Monday 26 September 2011

“A Thousand Pities” – The Demise & Destruction of Hamilton Palace

It is a thousand pities that so great a house should disappear. That being inevitable, one must hope for the preservation and adequate use of the splendid materials and choice fitments….” So wrote the auctioneers upon the final sale of Scotland’s great Hamilton Palace in 1919. While the remaining contents had previously been auctioned off it was the rooms themselves which were now for sale.  

Being the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Hamilton since at least the 16th century, substantial rebuilding around 1591 then again by James Smith after 1693 substantially altered the appearance of the palace to that shown below.

Hamilton Palace South Front, as rebuilt after 1684

The Tenth Duke undertook further – and substantial – building work to the north front, being completed in 1842 using plans having been drawn up by the noted Architect William Adam in 1730.  The new 264 feet long edifice included a Corinthian portico which emphasized the splendour and magnificence of his new palace.

The North Front, as completed in 1842
[Source : Wikipedia] 

An established art collector himself, the Tenth Duke also married Susan, the daughter of William Beckford, “one of the greatest art connoisseurs of the age”. Thus in 1844 the Duke inherited the fabulous “Beckford Collection” of art and objects d’art. The palace thus contained one of the finest art collections in Britain including a significant and valuable library.

A solid silver medal given by "His Grace The [12th] Duke of
Hamilton" to the Hamilton, Blantyre and Cambuslang Agricultural
Society and awarded in 1869 as first prize in the ploughing
competition to John Watson of Muirhead Dalserf 

But the ‘unravelling’ and eventual demise of this sumptuous palace was no sudden phenomenon. In 1882 the 12th Duke was obliged to sell off a substantial amount of the palace treasures – including much of the Beckford Collection - to raise funds to repay debt. The sale at Christies in London lasted 17 days. While now unfortunately stripped of much of their fabulous objects d’art the palace rooms themselves remained striking. However, the raison d’être for the palace itself as a showcase of treasures had now been substantially diminished.

In 1895 The 12th Duke died without a male heir, the title then passing to a fourth cousin, Alfred. Whilst respectful of the Hamilton family heritage and title as well as carrying out his new duties responsibly, inherited debts of £1 million pounds and the loss of much family land by inheritance proved a considerable hurdle for the family fortunes. Having not been brought up in the palace any family sentimentality for this ancestral pile may also have been diminished.       

Alfred, The 13th Duke of Hamilton, Duchess
 Nina & their son Douglas, The Marquis of 
Douglas & Clydesdale, c. 1904

In 1908 the well respected 13th Duke and
Duchess visited my family, being tenant
farmers on Hamilton owned property,
arriving in a covered car described
as "a beauty". 

Additionally, the coal fields that had fuelled the Hamilton’s fabulous wealth and collecting also lay around – and under - the Palace. The large Bent Coal Mine lay within sight of the palace somewhat ruining the general demesne. Subsidence of the substantial grounds from the underground mining had also become apparent. 

A Lanarkshire Farmers' Society solid silver medal awarded
 at the 1903 show by 
Herbert Webster of Fencehouses to John
Watson of Caudermains (sic Candermains) 
for the best colt or
 filly got by the [13th] 
Duke of Hamilton's premium horse. 

The reverse of the above medal

 The palace now remained little used by the family with only a skeleton staff but still maintained to traditionally high Hamilton family standards. The final flourish was a reception for King George V and Queen Mary in 1914.

Douglas, The Marquis of Douglas & Clydesdale
and t
he future 14th Duke of Hamilton, c.1905

The final blow fell with the First World War. The 12th Duke offered the palace as a naval hospital however when it was returned after the war the Duke had discovered that he “rightly prefers a house of moderate size”, choosing then to remain at Dungavel House [later becoming an open prison and now a dentention facility!]. The palace, which lacked guest bathrooms and electricity, had now become deeply unfashionable and the cost of post war restoration and maintenance prohibitive. The 10th Duke’s “improvements” to the 17th century palace interiors left Scotland with very little appreciation that they were losing such a substantial and historic heritage.

Letterhead Paper from the Hamilton Estate Factor's Office, circa 1910

The oft quoted subsidence of the house itself due to coal mining underneath appears to be spurious and to simply have been a convenient excuse to justify the disposal of this seeming white elephant. The coal under where the house itself stood was not in fact mined until the 1950’s. 
The trustees arranged for a final sale of the remaining contents of the house, of the significant rooms themselves, and then to demolish the house itself. The sales took place in 1919 with demolition being completed about 1922.   

From the 1882 and 1919 sales a multitude of significant and historically valuable treasures found their way into museums around the world. Many would now be almost priceless. The 1882 sale included two pieces of inlaid furniture by Jean-Henri Riesener which had been in the Palace of Versailles and owned by Queen Marie-Antoinette. From the 1919 sales two rooms from the 17th century palace are known to be extant, Smith’s 17th century Great Dining Room in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Smith’s Withdrawing Room has been acquired by the National Museums of Scotland. The 17th century carved oak staircase balustrades have been quoted as appearing in Scarlett & Rhett Butler's Atlanta mansion in the film “Gone With The Wind”. Personally I think viewed close up that they are dissimilar but if this is in fact correct the Atlanta mansion set is still in storage at The Culver Studio's in Culver City California where the movie was originally filmed. Lennoxlove House in East Lothian, the current seat of the Dukes of Hamilton, contains a number of treasures previously in Hamilton Palace.

Chatelherault Hunting Lodge
(Source : Wikipedia)

Of other buildings on the former grounds William Adam’s “Chatelherault” hunting lodge (also known as the “Ducal Dog Kennel”) built in 1732-1744, including the Banqueting Room complete with the renowned Thomas Clayton’s detailed plasterwork, has been restored after subsidence and fire damage.

Hamilton Mausoleum, built 1842
[Source : SLLC]

The Hamilton family mausoleum of 1842 also sits forlornly in the former palace grounds. Having substantially subsided at an alarming angle, the mausoleum has miraculously settled on the level without structural cracking.    

Hamilton Mausoleum Interior, built 1842
(Source : Wikipedia) 

But ninety years on, the loss of this great house all just seems an unnecessary tragedy. Had it survived the vicissitudes of fluctuations in the Hamilton family fortunes, punitive death duties, coal mining activity, neglect and/or damage during another world war, and the post war backlash against ostentatious family seats, then the house and its now priceless treasures would stand today as a unique showcase for Scotland.    

Bibliography and Sources :

- All images & artefacts (unless otherwise stated) are from my own collection
- "Hamilton Palace - A Photographic Record" by G Walker, post 1974
- "Scottish Houses and Gardens From the Archives of Country Life" by Ian Gow, 1997
- "Scotland's Lost Houses" by Ian Gow, 2006
- "Wikipedia"