertaking all the conservation, a huge job. For many years, the only efforts have been those of Dunimarle's live- in caretaker who made a daily tour of the house, lighting fires in all 13 of its grates to keep out the damp, with the result that many of the objects were coated in grime and soot, and needed extensive cleaning and repair. Some of the gilt bronze mounts must be recast, while much of the silk for the Napoleon furniture will need to be rewoven, probably in France.

Once the entire Dunimarle collection is on display, and all the pictures have been properly labelled, Duff House will be one of those places French food guides describe as "vaut le detour". In fact, it would be difficult to devise a richer weekend itinerary than a tour of Duff House, Fyvie Castle, the ruin at Huntley and a night in a four-poster bed at Hatton Castle - all within just a few miles of each other.

! Duff House, 01261 818181, 10am-5pm, not Tues.