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Panelled room

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the Duke of Norfolk, in conjunction with The Norfolk House (St. James's Square) Syndicate Ltd.

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 52, Norfolk House Music room []

Object Type
This panelling and ceiling came from the Music Room of Norfolk House, the London town house of the Dukes of Norfolk (demolished in 1938). The Music Room formed part of a circuit of state rooms on the first floor, which included three drawing rooms and a state bedchamber. The ceiling panels are decorated with trophies representing the Arts, and the larger wall panels with musical trophies, surmounted by heads of Apollo, the ancient Greek god of music.

Subjects Depicted
The smaller panels on the ceiling represent the Arts: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture (represented holding a plan of Norfolk House), Music, Literature, Surveying and geometry. The large central panel represents a trophy of weapons, including the helmet and shield of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Norfolk House was built between 1748 and 1752 by Matthew Brettingham (1699-1769), a Palladian architect, for Edward Howard, 9th Duke of Norfolk (1686-1777). Giovanni Battista Borra (1713-1770) designed the musical trophies: James Lovell (active 1752-1778) is thought to have executed those on the ceiling, as well as the chimney-piece, and Jean Antoine Cuenot (died 1763) is known to have carved those on the walls. The exuberant style of the Music Room would have catered for the francophile tastes of Duchess Mary.

Design & Designing
Brettingham modelled the ceiling on that of the Banquetting Hall, Whitehall Palace, by Inigo Jones (1573-1652). Borra's designs for the trophies in the celing are similar to published engravings by Thomas Lightholer, whereas the masks on the walls are similar to engravings by Jean Bérain (1639-1711), and the trophies to ones by Jean François Blondel (1705-1774).


Height: 535 cm Internal approximately, Length: 1007 cm internal approximately, Width: 629 cm internal approximately

Object history note

The panelling was created for Norfolk House, St James's Square, London, between 1748 and 1756 and remained there until the house was demolished in 1938, at which point it was donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 2001 the room was moved to a new location within the British Galleries when they were re-displayed. A full account of the history of the room and the work undertaken at that time to re-instate the window wall (which had not been re-erected in the earlier showing of it) is described in Creating the British Galleries at the V&A (2004 - see references).

David Mlinaric, the interior decorator who worked on the room when it was re-erected in 2001, noticed that the design of the main mirrored panels was copied for the stall and first level of the auditorium of the Ivor Novello Theatre, Aldwych. This was shown in a short article on the theatre published in 'The Times' 12 December 2005 (page ref. not recorded). The theatre, first known as Waldorf Theatre, when it opened in 1905, was one of a pair of theatres flanking the Waldorf Hotel. It was designed by thetheatre architect W.G.R. Sprague (1863-1933). In 1911 it was re-named the Strand Theatre and in 1911 became the Whitney Theatre, reverting to the name The Strand in 1913. It was re-named the Novello Theatre in 2005. It was re-furbished in 1930, the early 1970s and in 2005. See Patrick Monahan, 'The theatrebuilder', and article on William Sprague, 'Country Life', 21 August 2013, vol. CCVII, no. 34, pp. 42-43.

Descriptive line

Norfolk House Music Room

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Medlam, Sarah, 'Declaring and Interest: the decoration of Norfolk House, London (1748-1856)', in Corrélations: les objets du décor au siècle des lumières. Etudes sur le 18e Siècle XVIII (2015), Editions de l'Université de Bruxelles, pp. 97-109.
Desmond Fitzgerald, The Norfolk House Music Room (London: HMSO, 1973)
Desmond Fitzgerald, 'The Norfolk House Music Room', in Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin, vol. II, no. 1 (January 1966), pp. 1-11.
Arthur Oswald, ' Norfolk House, St James's Square: The Town House of the Duke of Norfolk', Country Life, 25 December 1937, vol. LXXXII, no. 2136, pp. 654-60.
Sarah Medlam, 'The Period Rooms', in Creating the British Galleries at the V&A. A Study in Museology (London: V&A Publications and Laboratorio Museotechnico Goppion, 2004), pp. 165-206. The Music Room is discussed on pp. 181-191.

Labels and date

British Galleries period room booklet:
The Music Room from St James's Square, London
[Illustration of portion of ceiling]

The 9th Duke and Duchess of Norfolk and Norfolk House
Although as Roman Catholics the 9th Duke and Duchess of Norfolk were debarred from taking part in politics, they were both active in the fashionable social world. They used their position to foster ideals of religious tolerance and were keen to be seen as loyal subjects of George II (reigned 1727-1760). The Duke and Duchess sought to play down the Jacobite sympathies of their ancestors, who in 1688 had supported James II, rather than the Protestant William III. [85]

The Duchess had been born Mary Blount and was the co-heir to her father, Edward Blount of Blagdon, Devon. She was an intelligent and forceful woman, whom the collector and writer Horace Walpole (1717-1797) referred to as 'My Lord, Duchess'. She was keenly interested in the arts and was certainly the driving force behind the building of Norfolk House. The Duchess was a frequent visitor to France and her purchase of engravings of decorative designs by Just-Aurèle Meissonier (1695-1750) shows her lively interest in the latest styles of French decoration. [79]

[Exterior of Norfolk House from engraving]
Norfolk House, St James's Square, London, from an engraving by J. Bowles, published in about 1760

Norfolk House
St James's Square, first laid out in the 1660s, was conveniently close to the court at St James's Palace. In 1722 the 8th Duke of Norfolk acquired a house on the east side of the square. In 1748 the 9th Duke bought a neighbouring plot and demolished both houses in order to build a house with an exceptionally long frontage of 100 feet. He chose as his architect Matthew Brettingham (1699-1769), who worked in the classical, Palladian style and had made his name by building Holkham Hall in Norfolk for the 1st Earl of Leicester. The plain façade designed by Brettingham for Norfolk House immediately provoked comments that it was unworthy of England's senior duke. [110]

Building began in 1748 and the shell was completed in 1751. However, fitting up and furnishing took another five years. The Duke and Duchess were not happy with Brettingham's rather plain decorative scheme and wanted the interiors to be designed in a more flamboyant, 'French' style. For this they employed Giovanni Battista Borra (1713-1770), an architect who had worked for the court in Turin and was experienced in working in the highly decorative version of the Rococo style that flourished on the Continent. [90]

[Map and plan of whereabouts of Norfolk House]

Entertaining at Norfolk House
The idea of a circuit of rooms around a staircase was a new one for a London house, but it suited the large assemblies that were fashionable by the 1750s. London houses were generally much smaller than the private palaces of Rome or Vienna, but the large site on which Norfolk House was built allowed Brettingham to design more freely. The house provided a glittering setting for all sorts of entertainments, that reflected the dignity of the ancient family and its high standing in society.

Guests came up the stairs into a small ante-room before entering the Music Room. They then progressed through two drawing rooms, one hung with damask and the second with velvet, to the grandest interior of all, the Great Drawing Room. This was originally hung with tapestries and fitted with elaborate carved wooden door-cases. One now stands outside the entrance to this room. [53]

When the house opened in 1756, several people recorded the occasion in journals or letters. Horace Walpole described the admiration and curiosity of the guests: 'You would have thought there had been a comet, everybody was gazing in the air and treading on one another's toes.' [46]

[Plan of the first floor]
Plan of the first floor of Norfolk House, showing the circuit of rooms for entertaining and the position of the Music Room

The Music Room
The decorative scheme developed in two stages. Matthew Brettingham, the original architect, intended a straightforward Palladian classical room, with a low dado and rectangular panels above, outlined in simple carved mouldings. The outlines of his design still survive in the dado rail and door surrounds, the shape of the main panels of the walls and the division of the ceiling into compartments. [65]

This plain scheme seems to have disappointed Brettingham's patrons, however, and they called in Giovanni Battista Borra in 1752 to enliven Brettingham's work. It was Borra who designed the carved enrichments of the upper walls, including the elaborate frames of the large mirrors and the rich trophies of musical instruments. He also designed the carved marble chimney-piece. A French-born craftsman working in London, John Antoine Cuenot (died 1763), carried out the carving of the wooden panellings, but we do not know who carved the marble chimney-piece. The plasterer Thomas Clark worked at Norfolk House 'according to Mr Bora's Directions', but there is no precise record of who designed and carried out the decorative plaster trophies on the ceiling.

The ceiling trophies are symbolic of the arts (Music, Painting, Literature, Architecture, Geometry, Surveying, Astronomy and Sculpture) and are set around a central trophy of arms and armour. The panel above represents sculpture. [128]

[View of the room in situ in 1937]
The Music Room at Norfolk House, 1937
Photo: Country Life

The room today
In 1938 the room was erected at the Museum without its window wall, as a three-sided box. It was dismantled and moved from its first site in the Museum galleries and re-erected here in 2001. The window wall, with its spectacular pier glasses between the windows, was recreated using surviving fragments and the evidence of old photographs. [58]

During the 19th century the windows were rebuilt as French windows, giving on to a new balcony. As no elements from these windows survived, the decision was taken to remake sash windows, as first designed by Brettingham in the 1750s. The new grate, fitted to the fireplace in 1817-1820, has been removed and stored. A new floor has been made of old oak, with planks of three different widths, laid randomly, following 18th-century practice. [85]

The original lighting scheme has been recreated with electric candles. In Norfolk House the only chandeliers were in the Great Drawing Room. The Music Room was lit from wall sconces alone. Twenty-four candles would have been considered highly extravagant in 1756, but the effect was acknowledged as luxurious, with the candles reflected in the great mirrors. [56]

The furnishings
The room has been hung with green silk damask curtains, following the description given in an inventory of 1756. The inventory lists '3 curtains' for the three windows, indicating that they were of the fashionable draw-up festoon form rather than pairs of curtains. The curtains are of silk damask lined with tammy (a lightweight wool) and finished with a silk fringe. The elaborate arching cornices were among the best-preserved of the fragments of the room and these were repaired and reinstated. Unlike the panelling, which is oil-gilded, these had been water-gilded, a finish that allowed highly burnished details on the central masks. [102]

It is clear from the 1756 inventory that the room was very sparsely furnished, with a set of green and gold painted stools and two card tables. No visual evidence exists for the stools or original carpet and these have not been reproduced. From the beginning the Music Room was a room to be used for large evening assemblies rather than daily living and would have been kept clear for large groups to circulate. Horace Walpole did just this on the first evening that the house was opened, marvelling at everything, including 'the illumination, the glasses, the lightness and novelty of the ornaments and ceilings'. [103]

A full account of the conversation and redecoration of the room can be found in the second book in this room.

The panelling is amongst the most elaborate ever carved for a London house. John Cuenot's bill, dated 24 February 1756, lists in detail what his carvers did, covering two and a half pages for this room alone. It accounts for everything from simple, running egg-and-dart to the mask heads at the top of the panels and the musical instruments. For the cornice alone he provided '11 different pattern mouldings'. The designer of the plaster trophies of the arts on the ceiling remains a mystery although it is clear that they were not by Thomas Clarke because in places they fit so awkwardly into his simple framework of mouldings.

Architectural design by Matthew Brettingham (born in Norwich, 1699, died there in1769); decorative design by Giovanni Battista Borra (born in Dogliani, Italy, 1713, died, possibly in Turin, Italy, 1770);
Carved and gilded by John (Jean) Antoine Cuenot (died 1763); plasterwork on the frame of the ceiling by Thomas Clarke; designer of ceiling trophies unknown; the chimney-piece possibly carved by James Lovell (active 1752-1778) to Borra's design
Commissioned by the 9th Duke and Duchess of Norfolk
Presented by Bernard Howard, 16th Duke of Norfolk, in conjunction with the Norfolk House (St James's Square Syndicate Ltd) on the demolition of the house in 1938

Museum Number W.70-1938

Firms and individuals involved in the dismantling, re-erection and conservation of the room and in the making of the curtains:

Momart Ltd, London dismantling, moving and re-erection of the room
St Blaise Ltd, Evershot, Dorset - all new joinery and metalwork
Weldon Flooring creation of new floors from 18th-century timber
Daniel Cruickshank - advice on mouldings
Tankerdale & Co. - making of new pulley boards for curtains
Hare & Humphries, London - painting and gilding of woodwork
Annabel Westman - advice on historic curtaining
Richard Humphries & Co. hand-weaving of silk for curtains
Context Weavers-weaving of wool tammy for curtain linings
Turner & Co. - making of tassels and fringing
R & M Curtaining - making up the curtains [22/11/2001]
THE MUSIC ROOM from Norfolk House, St James's Square, London
This room was part of a circuit of rooms for entertaining, on the first floor of Norfolk House, built for Edward Howard, 9th Duke of Norfolk (1686-1701) and Mary, Duchess of Norfolk (died 1773). The house was built by Matthew Brettingham (1699-1769), who worked in the classical, Palladian style. For the interiors the Duke and Duchess wanted more elaborate schemes, which they commissioned from Giovanni Battista Borra (1713-1770), who had worked for the court in Turin before coming to Britain. When the house was opened in 1756, its interiors became instantly famous for their luxurious Rococo decoration. [90]

Presented by the Duke of Norfolk, in conjunction with The Norfolk House (St James's Square) Syndicate Ltd on the demolition of the house in 1938
W. 70-1938

The reinstallation and restoration of the Norfolk House Music Room have been generously supported by the Friends of the V&A [22/11/2001]


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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