West Wycombe & Sir Francis Dashwood

It’s very rare indeed to find a seemingly unspoilt designed landscape, especially one dating from the mid-18thc. Yet a few do exist, although I suspect none are as convincing,  despite the changes that have inevitably taken place, as West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire.

Created by the dilettante art collector, libertine and libertarian, Sir Francis Dashwood – clearly a man with a sense of humour – it is an impeccable Georgian estate, smaller in scale than  Stowe which is not far away, but equally special and if anything even more engaging.  It was my birthday treat visit recently…and what a treat it proved to be.



In fact such a treat that as I got part way through writing the blog I realised I was going to have   to stretch my account over two posts. Today’s will look at the background and some of the wider estate, while next week I’ll take a tour of the gardens and pleasure grounds themselves.  

Like many other National Trust properties West Wycombe is still the home of the donor family, but the deal that was made with Sir John Dashwood in 1943 appears somewhat different to most other arrangements. The arrangement was largely negotiated over a five year span by James Lees-Milne  first Historic Buildings Secretary of the National Trust, who was instrumental in making them the leading force in the conservation of the English country house.  He lived at West Wycombe for part of the war and it was through his efforts between 1936 and 1951 that  many great landed estates  were brought  into the National Trust’s possession.  [Read Lees-Milne’s  diaries or his other accounts for more acerbic but probably quite accurate accounts of the process and the owners- one day I’ll blog about him properly!]

As Peter Mandler points out in The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home [1997] in the early days concessions  were made to several owners,  including Sir John, in order to convince them to donate.  This meant that at West Wycombe although the Trust acquired the house and immediate pleasure grounds, the rest of the estate, including the valuable contents of the house, remained firmly in family hands.  Public access was also restricted and considerable autonomy was granted over the way the property was managed. That  means that, like many properties which remain fully in private hands,   the house and pleasure grounds have limited opening hours and only  during the summer.  As a result the modern visitor also only gets the chance to explore a part of the whole designed landscape, with just glimpses into the wider estate.  In return Sir John  gave the Trust an endowment of £2000 invested in government bonds. [yes – you did read that correctly £2000 not £2 million.  How times have changed!].

Yet in many ways this is a big part of what makes West Wycombe so special, because now rather than the standard National Trust treatment complete with tea rooms, souvenir shop, cycle tracks and children’s playgrounds the estate remains very much itself and has continued to evolve in the spirit of its founder Sir Francis Dashwood, the second baronet.

It means for example that once inside the park, only the  the noise of traffic, and the sight of cars in the car park or  pieces of modern farm machinery tell you you’re in 2022 rather than the reign of George III.    Looking out over the lake although the view isn’t exactly what Sir Francis would have seen nothing looks out of time or place  and I’m sure he would recognise the present view instantly.  I think he’d also be impressed and amused by the yellow ochre stucco on the house, very reminiscent of Italy, yet only introduced by his namesake the 11th baronet towards the end of the last century, and gratified  too that his vision of Elysium was still admired and much loved.

The north front


The story starts with Sir Francis Dashwood’s  father, also Francis,  a wealthy London merchant, involved with trade to the eastern Mediterranean and Africa. He acquired the West Wycombe estate   in 1698, quickly demolishing  the existing manor house and building  a replacement red-brick house  higher up on the hillside.  He was created a baronet but died in 1724 leaving West Wycombe  to his 15-year-old son who soon embarked on the grand tour.  The young man fell in love with Italy and was to undertake three more visits in 1729, 1731 and 1739. He also visited Russia with a  commercial mission in 1733 and, calling on his family’s trade connections, went  to Greece and Asia Minor, in 1735, including trips to Palmyra [modern day Syria] and Baalbek [modern day Lebanon] and and even Egypt.  This was an extraordinary amount of travelling, and quite adventurous too. On his return he became one of the founder members of the Divan Club and  had himself painted in costume [see above] as “El Faquir Dashwood Pasha.”  He also had sculptures made of himself and his wife as sphinxes. And of courses there are echoes of all this around the gardens. For more information about the Divan Club see this  excellent article by Rachel Finnegan in  the Journal of Oriental Studies (2006)

Sir Francis’s visits to Italy led to him  becoming  the leading light of the Society of Dilettanti which was founded to promote classical culture in Britain. [For more information see Jason Kelly’s book]  This was famously, if slightly unfairly summed up by Horace Walpole as “a club for which the nominal qualification is having been to Italy, and the real one, being drunk; the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy”. Of course it had a more serious side and over time it effected changes in British taste in art, architecture and music.  Members made contributions to various funds to support, amongst other things, archaeological expeditions, particularly to Greece and the eastern Mediterannean.   Findings from these trips soon found their way into the gardens  at West Wycombe. [The Society still exists and still pursues the same aims]

For more on his collecting taste see “Sir Francis Dashwood’s house at West Wycombe Park: a Dilettante’s Pantheon” by Clare Hornsby and Adriano Aymonino, and “Sir Francis Dashwood: Connoisseur, Collector and Traveller” by Jason Kelly.

Sir Francis was, despite his later reputation, more than just a pleasure seeker, although this was a reputation he encouraged, as can be seen in several of his portraits. He was , for example, a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS),the  Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce  and  the Society of Antiquaries as well as being  Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, and vice-president of both the Foundling Hospital and the General Medical Asylum. He was also elected to Parliament. Independently minded and “liberal” he was in due course to rise to become Chancellor of the Exchequer [rather unsuccessfully] in Lord Bute’s Tory government  and then later  joint Postmaster General.

For more on his political views and career see his entry on the History of Parliament website and Betty Kemp, Sir Francis Dashwood: an eighteenth-century independent (1967) which is available on-line.  He only left the Commons when he succeeded to the  title of Baron Despencer in 1763.

Many of his political connections were gardeners – including Frederick, Prince of Wales, Bute and Bubb Dodington of Eastbury [subject of an earlier post]and this led to  many interesting links between his politics and his gardens, which are too complex to go into at length here [even over 2 posts] but which  are explored in detail by Michael Symes in “Flintwork, Freedom and Fantasy: The Landscape at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire”, Garden History Summer 2005. [Freely available via JSTOR although you have to register first.]

The fun really started when Sir Francis  got back from his first Italian trip , and continued up until his death in 1781,  by which time the old house had been extended and adapted beyond recognition both inside and out in a mix of Palladian and Neoclassical styles.  The park too was transformed from the formal early 18thc plan laid out by his father to the carefully contrived “natural” look which is still largely there today.

Michael Symes’s  argues that West Wycombe is “one of the richest and most layered gardens of the eighteenth century, [and] deserves more attention than has hitherto been paid to it in the the academic literature, certainly suffering in comparison with its not so distant cousin at Stowe….  it needs to be taken in  its totality.”  That totality stretched to just over 4000 acres, of which the pleasure gardens were just 45 and the wider parkland just over 200. Most of the estate – about  2700 acres was worked, while there are about 600 acres of common and  nearly 700 acres of woodland, again mostly seen as economically useful.

So the West Wycombe estate is much more than just the house and its immediate parkland. Its  landscape is complex and needs to be seen as a whole although that’s difficult as only  parts of it are publicly accessible.  This obviously includes the village although it cannot be seen from the house or parkland thanks to the perimeter planting. The Dashwoods owned it in its entirety, and it is an amazing survival.

When the 10th baronet, Sir John Dashwood returned from the Great War in 1919 the house was mortgaged and neglected and he decided to sell,  but it failed to attract any real interest and so was withdrawn. Soon afterwards  he married and his wife fell in love with the estate and determined to keep the house in use.   Money to pay for it came from the sale of non-core land and then in 1929 by the sale of virtually the entire village.  Luckily it was  bought by the Royal Society of Arts as part of the its ‘Campaign for the Preservation of Ancient Cottages’.  They restored and modernised them before handing them over to the National Trust In 1934.

It was that gift which probably prompted the great interest that James Lees-Milne had for getting Sir John to hand over the rest of the estate.

The church and mausoleum



The Dashwoods  were also patrons of the parish church which stands high above the village on the other side of the valley to the house.  Church Hill and the structures on it are  the most significant  visual extension of the West Wycombe Park landscape, and can be seen from many parts of the estate.

The hilltop is home not just to St Lawrence’s  church  but also the Dashwood mausoleum nearby, while cut up deep into the hillside  below both are  the Hell-Fire Caves. They  were supposedly home to the Hell Fire Club which was supposedly founded by Sir Francis and supposedly the scene of all sorts of exotic, erotic and mock-religious  events. The reality is much less certain.

The caves were excavated in the early 1750s as a way of alleviating local unemployment, and providing material for improving the main highway through the village. A network of tunnels and chambers  run some 400m into the hillside  and  include a main hall which branches off into rooms such as the Steward’s Cave, a banqueting hall, and Franklin’s Cave, which was named after Dashwood’s friend, and Hellfire guest, Benjamin Franklin. At the end is  the Inner Temple, which was reached after crossing a small underground stream named after the River Styx.

John Donowell, the architect and artist who who worked with Dashwood  for many years gave the entrance to the complex a  flintwork facade and courtyard resembling the ruins of a Gothic church. This now serves as the outside seating area for a cafe – the nearest to a NT tearoom you’ll get!

Sir Francis Dashwood at His Devotions, modelled on Agostino Carracci’s St. Francis Adoring the Cross by Hogarth 1757

Such caverns and caves were a sort of more scary successor to grottoes, and  offered the visitor a  frisson of terror – think of similar features in gardens like Hawkstone or features with the name cave in them such as Dido’s Cave at Stowe.  While it’s likely that they were used for entertainment,  the sort of thing that got Sir Francis and the Hell Fire Club their infamous reputation probably  did not happen here but rather at Medmenham Abbey where he and a group of friends formed a group known as the Monks of Medmenham.   The  Hell Fire club was actually one of several that existed while his had several other names – usually The Knights of St Francis of Wycombe  – but in any case  its association with caves at  West Wycombe is  somewhat overstated.

Yet despite all his political involvement and his extensive garden-making and landscaping,  that’s the reason   Sir Francis’s name continues to resonate in the popular imagination. While there’s  no doubt though that he liked dressing up and impersonating or parodying religious figures, and was definitely very interested in wine women and song the licentiousness of his private life is often exaggerated.





For a much fuller analysis of these 3 portraits which are full of allusions and references which I don’t have space to go into now see “Francis Dashwood, Portraiture, and the Origins of the Hellfire Club” by Jason Kelly



Its likely that the rumours about Dashwood’s bacchanalian orgies grew in the 19thc as a way of attracting visitors and boosting the local economy,  but it was Sir Francis the 11th baronet, and current owner’s father, who really capitalised on this when he re-opened the caves in 1951. Later he installed a series of tableaux showing his ancestor carousing with his friends.

The caves are still owned by the Dashwoods and are a popular tourist attraction.

Good starting points for more of the story are the Wikipedia page on Hell-Fire Clubs   ,Jason Kelly’s blogposts  about the Hell-Fire Club   and Geoffrey Ashe,   The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality. and  for the story of the 11th baronet & the Hell-Fire Caves   Hellfirecaves.co.uk  

While the caves were being dug Dashwood had the medieval church of St Lawrence rebuilt in classical style by John Donowell.  The golden globe on top is 8 feet in diameter  and made from a wooden frame covered in gold leaf . The design was probably inspired by the Customs House in Venice. It contains seats for at least 6 people and was described by John Wilkes, the radical MP a as “the first church built for a prospect” and  by another friend to be “the best Globe Tavern I was ever in.” Remodelled and decorated in the early 1760s by the Italian Giovanni Borgnis with designs inspired by Robert Wood’s engravings in The Ruins of Palmyra [1753] that had been sponsored by the Society of Dilettanti.

After the caves and the church Dashwood’s attention turned to the creation of an even grander and more personal project: a  mausoleum.  The spur to its creation seems to have been a bequest of £500, left to him by his  friend George Bubb Dodington  for “building an Arch, Temple, Column or additional room to such of his seats where it is likely to remain the longest as a testimony to after times of my affection and gratitude for the invariable and very endearing friendship he has honoured me with.”

Dodington certainly had his wish fulfilled.  Dashwood  chose a site immediately to the east of the church which commanded a view of the main road through the village towards  High Wycombe and then London. Of course that meant the mausoleum was visible for miles and  to every traveller on the road, and these days  at night-time too.

It is an extraordinary construction: a tall  hexagonal roofless structure built from local flint with dressed stone decoration, to a design adapted by John Donowell from  the  Arch of Constantine in Rome.  It’s thought to be the largest mausoleum built in Europe since antiquity.


There are three  open arched and screened panels – resembling the outlines of triumphal arches, which overlook the valley, while on the other side of the enclosure are three closed panels.  The central one has a stone canopy over the family monument to Sir Francis’s parents which he had removed from the church. In the centre is a memorial to his wife, Sarah, while ranged around the other walls are  plaques and and urns commemorating Sir Francis himself, and other family members  and friends including Dodington. 


The link between the mausoleum and the house which can be glimpsed, even now through the trees that have grown up on Church Hill, and the “mirror” view back from the house is central to understanding the totality of the West Wycombe estate. But for more on that that we’ll have wait for next week’s instalment because I’ve already well overrun my word limit and doubtless your patience too.

West Wycombe Park from Church Hill



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