The Gilt Room

The Spring Clean at Tredegar House began this week. The first room we are tackling is one of the trickiest, but one of the most impressive – the Gilt Room. Simon Jenkins calls it “one of the great rooms of Wales“, and Country Life magazine considered it to be “one of the most important surviving interiors of the late-17th-century in the country”.

Gilt Room fireplace

The Gilt Room is at the end of the North West Wing and is accessed through the Brown Room. This is very much a case of the family showing off. The Brown Room had been the main dining room in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries and we believe that the gentlemen would retire to the Gilt Room for a game of cards, a drink or two and maybe to listen to the family harpist (being a good Welsh family, the Morgans employed a full-time harpist) and flautists. This room has retained more of its original features and decoration than any other at Tredegar. The panelling in here is pine, but has been painted and grained to resemble walnut. The fire surround is dark Italian marble, but the twisted columns above it are  carved from pine and painted and marbled to complement it. Between the twisted columns is a portrait of William Morgan aged ninety in 1650; although original to the House it is currently  on loan thanks to the National Museum of Wales. The gold leaf has been reapplied by Newport Council on the carvings and mouldings.

The paintings are original though having been painted directly onto the panelling. Above the doorway is Venus, seemingly after Titian’s “Venus and the Organ Player”. Left of the doorway the panels contain depictions of the Three Virtues – Prudence, Temperance and Justice.  These  were copied from engravings  after sculptures by Artus Quellinus at the Amsterdam Town Hall. To the right of the doors we have two of the Seasons; Summer depicted as a young girl and and Winter as an old man. At least, that is what the older guide books profess; I have my personal doubts about that. Between the North East windows is another painting based on an engraving showing Cybele the Mother Goddess or possibly Diana. Smaller panels on the North West side depict a variety of Italianate landscapes, said to be after Poussin, which I find to be quite similar to the Abergavenny area.

The other important feature of the Gilt Room is its ceiling. This is the only original Seventeenth Century ceiling that has survived on the Ground Floor.  Indeed it very nearly didn’t survive. A Military Spectacular was held at Tredegar Park in the Eighties and part of it included a flypast by a Vulcan bomber from RAF St Athan. Apparently it flew over the House at a very low level, the whole building shook and the ceiling’s plasterwork started to crack, crumble and fall. Luckily Newport Council acted quickly and filled the Gilt Room with scaffolding holding it all in place until, I believe, the RAF paid for its restoration. Remarkably, however, the central painting was not damaged and this is what makes the whole room so magnificent in my opinion.

The painting is after an engraving of one of the features of Pietro da Cortona’s ceiling at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. For me this is one of the great joys of the Spring Clean at Tredegar House; when I can get up close to this ceiling and see all the detail. Each year I feel I discover another feature I hadn’t noticed properly before. Last year I had the opportunity to see Cortona’s original and I have to say that the copy at Tredegar is not a million miles away from the one that Pope Urban VIII would have admired in the Gran Salone of his home.

The whole ceiling in Rome depicts The Triumph of Divine Providence and the fulfilment of her ends under the papacy of Pope Urban VIII. The theme of the ceiling in the Gilt Room is a depiction of The Triumph of Religion and Spirituality. Considering the fact that Tredegar House was a Catholic School run by the Sisters of St Joseph for over twenty years, we should be grateful it was not painted over. On the other hand if it was good enough for a papal palazzo ………….

Next on the list for the Spring Clean at Tredegar House is the Brown Room. I hope to post something about each of the rooms as they are cleaned. That should take us up to the National Trust takeover if everything goes according to plan.

Sources for this post included:

Jenkins, Simon (2008) – Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles. (Allen Lane)

Worsley, Giles (1994) – Country Life magazine. pp 74 – 76

Lo Bianco, Anna (2008) – Pietro da Cortona’s Ceiling. (Gestione Servizi Beni Culturali)

Davies, John (2009) – Cymru: Y 100 lle i’w gweld cyn marw. (Y Lolfa)

Room notes compiled by Tredegar House’s Curator Emily Price and her predecessors.

And a thank you to colleagues Paul Busby et al for imparting their knowledge.

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