Wilton House, Wiltshire

Described as one of the treasure houses of England, and home to the Earls of Pembroke for nearly five centuries, Wilton House conceals enormous extravagance behind its somewhat restrained external appearance. Standing on the site of a Benedictine Abbey, the first house built was a large Tudor home incorporating parts of the old abbey walls, but the current Palladian-style building dates from the 17th century and is attributed to Inigo Jones. Even though the dimensions are very impressive, this was a scaled-down version of the original plan, abandoned with the onset of the Civil War and the declining fortunes of the 4th Earl.

The subdued tones of the plain, grey stone almost give the illusion of Wilton House becoming just another feature of the gloriously landscaped parklands, rather than actually being the dominating aspect from which the grounds radiate. As spectacular as they are, with their Japanese water gardens, shrubberies, woodland and riverside walks, these are merely a taster for what awaits the unsuspecting visitor inside the house.

Wilton House portrays another world, one where colour, elaborate decoration, and ornately sculptured vistas blend so well with the fine furnishings and family trinkets on display. Commemorating Wilton House's great literary connections during the first half of the 17th century, a lifesize statue of William Shakespeare stands proud of a pair of arches in the entrance hall. Whether or not it was intentional to create the impression of looking past this classic playwright to his raised stage beyond, the vaulted Gothic cloisters providing background scenery through the arches certainly provide a strong sense of the theatre.

These light and spacious cloister passages were the brainchild of James Wyatt and opened up the inside of Wilton House to give it an added dimension, and made all the rooms accessible from the corridors for the first time. Apart from some remodelling, also undertaken by Wyatt, to create a new main entrance to the house from the north forecourt through the Triumphal Arch, few structural alterations have been made to Wilton House. Undoubtedly the most lavish and highly decorated of all the rooms is the Double Cube Room, so named because of its perfectly equal measurements, 60ft (18.2m) long by 30ft (9.1m) wide and 30ft (9.1m) high, believed to be the finest surviving example of a mid 17th century room in England. If he were still alive today, Inigo Jones would probably be as proud now of this fabulous piece of craftsmanship as he was when it was first completed.

Basking in these luxurious surroundings are many fine paintings by Sir Anthony van Dyck, and exquisite furniture produced by Thomas Chippendale and William Kent. A scene fit to behold Royalty, as indeed it has. Nearly every British monarch since Charles I has visited the Double Cube Room. As a top secret Operations Room, it played a vital role in the planning of the D-Day Landings during the Second World War. Sir Winston Churchill and Field Marshall Montgomery must have spent many long hours discussing strategic invasions amid the safety and splendour of these surroundings.

It is clearly evident that the present Earl of Pembroke and his family work tirelessly to maintain and develop the estate for the appreciation of its many visitors, but the majestic beauty of Wilton House speaks for itself.


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