Image: The Kenilworth Buffet, by Cooke & Sons of Warwick, 1842-1851. Warwick Castle.
(Originally published by the DADG Decorative Art and Design Group in January 2017. Illustrations at bottom of page.)
Graceful or grotesque? Elegant or excessive? Magnificent or mawkish?
One such marvel, or monstrosity, is the Kenilworth Buffet. Carved in solid oak by Cooke & Sons of Warwick, this gargantuan sideboard was displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851. (1) Today, it adorns the Great Hall of Warwick Castle, a medieval fortress situated in the heart of the Midlands.
Victorian furniture can’t help but enforce an impression on you. For much of the twentieth century modernists found it too old fashioned for their white walled apartments, and purists often felt the bombardment of eclectic historical styles overwhelming. This marvel of the Great Exhibition spent a part of the twentieth century hidden away in a dingy corridor of the castle. Fortunately, a greater sympathy towards Victorian art and architecture has been exercised over the past few decades.
Traditionally, a buffet is a sideboard on which either food or expensive plate and glass would be proudly displayed in wealthy households. Although buffets in the medieval period played a practical purpose, the Kenilworth Buffet rises above its function to declare itself an artwork in its own right. Hardly an inch of this piece is untouched by the carvers’ chisel to in some way embellish and give life and movement to the dense oak.
In many ways, this buffet embodies the taste and interests of Victorian Britain. The entire piece of furniture takes inspiration from Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821). Scott’s romantic novel is based on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her ambitious favourite Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester entertained the Queen at his castle in Kenilworth on several occasions, and this particular novel focuses on her final visit in 1575. Unlike Warwick, Kenilworth Castle was slighted during the English Civil War and remains as one of Britain’s most majestic and romantic ruins – much as it was during the nineteenth century. Leicester’s controversial marriage to Amy Robsart is woven into the novel, a lady who Leicester is said to have married in secret without the Queen’s knowledge. In historical truth, Robsart had actually died fifteen years before the Queen’s 1575 visit, a fact which the novel clearly overlooked for dramatic purposes.
(ALTERNATIVE: Structurally, the buffet consists of three elements. At the sides are two hollow cases on which four inch-thick doors are hung. Each of these doors is faced in ornately carved scenes. Full length carved figures of Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Drake, each identified by their names carved below them, decorate each corner of the base. The upper storey is flanked by a two-tier shelf, supported by two bears and ragged staffs (the symbols of Warwickshire and the Earls of Warwick). The background of these top shelves is embellished with heraldic motifs of the Earls of Leicester and Warwick, crowned with Elizabethan style finials, while the middle shelves bear two dates framed in elaborate fretwork: on the left 1575 (the date of Elizabeth’s visit to Kenilworth) and 1851 on the right (the date of the Great Exhibition). This decoration frames the centrepiece: a rectangular frieze, illustrating the Queen’s arrival in Kenilworth Castle. Cresting the frieze is the coat of arms of the Dudley family, while reflected below on the central shelf is the coat of arms of Elizabeth I. Running along the entire middle section of the sideboard is a band of upright stylised ragged staffs.)
The three figurative scenes of the buffet are worth describing in full. Fortunately, the full narrative of the sideboard, including the circumstances of its creation, was captured in an illustrated presentation book by poet and antiquary William Jones. (2) Born in London in 1818, and seemingly a frequent visitor to Warwickshire in his youth, Jones was commissioned to produce this handsome descriptive account when the piece was presented to Lord Brooke after the Great Exhibition. Much of the text focuses on Scott’s tale. The central rectangular frieze, framed in egg and dart, shows the Queen’s entry into the castle, accompanied by her large pompous retinue with Leicester himself gallantly leading her horse through the castle gates (FIG 1). The lower storey doors continue the narrative. The door on the left-hand side shows Leicester’s wife Amy Robsart on her knees pleading to the Queen for her protection from those who are plotting against her. On the opposite side, we find Robsart’s husband, Leicester, on his knees receiving the wrath of Elizabeth. The novel explores the complex human emotions behind Elizabeth’s passionate yet conflicted response to Dudley’s betrayal. The Queen’s cutting and eloquent taunting of the Earl continued ‘My Lord of Leicester’s stolen marriage has cost me a husband, and England a King… he must presume to think my hand and crown at his disposal? – You, however, think better of me; and I can pity this ambitious man, as I could a child, whose bubble of soap has burst between his hands.’ (3) Although there is no historical proof to suggest Dudley had any hand in his wife’s suspicious death in 1560, the novel insinuates that his selfish ambitions to marry the Queen were to blame.
Just as Scott’s novel blurs the lines between historical fact and romantic invention, the style and design of the buffet too features a curious mix of accuracies and inaccuracies. Indeed, the decorative details of the buffet are similarly a mixture of both archaeological-inspired elements and fanciful fabrications. For example, the catalogue entry for the buffet explains how various decorative features have been inspired by surviving decorative details found in the ruins of Kenilworth Castle. The cusped arches framing the scenes on the doors, including some aspects of the heraldry, all derive from residual sixteenth-century architectural features. It is also clear that Cooke & Sons had access to some original artworks, including the Earl of Warwick’s portrait of Sir Philip Sidney and his ‘supposed’ sword at Penshurst Place. (4) Details such as these would have presumably attracted the admiration of Victorian antiquaries and other learned visitors to the Great Exhibition. Although the surviving designs for Mannerist furniture by the likes of Wendel Dietterlein (1550-1599) and Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527-1607) resonate with the grandeur of the piece, the strong emphasis of romantic narrative over extravagant composition betrays its Victorian origins. The carved statues of Sidney, Raleigh, Shakespeare and Drake, chosen for their ‘peculiar attributes of excellence’ (5) rather than their historic relevance to the novel or visit, is very much in line with the contemporary fascination for romantic heroic figures. Despite this, the contemporary admirer would have certainly been captivated by all of these details relating to its design and execution.
Cooke & Sons of Warwick, the craftsmen behind the Kenilworth Buffet, came to prominence during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Although it is not exactly known how they came to be granted a Royal Warrant in 1840, it is likely that they received glowing recommendations from their patron the Duchess of Sutherland. (6) Work on the buffet began as early as 1842. Jones’s account illustrates the exact ancient tree at Kenilworth Castle that was felled for the purpose of making the buffet (FIG 2), and explains that its trunk was ten feet in diameter and consisted of six hundred cubic feet in total. (7) Although the author lamented the loss of such an ancient oak, he was keen to emphasise that he thought it ‘a signal of retribution’ that the wood would have been used in such an appropriate way. He also indicated that the carvers illustrated the tree in the central frieze, as it ‘had been a mute spectator of the gorgeous pageant, and had perhaps spread its protecting branches over the gay cavalcade of Queen and nobles…’ (8)
What is also clear from Jones’s account, in agreement with many of the press at the Great Exhibition, is that ‘no genuine woodcarving on a grand scale has ever been produced in this country, under circumstances of, we may fairly term in, greater patriotism than the sumptuous Kenilworth Buffet…’ (9) For many, it seems, the buffet represented a shining light of English craftsmanship, in opposition to the many other pieces of international workmanship (see Carl Leistler’s Gothic Bookcase in the Victoria & Albert Museum for an example of Viennese woodcarving). This becomes more evident when compared with another grand sideboard made by Cooke & Sons during the same period. The Alscot Sporting Buffet, exhibited by the carvers in the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857, is more than equal in grandeur and skill to its Kenilworth equivalent (FIG 3). It, however, was designed in collaboration with French-born designer Hugues Protat. (10) It could be argued that the glorious arrangement of still life and game may owe more to eighteenth-century French artists like Ourdry and Desportes, despite the subject of hunting being a firm favourite with British patrons. Text written to accompany and report on the exhibition praise both the English design and execution of the Kenilworth buffet, indicating the context of national artistic and industrial pride that was bound up in the piece. On 8th November 1851, The Illustrated London News even featured an image of Cooke & Sons’ workshop, showing several elements of the buffet under construction. This includes the use of plaster models from which a ‘pointing machine’, consisting of a pointing needles attached by metal rods on a frame, would be used to copy the sculpture accurately into wood. (FIG 4)
Although there was much speculation as to what would happen to this marvel of woodcarving towards the end of the Exhibition, it did eventually return to Warwickshire. Remarkably, a subscription was established by the townspeople of Warwick to raise £1,200 to buy the buffet. It was hoped that ‘a memorial worthy of the fame which history and romance have shed around the mouldering ruins of Kenilworth, might finally pass into the possession of an ancient Warwickshire family.’ (11) From the beginning, it was decided that the buffet would be presented to George Guy Greville (1818-1893), Lord Brooke, heir to the Earl of Warwick and later 4th Earl, to celebrate his marriage to Anne Charteris in 1852, the eldest daughter of Lord Elcho. His ancestors were bestowed Warwick Castle in 1604 and by the nineteenth century they had transformed the derelict fortress into a lavish residence. An elaborate presentation ceremony was devised by the town officials to install the buffet in Brooke’s ancestral home. The ancient castle was remarked as being ‘most befitting to receive, and from its own proud historical associations, most peculiarly fitting to grace so distinguished a work of elaborated artistical skill’. A special band of ‘buffeteers’ wearing ancient costume bearing halberds were positioned on either side of the buffet during the ceremony in the castle’s Great Hall, which at this time was decorated in the Elizabethan style by Ambrose Poynter in the 1830s.
For a short while the buffet was displayed in the eighteenth-century dining room, designed in the Neo-Jacobean style by architect Timothy Lightoler in the 1760s. A photograph from the 1860s show that portraits of Elizabeth I, Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Robert Dudley were hung above the piece in the dining room in an obvious attempt to flaunt the castle’s historic associations (FIG 5). It was in this room and with this arrangement that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would have seen the buffet displayed during their visit in 1858. Fortunately, this heavy wooden artwork was saved from the terrible fire of 1871, which destroyed the hall and entire domestic range. It seems the buffet only returned to Anthony Salvin’s new Great Hall in the mid twentieth century, after spending a short time in the 4th Earl’s celebrated Shakespeare Library towards the end of the 1800s. Considering the size and weight of the piece, it is remarkable how often it has been moved.
The Kenilworth Buffet continued to inspire woodcarvers to achieve the impeccable standards reached by Cooke & Sons. The neighbouring Lucys of Charlecote, situated a few miles from Warwick, commissioned James Morris Wilcox, who initially trained with Cooke & Sons, in 1853 to carve a similarly extravagant buffet. (12) Its influence was equally felt on the other side of the globe, as the early Australian cabinet-maker Peter McLean carved what was seen as ‘Austrialia’s answer to the Kenilworth Buffet’ for the Australian Exhibition of 1876-7 (sold by Sotheby’s in Sydney, 25 October 2010, lot 311 for $500,000 hammer price).
Today the buffet stands proudly in the castle’s Great Hall comfortably nestled amongst the collection of historic arms and armour. It was the intentions of the townspeople of Warwick that it ‘long remain and heirloom of your family, as proof of our present regards, and of the good feeling which, trust, ever bind together the future Earl of Warwick their neighbours’. Intervening fate ensured this would not be, as the castle and buffet is no longer in the family’s possession. After the short-lived Hollywood career of Charles Fulke Greville (1911-1984), 7th Earl of Warwick, the family came under increasing financial difficulties in a rapidly changing world. Many large aristocratic homes underwent similar stresses and strains during the twentieth century, with some even handed over to the care of charities like the National Trust. Charles eventually gave the castle and its collection to his son David (1934-1998), later 8th Earl of Warwick, who, like many contemporary aristocrats, continued to look to his walls and collection to keep his bank balance in the black. Ultimately, the castle and its remaining collection was sold to an entertainments company in 1978 for a reported £1.5m.
The Kenilworth Buffet is a triumph of craftsmanship and a Victorian re-imagination of British history.
- 1) Great Exhibition of the works of industry of all Nations, Official descriptive and illustrated catalogue, II, London: Spicer Brothers, 1851, no. 110, pp. 826-827
- 2) Jones, An account of the Kenilworth Buffet, Warwick: Cooke & Sons, 1851.
- 3) Scott, Kenilworth, vol. iii, Edinburgh: Archibald Constable & Co, 1821, p. 305
- 4) The ceremonial sword held by Sir Philip Sidney’s carved figure is now known to have belonged to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and is recorded in his 1583 Invetory at Kenilworth Castle. This sword descended to the Sidneys through the Dudley line, and remains in the possession of The Viscount De L’Isle at Penshurst Place. For a brief catalogue entry on this object see G. Jackson-Stops (ed.), The Treasure Houses of Britain, exhib cat, London 1985, no. 14, p. 92
- 5) Op cit. W. Jones, p. 14
- 6) Stevens, The woodcarvers of Warwick, Warwick: Warwickshire Museum, 1980, pp. 2-3
- 7) Op cit. W. Jones, p. iii
- 8) Ibid. p. iii
- 9) Ibid. p. 18
- 10) Op cit. A. Stevens, p. 6
- 11) “Presentation of the “Kenilworth Buffet” to Lord Brooke” in Leamington Spa Courier Saturday 13 March 1852, p. 3
- 12) A catalogue description of this buffet can be found http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/532965
Figure 1) Detail of the central frieze of the Kenilworth Buffet.
Figure 2) An illustration of the tree felled to produce the buffet.
Figure 3) The Alscot Sporting Buffet by Cooke & Sons, exhibited in the Manchester Exhibition 1857. Private Collection.
Figure 4) A view of Cooke & Sons Workshop, printed in the Illustrated London News 8 November 1851. Note – The figure in the foreground on the right, wearing the cap, seems to be using such a pointing machine.
Figure 5) A photograph of the State Dining Room in Warwick Castle c. 1860.